I can’t say I was too unhappy to be skipping the country in late November. We’d so far had a month of rain and showers and, although by the 19th it had settled down, I was ready for some warmth. Imagine my delight at seeing once again the ‘bring wet weather gear’ warning on the call sheet.
Steve and I caught the 10.50 to Kuala Lumpur, where we changed planes for the short hop to Penang. I’d been to Malaysia before and know it’s a stunning country, but I’d never been to Penang. I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s a big city, but it’s also an island; a mixture of the high-rise and sparklingly new together with fascinating old-town charm.
The first thing that hits you when you arrive in South East Asia is the heat, which blasts you as soon as you leave the airport. It’s gloriously hot and humid – so you don’t care about the tropical rains.
The hotel was modern and comfortable, but I have to admit I did have a bit of a Kill Bill flashback when I popped my head into the bar and saw a couple of mini-skirted singers, accompanied by a pianist, belting out a selection of Penang’s Top Twenty and some old ABBA numbers.
As with most of the shoots, there wasn’t time for a recovery day after the journey – we went straight to work. We travelled around the city in an air-conditioned 4 x 4 – and I have to say that the good old air conditioning made all the difference to how much work we could do in a day. We couldn’t wait to collapse back into it after shooting a scene, especially if I’d been cooking.
One thing I already knew about Malaysia is that street food is still very much on the street. The place looks and smells fantastic. Everywhere you’re bombarded by sweet and sour aromas – there’s a lot of frying going on! The markets are amazing and lots of them are on the go throughout the night when the temperatures are little kinder. They’re incredibly colourful and it seemed to me that everything was supersized – the prawns are as big as lobster tails! It’s a foodie’s dream city.
For down time, we loved the bars, which stretch along the glorious beaches. As in much of Malaysia, Penang is football mad, and there are loads of bars dedicated to Premier League teams. And these guys love to talk about it too. (Oh, sorry…am I finding a reason to bang on about Arsenal again?!) Although the beaches were amazing, I was bit surprised by the level of rubbish in the sea. When the tide went out I saw rotting cars, TVs and a number of old toilet pans. It’s a busy, packed city, so it’s going to generate as much rubbish as anywhere else, but perhaps because the beaches looked so beautiful, it was something that stood out to me.
You can certainly see Western culture creeping in to Penang. The coffee and cake shop in the hotel was packed – donuts being a big favourite. When one of our hosts invited us out to dinner, he took us to a pizza place! I also filmed in a popular café which served boiled eggs and soldiers together with soya and pepper. Almost, but not quite, home from home.