As with most journeys across South East Asia, the one from Koh Lanta into Penang did not quite go as planned (or, rather, as informed!) You’ll be there by 5, they said. Pah, sure. Our bus dropped me off in Hat Yai just before 1pm, where I was told my connecting minivan to Penang wouldn’t actually leave until 3:30pm, meaning I wouldn’t arrive in Penang until 8:30pm. A bit tired and frustrated by their loose sense of time (I’m still working on my patience) but not necessarily surprised, I spent the next couple of hours stocking up on supplies at my last visit to a Thai 7-Eleven and updating my blog, before being collected by minivan and making our way to the Thai border.
We arrived at the border at around 6pm where I was asked to pay a 10 baht fee – something I hadn’t been told (or looked into) and I’d spent my last remaining baht in 7-Eleven (damn you, fabulous convenience store), but fortunately a really kind Monk on my bus covered the cost for me. It was really quick and easy to be stamped out, exiting out the other side and re-boarding our minivan. We drove for another 15 minutes or so before getting back off the minivan at the Malaysian border, taking our luggage with us as our bags had to be scanned, and getting my free entry stamp into the country. Back on the minivan by 7pm we set off only to have the air con fail and for the minivan to pull over as there was some problem with it. We then had to wait by the side of the road until 9:20pm when another minivan arrived to take us the rest of the way, with me eventually making it to my hostel at 11pm, 6 hours later than scheduled.
Couzi Couji is a converted listed building in the Northern part of George Town, Penang, with a spacious seating area, wooden floors and decent dorm rooms (air con plus comfy beds with curtain, personal light and 2 plug sockets) for 27 RM per night – around a fiver. The guy at the desk – Zi – was so friendly, welcoming and helpful with me arriving late and bedraggled. More hungry than tired, I went out to explore the surrounding streets, locating the closest Happy Mart and 7-Eleven (of course) before trying some local food. There are a lot of stalls that offer various spiced dishes which you can pick and choose to have with rice or bread – I opted for a veg dish with chicken in a sweet/spicy sauce with Roti (a buttery, flaky round bread that was so tasty). Not a bad start to my Malaysian food experiences.
I decided to head to the National Park on my first full day in Penang, taking the 101 bus from the main bus station by the jetty for 4 RM (just under a quid) until we arrived at the last stop about an hour later. It is free to enter the national park but you have to register your name, receiving a ticket to proceed. There are various sites you can go to but I decided to take the route to Monkey Beach and then onto Muka Head Lighthouse. It took about an hour to reach Monkey Beach, being teased on the way with deceptive beaches and monkeys in the trees only to discover they were false alarms, making my way through the muddy, tree-lined terrain of the jungle and over wooden bridges, catching glimpses of the ocean as I went.
At Monkey Beach I took a rest stop on one of the rocks, watching the monkeys swing through the trees nearby, before embarking on my 30 minute uphill hike through the jungly mountain to the lighthouse at the top. It was so humid and I was ridiculously sweaty by this point, my top completely soaked through, but after 3 weeks of laying on a beach mainly eating and drinking this was exactly what my body needed and it felt rejuvenating.
I made it to the top at 2:40pm with only 20 minutes until they closed the lighthouse – just enough time for me to walk up for amazing views across Penang and the ocean, finally with some wind in my face, before making my way back down and heading back to the start. You can also get a boat from Monkey Beach to the Park entrance (and vice versa) but I was in the zone and keen to keep going.
Back at the start just before 5pm, I bought a top at the local shack shop to change into (LITERALLY soaked through) before jumping back onto the bus to Batu Feringghi for 1.40 RM (30p) – here there is a Night Market that opens at 7, so for the next hour or so I picked up a coffee at Starbucks (I know, shame on me, but it was my first in a very long time and there wasn’t much else around in terms of coffee), trying their Arabian Dolce Latte, which was pretty sweet but just what I needed, and heading to the beach with it. I wandered along the shore, being caught regularly by the huge waves crashing into the sand, watching the skyline dotted with various water sports and the setting sun.
At just after 7 I wandered around the market stalls, finally buying another watch (the 4th I have had on my travels and the 3rd I have bought whilst out here; I don’t think I’m made for long-term relationships with sunglasses and watches) for 50 RM (a tenner – can you tell that Malaysia is more expensive than Thailand already??) and also purchased my magnet for Malaysia for 4 RM (80p). Hungry, I headed for a street food stall where you once again put the meal together yourself, with me selecting a take away dish (thrown in a plastic bag and then wrapped in newspaper) of coconut rice, beef in sticky sauce, tofu in spicy tomato sauce and a fried egg for 5.50 RM (£1.10). I hopped on a bus back to George Town for 2.40 RM (50p) and devoured my meal onboard – it was actually really good and the coconut rice a highlight (to think I used to hate rice; South East Asia has changed me!)
Having not yet explored George Town itself, I spent the following day wandering around the streets within the heritage site, searching for (and sometimes stumbling across) the array of street art scattered across the district.
Many of the more well-known pieces (Cheah Kongsi and Yeoh Kongsi) had many other tourists there queuing up for a photo with the art piece, whereas others, tucked down a desolate side street, were almost empty. Some of the pieces were wonderful, and it adds even more charm and culture to a place that exudes character.
On my walk I spotted the magnificent Kapitan Keling Mosque; stark white against the bright blue background of the sky, it was so enticing. I was greeted as I entered, asked to take off my shoes and adorn one of the robes before being given a guided tour of the mosque, which included a reciting of the Qu’ran. After leaving I headed over to the water, stopping for some street food on the way and opting to try Char Koay Teow – a delicious dish of prawn, egg and noodles – before walking to the edge of the Clan Jetties.
There is a free Hop-on Hop-off bus service (CAT) that circles George Town, so in I hopped for a full loop before disembarking by Esplanade to the North a East of the island. I wandered along the pavement lining the ocean, watching fisherman at work and children playing, before walking to Penang State Museum. It costs 1 RM to enter (20p) but as I arrived at 4:30 and they close at 5pm they let me in for free, where I learnt about the various ethnicities (Malay, Chinese and Indian) residing in Penang, the history of Penang and its arts culture.
On my way out I picked up a takeaway Penang White Coffee from a local restaurant for 2 MYR, which was bizarrely (but actually rather suitably, in the end) served in a plastic bag with handle for me to hold it, complete with straw for drinking. Absurdly sweet and milky, I loved it.
Penang is adorned with Indian food and I had been specifically recommended Kapitan Restaurant, famed for their naan breads and biryani. I decided to try their Tandoori set; a quarter chicken succulently cooked in tandoori spices, placed on top of a Kashmir Naan (fruits and nuts, but there are many different naans you can choose from) with little portions of onion, yogurt and a pesto/mango sauce mix. I was surprised at how perfectly cooked sand executed it all was, greedily stuffing my face (for 15 RM – 3 quid – with drink) before heading back to my hostel in time for my 7:30pm pick up to make my 8:30pm night bus to the Perhentian Islands…