As the legendary Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang prepares to open its new Victory Annexe in 2013, one of Turquoise’s clients reflects on his former days in Penang in the early 70’s and his fond memories of the E&O. The timeless elegance of this grande dame of Penang dates back to 1885 when it was established by the Sarky brothers who then went on to build the iconic Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Myanmar. The Eastern & Oriental is an historic colonial hotel full of heritage and tradition as well as boasting a history of notable famous guests including Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham. It is one of Asia’s truly great hotels which has retained its charm and weathered the passage of time with character and grace. In April 2013, the Victory Annexe will be opened offering 122 sea-view suites with private balconies.
“My family used to live in the quarters at RAF Butterworth which was a major flying station. It is still there today, manned by the Malaysian Airforce. If we drove any distance at all, there were rubber estates but these have now been superseded by palm oil plantations. Butterworth is on the mainland but in early 1970’s, the nearest shopping destination was in Georgetown on Penang which we reached by ferry; there was no road bridge in those days. The children went to the English school on Penang by bus via the ferry and were supplied with sandwiches by the Amah (often cold mince, we have since discovered!). The centre of Penang was the hill topped by a major radar station which has long since been dismantled. It has to be remembered that these were the times of the Cold War! When going shopping we usually took a very old British car (Hillman Minx) on the ferry or went on foot to be taken by Trishaw. Trishaws were the only public transport available apart from the occasional bus full of livestock. The fare for the trishaw was negotiable and it was great fun bartering. Now of course taxis (mostly Malayan Protons or Japanese) are readily available and inexpensive. The opium addicts who frequented the streets in Georgetown have now all but gone but they were everywhere in our day. In our day the cars on Penang were old British or Australian cars but now are as you would see in any modern city. Because Georgetown was a duty free port many of us bought jewellery and stones which should have been declared at Customs on the Butterworth side of the ferry. However the customs officers rarely searched the returning cars or even the shopping baskets!
The charm of Georgetown was in a mile or so of the Clock Tower which is near the port and the E&O Hotel. We could watch the Chinese craftsmen in their shop houses as one still can. Now these charming Chinese shops and houses are surrounded by modern buildings but the old atmosphere has remained. Nothing was purchased without bartering which was always fun and enjoyed by consumers and vendor alike. The Chinese Emporium full of many shops has gone to be replaced in Gurney Drive by a modern shopping mall with designer shops as in any city. Bartering is by and large a thing of the past but one can always try!
We shopped for food at the markets near Ayer Itam and I believe these markets still exist and are very near the wonderful Buddhist Kek Lok Si Temple. We found all the temples (Hindu and Buddhist) in Georgetown fascinating. When we went to Georgetown we used to love the drive south to the airport through paddy fields and Malay villages (Kampongs) visiting the “Snake Temple” which always fascinated our children because they could handle the snakes. The temple still exists but is difficult to find because of all the surrounding building and high tech industry. We often drove all the way round Penang past the Kampongs and factories (batique, nutmeg and so on) and back to Georgetown via Batu Ferringhi which in those days was a small Malay hamlet but now house all the modern international and I think somewhat characterless hotels. When we lived in Butterworth, there were 3 small beach hotels just north of Georgetown which were full of character (Palm Beach, Golden Sands and Lone Pine). We used to sit for hours on their beachfront balconies sampling Anchor or Tiger beer! For children a trip round the Botanical Gardens was always fun with monkeys roaming around ready to “nick” your snack!
Penang Hill was a frequent haunt of ours with a very old British rack and pinion railway to take us up to a small restaurant and temple. There is now a modern Funicular railway and lots of food outlets at the top.
We loved eating in Penang where there was a plethora of local food (Indian, Chinese and Malay) in very old restaurants where we had to ask for a knife and fork or eat with our fingers like the locals. We were never ill after these local meals which are still available but of course there are now an abundance of international smart modern restaurants. For perhaps the tastiest bites there is nothing like the “Machan Carts”(Hawker Stalls) some of which are fairly near the E&O and many in Gurney Drive. Having lived in Malaysia we are adventurous when we go out to eat but I guess most visitors would be concerned about picking up some nasty “tummy bug”.
We love to visit Georgetown when we return to Malaysia most years and cannot resist staying at the E&O which is ideally situated for visiting the old fascinating areas which we haunted. When we lived in Butterworth the E&O had become shabby but has now been tastefully restored retaining some Victorian charm. Guests are greeted by doormen in old colonial tropical dress (wonderful) and a welcoming drink is obligatory! There is a wealth of history in Georgetown which was found by Captain Light in 1786 when the Portuguese were down in Malacca and of course the Japanese invaded in the last world war. We always found and still do the people of Georgetown welcoming and friendly. For us Georgetown offers us memories, history and charm and I know that these thoughts are shared by most of my ex service colleagues from our happy days in Butterworth and Penang.”
For more information on visiting Malaysia, Penang or the E&O, please visit this link to our website: https://www.turquoiseholidays.co.uk/malaysia