Never go back to the same place twice, they say, but I know lots of people who might reply ‘pants’ to that. Especially when it’s half term and everyone else is leaving town in a stampeding, haze-induced hurry, and ‘all’ you’ve got to look forward to is a week alone with a small-ish bored boy and your Kindle. Well, we sat down a few weeks back, Mr PC and me, and we came up with a plan. Our pin landed on Penang, somewhere we’d been before, but we did that thing that you do when you want familiarity and adventure all at the same time: go with what you know but make it a different shape.
So we took our trip from winter 2011, the one we did with Grandpa and Auntie before we even knew we were moving to Singapore, and the first thing we did was to leave those two behind – and that’s the nasty bit got out of the way. Next, we crossed out ‘Georgetown’ and typed in ‘Batu Ferringhi’. We scrubbed out ‘Old Penang Guesthouse’ and scrawled over the top in fancy glittery marker: ‘Hard Rock Hotel Penang’. Lastly, we ditched any idea of a hire car and booked ourselves a lazy flight, and there we had it: Penang v2.
And it was lovely, although quite different to last time, as travel is never the same without Auntie and Grandpa. They’ve done a good deal of Malaysia with us and they’re great travel companions, both having a nose for adventure and light feet to carry them. If you’re not sure whether to book that rickety boat trip, there they are, already at the front of the queue. Jungle trek? Tickets all round! Dangle up and down in the highest cable car in Asia (or some such superlative)? Alrighty, then!
My sister can sniff out a roti canai stall from a few hundred feet away, and she is fast in her choosing, no time for dawdlers. She and Dad both like digging into the make-up of a place, and go local whenever they can. Grandpa gives unstuffy botany tours that keep SmallMonkey entertained for much longer than we can ever manage, and he sets a pace that is kind to a nine-year-old. As a bonus, and much like Willy Wonka’s magic gobstoppers, the nature doesn’t actually end there – empty your pockets back home and all sorts of exciting things fall out that have been accidentally trapped in the fluff: a dead millilpede in a plastic bag, a crab leg, a small monkey skull, c. Ipoh, 2011 (if an item has already passed over that mortal coil and has been dead long enough to stop smelling then it can stay, that’s the house rule).
So we missed our two Robinson Crusoes – especially on our beloved Penang, a place we’d all so loved exploring – but being UsThree was nice in other ways, familiarity being a key factor to comfort: only three mouths to feed, only three decisions to mete out. Besides, Mr PC is a good adventurer and he makes sure our small trips include at least a sampler of what the other two might have chosen. So it was that we boarded the ridiculously rickety boat to Monkey Island, clinging on disbelievingly as the nose pointed skywards then seawards round the tip of the coast like the kind of fairground ride that might end up on the front page of the Daily Mail, and not in a good way (“But I don’t LIKE rollercoasters!” wailed SM afterwards, as we discussed whether it would make more sense to brave the jungle path in flip-flops instead of returning by sea, and all this with a lovely young British teacher from Bangkok who shared the morning with us and who seemed equally apprehensive, so at least this time I knew it wasn’t just me).
When we dabbled our feet in the jellyfish infested waves I remembered how Grandpa swam towards the sea snake in Borneo, not away from it, and how Auntie teased me when a jellyfish tickled my toe in Langkawi and I wanted as much iodine and attention as my young son, who’d been stung far worse. Both she and Grandpa would have been splashing about with the tentacled specimens as fast as you like.
The first of our four nights – rainy and cool – was given over rather exhaustedly to the resident HRH Café (well, it had to be done), and the others would’ve withstood that graciously, but the remaining three evenings left us covered in curry sauce and laksa splashes, hobbling home from the hawker down the road with noodle bellies after sending WhatsApp proof to our absent adventurers. We didn’t just do it because they’d have liked it, we did it because we like it too – SM chose plate after plate of Auntie’s favourite RC special, stuffing himself up again after a week of being laid-low with a nasty bout of food poisoning. She’d have been so proud of his top choice, and we knew it, and missed her for it. Didn’t stop us swimming up to the pool bar and ordering iced lattes the next afternoon, though, but this is just my point: give it all a go and rejoice in the luckiness of having holidays at every turn.
Penang v1 was Georgetown, Penang Hill, Love Lane, town, smelly drains, giant incense sticks at traffic junctions, the clan house, orange garlands on street stalls, curry at the docks and nightly cruises around the food stalls to dive up to our elbows in steamboat and other such delights. Three years ago we got our botany fix on Penang Hill, going up by train and down on foot following the winding monkey-peppered path, where Grandpa found his precious pitcher plants and our calves nearly gave up.
For Penang v2 we stayed right at the top of the island, in an area the purists reject for its rubbish beaches and dead cultural scene, but of course ‘culture’ is everywhere, depending on what sort you’re looking for. Our cab from the airport took a twisting beach road and I wanted to pretend I was in an open-topped sports car scooting along those gorgeous beach roads round Italy’s south-western coast wearing Jackie O shades and a sweet little headscarf. Well, the road was a much poorer cousin and I didn’t look a bit like Mrs President, wilting in a hot drizzle of bags and water bottles on the carpeted back seat with SmallMonkey’s legs sticking sweatily to mine and Mr PC snoozing up front beside a driver with a serious twitch (“You alright to drive, mate?” I wanted to ask). Pronged metal fencing looped in and out as we twitched our way steadily north and the road narrowed and threatened to drop now and then, and yes, perhaps the place had lost whatever shine it once had, but the view of the beach peeping in and out of shabby palms was stubbornly awesome, and ‘culture’, if that’s what you want to call it, was all around in spades – from the Hokkien name on the side of a large school, to sunny mosque minarets punctuating the route with glinting onion rooftops, clusters of Indian stalls selling Auntie’s favourite dishes and, just as the road came to an end and the national park began, strange tall stacks of rubble that turned out to be grimy apartment blocks far beyond any kind of help, with laundry in matching dark cement colours grudgingly keeping time with the morning breeze. Maybe not a place fit for Jackie O, but different – grubbily exotic.
From this dilapidated point we took our up-and-down boat trip, joining forces with the teacher who was buying her ticket at the same time as us and sharing the half-day adventure (therefore also the nasty choppy ride and much happier calm sail back again). Another day we got a good portion of botany at the Tropical Spice Gardens, handily right by our hotel, choosing a guided tour and being led around by a woman so like our Borneo tour guide from two years ago that they must have been related – that gentle guide had been a favourite with Grandpa and he’d also have loved this one’s equally kind, informative manner. We revisited Georgetown beginning, like last time, at the Peranakan House, a visit made all the more meaningful since I now take my own tours around the Singapore version (and here SM patiently allowed me to tell him about four stories before vanishing predictably to the gift shop). We squeezed in and out of Little India, ducking as stallholders shook out bright waves of flower garlands in excitable anticipation at the start of Deepavali week. We stopped for coffee in a hip street café, and of course we wandered back down Love Lane, popping in to the Old Penang Guesthouse to stand for a moment in the cool shadows of the lobby, remembering a slightly smaller monkey coming down the old staircase for breakfast tea and toast with me, Auntie, Grandpa and his dad. That was then. I’d happily do another ‘now’.
I feel, like all places, there is so much more to see. No turtles came to play on Turtle Beach, no monkeys on Monkey Beach (apart from our one), so we need to return for those. Rubbish beaches? Not rubbish, just quiet, eerie. No jetskis, no frolicking trippers. Just us, and the teacher, and a few earnest walkers appearing sweatily from the jungle (and making me rather glad we did the boat trip, in the end). Further south from those deserted beaches the satellite maps show more green fluff – dense patches of palm and hilltop, and yet more beaches, and what, I wonder, is at the very southernmost tip, and who lives there? There’s more, for sure. I’ll go back three times if I want: like the nasi goreng, I can always make room for more.