When the topic of Penang has come up in conversation since I’ve been away, people’s eyes widen and they lick their lips. But it’s hard to imagine the appeal of the place just from someone else’s stories – it really does take a visit. I arrived with modest expectations on a rusting old dinosaur of a ferry, standing with the rest of the pedestrians in whatever space was vacant between the columns of drive-on cars. The view of the island from the water does little to inspire. Rows of massive apartment blocks loom through the low cloud like mausoleums. Sparkling shopping malls and resort accommodation with more stars than I can afford, dot the fringes of the landscape. But, within a reasonably hefty stone’s throw of all of these things sits the crumbling, world-heritage listed colonial district of Georgetown. And this is where I disembarked, coughing my way through the clouds of exhaust fumes from 50 or 60 simultaneously awakening cars.
Georgetown is the capital of Penang, and it’s crumbling 150-200 year old architecture pay testament to the shuffling of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai and European elements that make up the island. Within the backpacking ranks, Georgetown is most well known for its amazing food and street art and its growing industry of funky retro cafes and upcycling shops.
Through my four days at Georgetown, I walked the length and breadth of the colonial quarter stopping three, four or occasionally five times a day to eat. It’s a town that starts late and finishes late – at 9am you could fire a cannon down the main street risk free, but At night the street vendors line up cheek to jowl hawking their wares. People swarm around the carts clogging the streets, and congesting the movement of traffic. The air hangs thick with smoke and spices and the smells of good things cooking. Everywhere is a blur of colour, movement and noise.
The Chinese stalls threw together amazing noodles and rice, battered bits and pieces, and skewers of things which I assumed were animal in origin. I could rarely read a sign or understand the verbal description over the jostling or commotion. So, when feeling hungry (and brave), I would stab a tentative finger at two or three options and hand over a fistful of crumpled ringgit. My order would be tossed into the ever bubbling water/ oil/ wok or char grill for a few minutes with everyone else’s. It would then be ladelled or tonged or finger plucked into a quickly folded paper cone, and hurled back at me across the counter. Before the food landed in my hands the next person’s order would be well underway. I would reverse carefully out of the crowd, elbows tight to my sides so as not to take out someone’s eye, and blow on my piping hot meal before wolfing it down. All the while sizing up the path through the crowds to the next vendor for the next course.
The Indian eating houses that I went to didn’t have menus or listed prices. Again, I would make a random selection at the tubs of bubbling hot, pre-cooked yellow or orange or red. These would be heaped up onto mismatched crockery that appeared as old as the city itself with amazing speed and dexterity. The plate would then be weighed with a practiced hand, and its contents and me eyed speculatively before a decision made on what our combined worth might be. The portions were always generous and the value was always amazing. I would sweat over my curry in a stifling eating hall at a sticky plastic table, shovelling in each mouthful with an arthritic fork, each tine heading in a different direction.
Fruit juice vendors are everywhere, and given the heat they were in popular demand. In my mind, these juice makers were the real theatre of the street food. The orders came thick and fast and the poor soul behind the counter had to move like a break-dancer to keep up – every hand and foot had a role to play. A fresh piece of fruit would be flicked off the stack, dismembered with a cleaver, and then with a handful of ice or yoghurt or sugar syrup, tossed into a blender that was still groaning from the exertion of its last job. The faded high-speed button would be stamped with a greasy thumb for a few seconds, and before the vortex had had a chance to settle the contents poured expertly into a plastic bag. In a movement too fast to copy, this would be tied at the corner with a piece of string, and complete with a small straw, voila – half a litre of mango lassi ready to thread onto the handlebars of a scooter or the clip of a belt. The pace was frenetic, taking about 30 seconds from first order to first slurp. I drank like a diabetic in Georgetown, just as much to watch the process as because I was thirsty.
The colour, texture and history on display makes a feast for a camera lens. Every scene is a postcard, and I found myself taking hundreds of photos of derelict walls, doorways, windows, shopfronts, people and the amazing street art for which the town is famous. For two solid days I trouped around with my camera at the ready, shooting pictures of anything that couldn’t run away fast enough. For much of this time I had a cardboard cylinder with the portrait from my last night in Kuala Lumpur under my arm. Having proved difficult to prepare it for post, I carried it around trying to fulfil the post office’s long list of requirements. People eyed it suspiciously as though it might be a grenade launcher.
Georgetown is such an eclectic mix of influences and history that it was an easy place to hang around. Again I was tempted to linger for longer, at risk of missing out on other places to see. This in spite of the fact that my room was upstairs from a 24hr Indian restaurant, so that I was dreaming in a technicolour of coriander and gharam masala. Exercising no small amount of discipline, I got up at 4.30am on Sunday, making ready for a walk, then a bus, then a flight, then a taxi, then a ferry, then another walk to a change of pace at Pulau Perhentian.