A surprise trip to colonial Georgetown...
I had no idea where we were going. Well, it started out that way until the guy dropping off our rental car said, "have a nice drive to Penang!" Okay, so I knew we were most likely spending our five year anniversary in Penang to kick off our road trip around peninsular Malaysia, but I didn't know what kind of tricks Dain had up his sleeve. So as we were navigating the incredibly confounding and thus stressful roads of Kuala Lumpur to get to the highway (all while driving on the British side of the road) I racked my brain to see if I could guess what the big surprise was. He kept me in total ignorance even as we crossed the suspension bridge over to the island, wrapped through the tree-lined streets, and drove along the waterfront into Georgetown. When we pulled into the valet of this gorgeous hotel I let out a little squeal- he treated us to a proper romantic getaway in a beautiful resort!
The Eastern and Oriental hotel is the oldest hotel on the island, established in 1885. We stayed in a suite in the heritage wing, the smaller and older part of the hotel, and loved every second of it. We brunched out by the water every morning, used the gym and the terrace pool, read the paper, had tea in the lounge, and just enjoyed being somewhere so nice. To be honest, after all the places we've stayed in Asia, I'm just happy when the room has air conditioning and 24-hour power!
I had to return the favor for such a romantic surprise somehow. For the days leading up to our anniversary, I wrote down a few reflections about our relationship that were swimming around in my head. I couldn't exactly plan anything for him because I had no idea where we'd be or what we'd be doing so I decided to write him a love letter and pretend I wanted him to proofread one of my posts. I also was able to make dinner reservations at a truly remarkable place, Farquar's Mansion, that specializes in French fine dining. Knowing Dain, he appreciated the food, service, good wine (finally), and the fact that we were eating in a historic building named after one of Georgetown's founders.
We spent most of our time in Georgetown wandering the streets. It was only in 2008 that UNESCO named this town a world heritage site in order to stop the destruction of 150+ year old colonial era buildings in exchange for garish skyscrapers. As a result, the shops and small two-story Chinese and British-style homes still stand but most are in disrepair or haven't been well-maintained.
The old quarter in Georgetown is so pleasant to walk through. Old Chinese merchant centers adorned with porcelain motifs brush up against Moorish tile mosaic'ed designs. Before you feel too caught up in the old world charm, you'll notice all the street art using entire buildings or small crevices as canvases. The city of Georgetown even employs wrought iron caricatures throughout the city, which blend into the street art so well you hardly notice it at first, to deliver cultural tips or point out notable historic sites. The rest you could hardly call graffiti- they're beautiful paintings that tell stories about the people who live here and add to the city's ethos.
Tucked away in the seemingly abandoned buildings you'll find sweet little cafes, book shops, handicraft stores, and more gems off of the beaten tourist path. I took a brief respite in the oldest mosque at the center of town, pictured above, to learn more about Islam. What I read was that the Muslims believe they have a lot more in common with Judaism and Christianity than most people think. They revere and believe that Moses, Jesus, and the other prophets were also prophets of the same God which they call Allah, but they believe Mohammed brought the true word of God and thus follow his teachings. I told Dain it didn't sound too unlike Baptism or Lutheranism. They believe the Quran is the literal word of God and are very strict in observing its meaning as well as the age-old customs of Islam. It seems very strict, but perhaps that's just because I went to a conservative mosque or still don't understand a lot about the religion. In any case, I'm glad I got a chance to learn more about it.
We visited one of the most well-restored buildings on the island called the Blue Mansion. Purchased in 2006 by an architect to employed craftsmen to painstakingly restore the residence to its former glory, the Blue Mansion's renovation prompted a movement to preserve Georgetown's historic buildings and resulted in UNESCO World Heritage site status in 2008. The residence was built for Mr. Cheong, a poor Chinese laborer turned wealthy merchant, and three of his eight wives. When he died, he forbade the selling of his home until his last son died, and with eight wives that took quite some time! He left his family his vast fortune which they quickly squandered and by the time WW2 hit and all the banks failed, the family was destitute. They rented out the beautiful mansion to as many as 200 families at a time which ruined a lot of the original fixtures. Finally when his last son died, the family was able to sell the home and that's when preservation started.
We finished the day with a trip to the botanical gardens, which is a lovely park at the base of some mountains on the edge of town. We went in the early evening when people were off of work and either jogging through the park or taking a stroll with their family. It's a very picturesque place, part park, part herb garden, part research site, part preservation site, and part monkey habitat. Dain and I watched the monkeys play by jumping out of trees and rolling down the hill, groom, and eat fruit from one of the trees (chucking down the seeds near us.)