Part 6. Penang

Penang was a spur of the moment thing.  Reading about Malaysia in our trustworthy Lonely Planet, we came across the name of the island, and found it on the map. Having read more about the place, we realized to our delight and curiosity, that George Town, capital city of Penang, was a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous for its mad street art and fantastic street food.  Besides, the island (by definition) was supposed to have beaches.  Sold!

View of downtown George Town from Hotel Royal Penang

By that time in the journey, Malaysia could do no wrong in our eyes, so we did not spend too much time looking for a hotel in George Town, and booked the first one, the photos of which we liked.  BIG mistake!  Apart from the fact that the photos most probably dated back to about 50 years ago, when Hotel Royal Penang was first built, and the cleaning staff were not overly busy over these past years, it got forever remembered as the home of the biggest (luckily dead) cockroach I have ever seen in my life (and having traveled in the South of the US and through South-East Asia, I have seen some noteworthy specimen!).  The only good point about the hotel was its location – within a short 10/15-min walk of the downtown, basically making NOT spending any time on premises the best part of choosing Hotel Royal.  We threw our bags in, and could not get out of the building fast enough.

George Town is definitely one of a kind place.  Simultaneously shabby and colonial-grand, sleepy and brimming with life, it was full of surprises, and there sure was more to it that one could think of at first cursory glance.  It is the 2nd largest city in Malaysia after Kuala Lumpur, with the population of over 700,000 people.  Mind it, I read about this in the travel guide – if anybody asked my personal opinion after experiencing George Town first hand, I would have sworn there could not have been more than a couple thousand people in the city, so quiet and almost comatose it seemed.  True, we happened to be there on a weekend (apparently the quietest time in George Town), but the weekend fell on New Year’s Eve, so we were hoping for some party activity on the streets.  In our dreams, obviously…

An old colonial-style building with a misleading Guinness signs
One of many colorful pagodas of George Town

One of the first things that you notice in George Town, is how multi-cultural, mutli-ethnic, and multi-religious it is.  Downtown is a mad mishmash of Buddhist temples, mosques, Protestant, Methodist, Catholic, Evangelist churches – name any religion, and I am sure the followers will have no problems finding a place of worship in George Town!  With the 60% of its population being of Chinese ethnicity, the history of British colonialism and Japanese subjugation, the city has got stories to tell.  Walking the streets of the old downtown, one could literally trace the history of George Town through the decrepit colonial mansions, elaborate pagodas, prim and proper churches, and an abundance of statues to various British military generals.

Yet, the most fascinating part about George Town is its street art.  From giant roosters on the side of buildings, to tiny figures elaborately worked into the bits of missing plaster, and full murals depicting the city’s everyday life, the street art is absolutely unique and mind-boggling.  It is also not too easy to spot.  True, it is hard not to notice a 2-meter tall ginger cat on the side of the building, but the finer bits (like a little mouse, teasing the cat from around the corner of the same building), or a little boy taming a monster between the broken pieces of plaster are a little harder to spot.  One walks through downtown George Town on an endless treasure-hunt with permanently wide open eyes, oblivious to anything in the outside world, that is not painted on a wall of a building, and is at risk of being run over by a car or a moped, while trying to make out the mural on the opposite side of the street.

Just a few of Georgetown’s famous murals

A lot of street art is also worked into the surrounding chaos of the streets – two kids painted on a wall of a building riding an old bike bolted to said wall, a boy sitting on an old moped forgotten by somebody by the side of a house, three tiny rogue penguins spraying on graffiti on a wall, or a young girl reaching out to place incense sticks onto a holder on the wall. Even tourist signs in the old town, made of elegant metal work and carefully attached to the sides of buildings, are worked into the intricate maze of street art.  A Bangsy’s dream and artists’ playground, George Town is a feast for the observant eye, and a place where fantasy runs berserk.

More murals
A giant ginger cat
One of the smaller and less obvious murals – gangsta penguins

In no hurry to return to our disappointing hotel, we spent the whole day of New Year’s Eve walking the streets of Penang.  Our breakfast was 3-D coffees in “Coffee on the Table” – a tiny coffee shop with mismatched colorful chairs and tables, priding itself in one-of-a-kind cappuccinos.  Who would have thought that simple milk foam can be shaped into such whimsical shapes!…  Obviously, imagination and creativity were on the menu everywhere in George Town.

3D cappuccinos at Coffee on the Table

Our lunch was beer in the “Junk Café”.  Drawn in by the name, thirst, and a mad assortment of artsy junk on the walls, we stayed for the conversation with a barman (owner?), talking about life, art, and beer – can you imagine a deeper, or more fulfilling conversation?…

The mad interior of The Junk Cafe

Overwhelmed with the abundance and variety of street art, we sadly all but missed on the promised food paradise part of George Town.  New Year’s Eve or not, the locals were observing the weekend rest religiously (probably enforced by the multitude of denominations), and most places, including street markets, were closed.  I did, however, have a bite of chicken rice that I missed in Singapore from a street stall in George Town, and if that was any indication of the quality of local food – I was a convert!  Can’t wait to return to Penang during the week, and eat my way through!

One peculiarity of George Town that we noticed, and could not explain, was the abundance of Guinness ads all over the city – bars, restaurants, food markets and random buildings proudly wore the “black magic” posters, while the beverage itself was nowhere to be seen…  Did they run out?…  Or how else would the ads make it here, if Guinness itself is not served or sold anywhere?…  A mystery, that forever remained unsolved… By the end of the day, we landed in the “Olive Restaurant & Bar”.  No website, as none is needed.  Despite the name, hinting at something Greek/Mediterranean, the place offered some of the best Indian food we have ever tried, great music (you can’t possibly resist a DJ wearing sunglasses in the middle of the night, can you?!…), and a unique anthropological people-watching opportunity. 

When we arrived, the place was packed to the brim, and by sheer Irish luck we secured the last tiny table by wall.  The New Year’s Eve special offer was “Buy 2 1-liter bottles of Jack Daniels, and get one half-liter for free!”  This must have been an irresistible combination for the locals, for all other patrons of the venue were enthusiastically partaking in the offer.  Four adults with two kids sitting at a table next to us, ordered several rounds of the special offer, paired with a bucket of Tiger beers each, and when the buckets ran out, the “Tower of Tiger” – an over-sized pitcher with a tap – appeared on their table, to the sheer delight of the audience.  How they were still vertical after that amount of Jack with beer, was the second mystery of the day.  The kids did not help the parents (I watched), and were just running around the bar screaming, high on sugar and adrenaline, until well past midnight.

We crawled back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning, and even in our state of New Year’s celebratory intoxication (just wine, no Jack!), we found the reality of Hotel Royal Penang too depressive to cope.  Having woken up, we quickly browsed the Internet, this time paying attention not just to the photos, but to the reviews and ratings, and flew the coop direction Batu Ferringhi, which promised the best beaches in the area, while still keeping the attractive prices of South-East Asia, that make all Europeans flock there en mass.

Batu Ferringhi beach – view from the Hard Rock Hotel, Penang

A 30 minute taxi ride away, and we were in a different world, putting the horrors of the Hotel Royal Penang behind us, never to be spoken of again.  The Hard Rock Hotel Penang, was a dream come true for the end of the long journey – it had pools, clean premises, attractive drinks, and smiley people all around!  Even if it took them 40 minutes to work out our credit cards, we did not really mind.  Our faith in Malaysian quality and hospitality was fully restored!  I took a shower (which I longed for since the previous day, but consciously avoided for hygienic reasons in the Hotel Royal), we spent the rest of the day in the welcoming hotel pool, enjoying the drinks from the pool bar (my first!), and chatting with a bunch of friendly Australians occupying the rooms on the ground floor – a quick swim away from the pool bar.  Turned out, Malaysia was a popular Christmas/New Year destination for Australians, although for reasons completely opposite to those that brought us there.  The Europeans fly to Asia to escape the cold and misery of the winter, while the Australians are hiding there to wait off the winter heat.  Well, to each its own, I guess…

One of many fantastic sunsets of Batu Ferringhi

Australians were living in the hotel for the past couple of weeks already, and knew the area quite well.  Their local knowledge came it quite handy by dinner time.  Not intending to eat in the hotel, but willing to explore the local food market scene, all we had to do was follow a couple of two big hungry blokes out of the hotel.  They looked like they never missed a meal in their lives, and the business-like intent of their fast-paced walk gave us assurance that they knew where they were going.  We weren’t disappointed – the Australians led us straight to the evening market, where food was in abundance. 

Everything looked and smelled delicious, and we spent a delightful couple of hours, trying bits and pieces from a variety of stalls on the market.  The system was simple – you walk past the stalls situated around the perimeter of a square filled with tables and chairs, order the food you wished, give the number of the table you were planning to sit at (or simply point in its direction), and in a couple of minutes your food was in front of you!  Drinks were ordered from separate vendors, materializing in front of you the moment you sat down at a table, and the whole process was swift, easy, and accommodating.  We had chicken satays, big flat rice noodles with meat, fresh fish and crab cakes – the food market was a true feast for the eyes and stomachs.  The portions were conveniently small, so you could try a number of dishes without too big of a risk for your waste-line. 

The shared tables with free sitting also allow you to mingle with the locals and tourists alike, strike interesting conversations, and share useful information.  A lovely couple from Adelaide, who were going home the next day, told us about their favorite beach bar, just minutes away from our hotel, and we thanked them many time over days after they were gone.

View from Frandy Beach Bar

Frandy Beach Bar became our go-to place for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the remaining 2 days in the area.  They cooked up amazing food at ¼ of the price you would pay at the hotel (which did not have the extortionist price tag to begin with), poured nice drinks, had the friendliest bar staff you can imagine, and to top all that, had absolutely amazing sunset views.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, the unknown couple from Adelaide for sharing this gem with us!

True to our word to Selim, we also paid a visit to the Healy Mac’s in Batu Ferringhi, and it was as good as the one in the capital.  Great food, great drinks (for a change to everywhere else on Penang, their Guinness ads were actually supported by the actual Guinness on tap!), and great live music in the evenings.  I don’t always sing along with the bands I hear (for fear of clearing the place and scaring away the people around me), but I caught myself doing this more than once in Healy Mac’s.  And alcohol had nothing to do with this – the bands were just too good not to join in!

Batu Ferringhi
The lighthouse in Straights Key Marina – view from Healy Mac’s
View of George Town from Straights Quay Marina

The three days we spent in Batu Ferringhi were the most relaxing of our vacation, and also seemed to fly by especially quickly.  It’s always weird – the more you do in any given day on vacation, the more you pack into the day, the more things you see and the more people you meet, the faster each individual day goes, but the longer the stretch of such days lasts.  Once you stop, sit back, fall into the routine of doing nothing – each individual day stretches for longer, but several together suddenly get more condensed, and looking back at them, you remember them as just one long day that finished quite fast.  Is this a trick our memories play to us, or an actual time stretching/condensing phenomenon?…  I guess I’ll never know…

Our way back took a total of 29 hours (Penang to Singapore, Singapore to Zurich, including a painful 7 hour (!!!!) layover in Zurich airport, and finally back to Munich), but since Bali was not involved in the itinerary, everything worked.  The trip went smoothly, no flight was cancelled or delayed, and after a chain of airports, flights, and the teeth-pulling boredom of the Zurich airport, we were finally back home!

Part 5. Kuala Lumpur

For reasons I cannot really explain, Malaysia has never been on my travel radar.  Don’t really know why, there is no rhyme or reason, but I was ready to shout “It should have been!!!” at the top of my lungs right after clearing immigration in Kuala Lumpur’s super-modern and super-efficient International Airport.  Clearing immigration with a Russian passport is never a fun thing – you need invitations, visas, proofs of return flights, proofs of accommodation booked, and all other petty and snub nuisances that make one want to wish for a more travel-friendly passport.  Well, you guess what?…  Not in Malaysia!  They don’t give a shit!!!!  The immigration officers are not interested in anything, neither do they speak English, which makes the immigration clearing process super-efficient, but makes it also super-silent as well, to the special delight of the specifically a-social tourists like myself.  The stern lady in a headscarf quickly determined that the photo in my passport matched the tired mug in front of her, pointed towards the fingerprint scanner and the camera, and waved me off into the welcoming depths of the country in no time.  Yay – long live Malaysian immigration authorities!!!!

Our flight to this oasis of technology and efficiency was not without surprises, though.  Not only was our flight from Labuanbajo to Bali delayed for the totally uncontrollable 4.5 (!!!!) hours, which made us miss our connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur, but the Wings Air flight that we finally boarded after waiting for what felt like forever in the Komodo Airport on site, boasted the most original in-flight magazine I have ever seen!  Strictly speaking, it was not even a magazine – there were no shopping ads, or photos of fancy places to visit, instead, the leaflet was basically a collection of prayers (in Indonesian, English and Arabic for Islam) for safe flying aimed at every known denomination, and even some obscure ones…  Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and the followers of Khonghucu (which upon closer inspection turned out to be the Indonesian version of Confucianism) could feel perfectly safe on board, while reciting the short directions from the leaflet…

I studied them carefully, and could not help but wonder whether the differences in text represented the more universal differences between the religions:

  • Catholics and Protestants were expected to pray for the safe flight and landing of the aircraft and for their families to be safe on the ground. The Confucians added to this the hope that the airline crew knew what they were doing.
  • The followers of Islam were expected to praise Allah for the ability to use the aircraft, and ask for protection from hardship or danger. Judging by the fact that the airline pilots and crew were omitted from the text of the prayer, they obviously put more trust in their abilities.
  • The Hindu and Buddhist prayers merely wished for happiness and purity of mind of the passengers while in flight (with the Hindu one, also wishing for good manners on the part of those praying).

If the in-flight prayer abstracts were to be any indication of the world religions they represented, the wild generalizations to be made would depict the Catholics, Protestants and Confucians as a pretty skeptical lot, the Muslims as very grateful and trusty souls, and cement the reputation of the Hindus and Buddhists as an overly happy-go-lucky bunch.  There, here are my 5 cents on the religions of the world!

The sole presence of the in-flight prayer leaflets on board was mildly disturbing, but apart from the inexcusable delay, the flight was quick and smooth.  The delay obviously made us miss our already booked and paid for flight to Kuala Lumpur, but the impeccably polite and friendly staff of AirAsia counter in Bali Danpassar airport quickly re-booked us to the next available one.  The running around the airport in search of said counter did nothing to improve our already cemented impressions of Bali, and even got us thinking that probably Bali did not like us either…

3 hours later we were in Malaysia.

The already described fantastic first impressions from the fast-speed immigration were seconded by the super-fast, efficient and inexpensive (€20 for two) train from the airport to the city.  The Majestic hotel, far-sightedly booked by us from Le Pirat under the influence of home-made palm rum cocktails turned out to be the best surprise of all!  We had no idea we were going to stay in a palace!!!  The hotel shuttle picked up all guests from downtown train station, and when we entered the foyer, we were immediately swept by a confusing emotional mix of feeling immediately at home, and out of place in our sweaty T-shirts and flip-flops.  The overdressed staff at Reception did not blink an eye, issued us our room key and helpfully pointed out that the bar on the ground floor was still open – an exceptionally useful piece of information, for with all the hassle of delays, re-bookings and figuring out local transportation it was close to midnight when we finally checked in!

The Majestic hotel

We threw the bags in the room, gushed over the regal grandeur of our new digs (there was even a stand-alone bath-tub with what looked like silver glass holders for champagne flutes!), changed the sweaty T-shirts (to be annihilated or disinfected later) to something slightly more appropriate and moved to the bar.  Two glasses of wine (each), served by a royal-looking barman in white tuxedo (I kid you not!) were a welcome balm to our tied souls, and definitely helped to erase all memories of Bali already after the 2nd sip.  I did double-check our booking confirmation – after seeing the hotel in all its glory, I was worried palm rum influence might have been a bit too strong at the time, and we would have to sell a minimum of 2 kidneys to afford the 2 nights we booked.  To my relief it was nothing of the kind!  Even having prolonged our stay in the hotel for 1 more night to celebrate my birthday in style we ended up paying an equivalent of €150 for 3 nights for an absolutely luxurious room with the breathtaking view of the city.  We were officially in love with Kuala Lumpur!

The two full days we spent in the city did not spoil the first impression one bit.  It was a mad mix of super-modern and shabby, technological and outdated, posh and down-to-earth, while at the same time not allowing for contrasts to get too sharp or overflow your senses.

Kuala Lumpur’s public transport is efficient, well-developed and affordable with LRT/MRT & Monorail train lines covering the whole city in a far-reaching grid.  The LRT/MRT trains are also fully-automated, rushing through the city without any visible human support.  The older monorail ones, running on a well-elevated line around the Golden Triangle district, are still man-operated.  The old downtown of Kuala Lumpur is fairly compact and is easily explorable on foot.  We walked from the hotel to Chinatown, passing by the majestic-looking, but seemingly deserted Kuala Lumpur Old Train Station, observed the semi-organized chaos of the shopping streets of Chinatown near Petailing street, had some yummy but unpronounceable food in a tiny street cafe, and jumped on the MRT to get to the Golden Triangle.

Kuala Lumpur Old Train Station with Petronas Towers in the background

Our plan for the day was pretty simple – relax from the stress of plane- and island-hopping of the past several days, walk aimlessly around, and take in the city.  The only definite item on our list of things to see was Petronas Twin Towers, still remaining the tallest twin buildings in the world (even after the general height was beaten by the taller, but single-standing Taipei 101 in 2004).  The towers were seriously cool – not only do they look VERY sleek and high-tech and boast a sky bridge connecting them in the middle, there is also a huge shopping mall in the several underground floors!  We again, showed admirable planning skills and bought the tickets online the night before, as the sky bridge only accommodates 1,000 visitors a day.  Visitor tickets can give you admission only to sky bridge, connecting the towers on the 41st and 42nd floor, or combine it with the visit to the top of one of the towers on 86th floor.  Of course, we did both – we traveled this far, we might as well see it all!  The sky bridge was especially cool, once you learn that it does not actually connect to the two towers, but rather slides in and out of them, allowing for the swaying of the towers in high winds.  The view from the top was mesmerizing – we could see the whole city, and the square and park by the entrance underneath the buildings looked especially microscopic.

Petronas Towers – view from the ground
View of Kuala Lumpur from the top of Petronas Towers

We did find the party area in Kuala Lumpur (of course!) – Bukit Bintang, where we spent two wonderful evenings walking the streets and looking at the variety of nightlife the city had to offer.  All bright, clean, and very safe – what more can a visitor ask for?  Our venue of choice for the first night was Healy Mac’s, and Irish pub with an 80-ies marathon on TV screens above the bar.  It was too hot for Guinness, so I took the bartender’s word and tried their day’s special – a Lychee martini.  After that – there was no stopping me.  Lychee martinis – here I come!!!  I actually had a reason for celebration (not that I ever needed one…), as in a couple of hours it was going to be my very own personal birthday. 

Nothing would ever top the celebration we had in the biker “Mushroom Bar” in a shady alley of Aonang in Thailand several years earlier (those who missed, or forgot this epic occasion, can refresh their memories here), but Healy Mac’s came very fucking close.  We struck a conversation with a huge and scary-looking guy who looked very much at home in the place.  Selim turned out to be the sweetest and funniest person, and also the bar manager.  Having learned from my loose-tongued husband about my birthday, not only did he stop the bartender from changing the channel and allowed me to sing along with Rick Astley and Madonna all night long (amazing, what a bunch of Lychee martinis do to one’s vocal talents and self-esteem!), but at midnight personally brought me the most wonderful mini-birthday cake with a sparkler and a “Happy birthday, Victoria!” written in chocolate on the plate!  He also gave us a tip of a next-door steak restaurant for the next day, and shared that Healy Mac’s had a branch on the Penang Peninsular, our next destination.  The evening lasted well into the early hours of the morning, we don’t remember how we got back to our palatial hotel, and it was only around midday when we woke up, that I saw another birthday cake decorated with fresh fruits and flowers, waiting for me on a coffee table.  What can I say?…  Kuala Lumpur knew how to make a girl feel at home!

My birthday cake from Healy Mac’s

Our remaining half a day in the city was spent in a quiet and relaxing fashion.  We had a walk around the Orchid Garden, conveniently located within the walking distance from the hotel, stopped at the Bird Park nearby – definitely an hour well-spent looking at various brightly-colored birds in a huge aviary park, and finished the day with a birthday dinner in The Steakhouse, next door to Healy Mac’s and recommended by Selim.  Much as we enjoyed the last night in Healy Mac’s, we both knew better than going there again.  At our age, celebrations definitely turned from marathons to sprints, and we needed some time to recover before we were ready to go again.  With the forthcoming New Year Celebrations, and the presence of a Healy Mac’s branch in our next destination, we definitely needed a couple of days to regroup.

Beautiful orchids in the Orchid Garden
Marabus in the Bird Park

The last scene from Kuala Lumpur’s life, observed on the KTM train back to the hotel, was memorable as well.  A completely round guy was sitting on a huge suitcase in the middle of a packed train, looking obviously chuffed.  When we smiled and complimented him on his far-sightedness of having brought his own seat with him, the guy beamed, his wife rolled her eyes, and we were immediately told the story of the suitcase.  The guy proudly shared that the suitcase was a fresh purchase, and was great not only for packing clothes, and using as a chair in crowded public transport, but had many other uses.  The guy went on reciting a long list of said uses, ending with “And I can swim on it as well!!!!”  Throughout his 10- or so minute speech, the wife continued rolling her eyes, which by the time of the final remark must have made a full orbit around her brain, and put her 5 cents in: “We don’t even need a new suitcase!  He only bought it because the salesman stood on it, to show how sturdy it was.  And that guy weighed a good 200 pounds!…”  Only in Kuala Lumpur