One can only trishaw

16:00, Oct 18 2012
Trishaw Penang
ROLL CALL: Trishaw passengers in Georgetown.

It could be worse. I feel bad enough that the guy is well into his 60s and is starting to work up a sweat as he strains on the pedals, propelling us forward through the thick Penang air.

The traffic is heavy as always, the odd honk as we careen across the road in search of the next sight. No one pays us too much attention - these brightly coloured trishaws, their frames rusting but decorated with plastic flowers and streamers and spinning fans, almost seem part of the landscape in Georgetown.

Mr Lo, the man straining at the pedals behind my sparkling seat, picked me up from a hotel in town and has his work cut out for him getting me to Fort Cornwallis, the first stop on our tour. There are four other trishaws in our jaunty little procession, slowly making our way through the city.

It could be worse for Mr Lo and his fellow riders, because they at least have pedals. A hundred years ago these traditional trishaws - or becas, as they're called in Georgetown - didn't have a chain.

The carts back then were hauled by hand, the drivers running on the road, ferrying the landed gentry of this colonial city.

Now, however, they have pedal power. It's small consolation for Mr Lo and his guilt-ridden passenger, but we'll take it.

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We pull off the road as Fort Cornwallis appears on the esplanade down by Malacca Strait, Georgetown's waterfront area.

It was built in 1786, our official guide (who's along for the ride) explains, and is a remnant of the British occupation of this Malaysian island, which reflects the influence of four cultures from its recent past: Chinese, Indian, Malay and British. This tour will take in all four, cruising the UNESCO heritage-listed streets of Georgetown the way it's been done the past few centuries.

Across from the fort is a large grass clearing once used for military exercises and later for cricket by the British and the Indians. Behind that are the old town hall and city hall, which now look almost incongruously European.

Back on the road, and Mr Lo is straining at the pedals again. He's actually one of a disappearing breed - in 1970 there were more than 2500 cycle trishaws clattering around Georgetown's streets; today there are only about 200 and there are rarely younger replacements to take over from the ageing drivers.

Our next stop, after a laughably slow ride around a large roundabout to view the Queen Victoria clock tower (built in 1897 to celebrate the British monarch's diamond jubilee), is the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. It's a huge old house with an almost sordid history, given its construction was funded in part by the sale of opium by its owner, Chung Keng Kwee. There are still opium pipes on display in the ornate mansion, which is so stunningly furnished and decorated that it makes the opium trade look enticing indeed.

The beds are embossed with gold and the china is actually from China - it's fit for a king, not a kingpin.

Back in the trishaws, we're cruising Georgetown's quieter alleys, past small local markets, food stalls and colonial housing.

There's not much traffic here, just the quiet swish of the pedals as Mr Lo keeps up the pace.

Soon he pulls into a side street, cycling past a few old buildings and into a paved clearing. This is the site of the Khoo family house, a traditional and intricately carved shrine built by one of the most prominent families on the island.

It's hard not to be impressed. There are statues out the front, gold coins set into the stairway, traditional carvings in the pillars, and the names of the Khoo children and their university qualifications engraved on steel plates inside.

You could soak up hours here just staring - every wall is filled with icons and images and engravings. But again, it's time to leave. We're back in traffic now as we head towards our final destination, Weld Quay, a road that hugs the Georgetown waterfront and is lined with markets and food stalls.

Men sit at plastic tables sharing tall bottles of beer; others flit in and out of a small temple by the water.

We get out of the trishaws to stroll through Chew Jetty, one of the communities that exist in small houses built over the water. Tourists are free to walk through, treading the rickety boards that make up the narrow alleys of the area.

Back out on Weld Quay, the trishaws have gone. "It's the end of the tour," our guide shrugs. "You will be picked up by car from here."

That means Mr Lo will miss out on the assam laksa, Penang's famous fish and noodle soup, being dished out at the street stands.

A pity, but understandable. Mr Lo has a job to do. And it could be worse.

The writer travelled as a guest of Discovery Overland.

Sydney Morning Herald