Penang – the padlock, the museum and the mall

Penang – the padlock, the museum and the mall
Tanjung Bungah, Malaysia

Tanjung Bungah, Malaysia

Everyone had gone. In my dungeon room it was dark, but still early. Then the door opened, the light went on and the bin rustled as it was emptied. 8.45 – there’s getting ahead with the cleaning and then there’s a disruptively early start.

A large, gree cannon points out to sea
Sri Rambai cannon looking out.

I was a bit surprised, to say the least, but stoically lay it out and slept on once they’d finished. They may only have started with my room because half the room had checked out, leaving very early. I now think for transport rather than touring, but at the time it made me feel lazy. Fate had made me hang around, though, because I was needed; I’d already had a nice wave from the Chinese girl who moved in to the bed next to mine (checking in at 9, what the hell is going on?) but now I was up and she had spotted my super padlock busting skills. 000 the default combination, but she’d locked her bag for the first time and was now locked out of it. In a jiffy (ten minutes of struggle) I had found 024 worked, and she was in.

I swished my cape and left.

Actually we talked for a bit. We’re headed in opposite directions, so as with Steve in Korea and Karen in Cambodia, I was able to pass on my excess currency, though there wasn’t much left thanks to the willingness of yesterday’s money changer to take small Thai bills.

A man leans forward, sleeping on his moped, in the shade
Sleep where you can.

I wandered into town, sweltering gently. Penang is really the name of the island, George Town the place, but they are used interchangeably. I planned to see Fort Cornwallis and then Penang museum, but stumbled on the museum first. It has an introduction to the history of the place that reminded me of Eddie Izzard’s skit on America;

“Ah, here we are, to claim this new land, an empty land”
‘Excuse me?”
“Yes, a land devoid of people, we shall settle here”
“…who the **** are these guys?”

Penang was already occupied, of course, when Captain Light came upon the ‘desolate’ place as he saw it. It came to be British, through fouler means than foul, failing to support the local ally when he was under risk of attack, then decisively beating him when he aimed to then retake Penang (leased by the British under the condition that they provide military support) and signing a contract to keep it. Though even there, there’s debate:

“Contrary to accepted history, Pulau Pinang was neither leased, granted nor ceded by any written treaty or agreement.”

The museum also comments on its multicultural origins, people from all over SE Asia and further abroad settled here, though it’s predominantly Indian, Chinese and Malay; a heady mix. I found the history gallery upstairs more interesting than the cultural ones downstairs, and upstairs also has lots of interesting art showing the place as it looked in colonial times. The whole place is undergoing refurbishment; I don’t think much was covered up, except for what looked like old cars in the courtyard. Pity, but for a ringiit entry fee, I’m not complaining.

No. 149 advertising on the street. Pastel-yellow and white buildings are crumbling
Old and crumbling.

The fort is a large open space, most notable for the comical order, and faded print, of the history boards in the gallery and for the cannons up top, including the Sri Rambai cannon. The fort was thrown up in a hurry, then rebuilt when it looked like the French might invade, but it was never used in anger, and Penang was never to be a naval base so the fort was never that important. It fits with the gently faded nature of much of the history of the town. I was amused to explore a behind the scenes area and find it full of signs for the big running race here – May, from what I’ve read. Half marathon this way, 10km fun run turn. As if a runner can just sniff these things out.

In the afternoon I walked to the mall. As the guidebook points out, the small street front shops with distinctive colonial arches are more emblematic of Penang, but it’s interesting to see the old by the new, and my walk took me past several mom and pop type stalls before I hit the mall. It’s more like an indoor market, with lots of little stalls and goods spilling out, than a western mall, and like other Asian countries has themed areas; in particular, the electronics section is separate. At the top, where many lots are empty, there’s a deserted walkway to the Komtar building next door; you then have to walk down steps to actually get in, and even down one level from the height of the previous mall, this one seems desolate. It gets better further down, but certainly seems like a ‘we were alright till they built the big one’ place. I managed to replace some dissolving underwear in a ‘but one get two free’ place. All this way for next and debenhams pants. Back in the first mall, I was surprised at the hooky lego. They’ve lost their patent on interlocking bricks now, so cheap competitors are available in the west, but these were knock offs of some of their range, the ninjas becoming ‘spinjitsu’ masters, some with their own ‘Lego’ logo. Beco, indeed. Ultimately I was just disappointed there was no hooky Star Wars range – too long a legal reach to be taken on, perhaps.

Me, in front of the Fort Cornwallis sign
Fort Cornwallis.

The food part of the supermarket – in the basement, where food belongs in Asian malls – had chocolate, even dairy milk, so I polished off a whole bar of some local fruit and nut. Too hot to leave it in the bag, you see. Yesterday’s long run will have to do as mitigation, given that my ankle feels a bit spoilt by that run. Oops. A bit of rest will probably do me no harm, though it’ll be a pity not to run to and through the botanical gardens. At 6km or so away, they’re a good distance hence for an exploratory run.

I stumbled over a half marathon and full marathon sign, tucked away behind the fort
Behind the scenes at the fort. A runner can smell these things

The evening was the opposite of the one before. Last night, the dark windowless dorm had been a curtly friendly place, for me to sleep. Tonight, I wandered in at 7 to get something and was there for two hours, catching up with the Chinese girl and my three Malaysian roommates. Neatly, there was one from each majority ethnic group, broadly (it isn’t as if they’re clearly delineated, and it was interesting hearing them debate who had which extra languages, from a choice of English, Hokaimee (I’ve got this wrong, I’m sure) and Cantonese. Around 9 Rainier and I were hungry, and the other Malay girl was in penang essentially to eat and so joined us. That have me a guard of honour in the food court, talking about their experiences of these outdoor spaces with plenty of different stalls arranged scattergun, often run by a family for years and years. I could see a western couple at the next table looking over enviously, and after a while one of them popped over to ask what I was having. Penang is made for eating – down many of the streets, particularly in the UNESCO area buffer zone, where I was staying, have such food stalls, there night after night and selling fresh cooked food for a pound or so. As I’d found, people go there to eat, so I felt no shame in trying one dish and then another. My appetite may have shifted a little to the smaller portions (even the cornettos are smaller!) but I can still eat twice without breaking sweat.

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