Mission food: To Penang

This is the second Georgetown we’ve visited this month. It’s not like the British were great at coming up with new names, at least not interesting ones. In this case there’s no space between the name and the description, but like George Town Tasmania this one is on an island.

Modern Georgetown, like Singapore where we have just come from,  is a consequence of the British East India Company, a trading outpost and a Straits Settlement. There is a lot of history in this city. From the window of our hotel room I can see rows of run down shophouses, walls of stained concrete, and the terracotta roof and white shutters of the Penang State Museum below.

When we arrived there was a huge cloud looming above, threatening the huge tropical downpour that we experienced on our previous visit this birthplace of B. It didn’t happen, but it was why I was feeling nervous flying in.

I wake this morning feeling unsatisfied with a lack of sleep, but needing to finish my writing up of the previous day’s flight. We only have an hour to eat breakfast, so go down to Janggut Laksa in the building behind the Mercure, a steaming bowl of spicy coconut milk broth and chopped noodles.

Fortunately the hotel is able to print off our boarding passes, which AirAsia wants to charge to reprint at the airport. This is our first time departing from Singapore’s newest Terminal 4. We are the only occupants of the free minibus from the hotel to Terminal 2, from where we have to catch the free shuttle bus a distance to Terminal 4.

Terminal 4 is highly automated, but it’s a little painful at times juggling passports, printed boarding passes and biometrics as we check in our own luggage, pass through immigration and even boarding, mostly without the intervention of other humans.

The shopping airside at Terminal 4 is somewhat interesting, with a row of fake shop houses, including the somewhat (in colloquial English) risque “Heavenly Wang”. The terminal is airy and the koi pond is interesting, though lacking in the water plants that would make it a little less artificial.

The sky has cleared up from the rainy grey morning and I’m feeling fairly good about our AirAsia flight, though I’m not a huge fan of the airline itself. Our aircraft is an older Airbus A320, workhouse of the low cost airlines.

The seats are comfortable enough, but the airline is a bit restrictive about letting electronics be used immediately.

The runway is just a short taxiway from the gate and we are soon racing up into the sky towards Malaysia. Though there is just scattered light cloud of Singapore, once we pass into Malaysia there is a band of storm clouds to the west and it makes me nervous.

In order to get preselect seats and luggage I’ve bought us value packs on our tickets that also includes meals. But none of us bar Alex wants them. He actually finishes the pasta in arrabiata sauce. Says it’s okay.

I thought we’d be flying up the coast, but we seem to be inland, weaving our way between storm cells with just a few bumps. I’m listening to relaxing music, but can’t seem to relax.

The captain announces that we have begun our descent and will arrive twenty minutes early. Welcome news, but it looks like we’ll be entering the clouds.

As we turn out to sea we seem to dodge everything but the light clouds, coming so close to the tops of bulbous white cumulonimbus. Looming over Penang Island is a dark grey storm cell. My heart is in my mouth, but at the last minute we slow and dip below the line of grey, making a steady landing on to the runway.

It is a fair walk through Penang’s airport terminal, but a quick exit through immigration and a short wait for bags. The arrivals area is quite unimpressive, small and dark.

We purchase a taxi voucher for the ride to our hotel, the Sunway Hotel Georgetown.  The first thing we notice as we drive out of the airport is how much more rundown Malaysia looks when compared with Singapore. The buildings are streaked with tropical grey soot and mildew, the signs are old, fonts from another decade. The green lushness of tropical plant life is still there, but unkempt.

It’s got its own charm about it. We drive past open sided, tin roofed food centres and I just want to pull over and eat. Behind the shop fronts and sheds loom new (and some older) apartment towers. Penang has obviously experienced something of a property boom over the past few years, no doubt driven by Chinese and other Asian money.

Cars and scooters dart in and out of lanes. It is normal for a car to cross from the left lane to make a right hand turn at the last moment. Malaysian drivers are very tolerant of their fellows’ lack of skill. In Sydney aggression towards such drivers would be the norm.

We wind our way through the city streets, past shop houses and the more recent malls, the driver making a wrong turn before locating our hotel, a tall tower visible from the distance.

The hotel lobby is nice, but unfortunately our rooms will not be available for another hour and a half. But B has specially selected this residence for its location close to food. A left turn and there is a kopitiam, a “coffee shop” where the owner sells the drinks while other tenanted stalls sell food.

We order lime juice, hot barley water, char kway teoh (fried flat noodles), Penang har mee (prawn noodles with soup) and chicken rice. I barely get to eat anything as Alex gobbles up the rice I ordered. He’s definitely going through a growth spurt.

We wander the streets for a little, wasting more time until we can check in. As we turn up one street another kopitiam clings to side of the street. It’s dark, grimy and irresistible. I haven’t had lunch yet, so that’s the excuse to order fried mee suah, silky thin noodles wok fried with lime and sambal, and loh bak, deep fried bean curd skins and slivers of sausage with a sticky sweet sauce. This is how I like to eat in Malaysia.

Further up is Times Square, a shopping centre whose air conditioning is welcome. Out the front are two Transformers statues, incongruously placed beside a Chinese New Year lantern installation. We take a look at an adjacent McDonalds which offers CNY burgers and ayam goreng (fried chicken).

Inside the mall is a wax works and Alex poses in front of a not particularly realistic Mr Bean and his car. Doesn’t look like the same level of care is taken as with a Madame Tussaud’s. Maybe the same as the dinosaurs which were spotted on top of another building.

Finally able to check in we collapse into our hotel room’s bed and fall asleep for the next three hours. It could be longer, but we need dinner.

The lane outside has been transformed into a night food market lined with food carts selling a wide variety of local dishes. There is the faint whiff of durian in the air from the vendors on either side of Macallister Road.

We find a seat at the same kopitiam as at lunch, the drinks attendant recognising us. Memory of faces is an important skill for hawker stall owners as they deliver food and collect money from seated customers scattered around the market.

Beef and chicken satay, cooked over charcoal, popiah (rolls), chicken wings, grilled stingray and fruit juices started the meal. Then we joined the long queue in the rain for some more char kuey teow with duck and chicken egg that is probably the best I’ve ever tasted. No wonder the queue. Finally pandan green apom balik from another stall.

Though we were full we would probably have explored further but the spitting rain convinces us to return to the hotel. In the background the call to prayer from a mosque somewhere nearby. It brings back memories of my first trip to Penang, 22 years ago, where a similar call heard through our hotel was an initiation to the muezzin.

An early night, to rest the stomach so that it may enjoy further pleasures tomorrow, where the fear of clouds is simply that of getting wet.

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