That’s the first thing you’ll be asked when you return from backpacking across Southeast Asia. It’s a fair question, but it’s also pretty hard to answer.
Was it standing in the shadows of the temples of Angkor? Was it spending a week volunteering at an elephant conservation center in Thailand? Cave exploring in Halong Bay? The adrenaline rush you got walking through a sea of speeding motorbikes in Hanoi? The food? The music? The people?
So, when INNZ asked if I would like to write an article about the trip, I was stumped at first.
My partner Stacey and I spent 4.5 months traveling in the region. Although we had done
heaps of research before the trip, I still wasn’t really prepared for the vibrancy of the
culture. It seemed like every other day we were exposed to things that were truly awe-
I suffer from the occupational hazard of always working (or at least thinking about
interpretation) even when I’m supposed to be on holiday. So, it’s no surprise that as we moved across the landscapes of Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, I was constantly noticing the different ways—sometimes good, sometimes not so good—that cultural heritage interpretation was handled and presented.
One place that seems to be getting it right is George Town, on the island of Penang in
northwest Malaysia. Penang is a confluence point where cultures and religions from across Asia and the Pacific have for centuries met to exchange goods and ideas. It’s a place where at any given intersection you might find a Catholic Church, a Muslim Mosque, a Chinese Clan House and a Buddhist Temple – with an English Fort around the corner, thrown in for good measure! As a result of all this “cultural fusion” and layers of history, George Town is an incredibly fun place to visit and explore.
Getting around George Town is very easy, and the old town quarter is easily traversed
on foot, made easier by a series of brochure guides produced by Penang Heritage Trust
and the State Tourism & Culture Office. Each brochure is themed; food, architecture,
religious sites, and traditional crafts. Inside were maps and suggested routes, along
with history and details about each of the stops. They were great reminders that a well-
designed paper guide can still be highly effective.
Because we like to eat, our personal favorite was the brochure exploring the famous cuisines of Penang which led us all over town in search of food carts and streetside vendors.
The process of finding the vendors and wandering the streets was definitely part of the adventure, and we were rewarded with personal interactions and lasting memories along with the great food. We were experiencing the real thing, prepared by and for the locals as much as for the tourists. At one stall, we met Mr Mohammed Ali, who serves Burbur Kacang, a broth of sweet mung bean and coconut cream, at his stand which he inherited from his father in the 1950s. We sat in the shade of his canopy, watching people come and go and observing the natural rhythm of the place.
Wandering through the old streets and alleys of George Town, it’s easy way to get lost,
but I’d be willing to bet you won’t mind. Around the next corner will be something
unexpected and, likely, unforgettable. A simple tool such as printed brochures can lead
intrepid visitors to those authentic experiences they crave.
Don’t wait too long to see it—and taste it!—for yourself.
You are welcome to link to our SE Asia travel blog too, if you want, but don’t feel
William is one of our fab ex-INNZ executive members, who left us to return to his homeland. When he’s not travelling to exotic places he works at Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center in Colorado.