Road Trip: Bridging the conventional and the unconventional in Penang

The holiday season is upon us. It’s the time of the year where your children have two months’ worth of free time to kill, and yourself a full two-week break from the daily grind. That’s if you’ve been hard at work, of course. All’s good, then. Now that everyone is off duty, what better time than now to take your family out on a holiday?

Ideally, you’d rather fly off to a foreign land to spend a good chunk of your dividend at a four-star countryside resort, away from the gloomy year-end wet spell and miserable haze. And yet, despite having the means, you’re discouraged because the depreciating Malaysian Ringgit wouldn’t afford you that family suite with a private swimming pool you know your kids will love. Let’s say you’re willing to dig deeper into your wallet and insist on leaving, to which you did. A week or two later, you’re all smiles until you lay eyes on your prized daily driver. It’s covered in layers of dust, gecko droppings and left exposed to the heat and rain. Worst of all, the engine wouldn’t start.

Okay. Now backpedal to being discouraged about the Ringgit. At this point, a road trip sounds delightful, plus you get to enjoy spending hours of chatter and laughter with your family, all within the comfort and privacy of your beloved car. Unfortunately, given the nature of my journalistic profession, any road trip spanning two days or more is borderline fanciful, if not unlikely at all. It was all gloom and doom until I read an extensively elaborated e-mail from Shell Malaysia, but the only words that caught this selective pair of eyes were “Sponsored Road Trip.” It’s quite possibly the closest experience to having a prayer answered, and I unhesitatingly, without reading the T&Cs, agreed.Shell-Penang-Drive-6

To add to my delight, the sponsored bid also covers an engine oil change – one that was just tens of kilometres before my car was due. The only catch was I had to use to their brand new (this one’s a mouthful) fully synthetic Shell Helix Ultra ECT C2/C3 0W-30 motor oil. I regretted not reading the fine print for two reasons – I had no clue what I was getting myself into and I wasn’t sure if the engine oil would suit my Korean daily driver given the viscosity rating. After a quick check with the user handbook and a reliable mechanic, I was all good to go and off I went – to Penang.Shell-Penang-Drive-9

Yes, as cliche and predictable as it may sound, I haven’t actually seen Penang for what it is, much less get embroiled in unprincipled glut at the many hawker stands in George Town. So for that, I’ve committed to finding the best Char Kuey Teow (fried flat rice noodle) during my visit, but not before deciding on a place to spend the night. Now this is where the conventional meets the unconventional. Instead of making a reservation at a seaside resort, I chose a place smack-dab in the middle of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage city. If the picture below is any indication of the building’s age, inside is a whole different world altogether.Shell-Penang-Drive-15

Playing host to my stay in George Town was a kind lad by the name of Chee Sek Thim, a local theatrical director who runs the Airbnb-listed guesthouse known as SINKEH, which means ‘newcomer’ in the Hokkien dialect. If you haven’t already guessed by now, I found this gem of a place through – a Californian-based homestay listing website that’s now valued at over $25 billion. This 19th century Straits Chinese house located along Malay Street (Lebuh Melayu) is an architectural wonder in its own right; a quintessential memento left behind by 19th century Chinese immigrants comprised of traders, coolies and craftsmen.

SINKEH is just one of many post colonial remnants that stood the test of time. Within the seemingly dilapidated façade is a setting that’s unlike any resorts or hotels. And if you’re a dog person like myself, Luna with the rest of her human companions will make you feel well at home. I was hit by a sense of surrealism just standing at the reception while my eyes soaked in the century-old beauty with both feet absorbing the cold smooth cement floor; fingers running through the creases of the red brick countertop and towering rusted door, followed by the perpetual mild scent of nature oozing off the greeneries by the common area. Home never felt this close, and I hadn’t an ounce of envy for my other friends who were staying at The Northam all suites hotel.

Sek Thim was given the Building of the Year Award and Gold Award for Best Alteration and Addition to the century-old building

Ask any Penang-bound Tom Dick and Harry on their reason for visit and I can wager on a pair of my 17-inch wheels that they’re there to sample the country’s best hawker dishes. I for one, am possibly the biggest gorger of char kuey teow and I, as mentioned earlier, have set out on a three-day hunt to actively seek out the tastiest diet-wrecking plate in George Town. Unsurprisingly, the first two plates have already surpassed Kuala Lumpur’s hawker standards, but the glut in me was far from satisfied.

It wasn’t until three days, eight servings and a total of 50kms later before my palate was appeased at Cecil Street Market Hawker Centre. You can judge me all you want here, but I ordered two additional servings before calling it quits, just to fulfil the quota for this year and the next. I’ve got to admit, ten plates of char kuey teow was just too much lard and carbs for me to stomach. What goes in, has to come out eventually, right? I’ll leave the imagination to you, but suffice to say, I regretted it. Or did I? No, not really.

Does this plate of fried oysters not look good to you?

Another Godsend was the clear skies – something most of us KL dwellers have dreamed of for the past four months. During the drive to Penang, an environmentalist on BFM addressed the health implications of prolonged exposure to the haze and drew a startling comparison between inhaling haze particles and smoking cigarettes. I don’t have to tell you which is worse, but nothing can be quite as bad as breathing in haze 24/7 for the past four months. So yes, the clear blue skies was something I immensely appreciated, on top of the cleaner Penang air and rain, of course.

The weather was forgiving enough for me to embark on a 30-minute drive from George Town to the Buddhist temple Kek Lok Si in Air Itam, or rather the famous Asam Laksa stall. Confession: We spent a little too much time taking pictures of food and of us eating, and by the time we made our move the sun was out and gone were the rainclouds. Heat and I don’t mix well together, so I referred to Waze for a touristy suggestion and found that Penang Hill (also known as Bukit Bendera) was just over 5 minutes’ drive away.

A car wash a day keeps the frowns at bay

Upon arrival, the usual weekend crowd was nowhere to be seen and parking was aplenty. Five minutes later and reality sent me Freddy Krueger in the form of three school busses, each ferrying what appeared to be hundreds of little primary schoolchildren. A few sighs and whines followed thereafter, but I didn’t want my visit to be all about food – so up the funicular train we go and the first thing my eyes caught was the Love Lock bridge.

It’s exactly what it sounds like, minus the obvious Paris and Romanian romance. I wouldn’t for a second imagine a couple going full PDA on Penang Hill, although I’m very certain it has happened before. Most of the messages on the Love Locks were washed away by rain, save for the newer ones including one that read “I Love Pink”. Not sure if the person gets the idea behind a Love Lock, but to spend RM30 in professing your fondness for the colour pink on a pink lock is kind of missing the point, unless the person is addressing American Pop R&B artist Alecia Beth Moore.Shell-Penang-Drive-24

So, time for a quick recap. Short getaway, check. Amazing lodging, check. Food? A little too much for my own good, but check. There’s one more thing that deserves some credit for this much needed road trip, and that’s Shell’s new engine oil. I know you must be thinking that since this is a sponsored article, all I have to do is rave about the new product and fabricate experiential advantages of it based on top of their marketing ploy.

Well, I needn’t. A little over six months ago, I participated in Shell’s Love My Ride Festival and sampled their most advanced engine oil then, which was the Shell Helix Ultra with PurePlus Technology 5W-40. There were evident gains – my car ran smoother, warm-up time was considerably shorter and the time taken from ignition to regular idling rev dropped to less than 10 seconds. The 0W-30 fully synthetic motor oil is ‘thinner’ or less viscous than the 5W-40, but my engine performed flawlessly with no loss of power even when temperatures soared. It retains all of the 5W-40’s characteristic advantages, but improves on lubricity, cleansing prowess and fuel economy. Shell-Penang-Drive-14

This road trip couldn’t have happened at a better time, what more with everything else playing out better than planned. I’ve learned so much about Penang and all its cultural and heritage grandiosity, and got more than I bargained for at SINKEH when the 19th century building rekindled my adoration for outright simplicity. For those of you reading this and are planning a trip to Penang, give Airbnb a shot. And as usual, for those who will be doing a lot of driving during this holiday season, be sure to have your ride properly serviced and get your tyres checked. After all, it is the monsoon season. Drive safe and happy holidays, folks.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here