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.