|"Allo," "Allo Penang Style|
by Sally Hammond
" 'Allo? 'Allo! What you want pay? I give you very good price!" Their voices chase me as I slowly climb the steps towards Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia, and whenever I pause, they shout again, "'Allo? Five dollar? OK!"
There are hundreds of steps leading to this most ornate of temples combining Chinese, Thai and Burmese architecture. At the end of the climb is the magnificent temple of the 10,000 Buddhas, and a tortoise pond where hundreds of the creatures plod around in a swampy soup, tussling each other for strands of water weed. Crowned by a thirty-metre, seven-tier pagoda – Ban Po Thar – every Penang visitor writes this place on their must-see list.
Yet the approach to the temple is every bit as fascinating as the glittering red and gold and blue edifice at the top. The steps are lined with dozens of trader's stalls selling every possible temptation – copy-watches, fake designer clothes, ersatz French perfume, makeup, shoes, fans, shell jewellery, souvenirs. You could (and I did) buy all your take-home presents right here and spend little more than 100 ringgit (A$50).
But first you must understand the process: touch something and the eagle-eyed attendants will notice instantly and assume you are hot to buy it! "You li-i-ike?" they will croon. "I give you very good price. How much you want to pay?" And then it is on. Name a price. A ridiculous price. A third of what you would be prepared to pay. They will roll their eyes, looking hurt and surprised at your lack of discernment, and treble your offer. The game has begun. Of course if you had no intention of buying or do not even like the object, you are in real trouble. After dropping the asking price lower and lower, while you still shake your head and then walk off, they are at a loss to understand such strange Western ways. A bargain must always be snapped up, regardless of desire!
If you really want the seed pearl necklace or leather sandals, though, play on. Eventually, even if you pretend to walk off sadly shaking your head, muttering 'too much, too much', they will follow you halfway to the temple – " 'Allo? 'Allo...". And they know they can often catch you on the way down again.
Penang (Pulau Pinang if you are a local) is a 285 square kilometre jewel of an island pinned just off the northwest lapel of peninsular Malaysia, in the Straits of Malacca. The name means 'Island of Betel Nut'. There are many of these palms on Penang and sometimes you will see the reddened teeth of confirmed betel nut chewers. Predating Australia's colonisation by just two years, Penang was the first British trading post in the Far East and set the style which it still struts: commerce and trade feature at all levels from the sleek 60-storey Komtar tower that dominates Georgetown the island's capital, with tremendous views from the top, to our friends on the temple steps.
Like the rest of Malaysia, the climate is tropical and often stormy, with most days punctuated by a downpour that clears the air and cools everything temporarily, but leaves the roads steaming. If this contributes to accidents, it would be hard to tell as Penang's roads are narrow and winding and the ubiquitous motor scooters that zap in an out between larger vehicles must try the powers of the gods their riders look to for protection.
Georgetown is a modern swarming city, with a British Colonial accent. Here the streets are jammed with pedestrians and bikes, bicycle-propelled trishaws and leftover lorries from the days of British rule. While you'll find department stores as classy as any in Singapore, with hours extending till 10pm each night, the smaller street-level traders with names as colourful as their wares – Kedai Hang On, Dilly Deli, Mee Fatt Too – are the places to browse.
Occasionally you will be surprised by some street theatre, as we were, when rounding a corner we almost fell onto an ornate stage, brilliant with gold lettering and scrolls, red hangings and intricate decoration. A moment later the music began, and we hot-footed to a respectable distance from the clashing gongs and cymbals. Beside us a mother swayed to the music. Her toddler, which she held up to see the goings-on, had a splash of dried powder on its forehead. A cooling ash, she told us, and we saw many infants in this hot place who had received the same treatment.
Because of the long period of British rule, many people speak English, there are regular English newspapers, TV programmes and signs. Even those that are in Bahasa Malay, the language of Malaysia, often have similarities that make understanding them much easier. You do not have to be a linguist to work out what Bas Sekolah, printed down the sides of the yellow buses that dominate many roads after school, means. There are Ristorans, Keliniks, Teksis and Kelabs. And if the words leave you groping for meaning, their context will soon help out.
There is a language, though, that speaks all tongues. And Penang is perhaps the best place to taste the food which is a perfect blend of the ethnic mix of Malaysia – Malay, Chinese and Indian. Here you can dawdle at hawker's stalls rich with pungent mysterious flavours that speak of the multicultural past of this country at the crossroads of trade and travel. Go to the Esplanade, or Gurney Drive or Gottlieb Street in Georgetown and try Penang laksa, mee rebus, Hokkien noodles, fresh fish grilled before your eyes, or collect some friends and grab a round formica table right on the footpath and stoop through the steam of a hot pot as you dip skewers of meat and vegetables into the broth.
Of course you can go to a ristoran and sit amongst the locals who will smile and move over to give you more elbow room to shovel the thick yellow noodles from your small round bowl. They will be eating unidentifiable mixtures of slippery greens, rice, egg and meats and after a while you won't even notice the pervading smell of dried fish and hot oil and spices. Of course you must be careful. The washing up standards, particularly of the bicycle-drawn hawker's stands, may cause you alarm, but if you are truly worried, BYO. Invest in some cheap plastic plates and spoons from a supermarket and choose food that is being cooked as you watch, at high heat, and avoid anything that may have stood too long.
Best of all, is the fruit you will find everywhere. In season there are mangosteens pearl-white inside their purple shells, hairy red or yellow rambutans with flesh like lychees, pomelo, jackfruit, and fresh coconuts, chopped open and served with a spoon for the slippery soft flesh, and a straw for the cooling water. Best of all, don't be put off by its reputation. Try the 'king of fruits', the much-maligned durian. Banned by hotels and airlines because of what some call an offensive odour, durian is a wondrous creamy golden delight once you brave its enormous prickles and shell as tough as a coconut. You need a small axe to split it but the vendor will do that expertly, and then your only requirement is a relaxing spot to sit and enjoy it, slowly, for it is royally rich.
Penang, at just 35 minutes flying time from Kuala Lumpur, and not much more from Singapore is virtually on the doorstep of any Asian stopover. Once there you can pickup a rental car from your hotel to travel independently all over the island. A round island drive takes only a couple of hours and there is much to see. South of Georgetown, towards the airport, is the famous Snake Temple where venomous reptiles, dopey with incense, forget their antipathy to humans and coil around anyone or anything that gets in the way.
On the western side you will see fruit plantations, nutmeg and clove trees, roadside stalls and native kampungs (villages). In the north you can explore a fishing village, the world's first tropical butterfly park, the dazzling beaches of Batu Ferringhi, with their almost-as-brilliant tourists who stay at the dozen or so 5-star hotels and resorts in the area, as well as a 33-metre reclining Buddha in a temple with a name almost as long: Wat Chayamankalarum.
Poking into the clouds centrally in the island is the 821-metre Penang Hill, made accessible by a funicular railway. The half-hour almost vertical ascent yields fabulous views if you're game to look, and the air at the top is many degrees cooler than sweltering Georgetown spread below. There are shops and places to eat (of course, this is Malaysia) and a mosque and gardens.
Whatever you do, don't leave Penang without a trip to the Botanical Gardens, thirty hectares of flowers, jungle, and monkeys. Arm yourself with peanuts and tiny sugar bananas, but be prepared for conflict, for while the smaller hairy red rascals are irresistibly picture-cute, their daddies and grand-daddies are after as much food as their cheek-sacs will hold.
I can resist the baby monkeys. I can hold out against those bargains, and I can, in time, I reckon, even resist the urge to sample yet another new food in Penang. But the hardest thing to resist – I find – is the urge to return.
It makes sense. 'Allo is so much easier to say than Goodbye.
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