Instead of building up to something, let’s start out with it: Penang is one of my favorite cities in the world, and I’m a world city aficionado. It would be cool to visit every country in the world, but I’d like to visit every big city in the world, too. I’m probably Karachi, Chongqing, and Lagos away from the top 25, depending on how you measure.
Technically speaking, there is no city called Penang; it is an island off the west coast of Malaysia with Georgetown as its major city. Georgetown is what I love, though I will go with the more-commonly used “Penang” which comes from “pinang”, which means betel nut tree. I can barely bring myself to explore other parts of the island, I am so enthralled with it, and just watch: I can express my love without mentioning food once. That will come in the next two posts as I share my favorite restaurant in the known world.
The challenge is that it’s hard to express my enthusiasm for Penang in a way that would pique anyone’s interest other than for the food. I hesitate to recommend it to friends, as they might not interpret their experience as positively as I do. Many travelers are here just to renew their Thai visas and they saunter around in the oppressive heat woozily, unimpressed by the run down, weather-beaten buildings. The beaches aren’t particularly clean, the water less so, and the sleepy city center’s buildings make it feel like a provincial New Zealand town circa 1988. While most locals are warm and welcoming, some can be by turns taciturn or tetchy, traits that don’t go over well with travelers.
I’m doing a great job selling it, aren’t I? HA! But come on, get up early in the morning and go for a walk before the heat wilts your constitution. Come late afternoon for the same walk as streets can undergo a metamorphosis with a market in the morning and food stalls in the evening, like the area around the Chowrasta Market (short-listed for the greatest market name ever even if the market itself is known for selling the worst food ever: pickled fruit. I just threw up in my mouth.) Few places positively drip with atmosphere like Penang.
I’d usually rate myself as an average history buff, but here I feel like an avid museum curator sent to chronicle what there is and was before it all completely disappears. Penang feels so palpable and accessible; I don’t need a vivid imagination to conjure up the past. The old town is still well-preserved in both its extremes, the stylish renovated buildings and the ones gone to seed, and there’s a sign on every street detailing its history beyond what you can imagine with names like Lebuh Armenian, Love Lane, Jalan Burmah, Lebuh Acheh (now a province in Indonesia, then a powerful sultanate), etc.
The historic center is small and compact and in short order you can stumble across busy places of worship for all the different religions, visit Chinese clan houses and clan jetties, smell the flower sellers in Little India before you see them, and, my personal fetish, watch the Malay policewomen in full uniform eating fish curries with their hands across the street from the police station. (Wait, was that my out-loud voice?)
I remember a time when locals commonly wore sarongs and it was less of a stop on the banana pancake trail than a place of great historical interest that warranted a visit on its own merits, but I won’t go into full whine mode because Penang is still a rare bird, just not a bird big enough to handle the biggest rats I’ve ever seen and which are at ease darting around alleys in broad daylight.
Socially, there has always been issues. Homelessness is omnipresent and I am hard-pressed to think of a place with more transvestite prostitutes. At dark they take over the main drag, Lebuh Chulia, which is also the main backpacker street. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence (cough!)
I’m still not doing a good job of selling Penang, am I?
I once volunteered here for a couple of weeks at the Penang Heritage Trust, an organization that tried to preserve the historic center of town from the modern-is-good, old-is-bad federal government at the time. Success came a few years later when Penang and Melaka were given UNESCO World Heritage protected status, but one can only hope that Penang doesn’t go the way of Melaka. Penang is lived in. Penang is for Penangites despite the fact that tourists abound. Melaka is like a showcase of what it once was, Disney-fied in garish colors, a tarted up spectacle for tourists. It’s as if the Chinese government were advising Malaysia how to develop it because visiting Melaka feels like you have paid admission to see something.
Part of the excitement of being here is that it feels like a place on the verge of a transformation because you wonder how it can last. Forces are pulling it in different directions, but is there a tipping point where it will become Melakacized: upmarket, upscale, and a playground for the rich? In the meantime I will enjoy its surprises, like hearing bagpipes coming out of the local high school across from my guest house.
I need someone with a sewing machine to elongate the pockets on some shorts I bought, but in Penang they want to charge me an arm and a leg to do it. The funny thing is that anyone in the world who has a sewing machine, the person will grab the garment from my hand and start working on it before they tell me a price. Must be some sort of secret code among tailors. I tried to get the transvestites interested in fixing my shorts, but I think they thought I was speaking euphemistically.
I stayed in three different places. Prices for accommodation are going up, but more guest houses are opening than closing. I was told prices are rising because Penang has World Heritage status now, which doesn’t completely make sense, but it is true that you should be careful what you wish for when you want the world to acknowledge something you privately know as special.
The best cheap place is Red Inn Cabanas (there are several different Red Inns) near the west end of Jalan Muntri. It is well-hidden, but it is in the same building as the Chocolate and Coffee Museum (pure hokum; it’s like calling McDonald’s a hamburger museum) and across the street from where local boy Jimmy Choo learned about shoes. 26 ringgit (US$8) for a bed in a four-bed dorm with real walls, not the paper-thin ones found in subdivided houses where noise reigns supreme. (Someday I expect to read that a consortium of Malaysian guest house owners have contracted with NASA to come up with new, microscopically-thin materials because paper-thin walls simply aren’t thin and flimsy enough.)
I also stayed in Old Penang Guest House on Love Lane, which was fine, even though a girl told me two disturbing things right after I checked in: she woke up with itchy bite marks all over her legs and the only other guy in the dorm was awoken at midnight by the police because it was suspected that he stole a laptop.
Both walks to the beaches in the free national park are excellent and worth doing. Don’t take the boats, slacker! There is a lighthouse viewpoint at Muka Head another twenty minutes or so beyond Monkey Beach. A sign says it closes at 3pm, but I went after hours anyway since this is Malaysia (“Britain ruled the waves, but we waive the rules!”) The compound was open, but the trees are high enough that you can’t see anything, and the actual lighthouse with the great views, is, well, closed after 3pm.
I went to the flea market in Penang on Lorong Kulit behind the stadium. It was so-so; less than half of the sellers have used stuff. Just as so-so and in town is the daily, late afternoon flea market where Armenian and Acheh Streets meet.
I hitchhiked from Kuala Lumpur to Penang pretty easily. The place to start is just south of the Rawang KTM commuter train station. Hitchhike the four or five km to the highway entrance, and you will be fine. A big highway gas station rest area is just a few km to the north.
I prefer to get dropped off in Butterworth and take the ferry over to Penang, but my last driver happened to be going over the (new, second) bridge and straight to Georgetown. He also knew of a guest house that had beds for 33 ringgit on Kimberly Road called On Journey Inn that was empty because it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be open or not, so you will have the place to yourself.
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