Penang is an island. I never knew that. After a one hour flight from Kuala Lumpur we arrive at 12.30am, and Penang airport is about an hour out of George Town where we will spend our first three days. We have been travelling since 5am the previous day and pay no attention to anything at the hotel except the bed where we sleep the sleep of the exhausted, until woken by the call to prayer from the Mosque at 5.30am.
We finally wake properly at 7.30 and after grappling with the hot water contraption in the bathroom (excuse me, but frankly I can’t see the problem with simple taps…) we eventually make it down to breakfast around 8.45. The food is varied—an eclectic mix of east and west—neither of which seem particularly appetising. You settle for scrambled eggs on toast (with one of the little sachets of Vegemite that travels everywhere with you), and I stick with fruit and yoghurt which somehow seems better than anything else on offer.
The hotel, appropriately named Hotel Sentral, is smack in the middle of town and within walking distance of the afore-mentioned Mosque, the Komtar Centre (more about that later), the bus station, various restaurants and cafés, and another smaller shopping centre complete with supermarket. Our aim today is to explore the town.
George Town is colourful and bustling. In 1786 the British East India Company leased the town from the Sultan of Kedah and consequently its architecture is a mixture of Malay and Victorian Britain. Wandering the back streets of the town we stumble across lantern makers, beautiful embroidered batik, and stunning beaded tops and bags. Still exhausted—from the combination of travel and walking in the heat—we wind our way back to the hotel and settle for a quiet dinner and an early night. Tomorrow we hit the Komtar Centre.
Komtar is a huge department store surrounded by gardens, cafés and coffee shops. The Centre itself is split into three distinct shopping centres. The first contains local market type stuff including souvenirs, gifts, Malaysian apparel (for men and women), and local shops and food outlets. The second is exclusively IT and phones—you name it, they’ve got it. And the third is—finally, western fashion, shoes, accessories, hairdressers, and western eateries with the Colonel’s chicken, and the Golden Arches taking pride of place.
Being a shoeaholic, I make a beeline for the nearest shoe shop, and finding at least 20 pairs I could conceivably purchase, I realise I should narrow it down a bit otherwise I’ll have to buy another suitcase just to get the shoes home.
Some hours later, and armed with my boxes of new shoes, we wander back to our hotel and pass a rather nice looking outdoor restaurant which we earmark for dinner—a spicy Nasi Lemak sounds just the thing.
The following morning the Imam wakes us again at 5.30, and again the breakfast is fairly ordinary, the only difference from yesterday is the soft boiled egg served in a dish of rice.
Today we are taking the ferry to Butterworth, the main town on the mainland of Pulau Penang. A former air-force base (one of my work colleagues whose father was in the RAAF, was born in Butterworth), it is smaller and more industrial than George Town, and unfortunately lacks the atmosphere and local culture of the latter. The ferry from George Town to Butterworth is free, but costs RM1.50 to return—that’s about 50 cents. The ferry ride provides a cooling breeze from 33 degree humidity of George Town, and the view of the harbour on the return trip is well worth the 50 cents.
Dinner tonight is at an open air seafood restaurant, and the spicy seafood curry warms us against the drop in temperature—a storm is coming, and we feel the first drops of rain as we walk back to our hotel. But this does not worry us; as tomorrow we are off to the beach resort of Batu Feringghi—awesome!