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Day 30 – George Town, The Unpretentious One

April 2, 2010

Dateline: George Town, Penang, Malaysia – Friday, April 2, 2010

I’ve made a mistake. Looking back at previous entries, I realize that I’ve never given you a full picture of what George Town is like.  In movie terms, I haven’t given you an establishing shot. All I’ve given you are close ups of food, restaurants, and roads. To remedy this problem, I got up early and tried to take pictures of George Town itself.

After this excursion, I realize that I do not know how to take pictures of cities. I tried to hide my lack of quality pictures by shooting a quantity of pictures, but to no avail. That means, I can’t be lazy today and substitute a picture for a thousand words. That means I’m going to have to write. Imagine that.

George Town is located on Palau Penang, an island in Malaysia. George Town is an old part of town and is typically referred to as “Penang” even though Penang is technically the island. It is a designated UNESCO Heritage site. That’s because it’s old. It’s also because it has a lot of interesting architecture ranging from French, to English, to various forms of Asian. It’s an eclectic mix that’s managed to stay intact, probably because no rich people ever got their hands on it for development. The town’s diverse architecture is mirrored by its many cultures. There’s a Little India, a Chinatown, a traditional fishing village built on stilts out over the water, and large buildings constructed by British colonials. Within a three block radius I found a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, a Mosque, and a Christian church.

Most streets barely fit two cars. The streets feel even narrower because in between the entrances to many buildings and the street are open sewers with narrow concrete walkways over them. In most places that means there’s no sidewalk. To my eye, these sewers are unused. Now, they’re just used as drain gutters and have been left as is to keep the ambiance.

There is no vegetation. During the day the streets radiate heat. When you walk, it feels like pieces of asphalt have melted and are sticking to your shoes.

There’s a bit of hustle to the place. When I walked around looking for a place to stay, hotel owners would call out asking if I needed a room. Restaurants employed people to stand out front and push their menus on passersby. About 50% of the stray dogs hobble on only one of their two hind legs, probably because they’ve been hit by cars. Even the dogs are managing to make a dollar out fifteen cents (a dime and a nickel).

Shops line the street side. Everything from money changers, to little restaurants, to electronic repair shops, jewelry shops, metal work, dentists, religious institutions. Everything. During the day, carts and food hawkers line the more trafficked areas. The city seems to seethe and flow and move around you. Motorbikes dodge car traffic, buses crawl through, and pedestrians move slowly and try to slip past the heat.

The heat. The heat gives everything a bit more urgency. You’ve got to do things in a way that gets you out of the sun, as soon as possible. Standing outside of the shade, you can feel speckles of skin cancer beginning to form under your skin.

The first full day I was here, I was suffocating. I felt trapped. It’s concrete and narrow streets in every direction. You’re like a rat in a humid, noisy maze.

Once on the motorbike, though, I began to appreciate the area’s charm. Freed from placing my feet on the hot plate concrete, George Town shrank to a manageable size. The frenzied movement became simply energy. The oppressive narrow streets became cool passageways to interesting food. I no longer gave a damn whether I got turned around in George Town’s non-grid one-way streets. On a motorbike, I could accidentally pass the same store three times and actually resist the urge to murder someone. It was quite lovely.

Penang/George Town is an interesting mix of old and new. I can’t imagine living here, but it’s a great place to visit. And, if you haven’t figured it out from previous posts, it’s got great food. So good, in fact, that you can totally forget to talk about the place itself. Or, that could just be me, a fat guy trapped in a skinny man’s body.

At noon, I caught a bus to the ferry station, made my way to Butterworth, and boarded a train for Bangkok. It’s a 20-hour journey. On the train, I met the typically interesting array of travelers. A Dutch girl traveling after spending 20 months in Australia as a nanny. Two French waitresses on holiday from working in Australia. A young auditor from the Philippines on vacation. A young Filipino teacher from Bangkok and her much much older Australian boyfriend. A Canadian couple, who I first mistook for Americans, on their way to Hat Yai. All good, interesting people. I even got to prove to Europeans that Americans can speak more than one language when I busted out my Tagalog with the Filipinos. Good stuff.

I exited Malaysia and got a 15-day visa to Thailand. That’s the limit if you come into the country over land. No matter what, I have to be Somewhere Other Than Thailand by April 16. While that seems short, it’s probably for the better.

I have a feeling I could stay in Thailand indefinitely. I’ve grown comfortable here. I’m getting better at the language and, like dancing to an old song (Tupac’s “I Get Around”, for example), I understand its rhythm and how to move through it without looking like an ass. For now, I’ll enjoy what of Thailand I have left.


Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: Don’t rent a motorbike in Penang, unless you want don’t want your life to suck.

Not So Stupid Travel Tip: If you take a long haul train into or out of Bangkok, be aware that they do serve food on the train. Most savvy travelers, however, bring their own meals since the train food is, surprise, overpriced. I did not bring my own food. I ended up buying two meals. One at the border crossing where some guys were selling rice at the immigration stop (not knowing the food situation on the train, I opted to play it safe). I bought the other on the train when I realized that I didn’t have to subsist if I didn’t want to. I ate both. I am a fat American.

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