It’s fair to say that geography isn’t my strong point. Prior to this trip, I had no idea either Singapore or Brunei were carved out of Malaysia – I thought the latter was in the middle east somewhere, and the former . . . gosh . . . maybe nearer Australia? Anyway. I can’t be the only one who didn’t know that Penang isn’t a city at all, but an island.
Yet there it is. And more, actually: it’s a state. (Or even a country, if you believe the Wikipedia entry and understand the political and semantic complexities of designating something “a country”, which I don’t, so for purposes of uneducated brevity let’s call it a state and move on). It consists of a 300 km² island (Palau Pinang), and a chunk of mainland west-coast Malaysia. But the bit people mean when they talk about Penang – and indeed the names of which are used interchangeably – is the island’s largest city, George Town. Or Georgetown. Poor old George/Town, people barely know it exists and nobody seems to know how to write it.
Even the arrival is atmospheric: a train to the closest station (on the mainland) and then either a taxi over one of two bridges or a ferry, which is significantly more fun, probably faster, and a fraction of the cost. Malaysia’s ever-impressive ability to signpost everything allowed Peter and I to walk easily from the train to the ferry port and directly on to the night’s final boat, which raised the gangplank about three minutes after we’d boarded.
Its bright, shiny benches on the open-air top deck were spread with locals returning home and a handful of other backpackers. The wind-whipped railings gave the perfect vantage point, even at that late hour, of lights on both side of the water. It felt like we were crossing into a different world, or another time period; and perhaps we were.
As with many places in this former British colony, awkwardly English names linger amidst the updated Malaysian replacements. And so the aforementioned train station is in Butterworth, which conjures up rolling hills and rosy-cheeked milkmaids. In practice it’s an uninspiring city, overlooked due to its proximity across the water to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Unlike Vietnam’s increasingly polluted Ha Long Bay, Penang remains entirely deserving of this accolade. The streets are lined with former colonial buildings which, given the climate, have been kept in remarkably good condition. The main “old town” – with some streets bearing names like “Buckingham“ and “Macalister” – remains low-rise and charming, hemmed in by planning laws and the Malaysian sense of propriety which perhaps always existed but seems somehow incredibly British.
Even those which are falling apart retain an appealing elegance.
Walking along the streets – infinitely livelier than Ipoh’s – we were struck by the town’s popularity with tourists, especially young ones, spilling out of bars selling local beer and blasting Bob Marley.
(What is it about reggae and tropical climates? I reckon it’s one too many clueless tourists demanding a piña colada and “Three Little Birds” just because the temperature hit 30°C, they’re wearing flip-flops, and their geography is even worse than mine. This particular bar was inevitably strung with Che Guevara posters and the ilk, and heavily patronised by youngsters clad in the Jamaican flag. Most appeared to be en route either from or to Thailand, where I very much doubt they spent their time speaking on behalf of local activists and appealing to the army-run government for a transparent election, and immediate investigation into the beleaguered citizens’ human rights).
Indeed, the backpacker vibe was strong in this one. Reviews of local bars and cafés included the following sentences: “strawberry mojitos, chocolate brownie a la mode, good company and live music. What more could you ask for?”, “I have to say the best part was this super hot blond polish girl the chinese owners have working there”, and, most ominously, “it is the perfect backpackers watering hole”.
Thankfully, as ever, it was easy to escape the student bar atmosphere by ducking down the nearest side street and following one’s nose.
We’re choosing our destinations on this trip with relative democracy. Peter specifies a spot, every now and then, usually because it’s a site of political interest or governmental importance, or perhaps it played a strategic part in recent history, or maybe careful research and consideration has led him to believe that its location off the beaten path would make for a memorable detour.
Mostly I just want to go to places because of the food.
With that in mind, Penang was non-negotiable. It’s Malaysia’s culinary capital; the spiritual heartland of a nation for whom eating is not only a national pass-time, but also a sport, and an art-form. It’s safe to say such a thing about most south-east Asian countries, but I don’t think I’ve ever visited one which places so much reverence on every form of eaterie. From chicken biriani to dimsum; from a hawker stall transported on the back of a bicycle up to the fanciest silver-service restaurant; Malaysians don’t discriminate. Their food is an amalgamation of the best bits from all cuisines native to their local corner of Asia, and if they don’t like what they get, they’ll make it known. As tourists, we get to enjoy the fruits of many years of labour, both from the vendors themselves and the furiously discerning customers. And I was determined to take advantage.
Of course, extensive experimentation was required. Partly because it would be rude not to (who am I to discriminate?) and partly because I didn’t know what I was ordering. And also because every time I went looking for one particular much-vaunted char kway teow vendor, I couldn’t find him.
So I was forced (forced I tell you) to lap up a laksa . . .
. . . feast on fish balls . . .
. . . pig out on pancakes . . .
. . . chow down on a chicken biryani . . .
. . . and finally, chew on some char kway teow.
Oh, friends, I know some of you waved me off on my journey with promises that I would fulfil your need for international food porn. Today is that day. Revel in these images and let me know if you need anything more hard-core. I’m pretty sure I’ve got ones of me actually eating, should your over-enthusiastic Pinterest browsings have caused reduced sensitivity to a bowl of noodles and strategically-placed chopsticks.
Hark! Let us not forget the Best Dim-Sum Of Peter’s Life, when as agreed he rose at the unholy hour of 7am and dutifully rolled half-asleep through Georgetown’s streets. I dragged him to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant not even in TripAdvisor’s top ten; a dark horse with barely a handful of reviews but enough laudatory comments from Chinese people to prick up my ears, and what a happy punt we took on that. Whilst he still hasn’t come around to the joys of turnip cake or banana-leaf sticky rice dumplings (more fool him), I think the softly-softly approach has finally won Peter over to the joys of ha gao and siu mai, especially when I do the ordering.
So we can expect plenty of early mornings in Hong Kong to make up for lost time . . . right Peter??!
I was convinced that just because Penang was known for food didn’t mean that it was only known for food, and so I decided to take myself off for a bit of exploration.
Chief amongst the sights are the Clan Jetties: a densely-built village on stilts next to the ferry port, and last bastion of the original Chinese families who built this city.
There are six jetties in total, each “belonging” to a distinct clan. Despite their apparent frailty, the constructions have survived (and evolved) since the 19th century, through the 2004 tsunami, bitter family feuds, fire, and mechanisation of the various industries – ferrying, port-work, fuel-collection – with which the inhabitants were initially involved. Their continued resistance to development and demolition paid off; the jetties were eventually included under the UNESCO protection as an example of traditional urban living, but the residents don’t pay taxes because they’re not technically “living on the land”. Excellent work, jetty residents.
Even though Penang was at the height of tourist season during our visit, and our hotel was full, I was amazed that I didn’t see a single foreigner whilst tiptoeing around the wooden planks making up the jetty “streets”.
I later read that some of the locals are (understandably) less than thrilled by gawping tourists photographing their houses, so perhaps it’s no longer quite such a popular sight. Of course, I was blissfully ignorant of this fact, so merrily skipped down to the end of the longest jetty for some photo ops (avoiding peering into people’s actual homes because, well, that’s just rude) and thankfully didn’t get pushed into the muddy shallows by perturbed residents.
Georgetown also boasts an impressive display of street art, which was originally created by the city’s tourist office, intended to point visitors towards points of interest. More were added and eventually the pieces became an attraction in their own right.
Most tourists seem to cluster around the multi-coloured wall works along Armenian Street, but they’re actually scattered around the whole city.
In fact there was even a piece right next to our hotel, although one might query its cultural significance.
As much fun as I’d had exploring under my own steam, I knew there was more to see than the old town. Not in possession of a guidebook, but with fond memories of the hop-on-hop-off London Sightseeing Bus Tour (no really, I can’t recommend it enough – even if you’re a local – it’s brilliant), I decided that Penang’s much-touted equivalent would be an excellent introduction. So I set aside my final day, left Peter in the hotel doing Important Reading Stuff, and sloped off down the scorching road in search of enlightenment.
Unfortunately, it was rather thin on the ground. My “tour guide book” was in fact a single A4 page with a basic map of the stops. The “pre-recorded commentary” didn’t exist. At least there was on-board wifi; a relatively rare occurrence even in England, but one which was apparently a step too far for the Penang Bus Company. Their dedication to providing absolutely no information was clearly being hampered by its guests proximity to actual knowledge, and they’d stuck up signs warning that access was being phased out as of January 2016. Who provides internet access and then phases it out?! Baffling . . .
Thankfully my first bus still offered a connection, so after I’d been on the bus ten minutes and thought “Surely we ought to have stopped by now?”, I fired up my phone and discovered that in fact, we’d already gone through three stops with barely a pause. The occasional static over the soundsystem had apparently been the monotone attendant mumbling the names of stops as we whizzed through with nary a chance to push the Stop button.
I tried googling the name of each stop to decide in advance whether it was worth a peruse but even my whippet-fast Wiki-searching wasn’t enough and just as I thought “ooh, that looks interesting!”, we’d already hurtled through. This driver wasn’t taking any prisoners, except he apparently was. Eventually, in a moment of blessed prescience, I realised we were nearing the one and only intersection between the City and Beach Tours, so took a chance, hit the bell, and barrel-rolled off the bus.
The beach tour, I thought. Now this is bound to be interesting! I mean, the brochure says “scenic”! I’m in for a real treat!
And I was, if you consider skirting concrete apartment blocks, skyscraper hotels, and designer shopping malls, with the occasional glimpse of sea beyond, to be a treat. No? Me neither.
Finally we escaped Georgetown’s lingering expanse and began winding along more open coastline, spotting beaches and bays through the trees.
It was interesting to see the small villages along the north coast which are clearly far less touched by the excessive tourism which both binds and supports Penang’s existence. Here, a slightly more traditional way of life is maintained, in seafood shack restaurants and kids playing in sandy coves. It would have been lovely to stop here, and so of course we didn’t, and instead got ferried straight to the Butterfly Experience which was announced with all the enthusiasm of Sainsbury’s on the number 295.
Inevitably the upmarket resorts have crept out this way, taking advantage of the prettier shoreline and proximity to the city, including Shangri-La Resort, and the country’s first Hard Rock Hotel (thank god, I feared the poor Malaysians may be forever bereft). Still, the strangest sight I glimpsed was a huge, derelict hotel nowhere near Georgetown but retaining enough presence to suggest it was once intended to house the very best.
Unfortunately by now I was on one of the newfangled “offline” buses, and it didn’t stop anywhere nearby, so not only was I not given the chance to hop off and check it out but I couldn’t even google to find out what on earth it was. I was about ready to escape at the earliest opportunity on the return journey and walk as far as necessary until I realised that my What Would Peter Do? klaxon was firing, saying “DON’T TRESPASS YOU ENORMOUS IDIOT”. We were leaving Malaysia the very next day (cutting our visa dangerously close) and it was probably best not spend my final night in a Penang prison cell.
And so instead I took as many photos as I could through the window of the speeding bus (the drivers at Penang Tourist Bus Company really take their obligations to “just drive the bus around the circuit” very seriously) and watched sadly as a whole world of exploration disappeared into the distance.
I later established that it was the Mutiara Beach Resort, a former 5-star hotel favoured by prime ministers and diplomats. Opened in 1988, “temporarily” closed in 2006, and apparently since abandoned, varying local rumours abound as to its intended future. It’s somewhat erroneously available to book via google despite its very obvious dereliction, and the website saying in small letters at the bottom of its homepage “currently closed for renovation” which must be the most complicated lick of paint since the Sistine Chapel.
And so, well-fed, hunger mostly sated, with a last lingering look at the hawker stalls on Chulia Road, I sadly bid farewell to Malaysia: Land Of Eating. With a heavy heart (and heavier everything else), I dragged myself away from the delicious eateries towards the subsequent unsuspecting country. Poor thing. How could it possibly hope to compete with the previous three weeks of parties on my palate?
Oh, what’s that? Next stop Thailand?
Yeah, I can make this work.