Taking the Long Road to Malaysia

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March 26th 2013
Published: March 26th 2013
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Bangkok, Thailand to Georgetown, Malaysia

Ah, the romance of the train. The clickety-clacking of the rails, being gently rocked side to side as you fall asleep like a newborn. The romance of waiters in white uniforms serving our wonderful meal on crisp linen tablecloths and sparkling china while we clink our wine glasses to the end of a perfect day. After a peaceful night’s sleep, going to the restaurant car for steaming cups of coffee and freshly-made croissants. That’s what we saw as our train passed the Singapore to Bangkok Orient Express going the other way. Now the reality of the 2nd-class sleeper. After leaving our beautiful apartment in Bangkok, we caught a cab. We had heard that the traffic could be miserable, so we didn’t want to take any chances. We got to the train station with two hours to spare. Okay, we could kill two hours. Then we got on the train and had to wait. And wait. And wait. The sun was about to set by the time we pulled out of the station.

Before the train left the station a woman came around and asked us what we wanted to eat. We placed our order for both dinner and breakfast the next day. We were told that our dinner should be coming by at 7. We didn’t know that the man who made up our beds also came by at 7! So much for our wonderful meal…

We had reserved two bunks a week ago when we visited the train station. Unfortunately, they only had two upper bunks, bad for David’s 6’4” frame. The other two people sitting next to us were an older Thai woman and a woman Buddhist monk. We were sitting in one bench and had our bags on the other bench facing us. We had been assigned to sit on the two seats on either side of the train instead of facing each other. Well, I guess it bothered the woman Buddhist monk, because every time we got up, she moved ALL her stuff into our seat! We weren’t ready to go to bed at 7 so we ended up going to the restaurant car and having a couple of beers. The restaurant car was quite lively! They had karaoke music blasting on the television. We were the only passengers there; everybody else worked on the train. We sat in the back of the car and watched the people. By 9:30 we headed back and our car was like a blue-curtained tomb. I guess we’re going to sleep! Ah, yes, sleep. I did not experience the ‘being gently rocked side to side as you fall asleep like a newborn’, but rather falling asleep in the same clothes you sweated through and had to wear the next day, with no place to shower! Oh yeah, did I mention the train trip was 24 hours?!

We pulled in to the Butterworth train station about 2 pm the following day. We took the ferry into Georgetown over the northern channel of the Malacca Strait. I had made a passing remark to David that Butterworth and Georgetown seemed much cooler than Bangkok. The gods proved me wrong when we landed.

Penang is the smallest state of Malaysia. Georgetown is the capital of Penang and is located on an island. Georgetown has an ethnicity that is very diverse with Chinese and Malay, Hindus and Muslims and it’s not unusual to find a mosque, temple and church all within the same block.

Our taxi trip to our hostel was pretty uneventful. As David told you in an earlier blog, we had never stayed in a hostel before. It is a whole new way of living that we have to get used to! I guess it’s the price we have to pay for living close to town. We are located in the World Heritage Buffer Zone in a pre World War 1 colonial building. There have been quite a few fellow travelers from all around the world to not only share our adventures, but to get some valuable information, as well; for instance, we found out that there’s a free air-conditioned bus that brings people all around Georgetown that an Australian gentleman told us about. Great info!

We started our travels in Georgetown by going to the Penang State Museum. This gave a detailed view of Penang’s varied history. We also went to a couple of mansions that were once home to wealthy Chinese merchants. It was incredible to see how these merchants went from being absolutely penniless to having so much wealth.

One day we took the free bus to the other side of Georgetown to the Clan Jetties or water villages. Started in the 1880s, each jetty is named after a Chinese clan. There used to be seven jetties, but a fire in 2005 demolished one. Here’s a fun fact with tax day right around the corner: to this day none of the families pay any tax as they are not living on land.

Saturday we took the bus to Penang Hill. When British officers and other wealthy citizens wanted to beat the heat, they went to Penang Hill. It is approximately 2300 feet above Georgetown, so it’s known to have cooler weather. We zoomed up in a new funicular in about five minutes or less. The weather at the top was cool and cloudy and what was a classic view over Georgetown was kind of a bust for picture taking. We strolled around the top, marveling at the Hindu temple and the mosque. There is also a famous hotel that was used to film the movie ‘Indochine’.

We also took the bus to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens are also known as the Monkey Gardens because of all the wild monkeys scampering about. We must have seen about 50 monkeys! I guess they had a problem with people feeding the monkeys; people ran out of food, monkeys became aggressive, monkeys bit people. Today there’s a hefty fine to anyone caught feeding the monkeys.

I’m not going to deny it – I love food! It has always been one of my fascinations in coming to Southeast Asia. Penang is said to have the best food in Southeast Asia. I’m also going to admit – we love Anthony Bourdain! We have several of his books and we even went to Berkeley, CA to his book signing. We love his show on the Travel Channel and can’t wait for his new show to start on CNN. While in Penang we decided to eat where Tony ate. Last night we ate at Line Clear, a hole in the wall restaurant that has been on a busy alley since 1930. It specializes in Nasi Kandar, a rice dish served with bunches of curries, meat, vegetables and other side dishes. As we sat down, we were a bit apprehensive as to what to order. Luckily a gentleman came over and told us we would have to tell that man (pointing to the chef) what we wanted. We told the chef that we wanted rice and chicken and he took it to a whole new level! He asked us if we liked spice and then went to town when we said yes. He then put a few cucumbers on the plate, probably to cool down the spiciness! The spiciness of the curries, the tenderness of the chicken, along with the coolness of the cucumbers was sublime. We also went to the same Laksa stand that Tony ate at near the Kek Lok Si Temple. This Laksa stand has been here for 59 years and there is always a line of people waiting patiently for a table. Laksa is a noodle dish in a mackerel-based broth. It is served with onions, cucumbers, lettuce, red chilies, mint leaves, and drizzled with prawn paste. It is really, REALLY good!

We only have one more week to visit Georgetown. I believe next week we’re going to try to beat the heat by getting out of town, but that’s for another blog!

Additional photos below
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26th March 2013

Yum! Love the sound and look of nasi kandar. We love bourdain too, someone could make a lot of money by putting together a 'bourdain food tour' around the world :)
31st March 2013
Line Clear - Nasi Kandar

The story behind the name
I ate here too, it was one of the best meals of all my travels. According to a local friend, this restaurant obtained its name because a more popular (and supposedly better) Nasi Kandar restaurant always had queues. So this new establishment promoted themselves as being as place where one did not have to wait for a meal - hence "Line clear", or "No queue".

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