In love with Penang
I seem to easily fall in love with cities I never meant to visit. This was the case with George Town as well. But I don’t mind.
Do you know the feeling, when you arrive somewhere and you feel at home immediately? This was exactly the case at the moment the ferry arrived. I walked the small streets of the lovely downtown as if I’d been doing it every day, I knew where I was and where I was heading to. At the first larger intersection the roads where closed and I figured the town was preparing for the celebration of the last night of the Chinese New Year. One of the security guards stopped me only to invite me to come back in the evening and join the celebration: they welcome Chinese and non-Chinese, locals and travelers with cultural programs and free food. I checked if he sees the backpack on my back, which means that I may come back with many new friends of mine for the promise of free food. He assured me with a great smile, that there will be enough for everyone.
And you know what? He was right. I’ve never seen anything like that before. The whole town was there on the streets eating happily (after queueing up in the long-long queues). There was Chinese, Thai, Malay food, sweets and whatever you can think of. This is a warm welcome, I can tell!
Penang is a UNECSO World Heritage site together with Melaka. I was not sure what to expect from this town. I was charmed by the downtown, the old colonial buildings and the tiny art galleries inside, the lovely little cafés, the street art… It is so much fun to follow the people walking from street to street hunting for the best graffitis and pose in front of some playful piece of art. I loved the result of a street art project of the town: many little delicate steel installations on the walls of downtown, presenting the history, the traditions and the stories of the town with irony, a satiric voice and with good humor.
The real miracle for me was the Penang cuisine. Later I understood the reason behind, but here I was simply charmed by the variety of food, that everything is super tasty and some of the dishes are unbelievably cheap at the night food market. I think it tells a lot, that there is a food tourist map showcasing the local food on one side, and showing restaurant options for these iconic dishes on the other side. I overused this map, a little. I ate many different amazing noodles, soups and I couldn’t have enough of popiah, the spring roll like local delicacy.
One can spend hours if not days with walking in downtown, discovering Little India, visiting the many Chinese and Indian temples or simply enjoying the atmosphere. I moved out of downtown a bit to visit the Chayamangakalaram temple and the Dhammikarama Burmese temple opposite to it. I was shocked to see that I was the only visitor covering my knees and shoulders, even the locals walked into the temple in shorts and sleeveless shirts. I was considering to remove my sarong and not to suffer of the heat anymore, but it simply didn’t feel right.
I visited Penang Hill with the hope of some fresh air. Well, I didn’t get that. This is the highest point of Penang island and many locals visit it as well. On my way to the hill I had a lovely conversation with a local old lady who was born and raised on the island. She told me, that in her childhood the local families had their vacations in the forest of the hillside, but obviously a lot has changed since then. Many trees were cut and new buildings, hotels and a complete district was build around the hill. I used the cable car to get to the top, and planned to walk down on the many trekking trails on the hill. I knew that some of the trails are closed, but I didn’t know why. I saw the remains of many huge landslides, and in many places it seemed that half of the hill went down. The trails I chose were more or less okay, until I reached a point, where my trail crossed a landslide area. I had to walk through a narrow path while the red stop-signs were flying in the wind next to me. The mountaineer mind of mine kept telling me how stupid this is, since I was alone, nobody knew I was there and which trails I chose and I didn’t even have a helmet on… of course I still decided to follow the path, cross the landslide area and was even filming it. Please don’t tell me how bad of a decisions this was.
Finally I got back to the cable car line, where the tourist trail zigzags down to the lower station, and I thought I am good from here. I was deep in my thought trekking downhill, when three dogs started to bark at me and running against me. I needed only a millisecond to remember the comments on and article I read recently – a story of a dog attack: don’t look into the eyes of the dog but don’t turn your back on it, be dominant, but don’t be aggressive, have a stick and don’t run. But the only thing I could do was to shout with all the strength of my voice “help” in Hungarian. I guess it was not the Hungarian knowledge of the owner, but the volume and the fear in my voice that helped. When the owner showed up, the dogs were already really close, and I had no clue how to handle this situation, other than having my bag in front of me preparing it to protect me at least at the first attack. Luckily two of the dogs walked back when their owner called them, and though the third didn’t withdraw, but didn’t come closer either. I remember saying something, like “I’ll sue you if these are biting me” which is obviously ridiculous, and the guy awarded me with a “what’s wrong with you?” face for the effort to try to control the adrenalin that flooded my brain. Of course I was not trespassing, this happened on a public land where – probably because of the heat – I didn’t meet any other soul during the day.
After being in Bangkok I already suspected, that it will get more and more hot as I travel to the south, but Penang brought a new level of hot to my experience. The town is amazing, but you really need to stop here and there and make sure to refresh yourself. Never happened to me before but this time my body simply overheated, my body temperature was super high, my brain slowed down. I felt like having fever. I had to sit down in the shade of a temple to cool down and reach the point, where my body functions again. Fortunately there’s enough time for everything at the Kok Lek Si temple. This is a huge temple complex, with many stairs and kitsch. But still, it is worth a visit. Many people come before sunset to enjoy that the sky gets darker and darker and the lights are switched on, and the whole temple is illuminated and shows up as the kitschiest thing you’d ever seen. As I was already there, I thought I can actually be part of the crowd in amazement.
Suddenly I found a Malay grandma on my side who entertained me until the lights were turned on. She spoke surprisingly good English and shared her stories about her adventures, travels and the life in Malaysia. She lives in Kuala Lumpur and was visiting her friends in Penang, together with her son and his family. Her granddaughter joined us and talked to me in English (that I could not always understand). The two and half years old girl talks in Chinese to her mother, in Malay to everyone else and in English in the international kindergarten… she is already trilingual, and two of these languages are a joker. Lucky girl.
What to eat in Penang
- Char Koay Teow – stir-fried flat rice noodle, with shrimp, cockles, eggs, bean sprouts, chives and Chinese dried sausage
- Chee Cheong Fun – steamed noodle rolls with shrimp paste and sesame seeds
- Nasi Kandar – steamed rise with a variety of curry based meat and vegetable dishes
- Cendol – green jelly noodles (rice flour and green food coloring) with kidney beans in shaved ice, coconut milk on top with a little palm sugar
- Fried Oyster – is basically an omlet, accompanied by fresh fried oysters
- Penang Assam Laksa – thick rice vermicelli with sliced onion, cucumber, red chili, lettuce, pineapple, mint and ginger flower, hot tamarind and flaked fish meat and prawn paste
- Ais Kacang – ice bean, shed ice, red beans, sweet corn, palm seed, grass jelly, with condensed milk or coconut milk and rose syrup
- Popiah – fresh spring rolls. Stir fried turnips, jicama, bean sprouts, French beans, carrot, lettuce leave, sliced tofu, chopped peanut, fried shallots and omelette rolled into a soft paper thin crepe, with sweet bean sauce, shrimp paste and hot chili sauce
- Public transportation, local buses: 1,4-2 MYR (0,3-0,5 USD)
- Penang Hill cable car: one way: 15 MYR, return: 30 MYR (4 USD / 8 USD)
- Kek Lok Si temple, new pagoda: 2 MYR, elevator to Kek Lok Si statue: 5 MYR (0,5 USD / 1,2 USD)
- there are two tourist bus lines in downtown, for free. These buses don’t stop unless you wave them down.
- there are not much signs for the local bus stops, and there are no schedules either. Ask the locals.
- unless you get on in the main bus stations (such as Komtar), you need to make sure that the drivers see you waving down the bus, otherwise the local buses do not stop at the bus stops.
- bus Nr. 101 heads towards the National Park and the beaches.
- bus Nr. 204 brings you to Penang Hill station and to the Kek Lok Si temple
- have enough change with you to pay the exact fare, as the driver doesn’t handle money, but gives you a ticket only if you put the exact amount into a sealed box. If a ticket costs 2 ringgit and you only have a 10 ringgit bill, you will pay 10 for this trip.