Updated: Jul 4, 2021
Walking down one of the streets in Georgetown, the mixture of languages combined with
delicious scents of garlic, onions and curry really reminds one that you are a citizen of a wide, wide world. Malay, Indian and Chinese hawkers have food stalls set up on every block, alongside brick-and-mortar restaurants with everything from local to European or American. “You go to Penang to eat” is what we had heard most often before arriving – and yes – it is a fact!
Penang is a district, island and city on the west coast of Malaysia. It guards the strategic Malacca Strait where ships must pass whilst traveling between the Indian Ocean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south and west. “Modern history” of Penang starts in the late 18th century when the British East India Company established a base on the island and received ownership from the ruling Malay Sultan in return for expelling the Siamese influences. Penang was renamed Price of Wales Island and Georgetown was founded, named after King George III, and is the capital city of the island, facing east towards the mainland.
Three main types of architecture stand out in Georgetown with the oldest being the Chinese influence from immigrants brought in for tin mining, then the colonial-era English buildings including the city hall and St. Georges Church, and finally post-modern skyscrapers and condos. Various other shophouses, warehouses, Indian stores, cafes and scooter service bays line the streets.
Religious and cultural diversity is the rule and Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, one of the four original streets of the historical settlement, is now known as The Street of Harmony. Muslim mosques, Chinese & Hindu temples and Christian churches stand next to each other with steady streams of followers moving through the streets and buildings. The Penang Global Ethic Project, a collaboration between academics and activists that encourages dialogue between different faiths, has been working to promote the city as the modern home of the ancient “golden rule” – a principle found in various forms in all world religions of treating others as you wish to be treated yourself.
We could not find a nice homestay close into the town center so chose to stay at M Summit 191, a 24 story condo on busy Magazine Street, and checked in to a large suite with wood floors, kitchen, huge bedroom, bath and TV on Tuesday, October 22nd. We’re not on the beach – but not exactly roughing it either. Directly across the street is the Komtar Tower – the tallest building in Penang – surrounded by an entertainment complex replete with Jurassic Park dinosaurs and a giant 5 floor shopping mall. The ground level has a bus station and dozens of hawker stalls.
For the remainder of Tuesday & Wednesday we walked the streets of Georgetown just absorbing the multitude of sights, sounds and smells, and enjoying a delicious Thai lunch at Boat Noodles. Susie spent some time in an optometrist looking for some prescription sunglasses but decided to get them from Zenni online. I picked up a small USB mouse at one of the ubiquitous computer shops.
First on the agenda for Thursday was a free walking tour of Georgetown sponsored by the
city tourist agency. Our group of 20 was led by a 4th generation Chinese /Malay gentleman who was well versed in the local history of the town and buildings we saw. He explained that the colorful decorations on many shops and stores were for the celebration of Diwali (aka Deepavali), a major Hindu holiday celebrating the victory of light over darkness. He added that with so many religions in Georgetown there was some type of holiday or festival almost every week.
Tin was a major export for Malaysia and many Chinese were brought in to work in the mines, as well as working the docks and fishing. Different clans became power brokers for this labor market, offering support to new immigrants in return for unequivocal loyalty – and a fee. These clans turned into a version of organized crime in the area, and during British Colonial times they built their clan-houses on long piers extending into the bay to avoid paying a land
tax to The Crown. Our guide pointed out several of the large clan houses in town and we walked through one of the large Chinese temples connected to the boss’s house. The fancy ironwork on the gates and fences was cast iron brought over from Scotland. When the tour finished it was time for lunch so we sat down at Restoran Kapitan in Little India for some “World Class Naan Bread and Claypot Briyani”. It was very tasty – and pretty spicy too!
Georgetown is also known for its imaginative street art that was commission by the city to promote tourism. (See our video page for a look at some of these very cool works.) There is also a series of 2D iron rod sculptures on the side of buildings depicting various events and scenes throughout history of Georgetown. We tried to hunt down most of the famous art works and many of the pieces had throngs of folks posing for photos with them. Susie had to try the fried oyster omelet from a hawker while I had some fried noodles for brunch, and for dinner – Subway! Haha….
Penang has some nice botanical gardens, so we took a Grab (similar to Uber) over there on Saturday & picked up a guided tour. There were many people jogging and exercising in the morning before the temp got up to 90. Parts of the garden were closed so our tour mainly focused on an area with dozens (hundreds?) of varieties of bamboo. All I knew about this fast-growing grass is that there are “clumping” and “running” varieties, and we had inadvertently purchased the latter for a hedge around our pool at Casa Bonita. A mistake that took 3 years and many hours of hard, sweaty labor to correct!
Bamboos have played a sizable role in culture and economics in Asia, being used in everything from food to building materials. Some species have a higher compressive and tensile strength than wood, brick, concrete or steel. Complete homes are built from bamboo and moved from place to place. The fastest growing variety can add 36” within 24 hours!
“Western” brunch of coffee, eggs, beans & toast at a nearby hawker stand, and then a Grab
back to the room to relax. And speaking of coffee, that is a daily topic. You may know that Susie has always been a coffee snob – I mean connoisseur. She had her special beans, grinder, half’n’half, and no sugar. I never cared for coffee by itself, but kinda developed an addiction to Starbucks bottled Mocha Frappuccinos. Well – traveling around Asia necessitated all kinds of changes.
There are Starbucks in almost every decent sized town and airport, but they don’t have those bottles. Some type of coffee pot and coffee mix is usually provided in the rooms, but the taste and quality varies widely. Penang is also famous for White Coffee – they have banners for it everywhere. Made of beans that have been roasted in margarine and then ground, brewed, and served with sweetened condensed milk.
Susie has been good about adapting to whatever is available and will always find something, but I don’t mind skipping the morning Joe. What we have found in Malaysia and Thailand is most places use sweetened condensed milk for the “cream” so it is automatically sweet. Put that over ice and suits me just fine. Then an occasional Mocha latte with whipped cream at Starbucks and life is good!
That evening we attended "An Evening of Lights at Khoo Kongsi” featuring traditional
Chinese dancing and music at the beautiful Khoo Kongsi clanshouse and temple. There were many culutural and folk dances culminating in the dramatic Lion Dance.
Sunday morning I was looking through the map and realized that the Hin Bus Depot, which supposedly had several street art pieces, was just down the street from our hotel. After walking back and forth along the street looking at Maps.me we finally decided to walk into a small café and realized the back of it opened into a huge courtyard full of people, stalls, music and art. One sidewalk had been covered with Diwali symbols made from colored sand which the children were systematically moving around. There were quite a few sculptures and paintings in the space, including a very cool VW microbus/pickup conversion that Susie climbed into, until she realized it belonged to the portable-bar people!
That afternoon we walked back to the mall and were greeted with loud dance music filling the air. Halloween decorations were everywhere and the main floor was packed with people dancing in unison, many in costumes, with a small group leading them from up on stage. Looked like maybe a Zumba class or something like that. There were various booths setup around the floor selling costumes, trinkets and food. Fun!
Susie set up a bicycle tour for Monday so that morning we walked downtown to meet our guided Eddie Chew. He explained how he grew up on the Chew Clan Jetty, one of the larger clan houses on the piers over the bay as he drove us to the west side of the island. After
picking out our well-worn but serviceable bikes at the Audi Dream Farm we headed south on a dirt path alongside a muddy canal. Only a short time passed before we spotted a bright blue kingfisher overhead and a large family of otters in the canal, who ran up the bank and over as we approached, pausing to momentarily stand and observe us like prairie dogs.
Our ride took us through a small palm oil plantation and Saanen Dairy Goat Farm that produced dairy products and gave tourist tours. We stopped at a small Chinese fishing village where most of the boats are not used anymore. Eddie took us into a small Taoist temple and showed us how to purchase some incense and Chinese paper money, and the proper order of lighting the incense, offering thanks and burning some of the spirit money in the large metal incense burner.
Back at the Audi Dream Farm we walked around admiring the large variety of birds and animals, including a couple of sad looking camels. I did see one of the most beautiful birds ever – a red golden pheasant – aka Chinese pheasant. Absolutely gorgeous. It was in a small wire cage and my photos did not come out very well.
Eddie drove us back to town and dropped us off at the large Jetty Food Court where I had spotted a Texas BBQ sign! The delightful Malay woman running it said her husband had been in the US a few years ago and fell in love with BBQ, so they opened this stall. It was pretty darn tasty!
Our time was up at Summit and Susie had located an AirBnB run by an Irish couple over in the Straits Quay district on the north end. They only had 1 night open but we wanted to
meet them and get some insights as they had lived here for 10 years in one of only 10 private residences that was directly on the beach. Gerry was a real blues enthusiast so it didn’t take long for our conversation to turn towards favorite players and bands, so Susie and Theresa escaped to the kitchen for wine & other topics.
During these days we made 3 trips to the Thai Consulate to procure visas for our next stop in Thailand. Extra photos and lodging copies from a copy shop were added to our application and dropped off on the 2nd day, and our approved visas picked up 2 days later. The forms were pretty vague and no one at the consulate was inclined to give advice. We applied for 60 days and they gave us 90 days so all ended better than expected.
After the one night at G & Ts house we moved to another hi-rise complex called Straits Quay overlooking the north entrance to the bay and the newest land in Penang – an ongoing reclamation project of acres of sand and piers. The inner towers ringed a nice little marina with sail & power boats, and a number of shops and restaurants on the ground level. Right about this time my sore throat turned into a full blown bout of flu, and my amazing wife took great care of me while I stayed in bed and slept for about 4 days with alternating chills & sweats. Ugh.
Finally feeling a little better on Tuesday, we boarded a large bus with comfortable seats that carried us inland to the Cameron Highlands, leaving Penang and the western coast behind. We had debated about making this journey as the rainy season was starting and
temperatures were on the cool side, but on the other hand did not know when we would be back this way. Winding into the mountains of central Malaysia I first noticed small isolated hills, similar to some of the Karst formations on Langkawi. Farther into the interior the bus worked it’s way through many switchbacks as climbed to about 1440 meters (4,724’), with many large plastic-covered farms spread over the mountain sides. Tea, strawberries and flowers are the main crops along with a few other vegetables.
The British surveyor, Sir William Cameron, was credited with "discovering" the highlands during a mapping expedition of the Pahang-Perak border area in 1885. The area developed starting in the 1920s when it was confirmed that many varieties of fruits and vegetables, including tea, can be grown. Tea was the main reason for the development of this area by the British, but many British settlers came to this area as a "retreat" from the hot, humid climate of the rest of Malaysia.
It was almost dusk when we debarked from the bus and made our way up the main street, stepping into Starbucks (!) for a coffee & a snack. Of course, it started raining before we left so Susie ran next door and bought 4 cheap plastic ponchos to cover our bags and selves and walked the final kilometer up hill in the rain. We knew our room would not be luxurious
and it wasn’t – but it was clean. The shower was lukewarm – not enough to get the chill out of our bones – and there were only 2 very thin blankets. So that night we were wearing a lot of clothes to bed to try and get through the night.
The next day was mostly sunny and warm so we walked all around the small town of Tanah Rata – looking at shops and small parks but Thursday November 7th was the big day – an Explorer Tour with Eco Cameron. This group was highly recommended for their excellent rapport with guests as well as the work they give back to the community to preserve the flora and fauna.
Satya was our guide, driving a white 1990 Range Rover that served quite well on the rough mountain roads. As he drove us towards the Mossy Forest, Satya explained some of the background of the area and how conservation groups are working with the local businesses to maintain a balance between more development and preserving the woods and forest. Same old struggle going on everywhere. He has been involved in projects all over the world – from China to India to South America. He showed us some amazing photos he has taken while on assignment and is going to publish a book of photos soon.
The Mossy Forest is a narrow swath of nature along a 4km ridgeline were low level clouds blanket the forest with constant mist and moisture and is the highest terrain in Malaysia accessible by road. This creates a unique environment for a rich variety of moss, lichens, ferns and orchids, as well as certain insects, snakes, birds and mammals. We walked through an extensive pathway on a slippery boardwalk. Satya’s team was very surprised to find evidence of a big cat in the area a few months ago as this is way above their normal habitat. After much surveillance and work they captured not just a male black panther, but a female and cub on camera!
Driving down the mountain we stopped to visit the Boh Tea Plantation, one of the largest in the area and setup to receive visitors. The hillsides are completely covered with tea plants that are about chest high, with orderly rows running through the fields. The harvesters walk through these rows in pairs holding a harvesting machine that works similar to a hedge clipper, cutting the tops off the plants and blowing them into a sack.
Satya explained how the tea is grown and harvested, and we were able to take a quick walk through one of the buildings where they showed the machines for grinding, sorting and drying the tea leaves. Of course, there was a café and gift shop to try different teas and pick up souvenirs.
Back to town for lunch on our own, and then back in the RR for a hike in the cloud forest
through the Banjaran Titiwangsa mountain range that forms the backbone of the Malay Peninsula. Satya chose to start on Trail 2 at the Sam Poh Buddhist Temple near Brinchang and join Trail 5 to end up near MARDI in Tanah Ratah. A tough-to-moderate hike of about 2.5 hours through 5 different types of forest, starting with oak, then Montane, then…hmm…I forget the others. Many varieties of hardwoods, ferns, vines and bamboo filled the forest, with air plants and other symbiotic parasites connecting the canopy overhead, providing stability to the trees in high winds.
Hiking conditions were very similar to the Appalachians in many places, varying from level paths to holes and large roots, to steep grades where assists from vines or fellow hikers were required. Several of the steep ascents were quite taxing but Susie and I kept up with “the youngsters” fairly well! Satya was a wealth of information about many aspects of the forest and environs. The weather was warm and sunny but we were shaded 95% of the time so conditions were ideal in that aspect.
During the last hour we started descending, encountering some fairly steep steps and drops. The group was pushing a bit as one couple had to get on the evening bus out of town. I started to feel a little twinge in my left knee, and though I did my best to ignore it became quite demanding by the last 30 minutes, threatening to quit entirely if I didn’t ease up. Satya graciously loaned me his hiking pole and with that and a few brief stops made it back to the Range Rover. We are heaved a sigh of relief as we collapsed in the seats, and 3 minutes later the heavens opened up for a typical Cameron Highlands deluge!
Friday morning dawned overcast and drizzly, so we were glad to board the bus and head back to the lowlands – this time to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. Just for a couple of nights and then off to Thailand. Gerry & Theresa from Penang had mentioned some friends in KL that had an AirBnB so after arriving at the bus station we hailed a Grab to the south suburbs where Shervan & Parisa have a condo with a spare bedroom & batch.
This lovely young couple came from Iran and have been living in KL for 10 years with their cat Pishi. Parisa teaches science in middle school and Shervan is finishing his Phd in Chemical Engineering. They are ready to move somewhere else to advance their careers but are
limited due to their Iranian citizenship.
Parisa had to fly to Singapore the next day for a presentation so we accompanied them to the mall while she completed her wardrobe, then went for a tasty dinner at Aldos in the mall. Next day we walked to the nearby laundromat and had a great lunch at an outdoor food stall, then back to the condo and some reading by the pool.
Next day we packed up and Shervan drove us to the new airport outside of town, as we observed all the construction going on alongside the highway – which had toll booths every 5 km. Kuala Lumpur is a huge city of 1.7 million souls, and is the cultural, financial and economic center of Malaysia. Maybe next time we will explore more of KL, and get to the top of the Petronas Twin Towers, tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004.
Malaysia was full of surprises and unexpected delights. It has an incredible mixture of people, culture, religion and cuisine. We have met such a wide range of people and they have all been so incredibly warm and welcoming. We will be back for sure, and two areas on the list are the Perhentian Islands off the northeast coast for, and the jungle giant island of Borneo to the SE. After the rainy season!