Everyone told us not to miss Penang so with our new, faster paced schedule in mind, we made a beeline for the island at the expense of a few smaller stops that I had in mind (Ipoh for Chinese food, Taiping for small-town charm). Our one concession to a relaxed pace was to take the train to Penang instead of the bus. The train is a little more expensive and a lot slower, after you add in the inevitable delay, we probably doubled our total travel time by taking the train. But it was a nice way to go. We took a bus from the Cameron Highlands to Ipoh, where we walked to the train station in time to catch a late morning train to Butterworth. The train station is adjacent to the ferry terminal, where we had to catch a short ferry to Penang Island. We could have taken a bus directly to the island, since it is connected to the mainland by a long bridge, but we thought the ferry would be more atmospheric (not so much, but -hey- a boat ride’s a boat ride).
On the ferry ride to Georgetown Unexpectedly, there was no Champagne here
There are a slew of backpackers’ accommodations on a strip unsettlingly called Love Lane. Finding a room involved a lot of trial and error- those mentioned in guidebooks are much more expensive than those we found on our own and the quality of the places swung on a wide arc. We ended up settling in The Star Lodge just off Love Lane for just under $15 per night including a private bathroom and cold-water shower. The other patrons were exclusively of the sex-tourist profile, but there was absolutely no evidence of any hanky-panky. Perhaps skinny, ponytailed, shirtless white men of a certain age just prefer each other’s company. Far be it from me to judge; we are also on a budget and the place was clean, quiet and run by easy-going older Chinese men who spoke perfect English.
Old timey row house in Chinatown
This amazing art by Reggie Lee, a Penang native, can be found all over Penang marking points of interest
A temple rooftop, a couple of blocks from our hotel
Detail of a hand-carved column in the temple
The truth is that we came here for the food. Don’t judge us- it’s in all the guidebooks. People come to Penang to eat and then there are a few filler sights to see in between meals. We did the Chinatown walk and had dim sum, we did the Little India walk and had palak paneer, we did the Colonial Walk and had some overpriced cocktails at the famous E & O Hotel, then we found a nice little hawker market for dinner and karaoke (this is not interactive karaoke, where the audience takes turns, it is a rehearsed performance by a trio of leather-clad peroxided women and a man who sing all your Chinese pop favorites and maybe a few American hits from the 80s).
Singing all your favorite Chinese hits!
An appreciative audience
We spent about 4 days in Penang and did manage to squeeze in some cultural activities amid all the face-stuffing. We took a cooking class that just so happened to be written up in the New York Times the week before we arrived in Penang, which was a solidly good time, if a bit steep for budget travelers at $45. The morning of the cooking class was spent going to local markets to pick up the ingredients for the dishes we were to cook. We went from the fish market to the produce market to the meat market to gather what we needed. All the markets were lively and atmospheric and all of the vendors that the instructor led us to were patient and willing to put up with our incessant photo taking. As I wandered around the meat market, which appeared to employ Muslim men almost exclusively, I saw some newspaper clippings pasted to a wall: a photo of the Twin Towers bellowing fire just before their collapse was positioned below a picture of Osama bin Laden; someone had drawn in a crown on his head. I am not a rabidly patriotic American, although I am proud of my country, but I was really thrown on this one. Was it a joke? Were these people that hateful? Here we were snapping pictures and smiling and chatting with people who were celebrating the violent deaths of thousands of Americans. Even if it was put up by an outlier or if, unfathomably, it was only intended as a joke or a prank, it was pretty unsettling that no one had torn it down. I put my camera away and put my head down and waited quietly until we were ready to move on.
The cooking class itself was a lot of fun. We met a really interesting group of other tourists, including a Texan who works for the State Department in Kazakhstan, an American who retired to KL with his wife, and a lovely young Australian couple who accompanied us on our aforementioned karaoke adventure. Nazlina, the instructor, was friendly, high-energy, and helped us churn out some really good food. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a cookbook at the end of the class like we have during other cooing classes, but she’s got a great website (www.pickles-and-spices.com) and is really responsive to questions and requests for recipes.
Fried shallots: secret ingredient for everything
Palm sugar makes a sweet filling in Chinese-style sweets
Our other big excursion was a visit to the Botanical Gardens, where we found the coolest flower we have ever seen:
flower on R’s finger.
It grows on a tree called the cannonball tree (so called because of big, inedible fruits resembling cannonballs that grow on it). The flowers are big and waxy and smell like magnolias. It was definitely the highlight of the garden, which was otherwise kind of ho-hum. From the Botanical Gardens, we hopped back on the scooter that we had rented for the day for around $7. R drove while I had a little breakdown over the chaotic traffic (which R did handle very well- I can say after we walked away with no broken limbs or heads). We got lost in the forever-looping lanes of traffic until we finally found our way to Penang Hill, one of the tourist highlights where you can take a little tram to the top of the hill and take photos and stuff. As we rounded a bend, we saw something that looked way cooler, so we abandoned the Hill and went to the Kek Lok Shi Temple instead, which definitely wasway cooler. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia and looks kind of like Disneyland. Construction began on the temple in 1890 and it is still very much a work in progress. Each level has a different feel and purpose and it’s hard to say which feature is my favorite, although the impossibly tall statue of Kuan Yin, Godess of Mercy, is pretty impressive.
View of the temple
Georgetown skyline, seen from the temple
One of the temple’s main buildings
Swarm of turtles in a temple pond
We really didn’t make a dent in all that Penag has to offer in terms of museums, restaurants, and colonial sights, but we had a great time. In fact, I’d have to put Penang in my top 5 cities that we visited on this whole trip: it has phenomenal food, inexpensive accommodation, a ton to see, and the whole city center has an atmospheric, ramshackle Old West meets Asia feel. For people who are fancier than we are, there are plenty of posh hotels and restaurants and tours, but it is an easy place to enjoy at any budget.