Kuala Lumpur & Penang

[This is a follow up to ‘Train Troubles’ – the first solo weekend trip I took to Malaysia]

As it turns out, I was slightly disappointed with KL. Without a local to show you around the suburbs, you spend most of your time on public transport or navigating between air con in the malls. And there are a lot of malls. It’s really just like Singapore in that there’s so much emphasis on malls and ‘brand shopping’ – albeit at one third the price. There is at least decent food but most of it is tucked away behind an hour or two on public transport. Next time: find some locals! I can at least recommend the Batu Caves and Chow Kit market, however. The Batu caves are a seriously impressive series of caves in the middle of KL which were turned into a large temple. There’s something like 272 steps to reach the top of first temple, and plenty of monkeys playing around the whole area. Definitely worth seeing.

Walking around Chow Kit market felt like being in a completely different city – you’re instantly transported from glistening malls and branded stores to what feels like ‘real’ Malaysia (as their tourism campaign would have you believe, “Truly Asia”). There are stray cats, mysterious puddles of motor oil/urine on the streets, and foreigners are uncommon enough to be stared at, as I found out. There are old aunties doing their daily shopping, haggling for rambutan and other unidentifiable fruit, vendors selling cendol in a cup by the roadside, and of course the ubiquitous meat-on-a-stick. There are stalls with an entire dissected cow – everything is sold: brain, innards, hooves – you could practically reassemble the animal with a little Frankenstein magic.

Back at the train station, I met a group of other backpackers who were taking the same train to Penang as me. We had all booked too late, when there were only upright seats left for an overnight train. The result? Very little sleep. I think they turned the air-con up high enough to solve global ‘warming’… It seems like everywhere in Asia the air-con is way too strong, as if they have to counterbalance the heat by blasting 16C air. The group I met consisted of two girls from England, a Kiwi, two other Australians and two English backpackers who were so generic they seemed to be replaced by another pair every time we met. Turns out just a few weeks in Asia turns everyone into drug addicts, as they all popped three or four Valium and got straight to sleep, despite the chairs.

We arrived in Penang that morning at 5am, and took the 6am ferry to Pulau Pinang (The island itself; there’s another township of ‘Butterworth’ which is *technically* still Penang). The ferry driver recommended some excellent Nasi Kandar places – like a pick ‘n’ mix for curries and fried food. After an excellent breakfast, we booked into the cheapest hostel in town and promptly fell straight to sleep.

 

Antarabangsa, as the flickering neon sign so clearly advises, is an ‘enterprise’. In fact, it’s not all that different from some startup ‘offices’. I suspect, however, that Antarabangsa has a few more alcoholics. Antarabangsa is apparently a supermarket – at least that’s what we were told by everyone when we asked for the ‘cheapest alcohol in Penang’. What we found was encouraging: mostly locals surrounded by far too many empty beer cans for 6pm, and some bearded, tattooed, overweight expats who are past the point of ever returning ‘home’. Of course, they’re all seated on teetering stools about six inches from the ground, bathing in the warm neon glow of the supermarket’s sign.

The interior was something straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a ceiling fan whirring away at full tilt over a floor strewn with empty cans and cartons of alcohol. A stray cat napping in the corner. The floor hadn’t been swept for several decades, and there was what looked like a makeshift kitchen cum meth lab in the back. A lone lightbulb dangled over the cashier who was almost too perfect to be true: an unsmiling, obese, shirtless Chinese man with a gold chain around his neck, straight out of the mafia – that’s a shoplifting deterrent if I’ve ever seen one. He even had the bowl cut with the shaved sides.

For a bunch of young people looking to get drunk, it was perfect. The interior was a mess of cartons, boxes, and stray cats. Inside the fridges was every strong beer under the sun – all for under 3 SGD each. I chose a 16.8% Belgian variety – 6 Ringgit – 2 SGD. After that, the night became… shall we say, blurry.

Judging by the steady stream of patrons into the back of supermarket, there was either a toilet or a very efficient prostitute back there – turned out it was the former. When I came out, I noticed a green bucket about the size of a washing basket filled with an inch of water. One of the girls behind me confirmed my thoughts: “Are those fucking turtles?” She was right – there were two fully grown turtles apparently complacent in a bucket. Said girl clearly felt sorry for them, because she started spooning rice, straight from the cooker, into the bucket. Muttering something about “needing some protein”, she also cracked a nearby egg in. That was one of those moments I realised I should probably stop drinking, but as always, I didn’t.

Feeling emotionally fulfilled after our good deed, I explicably decided to wander off. I realise now that it was because I was hungry, and seeing as food is 90% of the reason I visit Penang, I was determined to make the most of it. I left the group of progressively more drunk backpackers and stumbled around for what could have been five minutes or two hours. After an indeterminate amount of time, I walked through a doorway and found myself in a heaven of neon lights, frosty Tiger beer, and frying meat. It was an enormous food court – complete with a karaoke stand in the center, where a drunk Chinese grandmother was belting out the equivalent of “Penang’s top 40”. If nothing else, I respect her lack of self-consciousness.

The food court was closing as it was by now three in the morning, but I found the stall with the longest line and took my place. When my turn came, I did that pretend-you’re-not-drunk thing and over-enunciated all my words: “I”, three seconds of silence, “will take one of your finest pork noodles, my good man”. I doubt the guy serving me understood, as he just raised an eyebrow and I ended up with a bowl of dumpling soup.

And then I woke up.

It was 11:40am, my shirt was unbuttoned but my bed was empty except for myself, and I had somehow managed to make my way back to my hostel. I even had my phone and wallet in my pockets and was only 30 Ringgit/10SGD/AUD poorer. Cheap night.

Thankfully, I had a series of photos documenting my night, from the noodles to the food court to the Antarabangsa sign, but to top it all off – the two turtles, complete with rice, bucket and egg.

Anthony Bourdain ate here...

Malaysia, the cultural smoothie

“Cultural melting pot” is another one of those phrases that, while technically correct, gets repeated so much I feel like I don’t want to use it out of spite. I don’t think I could cope with working in tourism, too many buzzwords. ‘We have to synergize the green market to provide authentic experiences!’ …No thanks.

Malaysia is comprised of three major ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese and Indians. Each brings their own food, culture, and traditions. The groups all coexist remarkably well, considering the clashing beliefs. For example, the Indians are off beef, Muslims are off pork and require Halal preparation, while the Chinese will eat just about anything. I believe the philosophy is ‘if the spine faces the sky, we’ll eat it’. There is absolutely no shortage of delicious char siew bao (BBQ pork buns), wan tan mee, or bakkwa (Chinese-style beef jerky). The country’s government – Muslim – has raised more than a few eyebrows with some of its policies, and it’s certainly not without its problems. But the indigenous people (Malays) are in a far better situation than the indigenous Australians, for example.

Water you doing here?

‘Malaysian’ engineering? Or would you give credit to the water bottles? I mean, they’re the ones doing all the hard work…

 

There seems to be a unifying element in everybody being ‘Malaysian’, regardless of your skin colour or beliefs. Everybody I met seemed to be ‘ -Malaysian’, ‘something-Malaysian’: Chinese-Malaysian, Japanese-Malaysian, English-Malaysian. I think it’s impressive that there’s such a strong national identity given the demographics.

Enough! Time for food!

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