We often play a little reminiscing game. What is one place you would like to be transported back to? Which is your most memorable meal? Where was the best seafood? Which place has the best coffee? Where can you see yourself living?Penang is on our list of “best ofs in SE Asia” (so far)
Best Assam Laksa
Best selection of foods
Best street Art
Most travelled and worldly bikers
Cheapest “quality food” – incredibly cheap!
Awesome cityscape skyline.
The immersion into different cultures when travelling overland by motorcycle is a gentle experience, akin to stepping into a warm bath with cold feet. After the initial shock, your body forgets the bath is even warm and you instinctively add more warm water. Then you just sit back and enjoy the moment.
On the other hand, being transplanted from one culture to another in just a plane ride is a buzz, a sensory shock from the new language, culture, signs, smells and sounds of the metropolis.
After having spent three months in SE Asia already I hadn’t really expected a huge shift in culture when we flew from Medan, Indonesia to Penang, Malaysia. The Straits of Malacca between the two countries is only a small distance and just an overnight vegetable boat ride for our motorbikes. It would be just like dipping our toes into the bath water. After all this is IndoChina-right?
Having picked our bikes up from Mr Lim and his vegetable boat, we rode across the Penang bridge towards Georgetown. The wormhole had transplanted us into a new world of spectacular bridge engineering, paved roads, faster travel, bike lanes and more. We had stepped into a sensory extravaganza.
Our first meal in Penang was at a Chinese shophouse in Georgetown, just across the road from our hotel. The wooden sign with gold lettering which hung over the door was the only indication that it was a Chinese establishment. Being greeted by the sounds and sights of Chinese-only language, I immediately felt that same rush of excitement of entering a new country.
There was definitely a cultural shift and we had to learn the unspoken rules.
First, we were asked if we wanted drinks and so chose the only drink we could recognise on the Chinese menu, Es The (Ice Tea) and were immediately asked to pay straight way. But we wanted lunch as well which didn’t seem to factor into our order and the “drinks man” just walked away. Fortunately an English speaking customer informed us that it is custom here to pay straight away. We thought that pretty strange. Before we could even ask about ordering food, two bowls of noodles were placed down in front of us, but without any utensils. The Chinese “noodle woman” promptly walked out of the shop leaving us with our noodles. However, she returned pretty quickly from the shop next door with chopsticks in hand. Again, we were asked to pay straight away.
The shop was a hive of ‘busyness’, with one person serving drinks and the woman serving her noodles from the portable cooking stall out front. It felt like we were eating in a cross between a street hawker and an open front restaurant. When choosing places to eat whilst travelling, the most important factor is how many locals are eating there. If it is empty, we stay away. Well this restaurant-shophouse was abuzz with Chinese locals, so we felt like it must have something going for it. And it did. The Hokkien noodles were delicious and so was the Es The.
Observation is the best tool a traveller can have in trying to understand the culture of a new place. So we just sat back, watched and listened and tried to understand this little establishment.
It seems there were two businesses in the one, the drinks-man and the noodle-lady. Hence the practice of paying as you go. Two people were sharing the one building and sharing the business. The shop next door was on hand to help out when a pair of chopsticks was needed. This restaurant was our opening of a door into a culture unique to the world.
The culture of Penang is what I would call a working historical artefact and for that reason the whole of Georgetown has been declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. It is recognised as a place where people of different cultures, Indian, Chinese, Malay and others live together in acceptance and harmony and have done so for centuries. The UNESCO site protects the values inherent in the town which emanate from a pot of cultures and religions, rooted in the history of Penang as an important trading town.
Georgetown celebrates and promotes its cultural diversity. A Mosque built in 1808 is just up the street from a large traditional Chinese clan house and temple. They are both one of many places of worship in the town. The call to prayer from the mosque plays stereo to the bells of a Cathedral.
Penang is equally famous for its food diversity and is recognised as one of Asia’s 10 Greatest Food Cities. Penang’s Assam Laksa received a 7th ranking in CNNs World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods in 2011.
After 4 months on the road, we both vote Penang food as the city with the most delicious culinary memories (alongside Ubud and Mauro Bungo) Penang food is multicultural and varied as befits the many awards received. Chinese and Malay cuisines combine to form dishes unique only to this area. The early Chinese settlers came to British Malay bringing with them their traditional foods which became infused with the local spices and flavours. Chinese is still their first language and you have to remind yourself that you are actually not in China.
Many food stalls are only open for breakfast, lunch or dinner and most of them have a one dish speciality, like Assam Laksa for breakfast. The food trail brochure for Penang is a great guide to have, but I can’t imagine having the time to sample all the dishes listed. Drinks are equally delicious and usually made from fresh ingredients. My favourite was hot ginger.
Street hawkers spring up at night in front of now closed lunch time shops. It is a town where you eat for the sake of eating, just so you don’t miss out on tasting a local speciality. And money is not an issue as the prices are amazingly cheap even for us Aussies whose dollar is diving.
It is also a town where you could not possibly see all the sights in just a week. The street art is fantastic and spread over the town. It is particularly amazing under the night lights of the town.
Four nights in Georgetown was not enough for us to see all the sites of Penang. Once again the rubber telegraph reached across the Malacca Straits and we were placed in the hands of some more wonderful bikers who “hosted”us in Malaysia and ensured we saw many sites in a short time.
Our main contact was Khalid, a member of the Penang Cops Bikers Club. Yes ‘cops’ does mean police. Khalid, who has experience police “escorting and protecting” dignitaries around town, escorted Con around the town one night whilst I was laid up in bed with my first bout of “Asia Belly”.
Con came back bragging that he had just had a cappuccino. Even in my gastric emergency, as a self-confessed caffeine addict , I was very jealous.
Fortunately, a few days later I did taste the cappuccino and I would go as far as to say, it is the best coffee we have had since leaving Bali. (Sorry Java and Sumatra!)
Khalid also used his influence to manage to allow us to ride up Penang Hill. What a treat! Apparently he had never been up there on his bike either.
The hospitality of bikers in Asia still amazes us. From one contact in Medan, Sumatera, grew another small network of Malaysian friends. An invitation to a BMW BBQ led to further friendships and an invitation to a day ride up the coast. Five of us had a great day together and they went out of their way to show us the sites all the way up to the Thai border. We revelled in the fast highways and predictable road surfaces. (Well actually Con revelled, I took a while to get used to speeds over 80km/h again. Now I had to ride not only Asian style in the traffic, but also at speed!) In Indonesia we were the ‘big bikes”, in Malaysia we were riding donkeys. I think ‘dinosaurs” was a term used.
Our Malaysian hosts were all keen travellers and why not. As islanders, in Australia we know not the ease of hopping across a border for a lunch stop or coffee. A border crossing cost of one ringgit to Thailand opens up the door of international travel to these bikers. A trip to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos,Cambodia and even China are “annual leave” destinations for them. They were able to offer us overlanders much valuable information, advice and, when needed, support and contacts across the borders.
We left Penang intending to do a loop around the Cameron Highlands, but unfortunately the 1 in 50 year floods sent us on detours and we made the decision to cross the border into Thailand through Sungai Kolok.
There were some definite highlights on the Malay Peninsula, but we were also very disappointed with the vast expanses of Palm Oil plantations. Riding through endless miles of a mono-culture gets pretty boring and I had given up hope of encountering the centuries old elephant trails across the road, so impetuously we drove into the southern states of Thailand not only against local advice, but also against the advice of the Australian Government.