Travel Dates: 28th – 2nd December 2013
Location: Penang, Malaysia
<<<You will notice that some photos are missing at the moment. These will be added in due course and the placeholders will be removed.>>>
Day 1: Hawkers (By Rich)
Arriving in Penang we got to our hotel by taxi with little fuss. As we drove along the clear skies we had flown through started to cloud over. By the time we arrived at the hotel a rain storm had started. This continued for 2 hours. As such we spent 4pm to 6pm hiding away in our room. We did explore the hotel a little and it took us several laps to find where the pool was hiding. It turns our we leave our room through the door behind a curtain, pass along the car park and hey presto a pool! Having gotten wet enough just finding it we didn’t go for a dip. Fingers crossed for better weather tomorrow so that it will get used.
By the time the rain subsided and we were ready to head out it was already getting dark. Having not been out already we decided to walk towards the central area of Georgetown. The centre of the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so we figured that we would soon encounter something worth seeing. We were wrong. For a start our hotel is further from the “good stuff” than we thought and secondly our sense of direction and sight tracking ability was failing us. Although we did find a few restaurants and bars what we encountered definitely wouldn’t be described as lively (or UNESCO worthy).
After wandering for some time we were a bit fed up. We decided to ask directions in a cycle hire shop. In return for a promise to come back and hire bikes (which we were planning to do anyway) we were pointed in the direction of the areas we were looking for. After over an hour wandering we arrived at the New Lane Hawker Centre. Hawker centres are eateries where street food is prepared on a number of carts and food served at tables in cafes along the street. We had been to a tame version in Kuala Lumpur so really weren’t prepared for the one we found here. As we were tired and grumpy we just wanted to sit down. As such we allowed ourselves to be ushered to the closest table where we ordered a drink and happily took up the offer of fried rice. This gave us an idea of how things worked. Food is brought to you and you pay on delivery. Feeling slightly revived we became a bit more adventurous and went to order food from some other Hawker stalls.
Everything we tried was very tasty but once again we went more for appetiser type food of the fried/food on stick variety rather than real main courses. Tomorrow we will definitely be after a more healthy evening meal. We did finish the meal well though with a variety of fruit (plum, pineapple, melon, rose apple). The fruit stall seller did warn us that Vicki’s rose apple was expensive as it was imported from Thailand. We decided we could stretch to 50p as a treat though rather than the 10p/20p we usually pay for fruit portions.
Our experience finding the food place this evening reminded us of two things. 1. We are no use when tired and hungry. We just get grumpy and don’t enjoy ourselves. 2. We need better plans of what to do rather than just wandering vaguely. Point 1 was solved by food, point 2 we set about solving after dinner. We headed over to the bus station to see how things worked. Having studied maps and information boards we successfully got the bus straight to our hotel door. This sets us up for some real exploration tomorrow rather than just wandering aimlessly as we did today.
Day 2: Hills and buses (By Vicki)
Today dawned bright and sunny, and so after a quick breakfast we braved the buses again to head up to Penang Hill. This is a big hill on the edge of Georgetown with a funicular up to the top, and views of the rest Penang island.
After a 25 minute wait for the right bus, and then a 45 min bus ride (we got a lot of value out of our 40p bus fare) we arrived at the base of the hill all ready for the funicular. Luckily we managed to get the ‘back’ seats of the carriage, which meant Rich got to take lots of funicular based photos.
Having reached the top, we had a quick look round the summit – this was tourist attraction central with lots of ways of spending money, such as a (very small) Dinosaur exhibition, and the ‘have-your-photo-taken-with-an-exotic-animal’ stand. We bypassed all of this and went on a self guided tour of some of the heritage bungalows at the top of this former hill station. However, most of them were hidden behind sculpted garden, probably to prevent tourists poking their noses in all the time! We did however find a little corner of England….
We had planned on just a short heritage bungalow walk before starting our actual planned walk – 5km down hill to the Botanical Gardens. 2 miles later (due to some path maintenance) we were finally ready to start the walk. And it was indeed down hill – at some points so steep it was hard to walk down. Luckily we had some (friendly) monkeys and a giant centipede on route to distract us.
After about 1 3/4 hours, and a grand total of 5 mile walked in the heat of the day (do we never learn?) we finally arrived at the Botanical Gardens. Lunch was a quick fried rice / noodles at a roadside cafe before we headed into the gardens. Just inside the entrance was a miniature train offering a tour, and so we hopped on – and then about 5 minutes later hopped off. It had to be the shortest tour in the world! The driver spent the tour on his phone, and seemed to get bored halfway through, and just sped round the rest of the gardens!
We then decided to walk round the rest of the garden and have a look at the bits the ‘tour’ didn’t cover.Again we were accompanied by some monkeys. luckily not the least bit interested in us, and we found some funky flowers for Rich to photograph – not sure of the chances of us growing them at home?
A bus back in to town took much longer than it seemed like it should, and while we were on the bus, the heavens opened (spot a theme here?) and so we decided to stay on the bus and get a bit a tour of the heritage area, in the hope that it would have stopped raining by the time we got off the bus. We were lucky for about 10 minutes after getting off the bus, and then it started all over again, so we gave up and headed back to the hotel, and to the pool – we were wet already so figured swimming wouldn’t make a difference!
Dinner tonight was across the road from our hotel, in a little place call Ivy’s, which serves Nyonya food, basically a combination of Chinese, Malay and Thai. Not knowing anything about the food we opted for a set meal, with Stingray, prawns and chicken. It was delicious, although very spicy (great for Rich, not so great for me). The lady on the next table over from us was with her daughter who had just graduated from Imperial, having done Biochemistry – it’s a small world!
Day 3: Bikes (Rich again)
Today we went back to the lady that gave us directions and as promised hired some bikes. We used these to explore George Town. We had a walking tour in our guide book so used this as a basis however once on two wheels we could fully explore and really felt that we got a feel for the place. We finally managed to realise why this is a UNESCO heritage site. It isn’t so much about the individual buildings but the juxtaposition of cultures. As we cycled we quickly passed from British colonial to Chinese to Malay to Indian influences. The styles from each culture are sitting side by side here to create a fascinating mix that is full of life. You won’t see pristine buildings here but the mix of styles is very different to anywhere else.
We used our bikes to visit Chinese mansions heavily influenced by the styles of the colonial British, clan houses and jetties where different family lines that had emigrated from China lived, old British forts and much varied street art. An important part of the day that our bikes led us to was lunch. We dined in Little India as we had wanted to try roti canai. This is a thinly layered roti that is grilled with oil then served with daal. It was delicious. In fact we enjoyed it so much that our dinner later in the day was very similar with a meat based roti canai and tandoori chicken.
Our evening entertainment (after the excitement of returning our bikes in the dark, (Vicki – cycling the Penang equivalent of the A3…)) was a trip to the Eastern & Oriental Hotel for cocktails. This is Penang’s big colonial-style hotel and was owned by the same brothers as Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Rangoon. Both of the others we visited but didn’t stay for a drink so this time we decided it was well worth staying. Some happy hour drinks and nibbles left me longing to have been around in the late 1800’s and living the colonial life.
Day 4: More exploring (by Vicki)
Today was our last day in Penang, and we were hoping that the weather was going to be kind to us. Many of the other days had seen rain in the afternoon, and as we wanted to go hiking in the national park, we were hoping for a clear day. Luckily, when we got up, the sky was blue and so we set off to the smallest national park in Malaysia for a spot of trekking in the rainforest.
We found the bus with little trouble, and by the time we reached the park we were the only ones on it – we thought the driver may have forgotten us as when at one point he did a U-turn in a carpark, but all was well in the end, and he delivered us to the gates of the park. The park is free to get in, but you have to sign and state your destination before heading off. There are 2 main options, both ending at a beach, and both taking about an hour and half walk – one is Turtle Beach and the other is Monkey beach….guess what you can see at each.
We had no real plan and so opted for the suggestion made by the ranger of Monkey Beach, but actually ended up going a different way, heading down to Turtle beach as the route looked more interesting. Provided we signed out at the end of the day and stuck to the well marked trails, we didn’t think this was too much of a problem.
<<Map of the Park>>
And so, we were off! The first 15 minutes were on paved paths, but as soon as we got into the forest proper, the trails rapidly became steep (both up and down), uneven and covered in roots, perfect for tripping over! We set a fair pace (for us) and were soon overtaking groups of people off for a Sunday stroll. It was very humid again, and before long, we were disgustingly sweaty, but the scenery, the sound of the Cicadas and the feeling of being in the rainforest meant that we didn’t mind so much. It was very busy though, and so we didn’t get to see any wildlife other than ants. They were pretty big ants though.
After an hour and a bit of steady trekking we arrived at the site of a Meromikitik lake, a rare type of lake that contains salt water underneath a layer of fresh water. However, it is only full in May – October, and so it didn’t look too impressive today.
Across a wooden suspension bridge was our destination – Turtle beach. This is a white sand beach, which when we arrived at about 11am was pretty deserted. The name comes from the fact that turtles use this beach to hatch their eggs. Whilst we didn’t see any in the wild, we did see a few at the Turtle Hatchery, and this made up for me not seeing any whilst snorkelling in Thailand.
After a couple of hours on the beach we considered our options, either walk back the way we came, or get a speedboat. Luckily a French family that were sat near us on the beach made that decision for us. Their boat was going back just as we were about to leave, and so they kindly let us hop on, thus saving us the long walk back. At times on the boat ride I wished we had walked back, the waves were quite high, and there was a lot of bumping and crashing about. It was nice to get another view of the park though, and we arrived back at the entrance slightly salty and windblown but distinctly less sweaty than if we had walked.
After waiting an hour for a bus (that is supposed to be every 5 mins at peak times….) we made it back to Georgetown in time for a late lunch. Having enjoyed the Indian food yesterday (and for lack of other options next to our hotel) we opted for some more curry, which in general was lovely, apart from 1 of the choices, which we are pretty sure was curried chicken skin.
After a quick dip in the pool during a rain storm (much to the bemusement of the young twin Chinese girls watching us, it was time for the Penang run. As usual, we tried to fit in some sightseeing at the same time, and headed up to Gurney Drive, another well known Hawker centre on the sea front to assess the options for dinner. As with other places we have run, Penang is really not designed for people walking or running – there is a distinct lack of pavement on virtually all of the streets. Once we got onto the sea front, there was a nice promenade though, and so we trotted along happily admiring the scenery.
<<Final Run photo to be added here>>
After sussing out dinner places on our run, we headed back to Gurney Drive after a shower. The main problem then was deciding what to eat – there were lots of things we wanted to try before we left. Char Keow Taoy (a kind of Malay Pad Thai) and Asam Laksa (fish soup with noodles) was followed by fried oysters, boiled spiky shell fish and then chicken and beef satay all of which were delicious, and ridiculously cheap.
<<Dinner photos will appear here>>
Dinner wouldn’t be complete without dessert, but to date, we haven’t been that impressed by the desserts, which seem to revolve around sago (or other gooey mess) or involve sweetcorn or beans which we don’t count as dessert. This time we went for banana pancakes, and then fruit – the abundance and variety of which is something we will definitely miss when we are home. Being able to get good quality fruit like mango, melon and pineapple on very cheaply on every corner is something we have kind of got used to. Tesco just won’t be able to match.
Very sadly, having dragged dinner out for as long as we could, we then headed back to the hotel to pack for the final time, and try to sleep before our 4.30am alarm call.
<<Final photo from last night will be here>>
So that is it then, last destination is done. Next stop Berrylands. Hopefully Steve will be pleased to see us.