To Your Health in Penang Hotels – Penang, Part Three

Walking out in Penang on a Sunday afternoon, when Georgetown is considerably more traffic-free than it is during the week, my friend and I entered the lobbies of a couple of interesting looking hotels to find small crowds of dark-skinned Indian and Sri Lankan women looking at us hopefully. These old, rundown places seemed to host the primary weekend business activity, and we finally became a bit more wary about the doorways we’d walk through.
Almost every hotel in Georgetown has a “health club” — a euphemism for a massage parlor and brothel — and the really low-end hotels made no distinction between hotel and club. Our own hotel, the Cathay at 15 Leith St., kept the entrance to the club (with a sign noting it was illegal for Muslim men to enter) separate from the hotel. The only spillover was a surprising number of cars out front when there were so few hotel guests.
There are no other arguments against the Cathay, where rooms start at 60 Malaysian ringgit a night (US$16) a night. It looks like it was converted from a mansion of one of the wealthy Penang merchants of the 1800s or early 1900s. And it is better maintained and more discreet than other hotels in buildings of about the same period. The best rooms are numbers 2 and 4 on the second floor at the front, overlooking the street and with a view of Penang Hill over the rooftops. The front two rooms do not have air-conditioning – only ceiling fans – and probably for that reason the furnishings are the comforting battered remains of earlier days. Other rooms are air-conditioned and have bland, soulless chairs and beds. A couple of shop-house pubs just down the street offer a quiet place for evening beers and late night entertainment.
Another hotel with a different sort of character is the guest house at 100 Cintra Street. Rooms range from 8 MYR to 33 MYR and most aren’t much more than wooden sleeping platforms with mattresses, giving some feeling of what the place must have been like when it was a dormitory for Chinese amahs. The bathrooms on the hall are clean and well maintained, and there are pleasant common areas for reading and writing. The top floor holds a mildly interesting showroom-museum, and downstairs there is a small café and antique shop. The building is still owned by the grandson of a Straits Chinese patriarch that worked himself up to wealthy merchant from beginnings as sailor and Singapore coffee shop assistant.
Outside of Georgetown and the backpacker ghettos, there are numerous upscale hotels and resorts on the north coast around Batu Ferringhi and Tanjung Tokong. But if you’ve got that kind of cash, splurge for the Eastern & Oriental. Even in a renovated state it still has the style and class of a bygone era, and it’s more affordable than Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, built by the same Sarkies brothers team. Promotions on the hotel’s Web site ( start at US$116 per night. If you can’t stomach a month’s rent in Bali for a couple of nights of accommodation, the well-laid breakfast buffet runs 36.80 MYR a head and you can dine on the terrace and watch fisherman cast their nets from boats 30 meters on the other side of the seawall. If you don’t like the crows trying to steal your breakfast, opt for air-conditioned comfort closer to the food. It was a great way to start the day and gave us a break from the inexpensive 24-hour Indian eateries.
(Next up, the Bangkok series, starting in the June 7 issue of Bali Advertiser.)
Copyright © 2006 Tropical Tramp