Dear Nan and Grandad. My Penang story

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Since I was a little girl I have grown up with stories from what then seemed like another world. In this world the people had different eyes, skin colour and behaved in a way that to me seemed almost barbaric. At the same time this world was full of fascinating things from the furnisher that was all made from wood with incredible carvings of mystical creatures such as dragons to the animals that were what you would find in a zoo, such as tigers, monkeys and toads as big as your hand. This world had people that did your washing and cleaning for you, it had people who carried water to the houses and cars would come to take you on day trips to the beach. The weather was always hot and although it rained a lot you would still be hot all the time. These stories would be told as I would sit flicking though a photo album and inspecting each black and white photo of people I did not recognise and places I had never thought I would see.

This was the world my Grandparents had spent there early married years, my Grandad was in the Army in the 1950s-1960s and he had been stationed in Southeast Asia. To be more specific he and my Nan lived in Malaysia then known as Malaya (1956 until 1959) . My Nan was in her early twenties and she had two children, my auntie and uncle, who were both babies no more than three years old. They lived on a small island off the mainland used mainly for army families and I know my Grandad worked away, travelling through Malaysia.

From a young age I new that the beautiful carved blanket chest my Nan has sitting upstairs is from Malaya. Also she has a strange lamp with an incredible carving of a dragon wrapping its self around the body of the lamp. Words can not describe how beautiful and flawless these items are, from the lamps to the wooden music boxes that played songs from the time or the painted pictures of Asian women with big umbrellas in colourful gardens. I spent most of my time visiting my Grandparents looking and for lack of a better word playing with these items.

I was also told stories about a gigantic toad that lived at the end of their garden that my uncle would play with and that they had a pet monkey they had named Bam-Bam (I do not believe this is from the flint stones).

My story starts over 50 years since my Grandparents left Malaya, two more children and several Grandchildren later. Twenty seven years into my life and I had the travel bug. Two years of working on ships, one visit to Australia and I was hooked. I had decided to move to Ozz and travel there for a few years. Before booking my flight I looked into taking a detour and spending some time in different country’s. I had looked at south Africa, Brazil or maybe the USA but one place pulled at me because of its hot tourist attractions that would take me close to where those childhood stories had actually happened.  Yes, I was looking at flights to Thailand and Malaysia, planning to revisit the land my Grandparents had spoken about so fondly. My move to Australia had turned into a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia overnight.

I will admit I did not know much about where my Grandparents had lived or any information other than the stories they had told me. But I knew from my Nan that they had flown in to Singapore on an army aircraft, that they had spent some time there before being taken up to Malaya, then across to the island of Penang. My grandad had spent a lot of time on the mainland in Malaysia working for the army but my Nan had mainly stayed on Penang. The information I had was enough for me to know I was visiting the island.

Before my trip to Malaysia I was travelling Thailand and working my way down from Chiang Mai to Singapore. This went from a straight down trip through Thailand to me taking the long way around; Laos, Cambodia, back into Thailand and then down to Malaysia backpacking and visiting places I had never heard of before.

It was when I was in Bangkok and planning my trip to Malaysia that I finally realised that I did not know much about what my Grandad did in the army or where they had lived, all I knew was an island name that had changed a lot over the last 50 years. Luckily I live in a time of mobile phones and free internet, where every one from my friends, my Dad and my dog are on Facebook. A few messages later and I had some more information to go on, I had a road name and the name of my Grandads barracks. At first I though this information would help but after an hour of googling it was clear that I would need more. The Barracks Nee Sume could not be found on a google search but the name sounded Japanese. Due to the history of the county many of the old names have been changed and the old names wiped away. The road name Taylor road could be found in reference only, it was after a few hours of searching the name Jalan Istana came up as a possible new name for the road. Unfortunately this road was on the mainland and could not possibly be the one from the stories, after some research into that road a discovery was made, Jalan is the word for road in Malaysia. A change of search later and there it was Jalan Taylor, George town Penang, I had finally found the road from the stories and all the black and white photos, it was only a short distance from the hostel I was due to stay at. I had also found two possible bases that my granddad would of worked at.

On the 17th of October 2014 I left Bangkok at around 3 pm on the over night train to Malaysia, crossing the border at Padang Besar then continuing on to Buttersworth. The trip down was easy. It took around 20 hours and we arrived in Buttersworth Two hours earlier that expected. The train was very spacious compared to some of the buses I have been on, I had a large single bed with a window. Sellers came on at every stop and I was woken up a few times in the night to some women or men shouting ‘ Chicken and rice’. It may of smelt good but at 4am who would want it?. The train reached the border between Thailand and Malaysia at around 10 am and I had to take all my belongings with me to walk around, get stamped out of one country and stamped into the next, as the train was not very busy this did not take long. After around an hour the train was once again on its way to the place I had been dreaming about.

The train arrived in Buttersworth at 11.30 am, it was only a short walk around to the ferry port. One of the first things I noticed was that everyone spoke English and were helpful. By 12pm I was on the ferry with a beautiful view of Penang in the distance and the bridge connecting it to the mainland. This bridge is the third longest in the world so quite a sight. The view made me feel in wonder, was this how my Nan felt the first time over? Does it look anything like it would of then? Did they look at this view and stand in amazement at how beautiful it was?.  After 15 minutes of this I was almost too scared to get off the ferry, but after a deep breath stepped off to walk in the footsteps of my Grandparents.

I took a taxi to the hostel I had booked and soon found out I could of walked there in less time. At the hostel I was greeted by a mix of people and to my excitement there were English people staying and working there. It was not long until the owner had invited me for a night out with them all and I felt completely at home, this place was already one of the best places I had stayed, just adding to my quickly growing love of Penang.

My fist day in Penang was spent a little worse for wear after the night before but I got to spend some time planning my adventures and working out a rout to my grandparents old house. It was the following day that I rented a 10 rt bicycle that was on its last legs and set out on my journey to find 86 Jalan Taylor. The ride was a bit scary as it was the first time I had ridden a bike in over 10 years and my first turn was a shaky, off balance swerve into the road. Unfortunately for me the rest of the journey was much the same, lots of wrong turns, no idea how to get to the other side of the road and quite a few cars beeping at me. It took me around an hour to find the right road but then I could see the street Jalan Cheeseman and knew that the road I was looking for was only minutes away. My one problem was that I was on the wrong side of a carriageway and had to cross 6 lanes to get over to the right side, I already new I would have to go up the road more before I could turn around. What I did know know was it was 6 lanes on a very busy road and I ended up walking the bike across to avoid any injury. Twenty minutes later I was the right side of the road and only had to cycle a few moments more before I would get there.

The road was clean and looked well looked after with lots of bungalows lining the streets. I stopped to get some water from a nice man on the street who also told me where to find the house ‘ two roads up’. I walked the rest of the way just pushing my bike along until I found the joining road and walked down past 10 houses to finally see a street sign saying Jalan Taylor. Some people driving up the street stopped and asked if I was lost which was very nice of them but I assured them I knew where I was going. The street started at 1 so I had to walk down to the end of the road to get to 38, the street was clean and most houses looked well maintained with beautiful flowers and bushes outside. At this point of my journey I was extremely excited but still trying to take in all I could from the street that my Nan talked so fondly about. It was not that long a road and only took me a few minutes to walk down and finally reach number 38, the house I was looking for and had heard so much about. The house still had yellowy gold gates like my Nan had described to me, it had some beautiful plant pots out side with pink and purple flowers blooming in them, the gate looked in to a small driveway were two pick ups where parked. The driveway was full of boxes and it looked as though it was being used as storage, and unfortunately the house was run down in comparison to most of the others on the street. But to me it still held a lot of wonder and beauty about it.

I stayed on the street for about an hour taking photos and walking around to see the area better, close by there was a small park and a little woodland area where I rested in the shade as it was 35 ‘c in the sun and I had a big backpack on. It was while resting that I had my one and only injury, pulling my bike up I let it go thinking I had put the rest out but I had not, therefore the bike fell scraping my leg and leaving me with what looked like a small burn on my leg. Before I left I walked back up to the house and spent some time taking yet more photos and just enjoyed being there. As I left I took a stroll down the street as my Nan and Grandad would of once done. The ride back was a lot quicker than the ride there but I did miss my turn once I got into Georgetown and ended up having to stop every few miles and ask for directions. Once back at my hostel I phoned home and told everyone of my adventures, my Nan told me about some of the things she loved to do and gave me some ideas of what I’d like to do and see. One of these ideas was to go up Penang Hill.

The next morning I woke up early to meet some others and go to Penang hill with one of the girls from the hostel, the others were going to come with us but decided not to as we wanted to hike up. It was around midday when we left to catch the number 101 bus up to the gardens where the entrance to the 5 k hike began. The excitement we had and good ideas of how fit we would feel after this small 5k hike was soon completely gone when after only the first k we were greeted my a near vertical walk that not only tested our physic stamina but also our mental ability to keep going. At this point it was around 1pm and we were hiking with small backpacks in 34 degrees up a vertical hill. We had been told it would take around one and half hours but had be warned the night before that it is more likely to take 3 hours.

The hike seemed endless with signs showing each 0.1 of the walk. We were boiling alive and running out of energy very quickly when we came across a small stream. Full of excitement it was not long until we had both soaked out sweet clothes in the water and had cooled ourselves down, taking lots of photos to show how happy we were. Then Jasmin, the girl who I was doing the walk with, noticed something on her clothes, we both looked and realised it was some sort of worm. The only thought I had at this point was ‘ what if they are leaches’ and after reading an resent article about a girl who had a leach removed from her noes I was completely panicked and we were both searching our entire body’s to get them of. We were very lucky and after we managed to make sure that none were on us we took a closer look at one. It was not a leach just some form of water worm.
The rest of the trip up the hill was spent dragging each other up and trying to come up with inspiration to make it to the top.

At 3pm we finally took the last few steps to the top of the hill and found that it was full of shops, food stalls, parks and much needed refreshment stands of cold fruit drinks. Jasmin and I looked around the hill, taking in the beautiful view that showed Penang in all its glory. From the top you can see right around the island and with a clear sky you can also make out the mainland and Buttersworth. The island is a mix of country side full of green, the city with its big towers stretching out and a back ground of deep blue surrounding it.  The top of Penang hill is something to make a long hike seem like a distant dream, it was truly worth every second to get there.

The walk back down was far more painful as by then my legs were hurting and my muscles felt over worked. It only took about an hour and a half to get back down and once there we found out we had some time to kill before our bus back left so we had a look around. About  5 minute walk away from the gardens there is a Bee shop that teaches you all about Bees as well as letting you try all sorts of wonderful things made out of honey. We tried honey and wax lollies, honey drinks and as we were both feeling brave we eat Bee larvae that looked and tasted a lot like popcorn but crunchy. I must admit I did not go back for seconds. 

Once back at the hostel a nice cold shower and some food was very much needed, it was that night that the owner of the hostel offered me a job so that I could stay there longer. The job was at his restaurant as a waiter/hostess, I had free food and could stay at the hostel for free. The day before I was due to start I decided to go to the beach with some of my fellow staff members and hostel guests. I had been planning on visiting the beach since before I had arrived in Penang due to the fact that my Nan would take day trips with other army wives to a hotel/ beach resort called the Golden sands hotel which was located on the beach.

When we left for the beach I had thought we were going to a closer one but was happy for a afternoon of sun, sea and sand. As we drove closer to the beach to my surprise we passed the Golden sands hotel, it was a mere 5 minutes walk form where we had parked the car. We lazed on the beach until we were all hungry and went for food it was on the way back to the beach that I finally got to go the Golden sands hotel. One of the guests from the hostel came with me and we were both amazed at the size of the place, as you walk in there is a big welcome area with a lounge and a restaurant then you can head out side to the large luxurious  pool with its pool side bar and deck chairs. As we walked around the gardens a guessed pointed out that there was a snake show so we went over to have a look. The show was with a king cobra snake which just happens to be one of my favourite, the snake charmer was finishing up the show by getting the snake to give him a kiss. This was something I had never seen before and I wonder if they have always had shows like this here. 

The hotel lead on to the beach and had beautiful view of the sea, as we left the hotel we decided to sneak up to the rooms and have a look around. The hotel showed off its grandeur even in the elevators which had wooden carvings inside. We got of at the 5th floor and wondered the hall way until we could get a good look at one of the rooms, feeling like naughty school kids we decided that due to all of the cameras and the amount of security to keep our time noising around the guest areas as short as possible and headed back to the beach to find the others.

The beach was the perfect place to relax and swim in the sea as it was such a hot day, we drank wine and swapped stories until the sun started to come down and it was time to head back to the hostel.
The next day I started work at the restaurant and we had a big wedding booked in, the day went quickly and there was lots to do also I was with two of the other workers from the hostel. We did not get back till late and I was exhausted and went straight to bed. Monday was a much quieter day and I met most of the staff I would be working with, I was the only westerner and found the lack of being able to communicate made it difficult this day went much slower. On my third day a new girl from the hotel started working with me she was Malay but spoke excellent English and made the day much more enjoyable although there still was not much for me to do and as I was working at a sea food restaurant when sea food makes me very sick I was finding it impossible to eat anything with out it making me ill. It was because of this I decided that I would be better off in Bangkok where I could make more money working less hours and would have more control over what I was eating.

I stayed in Penang for Halloween as there was a big street party and I was in no rush to get back to Bangkok. The party started at 6pm and all the guests from the hostel dressed up in Halloween out fits, we had a mix ranging from day of the dead face paints, an escaped prisoner complete with chains and a party animal. It was raining heavily by the time we were ready to leave the hostel but luckily for us it was stopping by the time we got to the party as there was very little cover and most of us had face paint on.

Halloween in its self is a very western tradition that is not celebrated in south east Aisia or at least it was not untill recently. The party on Penang was a first for some of the people there and very few people were dressed up, but the ones who were had really made an effort. It was like being a celebrity as everyone wanted their pictures taken with us and we spent most of the night dancing with a group of people stood around photographing our every move. The atmosphere there was amazing with everyone having fun and westerners mixing with Malay, Chinese and any other race that wonted to join it. It reminded me of being on ships and how skin colour, race and sex did not matter as we were all in it together.

The next day it was time to leave this island that I had loved so much and had helped me live what I had once only dreamed about. Penang has been a place in heart since I was a little girl and now I can look back and remember my time there with fondness and love. I will always remember the friends I made there and the people who helped make It’s a truly amazing experience. Until I go again I will dream of Penang. 

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One Reply to “Dear Nan and Grandad. My Penang story”

  1. Wonderful inspiring story. I am sure your Grandparents must be very proud of you. It is also great to hear of such a lovely country and to learn of just how very friendly folk can be. Keep writing because I will look forward to reading more of your adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

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