August 19 – 23, 2009
The First Night
Of all the major Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia is often neglected by travellers as there are much more dynamic destinations in the region. When one thinks of Malaysia, the sense of exoticism that associates with Southeast Asia is missing. In fact, the country gives more or less the same vibe as its tiny city-state neighbour Singapore, and that’s definitely not a selling point on any tourism brochure.
Yet here we were, in a dimly lit 6th floor room at Hotel Mingood on Jalan Argyll in George Town at the heart of Penang. The air was thick in the room, and a smell of dust everywhere. We turned on the air conditioner. Immediately the room was filled up by a rumbling sound similar to a race car engine’s, interrupted by the occasional clanking noises. In the bathroom, some brownish red stains dripped down from the mirror, and an army of ants were migrating from the roof to some holes near the sink. Outside of our room was a long and pitch dark corridor, with peeling paint on both sides, leading to an elevator that shook like a drying machine when in use. The whole setting of the “hotel” was straight out of a Thai horror movie. So much for my complaint of a lack of exoticism in Malaysia.
For whatever fault or wrong impression Hotel Mingood, or Malaysia as a whole might have, sometimes good value triumphs over other concerns. We felt compelled to get out of Hong Kong for a couple of days, to escape the hottest August recorded in 48 years. With a small budget and an even smaller expectation, we arrived Penang aiming for cheap eats. If the rainy season would only subsidize for a day or two, we could even take a ferry to Langkawi.
We relocated to a hotel on Gurney Drive the next morning. This new place was not as well situated as Mingood, and a bit pricier, but was in much better condition. After unpacking, we took a walk back toward the old town district. The weather was balmy, definitely better than Hong Kong’s sauna-like heat and humidity.
Right away I had noticed Chinese signs were everywhere, indicating the prevalent influence of the Chinese populace in Penang. Although Penang reminds many of Hong Kong, especially the Sai Wan District, in my eyes it resembled Macau more. No matter where Penang is similar to, one thing is clear – the town is in a redevelopment mode. Blocks of old buildings were demolished for the construction of apartment buildings and shopping malls. The designation of the historic centre of Penang – George Town as a World Heritage Site in 2008 hopefully would help deterred the rampant construction from continuing.
The Peranakan Mansions
We had breakfast at a food stall under a metal shack, which caught my attention for one obvious reason – many people were eating there. We ordered a bowl of rice and two small dishes of fish and vegetable. Tasted like home-made food, and barely cost anything. After we were done and I got up to pay, I asked the owner how far away was Pinang Peranakan Mansion, our first destination of the day. He shook his head and said it was impossibly far away, and asked his daughter (the blue dressed lady in the picture below), who had just finished her own breakfast, to drive us there on her way to work.
Ms Blue Dress (forgot her name), who is around our age, waved us over to her car. We gave our thanks and hopped on. We communicated by a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese, in which she learned at home and from watching Hong Kong TV drama, respectively. She was highly proud of the linguistic prowess of Malay Chinese. She said most could speak at least the above two languages, plus Malay and English.
Comparing to her linguistic ability, I was more envious of her rather flexible working hours. The time had just moved past 11:00, so our subject turned to her work. She said the working hours in Penang had always been short, but since her boss was out of town she could go to work even later.
After some detours and wrong turns, we were at the entrance of a green mansion, our destination. We bid farewell to our hospitable friend and I offered to show her around town when she comes to visit later in the year. One quip she had about Hong Kong was that she was always mistaken as a Mainland Chinese tourist by the locals, which she deeply disliked.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion was built by Chung Keng Quee, a Chinese national who made his fortune in the ex-British colony during the late 1800s. He laid out his mansion in the local Peranakan Chinese architectural style, a unique mixture of influences which incorporated Chinese carved-wood panels and English floor tiles with Scottish ironworks.
Our next stop was Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, another Peranakan style mansion of a prominent family during the colonial era. Under the midday sun, the twenty minute walk felt like an eternity. After taking some pictures of the mansion’s iconic indigo-blue exterior, we joined the mandatory tour to allow our guide to walk us through the impressive interior… or so we thought. The mansion was hollowed out because the founder’s descendants spent the family’s fortune and were forced to sell anything valuable, piece by piece. In 1989, a group of individuals purchased the mansion from Cheong’s descendants to save it from possible demolition. We listened to the tour till that point, had another look of the bare interior, turned around and left the mansion.
On the way to Pitt Street, we came across an abandoned two-storied building on Light Street that was previously a school. I wished someone could tell me the history of the building, and why the government allowed this haunted-looking structure to continue to stand at the heart of the historic centre. Even without any answers, we had a fun time walking around and taking photos of the place.
Pitt Street or Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling in Malay, is one of the four major streets in the Original Grid of George Town laid out by Captain Francis Light when he established his trading settlement. After walking the entire length of Pitt Street, I witnessed how the many religions in town coexisted with each other in close proximity.
After an encounter with a white catholic church at the intersection of Pitt and Light, we passed by a Hindu temple on the opposite side of the street. It was my first time coming across a Hindu temple – the roofs’ wide range of objects and colours quickly caught my eyes. Unlike the church, which was closed, many locals of Indian descent frequented the temple to worship.
Further down the road was the supposed oldest Buddhist temple in Penang, the Goddess of Mercy Temple. Despite being a Thursday, the temple was full of people burning incense to the goddess. The temple seemed to attract not only people of Chinese origins, but also Malays as well.
At the end of Pitt Street is the Kapitan Keling Mosque, founded in the 19th century by Indian Muslim traders. Right across from the mosque was another Chinese temple. A few blocks south from the mosque is Cannon Square, where the Chinese clanhouse Khoo Kongsi is located. Although Khoo Kongsi was one of the premier site in Penang, there was only one other person there when we arrived, and soon after we had the place all to ourselves.
We spent half an hour slowly going through the highly ornamented details of the temple. Khoo Kongsi was indeed a piece of beautiful architecture, but just like almost everything else in Penang, I had seen something similar before.
I stood at Cannon Square looking at the map in my hands, trying to see where else to go to next. It seemed like we had covered most of the worthwhile attractions already. My girlfriend finally asked, “How are we supposed to spend our next couple of days in town?”
Turned out we didn’t have to wreck our brains to find things to do. Over the next four days, rain poured upon Penang incessantly. We were limited to taking short walks around town whenever the rain ceased for a short while. We rented a car one day and drove to Kek Lok Si and several other attractions, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone to go out of their way to visit them.
Soon, eating became the only thing we looked forward to. We had all of our meals at food markets or small roadside stalls, which served amazingly cheap food that is a fusion of Malay and Hokkien. The food we had was generally good, but the novelty wore off after the first two days, since we are not the kind of hard core foodie that would visit a place solely because of its food. (A random note: the Laksa served in Penang is called Asam Laksa, which is totally different from the Singapore version that I am used to)
Our trip to Penang turned out to be quite a bore. The weather had a lot to do with it, as we spent five days in town that we could otherwise split between Penang and Langkawi. Even so, I found Penang, and its historic centre George Town, to be a little disappointing. As a colonial town, I find Macau to be more appealing and photogenic, and it is only a short ferry ride from Hong Kong.