Street art. When it’s done right, a place can come alive. And in George Town, Malaysia, it was like walking through a comic book. Only instead of turning the pages, you turn the corner.
We spent a scant nine days in Malaysia, starting with a couple of days in the airline hub that is Kuala Lumpur. With a few days for adventure between flights, we settled on a bus ride north to the island of Penang and historic George Town. We were told to book a ticket to Butterworth and then take a fifteen minute ferry ride, but with the confusion of instructions shouted in Malay we didn’t change buses when we were supposed to (and no one had said we had to) and soon found ourselves on a long causeway across the strait over to Penang, with signs pointing to Butterworth in the other direction.
And that was how we met David.
Sensing something was amiss, Nancy asked the fellow sitting across from us where we were going and how we should get to where we were supposed to be. David told us that we should have got off where he got on, that we were actually headed to George Town, and to relax because we were getting a free ride. Actually, the bus terminal was some 20 kilometres out of town but David took the local transit with us downtown and also showed us where to get some lovely nasi kandar, a local specialty.
A couple of days later we took the bus out to Batu Ferringhi to have dinner with David and his wife, Lena. Such is the serendipity of travel.
George Town was nothing like we had anticipated. No sleepy post-colonial town basking in the shadow of bygone days, this was a bustling multicultural city of over 740,000 with restaurants, harengs, and street stalls offering Malay, Indonesian, Chinese, and Indian foods. It is steeped in history and has several museums, but the best way to learn about the culture and history of the neighbourhoods was by taking a walk.
As a founder and fan of Jane’s Walk, I love city walks that offer glimpses behind the street scenes and architecture, but this was something special. Humour, art, culture, and history are welded together in a series of iron cartoons at historic sites around the town. “Marking George Town” was a competition organized by the Penang State Government in 2009. The winner, Sculpture at Work, proposed a series of steel rod sculptures and the result is an entertaining, loving look back on the history of George Town. Way more fun than reading the Lonely Planet.
And so it was that we set out over the next two days to learn about the different neighbourhoods, the immigrants, the trades, and the history of George Town as told through ironwork caricatures. These are some of the best:
A few years later, the City commissioned a number of paintings on buildings by London-trained Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, and so the tour also boasts some amazing works of art that will last only as long as the peeling plaster they are painted on.
After the high pressure tourist sales pitches of Vietnam and Cambodia, George Town was heaven; a peaceful town we could explore at our leisure, poking into stores, museums, and (of course) restaurants. One of the quirkiest highlights was the cat cafe, a hilariously poor version of the feel-good cat cuddly cafes of the West. The coffee was cold, the cats indifferent (but what else would you expect) and we had to pay an entry fee for the pleasure. But it was memorable:
There are a million bus companies in Malaysia, and a billion people vying for your fare as you enter a bus station. The upside is that all you have to do is turn up and you can find a bus going to where you want within an hour. The downside is that if you happen to leave your camera on the bus when you are hurried off by the driver, good luck trying to track down the bus.
So there we were having dinner in the Kuala Lumpur bus terminal when we realized our camera was still on the bus. A quick search of all the companies in the terminal showed that our bus company wasn’t one of them. That’s when Nancy’s sleuthing kicked in. We started with the terminal office. They had no lost and found, and their security agent was not in his office. Another fellow walked up with his take-out dinner in hand and Nancy asked him if the agent would be back soon. This fellow turned out to be a tourist police officer. He took us up to the booking floor where he worked the floor, talking to all the agents to find out how we could track down our bus. Together, they tracked down the company owner, and then the bus driver who was at another station 45 minutes away and 90 minutes away from making the return drive to Penang. After a long taxi ride, with the taxi driver on the phone to the bus driver to get directions, we arrived at a parking lot where a man – lit up in our headlights- stood holding up our camera bag.
Success, and an amazing testament to how people pitch in to help out.
Farewell to Malaysia. It was too short, but so sweet! And on to Bali.