How often do we find ourselves not realising that a place of interest is just a stone throw away from where we live? I’m proud to have visited 16 countries and 34 cities in the world thus far, but am embarrassed that I have not explored many places in my country, Malaysia. Ever since I started this blog, I have been reminding myself that, wherever possible, I should spend more time to see the local sites.
In case you’re new to my blog :-) Last year, I had shared colourful posts about Malaysian festivals/celebrations: Thaipusam in Ipoh; Chinese New Year festivities at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur (KL); Wesak light and float procession in Brickfields; and Ramadan evening food bazaar in a KL suburb.
There were non-festive Malaysian posts too: I had travelled to Sabah – one of our states in Borneo across the South China Sea – a long weekend of incredible sunsets, local markets and wildlife. Another fascinating trip I made – only 20 minutes drive from my apartment – was a visit to the Islamic Arts Museum in KL, an impressive display of exhibitions there.
So, to continue with the mission of “going local”, the next destination I had a fun time exploring was Penang.
Penang is an island on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, and is linked to mainland via the Penang Bridge. The construction of the Penang Bridge completed in 1985, and the bridge was the first until 2014 the only road connection between Peninsular Malaysia and the island. It is also the second longest bridge in Malaysia and the fifth longest in South-East Asia.
When I was a little tyke, my family and I used to travel from our hometown Melaka to Penang to visit my father’s youngest sister. It was back in the day when there were no highways, car journeys often took 7-8 hours, or sometimes longer. It was also the time when there was no Penang Bridge. Instead, we travelled by ferry from Butterworth on mainland to Weld Quay in Georgetown, the island’s state capital city. I remember my father drove our car on to the vehicle deck of the ferry. We parked and alighted from the car, and walked up to the upper pedestrian deck to have a better view as the ferry approached the island.
Fast forward to mid-Feb 2015, I drove up to Penang from KL, a distance of 330km and a journey of 3.5-4 hours. I made my way to a low-rise apartment on Jalan Logan in central Georgetown as that would be my home for the next 2 nights.
I did a homestay – booked a room on Airbnb – and my host was the lovely Sapur Khan who calls herself an “international local” Penangite. Sapur was born and raised in Penang but had lived in Europe for 10 years before returning to her home.
Sapur welcomed me with a big hug, as if we had known each other for the longest time, where in fact, we had only exchanged brief messages via Airbnb regarding my booking and the location of her apartment. I quite liked the hug because it felt so genuine and warm. She showed me my room, and the moment I entered the room, I knew this was going to be a start of a wonderful trip :-) You know the joyous feeling of finding an accommodation which looks exactly as it’s depicted on the website? This was it. My room was a large and spacious master bedroom with ensuite bathroom. It was incredibly cosy – a double bed with floral-patterned bedspread, wood night stands and drawers, white-painted wardrobe, and green and white striped curtains – oozed a country cottage charm.
My arrival was quite timely. Sapur was hosting a cooking demo for a group of women (and a gentleman) of different nationalities. She invited me to join them for lunch. Over lunch, I got to know the guests – some were visiting Penang for a few weeks; some were escaping wintry Europe for a couple of months; or some were already calling Penang home for several years.
They wondered about me too and asked what brought me to this island. I shared with them that the last time I saw Georgetown was when I was a little girl but have vague memories of it. I had come to Penang just a couple of years ago, headed straight for Batu Feringghi beach instead. I never ventured into Georgetown because many people had mentioned about the city’s traffic congestion, hence I got discouraged and wasn’t interested. However, of late, I have come across numerous travel posts about Georgetown particularly its UNESCO World Heritage Site and fascinating cultural festivals. The one festival which I didn’t want to miss and that Penang was renowned for, was the boisterous Hokkien New Year which is held on the eighth day of Chinese New Year at the Chew Jetty area. Instantly, the festival became a hot topic at the dining table because my host and others who have been living in Penang for a while, talked excitedly about this unique celebration.
Lunch ended with a delicious dessert of chocolate brownie and coconut ice-cream, and though I would have loved to stay on and chat with my host over more ice-cream, I could not wait to start exploring the city.
I left my car behind at the apartment, and walked to the nearest bus-stop on the main road Jalan Macalister. I had read about the much improved bus services in Penang – the Rapid Penang has an extensive network around the island, its routes are well planned and organized, and the fares are cheap (typically not more than RM2.00 or USD0.50).
I had no specific plans that day except wanting to see the Hokkien New Year celebrations at night. So I hopped on to the bus, headed to the heart of the city which is also the heritage area – Lebuh Chulia – and I just walked and walked and walked around the city. Well, with a little bit of help from a heritage walking trail map – you can see how relatively easy to explore the heritage area – it’s all within walking distance. If you’re tired of walking (especially when the weather gets too hot and muggy), you can always catch the CAT (Central Area Transit) free shuttle buses which ply the roads within the heritage area.
Here are some of the photos I took during my walk:
More street photos of Penang – the 3km cultural procession marking the birthday of the Jade Emperor and Hokkien New Year celebrations – look out for next week’s post!