Describing Penang

August 2, 2018

Arriving on the tarmac we taxied our small plane to the edge of the airport building and shuffled off into the airport, most people walking with indeterminate direction; heading to watch the wiggly black belt for anything up to 30 minutes until we saw our bag ridding along it.


After walking up the stairs and into the airport I pleasantly realised that it was one of those airports. I’d walked straight into the departures lounge, greeted by a throng of people waiting to board my plane. It appeared to be a small airport where I had no chance of getting lost or being late for a flight. Another giveaway to it’s minimal importance to the world was when the arrivals baggage screening point consisted of two unused belts, where the staff listlessly waved the entire flight through. I had a feeling I was going to like using this airport.


Flash forward to dusk. Golden glittery beams splintered through the windows of the minivan, flickering the first flames of the sun into my eyes as the dusk hour approached. I was Georgetown bound.


Large concrete apartment blocks sprouted up around me coloured freshly in white and creams,  opposing withered and stained low rise blocks in jungle greens and dark browns. Covered in black squares, they were the silhouettes of windows, doors and balconies in my blurry eyes. The multi-laned highway soon gave way to narrow, busy roundabouts, with large trucks and beaten up cars waiting to turn, while above, others passed hurriedly over the flyover, heading home to their concrete blocks, beeping in urgency.


We were hitting the evening rush hour.


The cars increased, and the roads became ever more constricted, hemmed in by tall buildings on either side and interspersed with parked cars and old fashioned, big wheeled bicycles. Large commercial units gave way to pretty shophouses as we wound our way into central Georgetown.


The mix of freshly painted walls and crisp window cornices contrasted with the peeling plaster and decades of paint shades on those crumbling, unloved houses. The ornate stood effortlessly side by side to the grunge, often on the same building. It’s as if a painter has created a masterpiece, and then taken his palette knife and cut a line through it, juxtaposed with an expert mix of colours that meld so seamlessly.


Making a sharp right from the frenzy of an intersection, the road opened out to pedestrians, their heads at a right angle to their bodies, busily gazing upon the buildings they passed while making their way back to their hostel, or looking for somewhere to feed their bellies; The only two really important things one needs to worry about here, where to sleep, and where to eat.  Or more aptly, worry not, for Georgetown is renowned in the far east for being a food Eden.


The car pulled to a stop two-thirds of the way up a quiet side street. I jumped out in front of my hostel; large 7ft dark-wood doors opened into a cool open-air courtyard, filled with empty bamboo chairs and tables. A group of middle-aged women were smoking in the corner. A weak fan blew the warm air around as I was shown up the elongated narrow stairway, creaking along the ancient floorboard as I was directed to my bed for the night.


The windowless box room was sparse and dark, the air heavy with humidity and mustiness, but the airconditioner fully functioning as a freezer box. I dumped my overweight bag and headed straight back out of the door and onto the streets; a vain attempt to orientate myself in this maze-like town for the single night I was due to be here for.


The quietness soon dissipated the further I walked; the sun gleamed through the curve in the road, coating the cheerful gaggle of people spilling out of the corner side restaurant, washing down their long, hard day of exploring with cold beers and fruity cocktails. I wound my way through to the bar, ordering a fruit juice with the few Ringgits I’d come so prepared with.


The sun warming my back, I slipped away back onto the road, the chatter dimming behind me as I gawped up at the ornate temple to my right. The scent of incense drifted my into my memories of Sri Lanka, but the sight of a cake shop brought me up to its steps wishing I had found an atm before I left the airport.


I ambled my way back to my hostel, passing brightly coloured shop houses, each one mirroring its neighbour, yet so different the closer you look; A crumbling façade wall with peeling plaster, the colours of decades of paint revealing the onion layers of its history sat next to yesterday’s freshly painted egg yolk yellow walls. Dark wooden window shutters gave a colonial appeal above freshly mopped colourful Peranakan Chinese floor tiles.  


I sat down at the empty table outside my hostel, draping my feet on a nearby chair and leaned back. Time slowed and my mind relented from plaguing me with tomorrow’s to-do list. I just sat there, idling as the gentlest of breezes tickled my skin as the sun caught up with me again, curving around the contours of the street once more, setting the buildings with golden trim alight as it slowly continued on its evening rounds of the city.


I had been here for less than one hour, but as I sat in silence, listening to the static of the hostel radio and the din of faraway city traffic, I knew I would like it here. I felt comfortable and ready to become another number of the thousands who already saw the magic of this old town.




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