Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Penang was the highlight of Malaysia, gritty, complex, and steamy (like all of Malaysia, all the time). It has a vibrant Little India, enough colonial era architecture to warrant its selection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s a center for Nyonya cuisine, a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian flavors. Hawker stalls and night markets are an important feature of life here. Once the sun sets and the city cools down a bit, it’s time to go out and eat. (Click xxx for a video of a night market food scene.)
The city has a run-down, soggy feel, but with its recent UNESCO designation, signs of economic uplift abound. Old Chinese shophouses are being restored, their fantastic 3-D ceramic decorations being made anew. The Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan temple (18 Cannon Square) is hidden within the streets of a charming area of the city, much of its colonial architecture still intact. The temple is the most extravagant of the many clan temples in Penang, evidence of the strong Chinese influence that defines Malaysian society.
The Pinang Peranakan Mansion (29 Lebuh Gereja) and the Cheong Fatt Tze House (14 Lebuh Leith) are two sumptuous houses of wealthy 19th century Chinese merchants. Their romantic link to the past was not lost on filmmaker RĂ©gis Wargnier who took advantage of Penang’s architectural bounty as background for the film Indochine with Catherine Deneuve. These homes offer an interesting look into Penang’s sumptuous past.
Preparations for Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, were in full swing in Penang’s Little India neighborhood when we arrived. The streets were lined with stalls piled high with silk scarves, copper bangles, sequined robes, incense, and lots of fried things to eat. A pulsing beat of Hindi pop music wafted through the damp air. Candy stalls, with rows of pastel colored coconut confections, tempted us on each block.
The Komtar Building, Penang’s tallest, provides an eerie landmark in the city. Walking through it’s bleak shopping mall was a curious, dark thrill. The empty hallways and non-functioning escalators felt like a set for a post-nuclear disaster movie. It was the only place we could find internet, and you can catch buses to everywhere (including the airport) from its cave-like belly, so we ended up there frequently, drawn into its eerie black-hole space by necessity.
Penang Hill attracts tourists for the views and cooler air, but the highlight was the ride—a long, steep funicular, a wonder of engineering, enjoyable and just a little bit scary, like a ferris wheel. On the ride up we chatted with a group from Bahrain. Abdul, a college student studying in Malacca, was visiting with his family. After explaining that we were from Mexico, Abdul’s mother, aunt, and two sisters all started singing a jolly song in Arabic. “Mexico! Mexico!” they repeated after each verse, as they clapped and sang.
Getting around town in the tropical heat is a challenge. Taxis can be hard to find. Bicycle-taxis abound, their seats clearly not designed for two wide-hipped westerners. Haggling for a reasonable price is an essential, if tiresome, part of dealing with private transport here. A free city bus does a circuit, stopping at many of the best tourist areas.
I’m a sucker for revolving bars anywhere, so I was happy to have a farewell drink at the top of the Bayview Hotel. It’s not one of those 360-degree places. I’d say it reaches about 295—the rest is blocked by nearby rooftops filled with exhaust pipes and service equipment. It seemed the perfect spot to view this intriguing, slightly flawed city.
FOOD: Whenever I’m stuck for tips about where to go in a city, I ask advice at the most expensive hotel, as they are used to the most demanding customers. The folks at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel had the right answers when we asked about the best nyonya restaurants (listed below). We especially liked the loh bak, a cinnamon-scented pork roll wrapped in tofu skin, and the kerabu sayur rumi, similar to Thai salad with sweet red chilies and rumi, a local green.
Penang is famous for its night markets, but we discovered that they are not all in fixed locations. There was one right outside our hotel that disappeared one night. The largest we saw was on Jalan Macalister near Lorong Abu Siti (click xxx to see video of this night market).
Tips from another blogger HERE.
Malacca is a charming town, and it knows it. Like Penang, it was recently chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Old buildings are being spruced up, but you can sense the developers ready to pounce. It’s a good time to visit.
Malacca’s a welcoming place, easy to get around on foot. There are enough ‘things to do’ here to pass a few pleasant days. We rode up in the Menara Tamingsari, a ride like a horizontal ferris wheel that provides a spinning view of the city and its recent growth. There’s a canal boat ride, a lively night market in the old town (weekends only), well preserved colonial architecture, and richly decorated Chinese temples, and the last remaining store where you can buy shoes for your bound feet. And how could you resist a place that has a funky ethnographic museum called ‘The Museum of Enduring Beauty’?
Malacca vies with Penang as the Nyonya cuisine capital of Malaysia. We saw one place offering an‘Elvis Presley Banana Peanut Sandwich’, so we know the culinary sepctrum goes beyond the traditional. Local treats included fish head curry, chicken and rice balls (Malaysian comfort food) and cendol, (pronounced “CHEN-dahl) a shaved ice dessert sweetened with Malaysia’s famed palm sugar (“the best in Asia,” insisted Annie, our food maven from Kuching)
Another favorite Malaysian food discovery was dodol, a taffy-like candy made from palm sugar. I loved the name, which sounds like a prescription narcotic. The texture is one of those things that makes you think about texture—unlike any you’ve had before, melty, chewy, creamy, sticky, and sweet. Malacca is famous for it.

We enjoyed our stay at the Sunway Hotel near the Komtar bldg. There was a great night market just outside the door.
www.broadwaybudgethotel.com is a simple, clean, inexpensive place, in a great location near to Little India, and some of the most charming streets in Penang.
Eastern & Oriental Hotel-- Take a look, have a drink at the bar, or check out
their buffet dinner. Rooms $$$
Mama’s Nyonya Restaurant (31 Lorong Abu Siti)
Nyonya Breeze (50 Lorong Abu Siti) had an extensive menuof fresh, delicious local cuisine in a casual setting. Closed Tuesdays.
We stayed at the Hotel Puri, which has a lovely ground floor. The rooms are OK, if small. The staff was not very friendly (rare in SE Asia). Good location.
Next time I’ll check out the Heereen House (www.heereenhouse.com)
The Ole Sayang restaurant is in a part of town called Melaka Raya (198-199 Taman Melaka Raya, tel. 283-1966, closed Wed.). There’s a huge shopping mall, and just beyond, lots of restaurants. This one came recommended by several locals, and did not disappoint.
I also recommend Nancy’s Kitchen (15 Jin Hang Lekir) for its homey Nyona food and atmosphere.
Air Asia has flights all over the region.
www.fireflyz.com.my has flights between points in Malaysia.
for economic information about Malaysia
‘House of Annie’ food blog: http://chezannies.blogspot.com/

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