I was awoken by the bus driver at around 4:30 am letting everyone know we’ve arrived in Penang, and I saw nothing but total darkness outside. While Penang is probably one of Malaysia’s most well known locations, being famous for its food, I think people just generally refer to the entire city or the island as Penang. Fun fact, Penang is actually a state in Malaysia, which includes both a portion on the mainland known as Seberang Perai and also an island called Penang Island. The island is generally what people associate with Penang, but even then what people are usually referring to is the state capital on the island – Georgetown. So next time someone says they’re going to Penang, 99% of the time they mean they’re going to Georgetown but now you’ll know better 🙂.
So the first stop buses to Penang usually stop at is the city of Butterworth, the main city on the mainland portion of Penang. There’s nothing here for tourists, so make sure you don’t get off here. Instead stay on the bus and it’ll cross the bridge to Penang Island and drop you off at the Sungai Nibong Express Bus Terminal.
Roughly, Penang Island is split down the middle by a hill range and most people live on the east coast. The bridge connecting to the mainland enters about midway on the east coast. Down the south you’ll find the airport while Georgetown, the capital of Penang and second largest city in all of Malaysia, is near the northern tip. Not nearly as much happens on the west coast on the other side of the hill range, but we’ll get to that another day 🙂. The bus station is just left of the bridge after crossing, so that means my journey is still not over, and it’s up to me to find my way to Georgetown. This is slightly harder given that it’s barely 5 am and the sun hasn’t even started to rise yet. The only company you’ll have at this time is taxi drivers pestering you for business.
Luckily I came prepared. I knew what I wanted to do in Penang, a city famous for its amazing food. Today will be all about eating the best Penang has to offer, I’ve marked down all the famous food stalls scattered around the island. The hard part was to fit them all into an efficient route, then rounding out the rest of the day with landmarks (which while important are really just there to pass time and work up my appetite!). The first stop was easy to choose, since only one place was open this early in the morning!
Not far from the bus stop, after a 15 minute Grab ride through the darkness, I was dropped off on the side of a road with no sign of life anywhere apart from a few stray dogs wandering around. These are the first dogs I’ve seen in Malaysia! Penang is majority Chinese so there’s plenty of dogs here unlike the Muslim majority Kota Bharu. This neighbourhood is called Paya Terubong and about 100 metres down the road I started to find some signs of life among the darkness. A few food stalls were getting ready for a new day!
This small T-junction is an excellent example of kopitiam, a very Malaysian dining concept. Kopi is the Hokkien word for coffee, while tiam means shop, so basically it’s a coffee shop. The owner of the coffee shop sells all kinds of Malaysian drinks such as milk tea, lemon ice tea and of course Malaysian coffee, and provides seating area, but leases the rest of the space to independent food stalls. So customers will come here for those food stalls, order their dish and get to sit in the kopitiam, in return for purchasing a drink. Over time some of these food stalls have gained legendary status and now draws hungry people from all over the world. I’m here today for one such stall – Paya Terubong Nasi Lemak.
Jesus they’re open from 4 am…
It’s like watching an assembly line go to work
This store specialises in nasi lemak as its name implies, a Malaysian breakfast staple. I’ve explained this dish before so I’ll cut to the chase, I ordered a fairly standard combo consisting of coconut rice, peanuts, anchovies, cucumber, fried fish, fried chicken and sambal. Not the healthiest of breakfasts, and probably much too heavy for me to eat as breakfast consistently. I can’t believe Malaysians have this for breakfast all the time!
Don’t judge a book by its cover
Again I thought the quality of chicken wasn’t superb, but the spices and coating was very good. Quite different to other types of fried chicken I’ve had before. Altogether it was a simple but delicious dish, so don’t judge the book by its cover. As I ate the lady at the drink counter came over and asked what drink I want, so I guessed I had no choice but to order one. Not that I wasn’t gonna get a drink since they’re so cheap, but I do wonder whether it’s just assumed you will buy a drink, I guess it’s etiquette since your using their seat and table.
Another thing to note is while the Malaysians in Penang are mostly Chinese, their main language is Hokkien, the dialect of Fujian province from southern China. A long time ago many economic migrants from Fujian arrived and settled in Penang, and now their descendants dominate everything from business to politics here. As you go to other areas in Malaysia, there’ll still be ethnic Chinese people but they’ll speak different dialects, for example most ethnic Chinese speak Cantonese in Kuala Lumpur. That being said most will still understand at least some Mandarin, so if you can speak it like me then it’s usually better than English for communicating with locals. I’ve found that locals here, especially Grab drivers, are not only more fluent in Chinese but are also more friendly once they realise you can speak Chinese, it makes you seem less like a foreigner and more like one of their own. Many times this has helped me start interesting conversations and get some good local advice on what to eat or do!
I feel like old people always wake up really early? Never heard of an old person sleeping in before. If I retire I ain’t getting out of bed before 10 am LOL
I wasn’t in any rush so I took my time eating, while watching locals come and go. Some oldies just come here, greeted like regulars and order their usual stuff, then sit down for ages to read their newspaper, while others are usually white collar workers grabbing a quick bite on their way to another day in the office.
Typical kopitiam set up with many food stalls
As the sun appears, everyone ramps up production in anticipation of the breakfast rush
Random cat photo
Soon the sun was out and most things will be open, so it’s time to get moving! Next stop is a famous Thai Buddhist temple know as Wat Chaiyamangalaram – not even gonna bother pronouncing that.
Stray doggo guarding the entrance
If you’re too lazy to actually read, feel free to watch the video tour on my new YouTube channel instead! Be sure to like and subscribe if you enjoyed it 🙂
The decoration inside and outside is very typical of Thai Buddhist temples, very colourful and vibrant with statutes full of expressions. Having seen a bunch of Buddhist temples in China and Japan which are usually very conservative and peaceful, this is a refreshing change. Temple fatigue is a real thing when travelling in Asia! Just don’t forget with most Asian temples you must take off your shoes first, including socks! At least the good thing about temples in Malaysia is that photography is not forbidden 🙂.
Thai Buddhist monks must really like gold
That dude at the back is creepy AF
Never mind on closer inspection the chicken man is even more creepy
The temple’s claim to fame is inside its main building, a reclining Buddha statue that stretches across 33 metres, making it something like the 14th longest reclining Buddha in the world. Don’t quote me on that though, there isn’t a definitive list of the longest reclining Buddha statues out there, at least not one I could find and 14th is just what the information in the temple claims. While 14th doesn’t sound that impressive, it was my first time seeing a reclining Buddha so it was pretty cool to me. While the temple was built in 1845, the reclining Buddha statue named Phra Chaiya Mongkol was not built until 1958, making it fairly recent compared to the rest of the temple.
Supposedly this is the pose Buddha took during his last illness before passing on, so his followers built the first reclining Buddha and they have since spread across Asia. This is why the reclining Buddha will always be leaning on his right elbow.
You can buy a dizzying array of things as offerings to the Buddha, from massive candles to gift bags containing random things like toothpaste, tissue, razors and instant coffee. Not sure if they just found the cheapest stuff to fill up the bags or there’s a shortage of everyday products in the afterlife 🤔.
The base of the reclining Buddha serves as the display for hundreds of urns holding the cremated remains of Buddha’s devote followers, who pay a yearly fee for the privilege that goes towards the temple’s maintenance. I think when my time comes this is how I wanna go, but not stored at a temple. Traditional burials are such a waste of money, rather not pass that burden on to my next of kin.
Around the back there are several smaller Buddha statues each representing something different. There’s one here for each Chinese zodiac and even one for each day of the week, so you’ll ALWAYS have something to make offerings to.
Year of the cock…I guess “rooster” wasn’t part of their vocabulary…
Mini reclining Buddha to pray on Tuesdays
While I don’t believe religions have a place in modern society, I do appreciate and respect their cultural impact. Many historical sites around in the world have religious significance in the past and I find them both interesting to learn about and beautiful to look at. That’s why it puzzles me why in a society that’s clearly much more religious than I am, people still do things displayed on this “wall of shame”.
CCTV images of shoe thieves and donation box thieves
Like seriously how desperate must you be to steal shoes from a temple… Although the one where someone put fake money meant to be burnt as offerings into the donation box is kinda funny. I mean why must donations be legal tender? Isn’t it the thought that counts? I’m sorry please don’t send me to hell ☹️.
Those shoe theft warnings got me a little worried, so I went outside to put on my shoes 😅. Luckily since I came just after it opened at 8 am, there was maybe 3 other people here (one was actually my Grab driver who came out for a quick prayer). I took a short walk around the compound, which didn’t have much else apart from a few more Buddha statues.
Statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy
I don’t know who this is but the sign said Metta (Peace) and that reminds me of ex-NBA player Ron Artest…before he changed his name
That pretty much wraps up the Wat Chaiyamangalaram temple, which only requires about 30 minutes and is free to enter. Definitely try come early in the morning to avoid the crowd as I heard it can get quite popular during the day, with the added benefit of reducing risk of shoe theft 😅.
So this temple took a lot less time than I expected and I was left with some time to kill. Lucky for me literally right across the road is another Buddhist temple, but this time it is a Burmese one. Burma, also known as Myanmar, as a fascinating but also sad history which I won’t go into here, but it’s population is mostly Buddhist. Even though that’s the case, and it’s right next to Thailand, I’m still not sure how a Burmese Buddhist temple ended up here on Penang Island.
I forgot to take a picture at the entrance, so this is from Google Images…
The temple is known as Dhammikarama Burmese Temple and it is even older than the it’s Thai neighbour, with a notably different style. Built in 1803 as a retreat for devotees, it was the very first Buddhist temple on Penang Island. Turn right after the entrance and you’ll find a huge hall guarded by two lion-like mythical creatures known as chinthe.
Inside there’s another huge Buddha statue inside, but this time standing upright.
Behind the hall you can find two winged chimeras known as Panca Rupa holding up a globe. Why? Because their Burmese name translates literally to “Guardian Protectors of the World”.
Another famous part of this temple is a large mural known as the Renunciation of Buddha, which depicts the Buddha renouncing his earthly desires to live a life free of material indulgences
What’s more interesting (to me at least) is the spinning metal bowls in the middle of the lake. On closer inspection, each bowl is labelled with an area where you’d want to be blessed in, such as travels, health and education. From all the coins scattered in the water, it wasn’t hard to figure out that I must try to throw my coin into the right bowl to receive blessing in that category. As someone still sitting exams 😭 I naturally went for the education bowl.
Results were fairly disastrous – I threw about 7 coins and hit absolutely nothing, it’s hard with the bowls spinning! Guess I ain’t passing my next exam 😭😭😭. But you know what? I respect the hustle here. Most temples just put a box on the ground and expect you to donate, but this one they’ve at least put some thought into an innovative and fun design, almost like an arcade game. In return I’m more than happy to part with some money (okay I threw like the equivalent of only $3 LOL).
Artisans from Burma were bought over to keep the construction faithful to traditional Burmese architectural styles
The newest addition to the temple is the Golden Pagoda Bell Tower, completed in 2011. You can tell how new it is because there’s an elevator that takes you all the way to the top, and since I walked my way back down later I can tell you there’s nothing on the floors in between. At the very top is a bell (duh), but I’d recommend coming up here for the 360 degree view of the surrounding area.
The rest of the temple compound is filled with several statues of mythical creatures, with some well translated information boards if you’re interested in learning more about them.
Garuda, the mythical king of birds
Kinnara & Kinnari – pair of half human & half bird creatures who are extremely in love with each other and watches over the well being of humans in time of love, trouble and danger
Again since I came early in the morning, there were practically no other tourists here. Just like it’s Thai neighbour, this temple is completely FREE and both are a quick Grab ride away from the centre of Georgetown, so I’d highly recommend checking both out if you got an hour or so to spare. The fact that they’re literally next to each other makes their visit a very efficient trip too.
It’s finally time to head to Georgetown, to continue my journey to sample all of Penang’s food.
The next stop on my culinary pilgrimage is a small cafe known as Kheng Pin Cafe.
It looks just like another kopitiam, with several food stalls set up around the seating area. But everyone comes here for a Penang speciality known as lor bak, a variety of deep fried rolls with ingredients ranging from five spice pork to tofu.
The cook was very nice and immediately asked me what I wanted to eat. Since he opened with Chinese I just had to go along with it. I told him I had absolutely no clue what this is so he told me for 6 ringgit he’ll give me a combination of different lor bak. Sounds good to me!
Again, I didn’t think it looked like much, but don’t judge a book by it’s cover
I wasn’t kidding when I said I didn’t know what this is. Even though I did my research on all the food in Penang, lor bak stood out as it was confusing to grasp. Deep fried rolls with pork? I couldn’t even imagine what that’d be like. But I can happily report that it tastes really good! It wasn’t oily like I expected (which almost led to me striking this place off my list) and only the outside layer of tofu skin is crispy, inside the pork is still very tender! I can’t say I’ve ever had anything like this before and I was pleasantly surprised, so definitely recommend it to anyone who’s interested in trying something new. Bloody cheap too, but the portion size is very modest so don’t expect to get full off one dish, although this is generally true for most dishes in Malaysia. However, this is actually a good thing when I’m trying to eat everything Penang has to offer in a limited amount of time!
Now it’s time to check in to my accommodation for the next few days, which is about 15 minutes walk down the road from Kheng Pin Cafe. Tucked away in a side alley I found the House of Journey hostel.
Review of House of Journey
There’s no shortage of hostels in the middle of Georgetown and it was a hard decision to choose one. House of Journey had the best reviews on Hostelworld but there were a few others that came very close, however all the other ones had a few very negative reviews (e.g. bed bug infestation) so I didn’t want to take any chances. The one negative review that was I saw a few times with House of Journey was that there’s a mosque nearby which started broadcasting prayers very early in the morning, like 5 am, which woke up a lot of people. During my stay here I did not notice this, but I can neither confirm nor deny it’s existence since I’m a pretty deep sleeper!
Otherwise, I thought House of Journey was excellent. I’ll breakdown my review into the main categories I care about when it comes to hostels:
- Location – right in the middle of George Town, so yeah excellent location
- Staff – very helpful and friendly
- Comfort – bed was of a good size and air conditioning was strong (even a little cold)
- Atmosphere – plenty of travellers when I stayed here. The common room is quite small and narrow which usually isn’t good for socialising, but I think here it works out well since it’s in a strategic location just in front of the reception/entrance, so everyone has to walk past it and since it’s small it kinda forces people to interact, worked for me!
- Cleanliness – for Malaysian hostel standard I thought it was quite good, didn’t have any problems with this
- Facilities – towels and laundry are the two main facilities I care about, unfortunately while both are available they are not free
- Price – probably the main downside of this place compared to other well rated hostels in Georgetown, at just under $20 a night I would’ve hoped it at least included a towel
This might be random but I have to give a special shutout to the showers. If you’ve stayed in a lot of hostels like I have, it’s common to get really crappy shower heads that don’t expel much water, which is vital for a comfortable shower. Here they use overhead rain shower heads that were very powerful, which I’ve never seen at a hostel before, and I had some of my best hostel shower experiences here. It’s pretty important since after a long sweaty day of exploring outside, a good shower makes you feel a lot better!
You’ll notice that I don’t review hostel breakfast. It is included here but as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t see the point of eating subpar western breakfast at a hostel when cheap and tasty street food can be found anywhere on the street.
I would stay here again if I came back, and I would recommend staying at the House of Journey to anyone who is looking for a hostel in Penang. However, if it’s booked out then here are some other well rated alternatives (do your own research though, this is just a starting point):
- The Frame Guesthouse
- The 80’s Guesthouse
- Old Penang Guesthouse
- Ryokan Muntri Boutique Hostel
- Tipsy Tiger Hostel – this is THE party hostel of the town, come here if you wanna get hammered every night
Anyway, as I checked in and took a rest at the narrow common area in front of the reception, there were already a bunch of people talking and making plans on where they want to go explore. None of them knew each other initially, but this Asian girl who introduced herself as Mandy was very keen on inviting people to come join her and extended an invite to me too. I like people like her, doing the socialising so I don’t have to 😂. They were going to go explore Georgetown and I had nothing else planned, so I figured might as well tag along.
That’s how I met this ragtag band of travellers from around the world – Mandy from America, Joshua who works on a Thai island and is just here for a visa run, Bernardo who’s expats in Bangkok, Miguel from Portugal and Carmen who is Dutch I believe.
We set out from the hostel to look for the hidden street art of Georgetown. The story is that in 2012, the local council hired a street artist from Lithuania to add some character to the heritage buildings of Georgetown. This took off and many other local artists joined in and many of those spots have become popular picture spots for tourists. Any hostel can get you a map of the most famous street art in Georgetown and you can go make an afternoon going around ticking them off your list. If you just walk around Georgetown you’re bound to bump into a few of them, but some of the them are quite hidden.
Since I’m just tagging along with the group I didn’t bother with a map and just went with the flow. This way I got to see a lot of random not-so-famous-yet-still-interesting street art by local artists that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I’ll have time later to backtrack to any famous ones that I’ve missed anyway.
A lot of these street art are also somewhat interactive, so be creative with your pictures!
The council eventually also commissioned dozens of steel rod caricatures that captures Penang’s way of life.
All that walking around in the midday sun got us pretty tired so it’s time to get some food! Unfortunately, as far as my research shows, all the famous restaurants and food stalls in Penang are outside of Georgetown. This makes sense since Georgetown is touristy AF and the true gems are hidden in areas where locals frequent. This puts me in a pickle, since it was clear the group wanted to eat somewhere close to the hostel, and I didn’t want to waste a meal on something average 😂.
While the centre of Georgetown has nothing famous, there’s no shortage of food around here, so the mission is to guide the group towards something that’s at least respectable, which meant passing on a lot of stuff.
This is known as economy rice, very similar in concept to nasi campur that I had in Kota Bharu but with a focus on Chinese dishes rather than Malay dishes. Basically you pick from a selection of dishes to be served with rice. As the name implies, it’s cheap!
In the end we settled on Wai Kei Cafe right outside our hostel on the main road. It had decent number of good reviews online so I figured good enough.
This is a restaurant, not a kopitiam, since the store itself sells food and is the only vendor of food here. They specialise in char siew, or Chinese BBQ pork, which I’m no stranger to. Believe it or not, Chinese BBQ is my least favourite BBQ and I don’t actually like char siew at all. I could’ve just dodged char siew altogether for other forms of BBQ meats since I was put in charge of ordering as the only Chinese speaker, but I didn’t want everyone else to miss out, so I ordered a bit of everything.
Crispy skin roast pork and char siew pork
I’m obviously biased against char siew, but the roast duck and pork were actually pretty good Look, Chinese BBQ will never win my heart as long as Korean and Japanese BBQ exist (or really any other country’s BBQ). However, this place was absolutely packed and we were lucky to find a table big enough to fit us during lunch time, so they must be doing something right. I don’t remember the price because we ended up splitting it, but I think I paid about RM20. So it’s quite expensive considering the portion size was pretty small. Do consider my review in context however, since they do have an excellent location on the main road in the tourist district of Georgetown.
We also got a demonstration of what Joshua can do with his ridiculously long tongue.
Mandy also revealed she is in fact vegetarian and after I asked if this place had any vegetarian options (nope), she had to go off to find her own stuff. No clue what took her so long but she finally came back with a bunch of vegetarian stuff.
My condolences 😂
For the afternoon the group had already planned to visit Penang Hill before I arrived at the hostel, so I opted out of that as I had stuff planned already. I’ll come back to do Penang Hill later anyway. Don’t get me wrong I really liked hanging out with them, but nothing shall stand in the way of my quest to eat all of Penang’s food, especially not for my next stop!
Instead I’m off to taste some more of the amazing food Penang has to offer. The only problem is my next stop is not in the centre of Georgetown. Public transport is pretty bad as far as I can tell here, with no train system and very congested roads when it comes to buses. I could resort to Grab, but that doesn’t solve the traffic problem. So if you’re a little bit adventurous then I’d suggest renting your own scooter for about 30-40 ringgits a day.
Quick Guide to Riding Scooters in Asia
From my Vietnam adventures I’ve really come to love riding scooters for two main reasons:
- Flexibility – you can go anywhere and you can stop anytime you want, no longer are you confined by a tour guide’s itinerary or the local bus timetable, it truly lets you travel with freedom
- Fun – it’s just fun to ride a scooter, speeding into the horizon and feeling the wind blowing past you, there’s definitely adrenaline involved and with the risks you face on the road in Asia, I daresay it’s somewhat of an adventure sport in it’s own right!
While more expensive than public transportation, in Asia renting a scooter is still really affordable. Rental averages about $10-$12 a day and petrol is super cheap, like less than $1 a litre in many countries. Plus scooters are very fuel efficient, a full 5L tank of gas can probably last up to 100km depending on the model.
Whether you’ve ridden a scooter before at home or you have never ridden before, here’s a list of important things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to jump on one in Asia:
- Check the laws and restrictions around riding scooters as a tourist! Many countries outright ban tourists from riding scooters or at least in certain parts of the country
- For example, in Burma tourists are not allowed to ride scooters in Bagan, and even locals are banned from riding in downtown Yangon
- Check whether you need an International Driving Permit (IDP) to ride. Most Asian countries don’t really enforce this rule – I’ve ridden without one in Vietnam and was never asked to show it, I had one for Malaysia but was also never asked to show it. So it’s up to you whether you want to take the risk of a fine to save some money
- Australians can apply for one through the Australian Automobile Association which costs $45 and lasts a year (no L platers)
- IDP are not substitutes for a license, you must bring your home country’s license as well
- Some countries, notably China, does not recognise the IDP so that’s something to check too
- Familiarise yourself with local traffic laws.
- In many Asian countries, e.g. Vietnam, it’s legal to turn left on red light (or they just don’t give a shit LOL)
- Do they drive on left or right side of the road?
- Helmets are usually compulsory and strictly enforced with heavy penalties, so make sure your rental comes with a helmet
- Do some research about local traffic conditions and see if you can handle it with your riding experience. Expat forums are a good place to start since they will compare the local conditions to their home country, usually a western country.
- If you’ve never ridden before then definitely avoid cities. Even in a medium sized Asian city the traffic is ridiculously dense and people don’t have nearly the same level of respect for traffic laws or road etiquette there. It’s literally every man for themselves, you really have to be forceful and assert yourself while on their roads
- People generally do not indicate, so you kinda have to guess their intentions, just try to give way as much as you can. In fact in all my time riding a scooter, I have never indicated and don’t even know where the indicator is located…😂
- Out in the countryside the traffic is muuuuch lighter and usually roads are long and straight, making it a much less stressful ride. Plus there’ll usually be great scenery to calm you down if you’re nervous. Only risk with countryside is you might be tempted to go really fast (I’ve hit 80km/hr on empty country roads before, pretty fast for a scooter), whereas the density and traffic lights in the city naturally slows you down
- Even if you got all your documents sorted and you follow all local laws, a corrupt traffic cop might still screw you over. Maybe he just didn’t like the sight of your pasty white face or he’s out to make some quick money off suckers like you. A lot of times it’s just easier to pay them off and get on with your trip, unless they ask for some exorbitant amount of money
- Make sure you’re clear with the rental rules before you ride off
- Do you need to bring the scooter back on a full tank?
- Does a full day hire mean one calendar day, i.e. you have to bring it back by say 10 pm, or a full 24 hours?
- Can they supply another helmet if you’re going to have a passenger?
- Take some pictures of the scooter at the start, in case they try to claim you damaged it and refuse to return your deposit
- Riding a scooter can often void your travel insurance, so you are not covered for any accidents that occur as a result of riding one. Check this with your travel agent or travel insurance product disclosure statement (PDS) which will come with your policy. If it does, then you need to think about whether this is a risk worth taking. Some insurers may offer the option of extra cover for riding scooters & motorcycles for a small fee
Follow those tip above and you should avoid any serious issues before or after riding. What to do WHILE riding is a different story. When I first decided to rent one, someone just dropped the scooter off at my hostel and left, leaving me all alone to figure out wtf to do. Riding a scooter is simple to me now but it was challenging at first when you have no idea what you’re doing. A few tips for beginner riders:
- Clutch the right handlebar to start the engine and to accelerate (I did not know this at first and couldn’t figure out how to start!)
- Release the right handlebar to decelerate if you want to slow down, try to do this rather than using the brakes, unless you need to brake suddenly. It’s easy to lose focus and grab the brakes while still gripping the handlebar, so you decelerate and accelerate at the same time and it becomes hard to control
- Be conservative, don’t feel pressured to go as fast as everyone else and give way as much as you can. I would say 30-50km/hr is a good speed for beginners, especially if there’s some traffic. You have barely any protection on a scooter and it only takes one small accident to get a one-way trip to the hospital (or a massive bill if you manage to get out!)
- If you’re worried about balancing, just remember it’s much easier to balance when you’re going at a decent speed (say at least 20km/hr)
A special mention to riding a scooter in city is that whenever you hit traffic, you can snake past cars and go straight to the front of the queue. If you’re up for riding in heavy traffic areas then this trick is really useful to save you the frustration of waiting in the traffic. This does take a bit of practice though, since there might not be much space between cars and you don’t want to deal with angry locals by hitting their car, so you’d have to go quite slowly and control your speed. If you’re not confident, there’s nothing wrong with just sitting in traffic and wait patiently like all the other cars, but it wont feel good watching all the other scooters skip past you ☹️.
As I mentioned, the traffic in Penang can be pretty bad during the day, but it gave me a chance to practice snaking past the cars to the front of the traffic. Trust me that shit is scary but once I got the hang of it, it felt quite good to jump to the head of the queue at traffic lights 😁.
The place I’m making on a pilgrimage to is Siam Road Char Kway Teow, serving what many considers to be the best char kway teow in Penang, and by extension probably the world. What is char kway teow? Henceforth abbreviated to CKT, it is stir-fried flat rice noodles with soy sauce and topped with eggs, prawns, clams, Chinese sausage. Overseas they’ll often mix in beef or chicken too to cater to local tastes, but you won’t find any self-respecting CKT chef here doing that. This is my favourite Malaysian dish of all time and I have been looking forward to eating the real deal for sooooo long. Why do I like it?
- Plenty of lard to add flavour and the sauce is amazing
- Glorious variety of ingredients and everything is tasty (subject to #3)
- Once you ask for no bean sprouts, the dish is devoid of vegetables
Unfortunately, it’s not exactly the healthiest dish as it is well known for being high in saturated fat owing to its roots as a cheap source of energy and nutrients for labourers who can’t afford anything else (i.e. me 😂).
Penang supposedly has it’s own style of CKT, different to what you find in the rest of Malaysia. I personally couldn’t tell the difference, but Malaysian CKT definitely tastes different to Singaporean CKT, which uses a darker sauce that has a much stronger flavour that I didn’t like too much. Even within Penang, different stalls have their own take on the dish, but Siam Road CKT has been quite famous as the a pioneer in cooking CKT over charcoal, which infuses the dish with wok hei – the “breath of the wok”. This is a Chinese culinary concept which refers to the flavour imparted by the wok while stir frying over high heat. This place is so famous that I heard lines can reach up to 3 hours long, so I tried to get here by 3 pm just as they opened to avoid the long wait.
However, as I arrived at Siam Road I could not find the stall, even after going up and down the street a few times. I only found out a few month later that the uncle who owns the stall, well into his 70s, retired at the end of May 2018, just missing me by a few months. However, I also found reports that said he was back by July (instead of retiring just took some time off) at a new stall on the same street. So theoretically, by the time I arrived in late July he should have been back already, but the reality was that I could not find him 😭😭😭.
Eventually I gave up and settled for another CKT stall on the same street inside a kopitiam called Jin Cafe. It’s also manned by an old uncle who was ruthlessly efficient at making CKT, as he had told me he’s been doing this for over 30 years! Who knows maybe this guy is actually the right guy! (Probably not, I compared the pictures online)
A tip for ordering CKT is to ask for duck eggs instead of chicken egg. Duck eggs are fattier and contain more protein than chicken eggs, so while it’s not good for your heart it makes the dish much tastier! Usually cost around 1 ringgit extra but it’s so worth it. Also remember to ask for no bean sprouts 😂
Penang char kway teow with duck egg, Chinese sausage and prawns and no fucking bean sprouts!
Look, I’m 90% sure this isn’t the Siam Road CKT I came for but this CKT is still delicious, this uncle has here for 30 years afterall. Far better than any CKT I’ve ever had. The duck egg makes a real difference and while I’m not familiar with this whole wok hei thing, you do taste a slight burnt flavour which adds to the dish. While I’m disappointed I didn’t get to try the famous Siam Road CKT, I’m still very satisfied with what I got for a mere RM5.5, although again at a small portion size. Plus it might be a blessing in disguise since I didn’t have to wait in line for hours, which many reviewers online said was not worth it.
Still, I’m going to put the location of the Siam Road CKT here and hope you have better luck finding it than I do. Given he is approach 80 I doubt he is going to keep doing this for much longer, so get in there ASAP! If by the time you visit he is no longer here, then Jin Cafe at the end of Siam Road is still a delicious alternative.
For those of you reading at home in Sydney, you might be wondering what is the closest thing to authentic Penang char kway teow you can get without getting on a plane. Malaysian food is common in Sydney so it’s not hard to find CKT, but most don’t come close to what I’ve had in Malaysia. The closest one, and the only one I’ve found thus far that gives you the option of using duck eggs, is Petaling Street in Haymarket.
Now my meal count has reached 4 for the day, it’s time to get some exercise (not really) in by riding to my next destination. For a break between meals I’ve decided to ride up north to visit the Floating Mosque located in Tanjung Bungah. The name is a bit misleading as it’s not actually floating, but rather standing on stilts over shallow water.
As the main religion of ethnic Malays, Muslim is the biggest region in Malaysia but in the Chinese dominated Penang, I don’t think a lot of people even know about this mosque. I did want to visit a mosque during my time in Malaysia so why not go to a fairly famous one? Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever set food inside a mosque before!
I wasn’t quite sure what the etiquette was, but a very nice staff at the entrance explained to me that shorts are not allowed at a mosque. I believe sleeveless shirts are also not allowed and for ladies, nor are short skirts or revealing tops. You also have to take off your shoes before going up the stairs. However, using a camera is perfectly fine, which I asked out of respect since many religious places don’t usually allow filming. If you’re under-dressed, he will offer a piece of cloth to wrap cover up and even put it on around my waist for me (very friendly but took me by surprise lol).
No longer under-dressed!
I’ll be frank, I don’t know all that much about Islam and majority of the coverage on mainstream media isn’t always positive. These people clearly understand that so they have lots of brochures at the entrance to educate tourists on the basic theological principles of Islam, which of course is all good and pure.
I’d recommend the “Misconceptions about Islam” pamphlet
Most of these are quite informative, but I still feel like there are fundamental inequalities with the treatment of women when it comes to Islam. Covering up with hijab aside, but the fact that women needs a man’s permission to do a lot of basic stuff or how in some strict interpretations women can’t even go to school or drive!
Surely girls don’t have to cover up just to avoid harassment by men? I feel like this is the same as the flawed argument of blaming sexual assault victims for wearing revealing clothes
Yeah I’m gonna have to call this one out, seems like they’re just taking the easy way out to absolve themselves of any responsibilities
This maybe a controversial opinion, but clearly these countries that oppress women are doing it as an interpretation of Islam. You can’t just claim they are not “true” followers of Islam and reject responsibility completely, these people believe they are doing the right thing by your religion. So it feels like to me you’re all in this together and you have a responsibility to deliver the core message of your religion to ALL followers, rather than finding excuses and blaming these bad apples on “cultural practices” that has nothing to do with your religion. For example, I’m pretty sure women can’t do most things without a man’s permission in Saudi Arabia has EVERYTHING to do with Islam. Having a nice set of ideology and theory is great, but what’s important is its application in the real world and how it affects people’s every day life! Perhaps just like many political leaders, religious leaders are also increasingly out of touch with the common folks?
Anyway, moving onto the mosque itself since that’s what I came for, not to provide a commentary on religion. Inside the large dome shaped mosque with pearly white walls, there were a handful of people praying and I noticed they were all facing the same direction.
On the opposite side there was a green barrier cutting off a section of the mosque, which I had my suspicions on what it’s for.
Outside there’s a verandah that allows you to look out to bay, littered with small fishing boats, with the high rises that’s taken over the development of Penang in recent years as the backdrop. A nice contrast of old and new.
Here I was approached by two guys around my age asking me to take a picture for them. We got talking and turns out Ahmed and Salam are from Yemen and currently studying engineering in Malaysia.
I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone from Yemen before, the only memory I have of Yemen was from Friends when Chandler lied about moving there 😂.
Oh yeah and they’re lifelong Muslims too, so a perfect opportunity to get some of my questions answered!
- Everyone prays towards the same direction because that’s the direction to Mecca, the holy city and birthplace of Prophet Muhammad and every Muslim is encouraged to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their life
- The area behind the green screens is reserved for women to pray, and they also have a separate entrance on the side too
They were pretty cool and we chatted for a while, about Malaysia, about Yemen and of course about Australia. Always nice to learn from those with different backgrounds. They seem typical of the younger and more progressive generations, Salam even made the same mistake as me coming in shorts and had to be covered up!
I was getting ready to leave when the nice staff who covered me up recommended I stay for the 5 pm prayer session, which he said a lot of people will attend. It was only another 15 minutes and I wasn’t in a rush so why not? Sure enough as 5 pm approached more and more people started to arrive, and at 5 pm on the dot the speakers started to blast religious music signalling the beginning of prayers. All the devotees lined up in one line, facing the direction of the Mecca, and followed the lead of a cleric in bowing and kneeling.
It raised more questions but I no longer had someone to help me. Ahmed and Salam had left and the friendly staff went to join in the prayer session, leaving me watching from the outside in confusion. Why were there people praying at random times if there are set prayer times? Are the prayer sessions at the same time everyday? How many are there in a day and how many do you need to go? Those questions will have to wait for another day. Soon the sun will set and I have somewhere else to be. If you’re interested in the architecture and customs of Islam, I thought the Floating Mosque was a good place to visit both for education and for sightseeing.
Now to reveal the real reason why I went to all the way up north to Tanjung Bungah – pasar malam or night markets! While small night markets serving the local neighbourhood are on everywhere and everyday, the big ones are only on once a week. So theoretically there is a night market happening on every day of the week, just at a different location. Just know that many stalls simply rotate between night markets each day of the week, so don’t expect to see a completely new line up at every night market you go to. However, since the Tanjung Bungah Night Market is the first night market I’ll visit in Penang, everything will be brand new to me 😁.
At only about 5 minutes ride away from the Floating Mosque, the Tanjung Bungah Night Market is held at the Tanjung Bungah Market & Food Complex. By day this building serves as the local wet market and hawker centre, and on Tuesday nights the area surrounding the building is transformed into a night market by the dozens of vendors who set up camp here. By the time I arrived at around 5:30 pm, it was already in full swing with a dizzying array of food stalls. I think the best way to tackle these night markets is to resist the urge to order whatever you see and instead do a full lap of the area first to survey everything on offer. Then plan out the top things you want to try and hit them up in one fell swoop. With a limited stomach, it’s all about opportunity cost!
Below I’m gonna show you everything I took a picture of, what I passed on and what I ultimately decided deserves a place in my stomach 😂.
I believe this is called apam balik, a type of pancake common across South East Asia
Curry fish balls (surprisingly good!) and fried mantou
Pass – don’t like cakes unless it’s cheesecake
Pass – I think this is nasi campur? Anyway already kinda tried it
Durians, definitely pass omfg
Deep friend durians…yeah nah…
Pass – I don’t like herbal stuff in case it taste like medicine
Assortment of chicken chicken & duck feet, tongue and wings. Pass – too much bones, reward to effort ratio too low
Deep fried mushrooms – nani the fuck pass
Bacon wrapped sausage and BBQ pork – definitely pass on the first one looks like heart attack on a stick
Aaaaand we have a winner, the BBQ pork was very tender and well seasoned
Keropok lekor – a traditional Malaysian snack which is basically deep fried fish cracker. I passed on this since it didn’t look tasty and nobody was manning the stall, but later I tried this and it was BAAAAAAAAD
Char kuih kak – at first I thought this was CKT, but instead of noodles it uses kuih kak, a type of rice cake
The chick stirring the big wok was pretty and she convinced me to try it out. Sauce was similar to the dark soy sauce found in CKT but I did not like the texture of rice cakes, prefer noodles!
She actually has a mini oven to make pizzas…yeah no thanks not in Malaysia to eat pizza
Braise pork over rice, a Taiwanese dish, is actually quite good but I’ve already tried this in Taiwan so pass
Lorbak I’ve already tried, but the special chicken balls caught my attention
Their marketing got me good, just a standard chicken meatball with crispy skin
These Indian skewers are coated in something that makes them all look really red…not that appetising to be honest
Korean fried chicken and chilli rice cake – might be novelty for Malaysians but I can eat this any day of the week at home
Peking duck pancakes – white really tasty I’m not here for peking duck, pass
I didn’t get this but omg later on I tried coconut ice cream and it is delicious, would highly recommend!
Various kinds of dim sim, look out for the multi-coloured siu mai!
I know based on these pictures it seems like I was being quite critical, but really it’s because I had to be super selective. Unfortunately I had more meals to get through today so I only had limited stomach space for this round. That’s not to say the food at night markets is bad, a lot of them are very tasty (and cheap!). However, night markets can be found all over Malaysia with similar offerings, so when in Penang I’d have to give priority to the more famous street stalls such as Siam Road CKT. If you got plenty of time in Penang, then by all means go absolutely nuts at a night market for one meal, you won’t regret it!
Random stray doggo
However, a very valid criticism for night markets here is that a lot of the food is quite international, like the Taiwanese braised pork and rice or the Korean fried chicken. These night markets are targeted at locals who have access to local Malaysian food everywhere, so they are more curious about these international flavours. So don’t expect to find amazing nasi lemak here, but if you look around there will still be some great modern Malaysian street food to be found. In the end I picked up a few things and went to look for a place to sit down inside the market building, where the first floor is actually a hawker centre that’s mostly closed by this time of the day.
The apom balik were just regular pancakes but its so cheap might as well try it, but the curry fish balls were really good and definitely recommended (I like fish balls, and I like curry!)
Pasar malam in Malaysia isn’t just about food, you can also find the usual range of cheap clothes and electronics here too.
But the weirdest thing I saw was this brand of insect repellent. The stall owner explained to me how effective it is since it’s made out of lemongrass, but with all due respect I think most repellents are made using lemongrass extract lol. I’ve never had much luck with lemongrass-based repellents, so f you want something that’s proven to work go with DEET repellent instead.
Can’t argue with that economies of scale though
I wrapped it up here at around 7 pm and by now the crowd has seriously picked up, there were still more people coming than there were leaving so I’d estimate it’d hit critical mass at about 7:30 pm – 8 pm, if you want to avoid the crowd.
Small advertisement truck hyping up new Samsung phones – I’ve never heard of Galaxy A or J series, but I’d guess they’re budget version of the top-end range for developing countries
If you happen to be in Penang on a Tuesday and got nothing planned after sunset, highly recommend heading up to Tanjung Bungah for some a solid night market, just don’t come with the expectation of traditional Malaysian dishes.
In just one day, I’ve witnessed Malaysia’s multiculturalism through its food and temples, with Burmese and Thai Buddhist temples under my belt. To round it out, I headed over to Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple, a Hindu temple on the way back from Tanjung Bungah (peak efficiency!). Don’t ask me why they couldn’t pick an easier name, and don’t go looking up its even longer official name!
Hindu temples are generally very colourful just like Thai Buddhist temples, but with less emphasis on gold, and definitely stands out compared to conservative Chinese/Japanese Buddhist temples
If you just go past the main entrance, on the right there’s an entrance to a car park where you can leave your scooter. If you come here after dusk where crowds are minimal, beware of the many stray dogs that live on the temple grounds. They may be cute, but they’re not that used to human and can be dangerous!
This one legit started following me faster and faster so I had to run until I’m closer to other people before it stooped chasing me…
This temple is dedicated to Murugan, the Hindu god of war, and is the largest of its kind outside India. Although the temple grounds itself date back more than 200 years, the main temple atop of the hill was only opened in 2012. To get there, visitors must climb more than 500 stairs up the hill. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?
Well shit, good thing I didn’t eat too much at the night market
An Indian guard at the foot of the steps must’ve recognised I was a foreign tourist, and came over for a friendly chat, turns out he also has a daughter who studies at ANU down in Canberra. I wonder if she got duped by ANU marketing to go there and then realised what a hole Canberra is 😂. He explain to me that it only takes 10 minutes to get to the top, for a “young and fit guy” like me. I laughed nervously, better not disappoint him!
I decided to run up the hill as fast as I could, but after about half way I started puffing out so I reverted to a “power walk” instead. It’s also quite amusing how they install these motivational messages along the way, it’s like they know what a struggle their design is 😑
That’s nice, but have you heard of cold hard cash???
Bitch it better be!
By the time I got to the top (I think it was just over 10 minutes with stops to take pictures/video), it’s almost dark already. The new temple building has a very distinct entrance that shoots up into the sky and illuminated by lights that change colour every few seconds. The shape was very odd to me as it’s really the first Hindu temple I’ve visited up close, but I’d later realise this is basically what all Hindu temples look like.
It reminds me of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom
The inside completely caught me off guard – it was so beautiful and luxurious!
Man look at those spotless marble floors
I mean yeah sure it was only built in 2012, but this level of opulence is not what I expected from a temple, I guess this is how Hindus roll. At the centre is a small room that’s off limit to everyone except the monks (is that what you call them in Hindu?).
I assume the statue at the back is Murugan, god of war himself
Not 100% sure what happened, but it looks like the monk went inside the secret room to perform a ritual with Murugan, and then came out to give Murugan’s blessing to the devotees. Not sure why the average man needs to be blessed by the god of war though…
I wandered around and watched the blessing rituals for about 30 minutes until it was fully dark outside, which is why I purposefully put my visit to this temple at night time. Thanks to its 513 steps, this temple is situated at the top of the hill which gives you a very nice view of Georgetown at night time. Think of it as the reward for all that bloody climbing!
It’s definitely cool how there are so many temples from different religions and cultures within a short distance from Georgetown. Really helps out with temple fatigue when there’s so much variety.
Now that it’s completely dark the temple will close soon, so it’s time to head back. Riding in Georgetown at night is a lot better in terms of traffic so you can actually pick up some speed. It’s also not hot anymore so the overall riding experience is much much more enjoyable. Once again I can’t stress how much value you get out of renting a scooter in Penang, just look at how much ground I covered today! Not to mention the freedom of stopping for whatever catches my attention, like this bustling hawker centre I happened to ride past.
I’ve done my research for Penang, and I don’t think this hawker centre was mentioned anywhere on the internet, so I’m pretty sure only locals really know about this place.
Bit of searching on Google Maps later and I discovered this place is called Sih Jing San Food Centre. If you want to get away from the tourists but not too far from the centre of Georgetown, this place is probably a good start. There are about a dozen hawker stalls here pumping out dish after dish, but since I already had my next meal planned I didn’t order anything. If there are lots of locals frequenting this place, can’t be too bad right?
Since I had to pass up this hawker centre, it only brought up the expectation for where I planned to go – the famous Kimberley Street.
Perhaps the most well known food street in Penang, most stalls here stay open until midnight so it’s the perfect spot for a late night snack.
There are a few stalls here that has earned the street international fame, none more so than Restoran Kimberley and their duck kway chap.
Kway chap refers to thin and flat rice noodles cut up into short strips and with a soy sauce based, herbal soup that reminds me of bak kuh teh. The dish is usually served with a generous amount pork offals, so think intestines and stuff, so tourists with less adventurous taste buds should probably give this a pass. I eat anything that moves so this wasn’t a problem. However, just like other dishes that originated from China and spread across SEA, there are so many regional variations. Penang is know for using duck meat and offal instead of pork, and Restoran Kimberley is probably the most famous place to try this duck kway chap.
I’m not a fan of the kway chap noodles, they’re cut too wide and short so it’s really hard to pick them up with chopsticks. But the soup is full of flavour and you can just taste richness of the duck in it. Would highly recommend this just for the soup and generous serving of duck meat, and treat the noodles as carb fillers.
Opposite Restoran Kimberley is another popular stall selling chicken feet kway teow soup. This is the same noodles as those used in char kway teow, but in a light broth paired with soy sauce chicken feet. I’m not a big fan of chicken feet, since they’re too much effort to eat with very little meat, so I passed on this.
But something I definitely wasn’t passing up was located just down the street. At the Sin Guant Keong Coffee Shop there is a stall selling oh chien, or oyster omelette. If you’ve followed my previous trips to Singapore then you’ll know I absolutely love this. Oysters aren’t something I get to eat often since they’re expensive in Australia, but here you can a handful together with a tasty omelette for as low as RM12.
Apologies for the poorly lit photo, this stall closes at 10 pm which is quite early for Kimberley Street
Oyster omelette in the making
Malaysian style oyster omelette is more like scrambled eggs, which is different to Singaporean style that’s more like a pancake. Either way, it can’t be understated how tasty a simple combination of oysters and eggs can be, highly recommend you throw on the chilli sauce too! Sure they probably use frozen oysters but it’s still good, and the omelette part isn’t even just a sideshow – it’s good enough to eat on it’s own!
You can take a seat inside Sin Guant Keong Coffee Shop to eat your omelette, but just don’t forget to buy a drink.
I think after a whole day of eating in Penang, my top 2 Malaysian dishes have not changed. I just don’t see anything knocking oyster omelette and CKT off their place at the top of my list. Speaking of CKT, I heard the CKT stall on Kimberley Street is also pretty good, so even though this would now be my 8th meal of the day, I had but only one choice when the CKT stall was actually just next to the oyster omelette stall…
I did it! Meal #8!
It definitely tasted good but I don’t think it was as good as the one I head today, although this stall did CKT a bit differently and instead of offering duck eggs you could get mantis prawns instead of regular prawns. I’m pretty full by now so it was a bit of a struggle to finish this plate, so that might affect my judgement a little.
Maybe the hawkers saw an opportunity, maybe they were just being helpful, but seeing how I came directly from the stall next door they probably thought I could use some liquid. Instead of going with a Coke Zero or milk tea, they recommended something I’ve never heard of. Apparently this stall, known in English as Traditional Home of Dessert, is quite famous for serving up – as you guessed it, traditional desserts.
I was tired by now and didn’t really resist, I didn’t even really look at what the hell they were recommending. Then it arrived…
Wtf is this?
At first I thought they served me Chinese medicine😂 but then I checked the menu and this thing is called 四果汤 in Chinese, which is pronounced si guo tang in Mandarin but not sure about Hokkien. It translates literally to “four fruit soup”, which refers to the 4 ingredients even though they’re technically not fruits – ginkgo nuts, lotus seeds, longan and red beans. All of that is submerged in a bowl of ice filled sweet water. This thing is typical of traditional Chinese desserts which shoves a lot of herbal/fruity/nutty stuff in sweet ice water, good for a summer and good for your healthy. The only thing is, and I’m super biased here since I’m used to western desserts, I think they taste horrible 😂. All the stuff inside have textures I’m not a fan of, but at least the sweet ice water is passable… Look I’m a simple man give me some Oreo ice cream and I’ll be happy 😭.
But okay look if you like sweet stuff and you want to try some traditional Chinese desserts, or just a change from the usual ice cream or western desserts, you can come suffer here 😂😂.
After a whole day of eating, travelling and sightseeing, I’m officially worn out. I figured I was done, time to go back to my hostel bed and call it a night, but I was wrong. When I got back the group of backpackers I met earlier during the day was about to head out again, led by the ever-so-energetic Mandy, so I guess I’m in too! We ended up at a local watering hole after somebody found out about they sell 3 bottles of Skol, a Malaysian beer, for a ridiculous 10 ringgits.
come to Antarabangsa Enterprise if you want the cheapest beer in town
The owner of Antarabangsa Enterprise clearly wasn’t fazed by a bunch of people descending upon them for cheap beer, they’re right next to Tipsy Tiger, THE party hostel of Penang and the place sounded like it was going off when we walked past.
I don’t know how she did it, but seems like Mandy convinced the entire hostel to come out. The crowd eventually swelled to more than a dozen people, sitting on plastic chairs outside some random local liqueur shop, chatting and playing stupid games.
The crowd was so big I didn’t even get to meet everyone by the time we called it quits around midnight, but I did meet the 4 British lads on my right. Probably should’ve remembered their names though… who knows where I might see them again 😉