Life’s a Beach

It was on holiday in Penang, Malaysia, that my boyfriend and I put our year-long (give or take) relationship to the test.

This was our first out-of-Hong-Kong vacation together and I was worried that we wouldn’t get along in the end, although both of us said we were pretty easy travel companions.

Funny enough, we argued the moment we set foot in our hotel and were faced with an extremely beautiful receptionist at the Shangri-la Golden Sands, which would be part-battleground, part-haven.

Of the hotels that flank it (namely, the Shangri-La Rasa and the Lone Pine resort), Golden Sands is the more family-friendly and less overtly romantic. Apart from their rooms (which unfortunately have thin walls), couples can frolick in the sun in a deeper, warmer pool nearest Sigi’s Bar and Grill, away from the golden-haired and freckled spawn lobbing beach balls or enjoying an innocent version of the summer fling.

In our iteration of pool fun, Joe was an athlete, and I was his rugby ball, to be deposited for a goal in the shallow end of the pool. The facility is closed and roped off at 8pm for fear of non-PG nocturnal emissions, and guests are discouraged from swimming in the rain for fear of lightning.

It became clear three hours into a sweaty bus ride to the coastal Batu Ferringhi area from the airport, stuck in traffic because it happened to be the Buddhist Water Festival that day and droves of Myanmese tourists had flocked in to enjoy the sun, sand and catapulting bottles of water, that we could easily wile away the time with our novels and conversations.

(Tip: Do not come to Penang during this festival because there’s going to be huge traffic and the beaches will be strewn with the detritus of the celebration.)

But unused to the 24/7 face time, our respective quirks were thrown into sharp relief.

He turned out to be a bit of a bully – useful when a hawker tries to rip you off or when a Thai restaurant tries to sell you exorbitant seafood, but not when something you do happens to annoy him, such as extensively filling out the comment card on Golden Sand’s breakfast buffet. (“Needs more brie.”)

I turned out to be a jealous monster, becoming hormonally oversensitive now when he would stop and ogle a girl in a tight bikini. I also became prone to catastrophizing, thinking a) you’re staring at that girl means b) we should totally break up because you are incapable of tiny gestures of fidelity.

And I would cry a lot before sleeping, feeling bad for feeling bad. We would also have a big blow-up on our last evening, but there was no sign of the magnitude of that now.

The backdrop was thankfully mellow, which defused a lot of the chronic tension. Penang is so easygoing that you can’t help but be the same. After the Water Festival, the strip of restaurants, hotels and night markets at Batu Ferringhi largely emptied and we could take nice strolls along the shore or on the street.

Unlike places in Indonesia or the Philippines, sellers here are not aggressive. They approach you with their goods with a smile and something like, “Come into our shop, there are nice things. Beautiful things.” If you say no, they’ll grin and say, “No problem!”

The languid pace continued when we explored Georgetown, a sort of colonial central business district and ethnic melting pot that was declared a Unesco heritage site. The buildings are low and the architecture overwhelmingly Victorian.

The streets are also quite narrow, which gets tricky when there is a passing car or motorbike (which does not happen quite often). There are innovative markers — freestanding cartoons made of wrought iron — for particularly historic quarters like Love Lane, the favored apartments for mistresses, and an old noodle shop that serves Cantonese food.

Here, Joe tried to impose a photography ban every 15 minutes, saying I was not “living in the moment.” He then relates a story about a Chinese stewardess who visited him in Spain, whom he immediately dropped from the dating list because she “ruined the mood” by snapping pictures every two minutes. The ensuing series of photos showing the two of them smiling with the same expression everywhere did not help.

I said I was – and I WAS – only taking photos of notable things. And I have 58 photos from the four-day trip to prove it. (And as we got massages on the beach as the sun set and the sky turned purple, pink and orange, and Joe asked if I had brought my camera, I snickered and said no, I was living the moment.)

One thing we agreed on however, was the fantastic quality – and price – of the food. Penang is abundant in fresh seafood at deliciously cheap prices. I’d skip some of the Western offerings, however, especially some of the kebab shops.

We particularly loved the hawker centers, which have booths that specialize in a particular type of cuisine. You simply park at a table and tell the cooks or waiters what your table number is, and they will deliver it to you, at which point you pay them.

There are also roving staff who sell beer. Sports fans will also be happy to know that if a football game is on, it’s bound to be shown in every flatscreen at every hawker center, or even on giant screens in the al fresco areas of bars.

Oyster cake
String ray
Spring rolls
Satay
Indian combo meal, which I loved for the crispy papadum (far left)

One of the better food deals we got was a HK$50 lunch set at an Indian sweets shop in Little India, deep in the heart of Georgetown.

The whole street is lined with nice-smelling food. There were little bowls of chutneys, various curries, pickled vegetables, deep-fried potato fritters and fresh yogurt — all of it vegetarian.

The most expensive meal we had, disappointingly, was at Golden Thai Restaurant in Batu Ferringhi, a palatial space strung with parasols and colored lights that obviously placed a surcharge on the ambience and the seaside view.

Its entrance is lined by a wall of aquariums, where bored attendants scoop out your meal fresh. Each case is marked with prices per kilogram, but you won’t find the actual totals on the menu itself, which just lists a vague “At Market Prices” next to the dishes. Even the vegetables are fresh and have to be picked from a nicely arranged wooden boat by the foyer.

Grilled tilapia, Malaysian style (which means smothered in a chili-lime-garlic paste)

If Joe hadn’t been vigilant and prodded the waitresses for actual prices, we would’ve been like the couple next to our table who saw the bill and were quite taken aback, asking the staff if there was some kind of mistake. Our bill ran up to about 400 ringgit, which was the reason we didn’t have enough money for a windsurfing session at the end of the trip.

Hello Kitty car in front of one of the bars.

There’s a lot of history in Penang, and you do feel the colonial influence. But we didn’t get to see much of it save for Fort Cornwallis, a 15-minute walk from Georgetown and close to the bay (which isn’t as picturesque as the beach at Batu Ferringhi).

We looked at all the cannons pointing at the water, and then I got a bad case of bladder trouble and we had to run back to the hotel.

By the third day, this obvious imbalance between aggressive Joe and passive-aggressive me came to a head, and there was a bit of a fight. But it was easily resolved with a bit of talking and gin tonics.

I may have focused too much on the arguing that I didn’t quite take into account the playtime, the lovely meals, the romantic walks on the beach, the reading by the pool and the massages.

There were pivotal moments, too, when I thought, this guy can be a keeper. One of those was while I was watching him berate a man selling jetski rides, one of the last luxuries we could enjoy with the remaining ringgit we had tucked in his back pocket. (He had pooled our funds, the rationale being I was the more obvious target for pickpockets and it would prevent one paying more than the other. It also made it look like I was the Asian squeeze and he was my Western meal ticket, when in fact, it was the other way around).

I thought his not-take-any-bullshit attitude and financial sense would be quite useful in life.

When it came time to leave, I think I learned more about him and us than I thought I would. Another trip would probably be less combative, especially if I get to hold the cash.

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