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Gorgeous George Town

I've always wanted to go see Penang. This is because every time I visited old towns in the South such as Phuket or Songkhla, I would hear stories from the past about various aspects of the relationship between those Thai towns and this Malaysian island in the Strait of Malacca.

Over a century ago with the boom in tin mining, many Chinese traders and labourers came from Penang, a major base of the British Empire since 1786, to several locations in the southern part of Siam (Thailand's former name). Back then a variety of luxury goods had to be imported from the colony. Wealthy families, especially those of Chinese descent, sent their children to study there. When the Kingdom changed from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in 1932 and in the aftermath of later political turmoil, Penang was one of the preferred destinations for Siamese asylum seekers. Because of this history, Penang has long been on my bucket list.

Recently when the long awaited promotional airfare was available, my plan to bike in Penang finally materialised. The island's capital George Town (also, popularly yet unofficially, spelled Georgetown), was my target. Its old town, listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, is rich with Sino-European architecture. There are many more beautiful old buildings in George Town than in Phuket or any Thai city.

While many of the colonial-era buildings have been restored to their former glory, many more -- a lot of them family homes -- seem to be in need of renovation. The heritage zone of George Town reminded me of Singapore's old quarters minus much of its brisk modern day commercialism. Apart from tourist hotspots like the Armenian Street, Little India and Clan Jetties, there are not as many shops. Coffee shops and other places for chilling out are not common.

But the nostalgic architecture is not the only thing that attracts visitors to George Town. Since 2012, lots of street art, from mural paintings to steel-rod sculptures, has been created in many parts of the heritage town, on the main road and on hidden lanes. They inspire tourists to explore various corners of the town to view and take pictures of these art works, some of which, like Kids On Bicycle by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic and Brother And Sister On Swing by local painter Louis Gan, have become iconic. It's not unusual to see people queuing up for their turns to have a photo taken with these paintings.

Of course, the street art hunt can be done on foot. But George Town is not that small and the scorching tropical Sun can quickly drain your energy. Touring the heritage zone and its vicinity with a bike is practical and more enjoyable. No stray dog was spotted so you need to only be careful with the traffic, which was relatively light. Rental bike shops can be found in the old town. But more readily available is the shared bike programme called Link Bike, which has 18 stations in the city. All you have to do to use its bike is to download the LinkBike app onto your phone and register. The bikes can be returned at any station.

Like Singapore, George Town boasts a vibrant mix of cultures, with Chinese, ethnic Malay and Indian the most prominent. These local people not only have beautiful places of worship they also make delicious food. As a matter of fact, street food is one of the highlights of George Town. For lovers of creamy durian which these days is hard to find in Thailand, the food street at the point where Baru Lane (Lorong Baru) meets Macalister Street has several durian stalls at night. I decided to skip a few museums, except for the Peranakan Mansion which is a must-see, to save the entrance fees for durian and I was glad I did.

Well, see you here again next Thursday. Until then, if you have questions, news or biking insights you wish to share, please feel free to send an email to pongpetm@bangkokpost.co.th or go to Freewheel Bangkok community page on Facebook.


Pongpet Mekloy is the Bangkok Post's travel editor and a mountain bike freak.

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