Unthinkable. That's how I'd describe my PBIM weekend in Penang. The journey from Singapore to Penang itself had been, while not torturous, very long. 10.5 hours by coach, to be exact. Fortunately for me, I was able to catch some sleep until Bagan Serai, the northern part of Perak. Reaching the Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal, after dropping off passengers at Butterworth and Bukit Mertajam, I made my way to the airport to collect my discounted (thanks to a voucher I picked during the Seremban Half Marathon) rental car. Since it was still early, I made a short stop at the snake temple near the airport, a place that I've not visited in decades. I asked the Gods for a safe run. Then, it was time for breakfast. With a GPS in hand, I headed for Balik Pulau in search of the infamous laksa. Just one sip of the sweet and sour broth was all it took to refresh my tired mind and body. After unpacking my bag at the hotel, I walked to Lorong Selamat and risked my life and order a plate of char kway teow from the lady seller wearing safety glasses. I'm happy to report that I was unharmed and the plate of char kway teow, though not my favourite, was really aromatic. Next up, carbo-loading. The nearest and most suitable place for that was Nasi Kandar Kasim along Jalan Gurdwara. Ideally, after a tambah nasi and telui (that's how the northern folks pronounce telur, I think) meal, I should be able to fall asleep rather quickly, but instead, I just rolled in bed, waiting for the hours to pass before the start of the marathon at 2 am.
The first kilometer along Queensbay Mall was difficult to run, as the road was narrow, but after making a turn at the roundabout heading for Eastin Hotel and the Seagate plant, runners began to spread out on the much wider highway. Running in the dark, odd hours in the morning wasn't enjoyable, but that's part of a marathon challenge. No excuses! Just like any 42.195 km race that I've entered, the first 10 kms are more physical - getting the muscles warmed up and keeping a 55-minute lap to ensure a sub-4 hour finish. Here, I exceeded the 55 minutes target slightly and so, I had to run faster at the Penang bridge. That didn't materialise. The 13 kms (one way) bridge has a few taxing inclines, and the toughest climb has to be to the peak of the cabled twin decks. Now, imagine doing that twice. The unpleasant combined smell of chemical emissions from the nearby factories and the sea hit at the start of the bridge route, but reduced gradually towards the main deck. The supply of water by the bottle was rather interesting. It might be a burden for some, but I thought it came in handy, where the excess water can be used to cool off the steaming head on that warm morning. I'd read about some leaving the unfinished bottle on the bridge for other fellow runners. Despite the straight and long (and therefore, boring) route, I felt good and proud running on this iconic Malaysian landmark, which is also the third longest bridge in the world. Looping at the toll plaza marked the completion of the first 21 kms. Next, we ran another 13 kms on the bridge before turning into Georgetown. The final leg, after returning from Georgetown towards Queensbay Mall, was difficult. I didn't hit the wall. And there was no sign of runner's diarrhoea! But my left shoulder started to sore badly and a side stitch bugged me for quite a distance. Also, the elevations were quite erratic. By the 38th km, I was almost certain that I would miss the sub-4 hour finish, but I pushed on. In the last 2 kms, I was joined by runners from the half marathon category as well. It was very congested and I zig-zagged my way through the crowd. I gave my friends who cheered me on at the finish line a thumbs-down, knowing that I'd missed the sub-4 hour finish by a wide 10 minutes.
I didn't feel terrible about my timing though. A little disappointed, yes. I wasn't prepared for a fast, record-breaking finish, having returned from South America just days before the race. A small part of me was also reserving the final push for the next marathon race, which would take place two weeks later.
By 9 am, I'd returned to the hotel. After a shower, I walked to Penang Road to reward myself with a bowl of laksa (of course) and some cendol. It's understandable why these hawkers have been doing brisk business for years now. Absolutely delicious. I checked out at noon and headed to my favourite mee goreng stall at Bangkok Lane. It was as moist, flavourful and red as I'd remembered. To ease digestion before the next round of hawker food, I drove to Armenian Street to see some of Ernest Zacharevic's wall paintings. They were certainly charming. Souvenirs imprinted with these paintings were on sale along the street, which I thought was cool. Then, it was time for more food...well, laksa, I mean. I guess by now, you'd already known my favourite Penang food? My first stop was Kafe Mega Star along Jalan C.Y. Choy. This is not a tourist haunt, which makes it even more attractive to me. The elderly cooks and heavy porcelain bowls were instinctively convincing. I'm not sure what constitutes an authentic bowl of Penang laksa, but if it comes with a sweet, sour but not spicy broth topped with pieces of mackerel and a colourful array of shredded lettuce, onion, cucumber, and pineapple, then it works for me. And I found it here at Mega Star. Next, I drove to Ayer Itam Market, below the Kek Lok Si temple, for a bowl of laksa from the perpetually crowded stall. Thank goodness they allowed customers to eat at the food market across the road, else I'd have to wait for hours to get a chair. The broth here was darker and denser, as compared to the rest that I've tried in the past 48 hours. And definitely good enough to be ranked among the best that I've tried in Penang thus far. I wanted to visit Kek Lok Si but there wasn't much time, since I had some unfinished business to settle back in Georgetown, which was....bagging boxes of tau sar piah from Ghee Hiang, at the only outlet that still had stock for the day! Before leaving for the airport, I made one last convenient stop at New Lane for some curry mee and char kway teow, which were less stellar and more expensive.
Sitting in the plane, I began to recall my time and tummy packed weekend in Penang. And that's when Unthinkable came to mind. My finish time at the PBIM 2012 was not regrettable. In fact, I should thank PBIM 2012 for giving me a chance to rekindle with this tantalizing island, our pearl of the orient that Tan Twan Eng described so beautifully in The Gift Of Rain. And how appropriate and lucky of me to end my trip to this hawker food paradise being seated next to an international streetfood blogger couple in the plane. Hor liao, eh?