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Mainland Penang: Seberang Perai

There’s more to Penang’s mainland than meets the eye. Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson discovers its quiet charm and subdued colours, which reflect old-fashioned Malaysia so well

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The original but now abandoned iron railway bridge

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Colourful fishing boats docked by the beach

Seberang Perai or Province Wellesley, Penang’s mainland, often gets dismissed. The island of Penang hogs all the attention. Even Penangites from the mainland head to the island in their free time rather than explore their own local vicinity. Seberang Perai is about the port, a place where a tunnel may emerge in the future, and now more sensationally, it is about Batu Kawan, the second bridge and the anticipated new home for Ikea.

On the surface, it is not for the fainthearted. Everything is spread out. There is no centre. It’s a mismatch of old small towns, quite vast open stretches of padi fields, spotted with small, rather uninspired new developments that seem devoid of any particular cultural reference, scattered villages and no particular landmarks that attract your attention.

It has an air of neglect. There is scant information. It seems at times devoid of culture and heritage. The North-South Highway is designed to take you straight through the space. There is no temptation to jump off into the unknown. It seems forced out of reach of the spotlight.

Turning the cogs
It’s appropriate, then, that the dynamic Puan Maimunah Mohd Sharif was appointed to the post of Municipal President of the Council of Seberang Perai in March 2011. Previously, Puan Maimunah was general manager of George Town World Heritage Incorporated, the State arm responsible for the management of the George Town Unesco heritage zone.

It was from this office that she was plucked to steer MPSP to attain its vision to achieve a clean, beautiful and comfortable place to stay, work and invest. Puan Maimunah, unsurprisingly, wants to attract a bit of the investment that is piling up on the Island.

Filled with an enthusiasm for culture and heritage, Puan Maimunah has put together a team of (mainly) bright young women to begin the process of making an inventory of sites, heritage and cultural locations that can begin to turn the cogs to make a shift in how and what the public perceives as ‘Penang’.

MPSP has just recently produced the Seberang Prai Tourist map which lists points of interest that range from heritage mosques, churches, temples, historic sites, private heritage houses, a metal worker’s shop, places to eat, and markets. The MPSP heritage inventory is due to be complete at the end of 2015. It is a great start and for the new explorer there is plenty to re-ignite enthusiasm for the ‘Sunday drive’.

Where to start
First, get off the island! Head for the ferry, enjoy the ride and slow your pace as you leave your perception of what is ‘Penang’ behind. Head straight for Rope Walk in Taman Selat, right under the highway as you come off the ferry.

This is an undercover market filled with Malay vendors selling a mixture of vintage items, local food specialities like the keropok lekur, perfumes, keris, herbal ingredients, brass, stamps and second-hand clothing and items. Right at the back, check out the three young cool Malay tailors at Ruff Jeans Clinic. They will customise any of the second-hand jeans you could pick up here. Rope Walk is open every day but busiest at weekends.

Take a walk up Jalan Pantai, the road behind the market, and admire the large residential houses that once lined the seafront here. Now separated from the water, their views slashed away by the highway, they still exude a sense of the past with their large compounds and their gardens with old-fashioned shrubs and stunted frangipani trees.

Sights to behold
Do not be tempted to take any of the highways. Instead get yourself onto Jalan Bagan Luar and drive north right up this main road, past the impressive ‘otherworldly’ compound of the RAF base, until you see signs heading left into the padi fields of Seberang Perai, pointing toward Kota Kuala Muda on the coast.

It’s quiet on a Sunday and you can stop along the side of the road every time something attracts you; a pretty wooden kampung house, a small business selling granite plaques and Muslim head stones, and come upon wonderfully busy Sunday markets that suddenly make the traffic crawl.

Drive through Penaga, then just as you get to Kampung Bakar Kapok, veer off-road to the left and trust your instincts. You will find yourself amongst the single track roads of the padi fields. These are like a maze but if you keep heading in a northerly direction, you will drive through beautiful green landscapes, fields of padi and coconut groves and come upon newly built customised jetties with jaunty fishing boats and friendly fishermen. At Sungei Tembus you learn about the Fish Market initiatives that have been set up in these local coastal fishing communities.

Glorious photo ops
All along these roads you will come upon wonderful examples of heritage Malay kampung houses, many still occupied by families, but some of the most beautiful buildings, abandoned, derelict and overgrown. There are great photo opportunities here and with the land so flat, it is crying out for you to bring along a bicycle, park the car and explore at a slower pace in these gorgeous backwater rural areas.

It would be worth coming out here at different times of the year and rice planting seasons. See it green, see it harvested and dry. Catch the whole process of rice planting in some of our most valued heritage padi growing areas. For bird watchers, this area is a paradise.

At Kuala Muda, where the Sungei Muda opens to the sea and marks the boundary between Penang and Kedah there is an extraordinary view of the Penang Port and George Town beyond. You stand within a messy carpark. A seawall extends to a rather nice beach. In the river mouth, there are colourful speeding fishing boats whizzing in and out and you wonder where they are going.

There is a funny atmosphere here, a sense of neglect and too much rubbish blowing in the wind. It is only once you remember that the tsunami of 2004 hit this area that you can suddenly understand the upheaval that must have been caused here.

The rows of neglected houses that lead up to the fascinating Pasar Bisik or Whispering Market, seem to be stuck in time. All are intact but literally covered in a layer of dust, with only one or two still with signs of being used. One is a barber shop and when you stand outside, you wonder who would come here to get their cut and shave. It is an eerie place.

Just along from here, round the corner to the Pasar Bisik, and the atmosphere is completely different. It’s heaving with people, with many older men taking charge of the car parking spaces, and small lorries manoeuvring to the side of the small open sided market building. It is just a small concrete rectangle with a roof on top. There’s a crowd of people and as you make your way to the beachfront you see where all the fishing boats spotted earlier are coming in.

Fishing a good life
Along this state border there are up to fifty of these small vessels busy in the water, unloading along the beach, on both sides of the river. On the Kedah bank on the other side of the river you’ll find an identical market building – a hive of activity and business.

In the market to one side sits a man beside his lorry, a shovel in hand, ready to sell ice to anyone who needs it to pack their fish for the journey home. Fishermen arrange small piles of fish onto plastic sheets on the floor and as you stand there you start to understand how the system works.

If you want the fish you approach the fisherman and whisper the price you want to pay into his ear, with a hand cupped at his head. Any man, woman or child can then whisper a counter offer in his ear too. You have no clue of the final price agreed upon and both parties go away happy. It’s a great system: a silent auction where only the vendor knows what he has been paid. The bidders are left to guess. It is obviously to your advantage to do a a little research on current fish prices before you come here to buy fresh fish.

Squid, prawns, ikan kembung and lovely tenggiri are all on sale. You can bid for boxes of fish or just one fish for your lunch, and all the while the fishermen are unloading their catch on the beach and hauling it to the market floor. This is an eyeopener. Hardworking, fast turnover, local fishermen-turned-entrepreneurs, centred on a tiny market filled with Malaysians from all communities in the local area coming to buy fish. And just in front of the market, rows of abandoned wooden kampung houses overgrown now with vegetation, left behind after the tsunami.

A quick jaunt into Kedah
From Kuala Muda, follow the Sungai Muda for a quick jaunt across the pretty arched Merdeka bridge into Kedah. Park your car on the Penang side and take a walk along the river where you can watch fishermen meander along the water, spot wetland birds and find the war bunker just to the side.

On the Kedah side, stop for Bihun Sup Titi Merdeka at the tidy stall overlooking the padi fields. It was built in 1957 to replace the bridge destroyed by the Japanese; now a new identical bridge sits next to the original to bring you back across to Penang.

Immediately veer off the main road into the padi fields on your left. Here you disturb wild doves feeding all along the roads, enter small villages and sometimes get a little lost. You will hit the Sungai Muda again and be surprised by all the work being done on the double tracking railway system.

Penang bridge enthusiasts will find the original but now abandoned iron railway bridge, used today as a backdrop for wedding couples taking shots for their albums. This is just down the river from the impressive modern bridge that will speed us up north on new trains.

Here you can begin the search for the elusive Batu Sempadan British Siam or The British-Siamese Boundary Stone at Pinang Tunggal. Erected during the early days of British Rule, it marked where British territory ended and the Siamese rule of Kedah began. This may take the rest of the day or even require a return trip.

When taking on Seberang Perai, venture into it with a positive sense of curiosity and no expectations. You will find a real sense of traditional Malaysian life and culture making the move forward into a future not yet clearly mapped out, and places where ‘potential’ is screaming out at you but not yet realised. It is time for the islanders to head to the mainland of Penang, spread the wealth and vitality, and get back to their collective roots.

Other destinations on the mainland to discover
Include more days of exploration for:
- A morning spent in Kepala Batas, where you are taken back about 20 years.
- Go to Bukit Mertajam and the Church of St Anne’s.
- Find the charming wooden Surau Kubang Semang that’s used during Ramadhan for evening prayers.
- Find the traditional metal craftsmen in Permatang Benuan. This family traditionally made steel weaponry and cannon balls for the Kedah warriors during the Siam-Kedah War between 1821 and 1842.

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