Saturday, August 7, 2010


It simply cannot be as good as it looks. Where is the flaw? My natural cynicism kept demanding this as I roamed around Georgetown for the past two days, drowning in color. Turquoise, aqua, cobalt blue, lavender, pistachio, grass-green, peach, pale red, chartreuse, soft yellow, and the mustard shade that only works on haunted buildings in Southeast Asia.

I stumbled off the night train from Bangkok and immediately found a series of signs sprinkled along a path like breadcrumbs that led me to the ferry without frustration. On the other side was a free city bus that took me a block or so from the hotel I hoped I would stay in, where a courtly old Chinese gentleman gave me a key and offered to take my passport to the Thai visa services for a very tiny amount of money. I was enthralled before I even saw my room.

Which was double the size of my Bangkok bedroom and had a bathtub. Only someone who has been to this part of the world will appreciate what that means--let it be enough to say that this feature made up for the 110-year-old tiles that looked as thought they were last cleaned during the Japanese Occupation, and the smeared water glasses that rested on a dusty tin tray. A large fan in the (perhaps) twelve-foot ceiling immediately cooled the room and the towels and sheets were clean--what more could anyone ask for?

The Cathay Hotel is a piercingly white terracotta mansion that was built circa 1900 by a Chinese magnate and it is still palatial, if not luxurious. The traditional swimming-pool-like courtyard in the middle of the building (for feng shui purposes--it captures the rain that comes through the open roof) is surrounded by pillars made of cast-iron that probably came from Great Britain and a delicate lattice-work of carved wood where the pillars meet the upper wall. The staircases are steep and graceful, and massive, double doors painted a soft blue with wooden gates placed at their center lead to those bedrooms that are air-conditioned. It isn't exactly dirty, but it is time-worn and I wore my shoes in my room every time the soles of my feet touched the tiles. I loved it. of course.

Georgetown is small but, like Hong Kong, it is dense. Unlike Hong Kong, it is a wild sensory overload of colors and smells and architectural marvels. Two and a half days is not enough time for this city--at least not for a walking wanderer like me. I strolled and gaped and ate and marveled for hours, then would go back to the Cathay for a bath, and then walk some more. The amount of ground that I covered was embarrassingly slight, I discovered, when I measured my explorations on a map.

But that's what happens when a place jams my circuits. At a certain point I reach sensory overload and my dehydration point (Georgetown is hotter and more humid than Bangkok, and the profusion of buildings painted a blazing white intensifies the fierceness of the light)--then it was time to collapse in a cafe and order a bottle of water and a couple of glasses of fruit juice, and beer later in the day. But before the point of collapse, I would have found a market with chicken so fresh and sweet that I was sure I could eat it raw, and prawns the size of small puppies, and egg tarts that are as good as ones I've inhaled in Kowloon, or a used bookstore organized to the point of OCD, or music and saris in the Indian section, or a very cool in every sense of the word art gallery--and of course hundreds of old buildings painted in jaw-dropping colors.

There are areas with promenades along the water that would be wonderful during a good storm, and hills looming behind the city that promise coolness at their tops, and beaches that I have yet to explore. There's more to tell and even more that I haven't seen. I think I'm in love.


Dr. Will said...

Nothing is as good as it looks or as bad as it seems, but you've painted Penang as Paradise. I want to go there!

Kim said...

I agree with Dr. Will. I've fallen in love with Penang without even having been there! It sounds lovely.

Bouwou said...

A very vivid and entertaining piece. I should have gone around Penang with you!

shaved monkey said...

Huh? I went to Penang on maybe four or five visa runs in the 90's. I HATED it. Spent a lot of time at the Komtar mall, watching movies and eating McDonald's. Were we even in the same city?