Monday, February 22, 2010

Penang

It didn't take long to figure out that night trains between KL Sentral and Butterworth, Penang, were not very popular. There were all of nine people in our coach, five making up a group of giggly schoolgirls on a day trip to the Malaysian capital.

From 34C outside, our bodies struggled to cope with the freezing 16C in the train as it chugged along the coast, lights ablaze and air-con whirring.

I was desperate to find a tandas as soon as we got off, so had to use the ferry toilet as it crossed from the mainland to Georgetown. Bladder relieved, we picked our way to the first hotel we stayed in out of India.
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Georgetown is a wonderful mix of culture - Chinese, Malays and Indians living shoulder-to-shoulder in a mass of buildings that trace the city's history as a trading base for the British and later as a waterfront commercial and financial hub.

On our first day, we just walked around the little streets, getting used to trudging in the sun as the humidity hung heavily. Georgetown rightfully holds its UNESCO World Heritage Site title, with architectural samples preserved in the colonial splendour of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, the Islamic Museum and Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi (the Khoo clan-house).
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Penang revolves around its food - there are stalls everywhere, sending delicious aromas of simmering duck, beef and seafood wafting up to your delighted senses. You slump down on a plastic chair at one of the many tables, thankful for the shade of the large tent just a furlong from the jetty. Now how do you pick your supper?

I have a simple formula for food. First is the price - if it's within your budget, take your pick. After that, I just point to what looks good and say "May I have that please?" Works wonders everytime.

Penang puts on a food show quite unlike anything I've seen. And this is not for the tourists. It's part of everyday life. People walk in, wave to those they know, find their flavour for the day and wash it down with Guinness and Tiger. Perfect. We were part of their lives for three days, cheering on football teams and wolfing down satays until our prawn mee, laksa or thai rice came along, and then alternating between craning our necks to watch the game and struggling with the chopsticks to gobble our food.

Later, we'd saunter down China town, stopping at the food stalls (again!) to see what was cooking, digesting what we'd already eaten and stocking up again. It was a gastronomical adventure at sickening levels. Two things I wished I'd eaten again before leaving was the peanut ball dusted in sesame seeds and the square pork snack. Awesomeness in batter.

There were strange multi-coloured momos steaming on bamboo-leaf stoves, one bite sending a blast of seafood tastes across your mouth and filling it with soft meat and subtle juices. But the fist-sized white bun stuffed with pork didn't quite catch my fancy. It tasted like someone had forgotten to salt the dough, while the stuffing had an odd kept-in-the-cupboard taste. Perhaps I'd picked one that had been in the larder for a while!

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With all the food swimming in your belly, there's nothing like some good sight-seeing on foot to finish it off. Pouring sweat in the humid heat, we took in the sights and sounds - the red and gold Chinese temples, quiet Burmese ones with giant reclining Buddhas and majestic Thai spaces.

Penang Hill gives you the best view ever of Georgetown, and when the sun goes down, you find the lights twinkling across the port city and find yourself in a wonderland. It's worth braving the skewed electric train up the steepest hill you've seen. On the way back, don't forget to hope for a Chinese New Year celebration at the Kek Lok Si temple.

Lady Luck was with us that day as we joined in the celebrations with a thousand lights turned on simultaenously, the sky lighting up with fireworks at dusk with the giant Buddha looking on from a distance.

The Temple of Supreme Bliss truly puts a visitor in thrall as the Buddhas peek out from every corner of the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas - the main pagoda of the site.

They seem to follow you as you make your way across the state of Penang to Balik Pulau, guiding you to find the beauty of Malaysia. Batik cloths and open fields mark this little town as does its very own kind of laksa and the carts selling the creamy, but odd-smelling durian.

Staring out over GeorgeTown from the balcony of our cozy hotel, we sipped our last Tiger beer in Penang, watching the stars tease us into considering another night's stay.

But our time was up and we had places to go and things to do, more importantly catching the ferry to Langkawi at the crack of dawn.

2 comments:

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Larson said...

Pinang is one beautiful place to visit. Specially Georgetown...
Awesome and detailed blog !!!