Last week, I spent five nights in Penang, an island just off the west coast of Malaysia.
Well, I spent five nights in Georgetown to be exact, which is in the top north-western corner of Penang. I would have loved to have explored more of the island, and hiked in the national park, but there was really just so much to figure out and keep me occupied in the 1km radius around my hostel (The 80’s Guesthouse on Love Lane).
So I didn’t get to do much else.
Actually, I really didn’t do much besides eat and talk to people. But I think it’s okay, because it was the people I met who really made the experience for me.
Penang Person 1& 2: Tom and Laura
I met Tom and Laura as soon as I checked into my room at the 80s Guesthouse, as the three of us were the only ones staying in the dorm. They’re a couple from the UK, in between two year-long Australian working holiday visas, it was so easy to hit it off with them immediately (as it goes with having an easy linguistic connection).
We chatted a bit, and then I went out to find chao kuey teow at a place that had been recommended to me by a friend of a friend in KL. But it was closed.
As timing would have it though, I met them again just as I was coming back to the hostel to rest up before trying to find something else for dinner.
We ended up taking a walk to Little India down the road and having dinner together at a corner restaurant opposite Kapitan (before I found out about that place). There were so many food options to choose from I didn’t know where to start, so I just went with nasi goreng (fried rice). It wasn’t bad, but I suspect that their tandoori chicken and roti was a much better choice.
Penang Person 3: Ping
Meeting Ping really changed my whole experience of Penang, because Ping gave me the map.
A map with pictures and explanations of all the different street food in Penang and where to find each dish. A total game changer.
We met totally randomly when I finally managed to get the chao kuey teow from the place I’d been looking for, Joo Hooi, on Jalan Penang (jalan means road). It took a while to figure out how to order, because there were so many stalls inside the same space, and so much going on at each one.
Eventually, I managed to figure out how to order, and spent the next five minutes watching the lady in green socks and black platform slip-ons skilfully cracking eggs into a large and very hot wok, and stir-frying the rice noodles and seafood with the kind of dexterity, precision and strength that I wouldn’t usually expect from someone her size.
The only time she stopped stirring was when she paused to get more ingredients from the stall shelves around her.
I’d just finished my portion of chao kuey teow and cendol when Ping sat down opposite me. We started chatting immediately and got on so well that when Ping’s o chien (fried oyster omelette) arrived, it came with two sets of chopsticks.
Penang Person 4: Jesse
After finishing up my conversation with Ping, I started walking back to the hostel, and came across two men with blue eyes when they walked up on the sidewalk to advertise a 20% discount on foot massages.
I don’t know if it was just their light eyes that intrigued me, or the discount, but everything they said convinced to come in for a massage. They said they did Japanese-style massages, which were different.
And they were right.
After being given a small cup of lemongrass tea to “detox” me by the short and kind lady with a headscarf behind the reception counter, Jesse explained to me that they he would be doing an actual treatment, not just a massage, based on the training in alternative therapies he had done in Australia.
In between conversations about his time working in Abu Dhabi as an air steward, and his life in Malaysia, he also pressed on a range of trigger points on both of my feet. A lot of the time it felt really good. But often, it was fucking painful.
But it did feel good afterwards, and it definitely was a much more enjoyable and personable experience than the face and head massage I got the following day at the massage parlour next door to my hostel, where the masseuse burped out loud twice, loudly, before starting to rub perfumed body lotion on my face.
Penang Person 5: Kavin
I met Kavin on the bus to Penang from Kuala Lumpur. He’s officially the first Malaysian person that I’ve managed to hang out with on my trip.
Kavin is an aspiring YouTuber, and told me all about how he’d just been to Langkawi, and that if I did go, I should stay at the Indiana Cafe and Dorm.
We didn’t chat much on the bus, apart from the usual small talk, but we did share a Grab to our hostels in Georgetown, and agreed to meet for a drink at some point (although I knew he’d definitely be having more than just a drink at the party hostel where he was staying).
We met up on my second night, when he brought me a very strong Malaysian whisky cocktail from his hostel and he went through the entire street food map with me in detail, explaining all the dishes and giving me recommendations on where to find them.
Penang Person 6: Victor
An architect from Barcelona, Victor was another one of my dorm mates.
He definitely got up to a lot more interesting things during the day than I did, with my main focus to do as little as possible besides writing, working and eating. He went to all of the interesting houses and museums, and told me a lot about them, which made me feel a bit less guilty about not actually making an effort to see any of them myself.
(I blame the heat. It’s really difficult to feel pumped about exploring a city in intense humidity.)
On Victor’s last night we went out with our other roommate Stella (see below) to the Hong Kong Bar and had a good laugh at the many years of guestbooks that the owner meticulously keeps under the counter. Many of the entries were lewd, non-sensical shit (which is not surprising, considering that the bar is a well-loved drinking hole for Australian airforce men).
After that, we shared a Skol beer bucket at Junk Bar and had a very interesting conversation about the future of human adaptation.
Being a massive hippy at heart I said I felt like it could go either way. The world could become urbanised AF and humans will take over everything, or some kind of catastrophe would result in only a certain group being able to adapt and survive, in relative harmony with all the plants and animals that could adapt too.
Scarily, we all agreed that we didn’t think humanity was well equipped to deal, either way.
Penang Person 7: Taznim
As a full-stack web developer from Toronto, Taznim had spent quite a bit of time in Hanoi, and agreed that it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to go there now because of all the rain.
In one conversation in particular, in the dorm, we spoke about blockchain technology, and the startup culture in Berlin, where he is planning to go and work for a while (if bureaucratic processes permit).
Taznim went out to eat at a lot of interesting places, but I had unfortunately always eaten before he asked me to join him. So I never did. He did recommend Tong Tai to me though. The dim sum there was pretty good.
He also said he enjoyed the Palak Paneer at Woodlands in Little India, where I mistakenly decided to get the Malai Kofta on my last day (which could never have been as good as the same dish I had in Mumbai in 2008).
I should have gone with his choice instead.
Penang Person 8: Stella
Another one of my dorm-mates, Stella and hit it off sitting outside on the stoep of the hostel, right next to the street, where we drank quite a few Carlsberg cans and talked about a lot of different things, until the smell of the drains in front of us got too much and we had to relocate.
Stella even went with me, twice, to try and find the kuey teow th’ng that I never managed to eat (until after Langkawi). The first night I tried to find it I missed it. And the second night the stall just wasn’t there. I just obviously wasn’t meant to try it when I wanted it, so I just went with the other noodle soup (wan tan mee) stall with the mystery meat at the furthest end of the hawker stall line along Lebuh Chulia.
(Which was good too).
Stella lives in Melbourne, so we talked a lot about how we were both travelling to avoid winter in the southern hemisphere. She also told me a lot of interesting stories about her time renovating a house on Little Corn island in Nicaragua (which brought back a lot of memories of living in Potrero, Costa Rica).
She also confirmed that travelling alone in Vietnam and Cambodia might not be that great alone, and that it would definitely be better to do it with someone else.
Penang Person 9: Wei
Wei and I didn’t chat much initially, other than when I asked if I could share her table at Mugshot Cafe. But when she saw me journaling, she asked if I was a writer. And that got us chatting about what we were both doing.
While I’d been journaling, she’d been looking over a massive GRE textbook, and shared with me how confused and anxious she was about what to do after completing her psychology undergrad in San Diego. Most of her confusion came from the fact that all her friends were doing software programming jobs and getting paid really well straight out of university.
(While there she was, sitting in a cafe in her hometown, with no idea what she was going to do. But she said she thought going back to the US to do her masters might be a good idea- which I agreed with).
It felt pretty bizarre to be in the position of giving advice, seeing as I equally don’t know what the fuck I’m doing with my own life, or what I’m really doing on the other side of the world. But as a fellow (almost) milennial, it felt only natural to tell her that she should definitely do something she finds value and meaning in.
Well, that’s I’ve decided to going along with for now anyway.