Inside a Penang temple

Where was I?  Oh yes, we were flying to Penang at some ungodly hour, and were hoping to rock up at the Oriental Hotel in its capital Georgetown, and find a spare room or two.  We arrived in Penang, picked up our luggage and caught a taxi to the Oriental Hotel.  We got out of the cab, paid the taxi driver and looked at the hotel.  It definitely looked dodgy brothers, but hey, it was after 2.00am, and how bad could it be…all we needed was a few hours sleep and then we could move, right?   Geez, we missed the signs again, the warning bells should have been louder than tinnitus, but no, it was late, and clearly desperation had taken a grip, a firm grip!  We walked in and organised and paid for a room to stay in; I have to say, none of us were feeling warm and fuzzy about any of this!  Time was a tickin’…in the lift we go, and reach our floor.  The corridor felt like a fridge and our room like a freezer.  Add to that that it didn’t pass the Ombi “clean test” ( I admit to being anal about cleanliness)…we all looked at each other, and shook our heads! We all thought it,  I verbalised it, “No way!  Let’s get outta here!”  As we made our way back to the lift, we noticed a few women being followed by some dodgy brothers kind of guys.  I got the veeery distinct impression that they had not all gotten up simultaneously to go to the loo!  Couldn’t make a booking we had been told…it all seemed to be falling into place now.  Back downstairs in a heartbeat, we asked for a refund, telling the guy that it just wasn’t “our kinda room”.  He looked a little baffled (not quite sure WHAT he thought the three of us had planned to do/ done in that room!!) and said that once the room was checked that we could have our money back!  The three of us were equally as baffled as we did not know what we COULD have done in that room in what amounted to a nano-second.  We literally flew out of there!  Suddenly, we did not feel so bad that we had nowhere to sleep, despite the fact that it was almost 3.00am!

An interesting way to dry clothes – Penang

Where would we go?  We saw a place across the road called Banana Guesthouse.  Alex and Linda waited whilst I went and checked it out.  It was clean, safe, un-sleazy and the guy who opened the door was very helpful.  In no time at all, we were in bed, fast asleep.  Needless to say, we did not get up, or off, to an eight o’clock start.  I was the first one up, however, and went for a bit of an exploratory walk.  I also found another Banana Guest House (owned by the same people), a little closer to the action, so to speak, so later that morning we all moved across and settled in.  We would stay there for the remainder of our time in Penang.

Candle burning inside a Penang temple

Georgetown is Penang’s historical capital; it’s interesting, exciting and eclectic, all rolled into one. It’s where cultures meet and merge.  It’s where you can find Chinese food on one side of the street and Indian on the other (a bit like Melbourne, hey!)  It’s where, if you take the time to explore its nooks and crannies, you can find some veritable treasures.  And…..it has truly wonderful food…much to Alex’s delight! As per usual, some of the best food was the street food! 

We did lots in those few days (just ask Linda), and whilst the idea of relaxing always seems appealing to me, when I find myself thrown into a different atmosphere and culture, my desire to “suck in” as much information as I can is voracious, and I end up leaving the place, more tired than I arrived there.  This is exactly what happened in Penang.  We mixed historical sight-seeing with shopping with eating in a manner that even I thought was impressive.

Fort Cornwallis – Penang

Penang’s highlights are indeed many.  Penang (this is often used interchangeably with Georgetown) has one of the greatest concentrations of colonial architecture in Asia.  Fort Cornwallis, on the waterfront, provided us with a great starting point for exploration of the colonial area.  It was very hot the entire time that we were there, so we kept ourselves hydrated with lots of water.  We checked out China Town and Little India; in the latter Linda and I gave Alex some “breathing space” (read – saved him from torture!) and wandered around doing some shopping.  Yes, me, shopping!  I may not be the shopping centre kind of gal, but when it comes to shopping in other countries, where I can purchase unusual or different things, I am in!

As a bit of an aside…this is what I am NOT into: shopping overseas for cheap, fake, designer stuff!  The reason I don’t buy it or pay full-price here in Australia has nothing to do with the monetary value, and everything to do with the fact that I categorically refuse to pay some exorbitant fee because someone, somewhere has deemed that brand “in”. So, why would I buy it if it was cheap?  So that people back in Australia think that I have an original Gucci and think I am (A) “cool” or (B) well-off enough to afford it?  No, no, no!  OK, stepping down off my soap box now…

Food, food and more food!

Batu Ferringhi, or Foreigner’s Rock, is only 14 kilometres away from the centre of Georgetown, and is effectively the town’s resort area.  Indeed it could be Surfer’s Paradise, and based on this, I was not keen to stay there. Having said that, we did go to its famous night market, which actually had some beautiful wares from many parts of Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam.  I love markets – they are always a great place to people watch.  Like the rest of Penang, it also had great food.

Coming to Penang and not trying the multitude of different food available is like going to India and not visiting the Taj Mahal.  There are some things
that one just has to do!  One of the most famous
dishes is Asam Laksa, or Penang Laksa.  Whilst I normally love laksa, this variety was a bit too fishy for me.  One of my favourites was Char Koay Teow, which means “stir-fried rice cake strips”, and is one of Penang’s most popular hawker dishes. And the list goes on…Hokkien Mee, Ice Kacang, Cendol, Curry Mee, Mee Goreng…look some of these up, and tantalise your taste buds.

Traditional food – Penang


At the Rainforest Festival, Alex had shared a room with a Malaysian called Azahar.  What a great (and intelligent!) man.  Whilst he works in Sarawak, his family live in Georgetown, and he was going to be there for a few days, right when 

Fantastic Indian food – thanks Azahar!

we were.  We swapped numbers and he told us that he would give us a “local’s tour” of Georgetown for a day.  And that is exactly what he did!  He picked us all up one morning and took us places, and showed us things that a tourist would normally never have seen.  We also got to go to his mum’s place and meet his mum, and nephew.  He drove us around and showed us places, giving us an insight to how the locals live, and he got us to try food and drinks from local spots/ markets that we normally would not have thought to try.  I tried a drink that was made from some type of cane sugar, and was truly delicious.  We also went across the bridge to Butterworth, and came back (in the car) on the ferry, just for a different view.  At some point we stopped at an Indian roadside restaurant…Azahar ordered and we ate!  The food was super-cheap and so extremely tasty.  We had roti with a range of topping and sauces; probably one of the best meals we had in Malaysia! And before we knew it, we were back in Georgetown.  Azahar had given us a taste of the real Penang, in more ways than one!

Pinang Peranakan Mansion – Penang

Our trip was slowly coming to an end, and we only had one more day to go.  We’d all hit the wall!  In an attempt for our last cultural fix, we thought we’d visit the Pinang Peranakan Mansion; this mansion depicts a typical home of a rich Baba (descendants of 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants of more than a hundred years ago).  Whilst it was very interesting, we were all struggling to give it the time it deserved.  Linda and I sat down on some chairs inside, and it was then that I realised that I was at the end of my battery life -not even water and food seemed to be saving me.  With this, we all decided to walk home.  We managed it, but I must say (in my case) just!  It was only mid-afternoon; I had a shower to freshen up, and went to bed for a “short” nap.  As Alex often says to me , “When you shut-up, you shut down”.  That about sums it up!  I’d even used the reserve fuel in my tank, and my body needed to replenish.

The best food is nearly always street food

Upon waking up, we got Linda, and went for our last street-food experience.  We did not have to go far as there were a multitude of places and all very close to our hotel.  Linda and Alex then had their last local beer, again close by.  Wow, our trip had come to an end…well not quite, we still had to pack, and fly home, but that was only hours away.  We had all had such a good time, and Malaysia and Borneo had provided us all with lots of new experiences, cultural exchanges and friendships.  This is my passion, and this is my joy!

Does returning home merit writing about?  Back at the hotel, we slept for a few hours, woke up, caught a taxi to the airport and flew to Kuala Lumpur, before changing flights and flying onto Melbourne.  Again, it was an uneventful flight, in as far as all went well.  My Dad (who we fondly refer to as Mr Doo Bee, Doobie, or Doobs…long story) was there, as always, to pick us up.  How many airport runs have you done in your life Dad?  And as you know, I am as grateful as ever.


Another trip down, and a plethora more to go!  Where to next?

(NOTE: 2010 proved to be a very busy year; as I write this it’s mid January 2011, and in actual fact Alex and I have just come back from two weeks in Thailand).

Ombi

Dedication:  This one is for you Azahar.  Thanks for taking Alex, Linda and I out for a day, and showing us the ‘real’ Penang.  These memories will live with us forever.  You are an open-hearted and open-minded individual; such admirable traits which so few seem to have.  We hope that one day we can offer you the same hospitality in our country, Australia. Terima kasih!

“Let us be grateful to those people who make us happy…they are charming gardeners who make our souls blossom” – Proust (on a card that Alex bought me for my birthday recently)

Chinese quarter – Penang
We have the world in our hands!

Taken inside a Chinese temple???
Indian quarter – Penang
Indian food – Azahar’s pick

Colonial houses as seen all over Penang
Colourful Chinese lanterns – Penang

Now THIS is what I call food!
A Penang local
veryitchyfeet.com
Written by veryitchyfeet.com

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of veryitchyfeet.com. She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!