Penang: Remembering the Old World Charm of George Town

Being unable to travel due to the pandemic has prompted me to recall some of the most enduring moments from my trips to Penang in Malaysia.

Since the Coronavirus pandemic broke out early this year, a big part of the world has been forced to be homebound. I’m sure a lot of us are now thinking about all the trips we made, recent or otherwise. Admittedly, I’ve only been to a handful of places outside the Philippines, but each of them have been truly fascinating to me. Still, I find that Penang Island constantly tops my list. It’s one of the places I find myself looking back to and going back to fairly often. As is often the case with many vibrant locales, there’s always something new that awaits in the Malaysian state of the same name. But what never goes missing is the old world charm brought by its colorful history and rich culture.

Self-portrait while roaming George Town

The first two times I visited Penang in 2012, this nostalgic appeal was immediately apparent to me. I was traveling with a friend and we opted to take the bus from Malacca to Butterworth port. From there, we took the Penang Ferry Service to George Town, the capital city. Just days later, we decided to go back from Kuala Lumpur, taking the sleeper train to Butterworth and the ferry again. Before the first Penang Bridge was built in 1985, this was the only way to get to the island, so it definitely felt like we were doing things the old school way. The fact that the turnstiles only accepted old coins was another big clue to what was waiting for us ahead.

Sunrise over Penang Strait

Both times, we arrived in George Town shortly after dawn, just when the city was starting to wake up. As we cruised the calm waters of Penang Strait, the sun was rising and slowly bathing the town with its golden rays. It was one of the most dramatic and memorable mornings ever from my travels. It didn’t take long for us to see the old buildings, street art, and markers that were scattered around George Town. We were strolling in the town’s historical core and a UNESCO Heritage Site, the heart of the rich culture and history that make Penang one of Malaysia — and Asia’s — popular destinations.

I’ve been back in Penang a few more times since, always happy to be exploring attractions both new and familiar. I’m happy that among the highlights of my visits include the Camera Museum, which was first situated in Muntri Street then moved to Armenian Street years later. It was pure joy seeing vintage cameras ranging from large format cameras, stereo cameras and viewers, rare Rolleiflex models, and luxurious Leica cameras. While significantly smaller than the first iteration in Muntri Street, the museum in Armenian Street still made for a pleasant visit for me. I saw some of the same old cameras but they also had a corner with some equipment, prints, and other stuff from one of the oldest photography studios in the island. 

I’ve always found that the old world charm of George Town — present in the impressively preserved colonial architecture, the bustling market, art, craft, and street food scenes, and even its famous street art — is perfect for film photography. It effectively captures the nostalgia and soul of the place. Sometimes, I look at my photos and I feel like it’s been twice as long ago since I was there to take in the sights. Or, they were all taken around the same time, decades ago. If you’re a fellow lover of art, culture, history, and a good dose of nostalgia, I cannot recommend a visit to George Town and Penang Island enough. 

With a good part of the world still homebound and unable to travel, we thought about reliving some of our most unforgettable trips captured on film through the Travel Throwback series. Share your travel stories and film photos with us through with the subject “Travel Throwback.”

Joy Celine Asto
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Joy is a writer, film photographer, and part-time traveler from Manila, Philippines. She finds bliss in exploring whatever surrounds her and documenting it in photos and stories. She runs on caffeine, lives on books, savors good music, and thrives in everything creative.

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