I had, I thought, texted Ramen to let him know the flight was delayed, and didn't give the lack of response any thought. On arrival at Penang airport, I had expected to see someone with my name held up, but no one was in sight. I hung around trying to look like someone who was expected, but that didn't work either. I then called the number I had copied down on Sunday night. The other end did not seak English, so I was pretty sure I knew what the problem was. I rang Soma, got the right number, rang it, spoke to Ramen who was right at the door, and along with another of Soma's mates, Tan, we were on our way to the Chukia Heritage Hotel, which I had chosen for myself - one of the few decisions I have made on this trip!
By the time we battled through yet another example of Malaysia's ever present inner city traffic, it was after 6. The street the hotel is in is called Chulia, and it was typical of the shophouses streetscape I have come to expect in Malaysia - but really not looking all that promising as the face of a hotel. Lo and behold we turned into a driveway and tucked in behind the older storefronts was an apparition in white. In fact, as I was to discover, the meticulously maintained Chulia, is almost unrelentingly white, inside and out.
Once again, I dropped my bag and we were off, this time on foot, to a couple of the guys' favourite haunts - the Soho Hotel, and the Red Garden food market. A couple of beers and peanuts in the pub, then a meal of stingray from a Chinese seafood stall. No bones. All good.
We agreed to make contact on Wednesday afternoon by phone, but I had the full day to myself in Penang,
The hotel room was bigger than the Riversong, and better equipped, running to a fridge and TV. Another wet bathroom - even wetter than the last because the shower head was right above the centre of the bathroom.
A shower, then sleep, only interrupted by a most inconsiderate group that seemed to arrive about 3 am, and were, I suspect, school kids. When I mentioned them at reception next day, they just giggled. This was the same desk that told me that I could get laundry done at the nearby guest house (not the case). In the end I took it about 50 metres up the street where my kilo and a half would be ready by 8 pm for about 3 Aussie dollars.
I had a Western breakfast at a nearby hotel, then set out to find the tourist office. This was a good way to begin to get oriented. When I got there, they had one piece of useful collateral - a decent map, and though I sat down to examine it at some length, not a single soul spoke to me. Interesting approach to promotion!
Using the map, I planned a more or less circular route around town ( oh for my Lonely Planet!) This took in the fabulous Khoo Kongsi temple, with the most ornate and beautifully estored carvings; the clan jetty, home to the descendants of the original Chinese fisher folk, who now seem to divide their time between fishing and tourism; the cluster of government buildings, white and stately in the sun; the the Pinang Peranakan mansion, a recreation of the home of one of the early wealthy Hakka traders. One place I really wanted to see is commonly known as the Blue Mansion, more formally the Cheongsam Fatt Tze mansion. I arrived about 1245 but the next tour was 1330, so I seized the opportunity for a tandoori chicken on Penang Road at Jaya, before heading back for the tour. The building is most striking, nominated by Lonely Planet as one of the world's top 10 homes of this type , and having won a UNESCO conservation award. The owner had built an immense trading empire all across Asia, having started from literally nothing as a Chinese immigrant. The combination of traditional Chinese design and the latest (then) in international techniques and materials just screams wealth. When the present owners bought it from a descendant of the original owner, it had been tenanted by 37 families, and was in a state of some decline, although, as our bubbly guide told us, the layers of dirt on the floor preserved the imported English tiles perfectly.
After the tour, hot and tired, I decided it was time for a rest in case Ramen wanted to catch up. I was a bit surprised to find that by 3 my room still had not been serviced.
In the end we decided to do our own things. Having caught up on emails etc, I decided my evening exploration would be Little India. While there, I wandered into a restaurant to eat, but the presence of so many tourists, and the fact that I didn't get a menu after 5 minutes of asking for one decided me to leave. A little further on I found another place where I was greeted by a boy of about 12 and had ordered a lovely meal within about two minutes. Two lime sodas washed it down, and I think the whole thing cost about 5 dollars Australian.
I meandered through a few more streets where commerce was in full swing, and then walked back up my street to see stretches of it transformed into hawker markets with people seated by the roadside eating. I got back into my room just as the heavens opened. So fierce was the rain that it interfered with the satellite signal for the TV!
I had a leisurely start on Thursday. I was back to an Indian breakfast of roti canai egg , local coffee and dahl. This fortified me for the short walk to the terminal at Jetty, from which I got the free Hop on Hop off bus, much used by the locals to get across town. I did the round trip, enjoying a chat with an elderly Indian gentleman who described himself as coming from the jungle, and hating the noise and dirt of Penang.
After a bit of a wander, it was time to clean up, check out and get a cab to the Queensbay Mall, on the shoreline near the bridge that connects to the mainland. I had a bit of time to kill while waiting for Ramen and his wife who had organised tickets on the Aeroline bus. We got settled in our seats on the 2.30 bus for an experience that is modelled on an trip on a plane. - reclining seats, in seat entertainment units, refreshments served etc on a modern double deck bus, with a lounge downstairs and 11 rows seating 34 passengers upstairs. With one 10 minute stop we sailed to the outskirts of KL in about 4 hours, and then took over half an hour to crawl to the terminal, at another mall in KL's awful traffic. Welcome back to the big smoke!