Penang, Malaysia

We were recently in Penang, Malaysia for a whirlwind trip, due to some family events.  Usually for Asia trips, we try to have at least a week of actual downtime, just so we have the time to get over the jetlag, but this time we could only manage three full days on the ground.  One less layover, but weirdly, I think I preferred the two-layover flight, since sitting for fifteen straight hours makes you end up with cramps in places you didn’t even know you had joints.  Taking advantage of the airline’s little sleeping cubicles (full bed! not a scrawny twin!) was surprisingly small mitigation.

Still, landing in warm, humid heat was a nice change of pace from the dry cold winter back home.  The humidity was also merely sticky as opposed to a slap in the face, which helped ease the constant wooziness from the jetlag.  We took it pretty easy as well, going light on the tourist activities and concentrating on food.

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Penang: Ferringhi Garden



As mentioned in previous posts, justtwomorethings and I indulged ourselves mostly on street food on this trip, but our relatives treated us to a restaurant rather more upscale in Penang. Fully half of the tables were outside, but somehow managed to feel simultaneously feel jungle-ly and more private due to “walls” made of mini waterfalls, koi ponds, and hanging baskets of orchids.

Alas, most of our pictures were too dark to do the place justice, but check out the gorgeousness from the restaurant’s blog.

Penang: Up the Mountain and Down to the Sea

Aside from eating durian and visiting Kek Lok Si Temple, we actually saw quite a bit in Penang. Including the temple where the memorial tablets of our grandfather and other ancestors where, in order to pay our respects.

One day, our uncle took us driving up one of the main mountains (really just a very big hill). Fun fact: if you do this, take (or borrow) something with four-wheel drive. The road was very very steep, and you could hear the engine revving the whole time. It also was quite narrow, so a couple times we had to stop to let others by…or for a monkey crossing.

However, the view at the top was worth it–our relatives have a very nice little “cottage” at the top, done in the traditional Chinese bungalow style (although the kitchen was jarringly modern). If we had more time, we could have even spent the night there.

Dotting the mountain was also some weird little touristy attractions, like a fence where couples put locks in order to “secure” each others love, a museum of various owl knick-knacks, and various fruit stands.

No trip to an island nation would be complete without popping over to the beach, so we snuck through the lobby of a resort hotel to track through the sand and dip our feet in the waves.






Penang: Coconut and Durian

One of the best parts of traveling in the tropics is the fresh fruit.  The weird fruit (see: dragonfruit), but also, the fresh fruit.  Actually fresh.  Literally, they picked it this morning fresh.  Like coconut.

Coconut stand

Coconut stand

Back home, coconut water’s having a bit of a thing.  It’s a good $4 or so dollars for eight ounces of coconut water in fancy packaging, which supposedly will do all sorts of awesome health things to my body.  I am a skeptic as to the second part of that sentence.  As for the first part?  I’m pretty sure I got more than eight ounces in my coconut–seriously, you slurp one of these, it’s good for a meal–and then they cracked it open and pointed out that there’s this thick, semitransparent gel-like layer on the inside that you can scrape off like icing.

Coconut half

Coconut half

The shine you see?  That’s the gel you scrape off.  Over here in the West, they haven’t even figured out how to package that as an overpriced It food yet.

And then there’s durian.  Which I had no intention of eating.  Everything you’ve heard about the smell, well…it’s not so bad when they’re not open.  I’ve used latrines that are worse.  But when somebody cracks one, fresh, it’s like the smell wants to excavate your nostrils and stew them in the garbage pile behind a garage.  There’s this motor oil tinge to it that just won’t go away.  And the inside looks, weirdly, like a small animal’s brain has been encased in a giant prickly seed pod.  So I wasn’t going to eat it, but apparently, it was durian season.

Durian tree

Durian tree

And my relatives insisted that I just hadn’t had good durian, that fresh durian would totally change my mind.  And I was on vacation.  And you do things on vacation that you don’t normally do.  So yeah, I ate it.

Texture-wise, it was really creamy.  It looks like it’ll have fibers when you pull it out, because bits stretch like pizza cheese strings, but on the tongue it’s just smooth and thick, sort of the consistency of pudding.  So that was good, but then it gets to the back of your throat and that motor oil acidity hits you, and there is no person on earth who can keep holding their breach when that happens.  So you inhale and oh, man, it gets worse.  It’s like sucking from an exhaust pipe, with the mental disconnect that the smoke feels like yummy pudding but tastes like the worst.

So I ate durian.  Not ever going to again.

Penang: Kek Lok Si Temple

I love Asian temples. They just have the coolest architechure and are a riot of color, which is a far cry from the more austere lines of Western houses of worship (though, to be fair, those have their charms too. Notre Dame, anyone?).

I’m not religious, so it always feels a little odd to be in one, but I attempt to take photos in the least offensive manner as possible, and pay my respects to the respect various icons generate and symbolize. At Kek Lok Si Temple, this meant baibai-ing (bowing) to Buddha and the whopping 100ft tall golden statue of Guan Yin.

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Kek Lok  Si Temple is set on one of the hills looking over Penang island and is worth the trip. It’s one of the biggest (maybe the biggest) Buddhist temples in Asia, and combines Chinese, Thai and Burmese influences in a uniquely Malaysian manner. The complex is so huge that to get to the second layer, where the giant Guan Yin statue sits, takes a cable car. Interestingly, the monks have a practical approach to all the tourists that the place, justifiably, attracts and man several shops of various trinkets (some religious, and some decidedly more commercial) scattered throughout the whole place.

Kitties here, like the ones in Israel, worship no one but themselves and we saw a few running around the place, camping out in front of the fans, and lolling on the smooth, sun warmed tiles. There was even a pretty calico that reminded me of the one I saw in Haifa.


Penang: Noodles

Kuala Lumpur to Penang is about five hours by bus.  It’s quite a nice bus, with reclining seats and meal service and an onboard toilet, so it was an easy trip, but the scenery outside was surprisingly monotonous.  The U.S. Midwest has this kind of consistently scrubby grassland landscape, and this was kind of the tropical version of that.  But hey.  Penang.  And Penang food.

Penang street food is like the best street food times a zillion awesome.  The island might be this tiny part of Malaysia, but its regional cuisine is known throughout the whole country.

So there’s a lot of different dishes, but mostly, we ate noodles.  Noodles are kind of a thing of mine.  They’re quick, filling, and come in infinite variations.

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But to call out two famous specialties of the area –

Hokkien mee is kind of like hot dogs in America, in that everybody disagrees on what the toppings should be, but in Penang it comes with these tiny little clams, the size of your thumbnail, that are sweet/salty nuggets of juiciness, and enough heat so that you should just breathe in really deep before you start, and try to breathe as little as possible until you’re done.  That breath after the food is all gone is going to hurt, but at least you got to savor the food first.

Assam laksa is a fish-based noodle soup, and might probably be the most complex thing I’ve ever eaten.  People go on and on about Mexican mole and wine bouquets, but this soup had this intense sourness that you just chased around and around in your mouth with your tongue, plus a strange coolness–thanks to plentiful mint–at the same time that the chiles set your tastebuds on fire.  And the fish (and some dried shrimp paste, I’m guessing) is cooked into this soft, flaked, ultra-meaty paste.  Basically, it was good.  And the lychee drink was, I think, literally lychee juice with a couple whole lychees and ice cubes, which was super-simple and perfect to pair with the laksa.

Kuala Lumpur: Utama Mall

As we have said before, Malaysia is hot. So the natives tend to do one of the following: eat ice cachang, camp out in front of the a/c, or…go to the mall.

Utama mall in Kuala Lumpur is enormous. I’ve been to the Mall of America a couple of times, but the scale of this place puts that to shame. I mean, the entire floor of one wing is a movie theater. Dad, justtwomorethings and I went there one day–after dragging me away from the pet shop at one  of the entrances (they had kitties and a sugar glider, ok?)–to walk around.

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The problem was, due to Malaysia’s continued economic development, a lot of trade happens with the Western Hemisphere. And all that trade brings all the Western brands, which there is a growing demand for in Asia. However, since we all come from the Western Hemisphere, this rendered most of the mall depressingly similar to what we could have gotten back home, size aside.

Dad, admiring a bank of Samsung Curved TVs

Dad, admiring a bank of Samsung Curved TVs

However, there was an interesting little nature exhibit in the middle of the place. It was nice to see an attempt to recognize nature in the rampant stampede toward progress.

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Kuala Lumpur: Petaling Street

Petaling Street, one of the many outdoor market streets of Kuala Lumpur, was a bit of a disappointment. A lot of guides will recommend it as a great place to get souvenirs–and you may find some–but I preferred the Cultural Center. The part of Petaling that we went to was more full of western brand knockoffs and counterfeits than real Malaysian handiwork, very tourist-trappy. It also, being open air, was hot and humid.

I thought it far more appropriate for people watching, and checking out the street food stalls. The mechanical chestnut roaster was pretty cool, and we grabbed a bag of longgan fruits (which look kinda alien on the outside, but removing the peel yields a sweet, juicy treat).


Kuala Lumpur: Street Food

You go to Asia, you eat on the street.

It’s more cleaned-up than I remember.  You don’t have vendors standing on the corner or spilling out of alleyways or wandering around anymore.  They all seem to have moved into no-frills food courts, five or six stalls with permanent fixtures like hoods to funnel off the smoke and coolers for perishables, although you should still just try to forget about the idea of sanitary preparation.

Street food court

Street food court

But the food is ultra-fresh, prepared to order, tasting exactly like it’s coming from people who have spent their entire lives concentrating on just three or four dishes, and dirt-cheap by Western standards.  A couple dollars for noodles with sauces that seem to bloom into pungent, delicious life on your tongue, and keep blooming till, reluctantly, you swallow, even though you feel like the taste is still unfurling and you’re going to miss something good.  Delicate soups, filling without being heavy.  And warm soybean milk with airy crunchy you tiao to dip into it, possibly the best breakfast on earth.

And man, that’s just Kuala Lumpur.  Penang (whenever we get to it, ’cause it’s taking longer to work through all the photos than either entropyenator or I figured) street food is like this taken to infinitely good.

Kuala Lumpur: Aquaria

I suppose I should have expected KL to have an aquarium. I mean, Malaysia is pretty much a nation of islands. But I was thinking more zoos–and it being so humid out, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to walk through a zoo although I usually love that sort of thing.

So aquariums, being indoors with the wonderful A/C, were just the ticket. The Aquaria KLCC is right under the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, not too far from the famous Twin Towers. Admission is 50 ringgit or about $15.50 USD–I initially thought that this was a little expensive for such a little place, but the Aquaria is surprisingly extensive for an inner city aquarium. It features several feeding “shows,” a touch pool (I refused to touch the sea cucumbers, no matter how fuzzy black they were), oceanarium walk-through tank, frog exhibit, and an otter exhibit.

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We stayed for two feedings, the piranhas and the Asian small-clawed otters. I, obviously, preferred the otters, causing Justtwomorethings to laugh at all my squees. They were cute! The otters obviously knew what time of day they got fed, because we could see them pawing at the door before the show, and the zoo keepers trained them to do little spinning tricks in exchange for shrimp treats. Only two otters were actually trained to do the tricks for the show, but we caught the trainer giving the rest (there were 4 otters total) extra snuggles in the back after the show.


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