Retired expats hate long weekends. Right when we felt like Penang Island was almost always our own personal space, Hari Raya arrived and the end of Ramadan brought thousands of visitors to our little resort town. While totally unnoticeable if we stay in our condo, walking around a town with limited sidewalks and bumper to bumper traffic in both directions proves challenging at times. Leaving to go anywhere by four-wheel vehicle is even worse. Unused to the throngs of young people flocking to all the beaches and crowding all the food stalls, we decided to spend the day in Georgetown since we had a potential meet-up scheduled for that evening anyway. Unfamiliar with the scope of traffic in resort areas, Diane and I never travelled on long weekends in either Calgary or San Francisco because her two-hour daily commute proved enough and I certainly didn’t want to sit in long stretches of traffic. During her nursing years, she picked up overtime shifts and I simply hung around the house. Disclaimer; the featured picture is not actually Malaysia but I used it to add emphasis: it us from somewhere in Southeast Asia
Becoming early retirees changed our attitude a bit and we figured there might be fewer people in Georgetown than Batu Ferringhi since there’s no beach to speak of in the UNESCO Heritage area. Experiencing our first crowded bus adventure quickly changed our attitude about leaving the condo for three days the next time a long weekend rolls around. Hopping on The 101 route sometime around the noon hour, the bus was full and barely had room for us to move, let alone be comfortable. While not as insane as buses in India, the pleasant and fast trips we’ve enjoyed came to an abrupt end as more people piled on until he finally stopped picking people up. Although the stench was not as bad as I remember my New York City subway commutes, the bus still whipped across the turns and we became sandwiched in for almost 40 minutes. Wondering where they were going and why most of the town was leaving, we passed Tesco and not one soul moved nor did anyone ring the bell at the major mall shopping areas or anywhere else for the next fifteen minutes as the bus passed all the places we expected people to exit. Finally half the bus emptied out somewhere between Komtar and the end of the line so we hopped off at the next stop.
Undaunted, we choked it up to holiday traffic but had no idea exactly who was leaving the resort town since they were clearly all locals, not tourists. After exploring Georgetown’s downtown core for a few hours, we decided we’d be too full and hot to eat steak with the meet-up people three hours later because we ate pasembur for the first time and felt too stuffed. Thinking we’d enjoy the sunset at the pool, we walked to the Jeti where all the bus routes end. Having done this during the week with only one or two other passengers, we thought getting a seat would be nice until we saw the mob of young tourists all standing in a queue long enough to fill three or four buses. With downtown a total parking lot, we had no choice so we stood at the end and watched as groups of people started their own line next to one of the four buses sitting idle waiting their turn. Being Malaysia, it only took a minute or two until the dispatcher started telling all the line cutters that standing in front of a different bus would serve no purpose (at least we assume that’s what they said). Standing with only one older British couple and what looked like hundreds of Indonesian or Malaysian teens, we waited patiently at the end.
Unprepared for hell to break loose, we somehow wound up right in front of another bus that just pulled in. Thinking the other buses would leave first since the queue started at the next bus, the driver startled us when he opened the front door but didn’t get off the bus to wait his turn like the other drivers did. Suddenly, the entire mob started squashing into the bus right where we were standing and our fortunate place put us within the first ten people who would get to board. But unlike India where everyone just piles on, they enforce rules heavily here and the older driver started shouting and would only let one person on at time, ensuring each person paid their proper fare. Quickly bringing the line into a squeezing mess of anxious and pushy teens due to the time involved for each patron to pay, Diane and I were caught in a sardine sandwich about six people behind the door. Fortunately, I now live in a continent where I am physically stronger and even taller than 95% of the locals . Completely opposite of Canada where I felt like the shortest guy in the room, I decided to exert force without being violent and used the strength of my back muscles to hold back one pushy guy trying to squeeze his whole family ahead of everyone and after a minute or two, I solidified my stronghold.
Meanwhile, Diane somehow wound up on the bus and sat down in the back before I could squeeze on. Luckily, we carry bus passes and nobody else had one so I flashed it and pushed my way into the bus with and sat down despite the dozens of people struggling to find the right bus fare. Realizing I should’ve turned the camera phone on for a good YouTube video, the real fun began shortly after. For some reason the bus driver opened the back door briefly and they all piled in which sent the driver into a flying rage, screaming at them all to get off and he ran to the back and physically pushed them out before flagging down a police officer that seemed unwilling to help but looked authoritative anyway. The next ten minutes involved screaming and chasing everyone off that either hadn’t paid or snuck on via the back door. Frankly, it was the most entertaining thing we’d seen so far and I give an enormous amount of credit to civil service workers willing to use extreme means to carry out a job. Amazingly, nobody got violent and soon the driver somehow singlehandedly restored order to his bus, let about 20 more patrons board and shut the door, despite the disappointed people who were still outside and way ahead of us in the original queue.
Thinking we’d seen the worst of it, we soon discovered that when Saturday is also a national holiday for workers that normally work six-day work weeks, you learn why property agents think you’re nuts for choosing a condo “so far away”. Getting through downtown was moderately congested but not horrible but at the end of Tanjung Bungah, the road becomes one lane and the back up becomes a 5 kilometer parking lot, moving about 2 meters every five minutes or so. Patiently waiting, the kids didn’t care as they took it all in stride but we learned how unfair it is to island residents who really need to use the bus but can’t. Passing every single waiting passenger, the bus system basically becomes a shuttle service for tourists entering the island from the ferry and wanting to ride all the way to the beach areas of Batu Ferringhi. Then there’s the traffic. For over 12 straight hours, nothing moves more than 10 kph in both directions which is really stupid to us because there’s so little parking in the town. We have no idea where the cars are all going, where they stop or why they sit in the mess knowing it will take an hour or more to go 5 km. Logically, it looks like they all go past our town to The end of the road at Penang National Park and then turn around and go back.
Quickly learning that long weekends are when expats should leave town for another country, Diane and I stayed in town today and relaxed at the pool as we anxiously await the return of the work week so we can return to our regularly scheduled retired life. As I said earlier, we did visit Georgetown so I wanted to share a few pictures. Staring off at Jalan Hutton, we searched for a little place called Laksalicious because Diane read a review saying it had the best laksa in town. Naturally, Google Maps had the address off by about a street or two but I love how it tracks your every step on the phone as you walk. Giving in to the hot sun, Diane called and lit turns out we walked right by and missed it. Unfortunately, they had only two types of laksa and the non spicy kind was unavailable so I ordered Ayam and Diane settled for two spring rolls with an amazing coconut filling and a chicken pot pie since that’s about all they had. Remembering restaurant reviews are meaningless because everyone likes differing things, my laksa disappointed due to its watery texture and lack of multiple ingredients but the air conditioning was nice.
Below is the in the UNESCO Heritage area. The building is the House of Ranong, given to a prominent Chinese that dealt in shipping, tin, rubber cultivation and insurance. Since they employed many people in Penang. they were appointed governors and given a special title “Na Ranong” by the King of Siam for their contributions. We didn’t enter Fort Cornwallis because it costs 10 MYR and didn’t seem as impressive as Quebec City’s ramparts.
The Nasi Lemak cart below reminded me of a Sabrett hot dog stand anywhere in Manhattan selling dirty water dogs and we almost ordered some but then we stumbled on a food court selling Pasembur, an awesome Northern Malaysian dish that we haven’t seen in Batu Ferrenghi. Choosing whatever items you want and paying according to whatever items are on the plate, we picked a huge prawn, battered crab, some tofu, a fish ball or two and a few things of unknown origin. You hand it to the vendor and he chops it, tosses it with some crunchy veggies as a topping and douses it with a peanut sauce that’s mildly spicy. Awesome!!
This is The Esplanade; Penang’s version of The Embarcadero in San Francisco. It was a hot sunny day and lots of people were strolling about and enjoying the long weekend.
I got a kick out of a place called The Modern Hotel that looked like a ramshackle backpackers hostel. Maybe it was modern before Malaysia became such a developed nation?
And finally, our favorite picture of the day was the Tri-shaw driver having a snooze on a hot day.
Our newest friend in Penang who contacted us from reading the blog tells us this is the busiest long weekend of the year except for maybe Christmas and New Year’s Day. Maybe we’ll go back to the minus 30 degree holiday weather of Central Alberta where fighting crowds of beach goers will not be an issue. Until then, we hope to have things a bit quieter.
Thanks for following and please share any ideas about beating the holiday crowds in SE Asia.