Bangkok Phil

A long weekend in Penang

I needed to bury all the bad memories I had of the place

You might say that by taking this trip I was burying ghosts from the past. I hadn't been to Penang, Malaysia for over 25 years and frankly, I had nothing but awful memories of the place.

In the early 90s, if you lived in Thailand on a perpetual cycle of tourist visas, Penang was always a destination associated with ‘visa runs'. Oh, the agony of those long, overnight train journeys from Bangkok to Butterworth in a grubby, second-class sleeper carriage. The walk along Chulia Street and the search for some filthy, run-down budget hotel because it was all you could afford. And of course the niggling worry that the Thai Consulate in Penang would bring your stay in Thailand to an abrupt end because you had forgotten to bring a crucial document.

A visa run to Penang was never something to be savoured. You effectively dropped off the radar for four days and just hoped that your teaching colleagues back in Bangkok would cover your lessons while you were away. And while you waited patiently to find out if the consulate had approved your application, you killed the time in Penang by nursing banana and peanut butter smoothies in some grotty backpacker cafe.

I remember befriending a young French guy on my second ever Penang visa run. As we sipped a couple of mid-afternoon beers, he surveyed the scene around him, turned to me and in perfect English said "I fucking hate Penang". Those were pretty much my thoughts entirely.

But many years later, Penang has now become a darling of the Thai travel forums. Travellers wax lyrical about an incredible selection of restaurants, the most amazing street art and plenty of attractions to keep any adventurous husband and wife occupied for a long weekend. Yes, it was time to give Penang another chance.

For a three-night stay, we once again turned to Air BnB and booked a luxury (but very reasonably-priced) duplex apartment in an area referred to by locals as ‘The Maritime Waterfront'. Split-level with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a panoramic view of the harbour, what more could you wish for?

The Maritime Waterfront - about three kilometres from Penang's capital, Georgetown - looks like a fairly recent development. The two apartment tower blocks (we were in Tower A) dominate the skyline and are no doubt chock-full of Air BnBs, but at ground level there is a busy area of convenience stores, pubs, coffee shops and restaurants, including possibly the busiest branch of Starbucks I'd ever seen.

We didn't arrive at our accommodation until late afternoon so decided to spend our first evening just mooching around the vicinity. Despite a decent selection of restaurants in the neighborhood, we couldn't find anywhere offering Malay food - and we were most eager to sample perhaps a nasi goreng or a nasi lemak. There were plenty of Japanese, Korean and Thai options but not a Malay restaurant in sight. Disappointing to say the least.

We opted for something Japanese and then enjoyed a stroll along the marina, all the while avoiding the numerous joggers taking advantage of the cooler evening hours.

After just one evening exploring The Maritime Waterfront area, we felt we'd pretty much exhausted that option. Let's be honest, Georgetown is where it's all happening and that's certainly where we planned to spend the majority of our time over the next couple of days.

Everyone on the Thai travel forums recommends using Uber Taxis to get around the island and they were absolutely right! I'm sure Penang has a wonderful public bus network but honestly, who could be bothered when you can download the Uber app and travel between your digs and Georgetown for sometimes as little as five Ringgits. The Uber fares were so ludicrously cheap, I began to wonder what the drivers got out of it. Did they just enjoy meeting strangers?

The Penang Tourist Board (or whatever name they go under) produces a wonderful little map and guide to Georgetown and the guide highlights about 25 ‘must sees' that you can take in as you amble around this very ‘walkable' city. A mosque or a church here, a colonial building or some street art there. Just strap on your walking shoes and get ready for an attraction on every street corner. That's the theory anyway.

After a brief stop at Chew Jetty, to see how the Chinese community live in stilt-houses built over the water, we started our walking tour in Georgetown's north-eastern corner.

We ticked off the Queen Victoria Monument (nothing special) and Fort Cornwallis (admission far too pricey for what it was) We then took a photo in front of the Cenotaph and strolled past St George's Church.

Four attractions under our belt from a list of twenty-five and we were already exhausted. You would think that living in Bangkok for so long, we could tolerate weather of any tropical nature, but Penang's heat is on another level. It was frying pan hot! My shirt became soaked to my skin and I lost the motivation to even get the map out of my pocket! My only thought was how on earth could people live, work and survive in such a furnace?

By now we had walked as far as Little India (one of the Georgetown neighborhoods that I had most looked forward to) It was also lunchtime.

Many people on social media had given me suggestions on where to go to get the best Indian food in Little India. "You'll love the tandoori chicken at the junction of (insert name of two streets) or "you can eat cheaply at Rashid's opposite the clock tower" I know folks mean well and I don't wish to sound ungrateful but when sweat is dripping from your forehead on to your walking boots, my only reaction is one of ‘fuck that'!'. We dived into the first air-conditioned Indian we came across and the food was wonderful. We were warmly welcomed and our host guided us through the extensive menu and served us ice-cold mango lassis. My wife described it as ‘the best Indian meal she had ever eaten'. Not a bad endorsement.

Having dried off in the air-conditioning and with full bellies, we strolled around the streets of Little India (it was a bit like being back in Birmingham) My wife admired the colourful saris, tried on some ostentatious jewelry and we bought some Bombay mix from a snack vendor who I had seen on a YouTube video.

We were now in the centre of Georgetown and the area renown for its street art. There were, according to my map, at least twenty works of art in a square mile or so - some more famous than others. We managed to knock off three of the murals before the heat and humidity started to get the better of us once again. We desperately needed a plan B. Rickshaw driver! Over here!

"I will take you around and show you all the street art in just one hour" said the friendly rickshaw driver, "and I will advise you on how to get the best photo opportunities. Where to stand. How to pose. Know what I mean?"

It sounded just the ticket. I negotiated a price of 50 Malaysian Ringgit. Actually, that's not true. I didn't negotiate anything. I accepted the first price that came out of his mouth. He could have said 200 Ringgit and I would have clambered aboard his rickshaw and said ‘what are we waiting for?' I was too hot, tired and sweaty to enter into any sort of protracted conversation. Sometimes, travel does that to you I find.

The rickshaw driver played a blinder. We got to see all the street art our hearts desired - man on motorcycle, girl on swing, etc - and we went home happy.

Later that evening, we returned to Georgetown and engaged in another futile search for Malaysian food (the three Malay hole-in-the-wall joints we went to apologised profusely for selling out and having nothing to offer us) So this time we did end up in the Indian tandoori restaurant that people had recommended to us on social media and it was superb. But two Indian meals in one day! Superheroes don't always wear capes you know.

I knew there would be a price to pay and sure enough in the middle of the night, I woke up with an indigestion you could sell to science.

Thankfully our second full day in Penang dawned grey and overcast and there was a significant drop in the temperature. Even just two or three degrees can feel ‘significant' in Malaysia

My wife made the astute observation that any sightseeing, any walking around looking at churches, mosques and temples, really had to be done in the late afternoon or early evening once the sun had gone down but frankly, we weren't keen on that idea either. Learning our lessons from the previous day, we picked out a couple of fun museums to visit - The Wonderfood Museum and The Ghost Museum (both located in Georgetown).

Now I don't want to come across as a complete Philistine, but I'm simply not a museum person. Not unless they are quirky, fun or macabre and can hold my attention for a full hour or two. You're looking at a man who has yawned his way through the Palace of Versailles in Paris and constantly scratched his arse during a tour of The Prado in Madrid. I couldn't give a monkey's who that 17th Century writing bureau belonged to and I'll pass on any opportunity to peer into King Louis' piss-pot - but offer me a glimpse of a genuine hangman's noose or a working guillotine and you had better make way because I'm coming through!

The Wonderfood Museum was out of this world. It offers visitors a kooky and in-depth look at Penang's unique food culture with larger-than-life displays of Malaysian dishes, lovingly handcrafted by the museum's owner, Sean Lao. The food displays are interesting enough but the museum's trump card is the opportunity to get dressed up in costume and take some truly memorable snaps. Pose in front of a display of Chinese dishes dressed as a traditional Chinaman or put on some chef's whites and become a pasta-tossing international chef of the year. This place was so much fun and we had it virtually to ourselves. Two hours just flew by!

‘Follow that!' I thought as we stood outside Georgetown's Ghost Museum.

Now, put a ghost museum in a city like London or Paris and punters would be lining up around the block to part with a hefty admission fee and the chance to shower the cash register with thousands of dollars in the gift shop, but yet again, it felt like we had the place to ourselves. The museum's rather tacky facade and its position in a row of shophouses on a nondescript side-street frankly did it few favours. It looked rather like one of those tatty ghost train rides that you see at British funfairs when its obvious the fixtures and fittings, as well as the staff, have all seen better days.

But once inside the ghost museum, you can put all your scorn and low expectations to one side because it's splendid (ignore the miserable buggers on Trip Advisor) The museum is divided into five sections or countries with the chance to dress up and interact with famous story-book ghosts from the likes of Japan and Korea, etc. It's strange but horror films are my least favourite movie genre but give me the chance to don a blood-splattered lab coat and become a zombie doctor in an operating theatre from Hell and rather worryingly, I am in my element.

The only ‘mistake' we made at The Ghost Museum was engaging the services of a guide. After we had paid for our tickets at the entrance, we were approached by a young Malay girl wearing the traditional hijab. She introduced herself as a staff member and offered to accompany us around the museum and point interesting things out and tell us how to take the best photos. There was no charge for this ‘extra service' so what harm could it do?

Five minutes in and I felt like adding her to one of the exhibits. She had the personality of a wet dish-rag and brought the sum total of zero to the occasion. Virtually every costume or set of clothes that my wife and I put on to make our photos more interesting, we had spied lying on a chair or hanging behind a door - not because our guide had pointed them out. She couldn't be arsed with doing anything that would possibly make our visit to The Ghost Museum more special. In fact, she only sparked into life at the end of the tour when we reached the ubiquitous gift shop, where I have little doubt she was on a commission for every overpriced t-shirt sold.

And while I'm in the mood for trashing museum staff - and this happened in both the Wonderfood Museum and Ghost Museum - isn't it about time we ditched the official photographer who follows you around with his big lens, clicking away in the futile hope that at some later stage, you're going to part with serious cash for one of his photos mounted in a shitty plastic frame and bearing the timeless legend ‘I was spooked to death at The Ghost Museum, Penang'. I mean, have a word with yourself. We can all take far better pictures than you with our mobile phones. You're basically just a waste of oxygen.

But so to our very last night in Penang and we were two men on a mission. We were going to track down some tasty Malaysian food if it was the last thing we ever did. Up to this point, we'd just been unlucky. We ‘d simply been in the wrong places at the wrong time.

My internet research was constantly coming up with open-air hawker centres and food courts as being the most recommended places to eat proper Malay food but in nearly all cases, the writer advised any enthusiastic and hungry foodie to get there early before all the seats were taken. By now, it was already quite late in the evening and an Uber taxi to some unknown hawker centre on the edge of town felt like way too much of a gamble.

My wife found a place online called the Mews Cafe, not far from Fort Cornwallis in Georgetown. A full traditional Malay menu in ambient surroundings, live acoustic guitar music, gurgling fountains, solid reviews on Trip Advisor. Let's get in that taxi!

The Mews Cafe was delightful even though the dishes certainly were not what you'd call ‘on the cheap side'. We told the cheerful waitress about our ongoing quest for Malay food and she heartily recommended both a beef and a chicken dish. "You must try our banana fritters as well for dessert" she said, "they are the speciality of the house".

We ordered a couple of Tiger beers and kicked back to the soothing sounds of the acoustic guitar duo.

When our main meals arrived, they were......they were OK. I suppose when you've craved something and built it up in your mind for so long, it often ends in disappointment. At risk of upsetting millions of Malaysians here, I do wonder if perhaps Malay cuisine has aspirations and dreams of being Indian food one day. But the banana fritters were magnificent by the way.

So thank you Penang for allowing me to see you in a very different light to those visa run days many years ago. I can't say I'm in any great hurry to return but we enjoyed our long weekend with you.


To add to yesterday's comment, I had a hillside house with sea views on Penang island for eights years. Bought, because Malaysia doesn't forbid it like xenophobic Thailand does. Light traffic, trees everywhere and rolling hills were a light year away from the shop houses and gridlock misery of my prior home in flat as a pancake Bangkok.

A higher salary took me to KL where a trip on the brand new 51km MRT is like travelling through a mountainous rainforest compared to the ugly concrete view from Bangkok's overcrowded BTS.

Malaysia is a far nicer place to live and work IMO.

By Tim, KL (10th March 2018)

It seems strange that someone whose tolerated Bangkok for over a quarter of a century as you have wouldn't be impressed by Penang. It's a far nicer place to live. Then you've got KL which is better again.

By Tim, KL (9th March 2018)

I too did visa runs to Penang in the early to mid nineties, however I never found them as depressing as Phil obviously did and it was usually good to get a few days off from the daily grind of teaching. Agreed the train journey to Butterworth was tedious, but I used to love the old fashioned dining carrage enjoying tom yam soup and a beer while watching the hills next to Cha Am and Hua hin pass by as the sun set.
I never liked or stayed on Chulia Street but I would always enjoy a couple of evening Tiger beer in the Reggae bar there. I prefered instead to stay in cheap Chinese hotels with big rooms on the main drag leading to the Komtar shopping mall which was also a good place then to stock up with cheap chocolate and coffee compared to Bangkkok prices.
I do however agree with Phil absolutely that 25 years on Penang has changed so much for the better and in my opinion it is now one of many fine cultural tourist destinations in South East Asia.

By Graham Balshaw, Bangkok (9th March 2018)

Bet you can’t wait for your next visit in 25 years? I’m eventually going to retire in Penang as my wife’s from there, it’s cheaoer than the UK and I suppose it’s quite nice. The taxi apps Uber and Grab have made getting around a lot easier. The previous taxis were very expensive, and you often had to beg to be taken anywhere.

By John , UK (7th March 2018)

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