It’s all about art
After one last day snorkeling around the sea cucumbers and relaxing on the white sand of Haad Yao beach it was time to say goodbye to Thailand and we headed towards Malaysia. Our first destination: Georgetown on the island of Penang on the North Western coast of the peninsular part of the country, about a two hours minibus drive from the border.
We reached Georgetown by 10pm, after 13 hours of another Thai style journey starting at the Ko Pha Ngan peer at 7 am. A Thai style trip basically means you buy a ticket from a travel agent to a destination X which is sold as being direct, but you end up stopping at each major transport hub along the way and being permanently shifted from one vehicle to another. We started our trip in the Raja ferry from Ko Pha Ngan to the jetty on the mainland, then were led to a coach driving us to Surat Thani, where some Thai guy took us to a travel agent to check our onward tickets and passports, then another Thai guy drove us on the platform of a pick-up to another travel agent, where – after waiting for one hour – we were consigned into a minivan to Hat Yai, stopping at another travel agent to check our onward tickets and passports and then got on another minivan, which finally took us across the border and into Georgetown. On Thai style journeys nothing is guarantied when it comes to travel times or comfort, but as far as our experience tells us: follow their lead and you will reach your destination somehow, some time.
Pulau Pinang reminded us in many aspects of Florianópolis, the Brazilian island city where Javier and me met – or rather of what it could look like if the regional government of Santa Catarina pursued all the urban development plans recently approved to foster Brazilian upper class style tourism. Most of Penang’s coastline is framed by skyscrapers, hosting holiday apartments for mainland Malay and Arabic holiday makers escaping the summer heat in their respective countries.
Named after the British King George III, Georgetown is the capital of Pulau Pinang and also constitutes the old part of the islands growing urban area. Founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, a trader of the East India Company, as a base for the company in the Malay states, the colonial district of Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008. This coronation seems to have woken up Sleeping Beauty from its long dormancy, as restoration of the crumbling colonial district and preparation for the ever since increasing number of tourists started only recently.
Still there is a lot of time, space and disorder left for Georgetown to become a completely polished tourist diamond. Today, large part of its ancient and chaotic charm of small old style shops around Chinatown and little India and especially the uncountable amount of street food stalls remain – a reason why locals like to refer to the city as food paradise.
Pulau Pinang is one part of Malaysia where the majority of the population is of Chinese origin and still the streets all over the island – but most particularly the old city center -display the perfect stereotype of an old Chinese provincial settlement stuck in time. The strangest types of shops one can imagine, – the most weird among them a traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy – shop fronts exclusively written in Chinese, the pervasive smell of noodle soup and fried chicken in the air and beautiful old Taoist temple buildings hidden between the overgrown balconies of the colonial houses. A paradise for every bohemian.
Georgetown is furthermore famous for its street art projects, spread over the whole area of the old town. One of the most remarkable projects was realized by ASA (Artists for Stray Animals) association, who scattered hundreds of sculptures, mural paintings and graffities of cats around the colonial districts in order to increase awareness of stray cats – and there are definitely loads of them inhabiting the streets of Penang, maybe even more than humans.
Even though most of Pulau Pinang’s surface has already been sacrificed for urban development, the North Western corner of the island still remains intact forest, protected by a national park area hosting numerous animals and a beautiful bit of pristine tropical jungle, surrounded by natural beaches. Well maintained treks allow to explore the forest by foot, so we tried to forget the Malaysian heat for a while and walked 3km up and down the hills in order to reach Turtle Beach – without any turtle anywhere besides some poor little ones floating around in a basin put up in front of the mighty National Turtle Preservation Center, located in a small wooden cottage at the end of the beach.
Swimming was not allowed, as the water was said to be packed with jellyfish – at least we spotted some of those to we unanimously decided the beach should be renamed after them. So after some time recovering from the walk with some pineapples, a boat came to fetch us and drove us about 15 minutes to Monkey Beach. The way there led us along a beautiful forest panorama, where we could spot several birds, among them the Kingfisher and a special kind of eagle, so we felt kind of compensated for the lack of turtles on Turtle Beach.
Monkey Beach actually hosts loads of monkey families of two distinct species, both different from the ones we’d seen in India. One of the most remarkable differences was, that those monkeys were actually shy and wouldn’t let humans come too close to them, while the Indian monkeys had been fully socially integrated thieves.
Unfortunately, we were not the only ones trying to get a glimpse on the monkeys. While Turtle Beach had been practically deserted, we had to share the stretch of sand there with several Indian and (seemingly) Arabic families on holidays in Penang, most of them with a bunch of adolescent kids more interested in having a Coke while jumping into the water than creeping after the primates. The having-Coke-in-the-water business was obviously accompanied by a certain level of noise, so this time it took a lot of time, patience and maximum zoom to capture some of the monkeys on a picture.
A mystical place full of surprises, beautiful sights and a rare diversity of delicious food at budget rates, Georgetown is definitely a place worth coming back to some day.