Continuing my recent discussion about why Penang is an excellent choice for MM2H applicants despite lacking “big city” atmosphere, I want to give credit to an amazing little place called The Camera Museum. Easily one of the most unusual and informative small museums anywhere, the guided tour and amazing arrangement of historical information make this mostly undiscovered place a hidden gem and warrants a spot in the best of class for all museums in Southeast Asia. Opened in 2013, it devotes an entire floor to the history of cameras, a seemingly mundane topic that actually has a fascinating history dating back to the 16th century. I’ll bet you can’t name the inventor of the first workable camera prototype (don’t feel dumb; hardly anyone knows because most museums stick to photography).
But more on that later. Back to the point, one thing we love about Penang is how you never know what you’ll find. Setting out with the general goal of visiting the museum, Diane and I took the bus to Love Lane, the main backpacker friendly area of Penang where you’ll find many coffee-house, hostels and cheap rooms. First off, unlike almost anywhere in Thailand, the first thing you’ll notice is Penang is much less crowded when it comes to the younger crowd. Primarily a Muslim country by population, Malaysia levies heavy taxes on alcohol which tends to discourage young party animals. Additionally, conservative values means less hotties in skimpy bikinis and no topless Europeans on the beaches which also keeps the younger crowd on the other side of the border in Thailand. Don’t get me wrong; I love hotties on beaches as much as any guy but could easily do without the excessive noise, rowdiness and stupidity that comes with college age crowds and sports bars showing football to drunks for thirteen straight hours. So for us, Penang makes a great choice and Thailand is a quick plane ride away should we get bored with the lack of nightlife.
Strolling down the street we realized it was lunchtime so we started looking for some food. Walking back down Chulia Street towards Little India, we came across a little noodle shop that looked appealing enough and turned out to be one of the tastiest things we’ve eaten so far. Although food blogging is not my thing and I’ll never attempt to compete with scores of great foodies, I promised I’d plug Yeap Noodles and it’s a well deserved endorsement. Specializing in homemade noodles, Isaac Yeap and his family create homemade sauces and fresh noodles of every kind in a variety of colors and flavors. Ordering curry shrimp and black pepper sauce chicken, the plate was refreshingly awesome thanks to fresh noodles. Not really a fan of Maggi or processed stuff, it seems the art of noodle making is lost in the modern world of hawker stands and finding freshness combined with great taste warrants a stop for lunch the next time you find yourself near Love Lane and Chulia Street.
After lunch we headed back towards the Camera Museum and inadvertently discovered the unofficial hardware street of the island. One alleyway with about six stalls carried everything from tape measures to samurai swords and everything in between. Priced less than Tesco and other stores, they carry name brands like Stanley and it’s a shame we already bought some basic materials in the store. Exploring the town always seems to turn up new finds and now we know where to buy flashlights, batteries, gardening tools (oh, I guess we don’t need them in a high-rise) and other small items for less.
Next door to the Camera Museum was one of those cat cafes that are sweeping Asia. Requiring a purchase of 17 ringgit minimum to spend up to 30 minutes in a room with cats, I’m unclear why anyone would ever do this, especially on an island spewing with adorable strays that are hungry and need adopted families so desperately. Touted as therapeutic, I find the idea ridiculous and would rather spend my time volunteering at Penang’s animal shelters (which is on our to-do list). Sorry, cat café people.
Originally intending to visit a few sites all close to each other, we looked at our watch and noticed it was almost 1PM. According to a guide-book they gave tours of a famous building known as The Blue Mansion but when we arrived the guy said it wasn’t for 45 minutes and they wanted over 35 ringgit which is a bit pricey considering how much is free or almost nothing. Instead, we went into an interesting looking but totally empty retail Chinese store called Topkins Enterprises. Brightly lit with great air conditioning, the only male employee urged us to come take a look.
Sadly, this place gets my first total thumbs down and brings me to an issue Malaysia needs work with. Hovering around customers is commonplace in almost all retail stores at the malls. Usually due to over staffing and seemingly bored employees, normally this is fine because they are usually helpful and friendly and always know their merchandise. Occasionally, however, they take it too far and the Chinese woman in this place literally breathed on me, shadowing every single step I took as if I was either obviously a thief or was under surveillance by the Malaysian FBI. Attempting to motion that I wanted to browse without her following my every move, she instead got closer at which point I stormed out. Understanding it’s touristy there, I’m willing to give a certain degree of leeway but sometimes Malaysians don’t seem to get the fine line between helpful and annoying. Following a shopper’s every move makes foreigners uncomfortable and less likely to spend any money which I assume is the entire idea behind shadowing customers so closely. Snapping a few photos of the expensive bird’s nest was all I could take and her eyes even followed me all the way out the door with an annoyed look. Um, note to owner: This is very rude and I will never step foot in that store again.
Fortunately, across the street is a little place called the Chocolate and Coffee Museum and admission is free. Entering the museum, you turn right and follow a series of very interesting displays and pictures explaining the history of chocolate and coffee. Not too overwhelming to read it all, the fun starts when you enter the next room and start sampling chocolates and coffee. Designed to sell you overpriced items, especially by Malaysian standards, they followed us but didn’t get upset when we didn’t buy anything.
Finally, the highlight of the post has to be the camera museum which we went to next. Entering the narrow lobby, there’s a travelling photography exhibit which was from Singapore when we visited. Offering guided tours every hour, there were perhaps two other patrons which is not uncommon on weekdays in Penang. Not realizing how amazingly colorful the tour guide would be, we paid the nominal entry fee and headed upstairs. Featuring five rooms with hundreds of artifacts and photos, the tour starts win the historical camera room where hundreds of cameras from the 1860’s all the way up to the present are displayed along with interesting historical information. The world’s most expensive camera recently sold for an astounding amount and apparently there’s seven left in the world but nobody’s quite sure where they are. Finding one would fetch upwards of two million bucks or more. Fascinating and all new to me.
Interesting enough on its own, the highlight was the tour guide, a Chinese guy that speaks perfect English and presents the entire history of cameras in as an entertaining historical walk through time, starting with most recent and working his way back to the first workable camera prototype.
Along the way, each room has more displays including a dark room, a fascinating room detailing the history of spy cameras and a wall with the world’s most famous pictures. Amazingly, you’ll probably know many of them and every one became accidentally famous. Concluding with the answer to who invented the world’s first camera prototype, you enter a room that illustrates the concept (Dont Google it; I didn’t know until the end). Considering there was nobody else there, the tour became a personalized history lesson and the guide made it so interesting we went back and retraced our steps before heading down to the gift shop. Proving once again that smaller can be better, this little gem of a museum was both inexpensive and interesting. Since every human on the planet texts and uses their smartphone like eight million times a day, why not educate yourself and discover what things were like in the old days (like the 1980’s)? Destined to make the top 10 list of small museums in Southeast Asia, the Camera Museum personified another reason we love Penang.