Day 28-29 – A Very Different Georgetown
I’ve been to Georgetown many times. My sister went there for college. I went there to visit her (and help her move in and out her first two years). I went to Georgetown again, but this was a very different Georgetown. This Georgetown was very, very far away from the hill in Washington DC, but still quite fun. Batu Ferringghi (our last stop) was only 30 minutes away from the central part of Georgetown, the main city on Penang Island. Georgetown was an old Portuguese and then English colony in Malaysia, and it still holds those influences, especially the British Colonial architecture.
We reached our hotel around 12:00, the Bayview Georgetown, a famous old hotel in the area that is still undergoing renovations to make it more appealing to customers in the 21st Century. The hotel is located near the old part of Georgetown, which contains most of the sites to see in the city, but also contains the poorer, older section of the city. Penang is also known for its great food, mostly Nyonya infused Malaysian Food, as well as its famous night market hawker centres. We decided to split our four main meals in Georgetown between two hawker centres and two Nyonya-style restaurants. For our first meal, we went to the New World Hawker Centre, located in central Georgetown. It was very reminiscent of the main Hawker Centres in Singapore, including the fact that it was only open during the day. The Hawker fare was mostly lunch style food (noodles, flat noodles, fried rice, roti canai – you know, lunch food). This was a little sad because we aren’t really into that style of food other than a few select dishes (Roti Canai, Chow Kuey Teow), but the food was still quite good. Also, like most Hawker Centres, the alcohol was relatively cheap.
After lunch, we headed back to the hotel to relax for a bit, as my Mom was quite tired (mostly after her morning walk on the beach at Batu Ferringghi), and the Georgetown heat was bearing down on us full-bore. After a couple hours, when the air was cooling and the temperature dropped a good 10 degrees, we headed back out for a little walking tour of Georgetown. We passed some sites close to the hotel that were good photo opportunities: the high court and parliament of Georgetown – a large building built in an almost Mediterranean style; The St. George’s Church, a small but beautiful white Anglican church, the Masjid Kapitan Keling, a large sprawling mosque, and the entrance to the Khong See, a hidden Chinese temple tucked inside a busy block of road. The walk there and back took a good hour and a half, and while we were both quite drained by the end of it (you can’t escape the humidity forever), it was quite a nice introduction to Georgetown’s history.
Our place for dinner was Mama’s Nyonya Café, a small mom-and-pop restaurant located more in the modern center of Georgetown. We easily got a cab there as there is a cab stand outside the hotel. The restaurant was hard to find as the cab driver didn’t really know where it was (something that happens far too often with cab drivers in Malaysia). I can’t blame the driver because the restaurant is hard to find, with a small sign outside is tiny place on the block. The restaurant itself was small, with just five tables, but filled with large families eating what looked to be delicious food. Their menu was very familiar to my Mom and myself, having seen similar dishes at Nyonya in NYC too many times to count. Wanting to go in a slightly different direction, we ordered Wild Boar Rendang, instead of beef. We also ordered Chicken Kopitam, another Nyonya staple, and Assam Fish. All three dishes had excellent curries at their base, with distinct flavors. I usually don’t like chicken, but the slightly lemongrass-infused chicken curry was my favorite dish of the night. The Wild Boar Rendang was a little tough (wild boar generally is), but the curry was as close to the Rendang we love so much back home. The portions weren’t big, but then the low prices made the price to portion size ratio more than acceptable.
When we left Mama Nyonya, a restaurant that my Mom researched and wanted to go to from the time we started planning our days in Penang, we had to find a cab back to the Bayview. This isn’t usually a difficult exercise, but in Penang, hailing a cab is a precarious idea, especially at night. There are cabs in Georgetown. I know because I have taken a ride in one of them. But in trying to find a cab to get us back to the hotel, I doubted my past experiences. There are just no cabs available at night in Georgetown, none. For a city that is one of the biggest in Malaysia (not to mention the island of Penang being the 2nd biggest tourist destination), I find it baffling to see the abject lack of cabs in the city. We finally got one by walking to the main road, and accepting his inflated price to take us back (most cabs won’t go by meter), and we reached back to the hotel.
My Mom was quite tired, but since it was only about 10:00, I was definitely not, and decided to scout out our dinner spot for the next night, the Red Garden Hawker Center, located just two blocks away from the hotel. The Red Garden is unlike any Hawker Center I have been to. It shares similarities to the Long Beach Café in Batu Ferringghi, as it is a large expanse of tables inside four walls of stalls. However, this is a larger area, with a more decorative, party feel. The real difference, though, is it is really a trendy night spot at night, with a stage and live music each night. The whole experience was wonderful. My plan was to sit with a roti canai and a beer, but they didn’t have a roti canai stand. Instead, I got Octopus with Special Sauce from East Coast Seafood, a seafood stand that is a staple in any respected night Hawker Center. The music was good, the beer was good, the food was great. The whole package was excellent, a great way to spend a night in Georgetown. Most restaurants in Georgetown close early (Mama Nyonya closed at 10:00, on a Friday night), but the Red Garden closes well after midnight (when I left). It actually got more crowded as the night wore on. Just a fantastic setting.
The next day in Penang marked many different occasions. Not only was it Palm Sunday, but it marked the 1-month anniversary of my trip beginning. Four weeks of travel, of continents and airlines, of passport stamps and languages, of cabs and meats, of ocean breezes and blistering heat. Finally, it marked the last day of true sightseeing until I leave for Jaipur in India on the 7th of April. To commemorate all these different occasions, we arranged quite a hectic schedule of sites and meals to do on our last day. We had two times set in stone, mass at 6:00 and the tour of the Cheong Fat Tze palace at 11:00.
We had two different places to see before the tour of the Cheong Fat Tze palace. Both are walking distance from the hotel, but because we got started a little late (9:45), we first took a cab to the Khoo Kongsee, a Chinese temple off of the road that we walked through the previous evening. The Khoo Kongsee is one main building in the center of an open square. Because of the shortage of time, we didn’t take much time to really find out what the significance of the Khoo Kongsee was, but went into the main building. The temple is exquisitely ornate, with beautiful work on the columns and ceiling outside. The inside of the temple was pretty much the same. The cost of going there is pretty trivial, and it didn’t need much time to see all of it, but it really is a nice gem deep inside Old Georgetown.
The next stop was the Perikan Mansion, an old large house (or, I guess, mansion) built back in the early 1900’s, still designed and arranged in that old style. The building includes a jewelry museum that includes many other ornate, delicate pieces (crowns, clothing) that are as rich as the jewelry there. The mansion itself was decorated nicely, and gave a good glimpse into the deep Colonial English influence in style and architecture of Georgetown. The house is large, and we hurriedly did as much of it as we could in the limited time we had and after a nice sprint to the Cheong Fat Tze, we reached just as the tour was starting.
The Cheong Fat Tze Mansion is one of the more famous sites in Georgetown. Today, it is run as a guesthouse that anyone can stay at, but its previous life was the main mansion in Penang for Cheong Fat Tze, a Chinese born businessman named the “Rockefeller of the East” by the Rockefeller’s themselves. Because it is a running guesthouse, the only way to see it outside of staying there is to go for one of their two guided tours at 11:00 or 3:30. The tour group was quite large, and the tour guide was quite good. She spoke great English and was a really good guide, telling nice, humorous stories, keeping us really engaged during the entire one hour tour. The house was extremely well restored, as it was apparently bought in 1989 in tatters after it was abandoned by Cheong Fat Tze’s last son (he had 8 wives in 8 countries). Now the house is supposedly back to what it was during Cheong Fat Tze’s time (of course there is now running water and air conditioning). The main highlight of the house is a series of panels on the top floor built in an old Chinese style of cutting up colored bowls and using the shards to glue together beautiful depictions. When you realize what they are up close, it is quite stunning, as is most of the house in general.
After we finished the tour we headed back to the hotel, located conveniently across the street from the Cheong Fat Tze, we took a little siesta, escaping the overbearing Penang heat at its worst. We came back out near 1:30 to go for lunch to Ivy’s Nyonya Café, another small mom-and-pop Nyonya jointrated #2 on TripAdvisor in Penang. Their lunch menu comes in a set menu or a select series of small dishes or ‘side dishes’ (essentially smaller real dishes) of traditional Nyonya food. We ordered about four of these smaller dishes and they were all quite good. The Beef Rendang was extremely spicy which kind of ruined the otherwise tasty curry and meat. The fish and prawns were well made, as was the chicken kopitam, quickly becoming one of my favorite Nyonya dishes. After another long search for a cab, we finally got one and were on our way to our final spot, the final tourist destination of Part I of my trip, the Kok Lek Si Temple, at the base of Penang Hill.
The drive up to the base of the temple was reminiscent of the drive up to the base of Table Mountain. The view from the bottom was somewhat similar (though Cape Town is just more aesthetically perfect than Penang, or any other city). The temple itself is a large series of connected buildings slotted along the façade of the hill. The bottom parts of the temple grounds were just larger versions of the Khoo Kongsee temple. The real treat is what it at the top of the temple ground. Accessible by stairs or by ‘slanted elevator’ (a funicular), the top temple is houses a giant statue of some god inside a coliseum like building with tall columns. It is quite a spectacular building from afar, and almost as good from up close. Penang Hill houses many different sites (mostly nature related), and the Kek Lok Si temple is the only one we chose to see, and I think we chose the best one.
We reached back at the hotel rather and took a quick nap before leaving for mass. The mass itself was eventful mainly because of its length. With the inclusion of the Passion as the gospel for Palm Sunday, the mass is generally longer than a normal one, but despite this priest not saying a sermon, the mass still took an hour and a half. That really isn’t fair given the heat. At least by the time we escaped the clutches of that rambling mass it was dark and cooler. Penang gets quite nice after dark in terms of the weather. We headed back to the hotel for a quick shower and rest before we left for our final meal in Southeast Asia.
Because of my great experience the previous night and my Mom’s regret for not coming, we decided to go back to the Red Garden for dinner. We arrived around nine, and while the place was still full, it was noticeably less full than it was near midnight the night before. Now, at first I chalked that up to today being a Sunday versus yesterday being a Saturday, but as I soon figured out that the real reason was because the Red Garden is just a better spot the later it gets. The music gets better, the crowd gets better, the drink-to-food ratio gets higher. Anyway, we ordered House Special Clams and blackened mackerel. The mackerel was fried nicely, with a light BBQ sauce, but it didn’t hold a candle to the clams, which were excellent. I shared a bottle of Asahi with my Mom (and by bottle, I mean I had 4/5ths of it), and not before long the music started. It was everything the previous night was, but now with more food. After we finished that course, we went back to get more clams (they were that good), and I ordered lamb satay. Now, I was a little skeptical of the lam satay because such combinations always sound better coming out of your mouth than they taste coming in, but damn was that lamb satay excellent. The lamb by itself was extremely well cooked, so much so that I didn’t even want to put the peanut sauce by the end of it. The night ended with a smaller bottle of Tiger, and some regrets about not ordering another lamb satay. Lambs are so cute, but when I eat something like that, I could care less because it is so damn good.