Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Penanging it"

October 27, 2009 (by Swiss)

Today marks the end of our five day stay on Penang Island – Georgetown to be exact. Georgetown, as it happens, is the second largest city in Malaysia after KL. It was established by the British based East India Company back in the day with the intention of breaking the Dutch Melaka's monopoly on the spice trade (Source: Lonely Planet), and turned into a bustling port. After the collapse of the British empire, it “wilted”, according to LP. Today it supposedly is the Silicone Valley of Malaysia, although we didn't really notice anything obvious which would earn them that distinction. Although a guy did mention yesterday that the city reminded him of SF (minus the hills), and Lawton discovered today that they charge a 10 sen garbage reduction fee for plastic bags. So perhaps the description is more accurate than we thought. Ok, History lesson over.

Arrival in Penang (Thursday October 22)
Given the 4-6 hour drive from KL, and us being cheap, we opted to take the overnight bus from KL as it would make time pass quickly (hopefully) and save us one night of lodging. 36 ringgit (NOT ringgits) bought us a 1am ticket on a pretty comfy bus (with wide, reclining seats), and four hours later we arrived at the bus terminal in Georgetown. It was at the bus terminal where we found Jeremy, our friend we had met in Melaka, sound asleep on a bench that looked rather uncomfortable. Lawton had been in touch with him via his cell phone, and since he had arrived at 3am, he opted to wait for us at the station so we could head into town together. The first city buses didn't start running until ~6:30am, so we spent a good 1.5 hours hanging at the bus station. Unbeknownst to us at the time, bus station “hanging” would be become somewhat of a theme during our stay. Walking was not an option given the location of the bus terminal and our heavy backpacks.

It is here that I think it's appropriate to mention that Jeremy has a one track mind – and that track involves food. As he proudly admits himself, his entire day is usually planned around food. Just take a look at Jason's Melaka post, and you'll catch my drift. So it came to no surprise that mission number one after getting off the bus was not to find lodging, but rather to head out for some dim sum. The food was very good, although I took some exception to the chicken feet that Jason “I eat dim sum and chicken feet with my co-workers all the time” Lawton just absolutely had to order.

Our 7am Dim Sum breakfast upon arrival in Penang

Hmmm...Chicken Feet @ 7am!

Shortly after “breakfast” we got to the Banana guesthouse, our base for the next couple of days. We discovered that an A/C room for four people could be had for a total of RM 60 (USD 17.6), and since Jeremy's friend Fred would arrive the next day, we booked it. A fan room for two people was available for RM 25, which is what Jason and I reserved as a lodging option upon the departure of Jeremy and Fred a couple days later. Oh, and the place had free wifi :)

Since the quality of sleep on buses/bus station benches is somewhat sub-par, we kicked on the a/c and all had ourselves a nice little nap. The intention was to reserve the afternoon for productive things, such as booking train tickets (Jeremy) and getting our Thai visa (Lawton and I) squared away.

Visas, more food and ferries
Fran, the nice lady we met on Tioman, had indicated to us that we could get a free 60 day tourist visa for Thailand on Penang, so that would be goal number one after a groggy awakening from our 2 hour nap. My feeble attempts at doing research online yielded nothing but confusion, so Jason made the, I hate to admit it, brilliant suggestion that we check downstairs at the hostel to see if they offer a visa courier service instead of us having to waste money on a cab (“Teksi”) and trying to figure out all the nitty gritty stuff. We were both willing to shell out ~RM20 for the convenience, and were absolutely stoked to find out they would take care of all the details for a nominal charge of RM 5 (just over USD 1). “Just come back tomorrow at 4pm to pick up your passports”, the guy at the counter informed us. And yes, it was that easy. So if you plan on doing a trip around this area, getting your Thai visa in Penang at the Banana guesthouse is THE way to go.

Since Jason and I had achieved our mission of the day, it was on to Jeremy's to do list. Item 1: Food. The goal was to find an Indian place that served their food on banana leaves, but we were somewhat unsuccessful in locating such an establishment. So we opted for some traditional south indian cuisine instead, which included chicken curry, mutton curry, and some very excellent daal curry. This food is traditionally eaten without silverware (read: your fingers), something Jason refused to do. Jeremy and I, however, both dug in using our right hand (don't use the left, that's a cultural faux pas). Jason stuck to silverware, which the place was happy to provide.

Swiss eats in an "authentic" fashion

Stuffed yet again, item 2 on Jeremy's list was to arrange train tickets to Bangkok for him and Fred. They are attending a wedding of a friend there. Apparently their friend is getting married to some famous Thai political figure (to the point that the couple supposedly were on the cover of the equivalent of Thai “People” magazine). Lawton and I both are keeping our eyes peeled for any news regarding some Canadian guy (namely Fred) making national or international headlines at the wedding. Just have a feeling, 'is all.

But I digress. The train departs from Butterworth, which is on the mainland and can be reached from Georgetown for free by hopping on a ferry. The return trip costs RM 1.20.

We hopped on the ferry from George Town to Butterworth

It was at the train station that we learned that all trains to Thailand were canceled due to some instability going on in the south of Thailand. Oh, and by instability I mean terrorism. So trains apparently are not the thing to take right now, which caused Jeremy and Fred to have to revise their plans. They now opted to fly to Bangkok, giving them an extra day in Penang. Lawton and I evaluated the option of taking a bus, but ultimately decided on taking a ferry to Langkawi island (I'm actually writing this on the ferry right now), spend a couple of days there, and then head onward via another ferry to Thailand. Going this route enables us to bypass the “unstable” portions and allows for a couple of lazy days on the beach. Ah, the joys of travel.

Upon return from the train station/ferry, we jointly sought some a/c, which as we've learned is best achieved by visiting the local mall. Jeremy wanted a snack, Lawton wanted a drink in a bag.
Snacks were bought at the mall where we scored some Chinese jerky (basically smoked pork – very tasty), and iced coffee/tea (“kopi peng/teh peng”) in a bag was procured from a street vendor near our guesthouse shortly thereafter.

Drink in a bag (tea with sweetened condensed milk) is delicious!

Following Jeremy's grand food plan, the evening would be spent at the gurney drive hawker center, where we ordered satay (grilled meat) and Pasembur. The entire market was awesome, with tons of vendors offering their food for sale. I would recommend you check it out if you ever come to Penang. After we had consumed our dinner, Jeremy discovered a stall offering a dish called “Gearbox”, which is apparently composed of various meats centred around some kind of bone-in-shank (would look like a gear shifter) and feeds 3-4 people. We were completely full already, but it did inspire Jeremy to try to return at a later date to try the dish. Below are pictures from dinner.

Gurney Drive night market

Our Satay being cooked

And a hearty plate of Pasembur to share

Although we had taken the bus to the center (after first waiting a good 15 minutes for the public bus and then opting for a local bus), it was decided to walk back to our room along the shore. This would allow some time for digestion as well as a quick look at the “Eastern & Oriental”, or E&O for short, hotel. It's basically an old colonial hotel where rich people stay. What was slated to be a 45 minute stroll turned into a 75 minute hike of sorts. But at least it gave us time to digest our food, and we did eventually get to the E&O hotel, where this lovely picture was taken.

Yup...we did eventually make it to the E&O Hotel

Just like Jeremy the night before, Fred had taken the night bus and arrived in the middle of the night. We woke up mid-morning, and Jeremy went off to try to find Fred as he apparently didn't manage to locate our room. A short 5 minutes later Jeremy returned with Fred in tow.

What next? Food, of course. Pic of Hokkien Mee below.

Fri. morning breakfast of Hokkien Mee

Friday would mark “tourist day” for us, which included a small tour of the city, visiting the Khoo Kongsi (clan house), and finishing with a visit to Cheong Fatt Tze's Panang mansion, aka the blue house.

Apparently the Khoo Kongsi is Penang's finest clan house, and gave us a nice little history of the Khoo clan. It was here that I learned a bit about the Chinese naming system, which involves the clan name first (Khoo), the generational name in the middle, and the first name last. The generational name is part of a poem, so you can track your generational name by looking at the family poem. A picture of the Khoo poem and the main clan house is shown below.

The Khoo Clan family poem

Swiss in front of the Khoo Clan Temple

More of the Khoo Clan Temple

It is here where I managed to get bestowed with an “Adult” sticker, something that just HAD to be documented.

Swiss's "Adult" admission sticker

With Fred having joined our team, we decided to splurge and go have a drink at the E&O hotel. Stuff was overpriced, but we did feel pretty colonial sitting outside, overlooking the sea, amidst palm trees, well kept grounds, and a pool. All went well, until Fred decided to go have a dip in the pool. Seeing how refreshed he was, I decided to dip my feet in the pool, which somehow caught the attention of the staff. “Sir, what room number are you staying in?”, a neatly dressed staff member asked me while Fred took an immediate dive under water. “312”, I guessed, which apparently was good enough for him as he didn't call for security. Maybe he noticed my adult sticker. But we did decide that it was probably a good time to leave.

The last tourist activity for the day would be a visit to the blue house. The tour was led by Eric, a very flamboyant Chinese guy with a stuffy British accent and corresponding mannerisms. The tour was done very well, explaining the rags to riches story of the owner, the history of the house, the architectural cues, and their relationship to Chinese culture. Definitely worth the RM 12 admission.

Outside the blue house after our tour

Although we did briefly stop for snacks before the visit to the blue house, real food was now in order. We had discovered a Ramly burger stand outside our guesthouse the night before, and since Fred had not had a Ramly burger yet, it would be said burgers for dinner.

Ramly Burger, Chulia Lane, across from the 7-11 and next to Banana Guest House

After consuming what was the best Ramly burger I've ever had (granted, I've only had two...but Jeremy said it was in his top 10 as well), it was off to meet Team England, who Fred had met at the bus station. Team England was composed of Sally and Caroline, who are visiting Malaysia from London. As it was Friday night, it would be a fun night of hanging out and checking out various bars in town. One item of note should be the “beer towers” that you can order here, which is basically a 3L beer dispenser with ice in the middle to keep the beverage cold. A nice way to split beers among a group of people, although after doing the math, not that great of a deal on a RM/Liter basis. But fun nontheless. Pics of beer tower and new found friends Sally and Caroline below.

Fred and the beer tower

Swiss and our new friend Sally

Caroline tries out a new local pose

Fred took off a bit earlier since he basically hadn't slept, while the rest of us returned around 3am for another Ramly burger, only to find out the guy had run out of supplies. Off to bed instead.

Hurry up and Wait
With Fred well rested, Saturday would be spent going to Penang Hill. Option 2 would have been the snake temple, but Jason wasn't too keen on the whole snake idea. So the hill it would be. But first, food.

Breakfast (including roasted duck)....

Or maybe this was Hokkien mee?!? Anyone wanna guess what this is?

...and after breakfast snacks:

Fred found some "Halo Kitty" buns

In order to get to Penang hill, one must first take a bus to the hill and then hop on two separate Swiss engineered funiculars (cable cars). As it happened, we had to wait almost a full hour for the first bus to arrive, an hour which was spent sweating at the non-a/c bus station. Once we arrived at the bottom of the hill after bus number 1, two crammed cable car rides got us to the top of the hill within about 35 minutes.

The views on top of the hill were decent, albeit a bit hazy given the humidity. We visited a Hindu temple and a bird park that among birds also had a snake and some scorpions on display. Pretty nifty and a good way to kill some time.

The view from the top of Penang Hill

Fred meets a snake...at the bird sanctuary of all places

And we met a scorpion there too!

The return trip would be less smooth, as there was an apparent delay with the cable cars. That, coupled with large weekend crowds, resulted in yet another 1 hour wait in line. Oh well.

Dinner plans were to return to Gurney drive with team England for Gearbox and other yummy food. Unfortunately, the gearbox vendor was out of gearboxes, so we all shared a smorgesboard of local foods, including stingray, fried oysters, laksa, a variety of deep fried items, and fruits.

The highlight, however, was the consumption of our first durian fruit. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Jason goes in for a piece

Tasting the piece of durian

Thinking about the durian I just ate

That face explains it all :)

The night was concluded by attending a Deepavali dance performance at a local park. We just managed to catch the end of it, but it was nice. After that it was off to bed, but not until Jeremy and Fred managed to consume yet one more Ramly burger from our buddy outside of the guesthouse. Lawton and I opted out due to bursting stomach syndrome.

The last dance at a Deepavali festival we caught

The house near where the Deepavali performance took place

The quest for the waterfall
Jeremy and Fred would depart early Sunday morning to fly to their celebrity wedding. Jason and I slept in a bit before moving to our non-a/c room that we had reserved earlier. Plans for the day would be to meet up with team England yet again and visit the botanic gardens, where, according to Caroline, there was an awesome waterfall.

The routine was standard by now: meet at the mall, go to the bus station, wait forever for a government bus, opt for the private non-a/c bus in lieu of time, pay one ringgit fare, get off the bus, walk 15 minutes to the gardens, discover that the local government run a/c bus would have dropped us off right at the entrance. But it was fun.

The gardens were nice, although the waterfall proved to be somewhat elusive. We think we found it, but I'm still not 100% sure. We also took a 2 ringgit tram tour, which was skip worthy in my opinion, but we were tired of walking and hoping for a breeze. Below is a pic of us getting our feet wet downstream of the waterfall.

Relaxing in the stream with Sally and Caro

A 45 minute wait for the bus would eventually get us on an a/c bus that brought us safely back into town, where we had some Indian food for a snack/lunch. The girls went off shopping, while Jason and I decided to pay a visit to the local chocolate shop after team England had suggested we do so. It was quite nice, and we got to sample most of the different chocolates they offered. Apparently they have a factory in KL. Doesn't beat Swiss chocolate, of course.

The evening would be spent resting our tired legs (the botanic gardens involved quite a bit of walking), eating a Ramly burger (seriously, they were super good), and having a couple of drinks with Sally and Caroline. They were to depart the next day for Langkawi, where we will likely meet up with them later this week.

Planning day
Which brings us to Monday, our planning and chores day. Lawton got his haircut, sent stuff back home via mail, and put some more credit on his cell phone SIM card (btw – SIM cards are super cheap here and definitely worth getting.) We also bought our ferry tickets for Langkawi for the following day. The rest of the day was spent surfing the web and brainstorming stuff to do in Thailand. It looks like quite a bit of time will be spent on islands, which is fine by me, especially since I really want to get some more dives in. Overall, we had a very nice and entertaining stay on Penang.

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Unknown said...

There are several "looks" that Jason has mastered, one of which is displayed in the tea-in-a-bag picture (excited skepticism), the other being "I'm so happy I did this Iwillneverdothisagain" (Durian!).

Unknown said...

Can you guys overnight me a Ramly burger or two?

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