Things to do in Penang, Malaysia
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Tristan’s Trip Report: Malaysia – Week 1, Penang

January 3rd, 2017 (Day 1 and 2, maybe 3… I don’t know. It’s complicated)

From: Toronto, Ontario
To: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Activities: 3 Flights, 1 Amazing Race
Stayed: Cathay Pacific Airplane and Hotel Sentral, George Town, Penang

Toronto to Hong Kong (15+ hour flight)

The flight began ominously. Before take-off, some woman started yelling in a shrill voice. The flight attendants huddled together with panic stricken faces. There was talk of needing security to remove her from the plane. This was just the beginning. We hadn’t even lifted off.

6 hours into the flight, most passengers had been blessed with the gift of sleep. I had been graced with a metaphorical lump of coal, which right about then felt like it was wedged somewhere in my left butt cheek. Sleep was a distant oasis, comfort a forgotten friend. If anyone were awake to see it, they would have been perturbed by the sight of a semi coherent man-child writhing in his window seat, trapped in a claustrophobic cell of sleep deprivation and physical pain. My mind’s eye turned to the emergency hatch. “Don’t worry, they’ll blame it on the angry woman. She was yelling pre-flight. They should have known.” I was becoming delirious. There was only nine more hours to go.

How to survive a long haul flight

I did indeed manage to grasp a few fleeting z’s and welcomed the pilot’s announcement that we were beginning our descent. I enjoyed the final minutes of my incarceration, buoyed by the happy thought that our next two flights were only four and one hours, respectively. It felt like a refreshing sun shower, washing away the troubles from my wearing head. But it wasn’t. It was a solid stream of frigid water pouring out from the overhead compartment directly onto my head and all over my seat. I called for help repeatedly. The water continued to pour as I held my pillow aloft to prevent a complete soaking. The flight attendants provided me with a towel to dry my head and a cup to coral the water that sporadically continued to piss all over me. Oddly, I found myself less concerned with the reason why the airplane was internally leaking water and more concerned with the appearance that I had wet my pants. Priorities…

Hong Kong Layover (2 hours)

During the layover, I tried to write but realized it was mostly a scatterbrained, incoherent, oddly emotional mess. I was exhausted. I couldn’t think straight. It took Arienne four tries to get me to hand her her purse. The first time she asked, I simply stared off into the void (it was staring back). The second time, I understood that someone was actually speaking to me. The third time, I decoded the secret meaning of the words “Tristan, can you pass me my purse?” The fourth time, I sent a message to my muscles to start doing the task that needed to be done. Arienne was very patient. She loves me.

Hong Kong to Singapore (4 hours)

It was about 30 minutes into the flight when Arienne realized just how little time we were going to have to make our next flight. Once on the ground in Singapore, we were going to have to disembark from the plane, go through immigration, get our luggage, go through customs, exit arrivals, possibly change terminals, head to departures, check-in for our flight, go through security, and get to our gate, all in an hour and forty-five minutes. We immediately thought of the Amazing Race. Just as the plane touched down, I confidently turned to Arienne and proclaimed, “we are making this flight!” I had nothing to base this on.

Singapore Layover (1 hour 45 minutes)

We booked it off the plane and immediately made a mad dash across the airport. I had to remind myself that in Singapore you drive on the left hand side, and so therefore on escalators you stand on the left, and walk on the right… or in our case run on the right. Boom! Immigration done. Run, run, run, and on to baggage claim. Wait, wait, wait, there they are! Get em, load em. Run! Customs. Nothing to declare. Doesn’t matter, they want to scan our bags. Arienne mutters a protest. The officers, they care not. Scan done, pick up the bags, RUN! We exit arrivals. Mercifully, we don’t have to change terminals. We run upstairs to departures. Frantically, we search for our flight on the big board. Air Asia to Penang. There it is. There it is! It’s rescheduled… oh… it’s rescheduled! I guess we have a couple of hours then.

Singapore to Penang (1 hour)

It’s amazing how short a one hour flight feels after all that.

Penang Airport to George Town (30 minutes)

Our taxi driver, Arm, welcomed us to Penang and politely chatted with us as he drove us to our hotel. It was nice to feel the 30 degree heat and see the hustle and bustle of Penang as everyone was just getting off of work. Indeed, we felt like we were just getting off work too. We checked into our hotel, and… you guessed it, hit the hay. What a day/days!

January 5th, 2017 (Day 2)

From: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
To: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Activities: Explored George Town, Street food, Street Art
Stayed: Hotel Sentral, George Town

After the insanity of yesterday’s report, I realize that you might be wondering, “so what are you two even doing in Malaysia anyways?” Well, Arienne and I had promised ourselves a little vacation that involved less work than our epic east coast road trip of Atlantic Canada this past summer. We wanted to go somewhere hot and some place that would be a little adventurous yet also comfortable and easy. After a little back and forth, the idea of Malaysia came up. I once wrote about my love of Malaysia as a country, and also of the Malaysian island of Langkawi, and with that in mind we cleared our schedules and booked our flights. Now, back to Day 2.

Day 2 was a re-acclimating day. It had been 5 years since I was in Malaysia and there were a few things I needed to readjust to and remember:

  1. It’s bloody hot. I had forgotten what a soggy undercarriage felt like.
  2. No cross walks. Wait for a small break in traffic and run for your lives.
  3. Health and Safety is for losers when it comes to delicious food. The grimier the setting, the better it tastes.
  4. People are kind… and happy here. Smiles are free and genuine. We have lost something in Toronto.
  5. It’s better to go slow. Take your time. It’s too hot to rush anyways. Except with regards to crossing the street of course.
  6. The privilege of speaking English. It really is incredible how available the language is around the world. Don’t take it for granted.
  7. How adopting a small cultural gesture (ex: two hands when giving and receiving money) can show respect to a hosting people.
  8. Sometimes it’s awesome talking to complete strangers.
  9. That thing about driving on the other side of the road. I have to remember to look right before left. Seriously… don’t forget it.

Anyways… we made our way around George Town, meandering up and down busy roadways, in and out of hawker stalls, and generally tasting everything left right and center. I couldn’t wait to make our way to Little India, where street vendors sell delicious samosas for cents apiece. I felt like a pauper crowned king.

George Town, Penang
Strolling through Little India in George Town.

A cool new addition to George Town since our last romp around town is very interesting and unique street art. A collection of artists have peppered George Town with art that plays on the surfaces and themes of the neighbourhood. The purpose of the art was to transform the walls into something more lively and entertaining, which is exactly what has happened. Arienne and I found ourselves amid groups of people hunting down the street art like they were Pokemon, often with lineups of people waiting to interact with the 3D pieces.

By about 3pm, Arienne and I were swamped in sweat and needed a hosing down, so we bounced back to the hotel for a quick rinse and apparently for a wee siesta. Believe it or not, but we had been on the other side of the world the previous day and may have been suffering from a touch of jet lag.

We finished up the day by hitting up a street food market for dinner, where we broke the bank by paying $3 each for our supper. Now that’s a price I can set my watch to.

January 6th, 2017 (Day 3)

From: George Town, Penang
To: George Town, Penang
Activities: Exploring George Town, Eating, Museuming
Stayed: Hotel Sentral, George Town

Our second day in George Town was a lot like the first. We ate breakfast (inclusive!) at our hotel and hit the streets. We didn’t really have any plans in particular and so to give us a destination, we decided to make our way down to the port area of George Town in order to buy our ferry tickets to Langkawi. We figured that we would buy them early in order to avoid any chances of missing the boat.

As we moseyed around town, I began to notice a couple of oddities I though worth noting:

  1. Some cars here have a McDonalds Sticker in the windshield that says “DriveThru VIP”. What does being a McDonald’s DriveThru Vip entitle you to? Apparently, after a magical Google search, it gets you a free drink upgrade with the purchase of certain combos… all for the privilege of turning your car into to mobile advertisement for them. Sounds fair.
  2. I’ve noticed people breathing in and out of plastic bags. Has there been an outbreak of mass hyperventilation? Did Justin Bieber come to town?

Anyways, we checked out the Penang Peranakan Mansion, which is a restored home of a Malaysian family that apparently had connections to the Triads. The detail of the furniture, intricately inlayed with mother of pearl, was absolutely incredible. Nothing less than what you’d expect from 19th century Opium and Alcohol barons. Seriously, some nice stuff that I’d rather a photo describe.

Things to do in Penang
Inside the Penang Peranakan Museum.

As the day progressed and our tummies expanded from more and more street food indulgences (travel tip: it’s always ‘samosa-clock’), we realized we were going to need to expand our horizons or risk becoming bored, fat and lazy. Ironically, most people don’t realize they are truly on vacation until sensing at least two of these sentiments. Tomorrow we will have to travel out of George Town or resign ourselves to professional gastronomy.

What to eat in Penang, Malaysia
Digging into Penang’s most famous dish, assam laksa, made with noodles, tamarind, red onions, mint, chilies, and fish broth.

January 7th, 2017 (Day 4)

From: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
To: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Activities: Day trip to Batu Ferringhi
Stayed: Hotel Sentral

After breakfast, Arienne and I needed to kill a couple of hours before heading off on our planned day trip to Batu Ferringhi, so we did something we almost never do… we went to the mall. I remarked on how odd it was that it took us traveling all the way around the world to actually decide to go to the mall. For those who know me, I am not very inclined to shopping, nor much of a consumer. Just take one look at my outdated phone and you’ll know what I mean. It was actually kind of thrilling for me.

The mall was dead. Shiny… spiffy, but mostly empty. It wasn’t a complete wash though. I did dust off my credit card for at least one major expenditure. I bought a new pair of shoe-laces. I may just get another couple months out of these old shoes.

For lunch, we hit up a dim sum hall around the corner from our hotel and then double-checked the bus route out to Batu Ferringhi, a town on the coast, 40 minutes to the north. Arienne and I had a laugh when we realized that instead of taking a taxi that would have cost $10, we enjoyed an air-conditioned bus ride that cost us $0.90 each. I may be thrifty, but guess how I afford to travel.

Beaches of Penang, Malaysia
On the beach in Batu Ferrenghi!

We strolled along the beach of Batu Ferringhi for an hour or so, then ate a mid afternoon snack of Koay Teow on the street, and then treated ourselves to an ice cream at McDonalds. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my DriveThru VIP sticker.


What to eat in Penang, Malaysia
Koay Teow, or Char Koay Teow is a staple on the streets of Penang.

Dinner was enjoyed at a tourist heavy hawker center. This experience only reinforced my love of Malaysia and Malaysians. Here was an eatery that was populated almost entirely by foreigners, yet not one hawker stall had adjusted their prices to reflect that. Having traveled all over Southeast Asia, this is extremely uncommon, and truly a reflection of a multicultural people. (I love you Malaysia).

Before heading back to town, we ventured into the street markets that turn the sidewalks into a counterfeit shopper’s playground. This was the only place where we met with frequent, though gentle touting. Arienne and I weren’t particularly in a shopping mood, though I did enjoy eavesdropping on some of the negotiations that were underway. My favourite line from a vendor to a potential customer was, “this is a price only for you because you are my special friend.”

A $0.90 return trip to George Town later and we were back in bed. I was so wiped, I didn’t even read.

January 8th, 2017 (Day 5)

From: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
To: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Activities: Café-ing, Bus Trip to Gurney Drive
Stayed: Hotel Sentral

We woke up today a little reinvigorated from our trip to Batu Ferringhi. After beginning to feel cooped up in George Town, it was nice to broaden our horizons and have a bit of a change of scenery. We planned to duplicate this experience again today by taking a shorter bus trip North to an area called Gurney Drive.

Breakfast was once again, inclusively ours, and we spent the morning bumbling around the streets, perhaps even popping into a mall to cool off again.

For lunch, we ambled into a hawker center close to our hotel for some tasty Hokkien Mee (egg noodles in a spicy soup). The first woman who had come to take our drink orders quickly shied away when she saw how handsome I was we were westerners, and asked her colleague if she would serve us. Up stepped a smiling old lady, bereft of all but one gnarly tooth, laughing that her friend was too afraid to serve us because she spoke no English. She returned moments later with our drinks in hand and humourously explained that the drinks were going to cost 3800 Ringgits (over $1000). When I explained to her that I was too poor for that, she gently snatched the 50 Ringgit note I was holding and chastised me (all in good fun) for being a wealthy traveler. After some good chatter about cultures and our preference for eating “where the locals eat”, we thanked her for the good conversation and said our goodbyes. Arienne shook hands with her and then when I shook her hand, she slipped me the ‘ole tickle finger’ (secretly tickling the palm of a shaken hand) coupled with a wink and a smile. Some might think, “that’s a little strange.” I prefer to think, “still got it!”
gifs website

(Lionel Hutz – “Still got it”)

We spent the next three hours sheltering from inclement weather in a café a couple of streets away from our hotel. It reminded us a lot of our epic 8-month backpacking trip, when we would spend entire afternoons in cafes, drinking beer and writing articles or editing videos. Sometimes the simple life is THE LIFE. At least for me.

For dinner, we took a $0.50 bus ride North to the Gurney Drive area, a particularly swanky area on the island. Don’t worry, we still found a hawker centre and ate delicious Claypot Chicken Rice and Nasi Goreng, washed down with lychee juices, all together weighing in at a whopping 18 Ringgits (about $5.75).

Where to eat in Penang, Malaysia
The Gurney Drive hawker centre is a can’t miss experience when you’re on Penang!

Well that was about it for today, apart from these final thoughts…

On this trip, I have sweated more than:

  1. A prostitute in a confessional
  2. A sumo wrestler doing hot yoga
  3. A man just before Maury Pauvich pulls out the paternity test
  4. A teen who realizes he forgot to delete his browsing history

January 9th, 2017 (Day 6)

From: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
To: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Activities: Finding the Secret Garden, Hunting Cendol, Kek Lok Si Temple,
Stayed: Hotel Sentral

We began today by searching for the “Secret Garden.” When Arienne raised the topic, a bell was rung in the nether sections of my brain reminding me that we once tried to find this place 5 years ago, but gave up after deciding if it was indeed so secret, then we must not have been meant to find it. Well, well secret garden… guess who’s back, on the track, and armed with a smart phone this time. (It’s us. The answer is us.)

Things to do in Penang, Malaysia
Exploring Penang’s ‘Secret Garden’, an alleyway where nature takes over and old, discarded items are used to grow plants.

Not so secret after all eh? Certainly not, now that we’ve blasted your picture all over the internet!

Following our triumphant take-down of the Secret Garden, we set our sights on photographing, recording, instagraming, snapchatting, and finally eating some cendol. Cendol is an iced desert/snack usually enjoyed by locals during the hottest parts of the day. Capturing and devouring this devilishly delicious delight proved trickier than Arienne and I anticipated, as Ice Kacang is an equally delicious well placed decoy that initially knocked us off the trail. But in the end, we got our man… er desert. We got our desert. Well, two deserts, cuz we ate the Ice Kacang first, then the Cendol. Enough already, you know what I’m saying.


Anyways, after samosa-clock rang, and then lunch of some more tasty claypot chicken, Arienne and I made our way by bus to the Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. We had actually been there on our previous visit, but it really was a beautiful place to take in and entrance was free. Funnily (not a word) enough, the long hike up staircase after staircase in 30+ degree weather to the temple forces you to take breaks in the plethora of gift and knickknack shops along the path, just as Buddha intended.

For the second trip in a row we passed on the 8 Ringgit lift up to the 30m statue of Gyuanyin (no… you’re a cheapskate!) but did spring the 2 Ringgits to venture up the 7-story pagoda. I even snapped a few pics myself when Arienne tapped-out after the second level.

Things to do in Penang, Malaysia
Looking out from atop the 7-story pagoda on the temple complex below .

Upon our return to George Town from the temple, we made our way to TekSen for dinner, a restaurant highly recommended by our friend Cailin. We enjoyed Double Roasted Pork, Deep Fried Chicken in Thai sauce, and choy sum with Prawns. It was delicious. Certainly a nice dinner to finish off our time in George Town.

January 10th, 2017 (Day 7)

From: George Town, Penang, Malaysia
To: Cenang Beach, Langkawi, Malaysia
Activities: Ferry to Langkawi, Beach Sunset
Stayed: Rainbow Lodge

Today was our final day on Penang. We had promised ourselves a simpler trip that would involve less frequent pack-ups and relocations, and cheers to that. After all of our years of packing on travel days, it still took us over an hour to get all of our bags packed and sorted.

Before heading to the port, we returned to the hawker stall with the little old lady who gave me the little ‘ole tickle finger.’ Arienne thought we came back to eat the roast duck. Really, I just needed to see one more time what I was leaving behind 😉

Travel to the ferry terminal was made easier by the healthy decision to spring $5 for the cab ride. With over 50 lbs in bags strapped on my shoulders, trudging in 30+ degree weather… we’ll take the cab thank you very much. Yes, I’m too old for that sh*t!

After hanging around for about 40 minutes, we slowly made our way down to the dock and began boarding the boat. The boat had a long narrow hull, with seats arranged 4-aisle-3. We were directed to the front of the boat where passengers were packed like canned sardines, glossy eyed and mouths agape, petrified by the notion of the stuffy three-hour crossing ahead of us. I began to feel claustrophobic. I couldn’t even turn to run due to the heavy bags slung across my back and chest. I looked at the fella I would be sitting beside. He looked up at me with the, “kill me now” look. I shook my head at him. “No, me first!” The walls felt like they were closing in. I didn’t think I could do it.

“There’s plenty of seats in the back,” Arienne chimed. So we went and sat back there.

The ferry ride was mostly uneventful. A couple of movies played. I thought it would be pretty funny if they decided to play “Titanic.” It would be about as well thought out as going to see “Shindler’s List” on a first date or “Broken Down Palace” before a backpacking trip.

After navigating the wall of “taxi taxi!” dudes waiting for us when we got off the ferry, we hopped an official taxi to our lodge and made an immediate dash for the beach. To Arienne’s utter delight, we caught a beautiful sunset that brought to a close the first week of our Malaysian adventure.

This is your week 1 trip report.

Coming up for week 2: we explore the island of Langkawi!

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