A lot of you have noticed that this blog is heavily food focused. This is true for a variety of reasons. First, duh, EATING DELICIOUS FOOD IS AWESOME. Secondly, when you are traveling there often isn’t a lot to DO other than eat. Meals become the focus of your day when you don’t have access to a fridge or a kitchen and if you don’t eat NOW you might not GET to eat.
We took an uneventful five hour bus ride from the Cameron Highlands north to Penang. Penang is an island just off the north west cost of Malaysia. It was occupied for many years by the English and as such many street and location names are in English (though they didn’t leave much of a culinary legacy — go figure). We got off the bus and walked to the ferry terminal to take the ferry to Penang. 20 minutes later we were in Penang’s capital Georgetown. We fought with several cab drivers and then decided to walk the 2 km to our guesthouse. With our packs. In 95 degree heat. Lesson learned — next time, suck it up and pay the $4 even if it IS outrageous.
Penang is known as Malaysia’s food capital, so we were pretty excited to be here. True to form, there were food stalls out on a lot of streets, which from what we found was somewhat uncommon in Malaysia. Mostly Chinese options, but definitely some Indian and Malay in there as well. We had some pretty great dim sum at a place down the street from our hostel. It was crowded so they sat us at a table with a local cab driver who was not entirely thrilled to be sharing his meal with us. He warmed to us….eventually. The dim sum ladies were totally giving him crap. I can’t speak Bahasa Malaysian but I’m 99% sure it was something like “Oh, you’re besties with the white people now? How are you enjoying dinner with your new BFF’s?” He finished his tea and cigarette and politely excused himself.
The one dish we HAD to have while in Penang was Penang Laksa, also known as Laksa Asam. You’ve heard us freak out over laksa before — well, this laksa is a totally different beast from what we’ve had before. The laksa we are used to is a fishy, spicy broth which is sweet with coconut milk. Asam Laksa is tart and sour, made with tamarind paste. We were looking for one place in particular to get it and were having some trouble finding it. Eventually we got frustrated and just gave up. “UGH, let’s just go to this place right here,” I said. Turns out, the place we plunked down in frustration WAS THE PLACE WE WERE LOOKING FOR. Sometimes you just get lucky, I guess. Look, this laksa was great….but the laksa we had in Singapore, for me, was a transcendental experience that will never be topped. I’m a junkie constantly chasing that first high.
There’s a bunch of stuff to do on the island of Penang but we largely stayed put in Georgetown which, honestly, was a bit more backpacker-y than I was expecting. It’s a very popular spot because it’s close to the Thai border and it’s easily accessible from Bangkok by train. For those needing to renew their Thai visas, Penang is a quick weekend trip. We also had visa business to attend to Penang. As Americans, if you cross into Thailand by land, you only get 15 days in the country (30 days by air). You can pay and apply for a 60 day Thai “tourist visa,” which is what we did. This really is basically just a money making scheme for Thailand. You CAN go to the consulate yourself and fill out all the forms and wait in line and then go BACK the next day and pick it up. OR, for a few extra dollars you can pay a “service” to do this for you. We opted for the service. They handed us a form that asked for all kinds of information and they said “just sign it. Don’t fill anything out. Give us the form, $50 each, your passport and two photos.” I checked with the guy TWICE because, uh, WHAT? DON’T fill out the form? He assured me that everything would be ok. Well, 2 days later, we had our passports back in hand with our visas complete. Something tells me, Thailand doesn’t care much about Americans coming and going as long as they pay.
While waiting for our visas, we indulged in one of the few ridiculous and expensive tourist things we’ve permitted ourselves to do on this trip so far. We took a funicular up to the top of Penang Hill — the highest peak on the island. It was quite nice up there — cooler temperatures, lots of families zipping around in golf carts. The funicular cost $30. For us. For Malaysians it cost about $3. I know that we’re paying “white person price” almost everywhere we go, and whether that enrages you or you’re ok with it, it is the reality of things. This is the first time that I encountered institutionalized up-front and publicly posted white person price. It was a bit of a shock. Especially when it was SUCH a discrepancy. We rode the public bus to the base of the hill and there were some french backpackers behind us. When they got to the ticket booth they blanched at the cost and after some scrounging for change in their pockets, turned around and went back to the bus.
Normally I wouldn’t pay such an outrageous amount of money for something like this but there’s something you all need to know about Kat. This woman LOVES a funicular. Like, is insane bonkers CRAZY for them. We went on a funicular in Istanbul two years ago and she’s STILL talking about it. No sir. If there’s a funicular to be had, WE ARE RIDING THAT SUMBITCH. In fact, I have to say, as far as funiculars go, this was a pretty good one. A long ride, very steep. Good times.
Penang Hill was a strategic vantage point for the British and there’s a bit of England up there (an old post box, for example). There are some pricey resorts and even a few very ritzy private residences, which we walked past. Again. there’s not a ton to DO, perse, but it’s a nice afternoon of waking around. Back in Georgetown, we spent most of the time walking around, visiting some increeedibly dull historical sites (an old English fort with, literally, NOTHING in it), and, of course eating. We also did a bit of drinking but, remember, this is Malaysia, so a beer will cost you a minimum of $6. We spent most nights at the Red Garden food center, which is very similar to a Singaporean style hawker center. Once I ordered a beer there and the Muslim server brought it over to me. He must not have been familiar with this brand in particular because he picked it up to inspect it. Seeing it was about 6.5% alcohol he said to me, “Oh, I see this one is very strong” and walked away with a judgmental air. It was at that moment that my desire to get to booze-filled non-judgy Thailand reached its peak.
Good news! Thailand times were nigh! After 5 days in Penang, we boarded the overnight train to Bangkok. The ride was about 20 hours and, I have to say, it was not a terrible experience. People come aboard the train every few stops selling fruit or snacks. There’s ALLEGEDLY a dining car though, honest to god, I couldn’t find it. Dinner and breakfast were served on the train, though honestly it was pretty awful. Next train ride we’re gonna pack our own provisions.
We had some beers on the train, chatted with the people next to us (a welsh woman and her boyfriend — from the Bronx, but had an English accent?), ate some food and then eventually popped an Ambien and passed out only to awake the next morning in Bangkok.
And now, for no reason at all, a random sign we saw in Penang. Anyone looking for a foosball table possibly made from unicorn? I know a guy.