Hi Mum, I’m in Penang

After the impersonality of Singapore and our brief stop in KL, it was great to arrive in Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang.

Two things were immediately striking – what a perfect size the town is for just wandering, and how friendly everyone is.

At breakfast on our first morning (at a tiny offshoot of the Chowrasta market), our neighbours at the next table asked us eagerly what we planned to eat, gave recommendations, were excited to hear we were from Australia and then frustrated because they couldn’t immediately remember their cousin’s address in Melbourne. Being the only Westerners in the place we attracted a bit of attention but it all seemed relatively approving. Our breakfast of hokkien cha and keow teow theng was delicious and cheap.

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Like Singapore, Georgetown has it’s own Little India. This one was in the middle of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town and is really delightful. We can highly recommend the gulab jamun from NR Sweets – they’re off the hook.

The only disappointment of Little India was that the preponderance of street vendors selling spicy fried Indian snacks made us really want a beer to accompany them. Malaysia is a Muslim nation and alcohol isn’t manufactured in the country, meaning that it’s not widely sold and is relatively expensive (around 8 ringgit/$A2.60 for a small can).

Bemoaning our sobriety, we continued exploring. We were up near the very impressive law courts when we heard the telltale sound of drums and cymbals that accompany lion dancers. Now, I love lion dancers and had been a bit disappointed that we’d arrived just after Chinese New Year, so I was pretty excited.

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We stood across the road from the building the noise was coming from (a law firm), hoping the dancers would come out soon. As we waited, a woman who happened to be one of the firm’s managing partners came over, bringing us a mandarin each and inviting us inside to see the action.

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The two floors of the firm, filled with legal briefs tied up in pink ribbon, was crammed with office workers, other staff, children, musicians and two lions. The lions moved from desk to desk, “eating” the mandarins placed on each, and posing for photos with the staff. It was complete mayhem – some of the younger kids looked a bit scared and kept their fingers in their ears.

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We were given more gifts – mandarins, a red paper box and a jar of homemade peanut biscuits. Alex had a chat with one of the other partners, who was interested in his career and plans for London.

Once all the desks had been blessed we moved outside, but several people shouted at us not to leave. As we watched, the rest of the lion troup set up a series of platforms and a 12ft pole topped with flowers. The skill required by the lion to retrieve the flowers was pretty impressive.

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After all the excitement, our ears were ringing and we were ready for a siesta.

Later that afternoon we caught up with one of Alex’s old teachers, the head of music and orchestra conductor. He and his wife retired here last year and showed us around. The highlight was dinner at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, a gorgeous place that was founded by the same Armenian brothers responsible for Raffles.

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The rest of our time in Penang was spent eating and exploring. We took a slow bus to the northern part of the island, a tourist ghetto known as Batu Ferringhi. The beach was packed with holiday makers (including lots of Muslim women in full burqas) riding quad bikes, parasailing, horseriding or showing off their sunburn. The street along the beach was jammed with stalls selling absolutely genuine Rolexes and DVDs. Apart from spending a wonderful and excruciating 15 minutes having the dead skin on our feet nibbled by little starving suckerfish, we didn’t last long in Batu Ferringhi.

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Hi Mum, I’m in Malaysia

 While taking the  first of our overnight train journeys we discovered some of the quirks of travelling KTMB (Malaysia’s State train operator):

– It seems they only have two settings for their air conditioning: off and arctic;

They have a strange side-on arrangement for the beds which makes you feel as if you’re about to be thrown out of bed all night; and

– They also have a penchant for playing Boney M at full volume over the train’s loudspeakers at 6am.

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We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 6.30am, not very refreshed, but with Boney M’s “One Way Ticket” lodged firmly as an earworm. We decided to walk from the station into the centre of town and both noticed how much greener and more interesting KL seemed when compared with Singapore. Much less sterile, full of chaotic traffic and the one thing sure to make us happy – street food vendors!  – ranging from old ladies selling nasi lemak to these guys who lured in with their colourful drinks.

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After breakfast at quite a traditional muslim restaurant (this became especially apparent when I was expected to speak and order for Amanda) we headed for the Petronas twin towers to get a better view of the city. The ride up to the skybridge on the 41st floor was free; however, Petronas extracted their pound of flesh by making us sit through indoctrination on why they are the world’s best corporate citizen while proudly showing off all the pies in which they have fingers. Jasper Fforde fans would have appreciated the similarities between Petronas and Goliath Corp.

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Corporate reeducation had exhausted us, so we decided it was time to take a nap in the beautifully manicured gardens surrounding the towers. Apparently this is a no-no in KL, as we were soon being whistled at by an officious uniformed lady whose job it seemed was to make rounds of the gardens and whistle, point and yell at people for having fun. We learnt our lesson and made way back into the centre for lunch.

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Lunch was at Hong Ngek, a little back-alley Malay Chinese restaurant we were keen to try. We sat down and were instantly given sage ordering advice by one of the two old dudes who run the floor there – the slow braised pork with chestnuts was a surprisingly delicious suggestion and though we thought we weren’t hungry, we powered through that along with some excellent side dishes and a couple of beers. Thanks to Eating Asia for the tip-off on this place, we’ll be following up on a few more as we make our way through Asia. 

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I know you’re all thinking at this point that we’re incredibly sad and food-obsessed. Well, we are. You can’t be that surprised, can you?

After lunch, we decided to do something a bit more cultural and made our way back across town for the museum of Islamic art. It’s a beautifully put together exhibition of Islamic architecture, art, calligraphy, clothing and every day items which cover the Muslim populations of Malaya, China and India. For someone like me who knows bugger all about Islamic culture, it’s a great introduction.

Finally, we were back at the train station and had a few hours to kill before boarding the train for Butterworth where we were to take the train for Penang. When we had to start rummaging round our packs for all our warm clothing in order to survive another night of overly zealous air conditioning, I was starting to wonder why we were dicking around with trains for three and a half months and didn’t just stay on the same plane we boarded in Melbourne…