We’re back on the road again on this epic trip to Malaysia, After tackling Kuala Lumpur, Meleka, Cameron Highland and Ipoh the only logical place to go next is Penang! We’ve scheduled two days for the eating Capitol of Malaysia, It may seem crazy but I’m actually starting to get a little tired of the endless searching for food and decide it’s time to lay back a little and play the tourist.
Day 7 – Where I learn we haven’t even begun to experience heat yet
The drive between Ipoh and Penang is thankfully short, after a quick breakfast stop at Old Town, a chain of cafes throughout Malaysia, we’re on our way to Penang. I’ve been looking forward to Penang, knowing that it’s closer to the ocean I’ve foolishly assumed that the weather will be cooler. I’ve never been more wrong in my life. The humidity is almost punishingly heavy and I’m sweating within seconds of leaving the car, my hand-held fan my only salvation.
Of course, none of this is going to stop me from enjoying my hot noodle soup!
Lunch – Pasar Air Itam
After experiencing Assam Laksa bliss in Cameron Highlands it’s hard to believe that Penang will deliver anything better. We’re at Pasar Air Itam for their infamous laksa, it’s quintessentially Asian with plastic tables and chairs, all scattered along a dusty road with our food arriving in moments. The stand is obviously popular with the tourists, the remaining tables are filled only moments after our arrival but I’ve forgotten about the crowds the moment our noodles arrive.
The Assam Laksa is deliciously thick and hearty with Udon style noodles, I’m sweating within seconds of starting but the broth is everything as thick and flavourful as I would have hoped with the small exception, Uncle Chow’s rendition has spoilt me and I’ve been expecting a mouthful of tartly sour soup and the Laksa isn’t the same without that sour kick. Despite this, it’s easily the best Assam we’ve had since Cameron, but not quite the best overall…
That’s right I said it, Cameron Highlands Assam Laksa was better than Penang’s!
The A/C in the car gives me a false idea of what the temperature is like outside and somehow every time I get out I think that the heat really wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Minutes after stepping out I’m sweating and our soupy lunch really isn’t helping matters. My solution is simple, Soy Milk at each and every single stop we make! The milky sweetness and generous servings of ice are perfect for the weather and the spicy food we’re eating.
It’s not a meal without some kind of dessert end it all with. There’s a Durian Stand just across from our lunch stand and Helen and Billy just look at each other before heading towards it. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the biggest fan, neither are Simon or Brian but I’m keen to try it fresh knowing that the stuff in Australia we get can’t really compare.
It’s the first time I’ve tried different types of Durian, along with the usual sweet variety, Billy encourages us to try a more bitter variety which I enjoy the initial tastes of, but by the end the bitterness is a little overwhelming and I admit defeat.
Pit Stop – Kek Lok Si
Temple time! We’re driving up a mountain road so narrow and windy I have to put away my book and phone for fear of car sickness, it’s a nauseating drive but the results are worth it as we find ourselves up at Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia. Rather than a single temple it’s more like an entire mountain complex of temples, including a giant pagoda and 30m bronze statue.
I’d noticed the same thing in the Ipoh, but it’s really in Penang that I take notice of the sheer amount of colour and light present in the temples. All of the temples seem to celebrate in using bright orange and gold in their decorations, combined with gorgeous stone carvings on the columns and walls it makes for a striking sight. We’ve all headed directly into the temples in an attempt to escape the heat, there’s a momentary hush as we huddle in front of the fans followed by a slow turn as look up and around at the sheer intricacy of the decorations.
It actually takes us two separate drives to actually cover the entire complex, the bronze statue of Kuan Lin is situated higher up on the mountain and height treats you to a full view of the Penang landscape, whereas the lower half of the complex is a maze of monasteries and temples, all in the shadow of the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas.
A small entry fee gets us entry into the Pagoda, what initially seems like a good idea quickly becomes a task of sheer stamina as we wind our way up the 7 floors to the top of the pagoda. It’s probably telling that we’re the only ones even trying to reach the top, and luckily so as the stairs are precariously narrow, barely wide enough for two people to squeeze past one another. The view at the top is impressive, offering a 360 birds eye view of the entire complex.
Pit Stop – Penang Road Famou Teochew Chendul
With our stomachs still full from breakfast and legs tired from temple climbing, the only other thing to do was to sit down with some icy cold Chendol and enjoy! A quick bit of research finds us at Penang Road Famouse Teochew Chendul, joining the busy queue of tourist and locals.
Service is quick at the stand, with the new staff members quickly taking orders and scooping out bowls of milky Chendol. As soon as our order is on the bench top we quickly pick up our bowls and retreat to the side of the street to eat quickly, seats are a luxury here, with most of us juggling cameras and bowls as we stand along the sides of the road. The chendol strands are silkily smooth and are deceptively plentiful under the milky coconut surface.
I notice that as we go on, our Chendol helpings seem to become milkier and milkier, the ice in this Chendol is practically non-existent. I’m not sure if this is simply the preferred style, or if it’s simply due to difficulties of keeping and shaving that much ice at a road side stand, but the Chendol is barely chilled through and I’m resisting the urge to order a second at the end.
Dinner – New World Park
We’re keeping things simple for dinner tonight, we’re staying at the Tune Hotel chain in Penang and luckily just next door to our hotel is New World Park, a shopping center complete with open air food court. Walking into the shopping center, we’re greeted with the bizarre sight of a public aerobic exercise class being held in the main courtyard, with what seems like every staff member participating. I’ve no idea why I have no photos of this event, my only excuse is that I was hypnotised by the synchronised movement of it all!
I’m not sure if it’s the location or the impending thunderstorm keeping away people, but the food court is easily one of the emptiest venue’s we’ve eaten in our entire holiday. Despite the relatively early hour of 8.30pm, the stalls are on the verge of closing and there are barely 20 people present in the entire food court.
I’ve kept things easy tonight, after having Assam Laksa for lunch I decide to go for Prawn Mee tonight, another one of Penang’s famous dishes – the chilli oil and prawn based stock create a bright orange colour not dissimilar to the milky laksa’s I’m accustomed to back home. Helen’s on a mission and once again has ordered the Assam Laksa, the broth and noodles are satisfyingly thick but once again missing that final tamarind kick.
It’s a rather sedate and somewhat disappointing dinner, and so we make plans for supper at Gurney Drive Food Court, the largest and probably best known food court in Penang. Despite getting to Gurney after the rain has stopped, it looks like the weather has driven away all but the most determined and the majority of the stores have closed up due to the lack of customers. It’s an anticlimactic ending to a promising day, but it just means we’re twice as determined to make it back here tomorrow!
Check out the rest of the Malaysia Monday’s series here!
Pasar Air Itam
Pasar Road (Beside the Air Itam Market)
11500 Air Itam, Penang
Penang Road Famous Chendul
21, Keng Kwee Street (Off Penang Road)
New World Park