Our first day in the Georgetown neighbourhood was an endurance test given the heat, humidity, and a smog you almost needed to machete your way through. Once again the smoke/smog in Penang was blamed on the rice field burn-offs and deforestation activities in Sumatra Indonesia and this was easy to believe given the bonfire smell throughout the town. And worst of all the humidity was wreaking havoc on my new Mohawk haircut making it look more like a bad rooster crest.
We had picked up one of those tourist maps with all of the major sites of Georgetown duly numbered so we made it our mission for the day to visit each dot on the map. It was an exhausting but fascinating way to explore a disparate collection of old fishing villages, colonial forts, Chinese mansions, clock towers, as well as the aforementioned temples, churches, and mosques. A little more of neighbouring Singapore in terms of sidewalks and traffic discipline wouldn’t go amiss.
To start our second day we had the good fortune to meet a tightly coiled spring of enthusiasm in the form of Tien, the cab driver. What we were looking for was a ride to some of Penang’s outlying sites; what we got was a pumped up gent who wanted to make sure we saw everything that made him so proud of the area he was living in
. He insisted we check out a couple of places we hadn’t planned on visiting and….we were right- they weren’t such a much but it was great to get caught up in Tien’s excitement. We did see a Snake Temple, a Floating Mosque, took the funicular railway to the top of Penang Hill for the views, but the highlight was Kek Lok Si the "Temple of Supreme Bliss", which is the largest Buddhist temple in SE Asia.
And after months of travel, we were due for a bad hotel experience, and Padang delivered. Our check-in turned into a competitive sport after a bus tour rolled in right behind us and an every-man-for-himself process broke out. Whenever hotels in Asia are full, I’ve found that anyone using discount web sites like booking.com automatically get the short end of the stick when it comes to service and rooms (I think the check-in service is deliberately slowed to give the staff time to clear out the broom closet for you) but we do get the better pricing. When we finally made it to our broom closet/room, it was immediately obvious that this was a room in which smoking was allowed/encouraged (any non-smokers who have been sentenced to the purgatory of a smoking room know of what I speak) and for the first time in 10 months of travel we insisted on another room. We were moved to the non-smoking side of the hotel (same floor but the only way to get there was to cart all of our bags down to the lobby and take the separate elevator up on the other side) to an even more bizarrely small room with an unusable shape that seemed to have been wrapped around support columns
. After about 30 minutes of sleep we were blasted awake by an open air band just down the street (Malaysians, like Indonesians have not figured out the adjustment properties of any speaker volume dials so everything sits on MAX). Down to the lobby I go to find out how long this window-rattling Malaysian Idol festival is allowed to play, only to be told by the deer-in-the-headlights receptionist that they would be playing until 2:00am as if that was the most natural thing in the world (keeping in mind that we had to shout at one another to be heard). The only room they had left that was at the rear of the hotel was- you guessed it- back on the smoking side of this fine establishment. It was at least a room you could swing a small cat around in (or, in my mind, a hotel receptionist) and after a heavy application of a spray that was only slightly better than the stale smoke it was supposed to mask, we gagged our way to sleep. End of story?? Not quite. Our experience with the free/included buffet breakfast in Asia has been hit and miss (usually ‘miss’) but there’s normally something available to get your day going (although not necessarily identifiable)- the scene that greeted us after a sleepless night was straight out of the Night Of The Living Dead movie. The greed fest of pushing and shoving, shouting, flying food, screaming kids (MAX volume), and- you guessed it- smoking, was enough to make us ache for a big bowl of Cheerio’s on the back deck of our long abandoned Ontario home! And like many bad movies, we tried to see it through to the finish assuming it had to get better but after three nights it only got worse and we scampered out of town.
It’s been said that America is the ultimate melting pot with any new citizens expected to blend in with a minimum of fuss and begin their pursuit of the dream, and that Canada is the ultimate patchwork quilt where diversity is encouraged and supported by the state. Blending can result in a significant loss of colour and character, but state sanctioned diversity can lead to worst kinds of tribalism (witness Quebec) with the idea of ‘Canadian’ taking a distant back seat. Malaysia in general, and Penang specifically seems to have figured out how to blend populations without losing diversity-as we wandered some of the ancient streets of Georgetown, it was not unusual to see a Hindu temple next to a church which was next to a mosque, which was next to a Chinese Buddhist temple, and absolutely none of the locals saw anything out of the ordinary with this. Outside of the 5 am loudspeaker calls to prayer which anyone safely in that dreamy REM sleep would struggle with, the community reveled in the idea of being “same, same, but different”