Friday, August 10, 2012

Penang 2012: The Sick, The Hungry, and The Noisy

A short while ago I organized a trip to Penang island for no other reason than because it was there for the doing and it could be done. Heavens no, I sound like a spokesman for Nike. Scratch that, the real reason (plural, really) is rather long, tiresome, and localized so much that you probably wouldn't be interested in it anyway, which is why I'm letting you read it after the page break.

Why, thank you oh so much for clicking 'read more', or whatever you clicked. As promised, here's the reason we undertook a grueling 350km long journey on a weekend which we could have spent wasting away in bed: a month or so ago, a few friends and I popped over to Genting Highlands to waste a weekend. Two of them were from Penang, so we decided that the next time, we'd make the journey to them instead, to save them the trouble (never mind that Genting is out of town for the rest of us).

Well that was rather short. We decided (largely a unilateral decision by me, actually) to make the journey by overnight sleeper train, because (a) we would have a bed to sleep on on the way there, (b) we would wake up in Penang, (c) I'd much rather lie down on a bed in a shaky train, (d) I don't trust bus drivers enough to fall asleep at night on a bus while they drive over a cliff, and (e) the other two chaps who'd be making the journey with me had never traveled over land by train before, and thought it would be interesting.

Well actually they pretty much went with what I said. There was some unexpected trouble- one was sick and  had trouble sleeping throughout because of it (the shaking and multiple stops didn't help), and the other decided to use my phone to watch anime- all the way there, which gave me a shock when I woke up to reclaim it from him, and discovered that not only had either of them slept much despite having a long day ahead of us, but that my phone had a little red warning triangle on it, and it's battery was down to a miserable 10%. For the record, the show he watched was the ridiculous Level E.

We were probably the last to get off the train, when the conductor came around to poke at us saying that we'd reached our last stop, Butterworth. We didn't hear any announcement saying so, but I figured that that was the case since everyone else had gotten off and the train was dead quiet- a fact I ignored recognizing, being somewhat too groggy to bother.

We ported ourselves to Penang island via a short trip by ferry, during which we spotted a rather large number of jellyfish, doing what jellyfish do best- float around like dead plastic bags, waiting for something to kill. Horrible little creatures. Hard to believe that these things are actually edible.

Skip forward a few hours- I was faced with a worrying sight: both guys were glued to their beds, and one was snoring heavily. We had two full days ahead of us, and the trip looked like it was in trouble from the very beginning. Not that I should have had much reason to worry, of course, what with my own master plan for the whole trip being 'get there, walk around, eat, look, do things, sleep, get home', which probably had the snorer feeling rather tense. To their credit they fought off their drowsiness and sickness to get out of bed to meet the girls when they arrived.
I was rather shocked when I heard from the girls that they'd be driving from Butterworth. Our original 'plan' was to rent a car- a plan that didn't seem to be going anywhere, with it's main proponent glued to the bed. I was rather worried too, wondering what sort of car they'd arrive in. They came in a regular saloon car, though it was a tight squeeze with four of us in the back. All the better for bonding, at any rate. I dare say someone coyly muttered the word 'skinship'...

First order of the day- to find food. Our self-appointed driver/guide for the trip (much obliged) took us to our first stop: Harvest In Cafe, a little restaurant in an old building on Irrawaddy Road. The snorer couldn't eat much no thanks to a little case of stomachal suicide (stomachal seems to be a real word, but frustratingly rare).
Not that it stopped the rest of us from stuffing ourselves, of course. This dish here is obviously black pepper chicken with mashed potato. Don't ask me if it had a specific name unique to that restaurant. Black pepper and mashed potato is a perfect combination, no matter what sort of meat is taped alongside it, I say. This sort of dish does not require an uppity name. Pfah. And yes, you've probably guessed this already, but I have completely forgotten what they proprietors called it, or who ordered it. That being said I'm still probably right in that it's name is just it's description.
This one's a little harder. Grilled fish with some sort of sauce- mayonnaise? In this case it was probably something a lot more pretentious than simple mayo, but for the life of me I have no recollection of what it was. Hey, don't blame me, I didn't order it. I wouldn't blame you for questioning me for calling it grilled, though- it looks more like it was deep fried.
I remember this one's name: Catch of the Day. It's a little hard to tell what's in the aluminium foil under the lemon slice, thanks to my reluctance to bend over or stand up (and not my lousy cameraman-ship), but it's definitely fish, the only reason being that no chef in his/her right mind has ever named a chicken dish 'catch of the day'.

...well what about lobster? Oh shut up.
This one was mine. Grilled fish with some sort of spicy sour sauce- I had rice switched to french fries. I could have simply ordered fish and chips for less, given how the fish seemed like it was fried. It was grilled, I think- see the sides? They're still rather white. Definitely not deep fried, at least. I don't think they're lying, but how in blazes do you grill something so that it looks and tastes fried? Bloody amazing. Maybe I should apprentice myself to them. Or waltz through their kitchen several times.
Chicken Cordon Bleu. It's an interesting dish, alright, but I really have no idea why it's named as such. A cordon is a line of people. Bleu is french for blue. So it's a line of blue people? To add to the confusion, there's a group of culinary schools teaching French cuisine calling themselves Le Cordon Bleu. It's an inside joke, isn't it? Spill it already!
Next stop- a small collection of hawker stalls housed in... well, houses along Lorong Selamat. We were supposed to have (reputedly) Penang's most famous Char Kway Teow (or char kway tiu, as one of us pronounced it- a crass language based joke which I will not translate), as well as it's priciest (definitely).

It was packed and we couldn't get a table, though, so we headed to the cluster of stalls opposite and had some dessert instead. That's cendol in the photo above. Tasted a lot like cendol elsewhere, only less diluted than the diluted crap they sell at Ramadan markets, and with more goodies. I didn't have the ABC (basically shaved ice), but the Penangites say that it tastes different from ABC elsewhere, with a distinct sarsi (sarsaparilla) flavour to it.
Without much of an idea of where to go, we headed to Queensbay mall, in Bayan Lepas- a ridiculously far off place to get to from Georgetown without a car (thanks again, driver!), for pancakes at Paddington's, which provided the setup for the censored yet ridiculously cute series of photos above.

Yes, I'm saying this (again) despite the fact that I was already jokingly accused of flirting with her- a dangerous thing to do, mind you, since I'm apt to start imagining possible outcomes and scenarios almost immediately. In excruciating detail. It's like giving a vampire the keys to a blood bank. Oh well. No harm done. No need to apologize either, driver-cum-accuser! Food for thought. -slaps myself-
Moving on. Pancakes at Paddington's. If I didn't know any better, I'd say those yellowish things on the left were boiled potatoes. Come to think of it, they might be... what else could they be? Bananas? Oh. Never mind already.
Now these are most definitely bananas. Which would make the yellow things in the previous photo potatoes? Who in their right mind would put pancakes and boiled potatoes together? So call me a conservative eater for refusing to visualize such a combination as a harmonious meal. I did shy from eating scorpion and dog meat while in China after all.

On a side note, the strawberry syrup makes that ice cream look like it is a crying face...
Chocolate fondue with fruits, ice cream and mini pancakes. I was more interested in the flame, though I didn't get a good look at it. I think they should have put more chocolate in there. Oh, and a bigger fire. I was somehow talked into finishing it off, reminding me of my usual duty when dining with a certain little lady I haven't met in ages.
Chocolate pancakes. It really does look like steak, no? Alright, I'm exaggerating. I've had steak and steak... looks a lot scarier. Imagine slicing a chunk of meat of a cow, skinning it, cooking (mostly) it, and dumping it on your steak. That's steak for you. I've had steak before- wagyu (supposedly), to be precise, and even on your plate it gives the feeling of being connected to the bovine mass it came from. So saying this looks like steak is an exaggeration. Burger patty, more like.

After that- a movie. Ice Age 4: Continental Drift. Not the sort of movie I'd choose to watch if I were by myself, but since I'm notoriously picky, if the choice of what film we were to watch was left to me, we'd have ended up- oh, I don't know, playing monopoly instead. Anything but watch a movie. In any case, the show was alright, thanks to the absolutely ridiculous geology involved. Don't even think about debating it with me because I'll end up choking instead of saying anything meaningful.
Dinner at an outdoor hawker center outside Straits Quay mall. Poor guy still couldn't eat- tried to find some porridge for him but apparently Penangites don't eat porridge. An interesting fact, since back in Selangor most hawker centers will have a few stalls selling porridge.
Well, here in Penang they have multiple stalls selling Asam Laksa. I ordered a large bowl, with two extra fishballs tacked on- and still felt like I'd gulped down a bowl of air. That's Asam Laksa for you. Personally I prefer Sarawak Laksa- but to ask any of the Penangites where I could find it would probably have earned me nothing but sour glares. Dinner was the last meal of the day (at last).
Breakfast near our hotel the following morning, without the girls- they would only be joining us before lunch. This here's Loh Bak, though almost everyone spells it as lobak, which coincidentally means 'carrot' in Malay. There's nothing carroty about this dish- it's almost all meat.
Pork leg noodles. Scary. I can't foresee myself ever eating this, not even by accident. The egg looks nice though. Anyway. Moving on...

The girls arrived around eleven, minus one, which meant more space for us at the back.Missing person, for what it's worth, you were missed! ...looks like it's my job to invite scandalous comments this time, but oh well. That's the risk of being a writer (now in pretentious mode, ignore if possible).

Fried oysters and eggs, courtesy of our driver. The last time I had one of these was in Pulau Ketam, ages ago... or was it in Singapore? I liked the Singaporean version- everything was stuck together like an omelette, instead of being scrambled.
Fried Koay Teow at the stall we were supposed to go to yesterday. It really is expensive- RM7.50 for a small plate. Don't scream when you don't get as many prawns as I did, though- most of them were extras given to me by the crustacean abstainers.
Next up, Penang's Snake Temple, famous for, what else, snakes. According to our guides, there were more snakes in the past- you could see them all over the place. Now they just curl up in random corners.
Random corners like this... dais? Rack? In front of an idol.. I can't help but wonder if they were placed there, or if they just like parking themselves where they can breathe in all the smoke from the joss sticks- I wonder if they're the reptilian equivalent of opium addicts. Hmm.
Turtles, terrapins, tortoises, or whatever these shelled creatures are, at midway point of Kek Lok Si temple. There were some huge ones in there, close to the size of, oh, the shells worn by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Bloody hell what did I just say.
A view of the lower level of the temple complex. It's pretty big. Not as big as the Vatican City or Angkor Wat- this temple is relatively recent, after all- with construction beginning in 1890, according to Wiki. Wait, Angkor an the Vatican are both cities, no? So comparing them might be a little unfair...
Moving on through the complex. There are a few beggars along the way, just sitting there hoping for alms money. I guess the temple authorities just don't have the heart to expel them. Or maybe they're just too busy doing other things. Interestingly, one of the beggars looked like a Malay lady- begging in a Buddhist temple during Ramadan? True entrepreneur, that one.
We took an inclined lift (it goes up diagonally) to the uppermost area of the complex (RM4 for a return ticket). I muttered out an off-the-cuff rendition of Jack and Jill: "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water... Jack fell down and cracked his skull". That's probably not how it goes. In any case, it's the best song (improvised or not) for when you're going up a steep slope in a box with strangers and have no control over how you rise up... or fall. There must have been 15 of us in there- I think they were trying very hard not to freak out.
Posing with a statue of a snake. They littered the temple grounds with 12 stone representations of the Chinese zodiac. Two of us here were born in the year of the Snake. People say that snakes are cunning (I try), lazy (all too true), but no one ever mentions that in Zodiac-speak snakes symbolized beauty. To be honest I can't make out that connection either.
Just by being born a few months off compared to the rest of us, these two were born in the Dragon year. In case you didn't know, there are actually baby booms in China during the Dragon year. In Oriental lore dragons are worshiped as heavenly creatures, but in Europe... anyone remember Saint George? Dragon killing is a sport.
Suitably confused poses. These funny little anatomically fudged-up statuettes are everywhere (not the two ladies- ow). I get that the dog is featured in the zodiac, but what about the panda? And Minnie Mouse? Eh?
The bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy, with her new roof. I don't think much of the statue, but the pillars were particularly impressive. You don't see pillars this huge and ornate often.
A statue of one of the four heavenly kings, or so I presumed. This reminded me of one of the scenes in the manga Gantz where they team was sent to a temple where the Bishamonten statues turned out to be aliens in disguise, with Bonten/Brahma being the final boss. How would an alien statue of the Goddess of Mercy fight, I wonder...
The view from the top. You can see a sizable chunk of town. During Chinese New Year the place is supposedly overrun by worshipers- I can't imagine what a horror finding a parking lot must be.
Get your name done in Chinese calligraphic style for a fee (donation), and the tile will be used in the continuing construction of the temple. I couldn't help but wonder if the ink washes off in rain, but you do get the satisfaction of knowing that your name (and by inference, your soul, spirit, whatever) is part of the temple, and you can consider yourself blessed. Maybe when you're in trouble one of the four heavenly kings will materialize to save you. Or a visual representation of the entire temple. Or maybe just the tile with your name on it.
Our next stop after the temple- Ming Xiang Tai, a popular Chinese patisserie (I'm not sure if those two words even go together, but what the heck). Personally I prefer Portuguese egg tarts, but normal ones are nice too. The ones sold here were particularly creamy.
They sell other stuff besides egg tarts. Siew Pau (roast meat buns?), kaya puffs, soya milk, etc. I won't pretend to be able to read what that sign says, though. Sparrow's Nest Tofu? Eh?
The Charlie Brown Cafe in Straits Quay Mall, a Charlie Brown (what else?) inspired cafe. I couldn't help but wonder whether they had the copyright for it. Back on point, the hot chocolate was too milky for my taste (maybe that's how they drink it in the comics?) and tasted more like regular Milo. Actually, Milo tastes better...
Some clowning around with the Peanuts props around the cafe. Whatever he's drinking, I'm pretty sure Snoopy has the better drink. Even if it is made of plastic and won't spill even if you hold it upside down.
Lucy just got fisted. Serves her right- as far as I recall she had a really big mouth, not to mention a nasty tongue.
Another cute photo. Chasing after birds while the baby enjoys the view. Patty's probably keeping score. Anyone remember what the birds are called?
Animal cruelty. I suppose I'll be reported to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals now. Or someone will turn this into a meme... the latter fate being a lot worse, I think.
Dinner somewhere outside (didn't matter where, really) to watch the Olympic men's badminton final between Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan. It was quite interesting watching everyone getting tensed up, for whatever reason- hoping for a win and an extra public holiday, or for free ice cream from Baskin Robbins. As far as I could tell, the only ones who didn't seem interested (or passionate) were the lady companion of one enthusiastic guy (from her body language, she seemed bored to death), and me. Lin Dan got the gold, by the way, and Baskin Robbins gave the ice cream anyway.

After that, another movie to please the other bored person I forgot to mention- Mr. Sucked Your Phone's Battery Dry While You Were Sleeping. We watched Total Recall- slightly more interesting for me compared to last night's Ice Age, but still nowhere near as good as the original. Not too bad, though.

The girls sent us back to our hotel and that was the last we saw of them. We left Penang the next morning by bus, me with a grumbling stomach, which I tortured further still with a plate of the spiciest Nando's chicken available.

All in all, a trip well done. Most of our (my) outlined objectives were completed: Invade Penang (done). Harass the dental students (done). Eat (done). Sleep (somehow, done). Act like asses (OH YEAH). Perhaps give Selangorians a bad name (they thought we were foreigners, so, fail) so that Lim Guan Eng would declare Penang to be an independent state and invade the rest of Malaysia... remains to be seen. But we can't be too greedy, can we?

P.s. In case you haven't noticed by now, most of the faces here are censored for their privacy, since they're all probably really shy folks, and would rather not be stalked by a bunch of Russians (I say Russian stalkers since the majority of my traffic comes from Russia- and it's all silent. Hello there, tovarisch!). Names have not been mentioned either- you can't believe how hard that was. Now to get back to work on the Turkey travelogues...


  1. That pizza looks fashinably small...and maybe fashionably expensive ;)

    1. Well, the smaller it is, the more you're forced to order...