Breakfast was served on the dot at 8 am. The sunny side up eggs on two buttered toasts and ham came after the fruits, mango juice and layered cake were polished off. Without any hesitation I was given a second helping of the coconut based cake, which is supposed to be a local delicacy. The hotel staffs are so pleasant that it rubs off on you. Thereafter, I walked to the bus stand of rapid Penang and took the 30 minute ride to Air Itam, which is about 6 km from George Town. When I was here in 2000 Beena and I could not take the funicular railway ride up to the summit because the place was swarming with tourists and we did not have the time to wait our turn. This day the number of tourists was low and I purchased the RM30 ticket for a 2 way ride. I took a place in the first cab so that I could get a frontal view of the ride up the hill through dense forests.
The funicular railway was built between 1906 and 1923. Presently Swiss made coaches form the train and nearly 100 passengers can be accommodated in each train that maintains a headway of 30 minutes during peak time. The 2000 meter ride takes about six minutes. Normally the ride is completed in one stretch, but the train stops at intermediate stations on request. One of the highlights of the ride is the crossing of trains on the single line section of railway track. The trains pass through the loop without stopping. Alternatives to the funicular ride is the 5 km ‘jeep track’ road that is available only to local residents and a challenging trek.
Penang Hill is a hill resort and is also known by its Malay name Bukit Bendera. A large hoarding on the Hill proclaims that a visit to Penang is not complete without a visit to Penang Hill. It’s true if one goes by the photographs I have seen from that vantage location of the valley below, town, bridges and beaches. I was not lucky this day to get clear and unhindered views of George Town and the rest of the island because of low hanging clouds that progressively got thicker and darker till it started raining. Tourists visit the Owl Museum, aviary and tea estate on the Hill, as well as the centres of worship. I hung around for quite some time on the Hill hoping that Nature would lift the veil of clouds and show me the dazzling face of the island. It was not to be and I left as soon as I felt the first drops of rain sprinkle my face.
I took a short nap in the bus on the ride back to George Town. I woke up just as the bus had reached the stop where I had to get off to walk to the hotel. I wanted to try the many local delicacies that were listed on the hotel notice board, prime among them being Laksa and Char kway teow before leaving Penang. With this in mind I turned into a small restaurant that mentioned prominently that it served Laksa, among many other foods. I hesitated a bit for I did not know how to order a portion of it. A waiter of Indian origin helped me do that. I also ordered a glass of iced Nescafe. There wasn’t a free table in the restaurant and hence, I asked a person sitting alone at a four-seat table if I could join him. He agreed without hesitation and moved to another chair so that I could have more space at the table.
The Asam Laksa served to me was a spicy, sour fish-based thick noodle soup, which had plenty of ginger flower buds, diced onions, cucumber, red chillies, mint leaves and prawn paste. It was a bit pungent due to the liberal dose of ginger flower buds in it. As I was savouring the initial taste of the local delicacy the other person, who identified himself as Zarir Bin Abu Bakar, Manager of the Hong Leong Bank nearby, opened up a conversation about India and Modi. We compared the developments in India and China, as he worked in a China headquartered bank. He was also interested to know about my expedition and offered to change foreign currency for me at the Western Union outlet in his bank. After we had got through the meal he gave me his business card and paid my bill too before leaving! Without a doubt, “Goodwill knows no boundaries”!
Tevin Ek Lim and CK Chew work for a shipping and logistics company and are based in Penang. They came to the hotel after 4 pm and asked me out for a drive. The next three plus hours went by fast in their excellent company. They took me on a sightseeing tour of the island that covered the Gurney Drive, Straits Quay, Batu Feringghi andTanjung Tokong. Gurney Drive is a popular tourist destination as it has some of the most sought after hawker food stalls in Penang. The other attractions, apart from swanky residential properties and hotels, are the island’s first modern shopping mall, Island Plaza, and the state’s first megamall, Gurney Plaza. Coastal erosion has affected the beaches along the drive but recent efforts to stem it have paid off. The Straits Quay has a large marina where large yachts are anchored, mostly belonging to foreign residents who have apartments near the Quay. Foreigners are permitted to own residential properties in the state provided they bring in the funds – they are n0t eligible for bank loans. We had traditional White Coffee in one of the cafes in the Quay before going to Chew’s house nearby. His 83 year old mother lived there and he wanted to get her dinner. The amiable elder showed us to the balcony of the apartment from where one could appreciate the magnificent skyline of the area and the new developments coming up.
From there Chew drove on to Batu Feringghi, which is considered to be Penang’s most developed beach. He parked at the Hard Rock Hotel and through it we walked on the soft, white sandy beach that houses lovely seafront resorts, hotels and restaurants. Water sports such as parasailing and windsurfing are popular here. The Hard Rock Hotel has a shallow pool with a bar attached to it. Tevin told me how the Tanjung Tokong area was devastated by the 2004 tsunami and became inaccessible to four wheeler transport for many days after. He also narrated the miraculous story of a one year old infant who survived despite being swept out to sea when she was sleeping and her Indian origin parents ran for safety as the tidal waves struck the beach. Rescuers found her still sleeping when she was ‘beached’ safely later. She is a robust 12 year old now.
We had dinner in one of the food stalls. Tevin ordered Char kwey teow, crunchy spring rolls, fried oysters and chilled Tiger beer. The local delicacies were every bit as good as they were claimed to be. Char kwey teow is flat noodles stir fried in soy sauce and has prawns, shelled blood cockles, egg, bean sprouts and chilli in it. The nutritious food was a favourite with labourers because of the high fat content and low price. The chilled beer stitched the dishes together along with interesting conversation about night life and Malaysian politics. On the way back to the hotel Tevin pointed out some of the costliest super condominiums coming up in the area.
Before I curled up in bed I said a quiet prayer to my parents who would have celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary this day had they been with me and my siblings. We miss them a lot; whatever we are and whatever we have are all because of them. Cheers to you, Ammachi and Achachan.