Wednesday, July 09, 2008

It was one of those days / not much to do / I was chillin' downtown with my old school crew

   penang5I loved the grand entrance to Penang. The bridge across to the island was quite awe-inspiring, all 13.5km of it. Penang (the last time I was there was when I was 5) was much bigger than I thought it was.

We almost missed it though…our intrepid navigator was a having a joyful moment with the passengers as I negotiated our way through the slightly complex freeway system and it was only a chance glance up at a road sign as we were about to pass under it, that prevented us from heading north to Alor Star, which, I’m told, is quite pretty in itself, but that’s hardly the point.

Good one, Blake…nice one…


So we braked sharply and skidded dangerously across a couple of lanes, causing a bit of commotion in the traffic (no-one would blink in Bali) and were on that magnificent bridge.

Did I mention that Penang was much bigger than I thought it would be?

After we made our way through the slightly confusing one way system we ended up at our G Hotel, which was very stylish, and pleasantly urban as a place to spend a few days. The constantly changing soft colours of the lighting in the entrance was rather groovy (although I’m told by my 13 year old that no-one of any worth says either groovy or funky anymore….).

I was so looking forward to the food in Penang. After all, the island is globally famous for its cuisine…with the likes of Anthony Bourdain rabbiting on about it (although having seen the man’s not-so-exciting picks for Bali, I’m extraordinarily skeptical of his taste or instincts) and countless cable shows on those food channels that Brigid likes so we hurriedly showered, put on clean clothes and reconvened in the foyer.

We walked down Gurney Drive from the hotel and found a large (closed) hawker’s was still only 4pm, and we decided to just walk a little more and return later on for dinner.

penang9 Gurney Drive, on, I think reclaimed land, is a strip with quite a variety of other markets, and a bunch of upmarket hotels, apartment buildings, and shops. It’s also touted as food heaven so we wandered up and down with hungry eyes.

Both Blake and I fancied a snack in the very busy Indian place on the drive but Brigid vetoed it....pointing strongly to the Maggi logos…we grumbled and moved on. Further down the road we came across another hawker stall complex…empty save the bloke asleep on the front table. Then we passed the oddly named Bali Hai Seafood. Oddly named because it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d find anywhere in Bali.

So we went for a drive around the block a few times then went back the hotel for a beer and a swim, or something like that. There was a mining conference in the hotel and the burly American guys in their work-boots looked rather out of place.

Come 7pm we went back the nearby hawker’s market, now open. We found a table and wandered around. And we wandered around. And we wandered around. And we were not at all inspired. This was the place we’d seen recommended by Anthony and others and it was not inspiring. It wasn’t close to Bali or KL or even Ipoh or anything close. Everything looked decidedly stewed, overcooked, overpriced and we decided to move on. This was, after all, Penang, the food capital of Malaysia..wasn't it?

So we wandered east along Gurney Drive, past the food stalls where the sleeping guy was now serving something noodley , past the young Muslim couples snogging illicitly in the darkness by the seawall, past the Maggi-infused Indian restaurant, now packed, and eventually came to the Bali Hai again.

penang1And yes it looked ok, even if it had nothing to do with Bali beyond the four letters on the sign outside, so we went in and ordered four large Tiger Beers.

I love Asian seafood restaurants with the big tanks…not the little things you get around Auckland, but the ones with dozens of different kinds of crustaceans and fish. I get pangs of guilt but I have long since come to terms with the fact that I will never again be a vegetarian ( I was once..for a week in London). I don’t like steak in any form or the huge slabs of meat that meat-eaters often crave and praise, but I will never give up Mango Chicken or Drunken Prawns. Or, better even, Udang Mayonnaise. All those were on offer here.

However I felt less than comfortable with the two giant, I think, Groper, sitting together in a small tank looking back at me with very sad eyes. I was unsure how to react to the situation, but I real or not, to me there is a difference between a bunch of prawns and very large soulfully staring fish. Maybe all carnivores should face tanks like this from time to time.


The train of thought was interrupted by the large group of very, very drunk Japanese salarymen on a night out, ordering more cheap red wine and cheering loudly.

I sat and we all intently waited for them to leave…not to improve the atmosphere in the place…it was big and noisy either way, but to watch them try to walk.

However we missed their immediate departure as we were engrossed in the menu, which looked more enticing than the hawker’s stalls down the road but we all looked up long enough to see them all squeeze into a car and swerve off down Gurney Drive into their, or someone else’s abyss.

penang2And then we ate but it wasn’t exciting. And such was the stage set for our few days in Penang. We soon discovered that the best food was to be had in the Indian (non-Maggi) cafés in Little India….roti prata or roti canai for breakfast, and a curry or two later in the day. So we ate Indian, and despite our relentless searches across Georgetown could find little to else get excited about…no make that: could find little that looked interestingly edible in the many treks we took around the city following Brigid’s many pages of carefully researched eating hints. We looked at Hong Kong Tea Garden, and Pulau Tikus and much, much more without luck, before heading back once again each time to the little Indian places off Jl. Penang. We eventually worked out that Penang is not about the food (and ironically when we returned home, friends said "the food's not very good there, is it").

But the disappointing culinary experience was more than compensated for by the visual side of the island, the colonial buildings, the temples, the old clan houses and piers, and the openness and warmth of every single person we met. I think I could walk around the streets of the old town for days without losing interest as long as I had a camera in hand and Honey Chicken Curry to look forward to.

penang6 On the second day, after some walking we arrived outside The Kapitan Keling mosque, which dates back to before 1800 (remembering that Penang as a commercial and political entity dates only to 1796). My thing is I’ve lived in a predominately Muslim country for some years now (and despite all the Western stereotypes and the odd hiccup, a predominately tolerant and, now, quite democratic one) but I still find Islam to be a mystery. Why? What? Who? I’m not at all religious in a conventional sense (although I worship my lovely wife), and have issues beginning with my notion that most of the major religions have begun as little more than a power structure to aggrandise the (self) anointed and then developed into faith based control structures.

We wandered in and an Imam welcomed us. We were told that western tourists rarely enter, scuttling away at the first sign of an approach from a robed man.

A young, very devout, man showed us around the building and then spent the best part of an hour answering our increasingly confident questions. We went from the simple rituals to terror in the name of Islam over that time and could have talked for hours..I was happy to, but we were a small group and moved on. I took literature but left with more questions than answers and would love to return one day.

But as lovely as Penang visually and culturally is it was quite disappointing and seemed a bit soulless. It didn’t quite seem to know what it was. A little like Malaysia itself.

penang4Did I mention the very famous Snake Temple? I’d last been there when I was about 5 and had memories of a large place with thousands of thronging tourists and snakes everywhere. Of course the reality was a wee bit different. A viper is a viper and I’m happy not to meet many but there were only some seven or eight (plus a python) and an Australian couple. The snake farm next door was rather more exciting, although not, I suspect, for the waiting Guinea Pigs. But, yeah, the snake temple, despite the fact that it’s some 160 years old (although heavily renovated) seems more an ancillary to the throngs of shops around its entrance than anything worth spending an hour looking for as we did.

Actually the lack of thousands of thronging tourists throughout Penang was something we all talked about. But then, I suspect the shocking state of the local airport had something to do with it.penang7

Despite the fact that we sat next to a real to goodness astronaut (rather than the space cadets you often get in airports) in the Coffee Bean shop, this really is a shitty excuse for an airport (literally, if you have the misfortune to visit the toilets in the departure area which are revolting). Dirty, run down, and looking like it should’ve been closed down years earlier, this may the first airport in the world in which you can’t buy a magazine to kill the time and I looked forward to Jakarta’s version (I never thought I’d say that) as we got on the Air Asia flight.

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MBI said...

I enjoy reading your thoughts on Penang & Malaysia, thanks. I'm a long-time resident here with the ups (mostly) & downs that entails. Penang as a food paradise is historical rather than real. The early Chinese & Indian immigrants did introduce great & wonderful dishes but their descendants either have lost the appetite or have migrated to KL & elsewhere. Further, being a duty-free island till 1960s, food then was not only good but cheap.

P-MONEY said...

hey simon! cheers for stopping by my blog. Hope all is well :)