Penang, 24 – 29 June 2014
Last week I was in Penang for 6 days, my first break in 7 months since returning from New York last December. It had been a long time coming – I’ve been wanting to visit the Malaysian island for the past 3 years. Somehow R and I were never able to align our schedules, something always cropped up or it was impossible to get away from work. We thought we would finally make it happen this year, but she had to pull out at the last minute so I went by myself.
After a jerky hour-long bus ride from the airport, I arrived hot and tired at my Airbnb apartment in a quiet residential area about 2 kilometres from the main city centre. My host, a lovely elderly Indian Muslim lady named S, was hosting a cooking demonstration and I was greeted by around 8 other ladies as I entered. After a quick wash, I emerged to find the remains of a German-themed feast. There was potato everywhere: potato soup, home-baked potato bread, potato salad and potato pancakes, with meatballs, apple sauce and apple pie. I hadn’t eaten anything since getting up at 5.15am for my flight and was famished. I gulped down forkfuls of food while listening to the chatter around me. Later in the afternoon when all the women had left, I had the first of many long talks with S, where she told me about herself and her experiences. She is a wonderful person full of love and warmth, who has lived an amazing life and weathered many storms over the years. Listening to her talk about her life was eye-opening. There is simply too much to pen in this entry, so much information to process but believe me when I say I consider myself blessed to have met and known her.
It was 6pm when I finally left to explore the area. As I hadn’t checked out the bus services and routes, I decided to walk around and familiarize myself with my new surroundings. The streets are dirty and messy, buildings are mostly low-rise and spaced out, and I saw countless food stalls dotting the roads. I made it as far as Komtar, Penang’s tallest building and the seat of the local government, before turning back and walking the path that I would take home for the next few days. I stopped by Green House Prawn Mee for a bowl of prawn noodles and much-needed ice lemon tea, my first taste of the local food. Despite researching extensively on famous food haunts, I didn’t manage to make it to most of them – while this would ordinarily have annoyed me, I decided to just go with the flow and not be too concerned with hitting all the places on my list. I pronounced myself satisfied with my meal, continued home, had a long, relaxing bath (in the pretty purple accented bathtub, which coincidentally matched my nail polish), and fell into a restful slumber. S had thoughtfully put a cute teddy bear soft toy on the bed, and I was grateful for the beary good fellow watching over me as I slept.
The rest of my trip passed by in a blur of sights, sounds and smells. I walked an awful lot, had frequent late dinners (sometimes even second dinners; I can feel the effects on my waistline already), and got smarter at navigating around, though I still got lost occasionally. I wandered the streets and alleys, admiring the old colonial buildings and taking pictures of the street art murals. I had expected Penang to be just as hot and humid as Singapore, but the ferocity of the heat took me by surprise – it was absolutely scorching as I walked around the heritage area. This was made worse by the fact that there are no trees to provide cover; there is hardly any greenery in the city centre which made for very sweaty, uncomfortable treks. Unfortunately my plan to sample as much of the local cuisine was stymied as the heat killed my appetite; I constantly felt thirsty and downed ice coffees and water to stay hydrated, which took up valuable stomach space that would otherwise have made way for food. Otherwise there were a few memorable food experiences, like a delicious meal of cream of mushroom soup, a dozen escargots in garlic herb butter, and a traditional fish stew called waterzooi washed down with a Belgian peach beer at a homely Belgian restaurant called Chez Nous along Lorong Seck Chuan. I also had a yummy Filipino dish called Picol Express, which is pork in garlic-tinged coconut curry, rice and salad at a charming little restaurant called Soohongry. Then there were the fantastic breakfasts cooked by S – a light and refreshing yoghurt with honey, dates and nuts, toast, cheese omelette, and french toast.
One of the highlights of my trip was hiking in the national park where I met a family from Kuala Lumpur. I chatted with them as we walked the three-and-a-half kilometres to Turtle Beach. I mostly spoke to J, the head of the family, and his wife and son B. We had an interesting conversation that touched on to our respective Airbnb experiences, the rising cost of living, our occupations, and of course Singapore and Malaysia, among other things. Great company aside, the hike was pretty swell. We saw huge spiders, giant ants, butterflies, fat hairy creepy crawlies and tiny sand bugs. I’m not an outdoors person; I’d pick museums, galleries, restaurants and concerts over sweating it out but this was a welcome change from my usual activities. The speedboat ride to Monkey Island was exhilarating – the lot of us screamed and laughed as the boat flew over the rocky waves. Feeling the wind on my face and having my hair whipped around is a feeling I’ll never forget. The following night I had dinner with them at Keng Leng Hotel which is famed for its traditional Hainanese dishes. As we parted ways, they told me to look them up when I’m in Kuala Lumpur. Another highlight was watching the Germany-USA match at a coffee shop with a bunch of Americans and a couple of Germans. It was a tense and thrilling game, the atmosphere was great, and I couldn’t have asked for a better World Cup viewing experience.
By a twist of luck, A happened to be in Penang at the same time, and through our mutual friend H we arranged to meet up for lunch. She filled me in on her life in the past year-and-a-half, which saw her working in disaster relief for a non-profit in the Philippines before being unceremoniously fired. Since she was already in Asia and had some savings, she decided to travel around the region. She’s been in Penang for a month now and has been applying for jobs everyday – she hasn’t heard back from any organization yet. She was pretty stressed out but considering her situation I told her she’s doing ok. We had cocktails at Mish Mash, a trendy cocktail bar along Muntri Street. I was here the night before where I downed two potent cocktails which were going for RM32 nett – an absolute steal compared to alcohol prices in Singapore. We sat outside and talked about life, work, love and men. It felt really good to have someone to confide in, if only for a short while. She’s headed to a yoga retreat in Thailand the same day I leave, and judging from her Instagram account, she’s having a ball there.
On Saturday I visited a beautiful Burmese temple with an ornate pagoda, a quaint lush backyard, and ponds full of fish and terrapins. Then I was off to the famous Siam Road char koay teow stall but alas, the owner was nowhere to be found when I got there. Dejected, I drowned my sorrows in a glass of milk tea. It was 9pm when I paid a quick visit to Khoo Kongsi temple where there was a snake show going on. After purchasing bottles of nutmeg oil and balm from a vendor along Armenian Street, I stopped by Chulia Street for a consolation plate of char koay teow before walking off the calories home.
Sunday rolled around and after dropping off a couple of new Airbnb arrivals at Weld Quay, S and I went to Gurney Plaza which was nothing to shout about. After walking about aimlessly I called S and asked if she was still in the mall; we ended up in Giant supermarket in Penang Plaza where S had to buy ingredients for a lunch she had to prepare for a group of doctors. We stopped by a small assam laksa stall run by a brother and sister duo on the way home and I had one last honest to goodness Penang meal before I bid goodbye to S. It was a blast staying with her and I hope we see each other again.
So many memories still swimming in my head, all of which I’ll look back on and remember fondly in years to come.