Lonely Planet calls Georgetown, the old-town heart of the island of Penang off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia, ‘a fabulous city and a highlight of any itinerary.’ I don’t think they really visited this place.
If I were in the guidebook business and had to write an entry for Georgetown, it would probably go something like this: ‘This rat-infested hellhole is filled with the most unfriendly, unwelcoming, unhelpful people you may ever meet. But the garbage strewn through the streets has a stench that’s unbeatable!’
Yeah, Penang kinda sucks.
I will except Kek Lok Si temple from the above description. The hillside Buddhist temple is the largest in Malaysia and it is definitely worth a visit if you already happen to be stuck here. An enormous bronze Bodhisattva statue and a towering pagoda are a couple of the highlights here. Also, at dusk, for the Chinese New Year, the whole temple was illuminated by gaudy lights wired to every corner of every building. Remember Clark Griswald’s Christmas lights in ‘Christmas Vacation’? It was a lot like that except with a bigger area to set aglow.
One last highlight of the temple for me was the vegetarian restaurant at its base. Yum. I went for a late lunch and I had hoped to time it so that I could visit for dinner again, but I left it too long and they were closed upon my second arrival. How disappointing.
But that has been the least of my disappointments with this city. Here’s an example: As I was setting out for my trip to Penang Hill, I had to wait about an hour for a bus to arrive. During that time, I counted 12 rats. Big deal right? Well it is for me. Up until yesterday, I had only ever seen a couple rats in my life (that weren’t in cages) and one of those times was only a couple weeks ago in Kuala Lumpur.
You see, my home province of Alberta has a no-rat policy. That’s right, you can’t find a wild rat in Alberta. And I love the place for it. In fact, you never hear an Albertan say, ‘Boy I wish I had seen a rat in streets today.’ It just doesn’t happen.
So, having only seen a couple of them in my lifetime, I have not yet been desensitized to their pestilent shapes slinking through city streets. A dozen of the disgusting vermin was a bit much of an introduction for me.
Perhaps, however, it was the rotting meat smeared across the pavement that was drawing them to the area of the bus stop. Ah, fetid mystery meat. Is there any nose that doesn’t love your stink? Well, yes as a matter of fact there is: mine. Too bad there’s not much escaping it here.
Okay that’s all fine and good. I can deal with some dirt, some pests and perhaps the odd bit of expired food. These are experiences one has to occasionally accept while travelling.
What gets me here are the people. With the exception of a couple of people, most notably the happy and helpful dude at the hostel next door to mine, everyone here is a dick. Flash someone a smile and it returns to you as a grimace. Walk past someone in the street and they will either stare right through you or glare unwaveringly in your direction like they want to start a fight with you (and a couple days ago, nothing would have given me more satisfaction than to beat one of these rude bastards to a pulp).
Say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ and you will be ignored – forget about hearing it back. This spirit of brotherly malevolence even extends to the kids. In just about every city I have visited, a wave or a smile to a passing kid yields some kind of smile or wave in response, perhaps a ‘hello’ or, if they are shy, a cute withdrawal to a parent’s protective arms. Nope, not here. Instead, they look back at you with eyes that say, ‘Why the hell are you here? You’re not wanted.’
Direct conversation with the locals is pointless. After a whole day of dealing with the rudeness ubiquitous in this city, I went to try to find some dinner. I landed at some Mexican place where I sat down and a couple minutes later had the chef come out and literally shout at me, ‘What do you want?’ Well, a menu would have been a good start, but apparently that was too much to ask. I went and got one for myself. I glanced it over and asked if I could get a vegetable fajita. I got yelled at again, ‘No vegetable! Only beef!’ It was like the soup nazi had started a Mexican joint in Penang. Sick of this wretch, I tossed down the menu and left without uttering the words I wanted to.
I don’t know, this really doesn’t sound so bad when I look at what I’ve written, but I think I might not be conveying just how rude every person’s gesture was towards me. It was relentless and by the end of the day, I had to restrain myself when some pimp muttered something at me as I passed by. I ignored him as I hadn’t even understood what he said. Then he made it more clear, ‘Pussy pussy?’
I stopped in my tracks and turned back to him and I genuinely felt like getting violent with him. Straw that broke the camel’s back I suppose – my sense of humour about the whole day was finished.
Rather than berate him with the invective I wanted to about how he should probably consider getting a real job instead of sexually exploiting some young girl, I gave him my best stinkeye and moved on. I doubt I’ll be changing the course of this guy’s life through heated debate, so I chose not to fight that battle.
Probably just one of those days. Soaring heat and incessant impropriety got me down and I had had enough. I’m now trying to roll with the punches. It should be easier since I’m leaving here tomorrow. I’m finding myself a bit more able to laugh of the overtly rude talk of people who should be helpful, by just dismissing it with a simple, ‘Bloody’ Penang…’ and carrying on.
Quite the place.