When I returned to George Town, Penang this year, I conducted some of my explorations on a rented bicycle. These are my adventures.
Cycling is still the best way to get around
The bicycle is probably the fastest way to get around in George Town, second only to the low calibre motorcycle, a ubiquitous form of transport in most parts of Southeast Asia. It’s also a more intimate and uninhibited way of exploring nooks and crannies of the old town that have not already been inundated by tourists. Heat and humidity aside, George Town is mostly flat, which makes it very cycle-able, even for a somewhat clumsy cyclist like me.
Taxis are inexpensive, comfortable and often driven by well-spoken Indian drivers who sound like they teach English Literature for a living. However they are restrictive in that being cooped up in an air-conditioned box prevents you from experiencing the town in all its rawness and authenticity.
Walking doesn’t cover as much distance as cycling in the same amount of time. And you’ll often find yourself braising in your own sweat in just minutes of outdoor traipsing, especially on a windless, sunny day, which can be uncomfortable even for a Southeast Asian native like me.
“One-way can, two-way can, no entry also can!”
George Town has its own navigational quirks which may be scary for some, but which certainly add a touch of adventure to my two-wheeled gallivants. It’s essential that you get the road names exactly right. For example, some tourists confuse Lebuh Penang with Jalan Penang which are essentially two different roads, but Jalan Penang is often referred to as Penang Road by the locals. The tourist maps are unreliable; one-way roads are often indicated as two-way roads and vice versa. On the other hand, two-way roads are often converted into one-way roads without prior notice to make way for special occasions such as Hindu processions, for example. This is when it would make sense for you to go with the flow for the sake of your own sanity. Fortunately in laidback George Town, it’s easy to do so.
I wouldn’t have stumbled upon this Goddess of Mercy Temple if I had not been on a bicycle.
Many roads in George Town are one-way roads, which can make any law-abiding motorist go mad especially if one must drive in circles to reach a destination that is only minutes away by foot. But the locals are awfully forgiving of cyclists – local and foreign – and are always happy to show you the way. A local coffee shop owner I met summarised the magic of travelling on two wheels in one sentence, “One-way can, two-way can, no entry also can!”
You can rent bicycles or motorcycles along Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Chulia
For those who want to cycle but have no intentions of checking in your 24-gear mountain bike at the airport baggage drop – and I wouldn’t encourage that – bicycle and motorcycle rentals have sprung up along Lebuh Pantai and Lebuh Chulia. Bicycle rental rates start from RM8 for five hours while motorcycle rates start from RM30 per day. Be warned that the rented bicycles are very basic, so for your own safety always test your brakes and make sure they work.
To be safe, cycle on the weekends when traffic is light, if non-existent, or keep to the sleepy one-way roads within George Town. To avoid theft, lock your bike when you stop to eat or shop. Just remember to be dressed in suitable clothing including a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses and pack some bottled water and sunscreen. Late afternoons are the best time of the day to cycle.
As you cycle on many of the smaller “lorong”, you will be disheartened to notice that for every shophouse sheltering a family or a local small business, there are tens others which have been shuttered and left to disintegrate to a state of beyond repair. However, since George Town received the World UNESCO Heritage Site status a few years ago, new businesses – some are of the hipster ilk – have shown an interest in the town and have started building their restaurants, inns and internet cafes serving anyone from backpackers to Singapore businessmen on a short break.
Malay actor Datuk Rahim Razali is featured in one of Sherman Ong’s video vignettes.
China House – which straddles Lebuh Victoria and Lebuh Pantai – is home to various artistic and literary spaces, and once again it has partnered the CausewayEXchange Festival (CEX) in providing venues for Singapore artists to showcase their work such as Sandra Lee who is exhibiting a series of whimsical pieces entitled Where The Heart Is. CEX is running from the 1st to 31st of August at various venues in George Town. At Singapore House a few doors down from China House, two Singapore artists are also currently showcasing their work. One of them is photographer Edwin Koo, renowned for his photos of oblivious MRT passengers in action during rush hour; his exhibition is entitled Transit. Filmmaker, visual artist and photographer Sherman Ong is also exhibiting nine video vignettes based on contemporary stories of migrants from all parts of the archipelago. His exhibition is entitled Nusantara: The Seas Will Sing And The Winds Will Carry Us.
The cake in China House is insane! To avoid gaining weight, you’re advised to fast for three days before enjoying the cake here.
Perhaps the most striking of China House’s menu is the 20 to 30 types of cake (from RM8 each) on display daily to cater to all sorts of tastes and dietary requirements. From the classic tiramisu, passionfruit and coconut cake to the whiskey pecan pie and gluten-free hazelnut chocolate torte, the cakes are rustic, real, flavourful and often several inches thick.
The lunch bento and dinner menus offer a fusion of local flavours and tried and tested Western favourites (such as the panfried sea bass topped with “laksa” sauce and served with mango salad), which is clever, and mostly delicious too. However prep time for the main course can take up to 20 minutes, so make sure you order an appetiser and a vino (not too much!) to keep you going.
Many of the original and authentic Penang food stalls and cafés were built in the 1950s and have not been upgraded (or properly scrubbed down) since with the layers of soot and grime set firmly in the walls and floors from decades of cooking. These would be the sort of set-ups that the Singapore National Environment Agency (NEA) would have a field day sending summons to.
The legendary “assam laksa” at Penang Road’s Joo Hooi Cafe.
Joo Hooi Café on Penang Road probably has the best “assam laksa” (RM4) and “rojak petis” (from RM3) in the area. The servings are small but flavourful. The “rojak petis” is a salad of sliced crunchy deep-fried “yu char kuey”, “jambu air”, guava, mango, cured squid (rather than the dried cuttlefish in the Singapore version) and tossed in sweet sauce and chopped nuts. The “assam laksa” is a dish of rice noodles in a broth made from the flesh of “tenggiri” fish (sometimes sardines) cooked with “assam gelugor”, and served with onion slices and mint leaves.
The world-renowned “chendol” stall is also just next door. No matter the time of day, the coconut milk that goes into your bowl of “chendol” (RM2.50) is always freshly-squeezed, which makes this a reliable treat for after your bike rides. However, you must enjoy it standing up. If you’re planning on sneaking in your “chendol” into Joo Hooi Café, you’d better hide it well or you’ll have to pay RM0.50 for the privilege.
There is also the famous Nasi Kandar of Transfer Road, next to Penaga Hotel. What goes into the dish varies from shop to shop but it usually consists of rice, fried chicken and/or a curried squid or fish with the rice soaked with eight to ten types of gravy.
“Room service, memsahib!”
Thanks E&O but what am I supposed to do with the rose petals?
It’s hard NOT to get used to the luxuries of Eastern & Oriental Hotel, especially in the charming old wing. Its large spacious bathrooms on black and white chequered marble floor, two-poster bed, the sound of the waves crashing from the ocean-facing ensuite and the discreet button of happiness that is the Butler Service Switch are throwbacks to a luxurious colonial past. I took a break there with my husband just two weeks before I knew that I was going to be sent to Penang to cover the CEX Festival. So when we returned to the hotel, the staff had thoughtfully scattered red rose petals all over the room thinking that we were still on our honeymoon! Plus, there’s nothing like resting your bones on plush mattress and pillows, especially after a whole day of labouring on your bicycle.
A photo gallery is coming up soon! Stay tuned.