Bang, Bang – Penang!

As mentioned before, most buses make many non-scheduled stops along the route but usually our stop is the last. The bus journey down the mountain from Cameron Highlands was no different. We dropped off packages, people and maybe an animal along the way. We tend to get pretty settled in on these long journeys as well and this time we had front seats (a premier spot for sight seeing and for spreading out). 

One of the most handy devices that we packed on this trip was a GPS enabled satellite phone – we used it on all of our bus journeys to make sure that we were on track and it also has come in handy for our parents to track our route. They can pinpoint exactly where we are at any given moment and it gives them piece of mind to know that we have the emergency services in case our bus decided to roll off a cliff. Call it paranoid or parent-noid but it makes us all feel a bit safer. As we approached Butterworth, our stop, we would periodically check the GPS to make sure that we weren’t missing it. 

After another random package drop off, we pulled off on the side of the road to what looked like another stop for a local. We sat on the bus and waited for someone to get off. When no one budged the bus driver stood up and said, “Butterworth”. All of the English speaking tourists looked confused at one another as the bus driver, slightly more annoyed this time said, “Butterworth” again and pointed at us. Either because we were sitting in the front or because for some reason, we finally looked like we had our ‘shit together’, the other tourists asked if this was the right place for Penang. We consulted the GPS and decided that it must be correct. We haphazardly disembarked the bus along with the other tourists and looked for the ferry to take us to Penang as the bus driver (who did not care if we had gathered up all of our personal belongings) sped away leaving us in the dust (literally on the side of road). After Natalie found the squat potty (we were getting used to them now and sometimes preferred them) we headed to the ferry. It turns out that Penang is Malaysia’s second largest city. We were expecting the island to be a small town beach town but we were definitely proved wrong as the ferry pulled into a huge port with large skyscrapers on one side and a large cruise ship terminal on the other. We choose to stay at the backpacker-friendly and Unesco Heritage rated town of George Town. 

After settling into our hostel Couzi Couji (one of our favorites on the trip so far) and taking some time to cool off, we set out with our tummies grumbling to find food. We headed to Chinatown (there seems to be a Chinatown in each city we visit which we find funny) to Hameediyah, an Indian restaurant with drool-worthy tandoori. In the front of the shop, a man was cooking what looked like a cross between an omelette and an eggy pancake. It smelled divine! We asked him what it was and tried to remember it for when we sat down. Turns out the tasty dish was a murtabak, a flaky flat bread with minced pork, egg and spices – we read later that the restaurant was known for serving the delicious dish since its inception in 1907. Along with the green tandoori suggested to us from our server, we were happy campers. It turns out that George Town is also Malaysia’s food capitol. We came to the right place at the right time as it was also the first Penang International Food Festival during our visit as well! More on that later. 

Over the course of our travels, people had told us that Penang was a party town. Since we had kept our partying to a minimum to spare our wallets, we decided that Penang was the place to enjoy a drink or two on the town. Plus the legendary US $1 beers were also rumored to be in Penang. Following a tip from a fellow backpacker, we headed to Tipsy Tiger, the island’s self proclaimed (and not wrong) party hostel. We heard the hostel before we got to it. Supposedly the owner traveled the world to “research” (we wouldn’t mind that job) different party hostels around the world to build the perfect party hostel; guests are given two drinks a night while non-guests can pay $50 RM and drink as much as they can the whole night.

Rowdy drunk kids (definitely our junior) greeted us at the door. After our first drink we could tell why they were all so drunk, the drinks were strong and if you were a girl they were stronger (plus if you ordered a drink at the bar as a girl there was a good chance it was served with a free shot, wowza). We met two Irish guys who we continued to hang out with for the rest of the night. It was one of their birthdays so at the second bar so of course, he was awarded with three shots and an aggressive spanking from a fellow Canadian, dressed in a short sleeved matching suit with bananas on it. On our night out we also met a fellow Californian who was working in Myanmar for the UN. She gave us a bunch of tips for our upcoming trip. When we were out of our budgeted money for the day, we headed home*.

*home is such a relative term when traveling – it can mean a safe place to keep our things, the place we go back to each night or where there is an air conditioned place to cool off and fellow travelers to talk to. The lame saying home is where the heart is proves true on a trip of this. I’m not sure what the two of us would do without each other – we keep each other sane, bounce ideas off one another and generally (and a lot of the time literally) have a shoulder to lean on.  

The next morning we woke up early to start our maiden motorbike voyage. Taking the advice of a fellow traveler, we were determined to find a hidden waterfall on the other side of the island. To find our motorbike legs, we took a few spins around the block – we found out that the bike would brake suddenly by just taking a hand off the accelerator – we could work with it. The directions were simple: follow the road and when you get to the Hard Rock, turn left on a dirt road that looks like you are not allowed to go down it, then follow the road until it almost ends and go left when you see the second dirt road, then stop when you see a puddle with a wooden plank on it, easy. After following the directions perfectly and passing a couple who said “it wasn’t that great”, we arrived at a waterfall that definitely, “was that great”. The waterfall comprised of many small rock pools with three levels of water cascading over smooth stones. We overcame our fears of slipping and hiked our way to the top of the rock pools. We were the only people at the waterfall so we put our heads in the water, reapplied sunscreen, took a few timer shots with the camera and ticked an item off our bucket list. We concluded that the coupe we passed earlier, we definitely insane or “cool things challenged” as it was definitely worth it, and a highlight of the trip so far.

Our adventures weren’t over yet. The next plan with the motorbike was to ride to the end of the island and hike an hour through the forest to Monkey Beach.* If we had to guess, by the time we started, it was a good 86-90 degrees Fahrenheit. About a quarter of the journey in, we were already saturated in sweat. We made our way over roots, under fallen trees and wadded through waist high water until finally we came to Monkey Beach. We almost escaped without injury until Ross realized that his hand was covered in small prickly thorns that were wedged into his hand like a thousand tiny splinters. We attempted to get them out with tweezers, tape and water, a few of them remained and Ross is still not sure what they were and they continued to hurt him for a week or more after.  

*When we first started to plan our trip, we made this giant spreadsheet of the best times to travel to each of the countries we wanted to go to and the best times to go to each of them for weather, festivals, etc. 1.) We have missed every festival in April 2.) We choose to come to South East Asia in the hottest time of the year. Fail. 

While there were no monkeys on this beach (we did see them along the epic hike to get to the beach), the view was breathtaking. The sand was so fine that even brushing across it with your feet would leave little sparkles of white dust behind. We plunged into the water and about as we were thinking of getting out, Nat yelped. She was stung by a fierce jelly fish. Of course Ross’ first inclination was to pee on the developing welt but there was no way that was happening. After debating with ourselves if we should just take the 10 minute boat back to our motorbike for $50 RM, we decided that we should walk. About an hour later and smelling worse for wear, we arrived back at our bike. 

After arriving back to the hostel feeling like our feet might fall off, we decided to head to our favorite kind of eating venue, a giant hawker food hall. In the hall there were roughly 40 different food stalls selling everything from frog leg porridge to Japanese sushi. One of our favorite stalls (even though we didn’t eat there) was a MNS Western Cuisine because it had to have stollen the exact font that Disneyland uses. We instead ate at Obamas dumplings and had laksa, a dish that Natalie had been craving since the beginning of the trip. 

The next day we woke up early to see the sunrise. After a few wrong turns later in the pitch darkness, we found ourselves in an alleyway with 20 or so mangy looking dogs (who clearly owned the place). After stopping to look at our map again we realized that our motorbike would not start again.Thankfully a random dock worker there for the early shift came out and helped us. Never underestimate the kindness of people, even if you don’t trust them in the moment. The sunrise was worth every second.  

After handing in our motorbike, we set off to explore the some Penang’s street art. There are over 100 different art installations throughout Penang’s historical George Town district. We decided to plan our day to see most of them. Most of the art in Penang are steel sculptures hidden in alleyways and back corners and the other artwork, comprising of large murals were primarily created by Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic as a part of Penang’s George Town Festival in 2012. Sometimes you can see the people lining up to take photos with the various works of art before you actually know what piece you’re looking at. The artwork around Penang was our second favorite part of the trip, only being surpassed by our night-time festivities that evening. 

By pure chance we happened to be traveling to Penang during its first annual international food festival. By noon the streets that we had just been exploring were closed off and set up with food stalls with chairs and tables and food vendors had begun preparing the meals for the night visitors. The first day of the festival celebrated the best of Penangs street food and by the smell of the air, we could tell that it was going to be tasty. We filled our bellies with noodles, dumplings, dim sum, soup and rice. The live entertainment at the food festival was an American cover band from Malaysia, they were wonderful and covered everything from Country Road to Sweet Home Alabama. 

When we were full enough to roll out of the festival, we headed to a duty free shop that set up chairs at night for people to drink cheap beer and unwind after a long day – our day wasn’t particularly long but why not drink cheap beer? We soon found out how cheap beers could be… For $10RM you would get 3 beers which equals out to about 77 US cents a Singha beer (Nat’s favorite Thai beer!). Three beers later, we were joined at our table by four Malaysian locals (our favorite being Brandon, a local MMA fighter studying to be a nurse and his friend, who was already a nurse but was convinced that his vaporizer was not bad for him) and we spent the next two or three hours drinking beers and talking about politics in Malaysia, the US and the our different cultures. 

After so many beers, we both had to pee and given that we were sitting outside a Duty Free liquor shop (not a bar) we didn’t even know if bathrooms were an option. Ross had it easy and found a urinal in the back, for Nat (and for anyone who doesn’t have a penis for that matter) luck was not on her side. On her trip to the bathroom, she asked where the toilet was and was pointed in the direction of the urinal. After gesturing that there was no way that she could maneuver the flexibility to pee in a urinal, she asked if there was any other bathroom? After laughing at her, the owner motioned to a door behind turtles in a laundry hamper (yes, they were alive). Optimistically expecting to find a squat potty, she pulled the accordion style doors to reveal nothing resembling a toilet. Looking super confused, she consulted the lady again, the owner laughed again and this time pointed to the drain in the floor. Full of beer with a bit of liquid courage and no where else to go, Nat peed on the floor about five inches from live turtles, in the back of a Duty Free liquor store in Penang. 

When she arrive d back at the table, our new friends laughed at us and reminded us of our upcoming trip to Myanmar, “just wait for Burma,” Brandon said, we all laughed. After we finished our last beer, that we didn’t need, fireworks lit up the sky. It had definitely been one of those nights that you can never forget, no matter how many dollar beers the night before.  

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