72 Hours In Penang – George Town Festival 2017 Closing Weekend

Richard and I were wavering. To Georgetown Festival or not? Inertia placed us on the side of not. But after hearing about Festival Director Joe Sidek’s directorial debut while in Kuching I was swung the other way.

Day 1 – Thursday 31 August (Merdeka!)

The lobby at Lang Hoose

I used AirAsia Go’s flight and hotel booking platform for the first time and picked Lang Hoose for our stay. Cheap and centrally located, we were shown to our Twin/Triple room immediately despite arriving early. Situated on the third floor, essentially the attic of a converted Chinese shophouse, it involved climbing an incredibly steep set of stairs. Having said that, our room was spacious, comfortable, with good wear pressure in the bathroom and decent wifi, if a little tired around the edges.

Room #2 – the twin/triple room at the top of the stairs at Lang Hoose.

Lunch was at Thai Shop, an unmarked shop missable if not for its attractive outdoor stalls and seating area. Serving up a short list of Thai hawker faves with seriously spicy kick, I ordered up a Seafood Tom Yum and Papaya Salad and washed it down a double dose of iced Thai milk tea, the perfect antidote for a sweltering hot day.

Ice cold Thai milk tea hits the spot at Thai Shop.
Simply cooked but really impressive Thai food at Thai Shop – Richard’s chicken curry, my papaya salad and seafood tom yam.

It was as we made our hasty retreat back to the cool confines of Lang Hoose that we happened upon the Many Faces of Migration photographic exhibition and screening on Lorong Carnavon. Put on by Tenaganita Women’s Force, an NGO protecting the rights of women, migrants and refugees, we missed the screening but the pictures provided a brief window into the lives of an often nameless faceless group of people.

Many Faces of Migration photographic exhibition on Lorong Carnavon.

Our night would be spent atop Penang Hill. I had tickets to Men Men And Dogs at The Habitat, and on the advise of GM Allen Tan, arrived to catch the sunset from Curtis Crest.

The lovely people of the George Town Festival team at Penang Hill’s lower tram station.
Straight in at the front thanks to the Fast Lane pass that comes inclusive of our Merdeka Party tickets.

The sky certainly lived up to expectation. As we stood atop the treetop grazing platform looking across the forest of green to Crag Hotel and the Andaman Sea beyond, we were mesmerised by the display of colours which morphed from melted gold to on fire before fading to black.

The up and coming canopy walk at The Habitat – still in progress but getting there.
Officially opened on 19 April this year we caught the sunset from Curtis Crest’s tree top walk.
The view was excellent – looking down to the safari-style pavilion where food and drink was being serve, across the virgin forest to the Andaman Sea.

Show time! With food and drink (courtesy of Mish Mash) in our bellies, it was cue the music. Singers Junji Delfino, Bihzhu, Dina Nadzir, Nikki Palikat and Elvira Arul belted out power ballads as emcee Shelah aka Edwin Sumun introduced them, and DJ Mickey McLean got the floor up on its feet with pumping disco and house tunes in between sets.

What a power group (from left): Junji Delfino, Dina Nadzir, Bihzhu, Elvira Arul and Nikki Palikat.

I have to admit the love, loss and survive theme of the 3-act performance was odd for a Merdeka event – unless it was a veiled political statement (unlikely), but it was still a banger of a night and the perfect start to our Penang weekend.

The divine Shelah with Rich and me.
DJ Mickey McLean never fails to set the floor on fiyah.

 

Day 2 – Friday 1 September (Aidil Adha/ Hari Raya Korban)
Even with earplugs in, the rain hammering againts the roof woke me. Fortunately I managed to get back to sleep but the downpour didn’t let up until I had been dropped off, along with two others, for a day of cycling in Balik Pulau.

The awesome SJ of Matahari Cycle Tours leads the way.
Rolling through fruit orchards on mostly flat terrain – SJ up front followed by Karline and James.

All my recent visits to Penang had been to George Town and I was itching to explore another part of the island. A ride through the countryside with Matahari Cycle Tours was the perfect solution. The rest of the day was perfect too, the overcast skies a relief – I would have been reduced to a puddle of sweat on a hotter day.

The waterways were quiet today owing to it being Hari Raya Haji holiday.
We were warned not to cycle over freshly fallen palm fronds as these contain spikes tat cold puncture our tyres.

SJ led the ride, which took international school teachers Karline and James, and myself through charming villages and rice fields, past mosques, fruit orchards, into palm oil plantations and even mangroves. Largely flat except for the final challenge – a series of short winding sections I like to call our graduation cycle – it was an leisurely but long ride. For that reason a support car was never to far away to pick us and our bike up if needed. Not that we did.

At a tiny fishing village, a lady and two men sit untangling the day’s catching from nylon fishing nets.
Like an obstacle course on water, we followed a young boy over the pontoons to a shaded platform in the middle of the river.

We stopped often – to watch fisher folk untangle their catch, look at (and smell) a belacan factory, pick out birdlife, and eat. As a post breakfast treat we had goat’s milk ice cream at a goat farm, mid morning tea was at a kopitiam for local coffee and kuih and a lunch was a selection of Penang specialties – kuey teow, assam laksa and juicy rambutan (James’ favourite) – on top of a lanai in the middle of rice fields. On any other day there would be school kids running around, men pole fishing in the waterways and busy housewives hanging out washing and cooking up a storm, SJ revealed but it was a religious holiday today and the Malay kampungs in particular were still.

Sweet treats from a local kopitiam as we waited for cups of local coffee.
Lunch on the lanai: kuey teow, panang assam laksa, fried chicken, vegetarian spring rolls and the juiciest rambutans ever.

Admittedly many of these experiences are familiar to locals like me but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment of the tour. When it concluded by a secluded stretch of beach at the very southern tip of the island, I had not just had a wonderful time exploring another side of Penang with SJ, and made some new acquaintances, I had clocked up 30km and acquired some technical riding skills too. It was more than I had expected and was an awesome way to spend the day.

Look how far we’ve come – 30 kilometres from the centre of Penang island to its Southern most spot.
The final stretch – winding slopes with the Straits of Melaka to our right.
Definitely a day worth celebrating!

By the time I got back I could feel the grip of sleep creeping up on me, so along with Richard I grabbed a coffee at Awesome Canteen in Sekeping Victoria. On the walls hung a familiar sight – images of Yangon. They are from Yangon Echoes, a photo exhibition of Tim Webster’s prints which the public could bid on. My favourite was of two elderly ladies completely at ease with one another slouching around a messy living room. But could I see it hanging in my living room? Hmm….

Echoes of Yangon exhibition in Awesome Canteen.
One of the images you could bid on – this one was my favourite.

One road along was Character Types by Goh Hun Meng and Gareth Richards. An exhibition of fonts and typography, I liked the idea but didn’t think it was consistently executed, plus some exhibits were missing, presumably purchased.

Wandering the Character Types exhibition.
Laksa, the most pleasing word in many a vocabulary.

The Penang International Food Festival site was rammed when we got there at 6pm. The few tables and seats allocated were taken and long queues had already formed at selected stalls.

I grabbed a prawn mee and a few sticks of Mama Vege’s very convincing vegetarian satay, while Richard tucked into a bag of sweet apom, a light fluffy Indian dessert made with coconut milk, flour, sugar and egg. But since eating standing up wasn’t satisfying  we decided to give Auntie Gaik Lean’s a shot.

Partially closed to traffic, Beach Street was the scene of the Penang International Food Festival officiated later that evening by the State Minister and a fireworks display that Richard and I had front row seats to.
Stalls stretched along Beach Street and down Church Street and Bishop Street.
Offerings includes Penang and Malaysian favourites of the halal and non-halal variety and a tent just for vegetarian food. My personal favourite was Mama Vege’s bean-based vegetarian satay barbecued to sweet succulent perfection over hot coals for that smokey flavour.

Housed in a former jewellry store, we had eyed up this Nyonya restaurant before but it had always been fully booked; tonight they squeezed us in – the evenings last walk-ins. The tamarind prawns that I was craving were sold out but the eggplant sambal and otak-otak was delicious.

The always buzzing Auntie Gaik Lean’s nyonya restaurant on Bishop Street. We never had success securing a table until tonight.
Simole but delicious Nyonya food. Clockwise from the top: assam fish, otak-otak and sambal terung.

Dessert was in Little India at NR Sweets for milky treats.  Just one more stop before we schlepped back, Narrow Marrow for a tuak mojito and the coolest soundtrack north of KL.

A selection of lusciously milky treats from NR Sweets on Penang Road.

 

Day 3 – Saturday 2 September
After a slow start we Uber-ed it over to Tanjung Tokong for brunch at The Hillside with long-time friend Stuart and kids Mia and Sophie. Favoured for its pizzas and Sunday roast, it’s a smart but casual joint and Stuart is a regular.

Inside The Hillside in Tanjung Tokong.

It’s owner, Kim Lim who we are fortunate to meet, had resided over multiple establishments in London before he returned to Penang to retire. Sucked back into F & B on account of his son, who was on the verge of opening his own café in George Town when we spoke, it certainly seems to have worked out for the expatriates that frequent the place.

Installation in Hin Bus Depot.

Hin Bus Depot is uncharacteristically quiet when Richard and I get there –  we missed the Zap party on the 31st, their evening picnic coincided with the Food Festival, and its weekly pop up market was not until tomorrow (11am-5pm). There was a Secret Screening organised as part of Hin’s Mini Merdeka Festival but that wasn’t until later.

So we perused the few works on display: Maizul Affendy bin Baharuddin’s series of 3D comics Sole Salvation; Goh Chiu Kuan’s bamboo laundry installation, textile designer Shan Shan’s hand woven (We Are Here)  swatches and macramé art…. As part of ongoing creative market Reka (31 August – 10 September), there were items for sale too. Chuffed with the print by Seburba aka Firdauz Baharudin I picked up – and for a bargain RM20 no less.

Outside, various new initiatives had opened up that weren’t there on my last visit. Buu’s Kitchen was busy from what looked to be a kids’ party; Richard and I browsed Chai Diam Ma and Kiwe, two shops selling crafts and locally made products; and Rich picked up some home-brewed kefir fruit soda from The Pharm Hut; before we slipped in the back of Wholey Wonder for a vegan lunch.

Buu’s Kitchen.

Richard had the Briyani Quinoa, which was superb, while I had the peppery Twisted Shepherd, which uses lentils instead of minced lamb and lashings of sweet potato instead of spuds for a plant-based spin on Sherpherd’s Pie. Portion sizes were large and the food so filling that dessert was no longer an option. It didn’t help that the kitchen continued to ply us with dishes to sample like their sushi tacos and sushi rolls.

Inside Wholey Wonder, a plant-based eatery and yoga studio.
Vegan quinoa sushi roll.
My Twisted Shepherd and Richard’s Briyani Quinoa topped with creamy almond nut sauce.

Having seen Other Half’s life-sized kaleidoscope installation at the Rainforest Fringe Festival in Kuching, I knew Oh! Terpelanjat’s colour burst of Peranakan motifs would be a visually hypnotic treat. Yet we came awfully close to missing it. Arriving at Dewan Sri Pinang after closing time, we managed to sneak in anyway (with a guard’s permission), but got there to find our friend Kyan, who was also there to see, trying to reboot it after a technical hiccup. Fortunately his tinkering worked (Yay Kyan!), and I wasn’t wrong. Check it out yourself….

A still from Other Half’s Oh! Terpelanjat kaleidoscopic exploration of Peranakan motifs.

As Richard wasn’t keen to catch any performances, we parted ways after this and Kyan and I made a mad dash through the food fest crowds to catch two shows: The Dead Twin and The Human Voice.

The Dead Twin held at The Whiteaways Arcade is a site specific horror and was quite compelling. Requiring us to follow its 5 actors around different rooms as the story unfolded, it tells the unravelling of a family haunted by the death of its son/twin brother.

The eerie soundtrack, minimalist setting and sparing approach to tying up loose ends was brilliant at creating a sense of unease, and the dread I was left with at the end wasn’t just from having to hastily leave before properly applauding the Australian ensemble’s effort, but from the incredibly unsettling final scene. Scare-reeee…..

There was still time to grab my breath and a drink before The Human Voice at Loft 29. The former warehouse turned performance space was the scene for Joe Sidek’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name. Unfortunately I didn’t connect with the material.

Centred around a young female singer emotionally struggling with a recent break up,  I found the idea of a female who’d attempt to top herself over a man ludicrous difficult to swallow (Wuthering Heights was a painful read for me for similar reasons). But the set was beautiful, the pacing sufficiently taut and Susan Lankaster – who can sing! – held her own.

 

Day 4 – Sunday 3 September

In defence of Bukit Bendera.

It was risky. Anak Hutan Penang had called a 5 to 6 hour hike up Penang Hill that would end around 2pm, and I had to be at the airport for 3pm. But the lure of new trails and some holiday hiking was too much, and by 8.30am I was in front of Beow Hiang Lim temple, just a few hundred meters from the Penang Hill funicular railway station.

The Anak Hutan Penang hiking group assembled outside of Beow Hiang Lim temple, the meeting point for this morning’s journey of discovery. Far right: affable Anak Hutan Penang Vice President, CP Tan.

18 people had assembled, a small group according to Anak Hutan Penang Vice President CP Tan. Typically the group sees double that number – even more on the long and challenging Laksamana Trail – but most were away for the long weekend.

Two routes along Monbiot – the high road and the low road.

Today’s route would take us up through farms and fruit orchards to rest area 84 where trail and tarmac road intersect, on a reverse of the route I had taken from Moon Gate, up across the top of Bukit Cendana and back to 84 again and onto Moniot Road.

The concrete path through fruit orchards and farmland – usually used by motorbikes and plantation workers to transport produce but generously opened to ramblers.
Along a steep jungle trail, this route eventually meets up with the other trails up Penang Hill, including the winding tarmac road, at rest area 84.

A detour to rest area 39 revealed a view from across the valley towards the twin bridges to the mainland was breathtaking and the Bukit Cendana route which would a path through thin brush under the searing sun before ducking into tall leafy forests was my favourite part of the journey.

Help yourself – hot tea, clean cups and clear views across George Town to the two bridges at rest area 39.

Anak Hutan Penang kept an impressively speedy pace throughout, but after mulling it over with CP, at 11.30am we decided to part ways.

Crossing the top of Bukit Cendana where the ruins of a colonial building stand.
At an intersection where Trail 5, the Bukit Cendana trai and our farm trail come together we come across the still sturdy stone walls of a long lost colonial building.

Splitting up where Moniot Road passes under the brick archway of the funicular line, five of us climbed the steep path up towards Penang Hill putting us in the food court at noon for a a celebratory bowl of cendol before I jumped on the funicular for the trip back to George Town. The rest of the group would continue along the Viaduct trail towards Brothers’ Bungalow putting them back at the starting point for 2.30pm.

Where the tram and Moniot Road meet. You can tell the next one is about to come up or down hill as the lines start to buzz like a large noisy insect.
A small group of us part ways with the larger group to hike up towards Penang Hill.
A well deserved cendol slurped up at Penang Hill’s upper station before jumping on the tram.

I was back at Lang Hoose by 1pm. Richard had checked out for both of us by then (extended from midday), but the Lang Hoose staff generously allowed me use their shower, and later store our luggage while we grabbed a bite at Chinahouse. It was characteristically busy, so I nipped upstairs to catch French artist Bruno Tanquerel’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even installation while we waited for a table.

Bruno Tanquerel’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors installation at Chinahouse.
Donald Abraham’s skateboard dogs.

Sister establishment Bon Ton in Langkawi serves an eye-wateringly delicious nyonya laksa which I was craving. Sadly it was missing from the menu, so I ordered up the Mezze Platter and a slice of Chocolate Date Almond Torte.

Chinahouse – long narrow and always busy.
Twice as many cakes, puddings, pastries and doughnuts than before.

The latter was a hard decision to come to as Chinahouse’s legendary cake table is not just long but twice the height now – that’s twice the cakes to choose from!

The vegetarian Mezze Platter.
Singled out: One slice of Chocolate Date Almond Torte.

That same abundance sums up Penang. Arts, culture, sightseeing and cycling, in Penang you really can have your cake and eat it too.

Directory
Stay
Lang Hoose 269 Lebuh Pantai, George Town, 10300, Penang. T: +60 4 261 8616 W: http://www.langhoose.com F: www.facebook.com/LangHoose
Eat
Auntie Gaik Lean’s 1 Bishop Street, George Town, 10200, Penang. T: +60 17 434 4398 F: http://www.facebook.com/Auntie-Gaik-Leans-Old-School-Eatery-564865433555884/
Awesome Canteen 164A-164B, Lebuh Victoria, George Town, 10300, Penang. T: +60 4 261 3707 F: www.facebook.com/awesomecanteenpg
Buu’s Kitchen @ Hin Bus Depot 31A Jalan Gurdwara, George Town, 10300, Penang. T: +60 14 746 2788 / +60 14 446 3965 W: buuskitchen.webnode.com F: www.facebook.com/buuskitchen/
Chinahouse 153 & 155 Lebuh Pantai, George Town, Penang. T: +60 4 263 7299 W: www.chinahouse.com.my F: www.facebook.com/ChinaHousePenang I: www.instagram.com/chinahousepenang/
The Hillside 7 Jalan Sungai Kerlian, Tanjung Tokong, 11200, Penang. T: +60 4 899 8071 F: www.facebook.com/thehillsidecafepenang/
Mish Mash 24, Jalan Muntri, George Town, 10200, Penang. T: +60 17 536 5128 F: http://www.facebook.com/mishmashpg
Narrow Marrow 252 A Carnavon Street, George Town, 10300, Penang. T: +60 16 553 6647 F: www.facebook.com/NARROWMARROW/
NR Sweets Lebuh Penang, George Town, 10200, Penang. T: +60 12 462 0987 W: http://www.nrsweetspenang.com
The Pharm Hut and Kefir Dispensary @ Hin Bus Depot, 31A Jalan Gurdwara, George Towm, 10300, Penang. F: www.facebook.com/ThePharmHut
Wholey Wonder 61 Jalan Gurdwara, 10300, George Town, Penang. T: +60 4 218 9006 F: facebook.com/wholeywonder I: instagram.com/wholeywonder
Thai Shop 257 Lebuh Kimberly, George Town, 10100, Penang. T: +60 12 741 1868 F: http://www.facebook.com/ThaiShop.Penang/
Browse
Hin Bus Depot 31A Jalan Gurdwara, George Town, 10300, Penang. W: http://www.hinbusdepot.com F: http://www.facebook.com/hinpopup I: instagram.com/hinpopup
Chai Diam Ma @ Hin Bus Depot 31A Jalan Gurdwara, George Town, 10300, Penang. F: www.facebook.com/chaidiamma.hinbus/
Kiwe @ Hin Bus Depot 31A Jalan Gurdwara, George Town, 10300, Penang. F: www.facebook.com/kiwepenang/
The Whiteaways Arcade Lebuh Pantai, George Town, 10300, Penang. F: http://www.facebook.com/whiteawaysarcade/
Do
Anak Hutan Penang F: www.facebook.com/anakhutan.penang
Georgetown Festival 1st floor, 86 Lebuh Armenian, George Town, 10200, Penang. T: +60 4 261 6308 F: http://www.facebook.com http://www.facebook.com/GeorgeTownFestival I: http://www.instagram.com/georgetownfestival
The Habitat Penang Hill, 10300, Penang. T: +60 4 826 7677 W: the habitat.my F: www.facebook.com/thehabitatpenanghill I: www.instagram.com/thehabitatph/
Matahari Cycle Tours 29 Jalan Datuk Koyah, George Town, 10050, Penang. T: +60 19 4480 440 E: mataharicycle@gmail.com W: http://www.cyclematahari.com I: instagram.com/mataharicycletours
Penang International Food Festival W: wwwpiff.com.my F: www.facebook.com/penanginternationalfoodfestival

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