I realize that I have been a bit remiss in updating the blog and frankly it has because I have begun to set up some semblance of a routine here in KL. I’ve been thinking about a separate post that will just describe what a typical day for me is like, because I committed to myself that I would capture the exceptional and the mundane during my travels. Anyways, that is all to come. However, this past weekend I got my first opportunity to really travel outside KL. For my first trip I chose the small island state of Penang located in the Northwest of Malaysia. The reputation of this small state primarily revolves around food and arts and it did not disappoint.
I decided that I would fly up early on Saturday morning and then take my time coming back on Sunday by travelling via train. I have mentioned before that it is very affordable to get around here, and this was no exception. I paid around $20 USD for a one way flight up to Penang which was about 40 minutes, and I spent $10 USD on my return train ticket which took a far more leisurely 6 hours. When I got in to Penang, the airport is located on the Southern part of the island so I took a cab up to the island capital called George Town on the North side of the island. Penang is not really known for its tropical settings and white sand beaches so I didn’t emphasize making my way to any beach there. I got dropped off in the center of George Town, a short walk from my hotel. I had held off on eating anything that morning, knowing that I would need as much stomach capacity as possible to truly appreciate and experience Penang. After being dropped off I noticed a vendor selling tropical fruit. These fruit stalls seem common in Malaysia and offer a great variety of affordable, freshly sliced fruits. I decided to grab a bag of sliced mangoes. I snacked on the mangoes while slowly making my way to the hotel to see if by chance my room would be available and to gain my bearings of the city.
My hotel was situated on a small but well traveled street called Love Lane. It appeared to be the backpackers hub as the lane was filled with quaint coffee shops, hostels, hotels, bars and several folks enjoying a cup of coffee on one of the many table filled porches. Towards the end of the street I found my hotel, You Le Yuen which proved to be a great, small guesthouse. As I found the address, the front door to the guesthouse was open, peering into a beautiful open air courtyard and two men, one older and one younger, sitting out front enjoying conversation and a smoke. I presumed they were fellow guests so I nodded and made my way past. Peering inside I couldn’t see anybody behind the reception desk and soon noticed the two men were looking at me. I made my back to where they were and mentioned that I was looking for someone who worked there as I was a guest. They then broke into big smiles and introduced themselves as Jay, the older gentleman, and Norris, the younger one, who were employees of this fine residence.
They both seemed genuinely excited to meet me and when they inquired as to where I was from and I told them America, it only seemed to make them more enthused. In my limited travels thus far, I have been pleasantly surprised with the generally positive reaction I get when people learn I’m American. Most people just want to know more about life in America and test their ideas about life there. The other day, when I met a young Malay at a coffee shop and I told him I was from Tennessee, he asked me quite enthusiastically if I enjoyed surfing. Hang ten brah!
After checking in with Jay and Norris, I was fortunate to find out my room was available so I was able to drop off my bag before heading out to explore. I’ve included a couple more pics of the place which was fairly affordable, around $80/night USD. It was built in the late 1800’s, originally funcitioning as a boarding house for local street vendors and performers. Some of the original restored woodwork in the place was truly beautiful and the indoor courtyard was fantastic. They captured the rainwater from the roof and dropped it into holding tanks in the courtyard for fountains, that would ultimately be piped in to the water closets in each room. Below are a few pics of my room.
After dropping my stuff off, I headed out to begin exploring the city and the culinary delights the city was said to hold. Taking a left down a nearby street I was greeted by three wrought-iron figurines, hugging a building column. Aside from its food, Penang is known for its support of public art and it is apparent throughout George Town. The latest featured exhibit spread throughout the city was a series of wrought-iron sculptures that provided a tongue-in-cheek explanation of how a street got its name or how the city’s history and its people shaped the current version of the town. These exhibits and other murals proved to be pleasant surprises as I wandered rather aimlessly through its streets.
This next mural I came across was just one block down from my first introduction to the wrought-iron sculptures. It really was a beautiful portrayal of a simple fisherman, that you could almost pass by entirely unnoticed due to its location.
I began to notice my anticipation build as I turned a corner, looking to see whether the next turn would uncover another satirical or beautiful display of Penang’s creativity. Wandering through the streets I found myself in Little India. Like much of Malaysia, the state of Penang held the influences of the Chinese, Indians, and local Malay. These cuisines and people blend continually throughout the island. I had read about a good Malay Indian restaurant in this area and decided to go in for a late breakfast / early lunch. The restaurant was surprisingly full despite the awkward hour, and I grabbed a table close to the entrance and food stations. After looking through the extensive menu I ordered a cow’s milk coffee, Roti Telur Bawang and Veg Kuttu Parotha. The piping hot cow’s milk coffee came out accompanied with the Roti. In this case, the doughy, warm Roti bread was interwoven with egg and served with a small cup of curry for dipping. The combination of egg, bread and curry were simple but absolutely delicious. The Veg Kuttu Parotha arrived soon after and was like a vegetable curry hash served with a yogurt and onion sauce that too was quite good.
Now that I had a full stomach it was time to go out and further explore the sights of the city. Penang’s history is steeped in British rule and Chinese roots. Throughout the city, there are several Chinese clan houses which were built to celebrate a certain family or clan’s prominence in the community. The most extravagant of these was the Khoo Kongsi, which was where I was headed. Along the way I came across a number of great artworks, a few of which are below.
I soon found myself at the entrance of the famed Khoo Kongsi house and after paying a modest entrance fee I walked on to the grounds. The intricacies of the design and decoration on the structure were absolutely impressive.
What makes this all even more impressive to me is the fact it wasn’t even created as a residence but rather as a gathering place to highlight the success of one clan. There were a limited number of rooms available for viewing but each room seemed to exist solely to celebrate the achievements of its members (mainly educational achievements) as there were several works of art displaying the high esteem they held for farmers and students. The clan house was impressive, but at that time of the day I realized I needed to cool down with a drink and grab some shade so I made my way to a small outdoor food court on the water. One thing to note is their definition of a food court can be quite different from ours and in this case it was a grouping of small outdoor food stalls sharing a main grouping of tables situated on the water. So there I grabbed a refreshing lime juice and enjoyed the water and the lazy flow of people in and out of the courtyard. Of note, the lime juice is quickly becoming one of my favorite drinks here. It’s basically a lime-ade but somehow more refreshing when well executed.
After taking a brief reprieve and letting the perspiration dry temporarily I figured I should probably keep eating so I made my way over to a Malay Chinese restaurant I heard had great roasted pork based on a review in Lonely Planet. I hiked over there and much to my chagrin the place looked like it had been abandoned for the better part of a year. My first warning sign should have been when I mentioned it to the guys at my hotel and neither of them had heard of it, though it was only two blocks away. This is the second time Lonely Planet has burned me in Malaysia so I will take their recommendations a little more lightly in the future. Despite of this set back, I decided I would continue exploring and if I found a place that looked interesting I would stop. Along the way I found a beautiful Chinese temple that was dedicated to the Goddess of the Water to protect the local fishermen. I went inside to check it out and met a nice old man who walked me through the small but ornate temple. Per usual, I had to leave my sandals at the entrance before I walked inside. While inside this gentleman walked me through the importance of the prayer sticks and the different goddesses worshipped there. As my hunger began to creep up on me, I made my way back towards the entrance to grab my sandals and be on my way, but lo and behold they were gone…
I now have this gentle, sweet old man who just toured me around this temple, standing next to me, and I am beginning to think he is a front man for an elaborate gang hellbent on stealing foreigners sandals (preferably Rainbow brand). As I start looking around and thinking about how I’m going to walk around the streets of Penang barefoot, this young Asian woman comes over to the steps wearing my sandals and sheepishly takes them off saying in broken English she had borrowed them to see another part of the temple. The reasoning, I did not care about, I was just glad to be reunited with my footwear. So with my sandals on foot, I headed back to the streets in search of my next meal.
Within a block I found a small hotel that had a sunlit inner courtyard and offered a small selection of light offerings. I thought that due to my recent culinary obstacles and the slipping time it would be best to make this a light meal and save up for dinner. I ordered a tea and a salad (I know, I know, not very Malay but they had limited offerings and I was there more for the atmosphere and a quick bite).
After polishing off a particularly delicious Asian salad and overhearing some rather blunt, fairly unfriendly European backpackers (honestly a bit relieved they weren’t American) I gathered my things and made my way back to the hotel to shower up and get ready for the evening.
I had heard about a good place to grab a beer called the Canteen which was located on the Eastern side of the island. My hotel arranged for a taxi to give me a ride over there, so I hopped in and headed that way. The driver was a friendly gentleman named Durai who was a Malay Indian and long term resident of Penang. During the course of our journey he shook my hand probably six times all while telling me about the number of travelers he had met in his tenure as a cab driver. He decided that prior to taking me to my destination he should show me Fort Cornwallis which is just a part of the lasting imprint left by the British during their rule of this desirable trading outpost. He stopped the cab and prompted both of us to get out and take a look around. He also wanted me to take a look at his rather lengthy journal that had been signed by the many passengers and visitors of his small guesthouse (yes, he too had a guesthouse). It was a charming move, though after the aloud reading of about the 20th page of his journal, at his prompting, I did grow a bit antsy for our journey to continue. After turning page 50, the final page, we thankfully got back in the car and continued onwards.
The place Canteen was part of a larger complex called the China House which was filled with a mixture of art galleries, shops, restaurants, and a bar or two. The vibe was laid back and slightly European. There I ended up befriending a Belgian cook by the name of Wouter who was in the midst of a six month sabbatical, touring Southeast Asia to garner inspiration for his upcoming Tapas restaurant in Brugges, Belgium. He told me that he had traveled thus far through Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. When going through Malaysia he stopped by Penang and what had initially been an expected stopover of a couple nights, had turned into a two week stint with the expectation of a longer duration. While in Penang he made a point to try as many of the restaurant and hawker stalls the city had to offer, getting to know the cooks of the humble stalls, discussing ingredients and techniques. I felt quite fortunate to come across someone who was expressly there to learn about the food, and was more than willing to show me some of the favorite places he had come across. After we finished a couple of pints we began walking towards our food destination of hawker stalls on Lebuh Kimberly.
I had heard about a small place that was on our way called the Hong Kong bar and was known as one of the oldest active bars in Penang. It’s prominence was derived from the patronage of Australian soldiers during WWII who came to the bar to pass a happy hour before their return to duty. When we arrived to have a pint of Tiger, the walls were covered by the wings and patches of Australian troopers that had passed through there, starting from WWII up until present day. We enjoyed a drink sitting along the active street of Lebuh Chulia which is a backpackers paradise filled with hookah lounges, bars, and street food. After finishing our Tigers we headed out and passed a few very tempting hawker stalls that I received an in depth food review from my new friend.
With promises of even better things to come, we continued onwards to Lebuh Kimberly. When we arrived there I was greeted by a spread of stalls and local patrons gliding between the varied offerings. At major hawker outposts like this, there will be a central food court of sorts which is typically owned by a place that provides beverages. This covered seating area will be in the center of the hawker stalls and you work your way to the varied hawker stalls placing orders and pointing in the general area of where you are sitting. You grab a seat and a few minutes later your food will begin to arrive from the different stalls, paying them one by one. Before we grabbed our seat, Wouter gave me a rundown of each of the stalls, noting their key ingredients and cooking techniques. Based on the reputation of certain Malay dishes we ordered the following: Char Kway Teeow, Penang Rojak, Beef Satay, with Cendol for dessert. We then found an open table in the busy food court, ordered some Tigers and waited for our food.
Char Kway Teeow is a popular Malay Chinese food that is kind of the Malaysian version of pad thai. As explained to me, the key element of the dish is the searing of the noodles in an extremely hot Wok that gives the noodles a slight charred, smoky taste. The taste is subtle but when well executed is quite delicious. Rojak is a dish that is well loved in Malaysia and it basically consists of fresh fruit and vegetables, coated in a sauce that is made of sugar, chili, lime juice, and shrimp paste, then topped with crushed peanuts. It is an interesting mixture of flavors and textures, sweet, salty, pungent, crunchy that is not bad. Probably not a favorite of mine but certainly something worth trying.
After we had our made way through the dishes, we pushed away from the table and I made my way over to grab dessert. Cendol is a popular Malay dessert that consists of shaved ice, topped with a brown sugar milky syrup, red beans, and green noodles that look and have the texture of gummy worms.
I have to admit I was a bit skeptical of this dish but found it quite delicious. On a hot Penang night the coolness of the shaved ice, the sweetness of the brown sugar, and the heartiness of the red beans and noodles really hit the spot. I devoured the entire bowl on the walk back. Wouter and I soon parted ways and I made my way back with a full stomach and a desire to further explore the many offerings Penang holds upon my next trip back. But for tonight this would have to do as my train left early from the mainland.
I woke up the next morning at 6 to get ready for my trek to the ferry. I gathered my stuff and began walking through the quiet streets of Penang. I passed by a hostel that had a few early risers out front, in this case three pretty dress wearing local women that I presumed were some ladies getting off work for the night ;). I continued my way through the silent streets passing the local baker preparing a fresh batch of roti dough for the day, and some tired trishaw drivers prepping for a hopefully busy day of fares.
I found the ferry terminal and quickly boarded the quick boat ride back to the shore, catching one last view of the scenic island state.
The ferry soon arrived at the shoreside city of Buttersworth and it was a brief wait until the train to KL was ready to board. Aside from my general enjoyment of trains I wanted to choose a mode of transit that would afford me a better view of the country.
The trains were certainly well traveled, but quite comfy. I boarded, found my seat, and sat back to enjoy the journey through this lush country. I was in no rush, and feeling the gentle clickity-clack of the rails while the countryside passed by my window proved I was just where I needed to be. Cheers.