My interest in the island of Penang was mainly due to convenience given its relative accessibility from Kuala Lumpur. It turned out to be one of my favorite places as such a charming town of contradictions – its center both sleepy and vibrant, its streets reminiscent of both old and modern. While recognized as one of UNESCO World Heritage sites, to me it was simply a place friendly for walking – with each turn filled with surprises from iron sculptures retelling the place’ story to hand paints that make use of the raw structures in place. Combine walking and glimpses of the ordinary equal my dose of happy.
My departure from KL has been a not-so-fun experience as there had been some delay and I had to wait for boarding while standing up surrounded by a sea of fellow waiting passengers. For a while, I couldn’t understand the ‘system’ by which they board the passengers that I had to keep on asking the crew where, how and when they will start letting people in. Everyone seemed busy though that of course, I didn’t get the answers as I would have wanted it. To turn things around, I with much effort snapped out of my foul mood and psyched myself to just be more patient in waiting.
When I dealt with impatience, the universe may have given me a reward when finally it was time to board. Comfort kicked in as soon as we were seated inside the train and I even got myself a window seat so there was opportunity to distract myself with the view outside.
Waiting for the train to come
And yes, inside this was indeed beer
When I had too much of the view outside, I decided to explore the train a bit. Aside from boredom, what triggered was an observation that people seemed to be going somewhere in the train and returning with some food. I was both almost hungry and curious as to whether there may be some cafe or restaurant in there as I’ve seen in some films.
And of course there was. I walked towards the front cars and found this small cafe. Food and drink options were limited and most of the seats were taken but I had to experience that I got myself some noodles and as soon as a two people were about to leave their spot, I immediately took it.
In between cars
A snap to capture by first meal on a train
(Almost) fully booked
To be fair to others, I left as soon as I finish (which was soon as I am a fast eater :p ). When I was back on my seat, all the carb intake must have caused me to be sleepy that I took a nap and then it was almost evening when I woke. What followed was a series of further naps that before I knew it, we were at my destination at Butterworth station. My grogginess almost made me miss it but thank goodness to the monitor in front of my seat which screamed BUTTERWORTH so I was assured it was time to get up.
It was already mid-evening when we reached the station and while I would later on realize that there are signs leading to the ferry, that night I was like a lost soul just following fellow passengers who I assumed were going to the ferry as well. I knew little about the schedule of the ferry that I was in a hurried pace – if not almost running despite my heavy backpack.
Ferry ride lasted for about an hour via a ‘roro’ (short for ‘roll-on/roll-off’ which refers to big ships which carry both passengers and their vehicles). I got myself a slim bench on the area for the vehicles but it ended up a place for my backpack as I spent most of trip time in this area with a view of our island destination and quite interestingly despite the darkness, of jelly fish on the water disturbed by our ship’s path.
The station at Penang was like a ghost town and while I had many fellow passengers, most dispersed as soon as we got off. I asked where the buses to town are and was told to go to what appears to be a ‘dead’ parking lot. It was another moment of having to learn to trust strangers again as I was the sole passenger waiting in the parking area. I ended up also being the only passenger in the bus.
I have researched that my hostel is located in the backpackers’ area in George Town so I expected some nightlife – even it was a little late when I arrived. However, area was surprisingly quiet at that time of night. When I reached my hostel, I even thought that I was too late for check-in because the door was shut and the lobby / common area was deserted.
It took a while to notice that there was someone at the far end of the bar who immediately attended to me. I got to my room, freshened up a bit and not giving up to finding some life at night, went out to check the area.
What I found was little nightlife with most drinking happening in the small common areas in nearby hostels. It was something that made walking around scary on my first night but something that I would learn to appreciate as it gives a distinct character to this town.
I walked in both directions from my hostel, avoiding turning streets to avoid getting lost. It was when someone on a motorcycle called out to me asking what I pretty much think is an invite to have some companion for the night, that was my cue to go back to my hostel. There was no other guest in the common area but it was still open so I got myself a beer and decided to spend the night quietly drinking while planning the day ahead.
My version of nightlife on my first night in Penang
– welded iron/steel rod installations on various walls all around George Town. According to the town’s tourism group, there are a total of 52 sculptures for this project, 24 of which are currently installed
Prior to this trip, I have read about the famous street art in Penang but this did not include these interesting installations that retell the stories of various spots in town. As if the entire place is an museum, it was as if history is drawn creatively and rather seamlessly/integrated with the current mundane.
My first day in Penang then started early and from thenon filled with sightings of these pieces scattered within the city, all reachable by feet.
WIN WIN SITUATION
(Located at Lebuh Muntri / Muntri Street)
Accidentally spotted this on my first night near my hostel. This was to honor Ngah Ibrahim, a Malay nobleman of Larut who worked closely with tin merchants
(Lebuh Leith / Lebuh Muntri)
Also spotted on my first night on a corner nearby hostel. This is the place where the famous shoe designer started his apprenticeship
NARROWEST FIVE FOOT WAY
Also near my hostel is a narrow foot way of less than five feet. Attached to Wan Hai Hotel, there are supposed to be five sculptures on each of the columns
Trishaws (locally called “beca”) is a popular mode of transportation in the area (most likely some time ago because I have not seen one when I was there). This caricature shows a guide and a tourist on some Penang food trail
This is to tell a story how mahjong is popular in this area, playing of which extends up to the morning when the birds are awake and chirping
The lane is known for its traditional joss stick makers. Joss sticks are incense burners /sticks used in religious activities to send signals to the gods that offerings have been made
TOK TOK MEE
(Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling / Lebuh China)
A wanton noodle dish that is called such because hawkers would strike a ‘tok tok’ sound to signal their presence
Representing the lane where most of Indian goldsmiths are in the early days, this one shows a customer asking the goldsmith to have his golden tooth be turned into a ring
QUIET PLEASE (STREET FIGHTERS)
This is to remember a church that once stood in this street until parishioners started relocating. This particular caricature shows a priest asking two fighting people to quiet down
This is to remember how parrot astrologers use green parakeets to tell fortunes of their customers. Some comic element is added in this caricature as the parakeet flew right above the fortune-teller to the customer’s surprise
BULLOCK CART WHEEL
(Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling)
This street is a popular stop for bullock carts / limousines
(Chem Em Lane, off Beach Street)
This narrow lane was where most poultry vendors are
THE BREAD SELLER
Found in the Little India area, this shows a seller of a bread popular among the locals – ‘Roti Benggali’ (Benggali bread). Its name is derived from the word ‘Penggali’ which means ‘shareholders’ as the bread business was started by a group of friends. Locals however mistook it to mean the name of the bread itself
Located on what appears to be a warehouse, this sculpture is in memory of extension of land to accommodate more structures. (Not clearly seen in this photo but) the sculpture shows a person has a sign which said ‘reclamation’
This is to honor policemen who also served as firefighters until 1900s
(Lebuh Armenian, right across the popular street art)
This is to remember how carts pulled by men were used in the port area during the old days
One to show multiple food deliveries can be done on a bicycle ride
This is to commemorate the Grand Float Procession done in 1926 which Year of the Tiger, hence such image
This shows a peddler implied to be dropping into some hole. This serves to remember the cannon shot in 1867 which caused large hole in the street
Street and sculpture named as such to remember Malays who set shops selling copper and brass wares
(Lebuh Ah Quee)
Located on a bright orange wall of a restaurant, this sculpture shows how nasi (rice) meals is being sold by Indians before – by balancing a pole linked to food containers on both ends
(Lebuh Ah Quee)
This is in honor of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee, a wealthy man who has donated his house to George Town
(Lorong Sech Chuan)
This was to remember a favorite candy comprised of a hardened mixture of nuts, sugar and sesame seeds. ‘ting ting tong’ is the sound made when the candy is being chiseled and hammered into smaller pieces.
This shows how counters of pawn shops are typically higher for added security
Most establishments in the area have been converted into hostels and guesthouses for affordable accommodation to backpackers
(Love Lane or Ai Cheng Hang)
As a street in Muntri where husbands kept their mistresses, this depicts a man escaping from the window – probably after being caught by his wife
How to get to Penang from Kuala Lumpur
Trains run from KL Sentral Station to Butterworth. Travel time at approximately 4 hours. Tickets can be purchased online. (I got mine from Bus Online Ticket.com ).
From Butterworth Station, ferry station is reachable via a covered pathway. No reservations can be made online as far as I know so prepare Malaysian ringgit in cash.
Walking is best within George Town. If you prefer a more systematic way to seeing the street art pieces, the Tourism Board has a print-out brochure which details all the street arts locations. There is also an online one that you can download here.