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  • Writer's pictureRick

West Malaysia Day 17: Connecting the Memories of Penang

I stepped out of Grand Swiss Hotel at 8:30am but felt like 7am. The sky was cloudy but with few dark clouds. There were no immediate signs of an oncoming heavy rain but it would also not be a hot day.

I made my way to Bee Hwa Cafe (鎂華茶室), which was mentioned online as one of those great places for Penang Hokkien mee and the nearest to the hotel. All tables were already taken up when I stepped into the cafe 10 minutes later. I thought I needed to share a table but a staff showed me to the next door with more empty tables.

I ordered Penang Hokkien mee and coffee, deliberately specifying “white coffee kosong”. A milk coffee came without sugar. Similar to Ipoh, “white coffee” was always served with milk in Penang. The Hokkien mee soup came next with lots of ingredients including prawns — Hokkien mee was also called “prawn mee” in Penang, but they were different noodle dishes elsewhere. The prawn soup was so nice that I downed half of it before I could stop myself.

After breakfast, I scouted the surrounding area, including the new Chowrasta Market and the streets around Lebuh Campbell and Lebuh Cintra. Most of the shops were still closed after 10am.

Unlike the smaller old towns of Malacca and Ipoh, Penang’s Georgetown was too large. I could remember most of the landmarks in the smaller towns but not very well for Georgetown. My memories of this town were in pieces. This could be due to the tons of changes that had taken place here — few things matched those in my memories.

At the intersection of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Campbell, I came across Toh Soon Cafe (多春茶座) right beside Ban Heang (万香饼家), a shop selling local products and Chinese pastries. The cafe, which served mainly kopi, toasts and nasi lemak, had a waiting queue and seemed pretty popular.

I remembered Ban Heang but I could not remember seeing Toh Soon Cafe 7 years ago. As I just had my breakfast, I decided to explore the nearby streets before coming back to the cafe.

About an hour later, I came to the intersection of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee and saw a stall selling cendol at the foot of a large mural. I had memory of me ordering the cendol at this stall and eating it in a shop several metres into the lane. But I did not know that the stall’s name was Penang Road Famous Teochew Cendul — they had several outlets in Johor Bahru and I had been to two of them. Anyway, since I was here and thirsty, might as well have it again. I had to stand and eat in one corner this time because the shop was not opened.

Although Penang cendol did not have the familiar flavour of gula melaka, like Malacca cendol, it was still nice, refreshing and not too sweet.

Then, I went back to Toh Soon Cafe for its roti bakar (toasts), the queue was much shorter at 11:15am, and I got a table after a short wait. Their toasts were customisable from types of grilled bread to types of spread (any 2 out of 4 available). I ordered a black charcoal sesame bread with butter-kaya spread and Toh Soon’s self-roasted kopi-o. The black bread with sesame aroma was pretty obvious and very nice.

Was I overeating again? Nope, the cendol was beverage and my next meal could be hours away.

I overheard a conversation by a Malaysian couple tourists to Penang asking the cafe staff what to eat in the vicinity. Two out of three of what he recommended were known to me — in fact, one of them was my next destination.

After leaving Toh Soon Cafe, I took a slow stroll to Jalan Siam. It would be a 17 minutes’ walk if I did not lose my way but I was in no hurry. It was not difficult finding my way to Siam Road Char Koay Teow using Google Maps. But, instead of a coffee shop where I used to wait for an hour for the char kway teow to be cooked at a mobile cart-stall, I came to a shop. The mobile cart-stall was parked outside the shop and dishes of char kway teow were still being cooked at the stall and served to waiting customers seated in the shop.

I miscalculated. I was expecting a long queue, but there were none on a weekday at 12:30pm. Anyway, I was able to have a table to myself and did not wait long for my char kway teow. I also had a red nutmeg drink.

The queue started forming after I finished my delicious meal. So, I was early.

After so much eating, it was time to exercise. I decided to take a long hike to Swetterham Pier Cruise Terminal, about 3.5Km to a far corner of Georgetown, and checked out some spots along the way.

The first spot I came to was Pusat Penjaja Lebuh Cecil, or Cecil Street Food Court, known to locals as “七条路巴刹”. The food court had sheer numbers of food stalls and was a food haven for those who knew it.

Next was Armenian Street with the iconic “Two kids on a bicycle” mural. It was pretty quiet or probably because it was a weekday. When I last visited the street 7 years ago, it happened to be on Penang Day and this street was crowded with lots of activities going on. 10 minutes to glance through the area and I moved on.

I took a coffee break at The Postcard Shop — I had passed by the shop the day before when walking from the jetty to Grand Swiss Hotel. The Postcard Shop was more a cafe than a shop selling postcards. I had an Italian iced coffee. Unlike affogato where a scoop of vanilla ice cream was added to hot espresso, the Italian iced coffee had cold espresso added to 3 scoops of vanilla ice cream.

At the side of the cafe was a familiar mural of “Grandma and soy milk” (similar to another mural in 2nd Concubine Lane of Ipoh) and “children on swing”. Between the two murals was a warehouse-like lane, called 35@Jetty or 潮人居, with arts and antiques on display. The back of The Postcard Shop was also connected to the lane.

At Swetterham Pier, the gates were closed and an officer at a police post informed me that all ferries to Langkawi were “no more” — I learnt later that it was suspended since the outbreak of COVID-19 and had not resumed operation since. Why? My intention to travel to Langkawi from Penang was thwarted. This called for a "change of plan" — but there was no plan to begin with.

Since I was in the cluster of colonial buildings of Georgetown, I took photos of the historical structures while working my way back towards the hotel. I also checked out the perimeters of Fort Cornwallis — it was undergoing "moat re-installation" yet there was no discounts or waiver on the entrance tickets.

While walking back on Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, I came across some religious sites along one road. It started with St. George's Anglican Church, followed by Goddess of Mercy Temple, then Sri Mahamariamman Temple and finally Kapitan Keling Mosque. It was interestingly similar to Malacca Old Town and Singapore's Chinatown where the different religious sites were located along the same road.

Last stop was Lorong Love (Love Lane) — I stumbled on it actually. I thought it was an area where I had not visited before until I saw the giant mural of an old man on a row boat, named "The Boatman" by Julia Volchkova. Yes, I was here in 2017 but I could not remember anything along the lane except the mural.

I was back at Grand Swiss Hotel around 4pm, having walked more than 5Km, took a cold shower and planned for the next day. Since the ferry link between Penang Island and Langkawi Island was still suspended, I decided to U-turn at Penang instead of going by land to Kuala Perlis and catching a ferry to Langkawi there. Beaches and sea-sports were not exactly my cup of tea anyway.

I made some bookings for transport to Taiping on the following day and also a hotel. Why I did not extend a couple of days in Penang? Well, apart from food, I did not quite like what I saw here.

There were too many beggars and vagrants in Georgetown and they were usually seen at tourist spots or religious sites pestering tourists for money. Not that there were no beggars in other cities — I had seen them on this journey from Johor Bahru to Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh — but Penang had a sheer number of them. It was not a recent issue but had always been so for many years. This gave Penang a really undesirable impression. Foreign visitors should not be the one to shoulder a country’s social responsibilities.

At 7pm, I went out for dinner. I came to a spot called “Chulia Street Hawker” outside Xi Nan Coffee shop (西南咖啡厅), which was not far from the hotel. I ordered 10 satays (5 beef and 5 mutton) from a hawker stall and consumed them in Xi Nan where I got an iced drink.

I searched online and found a cafe called Narrow Marrow which served some great cakes and drinks made with toddy. I wanted to try both their plain toddy and special toddy cocktails with cake. When I reached the cafe after a 10 minutes’ walk from Xi Nan Coffee Shop, it was not opened — it closed on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Sigh. Not fated.

8pm, back at hotel.

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