It doesn't matter what they say, memories of Penang will always stay
September 25, 2019
If an offer is almost too good to be true, it usually is, because they say that 'there's no such thing as a free lunch', let alone a week's cost-free accommodation at Malaysia's historic hotel, The Eastern and Oriental in Georgetown, Penang.
So, when I receive such a proposal, I don't dismiss it as a scam, in fact, I jump at the opportunity because the offer has come from my BFF, and believe it or not, I'm doing her a small favour. You see, her husband is unable to travel and rather than cancel the holiday they had planned altogether, she has asked me to accompany her in his place. All I have to do is pay for my flights. I don't waste any time scanning the cost of travelling between Penang and Melbourne, and quickly secure flights on Air Asia from Avalon Airport for approximately $800, which includes some seat upgrades.
So, here I am, sipping chilled French champagne and nibbling complimentary snacks from the mini-bar on the wrap-around balcony of an eastern-facing corner suite, which is ours for the week, whilst plotting our entertainment for the next seven days. I am not accustomed to staying in such luxurious surroundings; my usual choice of accommodation has fewer stars and is normally located in the outskirts of town. So I'm going to enjoy the view and the amenities of this remarkable and iconic hotel.
The Heritage Wing of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, or the E & O, as it's affectionately called, is currently undergoing refurbishment and will be completed in time for its re-opening at the end of the year. There are already plans to hold the annual Christmas Tree lighting in the renovated foyer ahead of the formal opening of the renovated wing. The General Manager of the hotel gives us a sneak-peek at the refurbished ballroom, and with incredible attention to detail, it has been restored to its original glory. We are staying in the Victory Annexe, which was extended in 2013. With exacting attention to detail, our suite of rooms combine the best of traditional Colonial style with luxurious modern amenities.
Unfortunately, the haze from the annual rainforest burnoff in nearby Indonesia mars what should be an excellent view from our balcony. The smoke has given the water a strange, eerie outlook. But the spectacular orange sunrises are a treat, even though they are a result of bad pollution. But hey, I'm not going to complain about smoke haze; I'll leave that to the Greenies! Come to think of it, I haven't seen any of those around here.
We watch fishermen sail in their tiny fishing boats through the orange reflections on the water. They are black shadows on the wide ripples. Later, we'll watch them return in the dank, grey of the hazy afternoon.
Helene and I decide on an 'on-foot' itinerary to begin with. If the haze lifts over the next couple of days, an excursion to Penang Hill by the funicular railway would be a possibility.
There is something special about Penang, which sets it apart from other Malaysian cities. That is, apart from the food. There's the shopping, the street art, and the cultural and ethnic history, not to mention the UNESCO Heritage status, which includes many of the Colonial buildings. We start our first day by walking down to Sam's Batik House, a veritable Aladdin's Cave of clothing, homewares, and stuff. The colourful displays and the too-close racks make this an absolute treasure trove of fashion. Michael and Rachel, the owners, not only ensure that I have someone to help me select from the thousands of designs and sizes in stock, but they are on hand to do any small alterations if required. I just have to point to an item and almost immediately it appears in seven different colours in my size. We spend a happy hour or so exploring this store, trying things on and selecting items before disappearing into the labyrinth of streets nearby.
We are in search of Armenian Street and the distinctive street-art for which Penang is renowned. I'm also searching for the studio of celebrated photographer, Howard Tan, who captures everyday-life on Penang's streets through his lens. I've fallen in love with some of his photos, which adorn the corridor walls of the E & O. Dorothea Lange says that photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still. I feel that the photographs of Tan's which I've seen so far do exactly that. There is a simplicity, yet the photos convey the spirit of the city. I hope I find Howard's studio, because I'd love to take one or two small prints home with me.
We walk along the narrow mosaic footpaths. The shophouses, which dominate the streets provide shady protection from the hot sun, and as we walk past Chinese apothecaries, dark hardware stores, junkyards filled with unknown treasures, Muslim cafes, and Indian fabric stores displaying their brightly-coloured materials, we cannot resist peeking inside the dark recesses of the windowless stores. Across the road, on the second floor of the terraced buildings, shutters may be open or closed, depending on the position of the sun. The shutters themselves are interesting and make good subjects for photographs. I pass an aloe vera plant, eggshells placed on the long spiky leaves. They are probably there to protect the passers-by from being scratched, but becomes an object of fascination as Helene calls it an 'eggplant' as we pass.
The street art, including the famous Children on a bicycle mural by Ernest Zacharevic, is well worth the walk down here. Together with the Chinese clan houses, shophouses, and museums, it is easy to see why the tourists love this street. It's thirsty o'clock and we find a bar with ice-cold beers and sit in air-conditioned comfort as we watch the world pass by. I love exploring towns by foot, and Georgetown doesn't disappoint.
No trip to Penang can be made without mentioning the food. Oh! What a smorgasbord! There is everything imaginable here, but for starters, I want to try traditional Malaysian satay sticks liberally dipped in peanut sauce. I find these at the Northam Beach Cafe, a short distance from our hotel. As we eat, we watch the fishermen through the haze, as they finish their day on the water. Sipping beer from a thimble-sized glass and allowing the soft chicken satay meat melt in my mouth, I cannot think of anything better than this moment in time.
Of course, we try all sorts of food. Dumplings at Guerney Plaza, spicy Thai, and unique Nyonya food, not to mention a pizza thrown in for good luck. I think we successfully toured the planet with a variety of flavours, but no matter where we went to eat, the quality of the food was excellent and the service may have been even better. Without a doubt, food is the centre around which the rest of Penang rotates, and one could return for many years, as Helene and David have done, and not scratch the surface of the style and type of available food. Seven days is not enough time to eat.... Oh, and we didn't even try dessert!
We search for and find the green-painted heritage mansion; a museum dedicated to Penang's Peranakan heritage. The Peranakans are ethnic Chinese settlers who came to the Malay peninsula between the 15th and 17th centuries. Members of this community are referred to as Baba Nyonya. Nyonya is the term for the women and Baba for the men. We take a formal tour of the mansion, where we spend an hour learning a little about the Peranakan culture. The exhibition of exquisitely-embroidered clothes and tablecloths and beaded shoes was stunning. Nyonya cuisine is a unique fusion of Chinese ingredients and distinct Malaysian spices. However, the Penang Island Peranakan cuisine also incorporates influences from Thailand, such as the inclusion of tamarind. Nyonya recipes are handed down from one generation to the next, and preparation of these traditional dishes are time-consuming. I manage to fit in quite a few Nyonya dishes such as curries and laksa during my stay in Penang, and enjoy them enormously.
Almost across the road from our hotel is a derelict Colonial house. One of the staff at the E & O tells me that the building is haunted. Developers have, on a few occasions, tried to find a way of restoring the building to bring it back to life. I take a walk around the perimeter of the building. It's beautiful. The colonial features, such as the windows and shutters, and the tall columns, are still intact. The only problem I can see is that, without the benefit of a roof, the jungle has taken over, and the vegetation growing inside the house may be responsible for keeping it upright. This house has a long history. Built in the late 1880s it was once the grandest five-storey mansion in Northam Road. It was built by Cheah Tek Soon, a businessman who was also involved in the opium trade. Dying in 1915, the house was left to his niece, who later sold it to a property owner who turned it into a hotel. After that, it was used as a school. During World War II, it was requisitioned and used as an administration headquarters by the Japanese military. After the war, the top two storeys were removed and the Chih Chung Branch School occupied the building from 1949 to 1964, when it was again sold. I don't think the building is haunted and I hope that one day, someone can restore it. I'm not sure whether it's part of the UNESCO historical site, but it's facade is beautiful and is a fine example of Chinese/Malay Colonial architecture. Every one of these structures has a unique story and thank goodness Georgetown will forever maintain it character by holding on to these historic buildings.
All too soon, it's time to say goodbye after our short, but wonderful visit to Georgetown, Penang. Within a very small area, on foot, we are introduced to a unique culture, we explore tiny laneways and poke around inside some dusty old-fashioned stores, whilst enjoying the vibrant colours, spicy flavours and unique smells of this small part of Penang. We also meet some of the friendliest people on earth. As we prepare to say goodbye to the E & O Hotel, many of the management and hotel staff wish us a safe journey home. We'll be back!
TITLE QUOTE: Jimmy Fong: Lyrics taken from the song 'Memories of Penang'
ACCOMMODATION The Eastern & Oriental Hotel 10, Lebuh Farquhar, 10200 George Town
RESTAURANTS: Beach Blanket Babylon, 32 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, George Town
BaBa Phang: 17, Jalan Sri Bahari, George Town
Northam Beach Cafe: Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Pulau Tikus, 10050 George Town
SHOPPING: Sams Batik House. 183,185, Jalan Penang, George Town