We both slept well in our relatively big and comfy beds on the Thai night train and woke up ready for a whole new country. The border at Padang Besar was a piece of cake. We disembarked the train, walked through Thai and then Malaysian immigration within 10 minutes. It was probably the easiest land border we have crossed outside of Europe. We both got 90 days free on arrival with no questions asked. The only slightly bizarre part is that Malaysia is one hour ahead of Thailand despite being on the same latitude.
We had a little wait for our next train so we had time to try some Malaysian food. We enjoyed the fried noodles and coconut rice with chicken that we found at the station. Our next train pulled into the station and we were off towards George town in relative luxury (air-conditioning and modern trains). As our train moved south the views out the windows became a monotonous mix of palm oil and rubber plantations. Although we expected this since Malaysia has deforested a large proportion of it’s land mass for palm oil production and many of the native wildlife is engandered or extinct.
A couple of hours later we arrived into the final station Butterworth/Penang. Here we caught a free shuttle bus to the ferry and took a ride across the strait to George Town. As we walked into town we got a sense that this place was a little different. We found our accommodation and set off to explore the city.
George Town is a colonial city which was occupied by the Dutch and British as it sits in an advantageous place offering control of the Melaka strait and fantastic trading options to the east and west. These occupations and immigration helped create a melting pot of cultures, religions, races and cuisines which is still going strong today. Aside from the Malay people, there are Chinese, Indian, British and South East Asian influences. Add to this the street art scene and you have a really interesting town to walk around.
The buildings vary a bit but many of them are colonial style shopping arcades with shuttered windows and crumbling plaster. There are also large British styled banks, a town hall and governmental type buildings. As we walked around we noticed the changes from a predominantly Chinese area full of red lanterns and mandarin symbols to the smell of curry and the sari shops of little India. All around GeorgeTown there are metal work sculptures portraying the history of the people and places. Theres around 65 of them as well as the impressive street art installations painted by Ernest Zacharevic.
This sums up being a tourist in SE Asia perfectly
Unlike a lot of medium sized cities we have recently been to George Town still had a lot of character and charm. It centre is protected by the UNESCO, but this doesn’t stop a lot of buildings to stand empty and slowly deteriorate.
We stumbled across a little café called the Dragon Art Gallery where we tried the local ice kachang. Ice kachang is a bowl of shaved ice with various syrups topped with fruit, nutmeg, raisins, kidney beans, salty sweetcorn, black grass jelly and ice cream. It is a confusing collection of ingredients but surprisingly tasty and cooling. The star of the dish was the nutmeg fruit which is dried and sugared. It has a fragrant nutmeg taste without any of the spiciness we usually associate with nutmeg nuts. It was so good that we returned again the next day.
We went in search of dinner on Penang Road but unfortunately found that most of the stalls were closed. We ended up trying a curry noodle dish and some fried noodles which were good, but not quite to our taste. We were yet to discover the rest of the famous Penang cuisine.
The next day we had another walk around town including the fort built by the British. We didn’t go in, as there isn’t much to see but very few old buildings and there was a 10 ringit entrance fee. Next we made our way to the Kong Koonsi temple which is one of the best remaining examples of a Chinese clan house. We weren’t disappointed at all. The clan house has been well restored, with an informative musuem and incredible stone and wood carvings. From the building it is very apparent how wealthy the Chinese clans are and the power they have in society. It’s no wonder that alongside these wealthy families there are secret societies involved in crime.
We opted to visit a camera musuem after lunch. Lunch was certain to be Laksa Assam from the famous place on Penang Road. We were happy when we found the place open and the stalls busy cooking up their speciality dishes. We took a seafood spring roll, noodles in sweet sauce and a Laksa Assam. Laksa assam is a George Town dish heralded as a taste sensation. We can’t deny that it was all that we read: a salty, sour, fishy curry soup with crunchy vegetables and noodles, but it definitely wasn’t to our taste. The other dishes were quite good too but nothing blew us away.
Our visit to the camera musuem turned out to be unsuccessful as it has moved to the base of Penang Hill. Instead we ended up in a lovely café for a break before catching the ferry and train to Ipoh. Despite the 42 ringit fare we didn’t get any food included and decided to grab some samosas and naan breads for dinner.
George Town was a nice place to stop over and discover a bit of Malaysian history but the main reason we visited was for the famous food. The food is an interesting mixture but we still prefer the Northern Thai food. Also two days was not quite enough to try all the different food options. We would have loved to go to little India for a curry, but we went for the Malay cuisine first and then ran out of time (and hunger).