Walk the Talk
Yeoh Siew Hoon gets up close and personal with cities she thought she knew.
So many cities now look and feel the same and it is refreshing to leave a place feeling like you know it slightly better than the others.
There’s no better way to explore a place than by walking. Lately, I’ve gone on two walking tours that took me behind-the-scenes of places I thought I knew, but really didn’t.
One was in the Pulau Tikus precinct of Penang, my hometown. Having grown up in the neighbourhood, it was – in a way – embarrassing that I knew so little about it. Curated by the local Member of Parliament Tan Soo Huey, the Pulau Tikus Heritage Trail has yet to be made an official tour, but my friends and I were invited to experience it as part of an exploratory exercise for an event Tan is planning.
Pulau Tikus (literally, “Rat Island”) boasts a rich history, unique community and, most importantly, some of the best hawker food on the island. There are many stories about its name – one popular version says the moniker was given by the early Thai Eurasian settlers who arrived in boats around 1810. The boats anchored off the coast of the island and, during low tide, the exposed sand dunes looked like rodents making their way to the shore. As such, Pulau Tikus was born.
The neighbourhood is a microcosm of Penang in which you get to understand what made Penang what it is today – its Thai, Burmese and Eurasian roots, its multi-cultural diversity and the shopkeepers who play a big part in making it one of Penang’s most affluent and liveable neighbourhoods.
On the trail, we visited a Roman Catholic church (Church of Immaculate Conception) founded in 1811 by the Thai-Portuguese Catholic community, the Thai temple Wat Chayamangkalaram, built after 1984 when a piece of land was granted by the British authorities to the Siamese community, and the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple founded in 1803.
What was most interesting to me were the stories of the local communities – the Siamese, Burmese and Eurasian – and how they became such an integral part of the neighbourhood’s fabric. Then, of course, there are the small shopkeepers – the oldest bicycle shop (Lay Seng), where the 88-year-old proprietor continues to ply his trade, and an old-school grocery store (Ban Joo Lee) selling local favourite biscuits.
The tour takes about two hours, although it took us longer because we kept getting distracted by the food stalls. Within this area you will find the famous Bangkok Lane Mee Goreng (Indian fried noodles) and Sin Hua Char Koay Teow (fried rice noodles). The Pulau Tikus market, which turns 60 this year, remains one of Penang’s busiest and most popular wet markets.
Half way across the world, I also went on a walking tour in Melbourne run by Hidden Secrets. Owner Fiona Sweetman takes you on walks through this city known for its independent spirit. You can tell her your interests and she will take you into lanes, alleys and shops you wouldn’t find yourself. The Little Book Store is a children’s bookstore that’s been around for 30 years. Clementine’s sells only local produce and their rooftop honey is the new sensation.
On the tour, you also get to meet the colourful personalities behind these businesses. I met a woman who has the distinction of running “the smallest café in Melbourne”. Called Local Birds, the café is essentially just a bar counter and a tiny space in which the owner bakes her own brownies.
I peeked into “the smallest bar in Melbourne” called Bar Americano, which is run by two Europeans who want to bring the era of classic European cocktails to Melbourne. It has standing room for 10 only – and you only know it’s there by the queue of people waiting to get in.
Then there’s the clever entrepreneur who turned a garbage alley into the hottest place serving Cubano sandwiches by hanging up a few colourful lamps, setting out tables and creating a mood that makes you feel like you’re in Little Havana.
I was also introduced to Melbourne’s first bank – the Commonwealth Bank of Australia – with an elegant foyer open to the public. I was shown street art that’s popped up everywhere. I was told the story of the London plane trees – brought in by the British – which are injected with hormones to stop them from over-producing seed pods because hay fever is a major complaint in the city.
What I liked about these two walking tours is that they support the local heritage and independent businesses, but more importantly, they allowed me, as a traveller, to get under the skin of places.
So many cities now look and feel the same and it is refreshing to leave a place feeling like you know it slightly better than the others. Those local stories and the people you have met gave you a connection with the city and made you want to return for more.