Penang; a name that for most of the expatriates living in the south of Thailand represents a kind of nightmare, a small place where they feel they expiate the sins of living in one of the most brilliant countries of South East Asia. Penang is where you go periodically to renew your visa, be it for tourism or business, and to be able to continue living in the Land of Smiles. Almost every day I meet a friend or an acquaintance who tells me, with a mixed expression between sad, bored and irritated, “damn, I have to go to Penang tomorrow.” They prepare themselves psychologically for that long and tiring journey, the cheapest and fastest, complete with minibus, bureaucrats and lots of waiting time. A one or two nights stay characterized by boring walks back and forth along Chulia Street, long hours lounging on the guesthouse bed waiting for time to pass, and frequent visits to the guesthouse counter to ask if the yearned for visa has arrived. And in the end, when finally the passport is returned decorated with the coveted stamp, they pick up a ready-to-go backpack that was never unpacked, and rush to get a minibus back to Thailand that was dutifully pre-booked upon arrival in Penang.
I was one of them. I came to Penang dozens of times during the twenty years I have spent so far in Asia. I did it also with the same spirit that seems to be passed down from expat to expat, with the same desire to return as soon as possible, each time seeking the fastest and cheapest way to tackle this ‘journey to hell and back’.
Then one day I asked myself if Penang was really a place so hideous that it does not even deserve that I leave the confinement of Chulia Street. If it was really so boring as for me not to devote even a few days longer than strictly necessary. After all, if UNESCO included George Town in the list of World Heritage places, there must be a reason. And you can find that reason out of a brochure: in Penang, and precisely in the historical city of George Town founded about 200 years ago, there are more than 1700 buildings of historical interest that refer to the various ethnic groups that make up its population: a city whose soul is composed of Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Malays, Acheenese, Thais and Europeans, who live together peacefully and with an absolute mutual respect.
If you walk along Chulia Street with your mind free from the obsession of the visa renewal, you have a totally different picture of the lane that, for several years, I have watched with a gray and sad filter in my eyes. Chulia is a lively and bustling street, a parade of people of all races, a hub for arrivals, meetings and departures. A world of colors, of pungent food smells that follow the visitor from alley to alley, from street to street, almost like a menu of scents that invites you to taste the flavors of a good part of Asia. In the evening, Chulia Street turns into a big open-air restaurant made of stalls offering the most delicious Chinese hawkers food where, with just over 1 Euro, you can eat a hearty noodle soup with soy ravioli and thin slices of pork, and drink a fresh fruit smoothie, getting up from the table with a satisfied feeling. Or you can enjoy a beef stew with red curry and a couple roti dipped in a yellow curry sauce, followed by a spiced coffee prepared according to tradition in a modest and small Indian restaurant, all for about 3 Euro.
All around you are buildings constructed on the old Chinese model, shop-houses where, in their ground floor, craftsmen, mechanics or sellers of various wares carry out their activities. These are shops where various tools or boxes are stored in an orderly disorder, businesses that are invariably protected by altars set with incense, liquor or food used to honor ancestors or pray to the gods. Stores where in the night the owners bring in bicycles, scooters and sometimes, where the space allows, even cars before closing up the shop and moving to the upper floors.
By day, the street comes alive even more and it becomes the pulsating heart of this old corner of Penang. Traffic noise is the only discordant note that is in contrast with what is offered to the eye: markets where all sort of food, fruit, clothes and various knick-knacks are traded. Some houses have peeling walls and faded signs, and others have facades restored with pastel colors, while maintaining a traditional style. There are several coffee shops housed in old and new buildings, interspersed with old restaurants that can be defined ‘historical’ without exaggeration, and old guesthouses, historical as well, where travelers coming from everywhere and watching their pennies can still find a bed in a dormitory rooms for small money.
It is right there, a step away from the guesthouse where I always stay, that you turn a street corner and find yourself, as if by magic, in another country. Little India supplies you with a different image of Penang, at least different from the George Town you expect. The way to dress up a bit sloppy and unkempt of the Chinese gives way to the elegant saris of Indian women; the noise of traffic is covered by a loud music coming out of different stores, creating a Bollywood movie atmosphere, and statues of the Trimurti gods look out at passers by from shop entrances. Different smells, different people, different ways of living, different gods that Muslim Malaysia approve without conditions, consistent with its slogan ‘Malaysia, your second home’.
A ‘chapati’ and a few steps and you’re already out of Little India, the Chinese characters are back on shop signs, a mosque seems to be there to remind you that there are also Muslims, after all men in white tunic, Islamic headdress and long beards do not go unnoticed; nor do women dressed in brightly colored tunics enriched with colorful designs, some with a floral decoration made with Henna on the back of the hands, their faces wrapped in those veils that, though denying a hint of coquetry and probably hiding a nice haircut, become frames that enhance nice features in often delicate faces.
I keep on walking until I reach the seafront, where I head towards the wooden piers not far from the ferry to the mainland. Here are houses that belong to fishermen, to merchants, to old Chinese dock workers. Entire families live in wooden buildings on water with altars and temples, their boats docked outside on piers that date back to the 19th century. Living conditions have changed since then: the TV is a must – from some of the houses you can hear out voices of typical Chinese soap operas – and houses are often turned into souvenir shops for tourists, hence this village is now an inescapable tourist destination. Yet the sense of tradition is still alive in these people who live their lives to the rhythm of the tides, their time marked by the sound of the surf under their beds.
How about attractions out of the heart of George Town? The usual brochure suggests 29 destinations spread out in different locations. These are enough to spend at least 10 days in Penang. Local travel agencies offer tours of
the island that reach some of the most interesting places, but I prefer a more ‘DIY’ freestyle. I pick two places and I venture out on a local bus. The next morning I head to Batu Feringgi, home of the most beautiful beaches and the higher category hotels. My destination is the Terapung mosque, built on a tongue of land which disappears at high tide and supported by concrete piles extending out to the sea. It is not praying time so I can get around in the public area without creating nuisance. The mosque has a mixed Middle Eastern and local style, with a large prayer hall that can accommodate up to 1500 worshipers, and open spaces where people can stop and sit under gazeboes. Man and women are strictly divided in separate groups both on the prayer hall and on the baths where every good Muslim must make their ablutions before their prayers.
In the afternoon I head to the opposite direction, tossed by the jerky pace of a local bus, and after a 45 minutes torture ride I reach the Temple of Snakes, a Chinese temple that dates back to 1850. An island onto itself, this would just be like the hundreds of similar Chinese temples in Penang, hidden amongst houses and skyscrapers, if it wasn’t for a peculiarity: it is home to an indefinite number of Pit Vipers living in a semi-free condition. Their bites, according to a temple keeper, are lethal; I politely decline the invitation to a souvenir photo clinging to a python, which I gladly leave it to Japanese tourists, and I observe the vipers. There are 30 of them in one of the rooms, lazily lying on the support beams. They eat once a week, I am told, and after their meal they spend their time motionless in order to properly digest. There are other vipers in the open air, twirling around trees and stones in an area protected by a high wall but still visible by the public.
I move to the sacred area of the temple and, perhaps because it is Saturday, I notice a constant stream of worshippers who light incense, pray and make their offerings to the altars, being almost covered in the process by a blanket of smoke produced by the several incenses and candles lit. A kid accompanied by his father burns some paper with printed Chinese symbols in a furnace: “this is paper money that we send to our deceased ancestors so that they can use it in the afterlife”, he explains in plain English. A sort of Wester Union in paradise; always quite practical people, the Chinese.
I leave the temple satisfied, yet there is one more surprise in store for me. To my left there is an attracting tower painted in peach decorated by statues of all kinds; it is an Indian temple that is not mentioned in the brochures. By it entrance, a decorator patiently paints over a statue of God Shiva; inside, amongst colourful statues of deities leaning on walls of a bright grey, a teacher educates smiling young disciples who, sitting on the ground around him, listen with expressions of interest. I immerse myself in this orgy of colors, quite a hitting scene after the predominant reds of Chinese temples.
The day draws to a close and I prepare myself for another shaky 45 minutes bus ride back. The day comes to an end and so does my short stay in Penang, a place that no matter how many times I have seen it, I realize I have just begun to know.
My next visa run is scheduled for January, but this time I think I will not be so much in a hurry…