Penang

14 Dec

Penang. Penang, Penang, Penang. The beautiful island home to George Town, our first Malaysian stop. George Town. What can I say about this stellar town that emits pure beauty and happiness through its art-filled, European influenced streets and its culturally diverse and astonishingly friendly locals. We spent seven days exploring George Town and it wasn’t enough. 

Penang is a cultural melting pot, mainly occupied by people of Malay, Indian and Chinese decent, among many other minority cultures. George Town also represented a number of religions, with the main Mosque in town a short walk from the famous Anglican Church and the Anglican Church just next to the Catholic Church, with temples scattered throughout. The city creates the perfect picture of all these cultures coming together in harmony while maintaining their identity. On our first day out in George Town, after indulging ourselves in beef briyani, we found ourselves in the center of Little India. Women and men in traditional dress wandered the streets buying aromatic foods and colorful clothing. Stores with the latest Bollywood films blasted Indian music to lure in customers and small shops sold everything from spices to statement bindis. After departing little India, we walked down by the water, where children played in the park just next to Fort Cornwalis and there was a beautiful view across the water.

After a day walking around and being blown away by the George Town atmosphere, we were ready for a beer but realized that beers were quite expensive here, or at least more than we were used to. We refrained from buying beers at the 7-Eleven and returned to the hostel to ask the man working where you can get cheap beer. He showed us a spot on the map with the utmost confidence that they sold the cheapest beers in Penang. We headed out there, sweaty and un-showered, and found ourselves in front of a convenience store lookalike with a fridge-lined wall filled with different types of beers and their prices. Just outside, in the alley corner, multiple tables of all shapes and sizes stood amidst red and blue stools, filled with locals and tourists alike. A shirtless full-bellied man runs the operation alongside his wife, who gracefully weaved through the tables clearing the endless beer bottles and cans. We found ourselves a table here and played cards the whole evening, with three local guys joining in on the fun towards the end of the night. We fell in love with the local watering hole and found ourselves here on multiple evenings. On our following visit we sat at a table with a German-born man and his Philippine girlfriend, who had been living here for a few years, along with his mother, father and uncle who were visiting from Germany. We were later joined by an old man named Mamu, who cracked inappropriate jokes in an admirable manner and told stories about how his mother worked for the Sultan. And even later, we were joined by two more of Mamu’s friends, who brought chickpeas cooked in some fantastic spices which I consumed all by myself. On another occasion, Angela and Josh spent the night playing Kings with three local guys who had just finished university. We met some great people at the watering hole, a place that clearly brings together young and old and local and foreign in unexpected accord.

For the most part, we were super active during the days, trying to get in as many activities as possible to satiate the appetite for culture and adventure that we had built up on the Thai islands. We spent a day strolling the streets hunting down the famous Penang street art that can greet you at any turn. Most of the art takes into account the buildings and exiting elements, while some go a step further, incorporating a third dimension, such as a bike, a stool or a chair to the art. That evening, we went to the Red Garden, a place filled with multiple food stalls, where I first tried Assam Laksa, a tangy noodle soup with sliced cucumber, onions, chilies, pineapple and prawn paste that I fully enjoyed. The following day, we took a local bus (note: each and every bus driver was so helpful and kind) to Koke Lok Si Temple, where we climbed to the top of a Pagoda for excellent views of the city, before heading to the Pagoda Hill to take the funicular up to the top of the hill. However, we bailed on the funicular when we found out the school holiday had resulted in an hour wait to ride to the top. 

Another day, we went to the upside down museum, which, while skeptical at first, left us in awe and laughing the whole time as those working at the museum helped us into posing position and snapped our photos at endless upside down setups. Afterwards, we headed to an area that allegedly had food hawkers (what they call the street food stands here) but were once again mislead by maps.me. While in the area, however, we saw a sign outside an expo center that claimed there was a mini dessert exposition the following day, which we knew we had to come back for. On the way back, since we had not eaten, we stopped at a cafe for another famous Penang dish Wan Tan Mee. Many Malaysian eateries are cafes with multiple different food stalls around them. The cafe itself acts as the central hub where you order your drinks, while you order any and all food you wish from the stalls. The Wan Tan Mee was much like a wonton soup from home but on crack, with lightly sweet barbecue pork, fresh noodles, mini soup dumplings and pickled jalapeños marrying together in a light broth – all for about one USD. Instead of drinking that evening, we decided to go to the movies, located in an extremely Westernized mall in Penang that we grew to love. Malaysia, thus far, has surprised us with its cheap prices and the movies were no exception. Movies cost a little more than three dollars and the theaters were great. That evening, in search of a bit of thrill, we watched Incarnate, a truly terrible movie that had more to laugh at than it did fear. Do not see this movie until it comes out on Netflix and you want to laugh. 

On our fifth day, after visiting the history museum in town where we got to learn about the cultures that make up Penang, we decided on a completely Western day. We returned to our beloved mall to do a round of Escape the Room. We chose a mission that involved disarming a bomb and failed miserably at it. After escape the room, we made our way to the dessert expo, that turned out to be a huge let down. However, there seemed to be some sort of strange robot revealing that was about to occur. So, we stood around the people in anticipation, and watched the unveiling of the multimillion dollar Titan the Robot, who came all the way from England to dance and sing for us in Malaysia. If you asked me a year ago what I’d be doing on December 10, 2016, you can be sure that watching an English robot dance for a crowd of people in Malaysia would not be on the list. We returned to the mall afterwards to eat and watch Office Christmas Party, which was surprisingly funny, before returning to our new, rather ratchet hostel that we had booked for that evening since our previous hostel had been full. 

On our last day in Penang, we took an uber to the botanical gardens, where we found ourselves amidst some “aggressive” monkeys. While I tried to avoid them, Angela attempted to get pictures up close and was eventually hissed at by a pissed off monkey. We took the local bus back and got off at the mall, here I had a deliciously spicy Szeachuan noodle soup while the other hungover heads indulged in McDonalds before we went to yet another movie, Sing, an animated musical movie with a star-studded cast. Even with an incredible rude theater full of talking people (that we attempted to order to be quiet multiple times) we enjoyed it. 

It wouldn’t be our last evening in Penang without visiting the watering hole, so we headed out for a few beers and a few rounds of cards. Right when we arrived we were greeted by a downpour and had to move into the little sheltered area among many other people, waiting for the rain to give up. We left Penang the following morning, after eating at one of our favorite Indian places for the forth time, already missing the place and the people. We may even have to pull a Koh Phangan and return to Penang for a few days to make sure we have no regrets. 

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