On our first night in Penang, Malaysia, we went to the mall for dinner and some groceries. No surprise there, right? But our Uber driver on the way home was a fortuitous find. His name was Moses and he spoke excellent English, with barely an accent. We notice that people in Malaysia speak English much better than their neighbors in Thailand, and we really appreciate it. Moses was a standout even among good English speakers, though. On the short drive home he answered a few questions we had about the ocean-front area where we are staying, and told us a little more about Penang. This sign on the back of the passenger seat caught my attention.
I love tours by Uber drivers! I often say that my kids are getting educated by Uber drivers. These drivers are usually a wealth of knowledge and will usually tell you the truth because they aren’t trying to sell you something. They also speak naturally, unlike tour guides who have recited the same spiel every day for the last 6,534 days and now sound like a robot. So when Moses offered to take us around and show us the town, I was like: “click click, add to cart, proceed to checkout!”.
A few days later he picked us up at our apartment at 10 a.m.. The girls were a little surprised by this early departure (we homeschool, therefore a 10 a.m. departure is considered early for us). But Moses had a fabulous day planned and we needed to get started!
Statue of Guanyin and Kek Lok Si Temple
First, he took us up a hillside area to a very VERY large statue and a Buddhist temple. It was lovely to walk around and explore the temple, the gardens and the area around the statue. Like the Batu Caves, we didn’t really know what we were looking at, but we enjoyed it anyway and tried to fill in a few gaps with our limited knowledge of Buddhism. We decided we should take a class on Buddhism before we come back to Asia for more exploring in a few years. We at least knew enough to look up what was the year of our birth and what animal was represented by that year.
While up at the temple we saw these neat ribbons that represented different aspects of one’s life. We surmised that you buy the ribbon in the area where you might need a little extra blessing, and then you write your name on it, then hang it on this pole thing and then…? Wait? I’m not really sure but we had nothing to lose so we did it. It seems similar to lighting the candle in the Catholic tradition when visiting a cathedral. I’m all about getting a “blessing” or two in particular areas of life so we bought 5 of them and hung one up and I kept the other 4. Maybe I should not have kept the other 4… but we hung up the most important one.
After the temple and the statue, Moses took us to Penang Hill. On the way, he told us that we really needed to try this very famous Malaysian food called “laksa”. Here’s how the internet describes laksa:
Penang laksa comes from the Malaysian island of Penang. It is made with mackerel soup and its main distinguishing feature is the asam or tamarind which gives the soup a sour taste. The fish is poached and then flaked. Other ingredients that give Penang laksa its distinctive flavor include lemongrass, galangal and chili. Typical garnishes include mint, pineapple slices, thinly sliced onion, hε-ko, a thick sweet prawn paste and use of torch ginger flower. Penang Laksa is listed at number 7 on the World’s 50 best foods compiled by CNN Go in July 2011. (Wikipedia)
Moses was more succinct. He said: “it’s delicious”. I said we must try it. I got this expression from the kids in the backseat:
But we are all about trying new things (more than some people but a LOT less than others) so Moses drove by the market where they serve this delicacy and we hopped out and ordered one bowl. We knew better than to order more than that. They served it up, quick-like, and we dug in with our chopsticks. You can imagine that eating slippery rice noodles in soup with chopsticks is not the easiest for us ‘Mercans. But the good part of chopsticks is that it allows you to take a small taste of the food without fully committing. And it allowed us to get the best part: the rice noodle.
Well, let’s just say that we were not a fan of this dish. It was so FISHY! It must be an acquired taste. We discussed how, in the USA, restaurants serve fish that is made to NOT taste fishy. But this dish was meant to taste fishy. And SMELL fishy. So already we are at a disconnect here. We got some sugar cane water to wash it down and that was pretty tasty, although the lack of running water in this food prep area made us wonder if we were going to use the famous Asian Bum Gun toilet sprayer for the next few days (spoiler alert: we had no issues).
I tried to eat several bites to make it look like we ate more but I gave up after about 3 bites. We fled without making eye contact with the servers. The essentially untouched bowl of fishy stuff remained sitting in the middle of an empty table. #sorrynotsorry
We hopped back in the car with Moses and he was excited to hear how we liked this famous dish. We tried to break it to him politely, and we told him that it wasn’t our cup of tea. He said we smelled like fish. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing in his eyes. All I know is that at that moment I would have sold my soul for a breath mint.
Moses took us to Penang Hill next. You can’t drive up there so he dropped us off at the funicular train station. The funicular train is this nifty tram thing that takes you to the top of this very steep hill. It’s designed to be at the same angle as the hill, yet the cars inside are level so the rider doesn’t really notice it. I noticed. You can’t fool me. This isn’t my first funicular.
We hop in the tram and start to head up the hill. At first I’m all-in and enjoying the ride but Zoe is not. She is not a fan of smallish vehicles and heights. Shortly after that we switched roles and Zoe perked up and looked around but I had to shut my eyes and go to my happy place. It did not help that people in the car started exclaiming and gasping and even Dan said “Wow that is steep.”. The few times I opened my eyes all I could see was a track that went STRAIGHT UP, like a roller coaster going in reverse. But you did not feel it very much from inside the car, thankfully.
Within 8 minutes we were at the top of the hill. We had a lovely view of Georgetown, all the way down to the water. We took a few pictures, which was a wise move because with each minute that passed the hill got a little more cloudy.
The top of Penang Hill was a veritable Disneyland of Asia. It had a little bit of everything: foot spa, foot massage, pictures with exotic animals, henna tattoos, a lover’s bridge where you buy an overpriced lock and attach it (probably for them to un-attach and sell again later), a dinosaur exhibit, a monkey exhibit, a Hindu temple and photographers who didn’t seem to care that we had 4 cameras between the 4 of us. There was no rhyme or reason to all these opportunities, the only common theme seemed to be allowing the visitor to part with their money.
But it was fun to walk around, take some pictures, explore a bit and reminisce that we have survived Playa del Carmen’s 5th Avenue, we can handle these vendors at the top of the hill.
We made our way back down the hill to Moses and he whisked us off to lunch. One of the things we asked Moses to do was take us to a lunch place where we could experience traditional Malaysian food. You may recall from Kuala Lumpur, the family promised me that we would do that in Penang. They are true to their word, although the girls were desperately hoping that taking a bite of Fishy McFish Noodle Soup earlier in the day would have met that commitment. Um, no.
However, lunch and the rest of the tour will come in part 2. It’ll come shortly, I promise. At this point we still have 4 more hours of the tour and even I, Chatty Cathy, do not have the patience for such a long post.