Hello Uncle Foreigner

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Feb 19, 2013

Winter break: Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Cocktail hour(s) at Farquhar’s Bar

Peter, poolside
A martini at the barPeter, on the patio, looking like a boss
“Peter looks like a boss,” Young Jane said admiringly of this photo.

The E&O is touted as a fine example of colonial architecture in Georgetown, and, indeed, it’s a stunning white beauty. It was constructed in the 1880s, though the current incarnation of the business dates from 2001, when the hotel reopened after years of restoration work.

But we didn’t go there looking for history. We were looking for drinks.

Farquhar’s Bar, in the hotel lobby, is a dark wood paneled pub that looked almost too fancy for us the first time we walked in, but martinis must! We sat at the bar and watched the bartender go about his work meticulously. And the drinks he made us were amazing. By far the best martinis we’d have in Penang. Even better, one of the waitresses served us small bowls of cashews and delicious seasoned olives (also the best) while we waited.

Our tab came to about 100 ringgit, or US$30, which was a little pricey but still reasonable. Considering that our dinners were averaging less than 30 ringgit for the two of us, our budget could stand it. So, from that day on, Farquhar’s was our local. It became our regular evening ritual: Drinks on the bar’s poolside patio as we wound down from the day’s excitement. We eavesdropped on the other guests — all urbane sophisticates, many of them in their 70s and 80s — and made our plans for adventures to come. It was heaven

Looking at the blue horizon

Feb 18, 2013

Winter break: Eat this porkwich

Pork burger with cheese at the Desa Permata night market

Our talented food truck chef at work
Eat this pork burger because it is delicious

The street in front of our hostel hosts a street market every weekend, and it’s a bustler. When we went, one of the vendors was a food truck hawking pork burgers and it smelled so good, I just had to get a taste.

The young man operating the grill was a solid hipster type, wearing a knit hat in 80 degree weather and a plaid face mask, presumably for food safety. He could park anywhere in downtown Manhattan (wait, are food trucks still trendy?), charge $12 per, and the cool kids would line up for days.

The ground-pork patty was juicy and seasoned perfectly, with very peppery flavor. The cheese was nothing special, a pre-wrapped slice, but melted over the patty the two formed a happy marriage. Fresh lettuce, tomato and a simple bun completed the package.

It was simple as could be, but just delicious. Western food doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it just needs to be done right. And Pork Burger did it right.

Eaten at: Pork Burger food truck at the night market, Desa Permata.

Feb 17, 2013

Winter break: Let’s go to the mall!

And the boutiques, and the street markets, and the grocery store …

The Rainforest Cafe has great bagels
The Chocolate ShopThe night market

The triforce that creates the perfect Penang vacation, we read in our pre-trip research, is made up of eating, beaching and shopping. Check, check and … meh. Neither Peter nor I are big shoppers, but two out of three would be perfect enough for us. We’d leave the shopping to everyone else.

Or so we thought.

Our first trip to the mall was out of necessity: I needed a new bathing suit. But once that was out of the way … we kept on shopping.

The malls of Penang are big and modern. They’ve got all the familiar chains — The Gap, Crabtree & Evelyn, ESPRIT, Subway, Carrefour (and its not a vacation without a visit to Carrefour’s import section) — and, importantly, air conditioning. They’re also a good place to find massage chairs and junk food; We ended up using them as giant rest stops when Georgetown’s streets got a little too intense.

But these big boxes of international commerce are the least the island has to offer. We basically tripped over shopping experiences everywhere we went. Upscale boutiques to rink-a-dink flea markets. Our spoils from our spree included handmade jewelry, a Daredevil-shaped USB flash drive, T-shirts galore, bagels(!) and cheesy-cute sunglasses. And what fun we had acquiring them!

The coolest — and maybe most stereotypically touristy — transaction was at an Indian clothing store called Sam’s Collection. They offered beautiful men’s and women’s clothing in cotton, linen and silk. The lovely patterned fabrics, some with intricate embroidery, were the height of southeast Asian traveler chic.

Malaysia has a bargaining culture, just like China does, and at Sam’s I decided to try my skills — partially motivated by the fact that I didn’t want to go back to the ATM. Peter had some RMB in his wallet and they liked that, so we ended up making a deal in two currencies. How cool are we! As we paid up, an onlooking clerk threw a “Nice haggle!” our way. I felt pretty boss.

Sam's Collection

Feb 15, 2013

Winter break: What was that about monkey cups?

Carnivorous plants!

Monkey cup gardens
Monkey cupsMonkey cupsMonkey cupsKabir, our guideKabir wanted us to hold this bug

I mentioned in my last post that our excursion to Penang Hill included a search for something called “monkey cup.” As is our wont, we had set off down the path to Monkey Cup Garden without knowing quite what we would find. The exciting story:

There aren’t any monkeys, a returning tourist told us in response to a joke we had made, just carnivorous plants. He tipped us off that the entry fee included a golf cart ride back to the main commercial area, and then went on his way on foot. We continued the final meters to our destination.

In the garden, we were met by our own private tour guide, Kabir. He pointed out the various species of monkey cup — aka pitcher plants, aka nepenthes — and how they worked and where each were from; most are native to southeast Asia, but there were a few from South America. The plants are pretty, but freaky. They attract bugs to a pool of water in their bulbous base where the prey gets knocked out and drowned; the lid comes down and the plant starts eating. Signs everywhere warn guests not to stick their fingers into the pitchers; I think that’s more to protect the plants than the humans, but it’s still creepy to think of the small flower slowly digesting your knocked-out body.

Kabir was very friendly. He told us proudly about his daughter — she does very well in school — and laughed when we said that we don’t have kids — “But you’re so old!” — so that we can come to Malaysia. We also talked a bit of Chinese real estate.

At the end of the tour, he brought us to the interactive space! He fed a bug to a Venus fly trap — it takes 3 days to digest! — and offered to let us hold a millipede or a scorpion. We declined to hold them on the grounds that they were mammoth and frightening. Kabir worked hard to convince us, even wearing the scorpion as a hat, but, just say no to creepy crawlies remains a motto for both of us.

We got out unscathed, and luxuriated in the golf cart ride back to civilization.

This moss eats stuff

Feb 15, 2013

Winter break: Penang Hill

Our local attraction

The view from Penang Hill
Up the funicularOn the HillPeter enjoys the viewEmily enjoys a sandwichInside the Owl MuseumMore views of the city from Penang HillA snack at David Brown'sLet's toast to the city

The one thing tourism-wise our hostel had going for it was that it was super close to Penang Hill. Now, it’s called a hill, but the mini-mountain’s peak is more than 800 meters above sea level. It may not be Everest, but it’s not an insignificant height. At that elevation, the air is even a little cooler than it is on the ground.

On a sunny afternoon, we cabbed over to the base (just five minutes, take that Georgetown!) and ascended via funicular.

Just off the upper station, there’s an asphalt pathway that leads towards the small commercial area on the hill, as well as some dirt pathways that take you off into the greenery. We hiked our picnic lunch — cheese sandwiches with hot English mustard on German sourdough with mini gherkins, how international! — a short ways down the dirt and found a perfect little gazebo. The terrible pop cover tunes wafted down from the pub above, but the view and the relative privacy made for a nice atmosphere. There were signs warning not to feed the monkeys, but none approached, so confrontation was duly avoided.

After lunch, we returned to the pavement to see what was to see. There was stuff like: Get your picture taken with a snake; or Eat more at the small hawker center. We chose: See some owly stuff at the Owl Museum. Why not?

The man at the entry only addressed Peter throughout the whole transaction, which was especially irritating given that I was the one handling the money. That happens to us all the time — people assuming Peter’s the boss because he’s the man — but it was way more noticeable in Penang because it was happening in English. (Though, it’s even more absurd in China, because out of the two of us, I have way more Chinese.) My strategy in the face of this is to quietly but firmly continue to assert my presence. It may or may not blow any minds, but it does keep me from feeling completely erased.

Anyway, inside the Owl Museum was delightfully weird. It was basically was two large rooms displaying a collection of internationally made arts and crafts that all depicted owls in some way. Paintings and illustrations of owls, ceramic owl statues, owls carved out of wood. The gift shop featured even more owls, if you wanted to take some owlness home. And we did.

After the owls, we set to wandering down a path that promised monkey cups at the end. Golf carts ferried lazier guests this way and that, but we were having a nice time walking. As we got further away from the commercial area, we started to see some very nice bungalows and houses. Tucked into the hillside, surrounded by trees with a gorgeous view of the island below, they were too perfectly peaceful. Though in the end, we decided that it would be impractical to live there — where would you buy groceries? — so we made no offers.

Before our descent, we stopped at David Brown’s, the aforementioned music-playing pub. It was a small open-air terrace, that was positioned to look right out over the north shore of Penang. The drinks were pretty watery, but with a view like that, who cares? We watched the tourists wander by as we talked and solved all the world’s problems (from the music industry to sexism) over bloody Marys and margaritas. It was a perfect tropical afternoon.

Feb 8, 2013

Winter break: Eat this veggie burger

Modern Malay fusion at Cafe Leaf

Vegetarian food at Cafe Leaf
Vegetarian food at Cafe LeafCould veggie burgers be this good?
The Leaf’s vegetarian fare was fresh and flavorful.

We spotted this small cafe just north of Little India on our first jaunt through the neighborhood. Attracted by the window boxes growing fresh basil, mint and betel leaf we knew that we had to eat there.

Upon return, we found inside a cute little eatery, with a college town atmosphere. There were quotes pained on the wall about peace and sharing, and the space was open and bright. The menu was all vegetarian fusion, with a definite Malaysian influence.

We split a few dishes, like we do, to try to maximize our flavor per meal. The veggie burger: In my notes, I described it as “curried wonderfulness on a whole grain bun,” which is not the most helpful concrete description, but is a good indicator about how eating it made me feel.

We also went for the pasembor, a local style of mixed salad. Cafe Leaf’s was made with potato, jicama, peanuts and cucumbers with a crispy flake topper and a velvety tomato sauce. It was super light, with really subtle and delicate flavoring.

The noodle salad was made with fresh, whole wheat noodles and garnished with chopped lettuce, carrots, sesame seeds and some sort of nutlet, perhaps a sunflower seed. The whole thing was bathed in an airy, fantastic pumpkin sauce. Really, really delicious.

The iced coffee deserves special mention as well, only because we never get good coffee in China.

We were kind of on the late side for lunch, so by the time we tucked in, we were the only customers in the joint. Our server was a hip, younger girl, but there was also an older Chinese man hanging out with a chill-owner vibe. He looked up from his newspaper to ask us if we were from Europe. Almost no one pegs us for American here, because it’s just so far from Asia that we’re a much rarer commodity. It’s kind of fun to be special!

Eaten at: Cafe Leaf, Georgetown

Feb 7, 2013

Winter break: Batu Ferringhi

Where the Rules of Acquisition are replaced by the Rules of Relaxation

The beautiful beach at Batu Ferringhi
I'm at the beach
Say hello to tropical Emily! She’s much more fun than indoors-coat-wearing Emily.

Batu Ferringhi is a rather touristy strip of beaches along Penang’s northern coast. It’s about a 40-minute ride outside of Georgetown. Our guidebook tried to sell us on some of the more out-of-the-way beach and fishing villages on the southwest of the island — Batu Ferringhi is all concrete and hotels, they said — but our normal daily life happens off the beaten path, so we felt pretty OK not being so hard core on our vacation. Taxi, take us to the Hard Rock Hotel!

Not to stay, sillies. After a brief perusal of the Hard Rock’s artifacts in the lobby — they had one of Ronnie Wood’s pre-fame basses, a jacket of Bon Jovi’s, and a guitar that was signed by all of the Red Hot Chili Peppers! — we cut through their passageway to the beach.

The water we were on is the Malacca Strait which, zoom out enough, is fed by the Indian Ocean. In fact, on the way out, Balan, our cab driver, pointed out some areas that were hit by 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — a little establishment called the Tsunami Cafe now stands on one of those sites; I’m not really sure what to think of that. But, when there’s not a natural disaster occurring, the water is calm and the waves are small.

Having been raised on different coasts of the U.S., Peter and I have different ideas of what a good beach should be. But Batu Ferringhi, with its flat, smooth white sand, surrounded by jungle beauty and gorgeous mountains, fit the bill for both of us. Yeah, there are restaurants and hotels and bars that encroach on the waterline, but that only means there’s something to do. What, are we just going to sit in the sun? We’ll burn!

As we walked west to east, things progressively got busier. We took lunch at a small beach-side cafe that served Malay and western food. It wasn’t terrible, and they served beer in frosty mugs. A little further down the beach, we spotted a grass-roofed hut massage parlor. We joked that we should get massages. And then we decided we weren’t joking.

It’s pretty glorious to listen to the rustle of the seaside while someone eases out your aches and pains with aromatic oils.

Dotting the coast line all the way from west to east are boat guys, who will rent you any type of boating experience you want, from a ride out to Monkey Beach to a drag along on a banana boat. One of the most fun things for us to do, however, was to watch the parasailors land. They come in all fast for a landing kicking their little legs. It’s hilarious.

Feb 6, 2013

Winter break: Eat this forkless

Banana leaf at Karai Kudi

The Banana Leaf setEat samosasEat with your hands

“Have you had banana leaf yet?” a cab driver asked us early on in our stay when we mentioned that we liked Indian food. We assured him that it was on our list, and on his word bumped it up several levels of importance. Always listen to the locals’ food suggestions.

According to our guidebook, Karaikudi in Little India had both banana leaf and air conditioning, so that was our destination. When we walked in, there was a group of tourists at a large table in the corner, but most of the clientele appeared to be Indian.

We puzzled over the extensive menu for a bit — “which one is banana leaf? None of them are called that!” — before a waiter came over to help. He directed us (without rolling his eyes) to what we were looking for, and explained that there were essentially two options: vegetarian or non-vegetarian. We ordered one and one. And some samosas for good measure.

Two large platters were brought to our table, each lined with — you got it! — a banana leaf and containing small tin cups of various sauces and curried things, with a heaping pile of rice in the center. You basically dump the cups on the rice, and scoop it up with your fingers. (There are forks, if you want to go that way.)

Guys, it was freaking amazing. Each sauce was delicious on its own, but they mingled in an alchemical way that took it to the moon! The chicken that came with the non-veger was juicy and tender and slathered in a fantastic brown curry. The non-veger also came with biryani rice as well as white — sorry Peter.

I don’t want to give short shrift to the samosas, either. Though they weren’t the main event, they were possibly the best samosas I’ve had in my life thus far. A thick and crispy fried outside surrounded beautifully soft potatoes inside, and they came with a squirty bottle of this tangy red sauce that was also quite lovely.

We came away from this meal pretty stuffed and happy. Later we learned that this style of food comes from South India, with Karaikudi specializing in Chettinadu cuisine. There, a free geography lesson for you, too.

Eaten at: Karaikudi restaurant, Little India, Georgetown

I'm eating with my handsOutside the restaurant

Feb 4, 2013

Winter break: Little India

Finally, some hustle and bustle

Georgetown's Little India
Georgetown's Little IndiaGeorgetown's Little IndiaNR Sweets' exteriorOur Thali from NR Sweets
The exterior made it look like the food might be made out of plastic, but our meal at NR Sweets was truly satisfying.

We had a hard time getting the rhythm of Georgetown’s protected World Heritage zone. Most of the cultural attractions were letdowns, and it seemed like most of the storefronts and restaurants were closed whenever we were there, which made for pretty boring ambling. In fact, a lot of the time it felt like the Georgetown colonial area was a bunch of empty old architecture and tourist-baiting cafes and hostels.

The exception to this was the few blocks in the center of the zone that made up Little India. Now this is a city!

There was an energy to this part of town that was largely missing from the surrounding area. The streets were crowded with pedestrians and automobiles, and commerce and music bubbled over from the tightly pack clusters of shops. You could buy anything from DVDs to cheap plastic trinkets to a complete, tailor-made sari. My favorite were the amusingly named Fancy Stores, which sold jewelery, barrettes, wigs and other lady-type fancification products. There were obvious tourists wandering these streets, but also locals just going about their daily business (some of which was selling stuff to tourists).

Of course there were restaurants, too. While planning this Penang trip, one of the things that we got most excited about was the availability of well-made Indian food, A) because we love it, and B) because the cuisine supports a tradition of vegetarianism. And, boy, oh, boy, were we not let down. We only had the stomach room for a few meals in Little India, but each one of them was a winner. Even the cheesy-looking NR Sweets delivered: We a split a thali — which consisted of a bowl fragrant seasoned rice and several spicy sauces — and a cheese masala naan with a paneer butter masala. The atmosphere wasn’t much to speak of, but the food was fantastic.

I did have a mini-cultural crisis while walking through the neighborhood one afternoon: The restauranteurs of Little India are pretty aggressive when it comes to landing your business — if you’ve even walked down that stretch of 6th Street in New York City, it’s a similar level of intensity. Now, in China, it’s been our policy to stop and talk with pretty much everyone who wants to; we want Americans in China to have a good rep and, more importantly, we want the curious to be satisfied. But, back in New York, if you talked to everyone who approached you, you’d end up being asked for money all day. So I felt a little bit conflicted about how to act.

But Peter pointed out that ignoring a hard sell is a different thing entirely than snubbing a six-year-old Chinese girl who has never seen a foreigner before. Western-guilt assuaged, it was back to picking a place to eat, on my own terms!

Shopping in Little India

Feb 2, 2013

Winter break: Eat this dessert

Cendol and Ais Kacang at Gurney Drive

The famous Gurney Drive is empty if you get there too early
I think we just got to the party way too early.

Gurney Drive is one of Penang’s big deal hawker centers, as sold to us by our guidebook, and we were curious to see how an internationally renowned food market differed from our comfy cafe at Kuta Bali.

It’s set up right on the water, so there are some beautiful views and nice breezes. In the early evening when we went, however, it was rather, shall we say, relaxed. Few vendors were open and there were only a couple of other tourists out and about, browsing the wares.

But we were hungry and hot, and we found an open cendol cart. Cendol is an icey dessert covered in coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, red beans and wormy green rice noodles. It’s not much to look at, but it tastes fantastic. Cool and refreshing, with just the right amount of sweetness.

Ais Kacang is another dish along those lines. It’s a pile of shaved ice, drizzled with syrups — one of them tasted like root beer! — and topped with sweet corn and condensed milk. Underneath this chilly mountain, there were surprise cubes of gelatin, dried currants and red beans. The whole thing (well, minus the gelatin, which is not my favorite) was fantastic.

Sadly, this was the only time and opportunity we had for Malaysian dessert. There was just too much food to eat and not enough appetite to finish it all. But on that hot afternoon, our sweet iceys really hit the spot.

We’ll just have to go back for more.

Eaten at: Gurney Drive hawker center, Georgetown