Friday, October 15, 2010

Penang - That's All Folks

Penang was the last stop on the backpacking leg of our trip, so it was with mixed feelings that we arrived at the Penang bus station. On one hand, we were looking forward to getting back to the Western world, where we wouldn't have to worry about language, plumbing and food poisoning but on the other hand we were sad that our Asian Odyssy was coming to an end. It occurred to me that we would soon have to start worrying about different things... like washing the dishes, paying the bills and looking for a job!! After following this alarming train of thought for a while, I decided that the best thing to do was just to make the best of our last adventure.

What better place than Penang, I thought, to say farewell to our carefree lifestyle. In my mind I was picturing an island beach-resort with heaps of cocktails and swimming pools, like Bali. In this respect I was sadly disappointed, as Penang seemed just like any other Malaysian city... crumbling old buildings, cheap spicy curries and badly-made tourist t-shirts. However, like the other cities there is always more than meets the eye and Penang turned out to have a few cards up it's sleeve.

One of these was the beautiful colonial architecture, as well as plenty of other historical sites such as the old fort. Michael and I decided that we would definitely do a historical walking tour and savour the sites... right after visiting the local shopping mall. It even had a cinema, which was showing The Last Airbender, an adaptation of one of my most favourite cartoons. Well, it seemed silly to pass up on seeing it now, since we didn't know how much longer it would be in cinemas, given that the reviews had been pretty woeful. Before seeing the movie I had convinced myself that the people writing the reviews just didn't understand the complex world and characters that make up Avatar, but after the credits began to roll I admitted that they were pretty much spot on, it was "an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented".

Oh well, at least I only paid $2 to see it!

After feeling our brains turn to mush for the last two hours, we decided that we needed a good dose of culture and history, so we set out on a walking tour of the old town.

We started at Fort Cornwallis, which houses a chapel that is the oldest surviving roofed structure in Penang. It was quite eery inside as it is unused and completely bare inside, with very little light. The rest of the fort was very informative, since most of the buildings contained displays detailing the colonial history of the island.

After the fort we took a route through the city that took in some of the most impressive buildings, all the way back to the hotel. For dinner we headed out to the main drag, which I read was where all the nice restaurants were. It was a bit of a let down, being a very short strip of about six average, over-priced restaurants. However, on the plus side they all had wide-screen TV's showing the football, so it was all good.

The next day, we enjoyed a quiet morning, before taking a bus out to see a couple of the sites on the other side of the island. This is where I discovered that there actually is a beach restort district, however it is quite separate from Georgetown, which is where we were staying. I am glad that we were not staying in this area, as there did not seem to be much within walking distance apart from other hotels.

Our first stop was the Tropical Spice Garden, which is an amazing 8 acres of jungle with over 500 species of tropical flora and fauna. All along the walkway were little signs, pointing out various herbs and spices and telling you what they are used for. The place smelled absolutely amazing and definitely helped me to work up an appetite for the Tropical Fruit Farm.

I think that the Tropical Fruit Farm was the best place that we visited in Penang, since it was so unexpected and delicious. We were a bit dubious when we rocked up to find an uninviting shack with plastic tables and chairs with basically a glorified fruit and veg shop inside. The only redeeming feature was the view which was amazing. Fortunately, Michael heard a family at the counter ask about the 'tour'. We also signed up for the tour, since there didn't seem to be much else to do and I am so glad that we did! Michael and I and another family were driven right up to the top of the fruit farm (which is perched on the side of a hill), where we were introduced to one of the owners and/or managers. He gave us a stack of lychee-type fruits where you can actually eat the seed (it tasted like an almond) before we were introduced to our guide. He was very knowledgeable and lively, taking us around the farm and pointing out different fruit trees, usually pulling a few off the trees for us to sample.

One fruit that we found especially interesting was the Goji Berry, also known as the Miracle Fruit. This is a very sort-after fruit, selling for incredible prices in Tokyo. Apart from apparently being ridiculously good for you, they also have the unusual effect of making bitter and sour foods taste sweet. This is supposed to be something to do with a carbohydrate that distorts the taste bud's receptor making it responsive to acids, or something along those lines. After we were given a handful of these berries all of the fruit tasted amazing, but then maybe that was just because the fruit would have tasted really good anyway...

After our little tour we were taken to another little shack, which was much nicer than the one at the bottom of the hill. There was a fruit buffet, where we were given a plate and told to help ourselves to as much as we wanted! There was coconut, bananas, two different types of dragon fruit, star fruit, mango, watermelon, lychees, rambutans and the list goes on! We were also given a freshly squeezed juice. By the end of it we were so full that we did not want to move but we knew that we couldn't affort to miss the last bus, so we trudged back down to the road.

Unfortunately we were unlucky and ended up waiting over an hour for the bus, which showed up just as we had turned around to go back up to the fruit farm to order a taxi. Relieved, we managed to jump on and make our way back to town.

That night we decided to try the suspiciously named 'Slippery Senioritas', which is supposedly a tapas bar opposite the main row of restaurants. I don't think that they actually know what tapas are, since there weren't any on the menu. The place was dead, so we settled for one of the restaurants opposite, which actually turned out to be pretty good.

The next day was the last on the backpacking leg of our trip. By this time we were looking to see things which we hadn't already seen on the trip. So we ruled out the temples, mosques, zoos and other historic buildings. We were left with the Chocolate Boutique and the Museum. We don't really count museums as a recurring activity, since the content is always unique to the area, whereas temples and zoos etc are all usually pretty much the same.

The Chocolate Boutique was fantastic, we even had a tour guide! She took us all over the shop, pointing out the various different types of chocolates and giving us samples (mmmmm.... samples...). I was wary of buying too much, since it was quite expensive and I read that you can buy most of the same stuff in the supermarket for half the price. Plus I didn't think we could get it through customs! So I settled for a small mixed bag, with mint, tira misu, strawberry and green tea flavours.

After Michael dragged me out of the Chocolate Boutique, we headed to the museum. It was a fantastic museum, set in an historic building and chock full of dioramas and interactive displays. We got to have a go at the traditional games, but unfortunately we couldn't understand the instructions, so we settled for checkers, which Michael definitely did not win, no matter what he seems to think.

The next day we enjoyed lunch at a British-style pub before catching a taxi to the airport. We flew back to Kuala Lumpur where we waited for a connecting flight to take us back home, where we had a big surprise in store for our family and friends.


  1. Michael,
    Thought you both had been kidnapped by some primative tribal group or some drug baron tribe wanting you to perform Simple Jack(Re Tropic Thunder), I had already contacted ASIO about you both missing in action for nearly 2 months but cancelled it this morning.
    Glad you are both alright.

  2. Hi Michael,

    This is Steve, we worked together in Kwinana with the white powder stuff....I guess you are in Perth now? I don't have you email address, only have your blog. Are you looking for a job now? My friend is looking for an IT guy who may suit your profile, please give me a call if you can, my mobile is 0488 000 577.