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Asia » Malaysia » Penang » George Town
May 31st 2009
Published: June 6th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Chinese Shop HousesChinese Shop HousesChinese Shop Houses

Typical in George Town

The Melting Pot

After seeing Kelly off to the airport from Nai Yang, Eric and I walked over to the only internet shop on the beach. We were trying to head north, onto the mainland to Krabi, another popular Thai beach area. At this point, we had canceled our trip to Japan and Korea (damn swine flu) and our next scheduled event was picking my sister up from the airport in Singapore around July 29, which gave us from May 23 through July 29 to mess with. We investigated how to get to Krabi and then to the east of Thailand so we could take a train to Malaysia, and make our way to Indonesia. Getting to Krabi was turning into a pain. We had to take a taxi to the main road where we would stand on the road to wait for the local bus, which was not really on a schedule. Then, we would arrive at the Krabi bus station outside of Krabi town, and then need to arrange transport to the beach area, and there was rumor of a ferry somewhere in there. Or, we could pay close to $80 for a taxi. It was really turning into a hassle, and thus far, we were not impressed with the Thai beaches. The beach areas are very touristy, so they are expensive, and every one we saw was dirty. Krabi, we though, could be much of the same. Essentially, we were in no rush to leave Thailand, but we were in no great hurry to stay either.

We started to investigate Malaysia more; finding out that we could stay in the country for up to ninety days, whereas Thailand and Indonesia are only thirty days. When we looked for cheap airfare on Air Asia and Firefly, we saw how cheap it was to fly out the next day to Penang, Malaysia, and we booked it. I don’t think we have every spent so little time deciding to go to a new country. The next afternoon, we were off.

Penang is an island off the North West coast of Malaysia that is known for being the silicon valley of Southeast Asia as well as a melting pot of Asian cultures. It was an integral part of the Malay Peninsula’s role in the spice trade and is a port on the Strait of Melaka. It is a perfect amalgamation of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures. Yum. Most of the backpacker haunts in the town of Georgetown are in Chinatown, which borders on Little India. From the airport, we boarded the city bus for about $1 to the large Komtar tower and shopping area, which was close to Chinatown. As we walked towards the strip of guesthouses in the Lonely Planet guide, I became a little skittish. We passed by a local market with food stalls and what struck me was the unusual smells of all kinds. I could not put my finger on it, but there was something unique, and not quite pleasant. Aside from the market, most of the shop fronts were closed. The buildings were showing their age, in desperate need of a rehab and a fresh coat of paint. Georgetown just seemed old and run down. We met a woman named Jane on the flight from Phuket who has lived in Penang for quite some time, and she loves it. The district that encompasses Chinatown and Little India was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jane told us that due to the UNESCO status, the town is in the process of cleaning itself up and rehabbing, but we were certainly here at the beginning of the rehab process.

My skittishness increased when we checked out the first two recommended guesthouses from the LP guide. I read that the accommodation in Malaysia can be more “basic” than other countries in the region. The first two places had air conditioning and private bathrooms, if you could call them that. I cannot describe the facilities in these two places, but they made me completely disgusted and ready to hop the next Firefly flight back to Thailand. What were we thinking?

The third place recommended by LP was Banana New Guesthouse, which was listed in the guidebook as at least “new” in comparison to the other places. The room we ended up with had no window or fan, but did have an air conditioner that kind of worked. It had a shared bathroom, but it was at least clean. Most interesting were the walls. Three of the four walls were folding separation doors that you see in hotel ballrooms. The room was only $14, so we said, okay we can handle it for one night, and then we will figure things out for the
Banana Leaf MealBanana Leaf MealBanana Leaf Meal

In Little India - eat with your hands
next day. Thus far, Georgetown was not impressing me. But, this was one place that quickly grew on me.

As we explored the culinary offerings of the city, the architecture and rustic character of the city started to impress me. I could see why UNESCO chose it as a world heritage site. The streets were lined with two story Chinese shop houses from the 1800’s. Each was connected with a mosaic sidewalk and covered archways. There were plenty of three-wheeled bicycle tri-shaws pedaled through the streets, generally decked out with colorful umbrellas and silk flowers. The used bookstores, jewelry shops, tea shops, and Chinese traditional medicine stores spilled out into the street. There were street food stalls and open air restaurants all over, making it difficult to walk a block down Lebuh Chulia (the street where we were staying) without smelling something fried and delicious.

Bollywood Eating

In Little India we hit several different restaurants and street stalls and tried a bunch of new dishes. We also wandered the small district listening to blaring bollywood music and poking our heads into stores specializing in saris and gold jewelry. Out first new dish was masala dosai, a crispy rolled bread stuffed with curried potatoes and onions, dipped in a sauce. We tried an Indian pizza with tomatoes, peas, and onions, dipped in a sauce. We ate samosas (potatoes and onions folded in a thick, triangular shaped pastry and fried) off the street. We ate our first banana leaf meals, where they place a large banana leaf on the table with a heap of rice and several hot and cold curries and other items.

One big difference is that the food is generally eaten with your hands, and more specifically, your right hand. Your left hand is used for “other” activities that you don’t want to mix with food. Most restaurants, even very basic outdoor places, have a sink and soap to wash your hands before you eat. You use a combination of the rice and the bread to scoop up the curries and sauces. Most places gave us a fork and spoon though, because I have no idea how to eat pure liquid with non-sticky rice. We each had a thali meal one night, a sampling of several dishes with bread and rice and a sweet desert. I don’t know what any of the dishes
Masala TeaMasala TeaMasala Tea

In Little India
were, some had tomatoes, lentils, eggplant, fish, curry, potatoes, not really sure, but all were delicious. We also tried masala tea, similar to a small frothy chai spicy tea. Overall, we became pretty addicted. On our last night in Georgetown, for example, we stopped for two samosas and ate them while walking up the block. We returned about five minutes later for two more. The guy was hand stuffing and folding the pastry and deep frying them in front of us. And, each one was only about $.30. From there we walked past a simple open restaurant with a few tables out on the street - Restoran a Dawood. We saw a guy making chapati - warm, fresh, grilled flat bread. We ordered a masala dosai, and were about to order some chapati with a curry dip, when the man making them at the grill walked over with a free sample, which we devoured in seconds. After, we stopped for some banana and coconut mini pancakes called apom manis. All told our evening’s dinner, with a large bottle of water was less than $5. I love this country!

Chinese and Malay Tastings

The one thing we did not eat too much of was Malay, at least not that we knew of. Of our food that was not Indian, most of it was Chinese or derived from a Chinese dish. It could have been Malay, but we are just not sure. We had dim sum two mornings, which was pretty typical in comparison to what we ate at home. We tried a crab stick dumpling wrapped in a bright, Kelly green dumpling wrapper. We had never eaten anything that color before. We had pork and mushroom sticky rice, shrimp shu mai dumplings, steamed pork buns, and hot Chinese tea. We learned quickly that once you finish your pot of tea, you can take your tea pot to a large hot water tank and refill with your original tea leaves, which was nice. Our other street food seemed to be Chinese inspired as well. We had mee goreng, fried noodles, which was a little spicy. It had some unique flavors to it though, not quite Chinese and not quite Thai. Perhaps Malay? Corn on the cob is very popular as a street food in Southeast Asia, and I have wanted to try it for awhile now. Most of the time I see it I am either not hungry or not interested in gooey corn and butter so far from some place to wash my hands. In Georgetown, it was served in a plastic cup with loads of butter and salt. It tasted like movie theater corn. Totally yummy.

We also tried lok lok, which was a combination of street side dim sum, tapas, and fondue. The large cart had all sorts of items on sticks with each stick color coded to a price. Some of the items were served fried on a stick and you ate them with a hot sauce or a peanut sauce. Some were meat balls or satay on a stick which you cooked yourself in a steaming pot of hot water. I think it was more novel than great tasting, but was definitely worth the stop. The most unusual thing we ate was an “ABC Special” up on Penang Hill.

We took a bus one day up to a funicular that climbs to the top of Penang Hill, or Bunkit Bendera, which has an incredible view of the city - on a clear day, which we did not have. The funicular itself is, I think, the best part, with a full thirty minute ride up and down. The funicular climbed over 800 meters high and was pretty steep. It is so high we needed to change funicular trains half way up. At the top are a small food court, an overpriced restaurant and tea house, a very plain Muslim mosque, and a colorful Hindu temple. After checking out the temple and the mosque, we sat under a fan at the food court and tried to enjoy the cooler breeze on the top of the hill. We each grabbed a cold soda but had no interest in eating because we just were not hungry (of course, because I saw corn for sale on the hill). What I did make room for was an ABC Special - Ais Kacang. I saw the picture on the wall, but could not really tell what it was until someone else ordered two of them. We splurged on just one for about $1. It arrived at the table like a melting mountain of rainbow colors - a colorful pile of shaved ice with syrup, jelly, sweet corn, evaporated milk, ice cream, peanuts, and red kidney beans. I loved
Lok LokLok LokLok Lok

Chinese street buffet
it, with the exception of the beans. The corn I could handled because it was sweet, but biting into the kidney beans, which I think are supposed to be soaked in sugar syrup to become sweeter, was a dull and bland bite of protein in a sea of delicious sweetness.

Melting Pot of Cultures

In addition to its impressive cultural mix with respect to food, like a giant multi-cultural smorgasbord, Penang has a mix of religions. Within about three blocks of Little India there was a pastel, multicolored Hindu temple, a red Chinese Buddhist temple, and a stark white Muslim mosque. Several times a day we heard the calls to prayer from the loudspeaker at the top of the minaret as we walked down the street past stalls selling Chinese roasted pork. We took advantage of the diversity by checking out (supposedly) the largest reclining Buddha in all of Asia.

We woke one morning with a plan to head to the beach outside of Georgetown for a day trip, but the weather did not cooperate. It was pissing rain, as the Irish say, and did not seem like a quick passing downpour, but had settled
ABC SpecialABC SpecialABC Special

Quick, suck down those kidney beans before it melts.
down for the day. The last thing I wanted to do was hang out for the day in our windowless hostel room (yes, we ended up staying four nights at that place we agreed to stay for only one). So, we hopped a bus to see the Chaiya Mangkalaram Buddhist Temple. From the outside, the temple was not particularly impressive or unique, but turned out to be one of my favorite temples to date. I liked it because we learned a tremendous amount at the temple. We already knew that the reclining Buddha is “my Buddha” and Eric’s is the standing Buddha with the hands out straight, but we were not sure what these Buddhas meant. We learned the meaning behind these Buddhas as well as the Buddhas that represent the year we were born. I am a Rabbit, and devotees who worship the Buddha for the Rabbit “will have rich and happiness.” Eric and I each made an offering to our Buddhas. The reclining Buddha itself was impressive, although I don’t know if it was the biggest. The one in Bangkok seemed bigger, but it could all be perception. Eric also made a big stink about making an offering
Don't ShootDon't ShootDon't Shoot

If you can see this sign - it is no tresspassing or you will be shot in the back while running away!
to receive a blessing from the temple. The offering came from a machine. You put a .50 piece in the machine and the lights started to blink and it eventually landed on a number (like in Vegas). Whichever number lit up corresponded to a slip of paper with your blessing. Eric’s was more positive. I did not feel as good about mine though. I wished he did not make me take it.

Eric’s No. 17 Blessing: “One who gets this No, 17 is moderate. At present your luck in doing business is rather poor. Your business will not flourish during this time. In future, it will become more progressive. Do not be anxious to get rich by putting all your capital in your business. You should slowly develop it, otherwise you will be in the state of financial trouble. Do not do big business at present time, you will suffer rather than benefited. In case of prosecution you have more hope to win the case. Your debtors are not faithful to you and some of them may run away from you. A sick person in your family will be better. Your luck in other things like love, is not so bad.”

Pretty much, this is the right time for Eric to not be doing business, or working. He does not have any debtors, other than our tenants, but they can’t get too far, and hopefully a sick family member will become better soon. And, his other luck - not so bad.

My No. 12 Blessing: “He who gets this No. 12 is like a man dreaming when he sleeps. What you are going to do at present can hardly be successful for your luck does not permit it at present. In future you will meet some people who will help and support you when you are in trouble. You are rather hopeless in love affairs, but in case of prosecution you are very lucky and may probably win the case. You will meet your friends and cousins who have left you a long time ago. Your luck for other kinds of business is not good.”

Okay, I interpret mine to say I am unlucky doing what I am doing now and I am hopeless in love. My luck in business is not good, so I guess it is good that I am not doing any business.
Hindu TempleHindu TempleHindu Temple

On the top of Penang Hill
And, Tom, I am not coming back for my very lucky prosecution. In good time.

We also visited a Burmese Buddhist temple across the street, which was same same but different. One interesting thing was one part of the temple was devoted to standing Buddhas. Behind a tall golden standing Buddha was a hall with Buddhas representing all of the Buddhist nations, including in part, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar), etc. I also made an offering at this temple thinking that maybe these Buddhist would be better than the ones giving me the blessing across the street.

As for traditional Chinese culture, we visited one of the most popular of the Chinese clan houses, Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi. Essentially, the clan houses are temples and other buildings, usually surrounded by two story shop houses that were shared my people from the same clan. Work began in 1890s, but once completed, a fire destroyed the temple and it was rebuilt. The museum showed how many generations of Khoo families, from various areas in China immigrated to Malaysia to find their fortunes. In two smaller alters on the side of the main temple, each governing board member of the
Muslim MosqueMuslim MosqueMuslim Mosque

At the intersection of Little India and Chinatown
clan has a plaque showing their occupation and where they were educated (even one who went to Michigan State, Angie). It seemed like a much more reserved and elegant fraternity system. But, it enabled immigrants to leave China and know that they had some place to stay and help finding a job - a support system. Outside of the temple at the base of the steps were two Buddha-type sculptures - one a happy and robust Buddha and the other a more troubled and anguished figure - like a yin and yang. I wished there was someone there to explain that to me, but it was pretty deserted. And, of course, scenes from the movie Anna and the King were filmed there! Always a movie theme.

Kenzo Fish Spa and Going to the Mall

Also during our rainy day, we went to the mall! It was indoors and air conditioned, and very western. Although it was confusing and the directory never told us where we were, the stores were grouped into categories, so one floor had clothing stores, one had kid’s stores, etc. We were focused on the pampering floor - spas, at home massage chairs, and health equipment. We went specifically for one store - the Kenzo Fish Spa. We had seen fish spas on travel shows in Tokyo, but because were missing our Japan trip, we needed to get our fish fix in. And, I am sure Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, was slightly cheaper than Japan! A fish spa contains various tanks of fish. You place your feet into the tanks and the fish essentially eat the dead skin off your feet and legs. No fear, right? When we arrived we removed our shoes and washed our feet before entering. We put our feet in the first tank, with small fish. I was expecting a lot more in the tank, but with the few that were there, we had a few little guys nibbling in no time. It tickled more than anything, like getting fish kisses. Then, we moved to the next tank with the medium sized fish, and they were several times larger than the smaller fish. These guys I could actually feel biting me a little. I asked Aha, our “fish hostess” for lack of a better term, whether the fish had teeth and were biting us, or were they just sucking and she replied “oh they have teeth.” Just as we were getting used to the medium fish, we moved to the large fish, which were not too large, but large enough that when they started to swarm my foot before I even put it in the water, I made Eric dunk his first to take away some of the fish. The family who was in front of us through the rotation had a woman who kept freaking out a little bit, but there was a little girl around ten years old who was loving it. The woman and I figured it was because she probably has very little dried skin on her feet and the fish were probably leaving her alone. The “treatment” was only thirty minutes, and I was just getting used to the sensation at the end. Overall, I absolutely loved it and would do it again - maybe in Kuala Lumpur!!!

This Town Is Closed

As much as Penang was growing on me, it became time to move on after five days in Georgetown. We had seen some of the island, although, in the end, we skipped the beach. Instead, early in the morning, we took a taxi to the long distance bus station and hoped a bus to the east coast of the island, to a large town called Kota Bharu. The bus took almost nine hours, but was not bad. There were only three seats across, so the seats were quite wide, with footrests and recliners. It was like taking a plane ride. When we arrived we checked out a few places and ended up at a Chinese run lodge which was comparatively cleaner than our accommodation in Georgetown - we had an air conditioner, a fan, a bathroom, a window, and real walls! The luxury, however, stopped there. The blanket looked and felt like Chinese military issued and the room smelled of cigarettes. But, this was a step up.

We stopped in Kota Bharu more for the night food market than anything else. We dropped our bags and headed right to it, or so I thought. Eric was originally quite disappointed. It was small, with about twenty five or so small food carts, all under one roof. And, most of the food was Chinese and Malay, with not a great deal of variety. We had some good food, but before
Klan HouseKlan HouseKlan House

See Angie! MSU!
it got too dark we called it a night and headed back to our somewhat clean accommodations. This is when I not only realized that I took Eric to the wrong food market, but that we picked the wrong time to go to Kota Bharu.

Travel Tip: Do not pass through the most Muslim city in a country on a Friday.

Our first night in Kota Bharu was a Thursday night. When we returned to our room after dinner I finally took a closer look at the Lonely Planet guide to see what we should do. There were a few museums to see, and, as much as we don’t usually go to museums, there was a free museum about the history of Islam in Malaysia. That was something I was interested in. I read the section of the book on the bus that day, but did not pay much attention to it until bed that night. The museums are not open every day. I realized they are open Saturday through Thursday. Okay, that means they are closed Fridays. Wait. What day were we on? People have suggested that they would be jealous of us when we were so relaxed we did not know what day it was. Well, it happens more than you think and this was the day. The museums were closed. There was no night market. The free culture exhibits were closed. The banks were closed. Well, I said to Eric, “Wish I had paid more attention to the day.” Well, that meant we really had not much to do in KB on Friday, so we slept late.

On Friday, we ventured from our hotel room, and the first thing we saw was the Friday competition of bird singing. The venue was across the road, and we saw dozens of bird cages hanging from wires. One of the competitors explained it to us - he himself had six birds competing that day. There are judges who spend a few minutes with groups of birds. The birds are judged on several aspects including pitch, melody, and bravado. The winner each week gets a radio, and some of the followers up receive prizes including rice cookers. The contests are run by the song bird club. The same prizes are handed out each week so after you have received enough rice cookers and radios, you can sell the prize back to the club for cash. It was interesting to see the birds and to see the competitors and how serious they take it. Our friend who was explaining things said he has won so many times he cannot count.

After listening to the birds, we walked through the central market, which is what KB is known for. It was open, but we were told it was not in full force - half the stalls were closed. Then, we headed down to the river, stopping for our new favorite breakfast on the way - roti canai. Roti is a grilled thin dough folded over itself to make it gooey. Then, it is served with a curry sauce. It is also crazy cheap. We paired it with a cup of Malay tea, which is sweeter it seems. This tea was served with sweetened condensed milk hovering on the bottom. When mixed the concoction took on an eerie burnt orange color. After our late breakfast we walked down towards the river past all of the closed buildings and closed markets. Then, we bought some mangosteen at a fruit stand. Yep, it is an exciting day when you wander through a Muslim city on a Friday.

Then, we just wanted a break, maybe for tea, but more just to sit down. We could not find one tea place open in the center of town. We walked back towards our hotel and down the street we had dinner on the night before. This street had a strip of Chinese restaurants and open air food courts. We passed one place and there was a gentleman sitting at a table in the middle of the restaurant who yelled to us as we passed “hello, come in.” We are used to restaurant owners and employees doing this, but this guy was at a table drinking. We walked another block or so, turned around, and went into this guy’s little hangout. Turns out that Jack Wee is a regular at this particular place. It was a kedai kopi, a covered but open air restaurant with tables open to guests. Guests order drinks from the restaurant owner, but order food from one of several food carts set up along the outside. It was the middle of the day so the food stalls were closed, but Eric and I ordered some hot tea. As soon as we
Bird Singing VenueBird Singing VenueBird Singing Venue

These birds were "in training"
sat down Jack struck up a conversation. You would think he worked for the tourism board he was so friendly. He immediately offered us some macadamia nuts he was chomping on and when we each took one, he forced more on us. Then, he walked across the street to bring us back some fried spring rolls called popiah. Then he bought us two specialties from the area, one was a bitter spinach in a cream sauce, which I liked, and the other was a dry rice dish with a fish or shrimp paste, which was a little too fishy for me. We ordered another round of tea and were asking him questions about his country, and how to pronounce some of the Malay words. We mentioned we were heading south to Kuala Besut and the Perhentian Islands and that we planned on hiring a taxi to get there. He called someone to confirm what price we would be charged so we knew we were paying the correct amount. He was asking about our hotel and making sure it was good. Then, he recommended a hotel on the Islands and warned us that Saturday was the start of a two week school holiday and that we may want to book a place ahead of time. He was unbelievably helpful. At the end of the afternoon the restaurant was closing for a few hours in the heat of the day before reopening for dinner. So, we packed up our things and tried to pay for our teas. Jack paid for us. He was such a sweetheart. It is not often that you meet someone on a trip like this that honestly wants nothing in return for his kindness and help.

We, of course, returned to our little place for dinner. We tried to check out the night food market, but it was closed on Friday. Surprise. Then, we tried to stock up on money before heading to the islands (no ATM) and found out that for the third time Capital One shut off our card, so we were left with no money until we called them (with a time difference, and they are only open 8am - 6pm M-F - did I mention that this was a Friday so, we had a short window to call them and yell. Again.). We were a bit cranky worrying about the money situation, so
Soup at the kedai kopiSoup at the kedai kopiSoup at the kedai kopi

Fresh rice noodles with pork wontons.
we ate. We stopped for roasted pork and rice and then sat down at our new favorite kedai kopi . We ordered some more tea and hopped from stall to stall ordering roasted chicken wings, fried rice noodles, and eventually roasted pork noodle soup with pork wontons. And, we broke our streak and ordered beers - at a ridiculous price, but we blamed Capital One. It had been a week without alcohol- that’s a long time for us. Before the end of the evening, Jack reappeared and we chatted and said our goodbyes and our thank you. For a town that was virtually closed when we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised at the good time we had in Kota Bharu.


24th February 2011


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