Grasping Malaysia: A Journey Into the Diversity of Georgetown, Penang

Five hours in Malaysia and our feet hadn’t touched the ground… well, hardly touched the ground. My wife and I arrived late at night on a flight into Kuala Lumpur then made a mad dash to get into a taxi which led us to an inner-city bus station. We would be taking a bus to our final destination, Georgetown, on Penang Island. The bus was cold, the seats dank, and the television as loud as could be. The driver, who resembled Mad Max, wasn’t the least bit concerned with the rainstorm going on outside, and I wasn’t quite sure if the reflection of his maniacal grin on the windshield was reason to panic but I was tired and eventually passed out from fatigue.

2Arriving In Malaysia’s Penang at the quiet hour of 2 a.m.

We arrived on Penang around 2 a.m. and were the last passengers to depart the bus. The humid air outside was an unwelcome interruption from the air conditioning of the bus. The first thing we encountered was two men. Guy #1 looked younger and sharper than #2, and pounds lighter. These two men were drivers and of Indian descent, they shot each other a glance, followed by some chatter which ended with a couple of affirming head wobbles and #1 got into his cab and left. It was settled, the fat guy was our driver. Half an hour later, we pulled up to our guesthouse which was locked up for the night. The aged building was inviting in a slightly decrepit way. The driver retrieved my pack from his trunk then approached the guesthouse gate, hollering commands into the dark abyss. Eventually a man came to the gate rubbing his eyes, keys in hand. He fluttered a hand gesture that fell somewhere between a wave and a middle finger then unlocked the gate.

3Explore by motorbike to take in the many layers of Georgetown. 

In the morning, following coffee and toast, we were ready for a little exploration. The different areas of Georgetown seemed to have been planned with no particular method other than madness. Over the years, random enclaves and additions have worked their way into the already existing jumble of buildings, hawker stalls and curiosity shops making for one labyrinth of a layout. The streets and small alleyways had a constant flow of foot and scooter traffic which was occasionally paused by a city bus or car narrowly squeezing through the scene. Vendors and restaurant owners strategically placed themselves on edges of streets to attract crowds with their boiling caldrons of tangy scented soup.

7Street vendors count their daily earnings. 

After a couple of wrong turns we ended up on a tiny alley, staring into the mouth of a brightly colored dragon adorning a Taoist Temple. We quietly peeked inside the doors and were engulfed in a flume of incense smoke surrounding worshippers of all ages. Some paced along the perimeter of the temple while others laid their faces nearly flat to the floor, deeply absorbed by their devotion. The spirit was so strong it was almost contagious; we attempted to decipher some of the rituals but were dumbfounded by the complexity of it all. Walking on in contemplative silence we were brought to by loud, tonal yelling and figured we had roamed into Little China. People stared inquisitively but were only interested in us for a second, as their bowls of steaming noodles and games of checkers were undoubtedly more appealing than a couple of  pasty ferringhis (foreigners). Walking through Little China feels like a trip through time. The colonial architecture is decorated with Chinese characters creating a beautiful harmony. My wife and I were truly thankful that UNESCO has limited the amount of development. These neighborhoods deserve preservation; every building has a unique story more riveting than the next, the cracks and imperfections resemble familiar faces of past generations.

67A blending of cultures.

The cultural transformation continued as we reached Little India, a place where the noise was every bit as boisterous as the rest of the island and citizens were visiting specialty shops to purchase imported spices, and other specialties fresh from India. The smell of curries and henna wafted through the streets while chai wallahs patrolled the streets pushing their sweet-smelling tea. As we continued on my eye caught a man, hands dyed bright orange, making chicken tandoori. He was in his late 20s’ and was from Delhi, India. He had lived on Penang Island for roughly 3 years but said he had no intention of returning home anytime soon. He told me island life was comfortable and he was paid well, so well that he was able to send money home to his parents, something that made him smile. He was really kind. He offered me the opportunity to make a naan and throw it in the tandoori oven but I figured I would probably burn myself so I declined his offer and we said our goodbyes.

10Little India- a sure fire way to wake up the sense. 

Georgetown (and Malaysia in general) is a place of various identities: Native Malaysians, Chinese, and Indian cultures have all found a way to beautifully intertwine. They do more than tolerate each other, they embrace each other. The people there come in all shapes and sizes but collectively make up one wholesome identity, one that is forgiving, generous, and wise. I thought back to our bus ride coming to the island and our driver grinning out onto the wet, dark road. Now I know he wasn’t maniacal-he was Malaysian and had a deep sense of pride.


Colin is a travel photographer originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has traveled the globe searching for inspiration and documenting his experiences with travel, culture, and life. Through his photography Colin wishes to encourage creativity and ignite curiosity within his viewers. His work has been published by AFAR, Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, Groove Magazine, and The Korean Herald. Check out his website: or follow him on Facebook: Colin Roohan Photography.

Learn more about Georgetown, Penang’s largest city!

3 thoughts on “Grasping Malaysia: A Journey Into the Diversity of Georgetown, Penang”

  1. Laura Saffy Bates

    I have just come back from a 2nd trip to Penang – loved the old architecture and enjoyed the Indian & Chinese food lol

  2. Great country! Cameron highlands, perhentian islands, taman negara, and KL are really good places to be!

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