Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

Feb 1, 2013

Winter break: Teksi!

Riding around Pulau Penag in style

Our taxi driver

The public bus system in Penang is extensive — but kind of confusing, and the appearance of the buses themselves is rather infrequent. So, after a few instances of waiting for the wrong bus for upwards of 40 minutes, we decided that despite our love of mass transit, it was taxis for us.

Which added a whole new dimension to our trip: talkative taxi drivers! Occasionally we’d get a guy who didn’t speak English — or didn’t want to speak English with us — but for the most part, everyone who picked us up was delighted to have the chance to show us around their home.

At the very least, the driver would point out the different tourist sights as we passed them. Many had travel suggestions as well — it was on a taxi driver’s word that we visited the Chocolate Boutique, and he was not wrong. We’re still enjoying our chili-infused chocolate, one piece each, per night.

Beyond this, we got interesting insight into what Malaysians think of America. “Americans can shoot you if you invade their homes,” said the driver who picked us up from the Clan Jetties. “Romney should have been president because he’s a successful businessman who gives thanks to God for his success,” said Michael, who brought us out to the Queensbay Mall. “Americans don’t know where Malaysia is,” said Balan, our driver on the way to the beach at Batu Ferringhi. This last one kind of had the ring of truth about it.

We discussed real estate with a driver who was also dropping his son off at school. Balan had a lot to say about financial development in Penang; besides tourism, computer and pharmacological factories make up a lot of the industry in the area. Michael told us ribald jokes (that cab ride was pretty strange, actually). Our clan jetty man suggested, upon hearing that we were from China, that we visit Yunnan Province when we get back; he’d been to visit 8 times!

Pretty much everyone who picked us up or dropped us off in Desa Permata asked why we were staying out there, but our mistake ended up putting us into contact with a lot of interesting locals, via the long rides we needed to take. It was definitely more rewarding than visiting the Blue Mansion.

The Penang taxi

The cost for all this joy riding? Well, drivers are supposed to use their meter, but Balan was the only one during our entire time in Penang who did. Otherwise, we negotiated a flat rate which seemed to conform to 10RN [US$3] within Georgetown center to 35-40RN [about $12] to go out to Desa Permata. Totally worth it, every time.

Jan 31, 2013

Winter break: Eat this nasi lemak

Nyonya chicken and salads over rice at Kuta Bali cafe

Eat this Nasi Lemak
Our nasi lemak lady didn’t have banana leaves, but she did have a banana leaf plate!

Let’s start with some definitions: Nyonya cuisine comes from the fusion of cultures between the 16th century male Chinese immigrants to Malaysia and the local women they married. Nasi is malay for rice. And nasi lemak is rice served with a bunch of tasty side dishes, sometimes wrapped in a banana leaf.

The woman serving nasi lemak at Kuta Bali was one of the few non-English speaking people that we had contact with on our trip, but her stall was set up buffet style, so with a smile and some pointing, there were no problems. (Except for the first night when we waved away her offer of rice — um, it’s in the name of the dish, dummies!)

The whole meal was homey and rich. The chicken was so tender that it practically melted off the drumstick; it was no problem to eat with the customary fork and spoon. It was slathered with a sweet and hearty curry. (Peter enjoyed the sauce on rice.)

Our various sides included green beans, cabbage slaw, pineapple and cucumber with chilis, some sort of greens slaw, spicy okra … All fantastic. Each came swimming in its own dressing that was perfect over the rice. Don’t say no to the rice.

Eaten at: Kuta Bali Cafe, Desa Permata.

Jan 29, 2013

Winter break: Eat this soup!

Spicy and sour Chinese soup at Kuta Bali Cafe

Spicy and Sour Soup

The first time we passed this stall, the man working it gave a soft pitch for his soups. “You can get it spicy or not spicy,” he told us. We were still in browse mode, so we kept going.

But, we came back after our initial sweep of all the food carts. And then again and again, after the first taste made this soup a Penang favorite.

The broth is sweet and tangy, and one of the spiciest things we had during our vacation (though not quite Sichuan spicy), and it’s filled with tender carrots and greens, as well as a protein of your choice: The beef was delicious, but the chicken was the winner, all melt-in-your-mouth moist. It also came with crab, which I’m sure was wonderful.

After picking it all out of the soup a couple of times, however, we eventually asked him to leave it out. Which he did, no problem, because the people we met were very accommodating even when our requests might have seemed wacko. (It’s an island! Eat the seafood, for goodness sake!)

The soup is served with a sweet garlicky vinaigrette that adds a nice chili pepper zing. Noodles are also an option, although we found that they took a little bit away from the soup’s already lovely simplicity.

Eaten at: Kuta Bali Cafe, Desa Permata.

Jan 28, 2013

Winter break: Hawker centers

Let the eating commence!

Hawkers by the Clan Jetties
Late lunch at a hawker center by the Clan Jetties
Kuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliNasi LemakBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliPeter eating Nasi LemakFilled pancakeSome dumplings
Above: Just a small photographic taste of the delicious excitement of Kuta Bali Cafe.
Hong Kong Cafe was also nearby, but our heart belonged to Kuta Bali
Hong Kong Cafe was just a stone’s throw from Kuta Bali, but we pledged our allegiance early on.

In Penang, eating at its most basic and cheapest is done at hawker centers, collections of food carts assembled around a large dinning area where people gather late into the night. The mood is festive and lively — we’re eating, hooray! — and sometimes there’s karaoke or dancing. Despite it’s simplicity, It’s a place where a meal is an event.

In general, the food from these humble carts is cheap, but no less than absolutely delicious. It’s a point of pride for some of the hawkers that their cart and their dish has been in their family for generations. Every kind of cuisine is represented: Indian, Chinese, Malay … even western — though, to be honest, none of the western food looked all that enticing to us.

There are a few famous centers around Penang that are listed in all the guidebooks, but take a walk and you’ll find one. We had three good ones on our block alone. We came to be quite attached to the Kuta Bali Cafe, a large and lively dining hall just a short walk from our hostel. We ended up there pretty much every night, for a meal, a drink, a late-night snack, or just to get one more taste of that wonderful dish we tried the night before. Going from cart to cart every night, we soon had compiled a long list of favorites.

Emboldened by his discovery of the 牛肉面, Peter’s vegetarian strategy for this trip was to not worry about meatlessness, but instead look for dishes where the meat could be pushed to the side, or moved over to my plate. (I felt a little Jack Sprat and his wife on more than a couple occasions.) He found a couple of tasty treats this way, but even more amazingly, we found that we could actually ask the cooks to dish up their dish meat-free. Because they speak English in Penang! And understand vegetarianism! Peter even got a chicken pita sandwich, hold the chicken.

On average, our food costs would be between 10-20RM [or US$3-7] — the beers would add another 40RM [or about US$13] — which made eating this way very attractive. But it was also a super fun atmosphere. Sitting out in the clear tropical nights with a bucket of iced beers and plates piled high with our new favorite foods — you really can’t beat that. It’s like the best summer BBQ you’ve ever been to, catered by 50 chefs who are all experts in their cuisine. We were in heaven … and so were the locals, to whom this is an everyday experience.

We didn’t know exactly, when we set out, what we were looking for our of our Penang experience, but if all we did was eat a meal at Kuta Bali, that would have been enough.

Jan 27, 2013

Winter break: Georgetown

The city

The Georgetown Heritage Area
Looking down on Georgetown, from the top floor of Komtar
Penang Road
Action on Penang Road
Khoo Kongsi
The ornate exterior of Khoo Kongsi
A drawing at Khoo Kongsi
A close-up of “Hundred Sons and Thousand Grandsons”
The Blue MansionOn the tour of the Blue Mansion
The tour of the Blue Mansion is very thorough.

Georgetown is where most Penang visitors stay if they’re not at the beach. It’s the state’s capital, and is situated on a little nose of land on the northeast corner of the island. The city was founded by Captain Francis Light in 1786 for the British East India Company, and is home to many fine examples of British colonial architecture.

Penang’s other cultures have left their architectural mark, as well, and there are beautiful Chinese temples and clan houses, Islamic mosques, etc. The city is just lousy with gorgeous buildings with a mix of styles and cultures not seen anywhere else in Southeast Asia. In honor of that fact it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

We felt we would be remiss if we didn’t at least check out some of the sights.

Khoo Kongsi and the Blue Mansion

Khoo Kongsi is a Chinese clanhouse that serves the family Khoo. It’s basically a big, ornately decorated temple with a small museum on the ground floor. There are some beautiful illustrations throughout the temple; my favorite is the one titled “Hundred Sons and Thousand Grandsons,” that being the wish for all Chinese families.

The Blue Mansion is exactly what it says, a big blue mansion built by a Chinese immigrant to Georgetown, Cheong Fatt Tze, in the 1880s. You have to join one of the three daily tours to see it, and I have to warn you, the tour is BRUTAL. We spent about 45 minutes of our 1 hour tour in the front vestibule while our guide summarized Cheong Fatt Tze’s life in excruciating detail. Her focus was largely on his money-making and saving, with a few details thrown in about the man himself and the construction of the house. Oh, and I’m forgetting, she also gave a pretty hard sell on staying in the mansion in its capacity as a hotel.

The interesting take away from these two attractions: They’ve both been stand ins for other countries in Hollywood movies. Khoo Kongsi was a makeshift Thailand in “Anna and the King” and the Blue Mansion stood for Vietnam in “Indochine,” when each production was barred from filming in their respective countries.

Somewhere in GeorgetownKomtar
Can you spot the Komtar?
At the Clan JettiesAt the Clan JettiesCity Hall

Komtar

Komtar isn’t a Heritage building, it’s a big mall and the tallest building in Georgetown. We took an elevator up to the top for some great views of the island. We also bought some jewelry at the bead store that, for whatever reason, was up in the viewing area.

The Clan Jetties

The waterfront on the south side of the city was settled mostly by Chinese families, and is still a Chinese neighborhood today. It’s a little weird to walk through people’s homes as a tourist attraction, but it makes for some nice photographs.

There are also some seafood restaurants out at the end of the piers, which would be pretty wonderful if you liked seafood. We don’t like seafood, but that’s on us, no fault of the jetties.

City Hall

We enjoyed looking at this colonial building without trying to tour it, mercifully. It’s very good looking.

Pretty much all of our efforts at cultural tourism were failures. The architecture in Georgetown is gorgeous, but the ways in which we tried for deeper engagement with it were just not that fulfilling. It was also way too hot to go tromping around the city just to look at things.

It took us a couple days to realize that we were just doing it wrong. The culture in Penang is not in institutions and museums (most of which were founded or renovated within the last 30-40 years, anyway). It’s the people, the natural beauty, and, not least importantly, the food. Eventually we calmed down and started having a lot more fun.

Don’t get all New York about it. The way to do Penang is to sit back and enjoy a good meal in the marvelous scenery.

Georgetown city Georgetown city

Jan 24, 2013

Winter break: Fastbook Hostel

Settling in before tucking in

The Desa Permata neighborhood
The Desa Permata neighborhoodHere's the Fastbook
Our home away from home in lovely Desa Permata, Penang.
We're welcomed to the FastbookOur room
We were among an international crowd at the Fastbook.
Kek Lok SiKek Lok Si
Though it was one of the two attractions that we were actually close to, we never made it to Kek Lok Si.
Checking in, in the lobbyThe common area
The lobby, right, and shared kitchen, left.
Going swimmingGoing swimming with mountains in the background
I’m good until June, now, swim-wise.

Our base of operations was the Fastbook Hostel off Jalan Paya Terubong in Desa Permata on Pulau Penang. Does that not mean anything to you? It didn’t mean all that much to me when I booked it over the internet.

We found out, though. Paya Terubong is a major road in Penang, and Desa Permata is a small residential neighborhood bisected by it. And it’s about a 20 minute cab ride outside of Georgetown.

Georgetown is the main urban center of Penang, where most of the cultural attractions are located. Municipal buses go between the two areas, but then the trip is more like 40 minutes. Over the course of our two weeks, we got really familiar with Penang’s public transportation.

(Oh, and Pulau Penang is just “the island part of Penang.”)

So the location was not ideal, but the hostel was really cozy and the owner, TK, was incredibly friendly and helpful. He picked us up from the airport — His car had seat belts! And we were encouraged to use them! — pointing out durian fields, coffee shops and other interesting sights on our trip to our new home. I could practice my Mandarin with some of the Chinese noodle vendors, he suggested when he learned that we were coming from China.

The hostel was very close to two Penang sights, he told us, the Kek Lok Si temple and Penang Hill. We told him that our plan was mostly to eat. He thoroughly approved, and pointed out several hawker centers near the hostel as we pulled into our destination.

Our room was big enough, with a TV/DVD player and a shower stall. Toilets were a shared situation, but the hostel was small enough that it wasn’t a bother. Our mattress was soft and comfortable, a real contrast to our hard Chinese bed. The room had no windows, but it was a nice, air-conditioned place to stage our lazy mornings before hitting the hot Penang streets.

Materials online seemed to indicate that there was a pool — which, when we arrived at our fifth-floor walk-up, it was obvious that there was not. What there was, was a gym around the corner, with an athletic pool for doing laps. We were a little disappointed, as we’d already fallen in love with the idea of cocktail hour by the water every night. But we persevered. Instead, I went for a pre-dinner dip one evening, which fulfills my swim-every-six-months quota.

Jan 23, 2013

Winter break: Introducing Penang

In which we make a plan to eat

We're off to Penang

This time last year, we were taken by surprise by the fact that the famously hot Sichuan province actually had a winter, and we spent our January break shivering around Chengdu. We had fun, but we could have had more fun. Fun that didn’t involve wearing coats indoors.

So this year we knew we wanted to go some place warm. And, over the summer, while watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s foodie travel show “No Reservations,” we knew it should be Penang. The food looked delicious and everyone was in shorts in the wintertime. This was enough for us to book a flight.

And then we set about finding out what a Penang was.

This balmy food paradise is a state in the country of Malaysia, a peninsula that dongles down from Vietnam/Laos and ends at Singapore. The country’s famed for its (these days) peaceful coexistence between its Indian, Chinese and Malay peoples. It has a subtropical climate, meaning 80s+ degrees in January!

Bundled for the Luzhou cold

Most of Penang is on a small island off Malaysia’s west coast, and 50% of Penangites are of Chinese decent. The British colonized the island in the 1800s, leaving behind a legacy that includes architecture and language; Most people can speak English. Among people who know, Penang is renowned for its cuisine, and there is no shame in planning a vacation around eating there.

Which is good, because that’s what we did. We spent the last few days before our departure — when China was experiencing record cold temperatures — bundled up in as many layers as possible trying to decide what to eat first.

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: The bus station

Going home on the biggest travel day of the year

The bus station in Chongqing

Because our trip was kind of a last-minute whim, we didn’t really realize what it meant to be travelling during the last weekend of National Day — which is one of the biggest travel times of the year. Think day-after-Thanksgiving, only in China, where there’s about a bajillion more people.

Our bus was delayed, but everyone waited pretty patiently, and eventually we found ourselves on the long road home.

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: Cici Park

Seriously, go for the warmed plum wine

The cool crowd hangs at Cici Park
Plum wineCici Park

Cici Park came highly recommended in every piece of travel writing we read about the bar. And, in fact, we liked it so much that we went there both nights of our Chongqing stay.

Tucked away amongst closed-for-the-night shops on the second-floor rooftop of a large, old-looking building, we might have missed the bar were it not for the precise instructions that we got from the hostel staff. Cici Park is quiet, understated and chill as hell.

The weather was mild enough that there was competition for the outdoor tables and benches, but the inside was lovely as well. The walls were decked out with neon, Spirograph art pieces, and smooth, loungey jazz played softly over the PA.

This was yet another no-vomit-on-the-floor crowd (who would think that would be so special?), and we noticed that many merrymakers were drinking tea and soda in lieu of something alcoholic. Not us, though.

There was a small, handwritten sign advertising “The Naoke: Draft beer by handmade.” it came in two flavors — light and dark — there was just enough crisp in the air to make dark the right choice. And it was lovely: rich with a hint of coffee. Another highlight was the plum wine — nice flavor without being too sweet. After a consultation with the bartender, I chose to go for the warm over the cold, again, with reference to the crisp in the air.

We had to try the martini as well, which was OK. Served with ice in the glass, but you take what you can get.

Dec 4, 2012

Chongqing: Cactus Tex-Mex

Running for a border

Tex-Mex-ish

Our quarry at the Hongya Dong Center? Tacos! The ninth-floor Cactus Tex-Mex Bar & Grill was touted (by some online randos) as the best Mexican food in Chongqing, and we just can’t turn down an opportunity for Mexican.

On the hunt for Mexican food in China

Stepping into Cactus felt just like walking into an American sports bar, down to NFL on FOX on all the big screen TVs. Their menu was a little all over the place (and somewhat pricey, but that’s just a fact of western food in China). It offered all your classic Tex-Mex faves, but also pizza, fried mozzarella, hamburgers, etc., and also French and German specialties. It was kind of like Chili’s married Applebee’s and they went on an around-the world-honeymoon.

The drink menu was equally hefty, but we had to go for your basic margaritas to compliment our basic tacos. It was nothing fancy, but they did their job. There was a sort of Old El Paso-canned taste to the meal, but what do you want? You’re in China.

I hate sports bars in America, and — surprise! — it turns out I don’t love them in China, either. But the bar wasn’t very crowded, which to me is appealing. The best tacos in China so far, they are not. (That honor is still held by the Pug in Chengdu.) But, if you find yourself needing Mexican food in Chongqing, as we did, Cactus will fit the bill.