Thursday, 22 August 2013

Oh Penang, must I leave you?

Right now, as I start writing this post on my phone, I'm being blasted with heat from a char koay toew stall waiting for James to come back with some Chicken satay to refuel after a day of temples, canopy walks and (successful) shopping. I have a very difficult choice to make: do I extend my stay in Penang or do I move on to the east coast?
If you ever consider going to Malaysia or you've spoken to someone who has travelled there, without a doubt I can guarantee to you that you will hear about Penang. I met an Australian woman who didn't seem to have a good time in Malaysia. After her ranting of 5 minutes, I asked her what she thought about Penang: 'Penang's quite cool actually.' I felt challenged; is the place really that great?
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I have to admit, our first day was probably the lowest point of our trip yet. Long story short, travellers I have spoken to have said I'm too organised, I'm need to learn to go with the flow. So I thought, why not? I knew the hostel areas and it'd an tourist friendly island that expects a lot of travellers. However, we didn't expect ourselves to be in the super peak season causing us to be almost homeless for the night. Luckily we found a room at a budget hotel with very nice staff but a horrible room (when James saw a hole in the wall, the owner replied with "If anything comes out of it, discount"). I'll be going back to the safety and comfort of prebooking a nice, clean place for the night that has been checked out with plenty of reviews.
It hit James first, the realisation that he liked Penang. It happened when we started our Lonely Planet walking tour and we bumped into other backpackers. People are more open, friendlier here. I get more smiles in the streets, our local breakfast joint were eager to chat with us even with the language barrier and there's a really nice touristy vibe with a mix of families and backpackers. On top of that, there is a big food scene here. We tried new hawker stalls everyday, each very impressive in their own way. There's too many things to try in Malaysia and especially in Penang with stalls in hawker areas representing each flavours of the world. Add the fact we ended up in a very nice hotel and you have a done deal.

Like Melaka, Georgetown is a very pretty place due to a combination of eastern and western influences with the pastel Chinese shophouses, the colourful sari shops of Little India and the famous street arts waiting to greet you at certain turns. I love the different cultures intersecting at each junction. The Indian restaurants, Chinese clan houses, European churches. There's also amazing graffiti work which has been commissioned by the council and they can be easily spotted by the groups of camera loving tourists. Penang is a photographer's heaven and there was too much to do within the 3 days we had planned to stay there.
Penang isn't perfect though. Two things bothered me a little. First, the attempt to place as many shopping centres in such a small place. I love shopping but I was tired of seeing malls. We can see new ones being built before the old ones are filled with shops. I think Penang needs to cool it with the building works. Second, the Buddhist temples seem a little on the tacky side. Malaysia is predominantly Muslim but I find it surprising how modest the mosques are, including the national mosque of KL. Buddhism, on the other hand tries very hard to show its presence but its effort did not impress me. The combination of neon lights and the theme park feel of the Burmese temple as well as the overly commercialised Kek Lok Si temple with its overcrowded turtle pond made me feel uncomfortable. We decided not to stay too long at the temples. There was plenty more things to do in Penang to keep us busy.
Turns out, 5 weeks of Malaysia isn't enough. As much as I love it here, its time to move towards the east (after Langkawi) if I want enough time for the beaches and jungles of Malaysia (its been a cultural trip so far). If I come to Penang again, it'll be all about the food! Sadly, it turns out I'm not so adventurous with food so I'm making myself trying something new everyday... Or at least avoiding fried rice. I've tried laksa, chendul (weirdest dessert ever), Philippine fried chicken and looots of satays and different variation with roti canai. That's a great thing about the hawker stalls here, food from all around the world and in a decent portion in case you like it or not. There's just too many things to try and too little time ):
So what do I think of Penang?

Penang is beautiful. Penang is cultural. Penang is amazing.

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