Penang | August 2018
Where I stayed: 23 Love Lane
Getting around: Mostly walking, but when it called for it I used the Grab app (similar to Uber)
Shops to check out: Unique Penang, pop-up market in Hin Bus Depot, 5.4 North
Click on the thumbnails to expand.
So I hate to say it, but I’ve never heard of Penang, Malaysia until recently. I took extra days from my business trip (because a 3 day trip to Asia from the US shouldn’t be a thing) and found a cheap Air Asia flight. Penang is an island off the mainland and about an hour flight from Singapore. Thanks to research (shout out to Penang Foodie for drool worthy photos) and recommendations from friends of friends, Penang is underrated. I stayed in the George Town area, and if you’re like me and love walking, eating and seeing art - this is your jam.
In my ride to the hotel, the first thing my driver asked me was if I was traveling alone. After he heard me say “yes,” he was surprised and called me crazy. Was it because I was alone? Or because I’m a woman? Probably both. I smiled and just thought to myself that I’m freshly 30, I’ve made it to this point and who are you to call me crazy.
23 Love Lane is a delight. Each room is different, and I stayed in one of the “1920’s Jack’s Roof Annex.” Came in a bit earlier than check in, but they were able to get me in and handed a welcome cocktail while I waited. While leaning against the entrance of the little courtyard, I took a sip and felt a quiet breeze. Instantly I felt serene and couldn’t help but smile. It’s that cheesy part in the movies where the protagonist is soaking in the scene and then cut to her strutting down the middle of the street to some empowering song like “Girl on Fire.” Twenty minutes later that was me. (Alicia Keys, I love you)
I slowly made my way to the Hin Bus Depot taking photos, mostly of the colors of the gated shops and the street art. I couldn’t help but notice the matching gates and wooden curtains. It reminded me of Burano and how the curtains in the doorways matched the color of the homes.
Lately, I’m noticing myself shooting more colors, patterns and textures and I’m trying to figure out if it’s a shift of what attracts my eye, losing interest in people as subjects, or my nerves to connect with a person in a short time span for a portrait in an unfamiliar place. But anyway…
Stopped at Two Buns for lunch. Yes, I had a burger in Penang, but it sounded so good and I was starving. The Don Pablo was delicious. Finally made it to Hin Bus Depot. A place that once housed buses, now houses art. Inside, the Obscura Festival Of Photography 2018 was getting set up so I couldn’t walk around too much but what I could see - I was in heaven. It was also Sunday, and to my surprise, there was a pop-up market. I bought a headband (the gateway headband that led me to my now collection of headbands - thank you Chrissy Teigen #HBOTD). To the right of the market was a courtyard where people were practicing yoga, playing soccer and living that skate life on a mini half pipe. I was so in love with this place. Everything about this place reminded me of spending warm Sundays at Brick Lane Market (London) where everyone was just chillin’ with music blasting into the streets. Then it was off to Clan Jetties to walk among the stilt houses before turning back around and look for more murals.
But first, more food. Right before turning onto Love Lane, I stopped at the food stalls on Chulia Street. There were 3 in a row, with ample space in between for the lines. The line for the middle stall was forming fast, so that was the one. I made a dash for a spot and had my noodle dish in minutes. It was way better than the burger. I joined a table with 3 other girls and exchanged smiles and slurps. Struck up a conversation with one and after back and forth on the basics of career, location base and what we were doing here...
“What are your plans tomorrow?”
“I was thinking about going up to Penang Hill, even though it’s touristy.”
“Yeah I thought about that.”
“You want to go together?”
“Yeah that sounds good.”
I met my new friend and we made our way to Penang Hill. Usually I stray from the big touristy things, and I cringed a little when I saw the ticket counters and rails. But it was pretty early in the morning and there was barely a line to my relief. The funicular was steep and transported us to what felt like an eerie dystopian world instead of a tourist trap. Once we got off, people dispersed and the hill slowly felt empty and grew quiet. Voices were at a minimum and the only noise was the chirping of birds. There was a dense fog covering the view so all we could see were grays and greens. There was a path lined with heart arches and fences resembling the love lock bridges in Europe. On any other day this path is probably crowded with cameras and couples, but on this dull morning, it felt lonely and sad. Soon after, the rain came pouring down and the hill’s crowd met under the one food court.
The floor below hosted the most random yet charming museum. The Camera & Owl Museum (about $4/ ticket). I guess these two things go? It started off with walls filled with camera models and the history of photography. There was even a makeshift dark room (photo featured is by new friend). Walking down a long hallway, there’s an immediate shift from cameras to owl figurines. Just tons and tons of owls. It didn’t feel contrived or had a political statement behind it. Although there were some moments feeling like I was being watched - mainly because of how big the owls’ eyes were. Besides that, it just was a straight up “we like owls and here they are” vibe.
We left this dystopian world and had some laska for lunch. My new pal suggested checking out Kek Lok Si Temple. It’s the biggest temple in Penang and I was awed at the amount of Buddha statues that were inside and lines around the garden. The lines of the Temple were so mesmerizing that I could have missed my flight. The colors - reds, yellows, orange, blue - they were so bright and such a contrast to the grays and greens of the morning on the hill. And then there was also something we couldn’t not see - swastikas. Swastikas everywhere - on the statues and along the lines of some walls. We frantically googled for other meanings for this symbol. We learned in Buddhism, it’s the symbol of the “auspicious footprints of the Buddha,” or eternal cycling.
After the temple we parted ways.
Let’s talk about art in Penang
When I was figuring out where to go for 2 days, what attracted me the most to Penang was the street art (second, food). Penang’s council was looking for ways to place more creativity and bring some new energy into the city. They worked with artist, Ernest Zacharevic to create murals around George Town. I found a site which had a handy trail mapping out all of them. His murals have a quirky interaction with real objects showcasing the city’s identity and multiculturalism. The most famous one is “Little Children on a Bicycle.” I didn’t realize I was coming across it because it was blocked by a crowd of people waiting for their turn to stand in front of it. Aaaand this is the part where I talk about how the appeal of this piece vanished. Seeing the small pond of people walk up, take a picture and walk away bummed me out. Take a few to just look at the piece! Look at the details, the wear in the paint, maybe even sanitize the seat, I don’t know. Just spend a little bit of time looking at the actual piece rather than the pixels on your phone. I took a snap of it in between people ducking in and out so I could remember this moment to write on later… but then a man on his scooter with his dog zoomed through the shot - and it turned into a real photo for me because now it feels like the two are in a race.
I found two more of his works, “Boy on a Bike” being chased by “Little Boy with Pet Dinosaur.” There were tons more, like Louis Gan’s "Brother and Sister on a Swing,” Julia Volchkova’s ‘“Indian Boatman,” and iron-rod sculptures alongside hilarious anecdotes from the city’s past. On my second day I walked past a place called “Art Lane.” It was a long hallway filled with street art done by various artists. Then I made my way to Jetty35, a warehouse filled with a cafe and exhibition spaces dedicated to Penang’s heritage.
I’m so glad I got to know Penang. It’s perfect for a long weekend.