The ache in my head is saying to me, what am I doing here on New Year’s Day? I’ve only had a few hours sleep and the historic Malaysian city of Georgetown is deserted.
But as I walk alone into the section of the city known as Little India, I see a parade. No it’s not a parade. It’s an 8am-on-New-Year’s-Day city walk, with brass band in tow — everyone wearing white T-shirts.
My heart and head lifts. If they can do an early morning on New Year’s Day, then so can I. But the thought is not enough for that ache to go away. So I dive into a nasi kandar joint and get a breakfast of roti telur — hybrid Malay paratha with egg and a lentil dipping curry on the side. I add to it a hot coffee with condensed milk. Oh so good. So damn good.
Penang and in particular its largest city, Georgetown, is known for its street food. This simple yet moreish dish of fried bread and curry provides momentary relief. But as I eat I am shaking my head. What the hell are all these people doing up so early on New Year’s Day? Then again, what the hell am I doing up so early?
I’ve only got a few hours in this former colonial city. Once forming an axis of ports with Malacca and Singapore, an axis that eventually became British Malaya, it has somehow maintained its colonial-era mystique. Yet, it’s not quite colonial — Georgetown has Indian sections, Malay sections and Chinese sections. And each ethnicity has placed its mark both architecturally and socially on the makeup of this city.
This is what Singapore looked and felt like before the Lion City went into modernisation overdrive.
After a couple of hours I find myself in a little market in Chinatown and wander into a traditional food court selling Penang street food. Although I’m no longer hungry, I try some of the dishes. The curry mee with its coconut curry sauce and boiled clams — I normally hate clams — is to die for. So is the koay teow th’ng, the egg and rice noodle soup. The tai lok mee, with its thick black, glutinous sauce, is less appealing.
I’ve been to Penang before, in 1999, on my way to Sumatra in Indonesia. I got bowled over by Georgetown’s charm even then. And as I wander down a road strangely titled Love Lane, I stop. I’ve recognised something.
This is where I stayed last time, I realise, as I look up at the row of partly restored Chinese shophouses. The memories start to flood back. An Israeli couple were staying in the same guesthouse — Israelis can’t get into Malaysia — but they were travelling on Brazilian passports. And then I remember the guesthouse manager and the most prevalent memory, the tandoori chicken we had in Little India. I’d never eaten chicken so good in my whole life. In Georgetown, it seems, everything comes back to food.
My time in Penang is almost up and I head to Fort Cornwallis, the original site of British imperialism. A walled city defended by cannon, it was first built by the British East India Company in the late 18th century. Representative of the British expansion into Malaysia, the fort was initially constructed after Britain took possession of Penang Island from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786. It has since been rebuilt… and rebuilt.
Inside the fort there’s not much to see beyond bunkers and walls, but some tourists are lining themselves up against statues of former British dignitaries. Others are hugging the cannon, taking tourist photos to send back to friends and relatives.
I try to find out who Cornwallis was, but there is no information. Later I discover he was the former governor-general of Bengal in India. But it doesn’t seem so important. What is important is the symbolic connection between Asia and Europe. Without this connection, Georgetown wouldn’t be the city it is today.
As I leave, passing the clock tower dedicated to Queen Victoria, I realise my head is no longer throbbing. It may be New Year’s Day, a time when I should be in bed, but my whistle-stop tour of Georgetown has been worth the headache and the lack of sleep.
This is a place with a little something for everyone.
Almost all the regional airlines operate flights to Penang out of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The best rates can be found with AirAsia and Tiger Airways.