Cruising in the waters of the Far East is far out in comparison to anywhere else you might have been. The entire region is such a vast melting pot of different creeds, religions and races that any attempt to pigeon hole it is bound to end in failure. The best thing to do is just go with an open mind, and absorb what you can.
I did a cruise out there just before Christmas, with Voyages to Antiquity aboard their stylish little Aegean Odyssey (see previous blogs). Each of the ports was a show stopper in its own right, but it was quite nice to go back to Penang after an absence of a few years.
The capital of George Town was established by a British trader, Francis Light, back in 1786. The most obvious relic of what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2008) is the squat, grey walled fastness of Fort Cornwallis, with its brooding battlements and ancient cannon still jutting out to sea.
Much of the architecture of the public buildings still has a very old English feel. The Queen Victoria clock tower in the city centre, the railway station and the many grand, overly fussed hotels give parts of George Town the look and feel of a perfectly manicured Victorian theme park. But you don’t have to look far to find some jarring contrasts.
A series of spindly, hugely overcrowded jetties loom out into the waters of the harbour. Here, many of the local Chinese and Malay natives live, work and socialise together. Wooden boardwalks tack off at crazy angles, while small Buddhist shrines appear almost everywhere, and the scent of incense floods the humid air at certain times of the day. Here, children are educated, fed, clothed and bathed on a series of rickety piers, festooned with old tyres and capped with thatched roofs. Shops thrive, tourists come to visit. Markets abound, full of fresh local produce that attracts locals and lotus eaters alike. It’s a mad, slightly claustrophobic cacophony of sight, smell and sound, and one not easily forgotten, either.
Wander a little further north, and you enter a neighbourhood of buildings blackened by decades of smoke from traffic exhausts and local fires.Colonnaded archways provide shade for baskets overflowing with fresh fruit, sweets and spices. Tuk tuks splutter along the woefully ill tended roads; pavements here are almost non existent, and real care needs to be taken when walking here. But the sights and sounds are fascinating; a sharp, piquant counterpoint to all the chocolate box cuteness of downtown.
This part of town is gritty rather than gilded, but this is how people work and live every day. Stacks of bottled water wrapped in bubble plastic stand outside shop doorways, while men in boiler suits inside make shift garages try to kick start antiquated cars one last time. Roadside cafes made up of rickety, grimy tables and plastic chairs are filled to overflowing, while the local peanut stalls do a roaring trade.
There’s the cry of a baby and a supine, uncaring cat, curled up in the shade as the early afternoon heat homes in like a laser beam. Lines chock full of washing hang limp between the shutters of gaping, blackened windows. There are shrines in vibrant, electric shades and idle, barely ruffled street awnings that yawn above hopelessly pitted pavements. Motor scooters appear like angry, maddened swarms of mosquitoes. Again, there’s the aroma of incense, hanging in the air like fine perfume.
It’s an eclectic, engaging slice of life but, after a while, it becomes strangely uniform, even when enlivened here and there by huge, screaming red swathes of signage in Chinese that adds a surreal splash of colour to those gaunt, grimy walls and buildings. But after a while, enough is enough.
Being a creature of habit, I wander slowly back to the more gentrified part of town. As I walk into the air conditioned opulence of the waterfront bar on the Queen Elizabeth II pier, I do feel pangs of guilt. It is unlikely that many of the locals can afford the prices here. But compared to home, it is still amazingly cheap. The views are outstanding, the beer cold, and the air conditioning is truly a godsend.
And, after all, I’m a traveller. And this is just how I happen to roll.