Around a week after I am back from our Italy vacation, I am off to Penang with my friend Sharon. We had been talking about going for a trip together and among the various destination in the region, we had settled for Penang. Sharon hasn’t been to Penang and my last visit was 17 years ago. So, Penang sounds like a good choice.
For a change from the usual hotels, we had chosen to stay in a lodge (or inn) instead. The Trip Advisor ratings for “Betelnut Lodge” (100 Lebuh Melayu) are quite good and the price at around S$160 for 2 nights is quite alright too.
It’s only on our last day, when we took the bus from bus interchange at Komtar to the airport, that we realise that we could have saved RM45 (fixed cab rate from the airport) if we had known where to take the bus from the airport to the city. Anyway, our flight had arrived slightly past noon and we can’t wait to start our itinerary so taking the cab can help save some time and might not be a bad idea afterall.
The cab had arrived at Lebuh Melayu where Betelnut Lodge is supposed to be but the driver had no idea where is unit number 100. It is also hard to see from inside the cab when the units along the rows of shophouses seem quite close to each other. Nevermind, let’s get off the cab and search. If we are on the correct street, it shouldn’t take too long to locate the lodge. Indeed, the lodge is tucked in the middle of a shophouse and the main entrance is partially obscured by the branches sticking out of the potted plants places at the main entrance. Pretty much a blink and you miss.
Just to share some thoughts about this lodge…
Stepping inside, I didn’t realise how small the lobby is. Would consider it more of a “front desk” than a lobby actually. But at the same time, I am also pleasantly surprised at its cleanliness. Everything seems to be neat and in order. The floor is clean and the air doesn’t smell musty. Overall, it feels like a “home”. In fact, no footwear is allowed beyond the ground floor hence we went barefoot while climbing up the stairs and in our room. Guess that helps to minimise the dirt as well as the cleaning upstairs.
The door next to the table at main “lobby” leads to a small courtyard that exudes a sense of tranquility with ample greenery (in the form of potted plants) with a small fountain next to them. Noticed there’s a fair bit of antique placed on some of the furniture which had accentuate the charm of the place. These include the gramophone, a light green Peranakan blouse within a frame and colourful tiffin trays. The owner had later shared that he luvs antique and these are from his collection.
Speaking of the owner, he has been very helpful in advising the food places, where to take the bus to certain key attraction, some history on the street art and where to buy the local specialities like tau sar piah and belacan etc. Some of these locations and names of restaurants are painstakingly handwritten on each map that the lodge provides.
Most importantly, the room (though small) is clean and has wifi connectivity. Tsk tsk, everywhere we go, we just can’t live without the internet, emails, facebook, whatsapp and whatever right? It’s ok that the room doesn’t come with a fridge or kettle. If there is a need to boil water or place anything in the fridge, I believe these can be done in their kitchen.
Without further delay, we were off to explore the streets of Old Georgetown. Most of the streets are flanked by traditional shophouses. Some had been restored, evident from their bright colours and minimal flaking of the paint, while there are others in a derelict state. Some of which serves as retail space as well as homes for the locals. Some of the residences also double up as shops selling souvenirs or other knick knacks.
Strolling along these streets is like taking a trip down memory lane. Feels like Singapore in the late 70s and 80s. Though there are still some of these shophouse units left in the heritage enclaves of Kampong Glam, Little India and Chinatown but much of its original cultural character had been diluted by the numerous new-age cafes and restaurants. Only a very few handful of traditional shops still remains but I wonder how long they would stay this way as times evolved. Don’t think there are also many people staying in these units except for probably a very small handful (if I may assume).
Back to the streets of Penang…. Some of the living rooms in these residences remind me so much of my late granny’s living room. Simple furniture and the style/design is obviously dated from decades ago. If my granny’s still alive, believe she will still kepp many of her furniture even if she had moved into an apartment. An altar at the corner is also another common feature. Those who are at home would be transfixed to their TV (seems old-school as well, instead of the modern gigantic ones with LCD or LED screens) while fanning themselves.
Spotted this car which its bumper is decorated (or protected) by a crocheted cover. Seriously??!
One key highlight of Georgetown are the street art painted by Ernest Zacharevic. There are also other art that are painted by others. Some are clearly graffiti. While the latter might be considered as art or expression of creavity here, it is no less than 3 strokes of cane back home. Hee…
Some of his famous art are soon to be gone from the effects of weather and also itchy-fingered folks who might have peeled off some of the paintwork. It is a shame that some jackass had sprayed painted over the “Little Children on a Bicycle” art. Why do this?
Over the 2 and a half days which we are there, we had made a point to locate all the street art, especially the Ernest Zacharevic ones, from our map. There are occasions where we can’t seem to find it and when we turned back, it’s right up there, huge on the wall, like “Kungfu Girl” (at Muntri Street). Each time, we spotted a mural, we will get all excited and start to snap pictures of it. Feels like some kind of treasure hunt.
We didn’t manage to locate all. The “Children in a Boat” at Chew Jetty is obviously gone. Looks like someone had deliberately scraped off the paint. We also can’t find the “Broken Heart” phone booths at Love Lane. Think they’re gone too.
We made our way to the jetty area. A bit of background. The clan jetties are an intregal part of Penang heritage. Once 7 jetties, there are now 6 jetties and are also homes to some living in houses on stilts. Similarly, some also double up as shops or provision shops, and even a salon. I told Sharon that if we’re to go for a perm in this salon, be sure we will get instant noodle curls. LOL!
Since we didn’t have lunch, we decided to heed one of the recommendations written on the map and try the nyonya (Peranakan) food at Aunty Gaik Lean at Bishop Street for a quick bite. Penang has a rather strong Peranakan culture so we should try these nyonya dishes. However, we had ordered a little too much and it seems like a full-blown dinner for 2 people! It’s the waiter’s fault lah. Said the portions are not huge. Damn they are! Literally 三菜一汤.
We ordered the Lor Bak (which is more of like a ngoh hiang rather than pork belly stewed in dark soy sauce that we’re familiar with), salted vegetable duck soup (really salty!), sambal kangkong (not bad) and assam prawns (this is good with the right amount of tangy and a tinge of spice).
To think that we can still stomach more food at Gurney Drive!!
Since Sharon hasn’t been to Penang, I though it might be a good idea to visit Gurney Drive even though I know it is a tourist trap and there are reviews that the food is overpriced and not delicious. Anyway, we didn’t order that much other than the char kway teow from stall no 71 and fruit rojak which is refreshing though the prawn paste sauce can be a little less generous.
On hindsight, visiting Gurney is a mistake. I shouldn’t have suggested that. We didn’t even enjoy the beach view. Anyway, what beach view? It’s dark!
The next morning, we popped over across the road for a breakfast of duck soup kway teow soup and what I would consider as something that I never expect to try, duck intestines. The owner of the lodge had strongly recommended the duck intestines. said they are very good and hours had been spent cleaning them. To convince myself, I went online and found some good reviews about the intestines and that they are not gamey or icky. Ok, let me just be adventurous (by my standard lah) and try Donald Duck’s innards.
The kway teow soup is rather sweet. It’s nothing to shout about but it makes a very good comfort food. Like the reviews I had read, the cream coloured duck intestines do not have that gamey taste typical of any innards. The savoury garlic sauce with crispy fried garlic makes this dish more palatable. In fact, it feels like jellyfish. Crunchy and yet, chewy at the same time. Even though it didn’t taste that bad, innards are not my cup of tea. It’s also psychological since we know the purpose of these intestines. Alright, I shall not say more.
We took a bus (204) from Komtar to the Ayer Itam area. First stop is at Kek Lok Si. If you are unfamiliar with the stop, just ask the driver to give you a shout when he reaches.
Wow, what an impressive temple! The statue of Guan Yin on the hill is a magnificent sight. The Kek Lok Si is supposed to be the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. Think some parts of the temple is still being constructed (?) or restored.
After the temple visit, we MUST try the famous Penang Assam Laksa at the “Pasar Air Itam” at the foot of the hill. The broth is thick and flavourful. Not too salty, sour or spicy. No wonder they dare to consider themselves as “the one and the only” in Penang. Well, it’s really good.
We made a point to share all the food. This will free us more space to try more food.. Haha… I had also read much about the Sister Curry Mee. It’s hard to describe the location except that you’d have to turn right at the junction after the Pasar Air Itam Laksa and then turn into this street that is leading towards the Chinese Methodist Church.
I would usually avoid such roadside stalls. And these sisters don’t even serve the noodles from a proper counter. What we saw were 2 old ladies sitting on very short stools surrounded by pots of curry and tins of ingredients (noodles, cuttlefish, pork blood cubes etc). In veiw of the good reviews, we took a chance and try their curry noodles.
The sisters are very friendly without any of that old folks grouchiness. We had ordered a bowl to share. No beansprouts, no pork blood cubes and little chilli. The colour of the curry appear to be very light unlike the rich orange-red coloured curry which we are used to. It does taste like how it looks- diluted and lacks that oomph. I thought, maybe this is how Penang white curry taste like. We didn’t finish the curry and left quickly before they get insulted in why we didn’t finish their curry noodles that was exalted online. Sharon thinks we should try another stall later or tomorrow to compare. There’s one more near our lodge- “Tua Pui” curry noodles. Also well-known. Will talk about that later.
Our next stop is Penang Hill. It’s back to bus no. 204 again. The thing about the bus stops in Penang is, not every stop has a physical “bus stop” shelter or sign. If none are in sight, look downwards and see if there are any yellow box markings or words on the ground. That will be the bus stop.
When we reached the hill, it poured! OMG… it was really raining cats and dogs. Will we get to see anything on the hill top?
Despite the heavy rain, we’d still took the tram to the hill stop. Afterall, we are already here and who knows, the rain might lessen or stop later. The tram ride is around 15mins but the waiting times is another 15mins since it operates at a 15-min interval. The ticket is RM30 per pax for foreigners. Pretty pricey just for a tram ticket actually.
Thankfully, it’s only a slight drizzle when we had reached the hill top. From this altitude, the view of Penang is amazing. Although it’s misty over some areas like the Penang Bridge but the view is generally quite clear. Other than the view, there isn’t much to see on the hill top. There’s a cafe, a Hindu temple and erm, an owl museum. Hmm, is that an enclosure filled with owls? And I think you need to buy a ticket to see these owls.
By mid afternoon, we are back in Georgetown. We had tried 2 Penang dishes though the curry noodles was a disappointment. Now we are off to try some more local delights.
Many who visited Penang as well as the locals would be familiar with the “Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol” at Lebuh Keng Kwee. Chendol is a rich coconut based dessert which usually comes with green coconut jelly strips and red beans. Even though the chendol is served from a very simple cart, business is very good. From afar, we know the chendol cart is near, judging by the mass of chendol slurping people standing nearby.
Though I am not really a fan of coconut-based dessert, we gotta give this a try since it is widely acclaimed. To ensure a quick turnaround, the server had dished out bowls after bowls of chendol like an energiser bunny. Try not to stand too close if you don’t want to get splashed by the white coconut mixture as he dived his ladle in with much gusto.
The chendol is not too sweet or thick. We had shared a bowl to also share the calories from this rich dessert. So far, we had eaten from roadside stalls and thankfully no stomach upset yet… Hee…
Just gotta share this picture of a butchery spotted along one of the shophouses. I don’t think we will ever see a sight like this in our wet markets. Not with the entire pig intact, hanging at a corner, waiting to be carved up. I’d also took a couple of similar pictures when we’re in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong. Hmm.. seems like I am obsessed with erm, pigs?? :p
Around 5 plus, we had boarded Bus. no 11 from Komtar to visit the Jelutong night market at Jalan Van Praagh. This night market is only opened on Friday evenings. To our horror, the Fri traffic jam as horrendous. Just by waiting for the bus to turn into the interchange and for it to get out of the interchange had taken around 45mins!! Whhaaat!!
Actually, the night market isn’t any different from the pasar malams back home. Only difference is, the wares are displayed in any form they want- On top of a car, back of a truck.. Nothing is standardised here even though they may be wearing the same T-Shirt.
We had tried a number of food including char kway teow (again) and muah chee but they were nothing to rave about. In fact, the char keow teow has a weird bitterness to it.
The better dishes we had tried are the yong tau foo. Strangely, it’s called yong tau foo but there’s no tau foo (bean curd). Instead, it’s a mix of fishballs, pork skin and some other stuff (but not tau foo) served with a bit of chilli, sweet sauce and topped with fried garlic.
We had also tried the chai tow kuay (fried carrot cake) except it’s called “char kuey kak” here. The taste is also different. The Penang version is sweeter and doesn’t seem to have much chai por (preserved turnip) or maybe none at all.
We are so not done with char kway teow. The next morning, we tried the on (“Tiger Char Kway Teow) at the coffeshop across our lodge. Of the 3 char kway teows that we had tried, this is the best. We had decided to try the duck egg version but I’d still prefer if chicken egg is used as I find the taste of the duck egg to be quite strong though it seems fluffier. Maybe the duck egg, with its higher fat content, does enhance the already rich flavour of the char kway teow.
After breakfast, we hopped on a bus to Fort Cornwallis. There are free shuttle buses to the fort and some other attractions. However, we didn’t think it is worth to pay RM20 per person just to see the fort.
So we moved on to visit the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion aka “Blue Mansion”. According to the guide in the guided tour, the mansion wasn’t originally blue but was painted blue as part of the restoration. Seems like the blue or the type of paint that was used is pretty lasting. Come to think of it, why would a traditional Chinese guy of that era who seemed entrenched in fengshui, paint his mansion this blue?
The guided tour was quite insightful and interesting, thanks to his rather animated style of describing the history of the mansion and the man, Cheong Fatt Tze, himself. Like many rich dudes of that time, Cheong had 8 wives. Gosh. But his favourite was wife number 7. She was 17 when she married Cheong who was a grand daddy age of 70! But she didn’t mind. Guess this marriage is a meal (and many other things) ticket out of poverty. I am actually quite fascinated by his wives. He had 3 in Penang so I wonder how their lives were, how they get along… but there isn’t much literature online about him and his wives.
Influenced by Sharon’s poses, I had also attempted a “mood” shot in this picture. Hahaha..
This section is at the second level. Though the chair is made of hard wood but it’s quite comfy as it is quite ergonomically designed. When you sit on it, the angle of the back rest is tilted so you will naturally lean back. Since the chair is rather low, you can stretch out your legs effortlessly. We can simply sit here the whole day.
Just before we head back to our lodge to take a little break before getting to the airport, we had tried another version of the curry noodles. This time from this stall called “Tua Pui Curry Mee” at 23 Lebuh Kimberley.
The gravy is slightly thicker than the one by the sisters. Sharon commented that there is this bitter tinge as if the rempah or curry powder is not mixed properly. To compare, I would prefer Tua Pui’s curry noodles over the sisters but I am not sold on Penang curry noodles on the whole.
To avoid any horrendous jam, we reached Komtar at 5pm (our flight’s at 8.40pm) to board bus number 401e. There were a group of rowdy young kids on the bus, blasting techno music from their phones and dancing to the beat except that they look more like they are writhing from spasms instead. Tsk tsk… Kids…
We’re at the airport early and there’s really nothing much to do except wait. The free wi-fi is only for an hour. I can’t wait to get home…
I had enjoyed Penang very much. Believe I will visit again but I’ll be sure to try more of their local food. Haha…