Penang, Malaysia had been on our bucket list since before we even knew what country it was in (😳embarrassing)! One sleepy afternoon years ago, we were watching Anthony Bourdain on “Parts Unknown” stuff his face at Line Clear in Georgetown and decided then and there that any trip to Asia would have to include Penang. After all, it was street food heaven right? We had five nights planned! We decided to stay at the Tipsy Tiger Party Hostel because everyone on the backpacker trail was talking about it. The price was kind of high at 40 Ringgit for a dorm bed but included was free breakfast, all-day coffee and water, and two strong drinks at the bar. The bar area closes at 11 after the nightly beer pong tournament then everyone goes on a pub crawl down the street to Love Lane where you can continue the party as late as your heart desires.
The Tispy Tiger was a good time but after two nights of craziness we were ready for something more chill. Our second accommodation, The Frame Guesthouse, a very zen/minimalist place with cedar ceilings and antique stairways. We really liked our private room here and stayed for three nights enjoying the AC and waterfall showers.
The highlight of Penang for us was the street food. Every corner had different stuff and you could really experience the fusion of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cuisines. We tried to eat as much as possible, always opting for fourth and sometimes fifth meal. It was a hard life. Most of the food vendors have a few tables where you can sit and eat, and most require you to buy a bevarage- beer, soda or fresh-squeezed juice- if you use the table. It really was a street food heaven. Here are our favorites!
One of the best places to eat is the famous Red Garden Food Paradise. They usually have some singers and dancers in the center stage and around the edges there are so many different food vendors selling dishes from all over the world. It has a very classic feel with red plastic chairs and happy families sharing tables stacked with food. It’s always busy and opens at 6pm nightly.
My favorite late night spot was the 24-hour joint Line Clear. Always a line and barely a menu, they kind of yell “What do you want?” when you get to the front then they slop it on a plate with rice and you get a scoop of sauce from each of the curries. The food they sell is called nasi kandar, which pretty much means “country rice.” It’s simple and everything you ever wanted after having a few beers on Love Lane. Street Food Heaven indeed!
Georgetown is unique in Asia because it largely avoided the bombings of World War II and the following wars. Only a few bombs were dropped there so the old architecture has remained, giving the city a whole lot of character. The only negative is the lack of sidewalks; you basically just walk along the side of the road and hope you don’t get clobbered by a drunk, texting motorbiker. There was a lot of unique street art, most memorable of which were the cartoon wire sculptures depicting life in Penang throughout the years.
As in the rest of Malaysia, the mishmash of cultures and religious blends peacefully and beautifully in Penang. So, I’ll leave you with a sunset over the downtown mosque and Hindu temple.
From the Cameron Highlands we left early in a van headed east, our destination was the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia’s diving paradise. Down the hill we drove super fast through heavy rain. We passed some amazing rock walls that I hoped to come back to climb someday. The culture became more and more Islamic with most signs written in Arabic and few women without hijab. In Kuala Besut we were left at the jetty where the boats to the islands leave. Our boat was included in the transportation price but we had to pay 30 Ringgit each to enter the islands, a conservation fee. We loaded our stuff onto a boat after about an hour of waiting then moved everyone’s stuff around again a couple more times because no one took charge of telling us where on the boat to put the luggage. (Culture=no one likes to show authority.). The boat ride was overloaded and a little sketchy but we made it just fine. There are two islands, one with the resorts and an older crowd (Pulau Besar) and one a little smaller with the backpacker/diver folks (Pulau Kecil). We chose Long Beach on Kecil Island, a paradise with white sands and blue blue water. We stayed in a bungalow seconds from the water at the Lemongrass Guesthouse. The friendly owner explained the snorkeling options and we were excited to see some sea life. The area was a mecca for divers with amazing coral and sharks and sea turtles but we haven’t gotten into that whole scene yet – we are still stoked about snorkeling (for now).
From Long Beach you can hike to many other beaches on the island, the closest of which being Coral Beach, not as nice but having some cheaper (better?) food options. When we find decent food we usually will go there a bunch of times over a few days. Our spot was Ewan’s Cafe, midway on the trail from Long Beach to Coral Beach. They had a large menu of cheap Malaysian food and western favorites. We ate there maybe 6-7 times and it was all pretty good. Our absolute favorite spot though was at the end of the trail just onto Coral Beach, a guy with a sign Fatimah’s “Best Roti Canai” and it really was the best. Roti canai is a folded flat bread with bananas or egg or tuna inside and is served with curry sauce for dipping. You had to get there at the right time though because they would sell out rather quickly when the bread was ready.
The island was pretty relaxed during the day but at night several beach bars would open up and after 11 there was always a DJ playing electronic music that turned pretty clubby. The highlight was the fire spinners who would post up in front of each of the popular places. They were really talented, rivaling the best spinners we’ve scene at Burning Man. We watched them for hours and I talked to them about how they built their sticks, looking forward to making one myself. The beach was the only spot to be at night besides in bed under your mosquito net as the bugs got bad the further you strayed from the sea breeze.
Snorkeling was definitely the best thing we did on the Perhentian Islands. We payed for a tour through the Lemongrass where we were staying and left a little after 11am on a boat with another American, one French girl, and a group of Malaysians. They took us to several spots around the island – Shark Point, Turtle Bay, and a few others. I saw a two foot shark at Shark Point, small but cool, and at every spot there was amazing coral of all sorts. We saw beautiful schools of parrot fish, a green and blue sting ray, and the star of the show was a giant sea turtle. The turtle was so impressive and I was able to swim underneath it when it surfaced for air.
We took a pit stop for lunch at a local village near the Silver Mosque which was in the middle of the call to prayer when we arrived. The scene seemed surreal with the beautiful shining building and the village and the perfect blue sky reflecting in the water.
The sad part about snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands was the lack of education that the guides gave the tourists. Many of the local people couldn’t swim and would stand on top of the coral, breaking it with their fins. It was heartbreaking to watch, mainly because of how avoidable it was. With coral dying all over the world, it is more important than ever to take care of what remains. Elsewhere in Malaysia, we had started yelling at people when they threw trash on the ground because it ruins my world and your world and everyone’s world. I think just having the fear that some white dude is going to come yelling at them might keep them from doing it again. However, I didn’t feel right trying to tell the snorkeling guides that they needed to instruct these coral standers, and I don’t think it would have changed anything. Like I said before, in Malaysian culture no one likes to give directions or show authority over anyone else. But if I see a western person standing on coral I’m going to show you my scary side and it best be the last time you do it.
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Another interesting thing on the island was the giant monitor lizards. They would eat your kittens if you let them stray and our guesthouse host spent most of his day making sure his little kitties didn’t wander around the wrong corner.
We spent four lovely days in the Perhenthian Islands and it was a little sad to leave. But we were headed to Penang and we were so excited for the food. We carried our backpacks all the way across Long Beach to the pier, passing all the silly kids who had shown up with rolling suitcases. Seriously, why do so many people bring those things to the beach? We waiting around the pier watching a young Malaysian couple snorkeling in the water below. They were so different from us bare-it-all westerners, trying to swim while holding hands, the girl covered in hijab and a head-to-toe conservative swimming outfit. Even the men were nervous about taking their shirts off, always replacing them for pictures. Eventually we were shuffled onto a boat and made the rounds collecting people from other beaches before heading back to the main land.
We took a taxi from the pier to the bus station where we got a local bus to Kota Bharu. We stayed at Zech’s Guesthouse, owned by a super friendly older couple. Zech, a faithful Muslim, was excited to share a name with me. As I remembered from Morocco, when people hear my name it brings about many questions. I feel like there are more Muslim Zecks than Christian Zachs and the name seems to gain me instant respect. We talked a little bit after being shown all the room options and they told us about a great night food market where we got the blue rice which is colored with a flower and famous in the region. In the morning after his pre-sunrise prayers, Papa Zech drove us to the airport because it was too early for taxis. He told us of his recent trip to Mecca, a pilgrimage that he was proud to have finally completed. We arrived early like good travelers but most people didn’t get to the airport until 40 minutes before their flight. There were only six other passengers and our “private” jet was the easiest flight we have ever taken. At least it wasn’t Malaysian Airlines, which has a nasty reputation for disappearing into thin air. Next up… Georgetown, Penang!!!!
On our way to the Cameron Highlands in the mountains of central Malaysia, we experienced our first breaths of cool air in some weeks. Everything was green and full of life as our bus wound its way slowly up and up, honking before the tight turns to warn oncoming traffic that we wouldn’t be slowing down. The weather was so beautiful with clouds drifting across the mountain tops. Our destination was Tanah Rata, the main town for adventures in the Cameron Highlands. We dropped our stuff at Kang Travellers Lodge, a simple guest house with cheap rooms and friendly staff. Rain clouds started to roll in but we were able to hike to a small waterfall before the downpour.
The main drag in town was very touristy but there were a few good Indian restaurants that were not expensive. After dinner we went home and realized there was a bar attached to our guesthouse– Jungle Bar. It was the first real bar we had been to in Malaysia. Many of the towns are very Islamic and there are not a lot of parties happening. Jungle Bar had a pool table and fireplace and a good collection of travelers to talk to. It was a great dive bar with a fun atmosphere and just what we needed after only talking to each other for the past week or so.
The next morning we got up early as we had scheduled one of the tours from an agency in town. All the companies sell pretty much the same thing for the same price and take you to different places around the area. I think it was 45 Ringgit per person ($10) and lasted most of the day. Our first stop was a butterfly sanctuary. The first room was full of Birdwings, the national butterfly of Malaysia, a big blue one that didn’t want to fly very much because of the lack of sunshine.
They also had many other insects and reptiles. My favorites were the stick insects and other bugs that blended in perfectly with the trees. It was a challenge to find each one. There were also toads that looked exactly like the leaves they were resting in. The flowers were amazing as well; we really enjoyed the place and would never have found it without being on the tour of the Cameron Highlands.
Our next stop was a tea plantation. We had never seen tea growing before so it was cool to learn about the process. Boh (“Best of Highlands”) Tea was still owned by the Scottish family who has owed it since the 1800s. Many workers were trimming the tops of the bushes with giant hedge saws that deposited the cuttings into large sacks. The leaves were then taken to be sorted and processed in different ways to make the different tea styles. They are still using the same labor contract that was created when the plantation opened, with workers working six days a week for very low wages. Most of the laborers were immigrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal. Most of the tea produced was consumed domestically, with some being exported but only to Indonesia and other nearby countries. The landscape was majestic and they had a nice tea shop and cafe to enjoy the view of the nearby hills.
There were six other people in our group and we ended up making friends with a British couple. They were on an indefinite trip as well so we shared stories of our adventures. After the tea plantation we got back into our Jeep and drove up a steep road. The vegetation got thicker and thicker and our driver stopped along the way to identify different plants and let us smell things like tiger balm, citronella, and eucalyptus. At the top of the hill was a path leading into the Mossy Forest. This area was under a misty cloud 95% of the year which created a very surreal environment where moss grows on everything and thousands of types of plants flourished. It reminded me of FernGully, a great movie from our childhood that was ripped off by stupid Avatar.
After the Mossy Forest we stopped at an organic strawberry farm where they sold everything from boxes of berries to berry coffees to berry shakes.
From there they left us at a hiking trail (Trail #3) that lead to another trail (Trail #5) which took us back into town. It was a cool 1.5 hour trek through the jungle and we had a lot of fun. Luckily we had our rain gear because it started coming down hard near the end.
We really enjoyed the Cameron Highlands. It was wonderful to escape the constant heat and humidity of the lower altitudes and we always enjoy some outdoor time. Stay tuned for some Island time off the eastern coast of Malaysia!
Kuala Lumpur, or KL as everyone calls it, is the capital of Malaysia and one of the biggest economic centers of southeast Asia. We got off our bus from Malacca at the TBS Station, one of the biggest transit stations we’ve scene, and navigated our way to the metro train which took us downtown to our hostel. We stayed at the Reggae Mansion, a giant party hostel near Chinatown that seemed to be the most popular place to crash. It was a little pricey but the bed price included free drinks at their rooftop bar and it was a good opportunity to meet other travelers.
We didn’t accomplish a whole lot in KL because of how much it rained while we where there. Mostly I just wanted to look at the towers. The Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world when I was a child and were an inspiration for a lot of my engineering and architecture dreams.
Although not close to the tallest anything anymore, they were still very impressive especially at nighttime. There was also another huge tower which lit up with bright color-changing LEDs. They really know how to put on a light show in Asia (Singapore Supertrees and Malacca trishaws)! You could view them from the top of the Mansion so it was nice to play a game of pool and imagine the towers being built, the future looking down on the crumbling buildings beneath. The duality of the rich and poor, old and new is really quite striking especially in the big cities. People seem so excited to lurch ahead but don’t really stop to think about if they actually even should. But we’ll get more into this later.