Penang! O.M.G. Penang! Its now two weeks since we left but I am still feeling a rosy warm glow whenever I think about it. Part self indulgent nostalgia, part absolute delight. I have to confess a sentimental attachment. Jim and I spent our honeymoon there 31 years ago and we haven’t been back since.
We arrived in the best way, on an overnight train from Thailand (£20 for a sleeper) and then crossed the Strait from Butterworth on the ferry. The skyscrapers which line the coast were definitely not there in 1984, but at the foot of these high rises remain the clan jetties (named for the surname of the clan which lives on it – Lim, Chew, Tan, Yeoh, Lee, Ong and New) These stilt villages still survive although they no longer load and unload goods from the mainland. We are staying at the end of one of them (New or mixed surname jetty) at The Clan Jetty Heritage Home – found on booking.com.
If you can’t feel delight sitting out on its wooden terrace with a cold beer looking out at the ferries, the tug boats, the container ships and the old fishing boats which ply the Strait, you are a very hard woman to please.
Georgetown, the capital is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s easy to see why. It’s quaint, it’s delightful and a more charming place to spend a few days it would be hard to find. It maybe a fascinating time warp but it seems to have found a way of preserving its history while accommodating the people who live and work there.
Georgetown is full of reminders of its colonial British past from the Victorian clock tower and white Government buildings to the street names. There are architectural gems from the Straits Chinese heritage (shophouses, elaborate temples, the clan jetties and mansions of rich merchants), and the mosques and temples of the Malays, the Achinese and the Hindu Tamils. Plus the food! With that mix of cultures, its got to be good.
Apart from all the heritage, there’s a vibrant street art scene with lots of murals and iron work “cartoons” which show humour and great affection for the place, its cultures and its past. Without wishing to sound like an advert for Malaysian Tourism, it’s a revelation.
Putting aside Malaysia’s appalling human rights record, the fact that its main opposition politician has been imprisoned for “sodomy”, corruption, bribery, inequality, blatant discrimination against non Malays and the degradation of the environment with ruthless mono cropping of palm oil and rubber. It’s lovely, isn’t it?
On our last day, I went in search of my textile and it was easy to decide what it would be. I guess I could have chosen an exquisite batik sarong as worn by the Straits Chinese women (the Perakanan) in times gone by and still brought out for weddings and special occasions. But they are made in Java.
No, it has to be one of the New Year banners which adorn the street doors of houses, shops and temples in the run up to Chinese New Year. As usual this involves me in some hunting. I see a shop with one over its doorway and ask the owner what its called. This leads to much earnest discussion amongst the various chaps hanging about. They obviously have different names for it in different dialects. Then I ask them to write it down in Chinese characters for me – again much discussion. In the end one bright spark tells me just to take a photo of it.
I’m directed to an emporium of Chinese religious and ceremonial prerequisites, packed with people doing their pre New Year shopping. I show the photo and am directed to an aisle full of the things. They mostly feature members of the eight Immortals – characters who seem to represent most of the things you might ask for in life, health, love, prosperity, long life, drinking beer and eating satay in Penang and so on.
The highlights of Penang for me:
- A ride up Penang Hill by funicular in the late afternoon. As dusk falls we walk out among the hill-station bungalows and see long tailed macaques, dusky langurs and a flying lemur!
- A trip to the coastal National Park where we saw a giant sea turtle, huge black and white sea eagles wheeling and diving and a massive monitor lizard marching along the beach and disappearing into the mangrove swamps.
- One evening a walk up a side street in Georgetown, we come upon a travelling Chinese puppet theatre set up near a Chinese temple. There are opera gowns and head-dresses in the temple and paper horses with grass in their mouths, incense and burnt paper offerings. The puppet theatre has a personnel of at least 6 including musicians and an audience of approximately 5. Is it a rehearsal for a performance or a ritual of its own? Whatever it is, the scene is powerful and unforgettable and as I peep around the back, I feel I may become part of Dr Parnassus’s Imaginarium.
Tomorrow, the Year of the Goat begins.
Gong Xi Fa Chai!