Thursday, 16 April 2015

In A Penang State of Mind

I have travelled to Penang for work and family matters 3 times already this year, and it's only April. Much as I appreciate the opportunity to travel to new places and try new experiences, the carbon guilt is killing me. A roundtrip flight generates approximately 0.2 tonnes of CO2, so I have my work cut out planting trees. Thankfully, my second trip was by train, one of the most fuel-efficient forms of transport available.

The funny thing about Penang is that people just don't move at the pace we do in KL. Penangites don't seem to spazz out over traffic jams, deadlines, schedules and appointments the way we do in the city.

As if to prove this point, the day after I threw the Holi party, when I was in Penang for a court matter, I received a call from our lawyer to inform us that the court called off our case -- a mere 4 hours before the case was to proceed. Sheesh. You could have told us a day in advance to save us the time, expense and carbon emissions, Your Honour! So now the case was adjourned to another month and I would have to idle away the next 8 hours in Penang while waiting for my flight home. Bravo.    

It wasn't a wasted day, however. I stayed at the Penang Cititel and service was commendable.

After breakfast, I took a cab over to Island Park to visit my good friend Hamish, who was thrilled to see me again. (Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos taken with him this time because of poor indoor lighting).

I brought a gift of cakes from Maxim's Gelato up the street from my hotel and chatted with Hamish and his mother for close to 2 hours before leaving them to have their lunch.  

I did take a photo of this "tropical sakura" tree across the street from his house, though. I think this is a Tabebuia tree.  

Trying to hail a cab back to the hotel was a nightmare. A schoolbus finally stopped for me, but the driver decided to take a 20-minute cigarette break mid-route. As I said, Penangites don't seem to have much of a sense of urgency. Maybe their brains are on a permanent beach vacation. The island and its people are simply beautiful, but their lack of a sense of urgency is alarming to me.  

Upon checking out of the hotel, I asked a hotel staff member about the tourist spots within walking distance, and she pointed me in the direction of Muntri Lane, where there are heritage buildings and street art. It was a worthy recommendation, as there were many interesting sights along the same road.

A huge mural on the wall across the road from Cititel. I think this is another one of Ernest Zacharevic's pieces.

Spot the dog in the trishaw!


My first stop was the Chocolate and Coffee Museum, housed in a lovely old colonial bungalow. Unfortunately, it wasn't much of a museum. There was a small dingy room on the side with illustrations painted on the walls informing visitors how chocolate and coffee came to be produced and consumed, and a row of sad-looking exhibits including a conching machine in the centre of the room.

This somehow qualified for a museum. Welcome to Barnum's Circus, step right this way ladies and gentlemen, this way to the Egress!  

The rest of the building was just a big, plastic-packaged "Gallery" selling locally produced chocolates, which I had to politely decline because they all contain palm oil and the cocoa was not Fair Trade (although they are locally grown, so there isn't the level of exploitation and poverty associated with these the way it does in Madagascar, Ghana and the Ivory Coast). The coffee for sale is locally grown as well, so I finally bought a packet of coffee for my assistant at work just to be able to get out of there. Museum, forsooth. It was just a big shop with girls trying to make you taste all the chocolate samples so that you would feel beholden to buy something. It was a hot day, and I had a scoop of durian ice-cream outside the chocolate emporium place.

Check out this sterling specimen of Art Deco!

A short walk down the same street brought these colonial buildings into view. I love the neoclassical and Art Nouveau architectural features and plaster mouldings!  

Before long, I arrived at the doorstep of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, and my heart gave a little leap of joy because I had missed this on my last visit to Penang in December 2013.  

I signed up for the 3.00 p.m. guided tour and learned many things about the history of the mansion, Chinese immigration to Malaysia and the early days of Penang as a trading hub.   

I had dinner at Nasi Kandar Line Clear and sorbet at Maxim's Gelato before taking my flight back home.  

The second trip to Penang was by train to Butterworth, which I enjoyed immensely. I ended up in a 3-hour conversation about the environment, renewable energy, oil palm, local government, feminism, gender policing, sports, vegetarian cooking and edible gardening with the lady sitting next to me, who turned out to be the first female mayor of Nedlands in Australia. Must be a delightful town to have such an awesome mayor.  

While in Butterworth for Qing Ming prayers with my parents, we stayed at the intriguingly-named Aroma Hotel.   This is the view from my room. I had swapped my room with my parents, so that they would not have to deal with the noise from the nightlife below. I kinda liked the noise and lights and general craziness. I took my parents out to breakfast at a dim sum restaurant and dessert at a frozen yoghurt place in this street and it really was a pretty happening place.   It was a slow weekend, and I like the fact that I got to spend time with family that I haven't seen in a decade, and paid respects to my departed grandparents and relatives. I'm just sorry it took me so long to come and visit my grandmother's grave.  

My cousin took group photos of us outside a fancy new Taoist temple.  

I was back in Penang the following week for another court matter, and stayed at Cititel again. I hope I won't have to travel by flight again for a long time. At the same time, I have to admit that I liked the hotel breakfast so much that I woke up pretty early for it.

I like the stately old-world charm of the courthouse.  

I had lunch at Western Spices and enjoyed the colonial apppeal of this warm and inviting little restaurant.   Upon checking out from my hotel, I took a bus (RapidPenang bus no. 204) to Penang Hill to play at being tourist for the afternoon. There are many advantages to being a solo traveller who travels light. All I had with me was a small backpack.

I took the bus from the bus stop in front of this place, which I later learned to be the Town Hall and Municipal Fountain.  

I've never been to Penang Hill and have been curious about riding the funicular train.

It sort of juddered a bit in the beginning, and then it just sped up the steep hill without stopping. I could feel my eardrums popping.   I'm glad I made up my mind to check it out. It was a really enjoyable and memorable experience. You'd think someone who commutes daily would be tired of trains and buses by now, but everything feels special when you are in a place new to you. The anticipation of seeing and trying new things takes away all your fatigue and ennui.  

There is an open recreational area with observation decks and cafes at the top of the hill. There's also an ostensible 'Owl Museum', but like the 'Chocolate Museum', it's just a big rip-off that doesn't teach you about natural history. It's just a collection of owl-themed artworks and tchotchke.

The tourism authorities really need to be a whole lot more circumspect about letting profiteers describe their shops as 'museums'. I am sure there are objective criteria to what may or may not constitute a museum. Needless to say, I didn't purchase a ticket to visit the said 'museum'.  

There is a walkway above the recreational square, the railings of which were covered in what appeared from afar to be red, pink and white inflorescence of some strange plant. I went closer to investigate and found that the objects were, in fact, 'love locks'. This set my Tackiness Meter alarm bells ringing. If you need to put a padlock on a public structure to assure yourself of your partner's love, your relationship is definitely in trouble, pal.


I was fascinated by this old-fashioned 'kacang putih' kiosk, and purchased some steamed chickpeas for myself, and a large jar of murruku and chips for my co-workers.  

I saw an elderly Tamil lady selling these whimsical folksy grasshoppers woven out of green coconut fronds, and purchased one, thinking it would be a great non-toxic, non-wasteful toy to amuse my cats with.  

This is the closest I got to taking a selfie. You can actually see part of my hand in the photo. Ha!  

My little grasshopper buddy seemed to enjoy posing with plants. As is natural to those of his persuasion. I like it that we are both green and herbivorous.

Riding the train back with my grasshopper friend.

Sadly, I lost my little grasshopper friend at the airport when I was rushing through the baggage scan. I hope a child has found him and has fun playing with him.  

It will be some time before I visit Penang again, and I am gratified I got to spend time with family and friends on my visits there, as well as see places I have never been to before. Penang's economy is booming at a rate inconsistent with that of the rest of the country, and it is easy to see how good leadership has brought the state forward.

Adieu and see you again soon, Pearl of the Orient, and thank you for making my stay here so pleasant!  

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