We spent the week in Georgetown. No, we weren’t back in the U.S., and we definitely weren’t anywhere near the mess of D.C. Instead, we were in the Georgetown that is on Penang Island in Malaysia.
Georgetown is a great little town. We were here in 2015 and liked it so much we decided to return this year. The old part of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and frequent readers know how we love UNESCO heritage sites). The town is littered with cool architecture. The population is a mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians, so the town is also littered with mosques, temples and churches and Malaysian, Chinese and Indian restaurants. There is even the occasional cow — we found the lady below just standing on the street one night all nicely decorated along with one of her friends — no idea why.
And, there is art all around town. Some of it is wrought iron sculptures — I’m not a huge fan of that art because, while it is fun, it often creates a bunch of shadows that make it hard to really see. Instead, my favorite street art is the various paintings found on various buildings.
The bottom line is that walking around Georgetown is a complete joy for the eyes (although not so much for the body as the heat combined with the humidity leaves you soaking wet after about 5 minutes).
But, it was one of those weeks where we made a ton of rookie mistakes (no worries, even with the mistakes, we still had a good time).
Things started off on the wrong foot when we flew here from Sarawak. Literally everything we had read when preparing for our flight said that Sarawak is a semi-autonomous state that issues its own visas. Literally everything we read said that, when leaving Sarawak to fly to peninsular Malaysia, you go through immigration in Sarawak and then go through immigration again in peninsular Malaysia.
And, in fact, we did go through immigration when we left Sarawak. They fingerprinted us and everything. So, when we landed in Kuala Lumpur to transfer to our flight to Georgetown, we looked for the transfer desk and the immigration counters. Instead, we were told to just go directly to the gate for our next flight. But what about our Malaysian visa we asked? After looking at us like we were complete idiots, the transfer counter people kindly explained to us that the visa we got in Sarawak was, in fact, a Malaysian visa too. URGH!!!!!! Life lesson boys and girls: don’t believe everything you read on the internet. (After our experience, we found a website indicating that if you fly from peninsular Malaysia to Sarawak, you do need a separate visa to enter Sarawak. But, who knows at this point??) In retrospect, we could have had a much shorter layover in Kuala Lumpur if we had known we didn’t need to go through immigration….
After not nearly enough sleep we were up bright and early on Tuesday to go to one of my least favorite places — the dentist. I had broken a crown while we were in Sarawak and had made an appointment to get it fixed here in Georgetown. Unfortunately, the dentist took one look and said “oh, wow, I don’t know how you did that, you must have eaten something very, very hot.” (I didn’t. It broke while eating — wait for it — pizza.) Even more unfortunately, he said there wasn’t time to fix it given we were leaving town in under a week. So, now I’m desperately looking for a good dentist in Thailand. URGH!!!!! Oh well, the dentist here put in a temporary filling to hold me until Thailand and the whole visit only cost $30 (just try to get a filling in Chicago for that price….). And, it didn’t even require Novocaine.
After the dentist, we decided to go to Fort Cornwallis, a fort built by the British East India Company back in the 1700’s. Now, this fort is billed as “one of the most interesting historical landmarks” in Georgetown. We would seriously beg to differ. There is pretty much nothing there except some old walls, some cannons, a building where gunpowder was stored, and an overpriced cafe. And, it wasn’t cheap to enter. And, about 5 minutes after we entered (you know, long enough to see the walls, the cannons and the gunpowder building), a storm rolled in. And, we didn’t have umbrellas. So, off to the overpriced cafe we went. URHG!!!!!
Wednesday we decided to go to the butterfly park. We did all our research beforehand and knew that three city buses went to the park: the 101, the 102 and the 501. The brochure we had snagged even said so. The 101 looked like the best option because it came every 15 minutes, so off we went to the bus station. As we were waiting, an extremely weird old man started talking to us. He told us that the 102 was a better option. We didn’t blindly trust him. But we jumped on the internet and it looked like he was right — Google Maps said the 102 got much closer to the park than the 101 (although both were within walking distance). Because walking in Georgetown is like stepping into a sauna fully clothed, we decided to wait for the 102. And, we let three — count them three — 101 buses pass by. Finally, the 102 arrived and we rode it for over an hour around the island, viewing parts of the island we had never seen before. Only to find out the 102 bus actually didn’t go to the butterfly park. So, after riding the bus back to the stop closest to the park, we started hoofing it. And, soon enough, a 101 bus came by and dropped people off about a block from the butterfly farm. (You better believe there were some choice words being uttered.) URGH!!!!! What was that I was saying about not believing everything you read on the internet?
In any event, the butterfly farm was quite interesting. The butterflies were beautiful and many of them were unlike anything we have back in the U.S. Plus, there were cool lizards — one of which had escaped from its enclosure and was eating butterflies. Nature in action, I guess. But can we talk about the group of school kids on a field trip? Wow — pretty sure we’ve never seen kids that out of control. Running into people and screaming non-stop. URGH!!!!
Thursday we had great plans to get up early and ride the funicular up Penang Hill. Well, when the alarm went off, Robert didn’t even wake up and I decided to put the kibosh on the get up early plan. Once we finally dragged ourselves out of bed (this retirement business is hard work…), we made our way to the bus station where yet another old man told us our plan sucked. “The day is too hot to go up Penang Hill. There is nothing to do there. It is better at night. You should go to Kek Lok Si temple instead.” (He also wanted to know what we thought of Trump. I’m pretty sure he was happy when he heard our response.)
The day was really, really hot and really, really humid (just like every single day while we were in Georgetown), and we had planned on visiting Kek Lok Si temple anyway. So, once again, we changed plans based at least partly on the advice of a complete stranger.
The temple is one of SE Asia’s largest Chinese Buddhist temples and the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. It is also known as the “Temple of Supreme Bliss,” although I’m not sure anything that full of souvenir stands and stairs can be blissful. Thankfully, there were two funiculars to get to the top as I’m not sure we would have made it otherwise (although we did walk down). The temple was pretty cool, but — because we hadn’t planned on visiting it that day and hadn’t researched it the night before — it appears we actually missed some interesting aspects of the temple because after an hour or so we were so hot and sweaty we just wanted to leave. URGH!!!!
Friday we decided to just have a mellow day bumming around the heritage portion of Georgetown and spotting street art.
We started our day with roti canai from a street stall right near our hotel. Fried bread, curry sauce and a chicken leg. Yum!. (Although the vendor did yell at us because we didn’t realize the protocol at that particular stand was to sit down and wait for someone to take your order. URGH!!!!)
After breakfast, we walked around and saw some interesting art. Some of it we had seen before and some of it was new to us. Sadly, some of the art we saw in 2015 is fading away. All was going well. Was this going to be the day that we didn’t make a rookie mistake? Of course not! Soon enough, I was on the verge of heat stroke. It took every ounce of energy in me to put one foot in front of the other without passing out. Thankfully, we were headed to the movie theater for an afternoon showing of Mission Impossible (entertaining but completely stupid) and thankfully the theater was cold. So, I lived to tell the tale, but URGH!!!
We have, however, consistently done one thing correctly while we were in Georgetown — EAT! (Ok, we are so not going to talk about the completely asinine decision to have dinner at a Western/Indian fusion restaurant best known for the great 80’s music it plays. Nope, we are never, ever talking about that. There is no way we were that stupid….)
The island of Penang is often known as the food capital of Malaysia. Most of the best food is at what they call “hawker centers,” which are basically big sheds filled with small little carts where each chef makes one or two dishes, or at little roadside stands (many of which only set up for certain hours of the day and then disappear). We’ve tried all sorts of things, like won ton mee (a noodle soup in pork broth with pork won tons and pork slices), char koay teow (stir fried noodles with shrimp, cockles and Chinese sausage), chicken briyani (a flavorful chicken and rice dish), and curry mee (noodles in a curry broth with fish, shrimp and cockles). Today we did a taste testing of different coconut tarts. We’ve pretty much given up on worrying about food safety (raw cucumbers at a hawker center? why not?) and eat anything and everything that looks good.
My own personal favorite Penang food is the apom manis. This is like a crunchy crepe and comes with all sorts of fillings — so far peanut butter and white sugar is my favorite filling, but we’ve also tried one with coconut and sugar and one with chocolate. (Oh, how I miss peanut butter….) I have been very good about trying nearly everything Robert orders (even if I do pick around some of the bits and pieces like the disgusting cockles). I even tried his Black Jack — a mix of espresso and soda water (on the theory that everything is better with soda water) and trying it was a huge mistake on my part.
But, I put my foot down over a bowl of white curry mee. Yes, those square like blobs are blobs of blood. Seriously, there were cubes of coagulated blood in the soup. And those two weird looking things at about 3 o’clock are cockles. And, we are pretty sure the raw fish looking stuff at 12 o’clock is cuttlefish. Yuck! Robert, of course, loved every bite of it. He is beyond weird sometimes.
Our next stop is Melaka, another UNESCO heritage site and another town that is supposed to have fantastic food (we’ve already got a list of things to try). Hopefully, the rookie mistakes are over…