The return bike ride from the ferry port is just as lively as the trip out there. Eventually, though, the Stardust Guesthouse appears like a vision before me, and not before time. But knowing my luck, I’ll make it all the way back in one piece, climb off the bike, and promptly fall down a storm drain. I decide to keep the crash helmet on until I’m well away from the moped and safely back at reception. ‘You get ticket OK?’ the lady at the counter asks. ‘Yep, no sweat’ I lie. ‘I go to ferry port tomorrow morning’ I continue. ‘…and thanks for the ride.’
In view of the last 30 minutes of my life, she then delivers 4 words that could freeze bone marrow: ‘Tomorrow, you need motorbi…’
I cut her short. There’s no need to finish that sentence. ‘No, I’m good, thank you!’ I blurt in an overly keen, please-don’t-trouble-yourself kind of way.
‘I walk. I like to walk…I enjoy walking…every morning!I love it!’ Me? Enjoy walking? Meh. I think not. This is coming from a bloke who, in the normal run of events, generally qualifies the word ‘walk’ with ‘last resort’ and would only consider running on very special occasions, like if being chased by a bull elephant. Or a Grizzly bear, and a big angry one at that. But the words continue to spill out, each one unimpeded by any form of brain activity. Then, as if to brush away the last remaining fleck of personal credibility, from nowhere comes this ridiculously toothy grin and an accompanying hand signal to raise the weeee-taaard bar even further.
I look to my hand, which has now made it’s own way out and into the space between myself and counter lady, and my eyes are fixed firmly upon it as if to draw even more attention to what happens next. And the next stage is inevitable, there’s no going back – the hand is already out there and has no intention of retreating without putting on a show first. The index and middle fingers are fully extended and pointing downward and, as if they were an entity to themselves, start to flick rhythmically to and fro like something from a Yellow Pages advert. All the while, I’m bobbing my head and smiling like I’ve just been eating Prozac off Carmen Electra’s boobies and I’m saying ‘walk, walk, walk’ in time with finger flicking.
Penang, or more accurately Georgetown, makes for a superb travel pit stop. For those heading north from Malysia and into Thailand, consider weaving it into the itinery.
It’s a cheap and relatively cheerful place where things can be done with the minimum of fuss. Laundry can be sorted for next to nothing at any of the local Chinese dhobi shacks, onward travel arrangements, including a plethora of visas, can be arranged via many of the bookshops along Chulia Street and for those whom prefer DIY travel, internet access only costs about 2 buttons an hour – even cheaper should you own a laptop and hang out in the bars/cafes offering free Wifi with a purchase. It’s incredible how long one you can make a coffee last.
Also, with eating and drinking being great value and somewhat of a Malaysian national sport, it’s easy enough to find a world class curry and pay less for it than you would, say, for a mug of tea in a Happy Chef – or Happy Thief, as they should rightly be called – the robbing bastards.
In Georgetown, value for money extends beyond these two primordial needs. Alongside sensibly priced restaurants, bars and cafes, some central hotels offer just as much bang for your buck. If you’re up for a break from 5 dollar flophouses – even if you’re body says ‘yes but the wallet says ‘no’ – Georgetown offers several mid-range sleeps at almost budget prices. Within just a few blocks of the tourist hub you can sniff out a decent room in the kind of classy establishment that offers aircon (ear plugs recommended), fuzzy terrestrial TV (both channels), Wifi (if you are up high enough), free soap, shampoo, toilet rolls, bed sheets and shower curtains – all this for around 15 US Dollars. Well, they’re classy compared to usual backpacker hangouts, anyway.
Throw in a Chinese and Indian quarter, colonial architecture at every turn, and a heap of things to do and sights to see within and beyond the town and it comes as no surprise to learn Georgetown draws travellers by the dhobi-bucketload. And best of all, despite it’s inherent popularity with foreign visitors, you’ll encounter a minimum of hassle and just a smattering of touts.
Granted, at times Penang can be a touch chaotic and appear little rough around the edges. At night, for instance, some areas do become a little seedy (after dark, the shifty ‘you want lady?’ cyclo drivers crawl out from under their rocks) and I wouldn’t consider nocturnal exploration armed with any more cash than I require pints of Guinness.
In addition to the potential hazards above ground, others also lay below. While wandering through Georgetown you forever run the risk of consumption by storm drain. One moment you’re weaving around a motorbike parked across the pavement, or marvelling at the intricate mouldings above a Sino-Portuguese shop house, and the next you’re approaching terminal velocity in an altogether downward direction quicker than you can say ‘AWOL paving slab’. In Georgetown, this can happen in a trice. Particularly at night, and particularly if you’ve already saved a fortune in a bar promoting export Guinness at dangerously low prices. Nevertheless, in my opinion, Penang’s pros (please excuse the pun) still outweigh the cons. Tenfold.