Penang, Malaysia


The journey was arduous.  Three and a half hours by minibus to Hat Yai in the far south of Thailand, where I bought a van ticket to Penang (pronounced pee-NAHNG in Thai and sometimes spelled Pinang).  The driver dropped me off right at a travel agency, which should have been the first red flag, but fool me twice, I didn’t bargain even though my intuition told me I was getting ripped off.  An overland border crossing, where Thai immigration stamped our passports, and on the other side Malaysian immigration scanned our luggage, asking me, “First time in Malaysia?”  No, my second.  I had been to Kuala Lumpur in August.  Then another five hours alternating between speeding down highways and sitting in traffic.  But once we started along the suspension bridge to the island, the city made its shining debut from across the sea, and I was wide awake.  We had arrived.


Georgetown is the capital of the island of Penang.  A UNESCO World Heritage city, British colonial architecture mixed with Chinese and Indian influences give Georgetown its distinct character.  The style of the old shophouses and a multitude of sidewalk cafés are reminiscent of Luang Prabang, Laos.  In contrast to Luang Prabang’s sleepy throwback to bygone era, Georgetown is no quaint time warp, but a fully functioning, congested, modern city.  In the historic district, everyday people go about their business as usual, so it avoids the contrived Disneyland feeling I was complaining about in Hoi An, Vietnam, for example.

Georgetown is easy to explore on foot.  You never know what you will stumble upon around the next corner.  It could be the Mughal-style Kapitan Kelong Mosque and minaret in the Tamil Muslim neighborhood…


…a Hindu shrine in Little India…


…or a Chinese temple on Armenian Street.  My Armenian Café down the block from here earned its spot as my most frequented establishment in Georgetown because it was the only place I could find with halfway decent wifi.  As I learned one morning while desperately running around trying stream the Cubs game on my laptop, Malaysia is kind of in the internet dark ages.  My very-slow-to-load Google search “internet fast penang cafe georgetown” yielded results like, “Unfortunately, Malaysia has the second slowest internet speeds in South East Asia (after the Philippines) so we didn’t find anywhere with very good wifi, though moderate to acceptable speeds are ubiquitous.”  Seriously, more like completely unacceptable.  I have important sports ball to watch here, people!


Lebuh Armenian is also known for its street art.  I have no idea who this guy is, but I got tired of waiting for a clean shot free from people posing for their latest profile pics.


Follow the road east to the Clan Jetties, where Chinese Malay families have lived in stilt houses for generations, and ships moor in the Strait of Malacca.


Considering how little punctuality seems to matter in this part of the world, there sure are a lot of clock towers.  The local time is one hour later than Thailand and the majority of the other ASEAN member states, which confused me constantly.  Penang lies just off the western coast of Peninsular Malaysia, which is due south of Thailand, while East Malaysia is further out to sea and shares the island of Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei, so this is my best guess as to why they use the later time zone.  So does Singapore.


At first glance, the United Buddy Bears installation reminded me of two things: the set of plastic toy balancing bears we had in our old cottage in South Haven, and the world-traveling Cow Parade sculptures that premiered in Chicago in 1999.  While some of the designs were cool—for example, the bears in the photo, representing Sri Lanka, Spain, and South Africa—the concept didn’t feel fresh.  The cow project was great because they kept it simple: paint a cow, and be creative.  Some of the cows were hilarious.  But the idealistic symbolism of nations standing hand in hand for world peace makes attempts at humor, like the United States bear dressed as a goofy version of the Statue of Liberty, feel awkward.  The upright stance of the bears with arms raised looks bizarre.  Certain countries were notably absent, which eroded the message of unity.  Yet I couldn’t tear myself away.  I was compelled to search for the bears from the places I’d been, the places I want to go, the places I forgot existed, the places where my international friends back home and fellow travelers I’ve recently met have come from—Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, India, China, Russia, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Australia, and so many others.  The bears might not have the pizazz the cows did, but they will make sure you know your world geography.


I think this kind of art is more my style, but what is there to say if I have nothing to complain about?


Of course, when I discovered there was a cat café in town, I made a beeline for it.  I’ll take these two hairballs with my passion fruit smoothie, please.


The Cubs are playing in the World Series, and Kyle Schwarber is up to bat?  What’s next, Kanye runs for president?


The infamous Banana Guesthouse on Chulia Street is not much to look at, but it’s known for taking care of visas, which is the real reason I went to Penang in the first place.  I dropped off my paperwork the morning after I arrived in Georgetown, and the following afternoon it was ready for pick up.


I came to Thailand on a multiple-entry tourist visa that was processed at the Thai Consulate in Chicago.  In order to work in Thailand, I needed to get a Non-Immigrant B visa.  Don’t ask me what that means.  The folks over at the Tieland to Thailand blog are much more articulate about this subject than I am, so check out their post on the different types of visas for more information on the rules and regulations, because it can be quite complicated and confusing.  (The average American tourist visiting Thailand for 30 days or less can get a visa on arrival, so not to worry.  That one is easy.)  I’ve blurred out the important numbers so y’all can’t steal my identity, because there can only be one me!


The Camera Museum is worth a quick look if you’re in the neighborhood, but I wouldn’t go out of my way.  I think you really have to enjoy the technical aspects of photography to appreciate it, which I find a little boring.  At this point, I’m more interested in composition and subject matter than apertures and f-stops, although someday I hope to get better at using manual settings.


This old-timey backdrop got me wanting to party like it’s 1908.  More “better late than never” coverage of the World Series in future posts.  For now, this #CubsFanAbroad is signing off until pigs fly and hell freezes over!

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