February 29, 2020

Penang, Malaysia

After our delightful stay in Mae Sai, we took the GreenBus back down to Chiang Mai, where we stayed at the highly recommended Baan Lucksana, just south of Chiang Mai city. After 2 nights, all our clothes were clean again and we were ready for the next stage of our adventure, though sad to be leaving the friendliness and relatively cool weather of North Thailand.

We flew into Penang, a smallish island just off the coast of West Malaysia. Penang is the unofficial food capital of Malaysia, and we were ready to try it all.

After 4 weeks in Thailand, we were just getting the hang of ordering food, pronouncing our niceties correctly and understanding general culture. Now we were thrown back into an entirely different world. At the beginning of this venture, we stayed 1 week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and we realized how much our perspectives have changed since then. Things that seemed unsanitary and strange that first week, foggy as we were in jetlag and culture shock, now seemed totally mostly fine.

We booked our first 3 nights in Penang on the North coast of the island, at the Lost Paradise Resort. I went as cushy as I dared for this first stay back in Malaysia, to give ourselves a rest after the nightmare that was the Piyaporn. For whatever reason, I got an excellent deal on the Lost Paradise, as it was incredibly cushy. (Or maybe that was just my skewed perspective after the nightmare that was the Piyaporn).

The resort had 2 pools, sat oceanside, we had a beach view from our small patio and it was decorated all in bright, eclectic tiles and paintings. The owners run a school out of the resort grounds and also a pediatric clinic. But their restaurant timing rules were strict and also expensive, and to get food otherwise, or to go anywhere, meant a fairly long Grab ride.

Traffic in Georgetown was pretty bad, and tourism was booming. We heard lots of Nordic accents and ran into lots of tourist trap shops with Penang magnets and other souvenirs down by the docks.

For our next stay, we booked an Airbnb in a house in Batu Feringghi, off the main drag in a quiet neighborhood. To get there (only a few km up the road), we hailed the 101 Rapid Penang bus (4 ringgits, exact change only) from the bus stop sign on the side of the road, had breakfast at the Danish Biryani house (good Indian fare, but expensive in comparison to hawker stalls) and dropped our bags off at our place. Our room was not ready yet, but we met the now legendary Redho, our hosts' cousin, who was taking care of the place.

We cobbled together some groceries (fresh veg seems available only at the morning market and we were either too late or just didn't go to the right stores) and chatted some with Redho. We only then realized that he was going to be staying at the house as well, and also one other guest in another room.

Since there was a KFC on the corner (KFC is certified Halal, so it's something of a big deal in Malaysia) and we strive to do what the locals do, we had some cheesy wedges, nuggets and a good chuckle at ourselves. We don't go to KFC in the states and we had a harder time ordering there than at some of the places where the menu isn't in our language.

The next morning we went on our fishing trip. A few days prior I had booked, via Facebook messenger, Andy of Soon Coastal Fishing for 3 hours of fishing and lunch at Monkey beach.

Without knowing what to expect, we met Andy on the beach and loaded into his boat. He took us around to the northwestern side of the island, where the water was calmer and we fished with handlines off the side of the boat right off shore. I think Mr. Go was a little disappointed; he wanted to do deep sea fishing, but information was sparse when booking and Andy's deep sea fishing trip cost 700 ringgitt rather than the regular fishing trip cost of 300 ringgitt. 

It was a perfectly overcast day for fishing. We caught some puffer fish, whiting, jew fish and an octopus. Babs caught the first fish of the day, then promptly got bored of fishing and opted instead to watch the rest of us without complaint.

Monkey beach is only reachable by boat or hiking, and there were 5 or 6 other tour boats stopped there to use the BBQ facilities for lunch. Andy cooked some of the fish we caught, the octopus and some chicken he'd brought. It was fine, until the monkeys started coming in. 

We were seated a bit apart from the larger tour groups, and closest to the jungle. The monkeys edged nearer. Some tourists bought fruit to feed the monkeys and had to be told to do it away from the people eating at picnic tables. One brazen monkey crept up onto our table. I waved my hand at him to shoo him off but the vile creature slipped closer and snagged one of my satay sticks, even as I whalloped him.

He scurried up a tree and ate it right in front of me. One of the staff put a stuffy tiger on our table to scare the monkeys off and told us hilarious stories of monkeys stealing peoples' purses and rifling through them in the treetops, chewing on phones and scattering money. I was disenchanted.

That night, we were excited to have a kitchen and cook for ourselves, and Redho was so friendly we invited him to eat with us. He insisted on buying some of the ingredients so we agreed to let him buy the potatoes and onions.

I cooked some packaged noodles and threw some veggies on top. I scaled (with the back of a butter knife), Mr. Go fileted and I fried up the remainder of the fresh fish we'd caught and threw those on top too.

After dinner, Redho asked if we wanted to play cards, so we taught him how to play 31 and poker.

The next day was for wandering, eating at hawker stalls and walking on the beach. I cooked up our leftover noodles and fish for dinner and invited Redho to join again.

Redho wanted us to try appom balik, a fried crispy pancake filled with peanuts, sugar and corn. Variations can be filled with anything, much like crepes. He got us a nutella appom balik and knew we were missing cheese, so he had the people add cheese to it. It was surprisingly a good combination.

After telling Redho about our fishing trip the day before, he'd been messaging his contacts to see if one of his friends knew a fisherman who would take Mr. Go fishing. After dinner, one of those lines came back affirmative. Mr. Go sprung up from the table to pack his backpack while Redho finished his dinner leisurely.

He then started wondering if he should go too. He'd never been on a fishing boat before, so it would be an experience for him, and he worried that Mr. Go wouldn't be able to find the right pickup point or speak to the Malay fisherman. So it was decided Redho would go too.

Babs and I had a relaxing evening while Mr. Go fished, spotted squid for the fisherman to net, had some food and drinks at midnight with the other fishermen and some beers with Redho back at the house.

The next morning we said goodbye to Redho and checked out. We were moving 2 km down the street to the Rasa hotel, just across the road from the beach, so Redho promised to meet us at the night market for dinner.

Street food in Malaysia is a bit different than Thailand. There are still stalls (we learned from a Grab driver they're called hawker stalls), essentially little carts set up selling one or two different kinds of food, but in majority, a collection of them set up in a plaza with a collection of tables and chairs in the center, cafeteria-style. The plaza is given a name like Food Heaven or Miami Cafe, so it's deceiving on Google Maps. They are not 'cafes' in the usual sense, but we liked this idea very much.

You choose a table (so you know what number to tell the hawkers), or if you haven't got a table yet, just wave in the general direction you'll probably be sitting. No one had any trouble finding us, despite our best efforts we do stick out a bit. Each person in your party orders what they want from whatever different stalls, then each chef delivers your food to you when it's ready and you pay upon delivery. Drinks vendors have people walking around to take your orders or you can go up to the stall.

It was nice to go with Redho, because he went right to the Tandoori cart and I will always trust a local's recommendation more than anything else. I got some masala, we all shared some satay (Babs' new favorite thing) and it was fantastic.

We walked through the night market on our way back to the hotel and spied some Durian fruit. In Malaysia, they call it the King of Fruit and there are mini statues of it in random parks. It's a divisive fruit. Either you love it or hate it. Many hotels and buses sported 'No Durian' signs, some even coming with a fine if you're caught with the smelly fruit.

Yes, it's the smell of the fruit that can be objectionable. After our first week in KL, I realized the 'raw sewer' smell was actually probably durian. We'd tried a chunk in Thailand and were not impressed. 

But the Durian for sale at this stand in Batu Feringghi looked primo. He had 8 or 10 fruits, as it was off-season for the fruit and since we had Redho with us, we felt we could barter with a little more credibility. We got a whole fruit for 100 ringgitts, or 25 USD. Still steep by any standards, but when the man cut one side open and I picked out the fruit, it was soft and custardy and 1000x different from the first durian we'd eaten. It was really delicious.

Redho and Mr. Go broke the shell apart further and I used gloves to break pieces up for us to share.

We played on the beach the next morning, rested in the afternoon and decided to go to the Tuesday market in the other direction rather than back to the same cafe. Redho came to our hotel and we shared a Grab. The market was small and mostly fried foods that gave us indigestion, but they can't all be winners.

We were moving to an Airbnb just south of Georgetown the next day, but turns out Redho was working in Georgetown and made plans to meet us Thursday night to see the lights at Kek Lok Si temple, lit up with Chinese lanterns in honor of the lunar new year.

Our Airbnb in the Straits Garden Suites was the loveliest, coziest most comfortable Airbnb. The simple courtesy of complimentary laundry detergent suddenly seemed like extraordinary generosity and pampering. We wished we could extend, but with the new year, lodgings were tight.

We cooked breakfast at home and ventured into Georgetown again to try some banana leaf Indian curries, on Anthony Bourdain's recommendation. We stopped at a tea house to taste some tea with a flamboyant Chinese gentleman and purchased some green pu-er grown on his tea plantation in China with no chemicals or pesticides. Delightful.

Redho met us at another open-air cafeteria, where Mr. Go tried ordering fish head soup but it was really just fried strips of fish. I expected my duck meat soup to be something other than rice noodles in watery broth with some chunks of duck meat and raw liver on top. But I also ordered lok bak, pork sausage wrapped in bean curd skin and I could make a meal of those alone.

Turns out the Kek Lok Si Temple wasn't open yet, but the lights were up and it was beautiful. We walked all around it, hoping to get in but wound up sweaty and tired instead.

We picked up some banana-leaf wrapped custardy things, some pink turtle shaped things that turned out to be bread and some lotus flower and bean soup the lady called White Fungus, but Redho promised it was a sweet dessert type soup that is good for bringing down a fever. Mr. Go was feeling a sore throat so after some bottled herbal tea, we said goodbye for the final time, received magnets and stuffed animals from Redho as parting gifts and went our separate ways.

After much waffling, I booked us bus tickets to Taiping, a smaller town 1.5 hours South. 6 days seemed too long to stay in KL before our flight home, and a small town sounded nice after Georgetown.

Logistics was a bit of a problem, as CNY made lodging sparse and expensive. Instead of my preferred hotel (which appeared to have vacancy, due to my selected dates being Feb 25 rather than Jan OOPS), we wound up with the only available option: The Potato Hotel.

It was at this point I hung my head and sighed, "I just want to go home." 

More on Taiping and a Hotel Called Potato next.

No comments:

Post a Comment