Georgetown – the provincial capital of Penang – has lots of gorgeous old buildings and a lot of them are in great condition. The city has just recently won UNESCO world heritage status, which it seems very happy about. We were lucky enough to stay in one of these fine old buildings. While wandering down the street with our back-packs on, feeling the afternoon heat and looking in need of a place to stay, a couple of people pointed us in the direction of the Old Penang Guesthouse. It had lovely tiled and wood floors, high ceilings with big old fans and shuttered windows.
Another amazing building (this one we just visited) was Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi (a clan house). It was used as a temple and meeting hall for Chinese people of the family name Khoo. It’s the most ornately decorated temple I’ve ever seen. There are elaborate sculptures on the roof and every conceivable surface is decorated with lions and dragons and all sorts of symbols of success and money and happiness.
We also had a tour around a mansion built by a very successful Chinese businessman called Cheong Fatt Tze. The house was painted indigo – a fashionable colour in the nineteenth century, when the house was built. We learned a little bit about all the Chinese symbolism in the house (and there was lots of it) from stained glass windows in a pineapple design – because the Chinese world for pineapple also sounds like the word for happiness – to 28 steps in the staircase because this was considered an auspicious number. Another nice sign of the Chinese in the city of Georgetown were the terraces of shop-houses, still functioning to this day.
As well as Chinese there are of course Malay and Indian communities in Penang. It was Deepavali so there was lots of activity in Little India. We spent a lot of time eating fantastic food in this part of town, dancing to some fab music, and resisting buying beautiful saris in the many clothes shops. As well as shops there were also stalls set up along the streets selling incense and many kinds of sweets and cakes for the festivities.
We got out of the city for a few days too and headed to the national park and the beach on the west of the island. On our first day there we spent an hour or two walking through the national park to get to a gorgeous, quiet beach where we spent the day dipping in and out of the water. On our second day it rained all day, so we went to the butterfly park and saw some colourful butterflies. It was amazing to see them so up close. We also saw incredible camouflaged insects, such as the butterfly that looks like a leaf when it closes its wings, the toad that looks like dead leaves all joined together to make a toad, and two leaf insects, one looks like a green leaf and another looks like a dead leaf. We went back to the beach on our final day and then back to Georgetown for some more yummy food.
The population of Penang is made up primarily of people of Malay, Chinese (mostly Hokkien and Hakka) and Indian (mostly from southern India) descent. Two things became pretty obvious soon after we arrived here. Firstly, there’s a lot of different languages being bandied about the place. And secondly, the food is absolutely amazing!
For me and Susan, the latter posed a little bit of a problem. We both love eating…
On one of our nights here, we ate a Laksa (a spicy, tangy soup – this one with fish and noodles) by the sea. We followed it with a strangely delicious dessert called Ice Kecang – a mixture of shaved ice, syrup, ice cream, tapioca, red kidney beans, sweet corn and thick fluorescent green strands that we think were made from pea flower. I don’t understand how it could taste so very good but it did. After that we wandered into town to an area called Little India where we managed to talk ourselves into buying a couple of yummy vegetarian curry puffs from a street vendor that we’d already frequented. That in turn led to a visit to a South Indian restaurant where we ordered Utthapam (a thick rice pancake slash vegetarian curry pizza thing), massala dosa (a thin savoury crepe wrapped around a delicious curry) a dahl (lentil curry) and a chappati or two. The food was served on a banana leaf with a bunch of sauces (coconut, tomato and lentil) and we ate with our fingers. Basically we got to eat yummy food and we were encouraged to make a big mess at the same time. Awesome.
All together, our dinner ended up lasting for about 5 hours. We didn’t set out to eat a marathon but it’s just so hard to stop when the food is so good. We staggered home with pregnant bellies and almost immediately fell asleep with big contented smiles.
I particularly like the way mini food courts seem to appear all over the place in Georgetown – especially once night falls. Food hawkers wheel their mobile mini-kitchens into position just outside a cafe. Most of the cafes are surrounded by four or five hawkers that specialise in particular dishes. So you can wander from stall to stall, select the food that you like the look of, sit down in a cafe, order a drink, the freshly cooked food appears soon after, and away you go. None of this “no eating food from outside this shop” business.
A great breakfast we’ve been having here is a big plate of roti (fried Indian bread) with a curry sauce. Sometimes we’ll order an egg roti which isn’t all that different from an omelet. But it’s the curry sauce that does it. Susan particularly likes it because it’s not all that different to her all time favourite breakfast from home – leftover takeaway curry from the night before.