Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Visiting an old friend

When an old friend came to visit me for a week or so, we decided to make a trip to Penang, an island on the west coast of Malaysia, for a few days. Its capital, Georgetown, has not only gained UNESCO World Heritage status but also remained at the top of travel and holiday sites for a few years running. A short stay in the heritage area convinced us why it is most deserving of all its accolades.

Normally, when I visit Penang, I stay along the beachfront, where a combination of sea breezes, tropical cocktails and fantastic seafood lulls me into a blissful catatonic state. This time around, because my friend, S, an architecture lecturer, wanted to stay in a refurbished shophouse that has gained several architectural awards, we spend our days wandering around the older parts of the city.

Behind all this flora is a shophouse!
First of all, the map put out by the Penang Heritage Trust is a world-class gem. Carefully drawn, with all the points of interest clearly marked, it proved invaluable along all our jaunts along the little streets and alleys.

There was something of interest practically on every street corner. A meticulously restored Chinese clan house. A rattan craftsman at work. A perfumer’s workshop. Market stalls. And all manner of street art, from wall murals to 3-D metal craft carefully constructed so that the wall behind it is left untouched in its original state.

Penang has always been a focal point of foodies, and on this trip, we managed to cram in many of our favorites, including fried kway teow, Penang laksa and, of course, a variety of seafood. Our hotel kindly provided us with a choice of local breakfasts as well, including nasi lemak and an assortment of Nyonya kueh.

For a city so steeped in the past, the place runs like clockwork. Streets are clean and signages are clear. The city doesn’t condone vandalism and so everything remains pristine and in mint condition. I had to laugh when I spotted Penang’s version of meter maids - trendy looking cyclists complete with cool helmets and sunglasses were whizzing through the streets on their two-wheelers, ready to slap a ticket on errant cars.

We could literally hear the past calling out to us, from tiny little shophouses that seem to have been left untouched for a century, to winding alleys still displaying ancient brickwork.

A painstakingly restored clanhouse
And yet, there was a busy hum to many of the streets that have undergone a spectacular regeneration. We bumped into trendy cafes offering pastries and lattes, bars that announced jazz performances, and little art galleries in nooks and corners.

The rooftop lounge area at Sinkeh
In fact, the hotel we stayed in, Sinkeh, was part of this burgeoning arts scene. The afternoon we arrived, I decided to take a nap in my glass-enclosed minimalist room, but was awoken by sounds of people arguing. “Hmm,” I thought, “the acoustics in this hotel aren’t that great.” I figured that the neighbors in the adjoining shophouse were having an argument. A piercing scream broke through my torpor and I practically leapt off my bed, thinking that the neighbor had been attacked or worse.

The theater poster
I ran to S’s room and knocked frantically but there was no answer. I was relieved to find her in the lounge area when I went downstairs. “Did you hear the screaming?” I asked her breathlessly. “Yeah,” she replied laconically, “They’re rehearsing for a play,” pointing to an area that I later found out was a small theaterette. The owner of the hotel was a theater director and had purpose-built that space when he had his dream lodging house designed. Huh, that wasn’t in the hotel description!

I lived in Penang for a few years when I was little and used to follow my mother on her shopping jaunts into town. Many of these streets I visited this time around did bring back memories of the sleepy little town I knew, but I also like this new Penang - clean, efficiently run and full of surprises, both old and new. I happened to be sitting at a sidewalk cafe when a tourist asked the waitress if she was enjoying her life. "Of course!" she exclaimed cheerfully. I would, too, if I were back living here.

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