Seeing George Town, Penang, One Cautious Step at a Time

I walked cautiously, trying not to slip into the concrete gutters that separate George Town’s row houses from the narrow road. Beside me, a gaunt Chinese man with flowing white hair pedaled an ancient bicycle. The foot-long hairs growing from his bulbous black chin mole bounced in perfect time with his pumping feet. Distracted, I wandered too far out into the street. A motorbike whizzed past me with only centimeters to spare. A horn blared on the other side of the motorcycle. For a moment our trio – a car passing a motorcycle passing a pedestrian – hogged both lanes, oblivious to the oncoming panel van. Focus, I thought. I must focus.

Streets of George Town on Penang Malaysia
Concrete walkways cross gutters at edge of the street, providing access to multi-level sidewalks

At first, I tried using the sidewalks in Malaysia’s famous island of Penang, but they don’t exist in the normal sense of the word. Shopkeepers and homeowners have poured small concrete pads in front of their entrances without regard for the level of their neighbor’s stoop. As a result, the height of the cement changes every few feet.  In some places, steps provided access to the multi-levels; in others the walkways simply dead-end. Level sidewalks, in the rare places they existed, were blocked by parked motorcycles, bicycles, and piles of merchandise. And so, like everyone else, I walked in the street.

multi-level sidewalks in George Town on Penang Malaysia
The occasional stretch of level sidewalk is inevitably clogged with parked motorcycles and bicycles
Shops in Little India neighborhood in George Town Penang Malaysia
In Little India, shops roll merchandise to the edge of the street, blocking sidewalks

I’d tried other forms of transportation during my visit. One evening I hesitated a nanosecond too long in front of a row of lemon yellow pedicabs wrapped in rainbow of plastic flowers. Sensing fresh meat, the Chinese driver smiled a gap-toothed grin and launched into his practiced spiel:

“You rike lide rady? Give you good lide. One hour. Thirty Lingit.” My feet were aching from hours of walking. I hesitated. He went in for the kill. “Give you velly, velly good lide, show you all praces in George Town.”

My mental calculator kicked in. Thirty Ringit was only about $9 US. I hopped in. The stick-thin driver, who looked as if he could barely carry a bag of groceries, promptly launched us into traffic on one of the main highways in George Town. He nonchalantly pedaled across two lanes and straddled the center yellow line, putting us at the mercy of rush hour traffic. Luxury motor coaches, trucks, cars, and motorbikes swerved to avoid us and cut back in front of us with maneuvers that would impress a Le Mans driver.

Barbara Weibel in pedicab George Town Penang Malaysia
An hour pedicab ride for $9 U.S., a perfect, if somewhat intimidating remedy for aching feet

When not walking, buses were my favorite mode of transportation on Penang. Clean and modern, they run regularly from dawn until 11:30 p.m., traveling to all parts of the island for ridiculously low fares (66 cents U.S. for a 20-minute ride from my homestay to the center of George Town). Their enormous size gives them the right of way; the only risk on a Penang bus is catching pneumonia from the arctic air conditioning.

Lovely old row houses in George Town Penang Malaysia
Lovely old row houses in George Town

That afternoon, however, I was back to seeing the city on foot. When monsoon showers made their inevitable afternoon appearance, I ducked into an open-air coffee shop. I rested my weary feet at a street-side table, where I had an unobstruced view of some of George Town’s most colorful row houses. For two hours I sipped lattes; gorged on pita bread with hummus, eggplant, and tzatziki spreads; and devoured toasted banana bread. Cyclists wheeled by, steering with one hand while holding an umbrella with the other. Pedestrians hurried past in a potpourri of colorful, inventive rain gear.

I may have lingered too long; the waiter eyeballed me half a dozen times and was no longer refilling my water glass. With no sign that the showers were ending I reluctantly dug into my backpack for the umbrella I had purchased during one especially drenching rain in China. I shook it out and stepped into the puddle-riddled street with a grin. Not only would it keep me dry, its pointy end would make a powerful weapon against motorbikes who dared to come too close.

20 thoughts on “Seeing George Town, Penang, One Cautious Step at a Time”

  1. Wow. Traveling is a tiring activity but seeing a lot of thing fades all the tiresome walks. Sidewalks are one of my favorite while traveling because it is where I can see low cost souvenir items for all my friends and family.

  2. Nothing will make you appreciate a simple sidewalk more than Asia! I used to try to describe how frustrating it was to walk on the sidewalks in Saigon and I never really believed anyone understood! I love this slow travel you are doing – take it all in, take your time and enjoy my friend!

    • Hi Darren: I’m alone, as usual. In China I met up with my two cousins, but
      that was for two weeks, so I’m solo again. And that’s how I prefer it, I
      guess. Thanks so much for the compliment and glad you liked the story. One
      of these days I’m going to get to Leeds!

    • Hi CY: I was bound for Melaka for a couple of days but the KL hotel that was
      supposed to put me up for a couple of days backed out at the last minute.
      Since there was still so much left to see and do in Penang, I just stayed
      there until it was time to leave. Just arrived in Nepal, for maybe a month
      or a bit less. But I want to come to see Melaka and the parts of Malaysia on

      • I think you are going to like Melaka.

        By the way I am a native Melakan, if you need helps, please do not hesistate to contact me. Would be happy to help!

        • Thank you CY – I have left Malaysia at the moment, but will undoubtedly go
          back at some point. Will keep your contact info.

  3. I’ve been cycled around a few towns on pedicabs (and even peddled a couple to the amusement of all) and find it a great way to view some towns, especially peddling down smaller streets. In Hanoi many years ago, I even had a virtual permanent pedicabist who would wait for me at various museums, coffee shops and sights and embark on our next journey. I gave him an Australian cap which he wore with pride while we cycled and entertained with his stories in broken English. Great memories. I love the way you capture the essence of travel in your writing observing the smallest details that are so poignant.

    • Thanks so much Mark.I find I am doing more and more of this kind of writing,
      and to do so, I have to stop what I am doing and get it down on paper
      immediately. I simply can’t recapture it later. Just another reason it’s
      better for me to travel solo. Who would put up with that?

  4. Sometimes when you relent and give your feet a break you actually get to feel how much work they’ve been putting in. It’s a deserved break and gives you the opportunity to shift your concentration to see things you may have otherwise missed.

    • You’re so right Anil. I remember one time in Bangkok when drenching rain
      suddenly came pouring down and I had to duck into a doorway. While I cooled
      my jets, I began to notice the little details, the monks walking
      unconcernedly in down the sidewalks wit their burgundy robes plastered
      around them like wet tortilla wraps, the multi-colored umbrellas that were
      collecting in the entryway of a building across the street as people emerged
      and then decided to wait for the rain to abate, etc. All things I would have
      missed if the rain had not forced me to stop.

  5. Great stuff Barbara, we never actually made it to George Town but it looks pretty alright… You’ve really captured something with this article, this is an excellent bit of writing it really is!

    As for your reply below, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve often been somewhere and seen something pretty amazing but left it to long to write about it, loosing all of the details that make it special in the process… I wish there was a pause button so I could pause the action as not to miss anything while I push out an article that doesn’t necessarily span the whole day, more capture a moment or a situation and every little detail that makes it

  6. I love this piece. It is a classic example of good travel writing. You bring Georgtown to life for the readers by focusing on one aspect–the street traffic. Even while you stay focused, your descriptions carry us right there with you. Thanks for a nice read.

    • Thank you Vera and Global Butterfly. I find I’m doing more and more of this
      type of writing, and I have to get it down at the instant is siezes me or I
      lose it. In this case, the coffee shop was perfect for scribbling!


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