Two-for-one blog day, as Saturday was mostly a transit day for us. The hotel packed us to-go breakfast bags for our 5am trip to the airport, which was pretty nice. Everything went smooth at the airport, so we had time for a bowl of pho before departing for Malaysia. After a quick stop in Kuala Lumpur, we made it to Penang in the early evening. We’re staying in a charming old shophouse-turned-Airbnb. The owner and her daughter met us and gave us a quick tour. We made a quick grocery visit for some essentials (snacks) then went out in search of dinner.
Penang takes food very seriously. For the last few months, I’ve been following some local foodie Instagram accounts, and they’re hilarious – every comment thread is just full of locals critiquing whatever food stall is being mentioned. On the Google Maps reviews, there’s an unofficial system of scoring that goes way beyond 1-5 stars – atmosphere, flavors, cleanliness, value, service, etc, all get broken out even in a basic review of a samosa stall. All of this to say that there’s basically no truly bad food in Penang – the proprietor would get run out of town on a rail. And, as a corollary, you can drive yourself mad searching for the “best” place.
We settled on a nearby hawker night market and got some wan tan mee and char kuey teow. It’s always a little overwhelming working out the system at hawker market – when do you claim a table, when do you pay, do you wait for your food or do they bring it? Luckily folks are pretty patient and you’re well rewarded for the effort.
This morning we had a food tour booked with Simply Enak, a company that runs tours in Penang and KL. I’ve been following them on Instagram for years, ever since they hung out with Trevor James while he was living in KL. Su Li met us at St George’s church and took us on a joint history and street food tour. The surprise highlight was a stop at the Kapitan Keling Mosque. A friend of Su’s took us inside and gave us a crash course in Islamic rituals and beliefs. A little embarrassing that a fifteen minute tour can yield so much enlightenment about the world’s second largest religion, but that’s being American for you.
Another highlight of the tour was a stop at a Baba Nyonya restaurant. The Baba Nyonya are an ethnic group clustered in Penang and Singapore, made up of descendants of the first wave of Chinese settlers to Southeast Asia. One part of the cultural cuisine includes different starches (glutinous rice, tapioca, etc) pressed into elaborate moulds. Su told us stories about watching her grandmother use the wooden moulds when she was a kid (and lamented that her own kids don’t value the effort involved).
After the tour wrapped up, we cut across town to the “state art gallery” (basically a single room in a government building) to see their special exhibit on taxidermy. Because Kat. It turned out to be delightful – the exhibit featured a variety of (often pretty old) taxidermy specimens alongside art pieces created in response to the exhibit.
Since we were close to the shore, after the museum we went for a stroll on the esplanade and enjoyed the sea breeze. We both thought “gosh, this would be super pleasant if it were a bit cooler” and then remembered that it’s never cooler.
For one last excursion, we cut back across town to The Top, a 67 story building that towers over the historic part of George Town. It’s a multipurpose building, with all kinds of activities on the first few floors, apartments in the middle, and restaurants and an outdoor ropes course at the top. The first challenge was figuring out how to get in – the building is intertwined with a bunch of other maze like buildings, so we had a few false starts before ending up in the right place. The vibe in The Top is sort of an intersection of Wisconsin Dells and a shopping mall. Inexplicably, the entrance features a very loud and very demented dance organ which echos through the halls. We wandered a bit, but decided we didn’t actually need to partake in any of the activities. Instead we made a stop at the grocery and went home for a rest.
Taking a break after all the sun and heat is a must for weak midwesterners like us – going from -20f to 90f in a week is a lot. We waited out the sun before making another evening outing for dinner. This time, we picked a street food confab and the Jetty hawker center for a few dishes, before ending the night with a slice of cake from a nearby cafe.
Honestly, we only managed to eat like 8 different meals today, which feels low for a day in Penang. But we’ve got a whole week, so we’ll work on improving our numbers.