JANUARY is the best time to be in Penang. The tourists have disappeared, the streets have fewer cars and the hawker joints are not so crowded. The state becomes ours again.
I went to the Jade Emperor Temple near the Penang Hill railway station for prayers on Sunday and grinned because I had so many parking lots to choose from.
This contrasts with the jams during the holidays. I saw this black sports car with Federal Territory licence plates stopping on the road at the corner of Penang Road and Ah Quee Street around Christmas time.
This is where tourists queue up for our famous Penang cendol from morning to evening.
The driver turned on hazard lights but the car was about a metre away from the curb and along with a few other parked cars, caused a senseless traffic snarl behind them.
But we have seen this situation a thousand times and we Penangites are long-used to the chaos of the holiday season.
In the middle of last month, I gave in to temptation and bought a durian for RM65. It was a Hor Lor.
I took just four arils and was overwhelmed by the taste. The richness was so pungent and the sweetness so overpowering that after four arils, I was completely satiated.
I swear the durian seller first said ‘RM35’ when I asked about the price but after bagging the fruit, he asked for RM65.
He thought I was “from the cruise ship” because I was wearing a shirt with embroidery of a fish jumping out of water.
But again, I have been through this before.
And then, in happy January, I was in Relau (an area tourists find no reason to go to) and spied a durian stall with a cardboard sign that said ‘RM15/kilo’.
The seller was a jovial kampung fellow who chuckled when I asked what durians he sold.
He did not know, he said. They fell from the old trees growing on his family land.
He neither bothered to brush the fruits clean nor wrap rubber bands around the ‘mouths’ of the durians to keep them from splitting open as the husks dried.
“Ok, lah. Since the mouths are open, I give you RM10 per kilo,” said the seller.
I picked two durians and the weighing machine gave the price as RM43.20.
“RM40 cukup (enough),” said he.
Such a reasonable trader, that man.
I chose those two durians because their open mouths showed me that the pulp was a pale ivory white.
Frankly, I have had enough of prime durians with their yellow pulp that tourists go ga-ga over.
Bittersweet and juicier than the pulp of the pricey clones, the ivory white pulp offered an under-note to its flavour that can only be described as XO – extra old brandy.
Only when our visitors are gone that Penangites get to have a good time.
A friend from Singapore visited last year and when we met, one of the first things he said was“The airport is bursting at the seams!”
This made me realise that too many people visit the island all at once at certain times. How can you enjoy Penang when you do that?
I often tell out-of-state friends to visit Penang in January. You will get a bit of the old days when Penang was a laid-back place.
The next best time to come is in March after Chinese New Year.