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.