I arrived into Butterworth by bus from the Cameron Highlands and took the ferry across to George Town on the island of Penang, the ‘Pearl of the Orient’.
Penang, I had read, is famed for its food. Naturally, I assumed therefore that Penang curry must come from there and I was a bit surprised by my failure to find anyone serving this curry during my stay. It is only now that a little bit of research tells me that Penang (or Panang) curry actually comes from Thailand. Oops.
Foody mix-ups aside, the highlight of my visit was the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, where I did a tour with a very amusing UNESCO Heritage specialist. (In fact, all of George Town is a heritage site.) Cheong Fatt Tze, she told us, was ‘the Rockefeller of the east’, richer than all of China. Ambitious from the start, he wanted to be a businessman from the age of 12 and left home at 15. Soon he left China for Indonesia, where he became a water carrier for a rich family – and married the daughter! (As an aside: Cheong Fatt Tze came from a poor Hakka family, and the women of this Han Chinese people were known as ‘the big-footed women of China’ since they refused to continue the tradition of binding their daughters’ feet.)
The house itself was built in 1890-98, though the style is that of 300 years prior. The architecture is a merging of East and West, with Chinese symbols like that for ‘happiness’ placed at the main entrance but European-style iron grills, art nouveau stained glass and fake marble (the latter costing more, given the need to bring over European artists, than real marble would have cost). It is built according to basic feng shui principles, with water in front, a mountain at the back, and the house itself built on a slope (artificially constructed as there was no slope!). A clever copper pipe system on the roof and through the walls, with a drain in the main courtyard, means that the house has never had any problems despite flooding in the rest of the town. With 220 windows, a huge staff was required just to open and close the windows at night and when it rained.
Cheong Fatt Tze was aged 74 when he had his last son, his wife (his seventh, and his favourite) 24. In his will he stipulated that the house could not be sold until this last son died, which he did in 1979. When the house was sold at auction in 1990, it was full of members of the Cheong family as well as 34 squatter families. There was a thick layer of dust on all the surfaces – according to our guide, no one felt obliged to do any cleaning since they didn’t own the house – and this preserved a lot of the materials over the years. Today, the house is ‘unofficially’ a hotel – they don’t yet have a permit because of the wooden floors, which would need to be reinforced with concrete!
Next up Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah…
The practical bit:
Ferry from Butterworth (mainland) to George Town: From the bus terminal (having arrived, in my case, from the Cameron Highlands/Ipoh), you walk up and over the pedestrian bridge to the ferry terminal. The ferry costs RM 1.20 but you need to exchange your ringgit for what I took to be old currency as the machines, I guess, haven’t been updated! It runs every 15-20 minutes. (I could also have continued by bus across the bridge but it would have meant a longer taxi journey.)
Hotel in Penang: I had contacted the Muntri Mews Boutique Hotel for a single room but it was full so they gave me a family suite at the newer Muntri Mews Residence for the same price. Very nice, with great service including shutters being opened and closed and fans and air con being turned on and off in the mornings and evenings, and with breakfast served at the café across the road.
Travelling from Penang (George Town) to Langkawi:
Flights are operated by AirAsia and Firefly, the latter a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines. My single ticket including luggage and seat reservation with AirAsia was RM 189 (without the extras it would have been RM 111).
If you want to brave the ferry, you should get the ticket in advance from one of the kiosks outside Swettenham Pier for RM 66.50.