Penang is known to be the street food capital of Malaysia (and arguably all of SE Asia) so naturally, this was one of the stops I’d been most looking forward to. We took a 5 hour bus from the Cameron Highlands and then a short ferry to Georgetown, a very cute and historical UNESCO World Heritage city in Penang.
After getting settled into our very nice hotel, we set out to do a little exploring before Penang meal #1. Like Hoi An in Vietnam, all around Georgetown are temples, houses, and other historical sites to visit. There were three that we wanted to make sure to hit, and Khoo Kongsi, Penang’s finest clan house, was first on the list. On our walk there, we passed tons of the famous Georgetown street art from a ninja kicking a cat to a boy riding a motorcycle. It seems that everywhere you turn, there’s artwork to be found, which I loved.
We made it to Khoo Kongsi just as the ticket lady was locking up. She let us pay the 10 RM ($3) fee pp and enter but she failed to tell us that some of the exhibits within the grounds would be closed. We got to peek at the temple, which was very impressive (though probably not worth the 10 RM) but we were mad that we’d have to come back again to see everything and get our full money’s worth.
After Khoo Kongsi, we were starting to think about dinner. This was the one night where we had some time on our hands so we decided to take a nice 3km walk (stopping on our way at Fort Cornwallis) to Gurney Drive, Penang’s most famous food stall area. We’ve seen lots of hawker centers (different food stalls all set up in one location; like a food court but with local, different, and better food) since our arrival in Singapore and then Malaysia, but this one was definitely the biggest. We decided on some Malay specialties, char kway teow (very similar to pad see ew in Thailand), rojak (a fruit and veggie salad tossed in a sweet tamarind sauce), Pemoran, and then the star of the dinner, chicken and pork satay in a great, spicy peanut sauce. I didn’t love the rojak (though Dave liked it), but everything else was great.
Our plan for our first full day in Penang was to take a bus to Penang Hill for some great views of the city, but first we had to go to the pier to buy our ferry tickets for Langkawi (an island a couple of hours off the coast of NW Malaysia known for great beaches and a good night life, similar to the Thai islands, which aren’t too far away) the following morning. We decided to run there, but almost as soon as we’d left, it started to rain – it was the first time we’d seen rain since the Philippines. We were able to finish our run and get our tickets, but when a couple of hours later the rain didn’t stop, we realized that Penang Hill would have to wait.
We had a great lunch right across the street from our hotel at a restaurant that was really a mini hawker center. They have restaurants like this all over the city – there’s a big seating area and it looks like a restaurant but all around the perimeter are different food stalls set up. We got to try a chicken and egg porridge, wan tan mee (noodle soup), and then an assortment of fried meats and veggies. It was another meal success, possibly even better than the dinner we’d had the night before!
After lunch, we switched hotels – we’d gotten an email from hotels.com that we needed to book a hotel through their website in the next few weeks in order not to lose our eligibility for a free night that we’d earn with just one more booking. Hotels.com is a bit pricier than most of the other booking sites that we typically use so we haven’t used it in a while (most of the credits we had earned were actually from hotels we stayed at in the US while living in NYC) and wanted to switch to another hotel that was a little less expensive for our second night. We found one for $12/night (our other hotel had been $30), but later when we found some bugs in our room we realized that you really do get what you pay for. Thankfully, our bug spray seemed to take care of the problem (for the most part), at least for the night.
After checking into our new hotel, we took advantage of the fact that it was raining and went to see a movie (our 4th of the summer). We saw Guardians of the Galaxy, which we both really enjoyed, though the mall we saw it in had nothing on our favorite malls in Bangkok (though few ever do:)
By the time the movie was over it had stopped raining so we decided to hit up one more historical sight in the city before dinner. We went to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the largest mansion in the city, but when the entry fee was 20 RM per person (about $7; twice the cost of our movie and the mansion tour would probably only last 10-15 minutes whereas the movie entertained us for over 2 hrs), we decided it wasn’t worth it.
For dinner, we thought we’d hit up another hawker center and went to check out Lorong Baru and Lorong Salamat, both about a 15 or 20 minute walk from us. When we got there, the Baru hawker center wasn’t open and the one on Salamat looked good, but we weren’t quite sold on anything (plus, we weren’t really that hungry yet). We decided we’d walk back through Chinatown and maybe through Little India, but then we were distracted along the way by a great looking Western restaurant with cheap food, cheap shishas and a Wednesday night drink deal we couldn’t pass up – free drinks for ladies until 10pm. We had actually passed it earlier in the day and it was closed but looked very cool (called Reggae Mansion but more of a nightclub).
We ended up getting a burger and fish and chips, both of which were amazing. Even though we were in the street food capital of Malaysia/SE Asia (though really it should be called the hawker center capital of Malaysia/SE Asia; we still both agree that Bangkok has the best street food), after not having a Western meal since before my mom came to visit us almost a month ago, we didn’t feel too bad. Plus, we’ll be back in Georgetown one more night before we head back to Bangkok so we’ll definitely have a great local meal for our last meal of RTW 2.0.
The ferry ride to Langkawi was about 3 hours. We’d read that especially in July and August, the currents can be very strong so expect a choppy ride. In fact, in the Lonely Planet, it said the authors flew back because the ferry ride there was so bad. Neither Dave nor I thought the ride was bad at all (though admittedly I slept through most of it), but all the locals and Asian tourists taking the ferry seemed to think otherwise. There were plastic barf bags hanging around the boat and everyone seemed to be running up to these stations, grabbing as many bags as they could and throwing up. Every few seconds we could hear or see someone else barfing. We’re not sure if these people had never taken a boat ride before, but if it were us, we never would have taken a boat knowing we were going to get that sick.
Suffice to say, we were very happy when we docked in Langkawi. We found a couple guys to share a taxi with (there’s no public transport on the island – taxis only) to Cenang beach, the main beach on the island. Langkawi is supposed to be the closest thing Malaysia has to the Thai islands, just much more toned down (not surprising since Malaysia is primarily a Muslim country so alcohol is hard to come by). There are a few bars and places to go out, but still tons of restaurants, which is of course, what we care about the most.
We spent about an hour looking for a place to stay (not because there were a lack of options, we just had time and since we were going to be there for three nights, we wanted to find somewhere we liked – especially after our not so nice hotel the night before in Penang). We ended up with a great place about a block off the main road. Every room had a little balcony and it had a great common area. Even the name of the place was cute (Sweet Inn). We were happy to be settling down for the next three nights.
After we got settled, we walked down the main street searching for our dinner spot for the night and then walked back to our hotel down the beach. Perfectly white sand, crystal blue water… it was starting to feel like we were back in the Andaman Sea (which we were).
The whole island of Langkawi is duty free, so we picked up a bottle of wine (one of the cheapest bottles we’ve seen in a while) and had a couple of glasses on our balcony before dinner. As always, it was tough to make a dinner choice, but the place we settled on ended up being great. We got half of a Thai style fried duck, fried soft shell crab, and veggies in oyster sauce. It was one of the only times we’d had duck all summer, and we never get soft shell crab. The whole meal was delicious.
For the first time in a while, we had nothing planned for the next morning. We had wanted to go for a run, but it was a little rainy right when we got up so we had a leisurely breakfast (which came free with our hotel), checked email, did some video chatting, and by the time we were done, it had cleared up so we were able to go for a run.
We dropped our last load of laundry off, picked up some awesome artisan sandwiches for lunch (one turkey club and one pastrami on a baguette – such a treat) and got ready for our afternoon activity: an island hopping tour. We ended up with a great group (3 girls, also teachers, from London and a family from the Netherlands) and the tour was really nice. We started at an island that actually has a lake in the middle of it. They call it the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden because the mountains above are actually shaped like a pregnant woman lying down. It was nice to go swimming in the lake – I felt like I was back at sleepaway camp. Dave convinced the two other guys (both teenagers) that were on the tour with us to race him. He won, but only by a second!
The next stop was to an area that had tons of eagles flying around. Our boat driver threw a bucket of raw chicken into the water and we watched the eagles swooping down to pick them up. It was pretty cool! The last stop was at one more island where we spent an hour relaxing on the beach. This was the best $10 island hopping tour we’ve done – usually they cost about double.
We didn’t get back to our hotel until around 6:30 and we felt like just relaxing for the night. So, we took advantage of the nice common area at our guesthouse and picked up dinner to bring back there – we got pizza, greek salad (I can’t remember the last time I had feta cheese), and bruschetta – It was from the same place where we’d picked up our sandwiches earlier in the day, Artisan Pizza. Another delicious meal from there.
Our plan for the next day was to rent a motorbike and drive all around the island. Langkawi is about 70km around, pretty much the same size as Koh Samui, one of the largest islands in Thailand. We love our days when we rent motorbikes, but when we went to the rental place, they were skeptical about our driver’s license. They told us we could rent a bike still, but if we were stopped by the police, we may be fined. As you may recall, we had been pulled over while in Bali and paid a $25 fine. Here, however, the fine was $100. We decided to go ahead with the bike rental – this was either going to be a very cheap $10 activity for the day, or very expensive $110 one. This made for some very nervous Staves.
Our first stop on the drive was to the Langkawi cable cars. You take a cable car to the top of a mountain and are supposed to get great views from the sky bridge and a couple viewing platforms. Well, the sky bridge and one of the two viewing platforms were closed but the price of the activity was still the same ($12pp). We didn’t think that seemed very fair. Between that and the fact that it looked pretty cloudy at the top, we decided to skip it. Instead, we went to 7 Wells down the street. Here, you walk about 10 minutes to a waterfall and then another 10 minutes to 7 pools that you can actually slide down. Dave tried the slide, and I was the photographer. The waterfall though was surprisingly nice.
On our way down, we stopped several people to ask if there had been any police blockades on their way in (we heard they typically occur around noon and 3pm and it was approaching noon). We figured that since this was a pretty touristy spot on the island, there was a pretty good chance that we’d run into one (and there was only one way out from where we were). Luckily, no one had seen any and we got out of there without a problem.
Our next stop was going to be for lunch. After a little driving, we found a good looking place. As we started to pull in to the crowded restaurant, we realized that the entire crowd was a group of police officers. Luckily, they were taking their lunch break and not blockading but we got out of there as soon as possible. Whew, we survived encounter number 2.
We found another great place to eat a few miles further right on the side of the road. We love these side of the road restaurants. They set up little buffets, give you a plate of rice, and you can take whatever you want. There’s always chicken and meat dishes, veggies, noodles, and more. The only problem is that we never have any idea how the pricing works. Luckily though, it always ends up being cheap, about $10 for the two of us.
After our great lunch, we continued on and made one more stop for the day, at Pantai Tanjung Rhu, another beautiful white sand beach on the top of the island. We got off our bikes and Dave took his sneakers off (which he always wears on motorbikes) to find his sock soaked through with blood. Luckily, he only had a little cut (which he had no idea how he’d gotten), but from our first sight of it, it had looked pretty bad. We got him cleaned up as best as we could, took a dip in the ocean and then Dave went for a little run on the beach (with his still bleeding foot).
On our way back to Cenang, we popped into the island’s two golf courses, both of which were pretty nice and stopped for gas. When we finally pulled into the motorbike shop, we both let our a HUGE sigh of relief – we had made it all day without getting stopped by the police. If you’d asked us in the morning if we thought this would happen, we would have said never (not with our luck!). But luckily, it ended up being a really cheap day for us. That, combined with the fact that it was our last beach night of RTW 2.0 was cause for celebration.
Before heading back to our guesthouse, we took one last dip in the ocean (our final dip of RTW 2.0). We got ready for the night and then went to the beach to get a hookah at probably the only hookah place on the island. While we were shisha-ing, we reminisced about our whole trip – our favorite places, memories, activities, and more. What we concluded after this summer was that the decision to move to Thailand really had been one of the best decisions of our lives. We were getting to do what we love (travel) with the person we love (each other) and to top it off, for the first time in our lives, we were actually both really looking forward to going back to work. That’s a nice feeling.
We had Indian for our last meal on the island (we couldn’t believe how much we’d gotten back into Indian food!) and called it an early night.
We took the ferry back to Penang in the morning (trying this time to avoid anyone who looked like they were going to throw up). There were no pukers this time around, but there were about 10 little kids running up and down the aisle, for three hours straight. I’m not sure which was worse.
Back in Penang, we spent some time relaxing at our hotel and getting ready for our trip back to Bangkok the following day. For dinner, we headed to the last of the popular hawker centers in town, the Esplanade, which has about 30 stalls and tables all setup right on the water. For our last dinner of RTW 2.0, we had Penang Laksa (a noodle soup that we found to be a bit fishy), kuay teow (the great noodle dish that’s very similar to pad see ew), and then a big plate of pemoran which is different fried meats and veggies in a sweet sauce. The dinner was good but after several Malaysian meals, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s definitely lower on the list of my favorite cuisines. I much prefer the Indian, Chinese and Indonesian in Malaysia.
We had walked about 10 minutes home after dinner when it started to drizzle. It was at this moment that I realized I’d forgotten our umbrellas on our table. Before Dave could even say anything I took off and began running back to get them (we’d just bought them a few days before and they were really nice umbrellas!). I got back to our table and there was a group of Muslim women eating, but no umbrella bag. I asked the women if they had seen a bag at the table, but they said no. There was no way that any other group of people had been able to sit down for a whole meal in between the time that Dave and I left and these ladies arrived. I asked a few of the stalls about the bag, but no one had seen it. I had just about given up (and I was secretly blaming this group of women for stealing it) when a man working at the center came over to me and asked what I was looking for. I told him and he immediately began shouting to all of his friends, going up to every food stall, until finally, he returned with my umbrella bag in hand! I was so excited and thanked him in Malaysian (Tehreemagasi!!). He asked me where I was from and in response let out a big, “Welllllllcome to Malaysia.” The whole thing was a very funny experience and I was sorry Dave missed it.
In the morning (our last morning of RTW 2.0), we took a bus about 45 minutes away to Penang Hill, which you take a cable car up (about 2,000m) and is supposed to have great views of Georgetown. At the top of Penang Hill, it feels like a little mini park with temples, playgrounds, and lots of places to take pictures. It was pretty foggy though, so unfortunately, no great views of Georgetown. There are also several walking trails that lead you down to either the bottom or to different stops along the cable car. We were told that to walk all the way to the bottom would take three hours and since we didn’t have that kind of time, we went up and down several of the different trails, aiming to end at one of the cable car stations. Along the way we saw the two animals the brochure told us we’d be lucky to see (our animal luck hasn’t run out yet!) – a giant black squirrel and monkeys. We also saw the biggest centipede we’ve ever seen. The trails were really nice and we wished we had more time until it started pouring. Luckily we’d gotten our umbrellas back the night before. We hurried to the cable car station and even got a great view of Georgetown on the way down (once we were below some of the fog). It was a nice morning and a great way to end RTW 2.0.
We had one last Indian lunch on our way to catch the bus to the airport. And that’s a wrap for RTW 2.0. It has been an amazing trip and summer, but now, back to Bangkok. For maybe the first time ever, Dave and I are both actually looking forward to going back to work.