This was the first audible of the trip. (Danielle edit: I watch football, and I didn’t know exactly what his “audible” reference meant. It means “a change of plans”). Peninsular Malaysia was not on our original itinerary, but when we decided to head to Koh Tarutao we figured it would be easier to go to Malaysia next rather than backtrack the entire length of Thailand to go to Cambodia (as had been the original plan). This is the best thing about not booking too far ahead…flexibility! This decision resulted in some major seat-of-our-pants itinerary development since we had done no research on places to visit prior to leaving. We basically took this sample itinerary and removed all beachy locales (we were a little ‘beached’ out after Thailand). Most every blog we read and person we talked to recommended spending at least a couple of days in George Town/Penang “for the food.” Like most humans, Danielle and I enjoy food, so we figured, “hey, let’s go to the food place.”
At this point you might be wondering, “was it worth it?”
To which I would respond, “YES IT WAS WORTH IT. STOP ASKING QUESTIONS AND BOOK A TRIP TO PENANG RIGHT NOW.”
If you couldn’t tell, I love Penang. Side bar – let’s talk nomenclature. Penang is a state in Malaysia. This state is comprised of a small section of land on the ‘mainland’ and an island (aptly named Penang Island). We spent all of our time on Penang Island, specifically in the city of George Town (can you tell it was a British colony?). So when I say, “I love Penang!” this really means, “I love the part of Penang I visited!” or more accurately, “I love George Town!” You’ll notice me using Penang, because that is the way I have gotten used to saying it. In Kuala Lumpur, the locals would ask, “have you been to Penang yet?” not, “have you been to George Town yet?” Plus, Penang is so much more fun to say. Penang. Penang. PENANG! End side bar.
Back to business. Penang was awesome. Why was it awesome? I’ll give you three reasons:
- Food. This one is hard to describe. Like I said, everything we had heard was about how good the food was in Penang and yet, somehow, it exceeded our expectations.
- Diversity. We saw an acronym during one of our jaunts around the city – ChIME (Chinese, Indian, Muslim, European) – which helps to describe the makeup of the city. Coming from Thailand, which was pretty homogeneous (or even Denver), it felt nice to be in a city with so many different cultures.
- Feel. A quick Google search will tell you George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What does that mean? Not sure. You’re on the internet, figure it out. In practice, I can tell you that walking around the city is really fun. It is an interesting mix of colonial, eastern, and modern architecture. Penang also felt less touristy than Thailand, which was a nice change of pace.
With that, let’s jump into the fun details.
The one takeaway from all of these videos I have created? Don’t judge a video by the music. Watching YouTube videos in the past I would think, “I like this video, but why did they pick this song?” And now I realize, “because they had to pick one song out of 150,000 randomly sorted songs ranging from awful to not quite good!” Every time I publish a video I think, “well, I don’t care much for this song, but I didn’t like the other options either and I’m getting tired soooooo…”
High Level. Bus from Pak Bara to Hat Yai. Train from Hat Yai to Butterworth. Ferry from Butterworth to George Town.
- Bus from Pak Bara to Hat Yai. This one was a little confusing. When we got off the boat from Koh Tarutao we were at the Pak Bara Pier and in order to get to Hat Yai we needed to catch a bus from the La Ngu minibus station. According to wikitravel, this meant catching the orange songthaew (a smaller bus to get to the minibus). That part was easy. The issue we had was where to get off the orange songthaew. We told the driver we wanted to go to ‘La Ngu’. He ended up dropping us off in ‘La Ngu’ but not at the minibus station. Tip – tell the songthaew driver you want to be dropped off at the ‘La Ngu bus station’ rather than just ‘La Ngu’. We had two incredibly nice strangers help us find our way to the station and arrived just in the nick of time to catch our bus.
- Train from Hat Yai to Butterworth. The train to Butterworth leaves once per day at 7 AM. As such, we had to spend the night in Hat Yai to catch it in the morning. I read there are buses that can take you to George Town or Butterworth, but the train sounded easiest to us.
- Ferry from Butterworth to George Town. The ferry is cheap (RM 1.2, or about $0.30 USD, per person) and is next door to the train station. Easy. Tip – MAKE SURE YOU HAVE MALAYSIAN RINGGIT BEFORE YOU ARRIVE. There are money changers on the train (and they seemed to be giving pretty decent rates – baht to ringgit) but we wanted to hold onto our baht since we were planning on returning to Thailand. Our plan was to arrive at the train station, find an ATM (or USD money changer), and go from there. False. There are no ATMs or money changers at the train station. None. In the end, one of the train booking agents gave us RM 2.40 (or about $0.60 USD) so we could get on the ferry (once again, the kindness of strangers).
Rope Walk Hostel. Great place. Kitchen. Nice common area. AC. Hot showers. Good location. What more could you want?
I’m breaking this down into two sections. What and where.
What. Below is a list of the foods I KNOW we tried.
- Char Kway Teow (noodles and soup). Kind of like the Pad Thai of Malaysia. Danielle likes the soup version.
- Loh Mee (and Lam Mee). Delicious Chinese soup. I went up to a food stand and said, “One. No meat?” The vendor responded, “Loh Mee? One?” To which I replied, “Sure!” So I ended up getting Chicken Loh Mee. And it was delicious.
- Asam Laksa. One of the ‘you have to try it’ dishes. A fish based noodle soup with a sour kick from tamarind paste. Disclosure: I read it had tamarind in it, my palate is not refined enough to determine this on my own. To me, it was a thick, fishy, noodle soup with a little something extra I couldn’t place (probably the tamarind). We had this twice. It was decent. Danielle, not being a fan of fish, did not like it.
- ABC (Ice Kachang). Malaysian dessert. Ice cream on top of shaved ice with syrup, gelatin, corn, beans, peanuts, and who knows what else. I have grown to like it. Danielle is starting to come around on this one as well.
- Banana Pancakes. Crepes with peanuts, bananas, and honey. Breakfast of champions. Snack of champions. All around, the preferred food of champions.
- Ayor Tambol. I’m probably spelling this one wrong, but it was a bready-eggy indian breakfast item. You dip it in a chutney (red sauce?) and it is delicious.
- SAMOSAS. Fried pastries stuffed with potato or chicken curry goodness. We ate at least 20 of these (combined) during our stay in Penang.
- Banana balls. These probably have a name, but we call them banana balls. They are balls of deep fried banana bread. If a place has samosas, they also have banana balls. And if a place has samosas and banana balls, I like that place.
- Mango Ice. Ice Kachang, but instead of gelatin, beans, and corn (all of the ‘weird’ stuff according to Danielle) you substitute mango. So basically, mango ice cream on top of mango slices on top of mango flavored shaved ice. Also, there are mango gelatin bits.
- White Coffee. This is a thing in Malaysia. From what I’ve been able to glean, ‘white coffee’ is coffee roasted in a mix of sugar, margarine, and palm oil served with sugar and condensed milk. With all of the sugar and milk I haven’t been able to tell much about the flavor of the coffee bean, but the drink itself is quite tasty. Dessert coffee if you will.
Where. Food is available everywhere in Penang. But it is famous for its ‘hawker’ stalls. Hawker stalls, food stands, food stalls, food trucks…whatever you want to call them, they are everywhere. Sometimes, there are groups of food stalls in a parking lot. Other times, they have open air food courts where each vendor has a small brick and mortar stall encircling a group of tables. Similar to a mall food court you would find in the States….just without the mall portion. This website has a great map of recommended hawker food stalls in Penang. We went to most of those listed and also wandered around the streets and found smaller hawker gathering places.The great thing about the hawker food courts is that you can try so many different foods in one meal.
When we went to New World Park, we sat down at a table and took turns going to different hawker stalls and ordering food. Sometimes, we had a plan – “that banana pancake stand looks good, I’m going to go grab one of those.” Other times we blindly ordered something, like the time Danielle returned to our table with Asam Laksa:
Sam – “What’s that?”
Danielle – “No idea, but it was 10 ringgit (or $2.50), and I think it has half of a fish in it”
Overall, from our experience it is hard to go wrong when it comes to choosing a place to eat. New World Park and other tourist focused markets are going to be a bit more expensive, but you’ll have a great variety. Random street vendors will be cheaper, but require more walking. Can’t decide? Visit them all!
Super bowl watch party at C&J Alabama Shakes Bar. This was the only place in town showing the game and they charged a 15 RM (a little less than $4 USD) cover charge. Any other year we probably wouldn’t have gone, but the Denver Broncos were playing and it was fun to do something so American on the other side of the world. A little piece of home.
Little India. We ended up spending a good deal of our time in Little India since it was Chinese New Year and, as a result, the rest of the town was shut down. Regardless, this place was awesome. Great street food, Bollywood movie posters in the doors, music blaring, colorful sarees for sale in every other window, spice shops. Fun place. Did I mention the samosas? Or banana balls?
Kek Lok Si Temple. This experience was definitely improved due to the Chinese New Year. Typically, this is a beautiful Chinese temple built into the hillside on the outskirts of town. During Chinese New Year, however, they put up thousands of lanterns, string lights, and other decorations and turn them all on at 7:30 PM every night. Gorgeous.
Trail run at Penang Hill. Penang hill is the highest point on Penang Island, just west of George Town. There are three ways to get to the top of the hill: 1. Drive, 2. Hike/Run from the Botanic Gardens, or 3. Take the tram. Most people take the Tram. On TripAdvisor, Penang Hill has mediocre reviews which I can understand. The views from the top aren’t spectacular and other than the views, there isn’t much else going on – a small, overpriced cafeteria, some walking paths, and a new garden-y type thing. So if you are taking the Tram, maybe it isn’t worth the price of admission. But running, it was a lot of fun. We found these two blog posts (here and here) to be very helpful in explaining the path and how to get there.
The run itself was challenging. We ended up missing a turn at the top and it took us a little longer than we were expecting. We bought some drinks and snacks (white coffee and mango ice!) at the cafeteria and then headed back down. The part of the run we will remember the most, however, is ‘the snake’. I put quotes around it because we don’t know exactly what kind of snake it was.
Let’s rewind shall we? Danielle was leading the way. Around 1.5 miles into our run she suddenly stopped and shouted. Sure enough, a huge dark brown (I saw dark brown, Danielle says it was more black) snake was slithering off of the path to our left. I only saw the last part of its tail leave the path and then saw it again further down to my left as it went in front a large boulder. To my eye, it was HUGE. I swore it was at least 6 feet at the time, but accounting for mis-remembering and our natural inclination for exaggeration I’ll settle for it being AT LEAST 4 feet long. Initially, Danielle thought it was another monitor lizard so the thing had some girth too. Color wise, it didn’t have any memorable markings (no bright colors) and we did not see its head. We spent a good half-day speculating but in the end we’ll never know what it was for sure. But at least we survived our first SE Asia snake experience! Strava HERE (up) and HERE (down).
Penang Hill trail run. Minus the snake. And there was also a monkey that tried to attack Danielle, but that is common place by now.
Samosas. Deep fried deliciousness.
TCF Bank. Since this was our first city in Malaysia, this was also the beginning of the ‘Cash Crisis of 2016’ sponsored by TCF Bank. We spent a good 12 hours in Penang walking to different banks, talking with our bank on the phone, or trying to find money exchange vendors who were open during Chinese New Year. More on this later.
Asam Laksa. We tried it twice, but weren’t all that impressed. Super fishy.
Timing. As much fun as it was to see the festivities associated with Chinese New Year, it was also a bit of a bummer to have so much of the city shut down during our time there. And when I say shut down I mean SHUT DOWN. Like Christmas Day in the USA, but for four days (I’m guessing actually much longer, but we were only there for four days).
- Chinese New Year. I’ve mentioned it in passing above, but we arrived in George Town on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Prior to this experience I had heard of Chinese New Year, but had never given it much thought. And why would I, it isn’t a blip on the radar in the USA, or at least in the areas I have lived (MO, MN, and CO). Due to the large Chinese population in Malaysia, it is a huge deal. Businesses closed, incense burning outside homes, everybody wearing red, fireworks going off all the time, lanterns and decorations on every street corner. Quite the experience.
- New country, new SIM card. We did not use our cell phones in Thailand, but decided we wanted to have one active phone in Malaysia. Great decision. GPS alone is worth it. We went to a Hotlink vendor and had them set up the SIM card. They set it up on Danielle’s GS3 and it worked great. When we returned to the hostel, I switched the SIM card to my phone (GS4) and attempted to set it up on my own. 3 hours later I finally got it working. To potentially prevent anyone else from wasting as much time here is a website that helped me – click here. Basically, the issue I was running into (and the step the Hotlink vendor completed for Danielle’s phone) was I did not have the correct Maxis APN. Once you have the correct APN setup, the SIM card should start working (at least it did for me!) Also, if you have a Verizon phone and keep on getting the ‘SIM Card is not from Verizon’ error message you can either 1. Ignore it (as I have done) or 2. Force close your ‘Activation Agent’ application anytime you restart your phone.
- Street Art. George Town has a fair bit of street art around the city center. We saw some, but not all. Many of the pieces include physical objects (a bike drilled to a wall and a child painted on the wall to look like the child is riding the bike). There is probably an artistic name for this type of painting, but I don’t know what it is. I do know this – I enjoyed looking at it!