Day 4 – KL to Penang 25 Feb 2010
With the prospect of a 5 hour bus trip to Penang we faced the day with some trepidation. Long bus trips are never great but this one was to prove the exception.
We breakfasted early in the hotel and packed the bags. We thought about backpacking the 1.6km to the bus station but decided to cop out and pay the RM10 ($A3.30) for the taxi. As usual, we got to the bus station well ahead of time and sat around having our ears blasted by numerous screaming announcements, none of which we could understand anyway. I’m not sure that it was a language barrier at fault, more the quality of the PA and the volume. The noise seemed to fit well with the all pervading smell of human sweat, nasi lemak and diesel fumes.
Eventually, we were led outside to a waiting bus. It was a magnificent looking double decked affair and the appointments were akin to First Class on an airline. We had a choice of four movies on our personal TV screen, heaps of leg room, a 3 setting massager built into the fully reclining seat, food and a cup of tea served along the way and fantastic views of the streets and country side. The 5 hours passed with ease and included one stop at a road house for the necessaries. Once again, the view was dominated by oil palms but eventually we entered a mountainous region and the road wound through wonderful rainforests and past towering limestone cliffs. The road itself was a magnificent 4 or 6 lane highway with the occasional toll gate to negotiate. Buses and trucks predominated but there was the usual army of motorbikes as well.
We crossed over the two kilometre long causeway and bridge to Pilau Pinang (Penang) and arrived at the bus depot, anxious about finding our way to the hotel, some 20kms North. It proved to be really easy. The usual taxi man tried to bully us, but this time, showed us the official rate book, clearly indicated on a map where we needed to go and where he would take us, spoke good English and told us that he would charge us RM35 ($A12) for the trip. He drove us along well made roads, through medium density traffic and avoided any hint of a devastating automobile pile-up. Penang had made an excellent first impression. The hotel, the Copthorne Orchid, proved equally impressive. We booked it through the Internet from Asiarooms.com for what appeared to be a bargain price of around $A50 for a 4 start hotel. Some reviews raved about it, others said it was a smelly dump. We were thrilled by what we found; clean, neat and the staff seemed to fall over themselves to help. Our room had terrific ocean views, albeit partly obscured by the 35 storey apartment block immediately in front of us.
Across the road from the hotel, we found a little shopping area with a couple of convenience stores, restaurants etc while down the road a few hundred metres was a huge Indian Restaurant with a complex of stalls, bars, outdoor areas and was a source of many delicious smells. We put in a good session in the pool swimming laps, followed by a short session in the gym to try to prepare ourselves for the onslaught but the scales told the truth. We were thrilled to see Murtabak on the menu, our firm favourite. It proved to be rather different to the Singapore style and not nearly as good but the Naan bread and Tandoori Chicken was wonderful.
Day 5 – Penang 26 Feb 2010
We started the day with solid work-out in the gym to try to recover from the excesses of the previous night. It is only a small gym with treadmill, bike machine and weight bench but then we are not big gym people anyway. We worked until the muscles started to knot up then headed for the pool, only to find it was closed for chlorination.
After a quick stop in at the hotel travel office to book the ferry to Langkawi, we caught the local bus into George Town. Along the way, we ran the GPS map on the iPhone to get some idea of where on Earth we were going. The streets here follow ancient oxen paths and there is little sense to the naming system. A decent sized road is named Jalan something or other while a lesser road a Lebuh. A lane seems to be a Lorong. The problem is that many names are represented three times, each by a different sized descriptor and can be kilometres apart. This makes for a lot of confusion. The bus driver was obviously an ex-taxi driver because he possessed the same driving technique. Eventually, we jumped off at the Komtar, the main shopping hub. To our dismay, more than half the shops were closed and those that were open showed an amazing amount of disinterest. The Komtar is the start of the free bus circuit so we went back to the street, watched the CAT (same name as Perth) depart, waited 15 minutes in the heat for the next one and resumed the journey. The other end of the CAT bus circuit is the jetty. Here, we all had to get off, walk 20 metres and board another CAT bus, wait 20 minutes on a crowded bus, (we were standing) then set off back down the same route. Eventually, we saw a street with some market stalls and eateries so we jumped off. A quick check of the GPS showed we were less than 0.5km from the Komtar.
Meanwhile, the drive around George Town was truly pleasurable. It is an old city and has been heritage listed by UNESCO because of the many fine examples of British and Peranakan colonial buildings. A lot of buildings are in a sad state of disrepair and some of the crumbling ones are being rebuilt as frontages for more modern and sound structures. Despite this, it is still possible to see glimpses of the old days, right down to some wonderful cobbled streets and sections of tram lines still in the road.
We perused the markets, ignored the incessant pleas of “You look? Come in…. Best price for you… and T-Shirt for you sir?” We did succumb to a hat each, having come away without one. A small hawkers food stall looked clean and interesting so we settled down for lunch, electing to have Kway Teow Th’ng. We selected a range of ingredients from a wonderful array, including fish, mushrooms, fish balls, wontons, shrimps, tofu and many more unidentified things, placed them in a bowl and handed them over to the cook, who added some greens and broad white flat rice noodles (Kway Teow) then cooked the lot in a delicious broth. The result was absolutely divine and set us back a whole $A2 each. Washed down with a Tiger Beer, we were well content.
Once back down the street to the Komtar, the prospect of the bus ride home looked daunting so we grabbed a cab, feeling sure that the RM20 being demanded of us was a rip off but then so is even looking at a taxi in Perth.
We caught up on out swimming pool laps once back in the hotel and retired to relax poolside to re-energize for the evening excursion. We had booked the hotel shuttle bus to Batu Ferrenghi, the main beach-side development further West of us. They boast big night markets. The bus dropped us at a corner around 7pm, promising to pick us up at 9:30. We looked around and saw very little. Again, most shops appeared shut (we found out the next morning that it was a public holiday for Mohammed’s birthday) and the only sign of a market was a few canvas covered lean-two along the main street. The place looked very quiet. We decided that it was the “off-season” and that the hotels must be empty. We walked up….and walked down, eventually stopping at a large hawker food centre. Finding a table was not an issue and even some of the stalls were not operating. However, by the time we had had a beer and some spring rolls, things were changing. It was really amazing to see the scene change so rapidly. People emerged from everywhere to fill the tables, stalls began cooking up a storm and the lights of the surrounding market stalls started coming on all over the place. It was like one of the time-lapse films of the desert blooming and soon we were glad that we had actually secured a table.
After a wonderful meal of sizzling mushrooms and vegetables, we headed off through the now thriving market, stopping to buy a couple of bottle openers and a few DVDs (genuine of course). We managed another stop for a cooling lime juice (this is our latest discovery) then it was back on the shuttle bus which magically materialised at the same corner and a return to trip to the hotel to watch one of our new genuine DVDs before the inevitable sleep caught up with us again.
Day 6 – Penang 27 Feb 2010
We had a long lazy sleep-in, not really getting too active until after 9 o’clock, when we headed down to check out the beach. The beach here is nice enough, with clean white sands and clean although silty water. The main issue seems to be the presence of stingers, although a lot of people do swim. Box jellyfish and Irikanji actually worry me more than sharks so we are keeping to the swimming pool.
After that, it was back into George Town to find somewhere to print some photos out. We have decided to print some as we go on this trip because we never seem to print any when we get home. The trip in seemed a lot shorter than the previous day and we got off again at the Komtar. There were a lot more shops open and we browsed for quite a while, even trying on a few bits and pieces in a sports clothing store. You can get genuine sports brands (not the market stall variety) here for ridiculously low prices. In the end, we held out, not wanting to carry too much more at present.
Out on the street, we did find a wonderful Chinese curio and craft shop. Christine wanted a small travelling backgammon set and they had a lovely wooden one, with hand cut inlays and exquisite mitred corners forRM180. We offered RM120 and they accepted straight away, indicating that we could have done much better. Then we found that we didn’t have that many Ringhit so they offered to take Australian dollars. We were happy to exchange at $A40 but they offered a shade better than the official rate at $A38. We left after much smiling, bowing and laughing, $40 poorer but a beautiful backgammon set richer.
It was back to the Kway Teow Th’ng stall for more of the same as yesterday. By now, we were old hands and loaded up our bowls with confidence. We washed it down with a lime juice, having sworn off the beer for a while due to rising weight problems.
We decided the taxi back was the way to go and we confidently approached the taxi rank, secure in the knowledge that it cost RM20 after yesterday’s fare. Alas, all the drivers assured us that it was RM25, telling us that they were metered and even showing us a list of printed fares that showed the Copthorne Orchid as being RM25. We gave in and got in. When nearly back to the hotel, I noticed there was indeed a meter and it was running, showing RM14.70 as we pulled in. We paid the RM25. Go figure.
We hit the gym and the pool to try to make room for tea then wandered over the road to the Good Fortune Laundry to collect our freshly cleaned clothes before setting out to eat at the wonderful Indian place down the track. It was more Naan Bread and Tandoori Chicken but this time we saw sense and shared one.
Tomorrow it is off on the ferry to Langkawi.
Overall Impressions of Penang
• Wonderful people – really the friendliest we have found in Asia.
• The place is a bit boring – it tries to be a beach resort but the beaches and water do not rate well enough. The presence of stingers in the water is a real turn-off. I’d go to Phuket for preference.
• More interesting markets than most Asian locations. There are some individual stalls and real crafts on sale.
• Excellent food at wonderful prices
• Some bargain hotels available
• We have probably “been there done that” as far as Penang is concerned. Enjoyed it but won’t hurry back.