Our train pulled in to Butterworth station. Having done no research at all, we vaguely hoped that there might be a hotel nearby, but there didn’t seem to be anything close apart from a dental college. However, we did see a sign pointing to a ferry to Georgetown, so we strolled down to the quay and soon found ourselves in possession of two tickets for the grand price of R1.20, or about forty cents. There was no boat and no obvious timetable, but there were local people sitting about so we settled down to wait.
After not more than twenty minutes, a ferry arrived, so we boarded and sailed off across the calm waters of the Penang Strait. In the distance we could see a cruise ship pulling out of Georgetown. Small dhows behind us on Butterworth beach were festooned with red flashing LED lights in addition to their regular navigation lights, and this combined with a plethora of shore lights must make the otherwise dark Strait quite tricky to navigate. However our little ferry made it to Georgetown in just over quarter of an hour without any problems, and we disembarked. Randomly choosing a road to walk up, we skipped a number of rather dodgy looking hostels until we found a pretty little hotel set back from the street. It was absolutely beautiful inside, and only $75 a night, a little pricey for Malaysia but dirt cheap for us.
It was late at night, but we’d seen many hawker food stalls on the way up, and the receptionist recommended The Red Garden around the corner. This turned out to be a large courtyard ringed by hawker food stalls, very busy with locals and tourists alike. In the centre was a dance floor and locals salsas, two-stepped and square-danced to a couple singing rock and roll and country tunes. Everybody was having a grand time.
We chose an eclectic selection of foods including smoked mackerel, tuna sashimi, and some really excellent succulent tempura fish sticks which were described as ‘white tuna’. The only slight irritation were the beer vendors who turned up endlessly as soon as you’d taken a sip from your glass to top it up from the bottle on the table.
Some time after midnight the party was still in full swing, but – unusually – we exercised restraint and headed to bed.
The next morning, we enjoyed ourselves doing tourist stuff in Georgetown. It’s an old colonial town with somewhat faded buildings, but the covered walkways bustle with vibrant activity. We enjoyed just strolling around and poking around, deciding that it reminded us a bit of Montevideo. We hunted down a particular bakery that makes only straight finger-like doughnuts, a local delicacy.
Pausing to photograph a mosque, we were invited inside by a man who had been charged with spreading the word to non-muslims. Inside the mosque, we donned black cloaks to cover our western nakedness and had an interesting tour, not something that you get to see every day, particularly because Bronwyn was visiting the men’s section. Our guide grumbled a bit through his one remaining tooth, because he didn’t really approve of what he was doing, but since the government had declared his mosque to be a heritage site, he had a mandate to invite tourists.
We also checked out the unapologetically colonial area around Penang Station, now a Customs house but locally famous as the only station never to have a railway pass through it.
The monsoon started and we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, where after a refreshing nap we discovered that the bar was doing a buy-five get-two-free deal. We polished off the requisite number of drinks just as the rain stopped, by which time we were not only a bit squiffy but ravenously hungry. I wanted to try the Old House Restaurant which we had seen on our morning perambulations, and I was ever so glad that we did because every dish was divine, especially my ‘Hong Kong steamed fish’ which was some kind of coral angel fish and was as sweet and tender as anything I’ve eaten.
The following morning we had booked several hours at a Malaysian cooking class in the Tropical Spice Garden, a botanical gardens devoted to the spice trade. We knew that we could catch the 101 bus from Georgetown and that our stop would arrive in about three quarters of an hour, but we had no idea about the geographical location of the gardens. Penang is not a very big island so we soon found ourselves on a road that twisted and climbed up and around the shoreline, past endless beaches, fishing dhows, and turtles. In the end, our stop was obvious and well signposted, but of course the friendly driver gave us a wave when we got there anyway.
After a guided tour through some of the species that we would be using, we were introduced to our teacher, Nazlina, who soon had us grinding spices and emptying coconuts using ancient traditional methods. Our aim was to make Nasi Goreng, which involves coconut rice, fried anchovies, boiled egg, sambal and cucumber wrapped up into a pyramid of banana leaf.
It was great fun, and the four of us in the group took turns to take the meat out of the coconut, smoke the banana leaves to make them flexible, and grind the sambal paste from garlic, galangal, ginger, onion, lemon grass, red chilis and fish meal.
Eventually we put all the parts together, with some accidents, into neat pyramidal parcels before settling down to lunch with some beef sambal that we’d knocked up on the side. The perfect end to a perfect morning.