Penang (specifically Georgetown)

Last weekend I went on a fairly unstructured wandering of Georgetown with a couple friends. It was my least planned and least activity filled trip so far, and one of my favorites. Not planning ahead turned out to be one of the best choices we could have made, because while we didn’t see many of the listed attractions on Penang it was much more relaxing than my other weekends abroad.

We arrived and took an hour and a half bus from the airport to our cute hostel. I didn’t mind the commute because we got to see a lot of the island and it only cost me $1. On the bus I noticed another backpacker but she got off before our stop; strangest of coincidences, she turned up at our hostel later that night. She had mixed up the days amidst her travels and needed a place to stay for the night. Since she was flying solo I invited her to dinner with us, which turned out to be really fun. We got Indian food (of course) which was delicious, and then spent a good hour or so exploring Georgetown (the main city in the island province of Penang, Malaysia) at night. It started to drizzle so we headed back to our hostel for the night.

Free hostel breakfast in the morning, as per usual, and then my friend Brandi and I set out to wander around the city. We were thinking of stopping in a couple temples but had no firmer destination than that. The first mosque we found wasn’t open to visitors, and we ended up not meandering past any others, so it ended up being a temple-free trip.

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One of the main tourist attractions in Georgetown, which I also like to consider just a quirk of the city’s personality, is the wire and painted street art spread throughout town. The wire art pieces are attached to building walls around the city and depict parts of Georgetown’s history. The painted pieces were also on random city walls but all with a 3D element to them. I liked the paintings better, though both sets were really cool. The main theme of our trip ended up being our goal to find all the street art and take touristy photos with them, always entertaining.

The coolest part of the city I thought was the Chew Jetty, an historical site of houses lining a wooden walkway that went out over the water. The buildings were on supports, obviously, and the alley ways between building were more like canals. I had a homemade otter pop and got a picture of a rainbow of Asian tourists, all in all a nice detour.

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We had lunch at a hawker center, like the ones in Singapore (I had mee goreng), and stopped by Fort Cornwallis, a star shaped fortress by the sea built by the British East India Company. The ocean looked absolutely stunning, a true turquoise shade like the one advertised by all south east asian destinations, but a colorful promise nowhere I’ve visited before Penang had fulfilled. It was almost unbearably hot and the water looked so enticing, so I convinced my friend we should go to the beach.

It was about an hour away by bus and by the time we got there it had cooled off slightly. The water at the beach was nowhere near as nice as that by the city so I ended up sunbathing rather than swimming like I had imagined. We ate at another hawker center for dinner, where I learned that dessert prata is my new favorite food. The night market lined the street back to the bus stop so we browsed while heading back. The bus home was much quicker, and after such a long day (I didn’t thoroughly describe the amount of walking that happened but believe me, there was quite a bit) we collapsed at our hostel before 10pm.

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The next morning we headed in a new direction, farther into the city where we hadn’t been the day before, towards a morning market. It was an outdoor market lining a T intersection of two streets, fairly packed with people, and full of interesting things. It was definitely not solely a tourist market like a lot of the ones I’ve visited; though it had some trinket vendors they were in booths next to butchers chopping up fresh fish and buckets of raw plucked chickens. I saw a whole roast pig on the back of a motorbike, something I never expected. We bought some fresh beef and chicken jerky, one of south east asia’s finer snacks, and some fruit.

After completing a tour of the market we searched for breakfast, ending up at a something less than a cafe. What I mean is that the ‘kitchen’ was in an open alley under a couple canopies and the tables were around the corner on a sidewalk. We had no idea what to order but a friendly Indian man in a blue button up shirt explained what the unlabeled pictures on the hanging banner menu meant. We each got plain roti and I order Teh Tarik, a tea drink I will miss at home. This stop ended being a fantastic choice, the roti came with a curry dipping sauce. Imagine fresh, warm, asian tortilla dipped in mildly spicy curry.

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The man who had explained the menu to us asked if he could join us at our table, and as there was no polite way to decline we said of course. He pulled up a chair and started to chat while eating his own breakfast, leading me to believe he was just a regular customer rather than a waiter like I had originally assumed. Rather than the creepy demeanor that I find in many Malaysian men he was incredibly friendly and spoke pretty comprehensive English, so our conversation was interesting and fun, not at all what I had expected. He told me I looked like the girl from the Titanic which sparked a discussion of where we were from, and then how there aren’t many American or Canadian tourists in Penang. He seemed more comfortable talking to Brandi, I think because she is asian and more familiar looking (although still from Canada) than my blonde, white self. When we finished our meal without ever having him hit on us (a rare occurrence, malaysian men can be very forward) we paid less than a dollar each for our delicious roti and set off on more exploring.

The rest of the day was spent walking around, and our friend Malini joined us halfway through. We found more wall art and looked in some cute shops, failed at going in temples by not finding them or finding ones that were closed, and stopped for snacks along the way. We were headed to the Indonesian festival happening up by Fort Cornwallis when it started to rain, but as we had limited time we decided to keep going anyway. This turned out to be a mistake: the rain become a torrential downpour and the festival was far away and really boring. I can honestly say I had never been that soaked by rain in my entire life. My hair (which takes a full 20 seconds to get completely wet in the shower) was sopping, my dress was so wet the material changed consistency, and my friends were no better off. We would have hurried to find a taxi but we were so wet it didn’t matter, however once we got to the main street again we frantically hailed down the first taxi we found. Surprisingly the driver had no idea where our hostel was, and in fact couldn’t even find where we currently were on a map of the city. I pointed out our location a number of times, showing him the street signs near us and tracing a path to the street with our hostel, but he was utterly lost, an unappealing quality in the man driving the car. I directed him turn by turn until we were as close as we could get, and then we mad dashed back so we could dry off and be warm again.

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The rain didn’t let up that night, so a couple hours later we gave up waiting, borrowed some umbrellas, and set out for dinner. The chinese restaurant we ended up at was delicious, and then when our search for dessert prata came up nil we landed in a cafe for coffee and ice cream. The rain was hitting the roof so hard I couldn’t even hear our waiter talk. The downpour did have the positive side effect of driving all the cockroaches and rats into their hidey holes for the night, so our evening was damp but pest free.

Brandi and I got un unreasonably early the next morning to catch our flight home, and that was the totality of my trip to Penang. Brief, but lovely.

I’m off on another weekend trip tomorrow, this time to Malaysian Borneo, specifically the area called Sabah, and within that the city called Kota Kinabalu. I’m traveling solo for the first time, and I am simultaneously nervous and stoked to try out my luck at making hostel friends and finding cool things to do on my own. I’ll be posting again next week about my adventures, but I have a large lab report and a ten page paper due so it might be delayed (much like this post was). I apologize for the spotty blogging but this whole school business is really messing up my free time. Who knew?

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