The island of Penang may be developing rapidly, but Georgetown’s cycle rickshaws are a real throwback to years gone by and taking a ride in one evokes a sense of ‘old Asia’ that complements the well-preserved architecture of the heritage zone.
This is not to say, however, that the rickshaws are all strictly traditional – many of them bring the concept of ‘pimp my ride’ to a whole new level. Tinsel, plastic fruits, umbrellas and garlands of fake flowers are the norm, but you will also see soft toy collections, plastic dolls, toy soldiers and, if you are really lucky, perhaps even the all-blinging, all-dancing models with built in speakers and blaring music.
The scourge of other road users, Georgetown’s rickshaw drivers are a law unto themselves and seemingly operate within a whole different state of consciousness that is far removed from 21st century Penang. In a complete overturn of the usual road hierarchy, other vehicles always seem to give way to rickshaws, so don’t be too alarmed if your driver edges you out into a stream of moving traffic, because he has probably been doing this for years and has it down to a fine art.
In addition, many of the ageing drivers appear to think that the streets of Georgetown are no busier now than they were 40 or 50 years ago, and seem blissfully unaware that other vehicles might need to get anywhere quickly. If ever you see a line of slow-moving traffic, you can bet there’s a rickshaw at the head of it.
As a passenger, all this works to your advantage. The drivers’ unworried, unhurried approach to life means that taking a rickshaw is, without doubt, the most relaxing and sedate way of experiencing the streets of Georgetown. The slow pace gives you plenty of time to take in the sights and because someone else is doing the steering, you can concentrate on the more important business of taking photographs, or simply enjoying the view. Best of all, the rickshaws’ specially-adapted umbrellas will shield you from the blazing sun, so you can also stay relatively sweat-free.
A single journey within Georgetown should cost 10 ringgit, or slightly more if you want to go outside the immediate centre. This isn’t cheap, but it’s no more expensive than the car taxis and it is a good deal more romantic, not to mention much better for the environment.
Alternatively, you could always hire a rickshaw for the hour and take a tour of central Georgetown. This is a good way to get your bearings if you have just landed on Penang, and gives you a taster for things that you can come back and explore at greater length.
Typically, the tour takes in the Street of Harmony, the Goddess of Mercy Temple, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, the Hock Tiek Cheng Sin Clan House, the Chew Jetty, Armenian Street, Little India, the Peranakan Mansion and then around the old British Quarter, including the old Town Hall, the law courts and St George’s Church.
Of course the order of the sights depends on where you pick up your rickshaw, and you should feel free to ask other landmarks to be included. A one-hour tour for two people costs 30 ringgit, and you can pick up a lift from the large rickshaw ‘station’ on Jalan Penang, opposite the junction with Muntri Street, or else from the junction of Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Cannon.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 28th November, 2014.