5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist – George Town, Penang

View of the Malacca Straits from the Grounds of the E & O Hotel in Penang.

View of the Malacca Straits from the Grounds of the E & O Hotel in Penang.

George Town, Penang is a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its being an exemplary multi-cultural trading town with many layers of history. In particular, emphasis was placed on it being a showcase of living heritage, embodied not just in the continued use of many heritage buildings, but also in the observance of a variety of traditional customs practiced by the various ethnicities that share the city. Here are 5 essential sights in this city of heritage:

✑ A walk down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling – Penang’s “Street of Harmony” – and a visit to the stunning Khoo Kongsi Temple Complex.

✑ A leisurely saunter down Armenian Street for the beautifully restored colonial-era shophouses and the graffiti/public art.

✑ A sprightly jaunt around the Padang to the northern edge of Beach Street, for the air of colonial authenticity, and for the monumental civic and commercial architecture. Look out for Town Hall and City Hall, and the Standard Chartered Bank Building.

✑ The Pinang Peranakan Mansion, for the gloriously over-the-top interiors and the stories of matriarchs and their rebellious progeny. The Cheong Fatt Sze, or Blue Mansion, is equally stunning on the outside but far less well furnished inside.

✑ The Clan Jetties, particularly the Chew Clan Jetty, for its sheer size and for the gorgeous view at the end of the “boardwalk.”

Food is so good in Penang that even Singaporeans down South acknowledge this readily. Brave the many outdoor hawker centres for the most authentic culinary experience and the widest range of local dishes (such as Penang Char Kway Teow, Penang Laksa, Roti Canai, Indian rojak, and so on.)

And of course, stay at the magnificent Eastern & Oriental Hotel (the E & O to locals) for the stunning view of the Malacca Straits from the longest seafront promenade anywhere in the city.

Town Hall, at the Padang.

Town Hall, at the Padang.

Traditional shophouses along Armenian Street.

Traditional shophouses along Armenian Street.

Interior of the Khoo Kongsi Temple.

Interior of the Khoo Kongsi Temple.

Detail, Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Detail, Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

The edge of the Chew Clan Jetty.

The edge of the Chew Clan Jetty.

Jalan Green Hall - an image which demonstrates Georgetown's multi-cultural nature.

Jalan Green Hall – an image which demonstrates Georgetown’s multi-cultural nature.

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Waterstones in London. Find it also on http://www.amazon.co.uk andhttp://www.bookdepository.com]

Hôtel Métropole, Hanoi

The iconic and fabulous La Terrasse cafe restaurant, at today's Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.

The iconic and fabulous La Terrasse cafe restaurant, at today’s Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.

Hôtel Métropole in Hanoi is one of the most beautiful hotels on this Grand Tour of Southeast Asia, and it is easily also one of my favourite hotels of all.  Opened in 1901, it was the grande dame of the Hanoi social scene; and over a hundred years later, as the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, it remains the city’s most illustrious hotel establishment.

Hotel Metropole sits at left in a postcard from the early 1900s.  The square it sits on was known as Square Chavassieux.  Across from the Hotel stood (and stills stands) the Residence Superieur.

Hotel Metropole sits at left in a postcard from the early 1900s. The square it sits on was known as Square Chavassieux. Across from the Hotel stood (and stills stands) the Residence Superieure.

Stepping into the hotel is like stepping back in time – the atmosphere is chic, glamorous, chic and steeped in nostalgia.  Wrapped up in a seasonal quilt in Winter and supping at one’s aperitif in the famous Bamboo Bar inside the hotel’s central courtyard, one feels transported to Paris during the Belle Epoque (1870s – 1910s). The hotel is lit up with a thousand christmas lights, and the lilting melody of French chansons waft through the air.

Another memorable and unique experience the hotel offers is a spin across town in one of its 1950s vintage Citroën cars. Sailing through the streets in this vehicle, with hundreds of ordinary Hanoi-ans peering curiously at one from their motorcycles, it is hard not to feel like a turn-of-the- century colonialist, ostentatiously descending onto the town for a sumptuous dinner and subsequent merry-making at the cabaret.

Que la vie est belle!

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore – Kinokuniya, Times and MPH – as well as at museum shops and the airport. As of mid-June, it will also be available at major bookstores across Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, at Waterstones and Blackwells in London. It is further available on http://www.amazon.co.uk and http://www.bookdepository.com]

The Hotel Lobby today.

The Hotel Lobby today.

The Hotel's chandelier.

The Hotel’s chandelier.

Vintage Citroens at the hotel.

Vintage Citroens at the hotel.

The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang

The Facade of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (built in 1885) today.

The Facade of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (built in 1885) today.

In Penang, stay at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel – the grande dame of the city’s hospitality scene since 1885, when it was established by the illustrious Sarkies Brothers. This is the sister hotel to the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Strand Hotel in Rangoon, and a close cousin to the present Hotel Majapahit in Surabaya.

In its time, The E & O – as it is familiarly known to Penangites – played host to nobility and heads of state as well as literary and cinematic greats, such as British authors Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling and American movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.

The E & O is the second stop on our Grand Tour of Southeast Asia. Period postcard views from the early 1900s, and photographs from today show that it hasn’t changed much in spirit and ambience in 100 years, though of course, the E & O today has all the fittings of a modern hotel – in particular its swimming pool set right by sea along the hotel’s seafront promenade.

Be sure to opt for one of the sea-facing suites with attached balcony, if only to wake up to spectacular views of the Malacca Straits and the ships bringing cargo from afar, exactly like they have done so for two centuries.

The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia will be available from 15 April onwards at all major bookstores in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, as well as at hotels featured in the book.  It will also be available online at http://www.amazon.co.uk.

1900s view of the famous Palm Court, with its fountain and whispering dome (guests seated underneath the dome could hear conversations occuring across the room).

1900s view of the famous Palm Court, with its fountain and whispering dome (guests seated underneath the dome could hear conversations occuring across the room).

1900s view of the E & O's back-lawn facing the Malacca Straits, and its Victory Annexe.

1900s view of the E & O’s back-lawn facing the Malacca Straits, and its Victory Annexe.

The E & O's back-lawn was turned into a swimming pool in the '50s and remains so today.

The E & O’s back-lawn was turned into a swimming pool in the ’50s and remains so today.