Penang, Malaysia (Palau Pinang, Malaysia)
3-4 March 2017
With a spare weekend under our belts, we decided to fly to a little island off Malaysia. Can you guess which one? Hint: look at the title. We coordinated schedules with Yannick's friend Jarold, who lives a short hop away in Kuala Lumpur, however, we would be arriving the evening before him.
After an uber ride to the airport, we boarded the plane and sat through a very long hour in extra uncomfortable seats while a large man next to Yannick snored. Once through Imigresen and customs, we took a teksi to our hotel to drop off our bags. Then we popped out for a quick wander, and were instantly reminded of our first trip to Southeast Asia not so long ago. (It was a dark night. The location? Kuala Lumpur. The streets were narrow, with nary a decent footpath in sight, cars and bikes dodging street food vendors while we tried to decipher just what exactly the stalls were selling.) Yannick found a sign advertising a dish he recognised: char kway teow. A very popular dish in Malaysia, he ordered a plate and declared it to be tasty. We then visited the local 24 jam (24 hour shop) for water and biscuits.
The next morning, we set out exploring! Passing by a fruit and vege shop, I resolved to return there later once hunger struck. But until then, exploring! Apparently named after just one family who lived there, Armenian Street was our first port of call. It was a quaint little procession of shops and skinny houses with peeling shutters. As Penang (and especially the capital of George Town) has so many historical sights dotted around, a local artist was commissioned to create a series of steel rod cartoon sculptures entitled "Voices from the People" that signposted the town's places of interest as well as providing humour and a certain Penang-esque character.
Women were decked out in purples, reds, and oranges while Bollywood tunes blared at us from DVD shops with cratefuls of cassette tapes out front. Does anyone even own a cassette-friendly stereo anymore? We noticed that splashes of yellow paint adorned the footpath outside many establishments, and assumed that this was some sort of blessing.
From there we wended our way over to the esplanade, which was overcome in some areas by fishermen and the smell of rotting fish guts. Even away from the worst of the smells, the esplanade wasn't terribly attractive so we moved on. We briefly considered visiting Fort Cornwalis, but with a bit of Googling we deemed it potentially not worth the 15 ringgit entrance fee. The fort was built by the British East India Company to defend against pirates, but never engaged in combat and was largely used as a centre of administration.
According to the Internet, which I'm hesitant to trust, the Penang street art scene only began in 2009. During a local festival in 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic painted a few dynamic pieces, which are among the top tourist sights in the city today. Along with "Little Children on a Bicycle" and "Reaching Up", this wall at the side of Step by Step Street is a hotspot for tourist photographs.
As it seemed to be low tide, much of the jetty wasn't above water at all, but thick mud or a sort of muddy wetland area. Walking out, our senses were assaulted: on the one hand, it was an incredibly picturesque and bright scene, and on the other hand a thick stench rose up from the exposed mud. When we revisited the jetties hours later once meeting up with Jarold, the tide had encroached and smothered the fumes. This was excellent news because Jarold had just bought an R2D2 themed 'heritage' biscuit (don't ask me) and munched on it while on Lim Jetty - I imagine he would have been thoroughly put off his food if the mudstank was still hanging around.
Next in line was Chew Jetty, the most popular and touristic of all. Shops and houses were attached to both sides of the walkway, and there was much more going on, including several stalls selling durian coffee. We made our way down a couple of side alleys that branched off the main path, but it felt a bit like an invasion of privacy as we were passing by people's open living room windows as they went about their lives, and stepping around laundry hung out to dry. Seeing strangers' underpants would make all but the most hardened awkwardness specialist uncomfortable (though if they were dirty underpants, that's a different story).
Feeling sleepy from the heat, we returned to our hotel and I napped for a couple of hours. Then, in need of sustenance, we bought a half watermelon from the aforementioned fruit stall and (with the help of a spoon I pilfered from the hotel dining area) slurped our woes away.
Soon afterwards we met up with Jarold, and together we revisited some of sights we deemed best (ie. we skipped returning to the esplanade but had a second wander of Love Lane, Little India and the jetties.
Making our way inland once again to a cafe Jarold recommended, we were called out to by a man with a bewheeled stall: "hello coconut!" - he was selling young coconuts, but we weren't in the market for any. We arrived at China House and I was fairly impressed. Not only was it a beautiful heritage building, and not only was it a café, but there was also a snazzy bar attached, and upstairs was an art gallery. I fell in love with this enthusiastic woofy dog who was prancing up the wall next to the stairs. We ordered some drinks and rested in the bar for a time, chatting and discussing which artworks in the gallery we liked most.
At dinner time, we caught an Uber to Annalakshmi Temple of Fine Arts, a vegetarian Indian restaurant offering daily lunch buffets and a Saturday dinner buffet (with other evenings being a la carte). As in a temple, we were required to remove our shoes before entering, and cats paced in the garden surrounding the courtyard we dined in, signifying (according to Jarold and seconded by us) that this was a good place with good people. We ate a selection of delicious curries, rice and gravies to our hearts' content. This place is very special, as its some sort of charitable organisation (though I couldn't find out details online). The waiters are volunteers, payment is whatever you feel appropriate, and proceeds go to charity. If I was staying longer in Penang, I would quickly become a regular there! Jarold gave us a tutorial of how to eat curry with our hands, and though we were extremely messy, I feel like I could get the hang of it with practice. Apparently if you do it correctly, your fingers shouldn't even touch your mouth at all.
So shabby. So chic! Decidedly tuckered out from the day's activities, we enjoyed a short amble back to our hotels and slept deeply.