Part 6. Penang

Penang was a spur of the moment thing.  Reading about Malaysia in our trustworthy Lonely Planet, we came across the name of the island, and found it on the map. Having read more about the place, we realized to our delight and curiosity, that George Town, capital city of Penang, was a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous for its mad street art and fantastic street food.  Besides, the island (by definition) was supposed to have beaches.  Sold!

View of downtown George Town from Hotel Royal Penang

By that time in the journey, Malaysia could do no wrong in our eyes, so we did not spend too much time looking for a hotel in George Town, and booked the first one, the photos of which we liked.  BIG mistake!  Apart from the fact that the photos most probably dated back to about 50 years ago, when Hotel Royal Penang was first built, and the cleaning staff were not overly busy over these past years, it got forever remembered as the home of the biggest (luckily dead) cockroach I have ever seen in my life (and having traveled in the South of the US and through South-East Asia, I have seen some noteworthy specimen!).  The only good point about the hotel was its location – within a short 10/15-min walk of the downtown, basically making NOT spending any time on premises the best part of choosing Hotel Royal.  We threw our bags in, and could not get out of the building fast enough.

George Town is definitely one of a kind place.  Simultaneously shabby and colonial-grand, sleepy and brimming with life, it was full of surprises, and there sure was more to it that one could think of at first cursory glance.  It is the 2nd largest city in Malaysia after Kuala Lumpur, with the population of over 700,000 people.  Mind it, I read about this in the travel guide – if anybody asked my personal opinion after experiencing George Town first hand, I would have sworn there could not have been more than a couple thousand people in the city, so quiet and almost comatose it seemed.  True, we happened to be there on a weekend (apparently the quietest time in George Town), but the weekend fell on New Year’s Eve, so we were hoping for some party activity on the streets.  In our dreams, obviously…

An old colonial-style building with a misleading Guinness signs
One of many colorful pagodas of George Town

One of the first things that you notice in George Town, is how multi-cultural, mutli-ethnic, and multi-religious it is.  Downtown is a mad mishmash of Buddhist temples, mosques, Protestant, Methodist, Catholic, Evangelist churches – name any religion, and I am sure the followers will have no problems finding a place of worship in George Town!  With the 60% of its population being of Chinese ethnicity, the history of British colonialism and Japanese subjugation, the city has got stories to tell.  Walking the streets of the old downtown, one could literally trace the history of George Town through the decrepit colonial mansions, elaborate pagodas, prim and proper churches, and an abundance of statues to various British military generals.

Yet, the most fascinating part about George Town is its street art.  From giant roosters on the side of buildings, to tiny figures elaborately worked into the bits of missing plaster, and full murals depicting the city’s everyday life, the street art is absolutely unique and mind-boggling.  It is also not too easy to spot.  True, it is hard not to notice a 2-meter tall ginger cat on the side of the building, but the finer bits (like a little mouse, teasing the cat from around the corner of the same building), or a little boy taming a monster between the broken pieces of plaster are a little harder to spot.  One walks through downtown George Town on an endless treasure-hunt with permanently wide open eyes, oblivious to anything in the outside world, that is not painted on a wall of a building, and is at risk of being run over by a car or a moped, while trying to make out the mural on the opposite side of the street.

Just a few of Georgetown’s famous murals

A lot of street art is also worked into the surrounding chaos of the streets – two kids painted on a wall of a building riding an old bike bolted to said wall, a boy sitting on an old moped forgotten by somebody by the side of a house, three tiny rogue penguins spraying on graffiti on a wall, or a young girl reaching out to place incense sticks onto a holder on the wall. Even tourist signs in the old town, made of elegant metal work and carefully attached to the sides of buildings, are worked into the intricate maze of street art.  A Bangsy’s dream and artists’ playground, George Town is a feast for the observant eye, and a place where fantasy runs berserk.

More murals
A giant ginger cat
One of the smaller and less obvious murals – gangsta penguins

In no hurry to return to our disappointing hotel, we spent the whole day of New Year’s Eve walking the streets of Penang.  Our breakfast was 3-D coffees in “Coffee on the Table” – a tiny coffee shop with mismatched colorful chairs and tables, priding itself in one-of-a-kind cappuccinos.  Who would have thought that simple milk foam can be shaped into such whimsical shapes!…  Obviously, imagination and creativity were on the menu everywhere in George Town.

3D cappuccinos at Coffee on the Table

Our lunch was beer in the “Junk Café”.  Drawn in by the name, thirst, and a mad assortment of artsy junk on the walls, we stayed for the conversation with a barman (owner?), talking about life, art, and beer – can you imagine a deeper, or more fulfilling conversation?…

The mad interior of The Junk Cafe

Overwhelmed with the abundance and variety of street art, we sadly all but missed on the promised food paradise part of George Town.  New Year’s Eve or not, the locals were observing the weekend rest religiously (probably enforced by the multitude of denominations), and most places, including street markets, were closed.  I did, however, have a bite of chicken rice that I missed in Singapore from a street stall in George Town, and if that was any indication of the quality of local food – I was a convert!  Can’t wait to return to Penang during the week, and eat my way through!

One peculiarity of George Town that we noticed, and could not explain, was the abundance of Guinness ads all over the city – bars, restaurants, food markets and random buildings proudly wore the “black magic” posters, while the beverage itself was nowhere to be seen…  Did they run out?…  Or how else would the ads make it here, if Guinness itself is not served or sold anywhere?…  A mystery, that forever remained unsolved… By the end of the day, we landed in the “Olive Restaurant & Bar”.  No website, as none is needed.  Despite the name, hinting at something Greek/Mediterranean, the place offered some of the best Indian food we have ever tried, great music (you can’t possibly resist a DJ wearing sunglasses in the middle of the night, can you?!…), and a unique anthropological people-watching opportunity. 

When we arrived, the place was packed to the brim, and by sheer Irish luck we secured the last tiny table by wall.  The New Year’s Eve special offer was “Buy 2 1-liter bottles of Jack Daniels, and get one half-liter for free!”  This must have been an irresistible combination for the locals, for all other patrons of the venue were enthusiastically partaking in the offer.  Four adults with two kids sitting at a table next to us, ordered several rounds of the special offer, paired with a bucket of Tiger beers each, and when the buckets ran out, the “Tower of Tiger” – an over-sized pitcher with a tap – appeared on their table, to the sheer delight of the audience.  How they were still vertical after that amount of Jack with beer, was the second mystery of the day.  The kids did not help the parents (I watched), and were just running around the bar screaming, high on sugar and adrenaline, until well past midnight.

We crawled back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning, and even in our state of New Year’s celebratory intoxication (just wine, no Jack!), we found the reality of Hotel Royal Penang too depressive to cope.  Having woken up, we quickly browsed the Internet, this time paying attention not just to the photos, but to the reviews and ratings, and flew the coop direction Batu Ferringhi, which promised the best beaches in the area, while still keeping the attractive prices of South-East Asia, that make all Europeans flock there en mass.

Batu Ferringhi beach – view from the Hard Rock Hotel, Penang

A 30 minute taxi ride away, and we were in a different world, putting the horrors of the Hotel Royal Penang behind us, never to be spoken of again.  The Hard Rock Hotel Penang, was a dream come true for the end of the long journey – it had pools, clean premises, attractive drinks, and smiley people all around!  Even if it took them 40 minutes to work out our credit cards, we did not really mind.  Our faith in Malaysian quality and hospitality was fully restored!  I took a shower (which I longed for since the previous day, but consciously avoided for hygienic reasons in the Hotel Royal), we spent the rest of the day in the welcoming hotel pool, enjoying the drinks from the pool bar (my first!), and chatting with a bunch of friendly Australians occupying the rooms on the ground floor – a quick swim away from the pool bar.  Turned out, Malaysia was a popular Christmas/New Year destination for Australians, although for reasons completely opposite to those that brought us there.  The Europeans fly to Asia to escape the cold and misery of the winter, while the Australians are hiding there to wait off the winter heat.  Well, to each its own, I guess…

One of many fantastic sunsets of Batu Ferringhi

Australians were living in the hotel for the past couple of weeks already, and knew the area quite well.  Their local knowledge came it quite handy by dinner time.  Not intending to eat in the hotel, but willing to explore the local food market scene, all we had to do was follow a couple of two big hungry blokes out of the hotel.  They looked like they never missed a meal in their lives, and the business-like intent of their fast-paced walk gave us assurance that they knew where they were going.  We weren’t disappointed – the Australians led us straight to the evening market, where food was in abundance. 

Everything looked and smelled delicious, and we spent a delightful couple of hours, trying bits and pieces from a variety of stalls on the market.  The system was simple – you walk past the stalls situated around the perimeter of a square filled with tables and chairs, order the food you wished, give the number of the table you were planning to sit at (or simply point in its direction), and in a couple of minutes your food was in front of you!  Drinks were ordered from separate vendors, materializing in front of you the moment you sat down at a table, and the whole process was swift, easy, and accommodating.  We had chicken satays, big flat rice noodles with meat, fresh fish and crab cakes – the food market was a true feast for the eyes and stomachs.  The portions were conveniently small, so you could try a number of dishes without too big of a risk for your waste-line. 

The shared tables with free sitting also allow you to mingle with the locals and tourists alike, strike interesting conversations, and share useful information.  A lovely couple from Adelaide, who were going home the next day, told us about their favorite beach bar, just minutes away from our hotel, and we thanked them many time over days after they were gone.

View from Frandy Beach Bar

Frandy Beach Bar became our go-to place for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the remaining 2 days in the area.  They cooked up amazing food at ¼ of the price you would pay at the hotel (which did not have the extortionist price tag to begin with), poured nice drinks, had the friendliest bar staff you can imagine, and to top all that, had absolutely amazing sunset views.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, the unknown couple from Adelaide for sharing this gem with us!

True to our word to Selim, we also paid a visit to the Healy Mac’s in Batu Ferringhi, and it was as good as the one in the capital.  Great food, great drinks (for a change to everywhere else on Penang, their Guinness ads were actually supported by the actual Guinness on tap!), and great live music in the evenings.  I don’t always sing along with the bands I hear (for fear of clearing the place and scaring away the people around me), but I caught myself doing this more than once in Healy Mac’s.  And alcohol had nothing to do with this – the bands were just too good not to join in!

Batu Ferringhi
The lighthouse in Straights Key Marina – view from Healy Mac’s
View of George Town from Straights Quay Marina

The three days we spent in Batu Ferringhi were the most relaxing of our vacation, and also seemed to fly by especially quickly.  It’s always weird – the more you do in any given day on vacation, the more you pack into the day, the more things you see and the more people you meet, the faster each individual day goes, but the longer the stretch of such days lasts.  Once you stop, sit back, fall into the routine of doing nothing – each individual day stretches for longer, but several together suddenly get more condensed, and looking back at them, you remember them as just one long day that finished quite fast.  Is this a trick our memories play to us, or an actual time stretching/condensing phenomenon?…  I guess I’ll never know…

Our way back took a total of 29 hours (Penang to Singapore, Singapore to Zurich, including a painful 7 hour (!!!!) layover in Zurich airport, and finally back to Munich), but since Bali was not involved in the itinerary, everything worked.  The trip went smoothly, no flight was cancelled or delayed, and after a chain of airports, flights, and the teeth-pulling boredom of the Zurich airport, we were finally back home!

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