The Mysterious Case of the Penang Penang Curry and Other Tales!

Published: May 3rd 2013
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KL MonorailKL MonorailKL Monorail

Spot the European!
Firstly, let me apologise to those of you who DO NOT suffer from sleep disorders! This blog is quite lengthy and covers a good deal of ‘ground’! It is really a diary for Janie and I to try to remember some of the experiences we have had. Mrs Darling has, in fact, offered to present anyone, who manages to complete reading the blog without nodding off, a gold certificate! No takers so far!!! Anyway on with the task in hand. Just remember, if you’re knackered reading it, imagine how knackering it is actually doing it!!!!

We arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport after a pleasant enough flight from Phnom Penh. It was our first time on AirAsia (the local version of Easyjet) and I must say we were quite impressed! However it became obvious that AirAsia have, quite wisely, invested the vast majority of their money in their aeroplanes and skimped somewhat on their airport terminal! Having disembarked from the plane, we found ourselves walking for about 15 minutes to the baggage reclaim. The terminal itself resembled a huge garden shed with far too many of our fellow humans crammed into it!!

What also became quickly apparent was that Kuala
Petronas Twin Towers ...Petronas Twin Towers ...Petronas Twin Towers ...

looking ready for take off!
Lumpur had, some time ago, been visited by the Acronym Fairy who had obviously liked the place so much she refused to leave! We were totally confused by the number and endless scope of them. We had, in fact, landed at the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) and were about to be transported from KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) to KL (Kuala Lumpur) by Airbus. We were told that we wanted to aim for KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre) and jump in a taxi to China Town (surprisingly NOT CT).

We soon also discovered that, despite a large sign on both sides of every taxi stating that ‘bartering with the taxi driver was an offence’, that it was absolutely essential! We eventually arrived at our hotel - the Swiss Garden, China Town. This was a delightful establishment which certainly lived up to its description that it was ‘in the heart of China Town’. As it transpired, China Town seemed to spill into the ground floor of the hotel! It is a fantastic place to people-watch. Petaling Street, a lengthy and wide precinct, is empty until about 11 o’clock in the morning. At this time the stall holders begin to
KL TowerKL TowerKL Tower

At 412 meters, it 'Towers' over everything around!
set up. By lunchtime is it full of stalls and by 5 o’clock it is difficult to move along the street at all! Every tiny space is filled by traders who use every trick in the book, and many that aren’t, to get you to buy from them. It is possible to buy genuine Rolex watches, Gucci sunglasses, and designer handbags for a few RM (ringets, the Malaysian currency) - honestly!!!!

The hotel itself was very comfortable and even offered a flat screen TV that could be viewed from the larger than decent double bed! Many of the channels were in Malaysian, so we found ourselves watching endless repeats of BBC Hard Talk etc.

The restaurant manager, Idris, informed us that there was a good Malaysian curry house a short distance away. The place turned out to be a hawker centre with Janie and I the only 2 white Europeans in it! As it was Muslim, there was no alcohol on the menu but the curries and narn breads were delicious and ridiculously cheap! About £4 for the two of us!! There was only one English speaker but sign language and facial gestures seemed to do the trick!

The next day we decided to have a go on the tourist bus. This, we have found, is the best way to get your bearings and work out where you want to visit in the next few days - £5 each is an excellent investment and saves so much time! It was a fascinating couple of hours and convinced us that KL is more our kind of town than Singapore. KL has some warts and imperfections which make it more ‘real’ than the latter. Building sites pepper the city centre as the authorities have decided to install a new underground system. The buses, trains and monorail are all hectic and perpetually packed with locals. You soon find out that putting your head down and bulldozing your way through an open door, packed with milling humanity, is the only way to gain access to any form of transport! Very Un English! Refreshingly, we also found that we were very often the only Europeans on board and everywhere you went the locals swiftly engaged you in conversation, which almost always began, ‘Where you from..?’

We made our way to the KLT (Kuala Lumpur Tower) - a huge edifice right in
Monkey BusinessMonkey BusinessMonkey Business

I'm there somewhere!
the heart of the city. It is 421 meters high and dwarfs all around it! Initially I had wanted to take Janie up the Petronas Twin Towers, however it soon became clear that the KLT dwarfed even this iconic building. We entered the lift and in a few seconds were rocketed to the viewing platform some 350 metres above the ground. The views were fabulous. We looked down on the ants below and soaked up the panoramic view of the city. The Petronas Towers were way below us but shone out like twin stainless steel rockets. Bearing in mind that Janie gets vertigo standing on a chair in the kitchen, she really enjoyed the experience. We eventually returned to the ground floor only to be confronted by several local dancers. This was interesting but also highly amusing as it became apparent that, whilst the girls obviously fancied me, so apparently did the men! Needless to say we were coaxed into posing with them for photos!

We bought a couple of tickets for the bus to Penang and prepared to set off the next day. This experience itself was rather like trying to look composed whilst tip-toeing blindfold through a rugby scrum whilst holding a full cup of tea! All around were ticket touts, equipped with walkie-talkie communication to their respective ticket booths, trying to convince you to buy from their particular company - of which there were numerous! Having negotiated our way through (and not spilling a drop of tea!) we decided to buy from Plusliner. Why? Well the bloke told us their bus was a double decker! Well, it made sense at the time!!

The journey was a good chance to view the local countryside and we soon found that the Malaysian people are all delighted to become your next best friend! Indeed, they are amongst the most friendly people we have ever met! No excuse is needed to strike up a conversation - they simply ask where you are from and proceed to chat for hours! Janie struck up such a friendship at the KTM (old railway station - where the bus station was situated. Don’t ask about the acronym - don’t know!). The lady in question proceeded to chat to her for the next 5 hours, until we reached Penang!

Having jumped on a local bus we found ourselves dropped off at the centre
Hindu CeremonyHindu CeremonyHindu Ceremony

in the caves
of Georgetown - Kompter. At this point we approached a local taxi driver - with whom we could not barter (of yeah!!) - who wanted 15 RM to transport us to our hotel. We knew from the map that it was not far, so once again I was struck with HPS - Hogg Pigheadedness Syndrome! Refusing his kind offer I told him that I would rather walk than pay him this huge amount! So together with the two 20 kg backpacks - in the searing midday sun - I set off up the road. After 4 or 5 minutes of this I was rescued by Janie who reminded me that 15RM represented only about £3 which was a cheap price to pay to prevent some kind of catastrophic physical attack. We jumped in a passing taxi and paid 15RM!!!

Once again we were lucky with our choice of hotel. The Sentral, Georgetown is a fairly modern place with clean, crisp rooms. The staff were lovely and gave us loads of advice, including where to get good cheap hawker food. The first night we walked through the town to the Kaptain Restaurant - as recommended by our Canadian friends, Dick and Sandie. The food was excellent and so was the price! Having said that, as we ate the heavens opened, as they often do in the evening in this part of the world, and the rain crashed down. We took a taxi home.

The next evening we tried a hawker stall recommended by the hotel receptionist. Nasi Kandar Perita had a huge selection of freshly cooked curries and vegetables which were simply divine. It was here that we encountered Kamal, a huge bear hug of a man, with a black grisly beard matching his black grisly voice! It had always been my aim to sample a Penang curry in Penang - a Penang Penang Curry if you like! I foolishly assumed that this would be a reasonable request - wouldn’t you dear reader??? The conversation developed something like this:

John: Kamal. I have come all the way from England to try your finest Penang curry! Which one is it?

Kamal: (With a monstrous gale force laugh!) Mister John, ALL our curries are from Penang! Therefore they are ALL Penang curries!!! I can’t wait to tell my friends!! From now on I shall call you Penang John!!!

He was right though and ALL his curries, including one which was coal black, were delicious. The average cost for two was about 20RM - £4.

As few hawker centres sell beer we set off in search of the amber laughing fluid. We soon stumbled across the Copra Beer Hall. This was a massive beer tent with live singers - singing our favourite Malaysian songs (in Malaysian) whilst endless waitresses forced the beer you had purchased into your glass at an alarming rate to ensure that you finished and ordered another a quickly as possible. Janie gave our waitress one of her ‘special’ looks, at which she vanished into a puff of smoke and failed to reappear! We had to seek a replacement waitress! At this point the young lady, who was singing our favourite Malaysian ballad, rushed off the stage at a sprint! Looking around we spotted 3 young men, wearing crash helmets run through the seated crowd. They then seemed to check themselves and turn on their heels and dash out of the canvas entrance. As they ran we both spotted, to our shock and horror, that whilst man number 2 was wielding a knife, man number
Ice Cream Toast!Ice Cream Toast!Ice Cream Toast!

3 was brandishing a gun. It dawned on us that it was, in fact, not a toy but the real thing! Some people dived for the floor but many followed them out to see what would happen. As we were the only Europeans in the hall, it was difficult to work out what had happened. A local woman kindly filled in the details for us! The men had been chased into the alleyway alongside the hall and shot by the police and ‘commandos‘. ‘I think they may be dead’, she said. ‘The police deal with criminals like this!’ It obviously pays to behave in Malaysia!! It dawned on us that we had, inadvertently, plucked yet another hair from the hairy nostrils of Disaster!! We returned to our hotel much relieved.

Georgetown has been designated a ‘world heritage site’ and has experienced an outbreak of art all around its streets! Weird pictures and metal sculptures adorn the walls in little backstreets and serve to make a town walk even more exciting. We also visited a wonderful old house which was long ago owned by one of the local drug barons (when the trade was still quite legal). It was an explosion of opulence and colour and came complete with its own opium den! There, in large glass cases, locked with tiny single padlocks, you could see all the jewels and gold which belonged to the late owner’s wife. This included a gold necklace weighing about 2 lbs. The glass case containing it looked as though one large puff could blow it over! Trusting souls? Perhaps not, given the way they ‘deal’ with criminals out here!!

Next morning we made our way by taxi to Batu Ferrangghi, a resort on the north coast of Penang about 30 miles from Georgetown. The heavens opened and verily did it chuck it down! We were lucky to make it to our hotel as it transpired that the rains turned into a month’s rainfall. The area had its worst floods for 5 years!

Our destination was the Park Royal Hotel - a five star jobby - which was totally out of our normal ken but it was the day before our 40th anniversary and we were anxious that we should be somewhere we could remember! We certainly raised a smile from the staff as we entered this marble palace in our flip-flops, t
The Old HouseThe Old HouseThe Old House

shirts, shorts and backpacks! They had ‘become aware’ that it was our anniversary and very kindly sent 4 cup cakes to our palatial room. For our anniversary evening we dined on the wooden terrace adjacent to the beach. It really was rather lovely.

But enough of this indulgence! We were onwards and upwards to the Cameron Highlands by minibus. We made our way to the local ‘bus station’ in Georgetown and were unceremoniously shoe horned onto a minibus with about 12 other passengers - all locals. The driver then proceeded to tear up the roads at breakneck speed, which was fine until we hit the foothills. Here the combination of speed and endless hairpin bends made a ride at Alton Towers look quite sedate! An hour and a half of this was enough to make the strongest stomach heave! Thankfully we stopped once for a ‘happy break’. The toilet turned out to be the most minimal we have ever seen. Even after looking in the wooden shed which was built over a mountain stream, we could still see no toilet. Eventually we concluded that the small hole chiselled into the slab of stone must represent the ‘bog’. The hole was directly above the stream. Janie and I learned an instant lesson! NEVER drink water from a Malaysian stream!!!

We arrived at the Smokehouse Inn which turned out to be more English than England!! A lovely timber and plaster farmhouse of a building with log fires and a full English menu - which included Beef Wellington and fish and chips. We also indulged in a full English cream tea! George, the hotel manager, who seemed to us for all the world to be a hangover from a bygone era - a sort of Malaysian Jeeves! - showed us to our room. This turned out to be an entire flat complete with sitting room, separate sinks and shower rooms and a four poster bed! We were speechless!

During the next two days we walked though the jungle to Tanah Rata and then Brinchang. At the latter we stopped in to see the Sam Poh Buddist Temple, one of the biggest in this part of the world. It was crammed with huge gold statues and shrines of all kinds. Needless to say we didn’t really understand any of it. And no one around could speak English, so an explanation was
Our 40th Anniversary CakesOur 40th Anniversary CakesOur 40th Anniversary Cakes

Courtesy of the Park Royal Hotel
hardly forthcoming! That evening we dined at a local hawker shop - chicken noodles with the essential spoon or two of sugar! For some reason EVERYTHING in Malaysia has to have a healthy dose of sugar in it! When they see Europeans they double the dose, believing as they do that we just love the stuff. You can imagine! Sugary noodles taste crappy! You get used to telling the locals NOT to put sugar into your food, drinks etc.

Finally, (phew!) we endured the spiral downhill coach ride back to KL. We wanted to visit the Batu Caves just outside the city and this we did the next day. A ‘quick’ journey on the railway system (about 2 hours) got us to the location. As we go off the train we were confronted by a huge 40 foot green monkey with a large red beak! This was going to interesting! Next we had to climb about 150 steep steps in the midday sun. Sweat poured from us as we reached the top and all the way up we were escorted by chattering monkeys - the real things that is! Given half a chance they will steal anything they can
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On the terrace at the Park Royal Hotel, Batu Ferringghi
get their hands on, so you need to be on your toes! At the top of the steps is a massive cave opening. Inside is a collection of holy Hindu shrines, all complete with devotees performing all kinds of bewildering rights! One such ceremony ‘kicked off’ while we were in there. One chap skilfully banged a drum whilst another played a long pipe which emitted a screech rather like someone very slowly strangling a cat! As you can imagine, inside the caves the noise has nowhere to go apart from directly into your ears! The volume is deafening - quite literally. During this time several men in loin cloths paraded in front of the assembled faithful and threw water, then milk then various other substances over an upright golden spear kind of object. We were quite entranced ourselves (and deaf) by the time we left!

In the midst of the busy Petaling Streets we stumbled upon Som Mai, a worn and tired looking Buddhist monk. It had been our wish that we be blessed on our 40th anniversary by such a monk. We managed to make our wishes known to him and, 3 days late, on the 10th April
Public Toilets ...Public Toilets ...Public Toilets ...

Cameron Highlands 'Motorway Services'!
2013, Som Mai proceeded to give us some advice in broken English - continue to love; don't allow envy or jealousy into your lives etc. He then chanted prayers over us for some 5 minutes while the rest of the busy world rushed hurriedly past. It was an extremely moving experience!

Feeling that we now had some kind of ‘grip’ on peninsular Malaysia we were looking forward to flying over to Bornea, or Sabah as the north part of this huge island is now called. We set off hopefully towards KK (Kota Kinabalu) and whatever this exotic island held for us …

Additional photos below
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Smokehouse, Cameron HighlandsSmokehouse, Cameron Highlands
Smokehouse, Cameron Highlands

More English than England! Doesn't it remind you of the Drum, Cockington?
Our Little PadOur Little Pad
Our Little Pad

at the Smokehouse!
I Don't Believe It ....I Don't Believe It ....
I Don't Believe It ....

Cameron shack - complete with brand new BMW!
Sam Poh Buddhist TempleSam Poh Buddhist Temple
Sam Poh Buddhist Temple

Brinchang, Cameron Highlands.
Som MaiSom Mai
Som Mai

'Our' personal Buddhist monk.

10th May 2013

Reply to blog on KL
Gosh! It is exhausting just reading about your adventures. Can feel the heat and the humidity for real. Silly question when you are on a quest which has been planned for years, but do you miss home?
13th May 2013

Soooooooo jealous!!!!
Love reading about your travels. Keep up the good work. I am green with envy. We are already planning our next journey for 2015. Keep the blogs coming.

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