Driving around in Penang

Penang Fried Kway Teow

I HAVE been reminded that Penang drivers have a notorious reputation for being casual about traffic rules. Many turn abruptly without indication and motorcyclists weave in and out of traffic at their whim.

But such stories weren’t enough to stop me from renting a car to see Penang on wheels. I’m neither fearless nor foolish. I just feel that there is no better way to enjoy a destination than to drive around at my own pace. And, because Penang is an island, I would simply just go round and around if I am lost!

After completing the paperwork for a Bed & Wheels package at the Bayan Lepas International Airport counter, I picked up my car and several maps.  Studying the Motoring Guide and maps, I charted my course for the city hotel. I headed off in the light drizzle, following signs pointing to Georgetown.  I did not even panic when roadworks led me off-course on a detour. The city’s road system was generally on a grid, but I quickly found my bearings and made a few more turns to get back on track.

For the next couple of days, I pored over the maps and after a few more wrong turns along the same roads, I began to recognise landmarks and one-way routes.  Finally, with a newly-acquired confidence, I no longer needed maps to get around!

Fruit & Laksa

Leaving the busy city streets, I found the traffic smooth all the way through Tanjung Tokong, Tanjung Bungah and Batu Ferringhi. Since it was off-peak hours, I had a stress-free drive. I observed how old shops and kampung houses stood in stark contrast to soaring condos close to the hillsides.  Beach hotels dotted the coastline and I caught views of the sea which glittered like a thousand diamonds in the morning sunlight!

As the road climbed steeper and wound around green hills, I spotted clusters of durian trees heavy with fruit. With fruit in mind, the Tropical Fruit Farm was an ideal stop for a light refreshment break.  There, I met Roslan Sayaf, aka Ali, who was filmed in a documentary with Andrew Zimmern, travel chef and host of Bizarre Foods, when the latter sampled durian at the farm.  The affable Ali recommended freshly squeezed juice of acerola fruit or Japanese crab apple, fruit rojak and a fruity ABC (ais batu campur) or shaved ice topped with mango paste and watermelon, filled with jackfruit, papaya and honeydew!

Refreshing chendol [Top] and Assam Laksa [Bottom]

The scenic drive continued through lush greenery to Balik Pulau which means “back of the island”, a market town synonymous with durian. I sniffed around but while there was plenty of local produce like cloves and nutmegs, the King of Fruit was not in season yet.

Instead of going further south, I turned off to Air Hitam for the famous asam laksa that the Ang family had been dishing out for over 45 years. Located outside the Air Hitam market, the stall was packed as usual. One steaming bowl of rice noodles in spicy and sour fish gravy later, my lips were burning, nose running and eyes watering but I left the place utterly satisfied.

After that delightful meal, a brisk walk at nearby Kek Lok Si was just what I needed. Construction work was still going on to expand this largest Buddhist temple complex in South East Asia but this did not deter devotees and tourists from climbing up the seven-storey pagoda.  There, I had a panoramic view of the island and when I looked around the temple grounds, I was thrilled to see a young Muslim family on the steps, posing for photos! Well, harmony is still alive in our multi-religious setup.

City Sojourn

House where P. Ramlee was born

I then went in search of the birthplace of legendary actor, director, singer, composer and film icon, P. Ramlee. I followed the map and found my way quite easily to Rumah P. Ramlee in, where else but Jalan P. Ramlee!

Walking reverently through the wooden house built by his father and uncle in 1926, I was thrilled to know I was in the house where he was born on March 22, 1929.  Here too, I learned that the “P” in his name stood for ‘Puteh’. 

Viewing his personal memorabilia gave me the strangest sensations, especially when I stood in front of his favourite mirror where he was known to spend 30-45 minutes daily, styling his famous wavy hair with a blend of several oils!

Entrance to one of the chambers in Pinang Peranakan House

I left the house and soon found myself caught in a traffic snarl, so I decided to park at one of the shopping malls and take a walk to several city sites.  I spent hours in the Penang Museum and the Pinang Peranakan House, soaking in the island’s history and came away with a better appreciation of its culture heritage.

The mixed cultural elements from Malay, Chinese to Indian to Nonya and British came alive as I walked through the streets, observing traders and vendors, elegant building architecture and colourful street scenes near Lebuh Campbell and Lebuh Kimberley. 

In Lorong Ngah Aboo, off Lebuh Kimberly, I joined the locals on the sidewalk for a bowl of koay teow th’ng or flat rice noodles in clear soup topped with slices of juicy duck.

Wall-to-wall second-hand books!

No trip can be complete without shopping so I made time for some retail therapy. After browsing around the shops along Jalan Penang, I plucked up enough courage to venture up to the quiet first floor of Chowrasta Market to see what’s in store for book buffs like me. I walked through a labyrinth of clothing and textile stalls and, after a moment’s hesitation, ventured deeper in where along dimly-lit corridors were stalls lined wall-to-wall with second-hand books!

I was literally walled-in by books and magazines of almost every genre and I soon lost track of time in this book paradise!  When my knapsack was finally filled with books at bargain prices, I made my way to Joo Hooi, an old coffeeshop nearby, for more asam laksa and a refreshing bowl of cendol.

After Dark

A walk along the night market along the main road near the beach hotels in Batu Ferringhi sounded tempting after a satisfying nonya dinner of jiu hu char, lor bak, inche kabin, gulai tumis and prawn sambal, washed down with a warm nutmeg drink.  The drive on the coast road at night was indeed different but the drive back felt so much better especially after successfully haggling for some great bargains and souvenirs.

Shoppers at a stall in Batu Ferringhi night market

Friends familiar with supper fare on the island recommended the prawn noodles (aka Hokkien mee) served in the evenings at a stall in Hot Wok.  As I slurped the rich, spicy prawn soup, I had to agree that this was super.  Other hip and happening nightspots for food and entertainment are New World Park in Swatow Lane and Sahn Teow Lor or Lebuh Presgrave, the third street in the Seven Streets Precinct south of Komtar, which serves great prawn noodles and succulent sui kow or soup dumplings. 

By now, I had picked up some Hokkien words.  I would compliment the cook with ho-chiak (delicious) and watch out for a wide smile and a hearty kam seah (thank you) when I left.

On the final day, I checked out of the hotel with plenty of time to make a stop at Queensbay Mall as well as fill the petrol tank en route to the airport.  As the plane touched down at Johor Baru, I was already planning to see and taste more of Penang on my next Bed & Wheels holiday.

Those interested in such a holiday can contact New Bob Rent-A-Car Tours at Tel: 04-642 1111, fax: 04-642 7777 or visit website: http://www.bobcar.com.my/.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 1 April 2008

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