Penang - The Remains of the Day

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March 15th 2018
Published: March 18th 2018
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The use of superlatives in travel diaries can be a hazard. Striking a balance between the glories along with the wrinkles of travel is not what optimistically-minded people want to do. Like those wide-smiled selfies, everyone should be having a great time all day, every day.

Our Penang stay had a wrinkle.

But first for Penang. Penang is an area of 1.2 million, most on the island of Penang but some also on a strip on the mainland. Penang is the childhood home of our good friends and fishing buddies, Soh and Catherine and they are a big reason why we planned a stop here. The ferry between Langkawi and Penang sounded ideal - on the ocean, a change in transport and chance to be outdoors. People in Langkawi set us straight - the ferry is enclosed, it‘s notorious for motion sickness and for those not affected by the motion, most are affected by malodorous effects from others.

A flight is $10 more and takes 35 minutes. Done. In fact our pilot announces with some glee that we have arrived 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Quite the feat.

Penang, and its historic district of Georgetown in particular,
Street HawkerStreet HawkerStreet Hawker

Pick your skewer, drop in boiling broth to cook. Eat. Repeat.
is known for two things: Its street art and its food.

The food has influences from all over and is exceptional. To my mind, I see the types of restaurants measured by their distance from the street - the closer to the curb, the cheaper your meal.

Very few restaurants are actually accessed through a door. These have air conditioning, maybe even paper napkins and always lots of empty tables. Next step toward the curb are the open-air, under-cover restaurants. These are open all day (except for Fridays if they’re Muslim owned), have oily ceiling fans, large plasticized pictures of the menu options, and chairs and tables placed out onto the sidewalk.

In fact, the covered sidewalks in this UNESCO colonial town are part of the buildings, with multiple arched walkthroughs for pedestrians - called the five-foot way. I could never quite figure who had the right of way - the pedestrians travelling parallel to the street or the workers and patrons coming in from the street. Add the motor bikes parked on the sidewalks, spans of broken masonry and the abrupt ends and starts to the sidewalks, walkers are constantly gauging whether the hazards are greater on the sidewalk or the street. Shade was the big draw for us.

But back to the restaurants, the last, most colourful and famous batch are the street hawkers set up on the streets. Some set up at 7pm each night with their trolleys and food well planned to start serving almost immediately. These focus on their speciality,.... for variety keep going to check out the competition. We also visited a hawker food court one day where a group offered their savouries all day, every day under a variety of tarps and corrugated tin canopies.

The debate about eating street food doesn’t apply here. We ate at all sorts of places along the spectrum, had a wide variety of treats and enjoyed it sickness or diahrrea.

The weird thing is that it takes a lot of work to find out who offers the best of a certain dish, where and when. The lack of a single source of locations, hours, and food specialties (was bemusing in this day and age. Even after our four days here, I feel like I could take a starting shot at one and make something that visitors would find useful. On the upside, this reveals the spontaneous and pop-up nature of the hawker stalls - one day we took a longish Uber drive to find a particular must-have Malay dish. Our guy was a no show that day. We were oddities at that group of stalls, were well received and had delicious meals we couldn’t name. And so it goes.

Now for the street art. Like following the clues of a scavenger hunt, old Georgetown pulls you into root around to find the lure of its two art flavours.

Both triggered by the municipal government, the first in 2009 as a way to mark Georgetown’s recent UNESCO World Heritage designation. A Malaysian sculpture studio won the contract on the theme of “voices from the people”, a series of 52 steel rod pieces, each telling a snippet of the town’s story, through a combo of a narrative and some cartoony spy-inspired characters.

One playful example. On a narrow back street, five standalone sculptures are placed against five arched support columns of the ’five-foot way’ covered sidewalk. One an Indian dhoby with laundry basket, another a coolie and yet another an English planter who remarks, “Obviously this is less than five feet.” This uniquely local architectural detail apparently comes from Stamford Raffles of Singapore fame, who insisted they be used in the appropriate width to protect from the elements. To explore all 52 of these would be a colourful intro to the town.

And then they are the street murals.

Somehow totally in keeping with Malaysia’s cultural stew, in 2012 Penang hired London-trained Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic to breath new life into the old shop and houses around the old city. His art takes the subjects of his paintings and connects them often to three dimensional objects such as real windows, a motorcycle or a swing, begging viewers to pose as part of his composition. His works became the goal of most of our walks and by the end of our stay we had tracked down most of them.

These art installations are barely a decade old and somehow have become the heartbeat of the place. Love to see art and the tourism economy linked.

Now for the wrinkle that accompanied these glories. At some point in the last week, I acquired an ear infection. A clinic visit in Langkawi netted me some antibiotics to which I had an allergic reaction. Purple and red spots on my skin worsened through the week and joined together till I was covered head to toe with a colourful rash, was a tad uncomfortable, swollen and itchy to boot. Another clinic, then more meds to take to combat the first ones.

Now I’m one to see links between things, a tendancy that can be difficult to follow for my husband. A paper copy of The Remains of the Day had been given me before we left, and I have been reading it with amazement - a beautifully written story of an English butler facing the end of his life, his ‘remains of the day’, and reflecting on things of import to him.

Seemed to me that, take away hours spent sleeping or laying low, our visit in Penang made the most of the remains of each day. Maybe not selfie worthy, but enough.

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