Veni, Vidi, Vici: Our Whirlwind Tour of Penang, Malaysia

In typical Asian fashion, I’ve taken liberties with timing and written about our stint by the sea in Juara before covering our two previous stops. I’d now like to go back to the beginning of March, when we bid a hasty and tearful good-bye to Bangkok and jetted off to the Malaysian island of Penang, a destination neither of us had any knowledge of prior to visiting but which turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. This, despite a terrible initial impression formed upon sighting several dozen fast food chains and a small crew of glue-sniffing kids during our first hour in town!

Based on my brief observations, Canada could learn a thing or two from the unique brand of multiculturalism happening in Penang. The island’s main city, George Town, was a trading post for 500 years and as a result, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Muslims, and the odd leftover European live here in relative harmony while managing to faithfully maintain their own traditions. The fascinating architecture brought out the inner dork in us both – it was so cool to walk by Chinese shophouses, magnificent mosques, resplendent Buddhist wats, dignified white Anglican churches, elaborate Hindu temples, and grand colonial buildings jostling for space on the same tree-lined streets (and noticing that rather than sitting around collecting dust, these buildings are all still in active service). The local government, who are nobody’s fools, have recognized the value of preserving the area’s heritage. For example, we picked up a cool brochure imploring citizens to use traditional methods when restoring their homes instead of taking shortcuts with newer, cheaper materials.

Luckily, the gastronomic traditions of each aforementioned group appear to be among the most faithfully maintained of all. Penang is thus heaven for the connoisseur of cheap, interesting, tasty food. The city is dotted with open-air food courts, each perpetually packed with all kinds of people grabbing all kinds of snacks. A taste of char kway teow at the side of the road on our first night was enough to make believers of us. It turns out that fried noodles can be so much more than just fried noodles. Among the other delights we sampled: teh tarik (expertly aerated Indian milky tea); mee goreng (a Malay fried noodle dish typically made by Indians, for some reason); wan tan mee (a tasty Chinese soup of fresh noodles, incredible dumplings, sliced barbecue pork, greens, and whatever else they feel like throwing in); assam laksa (a beef-based soup traditionally made by Muslims); samosas (Indian pastry stuffed with goodness)… I could go on.

Char kway teow, Penang style

Another char kway teoh (we had to, of course, conduct careful analysis of the different available versions)

Difficult to capture the complexity of the broth in a photo

A very unfussy and highly efficient system is in place in Penang’s food courts (also known as hawker centres). You order your food from the stall of your choice (each is independent) and someone brings it to your table within about four seconds. Another person who seems to work for the whole food court then comes around to serve drinks and take payment. Yet another person, typically elderly with a significant hunchback, then swoops down after you’re done to clear the table. Brilliant.

One of our two days in Penang was (only slightly) marred by the heaviest rain we’ve experienced yet – a real, live torrential downpour. Safety concerns forced us to temporarily abandon our motorbike and take shelter in a Chinese restaurant with the world’s pushiest owner who tried, unsuccessfully, to make us pay for things we didn’t order, eat, or even particularly like the look of. Our visit there ended with a quick but hilarious altercation and possibly a curse on our souls (we’ll see). In a tiny shop nearby, we managed to find hideous matching black raincoats and as soon as the rain was downgraded from “deluge” to “cats and dogs”, we set out on our way. Our explorations took us a very cool neighbourhood, lined with row upon row of interesting houses and shops – we made frequent stops in order to peek at small museums and beautiful temples or for a slice of egg nog cheesecake (?) at an art gallery. A stop at the former base of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (father of the Chinese republic, duh) proved highly educational thanks to the exceedingly enthusiastic curator.

Time lost on account of the rain was made up by a full programme of sightseeing the next day. After our morning errands (buying bus tickets to Kuala Lumpur, finding a tube for the poster Riccardo bought, stocking up on sunscreen, etc.), we went up to Penang Hill, a hill station with cool temperatures and stunning views, reached by a state-of-the-art monorail. Ric visited a museum of vintage toys while I strolled up and down quiet lanes and ended up at a big, noisy garage-sale type happening I later learned is known as a “thieves’ market”. For $4 CAD, I became the proud owner of a monstrous blue and white fish-shaped vase which I now realize I’ve condemned myself to schlepp in my carry-on for the remainder of the trip.

Another intriguing place we checked out was the Chew Jetty. Penang’s harbourfront was, at one time, controlled by a handful of Chinese clans, each of ran their own jetty (long pier with stilted houses built alongside). Most of the jetties are still in existence, and the Chew Jetty allows visitors to walk through. While we were there, several rickety motorboats were being loaded up with an intriguing assortment of goods (such as broken TVs and sacks of rice) bound, inexplicably, for Indonesia.

So, over two whirlwind days, we managed to visit (or at least drive by) a respectable number of Penang’s myriad cultural attractions and sample an even more respectable number of its culinary ones. Another successful mission. Veni, vidi, vici!

A glipmse into the less-glamourous side of international globetrotting: filling out arrival cards on the plane

Ric regretting his ill-advised morning choice of a Frappuccino (he may have to turn in his Italian card)... (cost: about $4)

...whist I, on the other hand, am quite pleased with my teh tarik in a bag with a straw (cost: about $0.15).

Chew Jetty.

Chew Jetty. Again.

Mysterious boats at Chew Jetty being loaded up for a trip to Indonesia, we're told. Not sure why they need rice in Indonesia - didn't think it was wise to ask.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion - one of the many cultural wonders we sped past on the bike

Toy Museum... yawn.

An awesome T-shirt

One of many snack stops

Backstage access at the mee goreng stall

Gorgeous art like this at every turn

Narrowly missed stepping on this monstrous creature - it's about 10 inches long

If anyone had seen us do this, it would have been bad news

A breath of fresh cool air on Penang Hill

Descending Penang Hill on a state-of-the-art monorail

Majestic mosque dating from 1800

Campbell Street Wet Market

Friday night at the hawker centre

Ai skrim, yu skrim...

Friendly antique shop

Sick carving

Sir, your ridiculously delicious and amazingly inexpensive lunch is ready

What's a little torrential downpour when tasty food awaits?

Ready to roll!

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