Malaysia, Penang, Georgetown

A road trip was long overdue. A road trip is always long overdue so this time we decided to avoid the increasing hassle of air travel and take a train to Malaysia. Tickets on the single-class sleeper from Bangsaphan to Butterworth cost 1079 for adults and 875 for kids so it made sense and avoided messing around in Bangkok.

On a rare occasion the trains in Thailand run on time, this was one of those occasions; we pulled out of the station at 21.10 bound for the south on silent carriage number three where most of the passengers were already deep in slumber.

A very restless night (I dont sleep well on trains) ended in Hat Yai at 07.00 where the train beds were converted into seats and a bunch of new travellers got on. All stopped at the border an hour later, immigration processing was straight forward but there was no locomotive on the Malay side to take the train on the final leg of the journey.

The final 150km or so from the border to Butterworth ended up taking half the day, and by the time we’d taken the ferry to Georgetown and a taxi to the hotel it was 18 hours after we had left … maybe a plane would have been better after all.

We wanted something with a pool knowing it will be a blessing after trekking around the sweltering streets of the old world heritage town. The 1926 Heritage Hotel fitted the bill and budget nicely, it was a little out of town but not too far. The taxis on Penang are total rip-offs, none of them use the meter and the prices are ridiculous, it made sense then to familiarize ourselves with Penang’s public bus system which is excellent and a fraction of the cost, there is even a free bus around the world heritage section of town.

The last time I visited Georgetown was in 1998 and the difference between then and now was staggering. Primarily the number of high-rise buildings and the sheer volume of traffic, almost Bangkokian at times, were the two obvious changes to what was once a quaint little town.

Our first meal was in a nondescript Muslim place across the street from the hotel and contrary to the surroundings the food was outstanding, now my memories of Georgetown and its culinary delights started to return. Part of the travel research also involved sampling the local brew; unfortunately the price of beer on Penang is approximately double that in Thailand (cheapest can of local beer was 6.5 RM), on the plus side they have a large variety including Guinness and some seriously strong import beers in the 7-Elevens.

First stop on the tourist trail was the 830 meter high Penang Hill, the longest funicular track in Asia, and the steepest tunnel in the world. This place was absolutely chock full of Chinese tourists, we were later to discover that the whole island is way up there on China’s holiday destination list; at times it seemed that there were more Chinese than Malays on Penang.

The cable train shoots you up the hill in a few ear popping minutes, unfortunately the view will disappoint unless it is a clear, haze free day – ours wasn’t. There was little else at the summit (aside from the phone snapping crowds of Chinese) so we slid back down the track and jumped on a bus heading for the old town.

Getting hungry now, we ventured into Little India in search of the legendary banana leaf curry that I remember eating many years ago. A very busy lunchtime corner restaurant had exactly what I was looking for, and the best chicken masala I have ever tasted. The prices were just as cheap as I remember at 6.5 RM for green leafed goodness. In fact the only changes to the area I noticed was that there were shiny new cars everywhere now where there were motorcycles 15 years ago.

A sweltering walk down Chulia Street yielded plenty of photo opportunities though I had to time a lot of them and wait for the torrent of traffic to subside. Fortunately the character of old Georgetown remains intact despite the invasion of thousands of Japanese cars.

The mission for today was to get up the Komtar tower to see the view and get some pictures to compare to those I took in the late nineties. Arrival at the tried old mall revealed most of it closed up; including the tower so we headed over to another shiny shopping block to look at the same old stuff you can buy anywhere (the mrs and kids need their shopping fix now and then).