George Town and Penang Island
A fascinating fusion of the East and West, Penang embraces modernity while retaining its traditions and old world charm. These are reflected in its harmonious multiracial populace and well-preserved heritage buildings which led to George Town being accorded a listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site recently. Long regarded as the food capital of Malaysia, Penang also entices visitors with its beautiful coasts and scrumptious cuisines.
Next stop on my trip north was Penang, which is an island in the north eastern part of Malaysia. I found a direct flight on FireFly from there to Phuket in Thailand and it seemed like the best option for making my way up north as ground transportation would basically take a day to do the same trip.
Cameron Highlands To Penang/George Town
A comfortable five hour ride on a Unitity Express bus from Cameron Highlands took us to George Town on the north west corner of the island after a brief stop in Ipoh. The bus was not the "Super VIP" kind I took from Kuala lumpur - it seated four per row, and had less legroom but still was a pretty comfortable ride. Only a dozen of us got on at Cameron Highland but they filled it up at Ipoh. The boarding at Ipoh was pretty chaotic with lots of people shouting in walkie-talkies, each one louder than the other. Eventually we got on our way and, surprisingly, got all the way to George Town. Everywhere I read, it said that the busses drop off at Butterworth jetty, where we would need to take a ferry to Penang. Oh well,it is nice to catch a lucky break once in a while.
Stine and Solveig (the two Norwegian girls met at Cameron Highlands) came with me and we also met four other backpackers on the bus - Frank from Australia, Guillermo from France, Lynda from Switzerland, and Kenny from Canada. They walked with us to our hostel - Old Penang Guesthouse located in the middle of Chinatown in the heart of backpackers area at the intersection of Lebuh Chulia and Love Lane. It turned out that Frank had the reservations at the place literally next door and the rest ended up staying in the dorm with us. Frank has spent some time in Penang during a prior visa run so he knew his way around and took us to Kapitan Indian restaurant for lunch and they had the most delicious tandoori chicken I have ever tasted.
After lunch Kenny and I walked over to a medical clinic nearby which actually looked very nice and modern. I checked to see how much it would cost to get a rabies vaccine and politely declined when they told me it was going to cost 400 ringgit/$128 - about twice the price I paid for the first shot in Switzerland.
On the other hand, Kenny scrapped his ankle pretty bad in Thailand where they kept him in a hospital for six days, put some stitches on and gave him antibiotics to take three times a day for three (!!!) weeks. Later, Kenny got it wet in the shower and had gotten some infection in there so he has been going to various clinics to get it washed and changed bandages daily. Unlike other clinics, the doctor here immediately told him that they needed to remove the stitches and cut out the infection or it would not get better.
The doctor was also amazed at the amount of antibiotics Kenny has been given and I have heard it before that Thai medicine is really pretty poor (aside of plastic surgeries) and they have the habit of overprescribing antibiotics for everything. He seemed like he knew what he was talking about so Kenny gave him the go-ahead and he went to work right there to remove the stitches and cut out the infection - all without any anesthesia. Kenny took it like a champ while I was trying to distract him with some small talk.
George Town Walkaround
Soon after we got back to the hostel, we decided to go walk around and Frank tried to get some directions from Charlie - quite an excentric man working at his hostel. After a bit, Charlie just told us to follow him and ended up taking us on a walking tour for the next few hours.
We walked through Chinatown to the old George Town jetty where they had a bunch of basic wooden houses built on stilts surrounding the main wooden board walkway. Each house seemed to consist of basic one or two rooms with a small worship corner set up either inside or outside and, of course, lots of traditional Chinese decorations.
Next, we walked a bit more around Chinatown and stopped at a place that Charlie's friend was remodeling into a cozy four room boutique hotel. It really was a nice set up, even though the rooms were not finished yet. Then off we went to Bayview Hotel and its revolving restaurant at the top. We were definitely not dressed up as the hotel client crowd nor were going to actually have any food at the restaurant, but Charlie marched us through the lobby, into the elevators and barked something to the hostes to let us in. We were so out of place there, but being white in Asia does have its advantages - it was obvious that everyone's reaction was along the lines of 'WTH?' but nobody actually stopped us while we took some pictures. When exiting the hotel, Charlie introduced us to another of his 'friends' - the manager of the hotel, who was obviously clueless on what was happening but still wished us a pleasant stay in town.
Crushing the buffet at the revolving restaurant was not enough, so we walked over to Eastern and Oriental - a very high class hotel that hosted Charlie Chaplin and Rudyard Kipling among others. As before, we marched through the lobby to the confused looks of others and out of the back door onto a terrace with a nice view of the bay.
Frog feast and the movie
Just as spontaneous as out tour has started, it ended with Charlie disappearing. Frank said he had to head back to the hostel and we were now on our own. It was dinner time anyways so we swung by the Red Dragon set of hawker stands and I went for my first frog. It was actually very tender and tasty, but not much food. I would probably need half a dozen of froggies or a bull frog to replace a good sized chicken breast. Unlike the frog meal, the sugar cane juice I ordered was warm and tasted more like green tea. Frank guessed that they might just use the canned drink and heat it up for some reason. Either way, we left Red Dragon disappointed and will have to check out the Esplanade hawker stands next time.
With our belly somewhat full, we walked over to the mall area to find a movie theater. After the great debate, we decided to split into two groups with the girls going to see the Twilight sequel and the rest of us settling down for the Puss in Boots 3D. As we had some time to kill before the movies started, Kenny and I played a game of pool (which I won, no matter what he says) and then went down into the mall to get a tub of ice cream each at the supermarket rather than paying arm and leg for a cone at the movie theater.
Climbing the Penang Hill
Topping out at 735 meters/2,450 feet Penang Hill (well, technically, the Flagstaff Hill) is a good natural observation point to the east of George Town. Penang Hill Railway provides and easy way of reaching the top, but since they recently started charging non-Malays 40 ringgits/$13, five times what it costs for Malays, we decided to stick it to the man and hike up there on our own. The fact that the hiking trail started at the botanical gardens, which were free to visit, made this option even more attractive.
After being out late the night before, we did not regroup and headed out of our hostel until after noon and where told to catch bus number 10 to get to the botanical gardens. Charlie told us to go to the jetty, which was the first stop, to make sure that we could sit down, instead of jumping on the bus at the mall. We got to the jetty around 12:40pm and found where the bus was supposed to leave from. The attendant at the info kiosk was not very helpful and failed to mention that the next bus will not come until 2pm. Once we got on the bus, it took us almost another hour to get to the botanical gardens as it criss-crossed the city in, what seemed like, every possible direction on the way. Once there, I double checked with the driver that the last bus would leave around 9pm. He also mentioned that they run every half an hour - right...
We started out by walking through the botanical gardens. There were no flowers blooming so it was mostly just different trees and cool setups such as a Japanese garden that were worth the walk. We also saw our first, of what will be many, monkeys there. While walking around, we saw the start of the hiking trail to the hill and decided to go for it. We ran into a bunch of locals going there and coming back, and got completely different estimates from them on how long it would take to reach the top - from half an hour to three hours. Lonely Planet mentioned something about five hours. Oh well, we decided to give it a shot.
The first portion of the trail was very steep and mostly made up of steps. It took us about half an hour to get through it and at that point Kenny's bandages were already drenched with sweat and he decided to stop and wait for us at one of the resting points. As we continued on our way, the trail was no longer a groomed set of stairs, but rather a pretty narrow dirt walkway through the dense vegetation. While it flattened out a bit, it was still a good work out requiring us to literally climb up grabbing onto tree roots and whatever else we could hold on to in bunch of places.
After another hour and a half we reached the point where the trail intersected the railway. From that point, it was another thirty minutes or so to get up to the top but we decided to turn around figuring that Kenny is probably wondering where the heck are we since we thought we would be back there in an hour. On the way back, we walked down on the road, which in some places was very steep, requiring us to walk backwards. We have also encountered a bunch of monkeys along the road, sometimes scaring the heck out of our girls. At one point, one of the monkeys started coming after me while I was trying to take a picture, but changed its mind once I swung my daypack at it.
When we finally got back to the rest house, Kenny was gone, so we figured he got tired of waiting for us and was on his way back to the hostel. We decided to keep following the road down just in case it gets dark on us, but it would probably be faster and easier to take the steps down. Oh well. We got back down and grabbed some fruit and drinks just in time for the bus to come pick us up. The ride back took us about an hour and twenty minutes due to all the traffic.
Kapitan Restaurant No More
Kenny and Frank were already waiting for us, with a group of newly-made friends that we went out with for dinner to Kapitan. While food was once again delicious, they kept messing up people's orders, forgetting to bring out things, and even pretending that there was no cockroach on a plate when Frank pointed one out. Lastly, when we got our bill, they wanted us to pull our money together and figure it out, rather than paying separately. It is a shame that they run such a crappy operation there.
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