So once we had a great place to live it was time to set out for some basic furnishings. Not realizing this was easier said than done, we took the bus and went to Tesco, the island’s leading superstore and the place everyone told us is the obvious choice for all one’s basic needs. Visualizing a British version of Costco, we expected to find all the necessities of home furnishings and then some. Honestly, although the store is big by island standards, the selection is very mish-moshed and lacks some organizational skills used when it comes to stocking the aisles. But this is Asia and most products are smaller, not as well made as we’re used to and usually not from companies we recognize. And that’s OK by us because it’s part of leaving an old life and starting a new one. Strolling down the aisles, we did find some basic kitchen ware like cutlery, paper towels, a few kitchen gadgets and a relatively solid stoneware dish set. Understanding the budget is part of early retirement, we tabled some of the other items for a mall excursion on another day (more on that later and some lessons learned on disparity of wealth when countries develop quickly as Malaysia has).
Absent from the juice aisle is almost everything with no sugar added but eventually I stumbled upon some mango juice sweetened only with stevia, marketed with the benefits of stevia’s natural sweetening properties. As the only zero calorie drink available, I bought that and some mangosteen juice with no sugar added (also almost impossible to find In a sugar loving continent). Surprisingly, the fruit selection in Tesco is not as extensive as expected although it’s obvious that wet markets have fresher and cheaper stuff anyway. Additionally, selecting canned tuna, sardines and mackerel is an effort in futility as almost every can has tons of added preservatives, spices, sugar and everything that defeats the purpose of eating healthy protein for breakfast. Settling mostly on canned mackerel, I did find some better options at Cold Storage the next day but the prices run the gamut from dirt cheap to insanely expensive for products that look similar . Trying really hard to avoid the “gourmet products” that I love including everything from pickled items to sausage and deli meats, I reminded myself that food is inexpensive but not when you want European items and brand names. Knowing it’s all there is good enough for me but I simply won’t pay 45 ringgit for my delicious jar of herring in wine sauce and Diane would not be a happy camper if I gave in so for now, I’ll just relate to all the grumbling I read from British expats about the high cost of their native foods.
As for the rest of our shopping, we eventually settled on some sheet sets that’s seemed reasonable and doing the math, paid about 50% less than any comparable item at Macy’s or any other American department store. Sadly, the biggest consumer stores absent from Malaysia are specialty item superstores like Target, Bed Bath and Beyond and Staples. Unsure where to get towels, stationary and other basic items I’d like to have in the condo, we thought there’d be lots of selection with seven floors of shopping at Gurney Plaza, Penang’s main mall and even more at Paragon, the newest high-end mall for the über rich millionaires that buy up all the surrounding overpriced condos. Or maybe it’s just for the visiting tourists because although the malls are crowded, hardly anyone carries any bags and most stores have lots of staff texting their time away. Did I mention this might be the most phone happy country on earth? Unsure how they pay for all the data, you only get about 4 Mb a month and that’s an expensive plan yet everyone from the janitors to the bus drivers spends every second of every spare minute texting or playing with their phone. And it’s mostly Apple products despite Samsung’s status as the world’s number one company for phones.
Naturally, there’s some positive benefits to the nation’s love of data and customer service is easily the most noticeable difference between Malaysia and anywhere in North America where they’ve relegated all service of any kind to Mexicans that don’t speak English or Filipinos reading from a script overseas. For example, I’ve now had to call my bank many times to work out some technical issues as well as Maxis, our phone provider, and the national telecom company. Addressing every caller respectfully and speaking better English than any American company, albeit with a Malaysian accent I’m getting used to, they’re all diligent, knowledgeable and go above and beyond to solve your problem. Calling you back later if an issue needs more attention, I’m unsure why everyone told us we’d need to get used to a slow-paced lifestyle where people don’t try very hard and don’t care about you. While we have yet to experience government workers since we haven’t finalized the MM2H yet, private sector employees are clearly in that phase where visible pride in workmanship exists. Sadly, that usually changes down the road as young generations get a higher status of living and begin to feel they’re too good to do menial jobs (like in California where Latinos have taken over every single business because young white people think they’re above blue-collar work and have a sense of entitlement due to being spoiled with technology). Hopefully, this lasts for five to ten years.
Finishing our Tesco trip , we walked away feeling half satisfied and quickly learned the next day that the mall had seven floors of mostly crap. Lacking almost everything we need like basic towel sets, more kitchen ware and some small decorative things, there’s one “department store” at Gurney Plaza so we had no choice but to buy some individual cutlery items, (cheaper than any set), a few mid grade bathroom towels (inexpensive by our standards) and a few kitchen gadgtes. Walking into the specialty kitchen store where non stick frying pans cost more than a week’s worth of living expenses, we wondered who they build these stores for. Singaporeans wouldn’t shop here, Chinese tourists spend their time sightseeing and no average middle class Malaysian can afford the exorbitant prices. Realizing the basics of life are often found at wet markets small stores and vendors attached, we tabled almost everything else and called Uber since we had too much stuff for the bus, and decided to visit the best and closest wet market to our condo the next morning.
Fortunately, our visit to the wet market was a rousing eye-opening success. Technically known as Pasar and Balai Rakyat, the wet market is conveniently located at the beginning of Tanjung Bungah as you hard towards the big city (Georgetown; not really that big). Hopping on the awesome 101 bus that runs constantly all day every few minutes, we jumped off about 12 minutes later and discovered the market behind the bus depot teeming with activity. Told by other expats to arrive early, the best we could do was 9:30 (even I get up closer to 7 AM now which corresponds with sunrise). Walking towards the main building, we found a cornucopia of vendors selling quality kitchen ware like a sharp cleaver at half the price of the mall, little items like digital clocks, all the t-shirts and clothing you’d ever need, and some of the basic items we couldn’t find anywhere in the high-end mall. Unlike Thailand, Malaysian vendors are not pushy and the best part about this market is the lack of tourists. Set halfway between the beach town where we live and the popular area where all the UNESCO attractions are, there’s no real reason for anyone but expats and locals to visit and it shows.
Offering everything from fruit to fresh fish, chicken and meat, canned goods and basic sundries, we felt right at home because unlike many countries where it’s difficult to master shopping skills, everyone speaks at least a little English and nobody tries to rip you off. Less apt to haggle, the prices are already low and the first thing we did was buy ten eggs. Priced at about eight cents (USD) each, they give you little cartons or you can simply walk away with them in a bag. Fresh as can be, you need to wash them to rinse off some of the little feathers before cooking them.
Here’s a view of the outside of the market, a vendor selling goods and some bananas. Usually smaller than the enormous things they sell in the USA, they taste great and cost very little.
Walking through the market the fresh chicken and seafood almost makes me want to try cooking but that would be silly since it would probably cost more and there’s no possible way for me to replicate the incredible flavors found in Penang cuisine.
Real Thai basil is one of the key ingredients in SE Asian food. Finding it difficult to find in Asian markets back in California, they grow it on Mexico but one sniff of the leaves tells you it’s simply not the same . Another one of my favorite things in any food are limes and these little ones are named calimansi and taste delicious. I often just suck on them for the juice. They’re added to almost all noodle soups and make up another essential ingredient in SE Asian cooking. There’s also an abundance of giant carrots that are incredibly sweet when juiced at roadside stalls and huge okra, one of my favorites, although I haven’t seen it in anything I’ve eaten so far.
Even though it was late, there was one line where people were waiting ten deep. Curious what they were buying, we approached the end of the line and saw a guy shredding fresh coconuts and apparently selling it in little plastic bags as coconut oil. Thinking it might be juice, we figured it’s probably oil because that’s a key ingredient in many dishes. Patiently waiting, it took about ten minutes for one small bag, making me glad I won’t be queuing up for cooking ingredients anytime soon.
Possibly the best part of the wet market was learning about the real place for incredible authentic Penang cooking at super rock bottom prices. Attached to the market is three huge food courts lined with small mom and pop booths serving almost every kind of food imaginable including Western food fir those crazy enough to want toast, eggs and French fries. Because the market opens early, the stalls are all firing up their stuff by breakfast time and many of them were already closed by the time we got around to eating at 10:30. Serving the typical dishes like laksa, Nasi everything and Hokkien Mee, there were so many stalls with things I hadn’t yet seen and I went around looking at what food came out of each one before deciding on Curry Mee. Served piping hot in about 90 seconds, it’s probably the best one I’ve had yet, makes enough for lunch and even comes in two sizes (that’s the small below). Not a huge fan of spicy food, Diane chose some Wanton Mee with home-made fried wantons, and veggies that were better than most Chinese food I’ve ever had back in the west. Priced at less than 4 Ringgit, our lunch was $2.02 based on today’s incredibly strong conversion rate that’s hovering at 3.80. Now this is what I’m talking about: cheap delicious food at a price anyone can afford .
Satisfied we now know where to go for basic items and cheap lunch, we headed home and set out to Georgetown where we discovered that almost all restaurants charge GST and a 10% service charge which often brings the prices of eating out to a level almost too high for cheap expat living. Fortunately, the malls have their own food courts and the little small stalls often exclude these charges . Signing off for now because it’s time to head downtown where we have our first dinner meet-up later with some InterNations folks, I wanted to share the most interesting thing I ate at the mall. As a huge seafood lover, I’m in heaven when I find things involving seafood that North Americans would never eat. Providing a prime example is the squid shop that sells deep-fried squid with little crispy crunches, serves it with 10 different sauces and stuffs it with a bit of rice, making it a bit like squid sushi. Costing only about two bucks, I had a curry squid and it was an awesome little snack.
As you can imagine, this post is only a small part of everything we’ve done during our transition to Malaysian life and sadly, I’m winding up sharing much more with my Facebook friends because the 4G is so fast, it allows me to quickly snapshot whatever we do and post it instantly. Should you want to enjoy dozens more photos with small captions summarizing our daily life, please feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to give you my FB information (I also have a FB page where I duplicate the blog posts for my friends that are old and too lazy to go to the blog) . Otherwise, please bear with me as I’m not quite writing as many posts as I’d hoped but the days fly by and the excitement is still quite fresh so I hope to post almost daily down the road. For now, thanks for following and terima kasih kerana membaca.
All comments are welcome and please share your thoughts on how we’ve done so far But please keep it positive : I won’t approve any comments filled with negativity. Thanks