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Penang via the less travelled path
by Jeff Howell

Nothing beats arriving in a new city by boat.

Travelling sedately over a flat plain of water, absorbing the big picture at a human pace – it’s like standing back to admire a fresh new work of art. Cityscapes, natural features and landmarks build layer on layer, offering a priceless snapshot for a traveller’s brain.

Six am and Penang island slept. From across the bay Georgetown, its main city, shimmered like an Asian Venice in the first hazy rays of daylight.

Me and Selina were in the grimy mainland port of Butterworth, getting over the overnight train from Kuala Lumpur. We’d arrived abruptly with no suggestion of breakfast, offloaded onto a railway platform in the middle of nowhere.

Bleary eyed, we’d followed the locals to find the ferry boat to Georgetown, a forced march over crazy elevated pathways to the waterfront.

Scrambling for the 60c fare for the automatic barriers, we boarded our boat – once an eight strong fleet that run day and night – for the 15 minute hop across the bay.

The ferry looked like bailey bridge and smelled like a urinal. But the view – Penang, island jewel, pearl of the orient – spread out before us. When British adventurer Francis Light first set foot in 1786, Penang was a just a sleepy backwater possession of the Sultan of Kedah. The British got what they wanted back in those days, and soon enough the island was a strategic spice-route port under the Union Jack.

Trade brought prosperity – at least for the colonialists – and Georgetown grew with fine mansions, banks, churches and other colonial trappings. It’s many Chinese and Indian residents were quartered in racially segregated neighbourhoods that define the older parts of the city to this day.

The island’s commercial status waned with the fall of the Empire and Malaysian independence. Today it’s a place of time-warped colonial charm in a continent of whirlwind development.

Time warped charm, that’s what we were here for. And the prospect of gorging on Chinese, Malay and Indian food widely held to be some of the best in the world.

All well and good, but how to get from the port to our hotel at 7am? By cycle rickshaw of course. Moving at just above than walking pace, our rider took his time through the quiet early morning streets. Along the way we craned our necks at the rows of colonnaded chinese shophouses, with elaborate carving, tiled gables and a gilded nameplate above each front door. The Cathay Hotel was a bit of a Penang legend, the last of the old school Chinese hotels. From the street, the grand old whitewashed mansion looked a million dollars, but this was Malaysia so there were rooms from $40. We splashed out on a Superior for $60 – air con, TV, tiled everything and two huge double beds. A quick shower (you learn to shower lots in the tropics), and ready for breakfast in a new town.

Turn right out of the hotel, down an alleyway beside the food shop, avoiding the barking dog, smelly open drain and the pile of rubbish if you can. A hard right past the parked-up hawker’s stand, turn left between a small Chinese temple and an equally minute mosque, and you’re in Lebuh Chulia (lebuh means street in Malay).

Ground zero for Penang’s overland backpacker population, it didn’t take us long to figure there wasn’t much good eating on Lebuh Chulia. Plenty of travel agents, guesthouses, second hand bookshops and cafes, but judging by the menus, backpackers seemed to live on banana pancakes and toast. No problem. A block away pn Lebuh Cintra, we discovered why Penang was known as the home to Asia’s best food.

Dim sum breakfast at Chin Bee’s was the real thing. Four large round tables ran up the middle of a narrow tiled shop, smaller tables hugged each wall. The big tables were filled with laughing, chattering Chinese families eating, drinking tea and gesticulating like Italians.

Waiting staff hovered around every table, bearing big round trays of food. Pork, offal, seafood, wontony things, slabs of white stuff that looked like marshmallow, prawn, chicken bits, a range of steamed buns and Chinese tea refills. A huge, deliciously incomprehensible feast for two for $15.

We felt lucky for striking a place with such high standards. Silly us. A few more meals and it was clear Chin Bee was just par for the course in a town that took food seriously.

A few blocks away in Lebuh Campbell was Hamideeyah’s South Indian restaurant. Out front, Anwar made murtabaks all day. Starting with a ball of stretchy dough, he rolled it flat to the size of a wafer-thin tea towel. Onto a big wide hotplate with plenty of ghee, he broke an egg, sprinkles on meat sauce, diced onion and maybe chilli, then folded and refolded it into a parcel. Exotic, unique, and only two dollars. "How many murtabaks would you make in one day, Anwar?" "About 400." Blimey.

Georgetown’s Little India quarter was a joy. Located just off Chulia Street, it thrived with exotic pavement commerce. Thronging daylong crowds mingled among shops full of saris, stainless steel and shivalingams, blaring Hindi music, and the heady aroma of curry, roti bread and tropical drains. The Sri Mariammam temple was a landmark, a spic and span Southern Indian Hindu place crowded with local worshippers, candles, incense and multicoloured statues of ample-bossomed deities.

Over the road was an apom stall. Apoms are doughy rice flour crumpets cooked in little woks covered by pot lids, and laid to cool on banana leaf mats. Served with a bowl of hot Madras curry sauce for dipping, 40c each (or $1 with an egg) they were delicious.

A little closer to the waterfront on the corner of Lebuh Chulia, Restoran Hassim Mustafa was typical of Little India’s food fusion. Busy and clean, its four resident streetside foodstalls did a roaring trade in tandoor, biryiani nasi padang, and roti dishes. We had tandoori chicken, naan and dhal for dinner. Two fresh soft-as-clouds naan bread. A 1/4 chicken sparingly basted in orange red marinade, half bare, half burned, tasting arid, smoky and intense. Lentil and potato dhal with a heat that crept up from behind. And a bowl of cooling mint raita and a rich tan curry sauce. A fingers-only taste and texture orgy for just $4.

Another day we had banana leaf thali for lunch. A neatly trimmed banana serves as your plate. A guy comes round and plonks down a big mound of rice, three of four types of sauces, and a ladleful of Dhal on the rice. Half a dozen poppadoms, a big glass of water and there’s your basic thali. Add to the basic dish with a selection from the smorgasbord out front – meat curries of every shape and size, from fish heads to lamb korma. Eat with your right hand (and only your right hand). Run out of any of the basic ingredients, and the guy is there to top you up. When you’ve finally had enough, fold the leaf in half in the universal "thanks but no thanks" signal. Magic – and around $2 for the basic meal.

If there’s a dish that characterises Chinese Penang, it’s Char Koay Teow. Flat rice Teochew noodles fried with bean sprouts, egg, prawns, fungus, chinese sausage, seafood and chilli – a wonderful smoky mess of textures and flavours found at street stalls and hawker centres throughout the city.

Penang’s an island, and Char Koay Teow tastes of the sea. I enjoyed a memorable plate at a manic food centre on Lebuh Pantai for the princely sum of $2.50, juicy prawns and all.

Georgetown’s Kedai Kopis (coffee shops) were an institution that helped this hot and sweaty town make sense. If you’ve never seen one, imagine a corner shop with the outside walls and doors removed so only the pillars remained. Blinds hung in the open spaces to keep the sun out, and fans whirred on the high ceilings. Cool and shady oases from the afternoon sun, and open throughout the day, they made a crust from coffee, tea, beer and cold drinks. Part café, part local pub, with a food stall or two out front that did simple Chinese fare to order.

The Kedai Kopi down the road from the Cathay was typical. Inside, the chinese owners served drinks, washed dishes and kept the place clean for diners. Outside, at a food stall no bigger than a household hotplate, a guy made mee goreng, a rustic Malay dish of fried noodles. One morning I tried a plate for breakfast - simply brilliant with fresh noodles, spicy sprouts, egg, tofu shards, the odd piece of spud, and lime to squeeze. The cost – $1.50. It takes time for your body to adapt to the tropics. A week or 10 days wasn’t enough to acclimatise to daily temperatures in the 30s. The hot tropical sun made air con a godsend, our days defined by regular treks back to the coolness of our Cathay room.

The hotel had scooters for hire for $15 a day. One sweltering day we went in search of a breeze around the island. The first 20 minutes were hell adjusting to the islanders’ quirky driving habits (no indicators, random lane-hopping, drag races at every traffic light). Then the traffic thinned and things got easier. Heading north was an unbroken strip of beach development as far as Batu Ferringhi. Don’t let your travel agent book you into a hotel there. Touted as a glam beach resort, it was a middle-of-nowhere tip with dirty beaches, overpriced food and zero charisma – a million miles from Georgetown’s exotic charms. From Batu Ferringhi the highway headed inland through durian plantations and patches of jungle. At one point we diverted off the highway to sightsee through a Chinese fishing village. At another, we took tea at a roadside stall with half a dozen giggling Malay women.

The sun was setting when we scootered back into Georgetown, a glorious tequila sunset silhouetting the old colonial warehouses along the waterfront.
 

Things you can do while you’re riding a scooter in Penang.


Take the family 4 up
Talk on your phone
Smoke
Drink a can of coke
Carry outrageous loads of cartons, sheets of glass or washing baskets
Weave in and out of cars (compulsory)
Ride the wrong way down one way streets

About The Writter

Jeff Howell is a travel writer based in Hamilton, New Zealand. "I’ve always had the travel bug. When we were kids, my parents used to take us on big driving holidays around New Zealand. I dropped out of university at 19 to drive around Europe in a beaten up car, financed by stints as a barman in London pubs. Since then I’ve always tried to visit more countries than my age."

"Museums and theme parks? No thanks. For me, it’s about the journey. Travelling on a one way ticket. Not booking ahead. Using public transport. The thrill of the unknown."

"I write to capture the events of a traveller’s day. A conversation on a bus, an enjoyable meal at a roadside stall – anything to gives readers a better feeling for what it’s like to be there."

Jeff lives with his partner, Selina, and their toddler son Oskar.

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