The idea of a weekend adventure to somewhere nice but not-so-far away, has been incubating in my head for a long long time.
It eventually materialised last week when I decided to take a Friday’s leave to regain my sanity.
Within a few clicks, I booked the first available flight outta Singapore. The unscripted plan required that I reach Terminal 2 by 6am. Excited? You bet. Crazy? Absolutely.
I flew by Tiger. The flight was an hour-and-a-half to Penang – my playground for the next 30 hours
Penang is the home of origin of Malaysia’s Peranakans – descendants from the intermarriage of early Chinese immigrants and the locals.
The Peranakan is a unique community that have blended Chinese and Malay customs, language, fashion and cuisine, over centuries.
If you don’t already know, Peranakan gentlemen are called the Babas and the ladies, Nyonyas.
Remember The Little Nyonya? The entire serial was shot in Penang.
You can find many familiar scenes at the Penang Peranakan Mansion. It is a very beautiful place.
The mansion belonged to Chung Keng Quee (Kapitan) from China who made his fortunes in Penang.
Influenced by the Peranakan culture, he incorporated strong Peranakan architectural designs throughout the interior and exterior of the building.
The mansion also spots lavish art work from England and China. Noticed the tiles, flooring and carved-wood panels?
Take a look at the European-styled grand long dining table. All the wooden furniture in the hall is made of teak.
This beautiful place is a colourful legacy of the rich Peranakan families in the past.
On the other hand, the rapid modernisation of Singapore has threaten the continued existence of its once vibrant Peranakan culture. What a pity!
Thankfully for Penang and Malacca, the authorities have done an excellent job in reviving the Peranakan culture.
“Do you know Penang is Malaysia’s most tourist-visited place?” asks Roy, my first ‘local guide’, my friendly taxi driver.
An indigenous who has been ferrying tourists to and fro the airport for the past 20 years, Roy said Penang also has the most flavourful food in Malaysia.
We had a long discussion on that topic.
Chendol, Achar, Asam Laksa, Curry Fish Head… Oh, I luv ’em all.
I headed to Georgetown, Penang’s capital. It is a charming place decorated by beautiful colonial and heritage buildings.
The place looked even more attractive in the quiet of the morning.
Like cousin, Malacca, Georgetown is named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Roy alighted me at Lebuh Chulia (or Chulia Street).
He said i can find many tourists and backpackers. Besides, there are many cafés, convenience stores, hotels: Basically everything i needed. Good!
He also suggested i rent a bicycle to find the renown murals.
“Some are easy to find, some are easy to miss,” he said, before speeding off to his next booking.
Under a clear auspicious sky, I set off by foot, at my own pace, in search of the paintings that transformed the streetscape of Penang.
Time check: 10am. There is no time to waste. But first, I needed a cup of teh tarik to kickstart my day!
I saw a bicycle shop along Lebuh Ah Quee (named after Chung Keng Quee).
The shop assistant is a friendly, chatty lady by the surname of Tan.
The mother of 3 shared many stories of Penang. She also passed on some good advice about life. I enjoyed listening to her stories.
Bicycle rental is cheap here. RM10 for 2 hours. Ms Tan gave me a map, which had markings of the street arts and directions to follow.
And you know what? She also treated me a packet of Teh Ice.
That’s a first from a stranger I befriended barely 10 mins ago. What an honour!
My new-found friend also showed me an antique cardboard printer at the back of the shop. It was made in England, the very first and probably the last of its kind.
She said its now impossible to find it in England. It belonged to her boss.
With my bike, I covered many streets and took many photos.
During my journey, I talked to tourists from Germany and UK. Most are backpackers like myself. Many are also young (ahem) like myself.
During my course correction, I also approached some locals for directions. Everyone was so helpful and genuine.
They stopped whatever they were doing and assisted me.
Their warm disposition and grace made Georgetown a tourist-friendly destination.
By noon, i was already looking darker than most penangites, not to mention feeling very thirsty.
I found some shade by a roadside stall selling coconuts. It was located near a jetty.
I ordered 2 young coconuts and gulped down the juice in seconds. I paid RM6. Totally worth it!
Overdosed with electrolytes, I ventured deep into a serene residential compound built on stilts.
It led me to a jetty that stretches some 200 meters out into the sea.
At the end of it was a Ma Zu (Goddess of the Sea) temple facing the sea.
It was the Tan Jetty built in the 19th century, created to house the coolies who were unable to afford living quarters on dry land.
The surrounding was surprisingly peaceful. But it was also eerily calm. I could almost hear a pin drop.
Over a distance, I saw the familiar sights of container ships on anchorage.
The heat was slowly but surely baking me alive. I soon made a return trip.
I stopped twice – once to buy a delicious strawberry ice-cream (from a mobile paddler) and once to buy Ice ball from a stall at Lebuh Armenian.
Ice ball or aise kepal is a neatly-shaped ice drowned in colourful, flavoured syrup of choice.
There are Sarsi flavour, Rose syrup and everything manis to give you a sugar high. You have to hold the ice ball in your palm and eat it.
It was very popular in the 70s. It brought back nostalgic memories for the older generations.
I could tell from their faces. They looked like they were choking back tears while savouring it.
I don’t think young Singaporeans have a clue what an Ice ball is. My mother would know. She is already 61.
There was this chic artsy souvenir shop that I just had to enter.
It was spaced out like an art gallery with a lot of ‘feel’.
There was a dazzling array of items to entertain my curiousity.
Handcrafts of every sort and Peranakan themed products, such as toothpick holders, diaries, key-chains and bookmarks.
They are not expensive, but I wouldn’t consider them cheap. Some are made in China but still look attractive as souvenirs.
Interestingly, the shop wasn’t as packed as I had expected, but there were a couple of locals and tourists.
The scorching afternoon mellowed into a windy and relaxing evening.
I resisted the temptation to hit the bed after a nice cold shower back in my hotel. I forced myself to get out asap.
Something drew me into a high-end pastry shop with a Chinese-inspired interior.
Kelvin, a cheerful shop attendant, suggested I buy a few boxes of pastries. They came with red bean, chestnut and brown sugar fillings.
My mum enjoys snacking these stuff, often several pieces at one go, when she watches her afternoon dramas.
Oh, ever heard of Huang Shifu of Tian Hua Arts and Antiques?
He is the last seal engraver in Georgetown and was featured by Penang Tourism.
I came to know Master Huang by chance, when i asked him for directions.
He was chatting with his friends.
With over 40 years of experience, Master Huang’s work is intricate and very detailed.
He runs the stall alone and has no apprentice or successor.
“Why?” I probed. Glancing around, Master Huang sobered quietly.
“Mastering the art needs patience, skills and time. Young people don’t have the patience,” he said, looking at me with a knowing smile.
These seals, inscribed with ancient Seal Scripts, captured a slice of the fading Chinese culture that spread to Southeast Asia.
“Its done by hand, not machines,” said Master Huang. “All by hand!” his old friend echoed loudly, as he stood beside me, listening intently to my broken Hokkien.
I ordered a seal for myself. If i remembered correctly, it cost RM58, with the red ink.
Huang Shifu chose a beautiful seal for me. He said in the past this seal can only be used by the Emperors.
“You could have been beheaded in ancient time,” he joked.
My Chinese name would soon be engraved on it.
He wittily asked if i could wait for 3 hours. I told him I am a patient man, but i prefer to return tomorrow morning.
He chuckled loudly.
Before sundown, I chatted with two foreigners living in Penang. Their spouses are Malaysians. Both like Penang very much.
The lady, whom I forgot her name, came from Russian. She sells beautiful handmade beads and accessories.
Manuel Rios, on the other hand, is an accomplished woodwinds instrumentalist from South America.
He plays the Pan Flute, Ocarina, Quena, Goat Hoof Rattle, etc. Manuel even cuts an album. Check out his youtube video
Evening passed and night came. I sat dreamily on my bed after a cold shower, on the bed lamp and remembered nothing more.
At 630 am the next morning, i grabbed my camera and hit the streets. The scenes were different under the first light of Saturday.
I saw many elderly folks. They got up early (were they even home?)
By 7am, many were at the wet market. Some were already making their offerings at the temple.
I had 2 pieces of prata and a teh tarik in Little India before strolling along to my hotel.
Opposite my hotel, across the road, I saw an old man filing a wooden photo frame inside his shop. I couldn’t see very clearly as the shop was very dim.
Like welcoming a long lost friend, Mr Alan, 76, came out and greeted me in Queen’s English. His smiling eyes brightened the room.
Alan sells rattan chairs. Like Master Huang, he is the last pioneer of his trade in Georgetown.
Though hunching over with age, he remained incredibly sharp and in tune with our conversation. He spoke in fluent Hokkien, Chinese and English.
“Made of cane. They are very durable,” he said.
According to Alan, business is not as lively as before, as the “heyday of the rattan business is over”.
“It’s a sunset industry. Young people don’t appreciate them,” Alan said and paused, deep in thoughts before adding: “Its a downward trend!”
He happily invited me to seat down for a chat. His eyes lit up as he talked about the good old days.
Alan’s stories included business deals in Singapore, a place where he often visited (by train) during the 80s, when business was a lot more lucrative.
Alan is a terrific companion and to be honest, his rattan chair felt very very comfortable.
I left Penang with beautiful memories, shaped by its warm and genuine personalities. What a weekend. What an adventure!
To see more pictures of Penang, click here