Penang, one of our favorite places in the world, is the food capital of SE Asia, and perhaps of the entire known world. We are focused here on hawker stalls and street food. Forget the gourmet restaurants, Pan-Asian cuisine, nouveau whatever, and fancy wine. This is fresh, basic, highly local, uniquely flavored, and multi ethnic food of all sizes and shapes.
After getting over the shock of the unreasonably reasonable prices, the fresh seafood and noodle dishes seem to catch our attention. A huge platter of sauteed prawns will cost around $3 USD. Another huge platter of noodles with meat and veg runs another $1 USD. The soft drinks cost almost as much as the food.
The Nyonya community’s cooking skills are legendary. Infused with herbs and spices, the dishes are a perfect accompaniment to steaming white rice while the desserts and local cakes (kuih) are a sight to behold with their unique soft texture and colorful appearance, and sinfully delicious. Rojak is a delicious mix of fresh fruits and vegetables like pineapples, cucumber and water apples with cuttlefish slices. Generously topped with a local prawn paste dressing, it is a heady combination.
Pasembur is a slightly different version of the Rojak, the Pasembur features a mix of deep fried items and shredded vegetables. The dressing is a peanut-based sweet sauce that will leave you hungering for more. Pork ribs simmered in herbal soup, Bak Kut Teh is a well-loved Chinese dish. Often, regulars will request for “extras” like pork intestines and pork skin. Eaten with white rice, nothing beats a steaming hot bowl of Bak Kut Teh.
After or before eating, we will see more of the island. At 821 meters above sea level, Penang Hill visitors are privy to some of the grandest colonial mansions (which are now restaurants and guests houses) while enjoying the cool, refreshing air and bird’s eye view of the island. The hill (originally known as Strawberry Hill) was first cleared by Captain Francis Light (who first established Penang as a British colony) to plant strawberries, hence its original name.
The Penang Hill funicular train ride in Air Itam is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. Although it is possible to hike up the hill or arrange for a jeep to ferry you up (via the Botanic Gardens, another of the state’s green enclaves lined with a myriad of plants and century-old trees), the short 30-minute train ride is not-to-be-missed (especially since it has been faithfully ferrying passengers since 1923)!
Construction for the Kek Lok Si temple started in 1890 and to date, is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Known as the Temple of Supreme Bliss, Kek Lok Si ranks as among the best known temples in the region. Overlooking the town of Air Itam, the best time to visit Kek Lok Si is during Chinese New Year because thousands of lights are switched on to mark the celebration, transforming the place of worship into a brightly-lit fairyland at night.
The Penang Toy Museum in Tanjung Bunga is no kid’s play! With more than 100,000 toys, dolls, models and other fun collectibles, it is the largest museum of its kind anywhere in the world and the first in Asia. Featuring life-size models of super heroes to tiny action figures, this is one playground both kids and adults can enjoy.
Having the distinction as being South East Asia’s only dedicated spice sanctuary, the Tropical Spice Garden in Teluk Bahang is paradise on earth. Nestled among lush green foliage, exotic ferns and flowering plants, the garden’s café overlooks the pristine blue sea and is the ideal setting for an afternoon drink. Spread over a sprawling 3.2 hectares, the garden boasts more than 500 varieties of flora from Malaysia and other regions.
Last time here, we took a trishaw ride back to our hotel. The trishaw is a cute, old, little peddle-power vehicle that has been around since the days of yore. Decorated with plastic flowers and blinking lights, these are now mainly “tourist mobiles” and are great for going around George Town’s narrow inner city streets. The faint-hearted take note: trishaws may be dwarfed by other motorized vehicles but here in Penang, they are truly “Kings of the Roads”, earned from the way they “courageously” navigate past the busy traffic. Personally, I think these old men who power the trishaws are crazy. We practically had to jump out and help him up a very modest incline.
But the real joy and satisfaction of our visits come with the time we get to spend with our friends, Jason and Chun. They teach here at the Dalat International School. In addition, Jason coaches and plays for the floor ball team, and has traveled overseas with them. They are both so knowledgeable about the island’s history and food. And just about anywhere we go on the island with them, they know someone or recognize an old friend or relative.
This is our third visit to Penang, and our third stay at the fabulous Rasa Sayang Resort in Batu Feringgi, Penang. This legitimate 5 star resort is located directly on the beach, with amenities too many to mention. The one I enjoy most is the cocktail and appetizer offerings all day long in the Rasa lobby.
We have already been overwhelmed with fresh baked cookies, an offer of a foot rest for my leg, and a drawn bath with rose, ginger, juniper or lavender. If one is to be laid up, this is the place. Nap time for now until high tea at 3pm or cocktail hour at 6pm. The only problem with cocktail hour is that long pants are required. In a resort, of all places!
We upgraded our room to a Rasa Suite, overlooking the ocean, and a pristine sandy beach. Our jacuzzi tub is located on the balcony, not affording too much privacy. Our wing has its own pool, lobby and bar. The spa is just a few steps away as well.
Last night’s food stall excursion was simply the best. Jason and Chun found all kinds of food for us to try, including skate. My favorite dish was the giant prawns, tasty and almost lobster like in texture. We must have tried about a dozen different dishes.
The plan for Saturday was similar. We met Jason and Chun around 1:30pm, after he gave his guitar lessons. We headed to downtown Georgetown, the capital city, about 45 minutes away. He wants to make sure that we get our fill of ABC and probably some durian for Sheri. We have renamed our vacation the “ABC Trip” in honor of their national dessert, the ice kachang.
They transport me (I hurt my back in KL) around the grounds of the hotel on a golf cart. But I was able to walk the length of the resort after our fabulous breakfast in the Spice Market Cafe. Spice is a huge, multi ethnic buffet extravaganza for the senses and taste. I stuck with fresh fruit, noodles, some roti, and a bananas foster type of pastry for dessert.
Last night, we hit a huge seafood emporium, where we had several varieties of seafood, including black pepper prawns, steamed crab, sweet and sour whole fish, and a few other side dishes. It had to be the most popular place in town. We were joined by two of their friends, Fahmi and Rena. Fahmi was full of interesting stories, including being an arms dealer in Italy for several years. He said it was small time stuff, but actually served jail time in Rome, Milan, and Venice.
Then Sunday, Jason and Chun joined us for this grand breakfast buffet. After an hour of gorging, we then left for a drive around the entire island of Penang. We drove up into the highlands, through durian farms, rainforests, and centuries old farm land. We ended up eating another ABC on the south end of the island.
We managed to hit High Tea at 3pm, and decided on a well needed nap.
It has been mostly a foodie vacation here in Penang. We did manage to hit the Night Market the last two nights for a few Rolex and Omega watches. Tonight, I hoped to buy some bootleg “24” DVDs, and perhaps something else just for fun. We have not done any serious shopping, since we had our fittings with our tailor in Bangkok.
I cannot say enough about this wing of the hotel, the Rasa Wing of the Rasa Sayang Hotel. It is the best hotel we have every stayed, here in SE Asia. It is owned by a wealthy local business man. We are probably the youngest tourists here, other than a few young families from Japan. It is quiet, with the friendliest service. Somehow, everyone knows our name here!
I meandered down to the 6pm cocktail hour. I had two glasses of champagne, which I found to be very expensive here in the stores. I passed on the appetizers, which looked like a combo of sushi and dim sum. It was mostly haoles in the lobby, no locals or Japanese tourists. They couldn’t believe I did not want to eat anything, or have more than two glasses of bubbly.
Tonight, we went for out last big Penang meal. We went to a Chinese seafood place along the street. We had a steamed snapper, along with two vegetable dishes, a tofu clay pot, and some rice. A very local type place on a roadside, under an aluminum awning. After that, we headed over to the Night Market for some trinkets to bring home for friends.
After, we were invited over to Rena and Fahmi’s home for dessert. Since she does not like ABC, she surprised us with citron tea and fresh fruit. She is reputed to be an excellent cook. We met their little baby, Tinkerbell, a mastif about 4 months old, and about 66 pounds. Talk about a big puppy.
As we bid our farewells this evening, we realize that spending time with Jason and Chun is the real joy of our stay here. Despite the great food, and the fabulous Rasa Sayang Hotel, it is our friendship with them that makes Penang so special.