We originally decided to come to Penang because my long-time friend Sue heard there was great food and nice beaches and lots of street art. Sue was originally my bellydancing teacher (about 16 years ago) which evolved into being troupemates and great friends. After this plan came together, my friend Dave said he also wanted to meet up. Dave and I met in high school in England (though he is originally Australian and now lives in SF). Sue & Dave picked overlapping dates so it was incredibly nice to spend some time with two very close friends, especially during the election… There was no need for superficial travel talk – we jumped right past that to politics (lots and lots of politics), life plans, and inappropriate jokes/insults.
We used Dave’s arrival as an excuse to check into a cute little boutique hotel in the middle of the Heritage area. It was walkable to all the street art and best food spots, plus there was so much free stuff in the hotel I doubt we’d have a chance to try it all – breakfast, afternoon tea, wine on the roof deck in the evening, movies & popcorn & ice cream at night. (We did make it to wine one night, and now we understand why it was free… everything else was great, though!)
One thing all the locals mentioned was going up Penang Hill for a view of the city. We bought tickets for the funicular, which was a surprisingly fast trip to the top (it only took about 10 minutes to get to 833 meters/2700 feet).
Once there, you were rewarded with a decent view of George Town… but not much else. There was a small collection of hawker stalls selling food, a hindu temple, and then a bunch of strange tourist attractions like an “owl museum” (which was just sculpture of owls, based on the posters), a “typhoon experience” (still not sure what that was), and stalls selling annoying bird whistles to children or wax sculptures of your own hands (why?).
We had a quick look at the temple and saw some wild monkeys behind it. I also had what turned out to be the best coconut milkshake of the trip before Dave suggested we try walking down. The top of the trail looked like a nice, wide paved path of stairs. I knew that this was deceptive, yet I still agreed to follow the guys anyways (in my sundress and sandals, carrying my purse).
About 90 minutes later we finally made it to the midway station, sweaty and filthy. As predicted, the nice path rapidly deteriorated into a steep, muddy slope. At one point, I nearly slipped into what I can only assume was a river of sewage based on the smell. There were plenty of mosquitos plus many other large insects along the way. (Why do I keep doing this to myself?!) On the plus side, we did see more wild monkeys. While I have to admit it was much more exciting this way, I was very happy to take the funicular the rest of the way down.
Once Sue arrived we signed on for a Penang Food Tour. Given that Sue can’t eat cilantro, Dave is allergic to peanuts and I am vegetarian, it seemed wise to get a guide. (The German eats everything and loves spicy food, so at least one of us made it easy on them.)
We spent 4 hours going to 5 different stops and ate entirely too much food. The locals don’t have any prescribed order, so it started with dessert, then appetizers, some salted fruit, then “dinner”, and the final stop included Indian desserts and curry (presented in that order). It was a great way to hit all the culinary highlights in one night, and we all tried things we never would have otherwise ordered. It was certainly worth doing, and we were much more prepared for the hawker centres for the rest of the trip!
We planned to spend a couple nights at the beach town of Batu Ferringhi. (No connection to the Ferengi race from Star Trek.)
We started in an AirBnB on the beach with a huge pool that we rarely had to share with anyone. Though it rained every day, the storms came and left quickly. The German was fascinated that Sue & I, who have been residing in drought-plagued California for decades, were so excited by all the thunder & lightening.
We seemed to alternate between hanging out by the pool, spending lots of time on the internet, or drinking away our election worries.
One Friday afternoon we found a great beach bar with a nice view of the water and the sunset. Just as we received our drinks, a thick cloud of smoke started to move in… our waiter quickly ushered us closer to shore where they had a roof and fans, but the smell was getting more and more noxious. The staff all started to cover their noses and mouths with clothing or napkins – not a good sign. It turns out the city decided to “fog” for mosquitos… right around sunset when the beach was full of people! I’m pretty sure my lungs are now mosquito-proof. (Yuck)
Sue and I never shy away from a photo opportunity and Penang provided plenty of material to work with… the highlight was the “Upside Down Museum”, where they help you take ridiculous photos in strange environments. (It’s like it was made for us, honestly.) But there was also a lot of street art and random statues, which we out to good use!
24 Hours in KL
We had 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur with Sue after Dave went back to SF. We were pleasantly surprised to find our 2 bedroom hotel room was larger than two SF apartments put together. It had a great view of the city from the 46th floor and was nicely appointed – we immediately regretted we were only there for one night!
We ventured out for coffee and a snack. I discovered we were very close to a vegetarian hawker center, which meant I could try any of the local dishes without fear of accidental prawns or surprise sausage. I loved it so much that I went back the next morning and had curried noodles for breakfast – they were that good.
Afterwards, we got caught in a crazy flash flood – it turned from blue skies to torrential rain in the blink of an eye. We called an Uber to get us to the Pertronas Towers (the 88 story twin towers with an amazing view of KL) and in the few seconds it took me to dash out and check the license plate, I was soaked… it looked like I had just taken a shower or that we had been walking through the rain for hours. Our Uber driver carefully negotiated flooded streets to get us there. So that’s our excuse for looking so ridiculous in the photos.
We wisely chose to hunker down in our awesome hotel room with wine & cheese after that.
I think Malaysia liked us, as each of us had our own version of departure dramas. Dave missed his outgoing flight entirely – he misread the departure time, and didn’t realize it until an hour before his departure (and we were an hour away from the airport).
The German & I had a flight out of KL a couple hours after Sue’s so we all went to the airport together. Everything was going well, until at some point our Uber driver decided to bypass the airport and drive us to the middle of nowhere. (The German was reading on his phone and Sue & I were chatting away in the back seat as we approached the airport, so I’m not sure where it all went wrong.) As the driver blew past a sign indicating a turn to the airport and headed down a dirt road, we tried to correct him but he was reluctant to listen to us. We got to the airport an hour before Sue’s departure, which was cutting it a little close but she made it just fine.
Breathing a sigh of relief that Sue made it ok, The German and I leisurely headed to check in to our flight to Bangkok. Unfortunately, we didn’t have exit plans solidified for Thailand, so they denied us our boarding pass. Thanks to all of our UAL miles we were able to sort that out without spending a fortune, but it turned out to be lucky that we had some extra time!
I was excited that The German was able to get us lounge access thanks to his BA status – a glass of sparkling wine was necessary after all the departure stress!
So now we are off to Thailand…