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Penang – The place that has it all.

On the way out of Singapore we were slightly done by the taxi driver. They are something of an occupational hazard as a traveller and we try to avoid using taxis if at all possible. It was a tried and tested trick, the meter was on target and the fare looked right, then as we arrived at the bus station he reached across and flicked a button on the meter, the fair then doubled. I had hoped Singapore was above all that, I suppose not.

Our night coach to Penang was luxury, only three seats across. Seats that reclined almost flat and a seat-back TV with films on demand. Better than any bus I’ve seen in the UK. The only problem was the turbo blasting air conditioning. It was like stepping outside your tent in Antarctica, CM was not amused. But the journey was as good as could be, and we arrived about 7:00am as expected on Penang Island, via the very long roadbridge.

Penang was a major trading port in the empire days, there are still many grand colonial buildings dotted about. The place had ‘The British were here’ stamped across it. We headed for Georgetown where there was a big clocktower monument from the time of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The old town is now a heritage preservation area, there are also a lot of old Chinese shop houses. Used as everything from engineering workshops to cheap hotels. I had an enjoyable week here 20 years ago and it looked much the same, a quaint yet busy working town. We found a basic room for the first night, and then located the ‘good but cheap’ Chinese hotel and stayed there for the duration. People are friendly in Malaysia, and more so in towns where tourists are a common site. Most also speak English and will sometimes just come and say hello and ask you if you like Malaysia, and whereabouts you come from. It’s an easy place to travel in, you feel that generally public goodwill is on your side and you don’t have to carefully count the change every time you make a purchase. Georgetown is truly multicultural, I wandered out to the cash machine early one morning, I passed the Chinese temple where the burning joss sticks were 6tf tall and causing a pungent smokescreen. Chinese people stood outside worshipping their ancestors, at the same time the Christian church nearby was peeling its bell. The pavement opposite was full of Indian diners, sitting chatting over their spicy breakfast and stretched tea. Then there were the random Europeans like me, soaking it all up.

We hired a scooter and rode around the island, a distance of about 50 miles. The east coast was congested and full of high rise tower blocks, nothing to see here. The west coast and centre though was still mostly rainforest, quite hilly with good roads and little traffic. Perfect biking territory in perfect weather.

Just north of Georgetown is a holiday resort area called Batu Ferringhi, dozens of high rise hotels and a small beach area. All of it fairly new and fairly soulless. If you take a two week package holiday to Penang this is no doubt where you’ll be sent. It was like a smarter version of Torramalinos, we didn’t stop. We did stop at a siding on the coast road where there were a few outdoor cafés right beside the beach. This was a local beach, local families playing on the sand and in the water. Much fun was being had, although slightly less by most of the girls. As faith dictates they remained fully clothed with heads covered. It was about thirty degrees and while the girls got their ankles wet, the boys splashed and swam. The girls stood and watched, but fun by proxy is a secondhand experience. It was here that I partook in an iced Kacang (pronounced Kachang). It’s a fruit and vegetable dessert that is made mostly from ice shavings milled from an adapted workshop pillar drill. Added to that is chopped lychee, star fruit, berries, and curiously some kidney beans and topping of sweetcorn in syrup. Sounds an odd combination but it’s deliciously quenching on a hot day. It’s not everyday that you’re introduced to an exotic new dessert.

The Ice Kacang production facility

The Ice Kacang in all it's frozen glory

Back in Penang we met a few other travellers and ended up having a night on the town with them. We went to a place that was a big food court with live music where some not unattractive girls danced and sang to the diners. Sort of like an old Top Rank club, Malay style. There were about 10 on our table and we ordered the mighty Carlsberg Tower, two of them. See the pictures below, it wasn’t cheap and is also smaller than it looks as a thick tube of ice runs through the middle. The waitresses refill your glass after almost very sip, they are intent on the tower being drained as fast as possible, so a refill can be ordered.

The empty beer towers and our group at the Red Dragon night market/entertainment complex

By the time ours was finished the dancing girls were around our table goading us to do a conga around the room. We were the only big group of tourists and had drunk most of the beer. CM needed no encouragement by this point and was rallying the troops. The mostly local, sober and more conservative locals looked on at the raucous tourists. No doubt they blamed it all on the Carlsberg beer tower, and they’d be right. It was a good night out with a group of people who’d only just met a couple of hours before, much fun was had.

CM hunkers down to a tasty Tom Yam soup at Penang's newest food court

Penang is renowned for having the best food in Malaysia, the melting pot of cultures means all sorts are on offer, including many varieties of cuisine I’d never heard of. Much of what’s on offer is sold by street vendors who appear in the early evening with mobile kitchen and plastic tables and chairs. The rest is served in dozens of budget priced restaurants, mostly of the Indian, Chinese and Malay variety. Needless to say our time was spent in the Little India area. We had some great meals, including curry for breakfast in the form of the traditional Roti Canai, CM is hooked on those. Although not as hooked as on Nasi Lemak, which is a rice and coconut based small breakfast. It comes in a banana leaf or newspaper and one serve costs about 30p. A good one sets you up for the day. Below are a few pictures taken on the street showing the food related street life.

The Reggae Bar's BBQ dinner. Note the fish cleverly carved from carrots!

Having a late night curry on the street in Penang. Total bill for five people was £3.50, and they refused to accept any tip.

This lady could cook up a great meal in a few minutes. I had spicy prawn noodles which were lovely.

Note the Reggae Club. Every tourist town near the sea has a reggae bar with Bob Marley on a permanent loop.

We both ate well in Penang, staying here would be the ruination of my diet.

Finally, we were lucky enough to be in town when there was a motorcycle street race on. Several streets were fenced off and a street track was created, the racing bikes were not big GP bikes but tuned up scooter style bikes. This was serious racing, but affordable  and still quite fast. These 125cc bikes are based on the scooters that everyone rides here, these tuned versions  can reach 100mph. About 50 racers at a time took to the track and the sound was impressive. It’s amazing how this scooter design from the 1960′s has evolved into the still desirable machines of today. A new road going scooter of this type costs only around $1000 new.

For the bikers reading here are a few pictures.

The Suzuki GSX-R scooter

The Honda RSR scooter

Knee down on the corners

Lastly,  there was a bit of a road show beside the track. We went in admired the bikes and the roadshow girls wanted my picture, who was I to let them down. For just a moment I felt like Bradd Pitt.

Local beauties and the beast. Somebody's got to do it!

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2 Responses to “Penang – The place that has it all.”

  1. Dee Tee says:

    I suspect you may not have fallen to an unscrupulous taxi driver, but rather, to Singapore’s somewhat arbitrary taxi surcharges to the unsuspecting.

    There are a number of gantries that charge drivers automatically as they enter certain areas or utilise certain roads at designated times.

    • traveller2011 says:

      Agreed, although our trip was a quick five minutes through the back streets, we could have walked it but we were short on time. The hotel receptionist had already got us a price in advance, adding in the surcharges, the press of the button on the drivers meter on arrival doubled that figure.

      In the scheme of things it’s nothing, it’s just that when you’ve been had several times before it gets a bit wearing. Thanks for your comment though.

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