Penang (Pulau Pinang) is a mostly un discovered treasure. This small island off the west coast of Malaysia sits languidly in the straits of Malacca very near Malaysia's southern border with Thailand. Georgetown, the capitol of the island, became a UNESCO world heritage site in July of 2008 in the hopes of preserving some of its unusual cultural and architectural heritage. Penang, Malacca and Singapore were once all a part of the "Straits settlements" administered by the British from India. This along with certain shared geography proximity has resulted in similar shared culture and attitudes. The food in all three is renown through out Asia. And although there are some similarities they are different enough to be unique. Architecturally Penang is what Singapore was some 40 years ago. Georgetown has retained many of it's shop houses and other colonial buildings and the street scenes remain much as they were in years past. You still see trishaws pedaling down the narrow streets taking aunties home from the markets, or hawker carts selling delicious local street cuisine.
The food culture is strong in Penang and many a Singaporean visits there just for the food (and attractive exchange rate). We spent as much time as we could seeking out local flavor. Some of the local "must trys" are Penang Assam Laksa (differing greatly from the Singaporean Laksa), Char Kway Teow, Nasi Kanda, Hokkien Mee, Chendol, the fresh sea foods and of course the Durian. And the place to have the best Durian is fresh, from a stall, out in the country near the farms.
One day we (James, Mallett & I) rented motor bikes and rode around the island. James's goal - eat fresh Penang Durian in the back county of Malaysia. It is a fantastic ride with many things to stop and see. The whole circuit takes about a 4 to 12 hours (depending how often you stop for Durian - and other attractions). We started out in the morning heading north to Batu Feringgi, from there we zipped over to the Tropical spice garden.
The garden is located in the village of Teluk Bahang and not only is it beautiful but very educational too. After wandering for about and hour and seeing what spices were available for new beers, we walk across the street for lunch on the beach at a little road side makan stall.
After lunch we mounted up and headed up into the mountains - in search of Durian. Somewhere in the middle of the island we found what we were looking for. (www.flickr.com/photos/55592119@N00/2987395325/). The Penang Durian is considered (among the cognoscenti) to be some of the best in the world. I found ours to be less pungent than the "Malaysian D24" you can find in Singapore, but more robust than the delicate Thai Durian. It had a rich pleasing taste, sweet and bitter at the same time, lacking some of the onion character found in D24, and not as creamy. It had a high flesh to seed ratio (unlike most Indonesian Durian) and cost about $15 Ringet (probably inflated for tourists). (http://www.flickr.com/photos/55592119@N00/2988256358/) The Durian stayed accompanied us the rest of our road trip and well into the nigh (as Durian will).
The trip then took us through the mountains, past villages and temples, and back down to the coast. On the way back to Georgetown we met up with Mr. Larry and stopped in at the "Snake Temple" ( http://www.malaysiasite.nl/snaketempleng.htm ). The temple, is as its name implies, filled with snakes (real deadly poisonous vipers). And if that is not enough excitement for you go next door to the reptile house and see even more snakes and lizards. Having worked for years in the Seattle Zoo's reptile house I thought it would be a bit dull, but I was mistaken. They have a very nice collection housed well and displayed nicely. If you are lucky you can see the owner handle his 3 meter King Cobra (which is something you would NEVER see at any zoo) (http://www.flickr.com/photos/55592119@N00/2987328645/). If you are in Penang it is well worth a visit.
That weekend was Deepavali and Mr. Larry (who worked for many years on cruise ships) had a local Indian friend (Haneef) who had invited us over to their family gathering. I have to say that Deepavali in Penang is way better than the Deepavali I have been to in Singapore - I think that maybe it was the addition copious amounts of fireworks. Fireworks were a big part of celebrations when I was a kid growing up in Hawaii and the sulfury smell of gun powder and a street littered with red scraps of paper reminded me of home. Haneef's family welcomed us in as if they had know us for years. There were curry, satay, beer and whiskey. The evening progressed from eating, to drinking through fireworks to dancing. Fun. ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/55592119@N00/3001772698/ )
Good food, unusual entertainment, inexpensive hotels, some good bars (like the Jenny & Peter's Hong Kong Bar), nice beaches, friendly people, cheap prices, Durian, not that many tourists, and a World Heritage Site some more - We had a great time - Penang has a lot to explore.