Best of Penang rolled up in one big festival

Best of Penang rolled up in one big festival

George Town is a UNESCO heritage city. Organizers of the annual George Town Festival aren't letting you forget why

Even on the average day, George Town is a cultural overload for visitors -- the city is rightly famed for its food, history and diversity.

Clearly, UNESCO knew what it was doing when it listed the Malaysian city located on the island of Penang as a World Heritage Site back in 2008.  

To mark the five-year anniversary of that designation, organizers of the annual George Town Festival have amped up the island's cultural offerings, stuffing a huge amount of art, film, music, dance and food into a single month. 

Despite the heritage connection, the festival isn’t just an ode to the city’s history.

This year's George Town Festival offers a balanced lineup that highlights the best of George Town and Penang culture while adding international performances and arts. 

"George Town is a very special place, the people here take ownership of their space," says George Town Festival organizer Joe Sidek, who says funding is the biggest challenge in planning such a large arts event.

"It about us sharing our town as a 'canvas' for our visitors. George Town provides the most important backdrop for the Festival." 

The festival started earlier this month and carries on until July 7 –- the day before the official UNESCO-listing anniversary -- though some events last till the end of July. 

Here are a few highlights. For the full schedule, visit the George Town Festival website. 

1. Theater of Ships

Indonesian artist Joko Dwi Avianto built the Theater of Ships to honor Penang's roots as a center for travel, trade and culture. Indonesian Joko Dwi Avianto's Theater of Ships installation was built during his recent residency on Penang.  

Situated between the city and town halls on Jalan Padang Kota Lama, the sculpture uses interwoven bamboo -- inspired by local culture -- to create a theater.

Visitors can check it out for free.

"Taking the structure of the boat as a symbol of the importance of the sea in Penang’s identity, Joko creates what he calls the ‘Theatre of Ships’ as a public ‘theater’ for locals and visitors alike to come together and celebrate the enduring legacies of travel, trade and cultural exchange," say organizers.  

2. Obscura Photography Festival

This inaugural photography festival, on from June 21-30, aims to engage and exhibit photography by both professionals and amateurs through a series of public exhibitions, talks and forums, workshops and portfolio reviews at locations around Penang.

Participating Obscura photographers include Texas-born Maggie Steber (who worked with the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic), Ian Teh from London (Time and Newsweek). 

For the full schedule of shows and locations, visit the Obscura festival website.

3. Sutra

In Sutra, 21 wooden boxes are continuously repositioned to create a striking, ever-changing on-stage environment. On June 29 and 30, Flemish/Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui brings his world-renowed dance work to Penang's Dewan Sri Pinang auditorium. 

Inspired by and starring the famed Buddhist Shaolin monks, Sutra features 17 monks from China's original Shaolin Temple accompanied by a live orchestra performing a piano, percussion and string score by Polish composer Szymon Brzóska. 

4. Secrets of Earthly Delights

Ten sites, 10 artists, 10 gardens: a free outdoor event, Secrets of Unearthly Delights is a series of gardens created in select sites around George Town to form a public trail. 

Working closely with gardeners, landscape and installation artists, this site-specific project is the George Town Festival's second public installation that attempts to capture the spirit and living heritage known to Penang and George Town. (The first being the Theater of Ships, above.)

The full list of gardens and a map can be found on the official George Town Festival event page

More on CNN: What a wonderful world: 12 fabulous gardens

5. Penang Durian Festival

Opened or unopened, a durian can be used as a weapon of self-defense. Durian is never going to please everyone. You love it or hate it -- and that includes the smell that comes with it.  

If you happen to be a durian addict, June and July are the best months of the year to hit Penang -- Balik Pulau, to be specific, where the Penang Durian Festival takes place.

Plenty of the stinky/aromatic stuff is for sale -- including the prized ang he and hor lor variants -- along with durian-themed events.   

What are your favorite Malaysian dishes? Share your photos and stories in our Malaysian food iReport assignment.

6. Heritage Celebration 

You can't have a festival in honor of George Town's UNESCO World Heritage designation without celebrating its heritage.

From July 5-7, the Heritage Celebration showcases traditional arts, food and crafts from Penang’s local communities. 

There's Indian Malay theater (boria), Teochew rod puppets, the menora dance, Tamil bharatanatyam, wayang kulit shadow puppets, Penang Hokkien rhymes and storytelling for kids.

All this will be held along the streets of George Town. Visit the Heritage Celebration page for the full schedule and locations. 

More on CNN: Malaysia's top 40 foods

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