Now in Malaysia, where many a family vacation and two angst-filled years of my adolescence were spent, it’s almost nice arriving somewhere familiar for a change. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m still discovering new things about this country every time I visit. Also being here without family also gives me the challenge to act as an unofficial “tour guide” to Judy (this being her first visit). Malaysia is known for its food, and barring perhaps the Petronas Towers, is its greatest attraction. There’s a definitive food culture here that I found disturbingly absent in other countries we’ve visited on this trip. People here eat and eat well at any time of the day. It’s almost impossible to walk down the street without encountering someone selling something edible (and more times than not, delicious). I also gladly see more foreigners – i.e. white people – indulging in “local joints” instead of limiting themselves to the mediocre fare found in backpacker cafes with the same menus all over SE Asia. It’s easy to see why – a diverse selection of delicious Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and many other varieties is made to order and cheap. A hawker meal for the two of us has rarely exceeded $10 and most of the time is less than $7. There’s almost no need to seek out the security of “westernized” local food either, as it’s usually all spelled out in plain English for the uninitiated. So with all that, we brought our appetite to comprehensively sample what I consider the best cuisine in Asia.
Penang is frequently declared the food capital of Malaysia but the town itself is a treat for all the senses. A gem of an island sitting on the Straits of Malacca, it’s managed to preserve a large section of its main town, Georgetown, for visitors to enjoy. Walking through the streets is a delight, as we step over the uneven sidewalks of old shophouses and gaze at the gleaming white edifices of British colonial buildings. The smell of hawker food permeates almost every street we turn into and the cacophony of sounds in no less than 6 different languages and dialects fills the air. It’s also decidedly cleaner than I remember the last time I visited about 15 years ago as part of an 8th grade trip. It’s still run-down in many parts (the historical buildings don’t all have a fresh coat of paint like in Singapore), but that’s all part of the charm. Penang is a decidedly Chinese city, and many of the Malaysian favorites have a bit of a Sino-twist to them – though still delicious I’m surprised by the lack of Malay establishments in Georgetown. There’s also a large Indian contingent in the city, and Georgetown’s Little India dishes out favorites like roti cani and briyani all day long.
The sights we took in, while none particularly unmissable, gave us the opportunity to work up an appetite again for the next meal. The Kek Lok Si Temple was a favorite of mine on my last visit, but upon revisiting it almost seems like a theme park now. We also check out the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion with it’s informative obligatory tour and definitely worth a visit (this is actually a new attraction to me, as it was recently restored in the last decade). Penang’s colonial attractions in the form of Fort Cornwallis and the gleaming white St. George’s Church also kept us busy.
Butterworth, on the mainland side of Penang state and the main access point to Georgetown attracted Judy’s attention possibly only because of its quaint name plastered all over road signs. Insisting that we take the ferry across, we find ourselves in the bus station there looking for a bus to the massive Nine Emperor Gods Temple. The ferry ride itself is pleasant but I remember now why I never took the bus here while I lived in Malaysia. Walking from the bus stop to the temple we found an entire street filled with hawker stands, restaurants, and durian vendors (durian, while being found all over our travels thru SE Asia, is a near obsession for Malaysians). Waiting almost an hour for the return bus trip we manage to catch the ferry by dusk but almost secretly wishing we’d stay behind to sample all the “real” local joints.
Enough rambling, I think I know what you guys want. So without further ado, I give you some more pictures to salivate over: