Georgetown is like nowhere else on earth, well at least not like I have ever seen. A scorching hot mishmash of cultures, flavours, smells and architecture. The place where a British colonial past meets traditional Malay, Muslim, Indian and Hokkien. A big, busy city on a tiny, tropical island. Or, as more people know it, the food capital of Southeast Asia. Coming to Georgetown was like coming home for me. It was exactly 2 years since I had list visited, and back then I had opted to live in a cabin on the side of the hill, surrounded by pristine jungle and within the open arms of the local Buddhist sanctuary. The place is heaven on an island, and it was the first time I fell in love with Malaysia.
It was a short yet scenic train trip from Taiping to Butterworth, the mainland component of the area known as Penang. The palms swayed gently and people were out in the fields tending to their crops, livestock and rice. The train pulled into the distinctly un-photogenic town of butterworth, and we were to follow a series of corridors, stairways and signposted walkways until we found ourselves at the ferry dock. The lines were long but the fare equates to less than a dollar, and the journey via sea is faster and considerably more pleasant than taking a bus over the long, traffic jammed bridge.
Our ferry was a moderate sized barge-like creature that held a few cars and a hoard of mostly standing passengers. The far corner housed a makeshift convenience store peddling snacks and fresh fruits. We jostled for a position on the edges, the place to get a good view, and I tucked into a small bag of cubed watermelon with a toothpick as we pulled out from the dock, cheeks pink from the rush of air as we picked up speed along the way. Various recreational and fishing boats are dotted around the outskirts of Georgetown port, and as you pull in closer you can see the multitude of clan jetties jutting out.
The February weather was pleasant and unusually tolerable for mid afternoon George Town. We quickly made our way from the ferry terminal over to the neighboring bus station and hopped aboard the 101 bus, bound for the resort towns and fishing villages north of the city, leaving via Jalan Burma in the central city where we would be disembarking. Our bus ambled through traffic past tremendous Indian restaurants, mosques, Hindu temples and the derelict colonial buildings with iconic street art slathered across.
Pleased to be back in one of my many adopted hometowns, the rest of our time in Penang read a little like a dream vacation. Trips out to eat at Fatty Boy chicken rice – savouring the rich nutty rice and just the right ratio of sesame oil to soy sauce drenching the legendary Hainanese chicken. Afternoons meandering my beloved botanical gardens watching tai chi and monkeys, exploring the hidden gardens where turtles paddled about lazily and plump blue dragonflies flitted about our heads.
Bidding my brother farewell in the early hours of the morning was undoubtedly the most difficult part – he had only limited time off from work and had to catch an early flight back to Melbourne. It had been a joy to introduce him to such wonderful destinations, and show him what a life of travel was really like. As we bid him farewell, we began planning ourselves to fly across to Thailand in the coming days.