Sometimes life has an amazing way of working itself out. Those familiar with our story know we love hockey. Perhaps the furthest thing from the minds of a nation where most citizens have never seen snow and bundle up in fleece coats to ride the air-conditioned bus, we didn’t exactly expect to find expat bars filled with Canadians watching CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. Coincidentally, our next door neighbors Peter and Idy couldn’t have been a better match. He’s Canadian, born and raised in Vancouver and an avid NHL hockey fan. And she’s of Chinese descent from Hong Kong, speaks Cantonese better than Diane and loves to eat even more than us. Needless to say, they’ve quickly become good friends of ours and we can’t wait for hockey season to begin. Subscribing to NHL Centre Ice on his Apple TV package, we visualize a lot of beer filled breakfasts since West Coast games begin at 10 AM our time. East coast games mean rising with the sunrise so I guess we’ll be bringing the bloody mary mix next month when the World Series begins.
Recent MM2H newbies like us, they moved in about one month before we did after living in Hong Kong for the last several years. Even better, Idy speaks fluent Japanese and we’re already planning a trip to Japan with them next spring. Knocking an expensive country off the bucket list is world’s easier when you travel with someone who reads and writes the language so our first potential real Asian vacation awaits. But first things first. Not nearly as well-travelled as the two of them, we plan on mostly making shorter trips to see the rest of Malaysia and a quick jaunt to Thailand by rail before we feel ready to spend copious amounts of cash (They are older than us so it’s assumed we need a longer life span for our cash). Deciding to start small, the four of us piled into their car yesterday and visited the back side of Penang Island. Billed as a more rustic lifestyle that hardly any tourists ever see, it’s reached by a moderately short but interesting drive over the jungle road that traverses the back side of the island. Hypothetically possible to visit by bus, we tried using the number 501 bus once to visit the Tropical Fruit Farm (a tourist ripoff a few kilometers down the mountain road) and discovered the bus runs about once every “whenever they feel like driving” and the driver scrutinized us heavily, wondering why anyone would take a bus down that road. Feeling better about driving, we seized the opportunity and headed out to visit the real Penang.
Driving west towards Penang National Park, the main road forks at the small town of Taluk Bahang. Gateway to the park and the end of the line for the long bus line that goes the entire length of the northern side of Penang Island, the town is starting to unfortunate signs of overdevelopment as the government relentlessly allows developers to devour every possible piece of unprotected land. Despite a plummeting currency, someone apparently thinks it’s more important to relocate an entire community of low-income villagers to push the luxury condo market as far as possible. Unable to take part in anything political, expats just watch and read. At the roundabout the road passes the Butterfly Farm (currently under construction), the water park named Escape and the Telok Behang Reservoir before it begins a twisty turny series of switchbacks. Unusually traversed by dozens of construction crews working on everything from clearing brush to installing new sewer lines, we found it unusually pampered or a road that barely sees any traffic. Stopping several times due to Malaysia’s version of flagmen (men standing around waving a red flag with no clear clue what side of traffic they’re trying to stop), motorbikes ignore them in typical Malaysian fashion and occasionally idiots in expensive cars also blow past them. Acting responsibly, we surprised the government workers each time by following their instructions which always drew a smile.
Eventually the road stops climbing, offering great views of the small towns dotting the back side of the island and we reached our first stop, The Kilang Ruah Pala Nutmeg Factory. Driving down the steep narrow driveway, we pulled into the small family run business and a friendly older Chinese gentleman greeted us. Immediately explaining the difference between male and female seeds (makes have two seeds per nut), we sampled some cold concentrated nutmeg juice and read about the supposed benefits of nutmeg (including controlling burping and flatulence). Historically, Penang’s main industry during the days of its early settlement by British colonialists was nutmeg and farms sprung up all over. Eventually becoming financially inefficient, other countries took over production and export, leaving ony a small handful of family run businesses that continue to sell locally today. Found all over the island, Penang sells nutmeg oils, balms, juices and almost anything else they can manufacture, mostly to tourists.
Making an interesting first stop, we headed back on the winding road and our second stop was the Saanen Goat Farm. Advertised as an attraction that visitors can take a private tour from someone named Mr. Howell (yeah, like Gilligan’s Island), we found only a very friendly young and well-educated college age girl who welcomed us and explained a bit about the small family run business.
Named after a valley in Switzerland, the cream and white colored goats lived in six different pens and were oddly docile by Western standards but I guess animals don’t like the heat and humidity any more than Malaysians and they mostly relaxed except when we brought over the piece of complimentary grass they gave us upon arrival for feeding. (one piece per guest, please). Sampling some incredibly delicious goat’s milk, the owner’s daughter told us they feed them special grass imported from Taiwan which makes the milk taste amazingly “un-goat like”. Also producing an incredible yogurt based cream cheese like product and straight forward “Greek” yogurt from goat’s milk, we realized none of us remembered to bring the cooler to transport refrigerated products in the hot climate. Fortunately, the owner told us they deliver twice weekly all over the island and they’d be out our way the next day. Offering us some goat’s milk ice cream, the offer was irresistable so we combined two orders into one delivery and of course they showed up right on time the next day as all Malaysians do. Highly recommended stop if you’re on the back side of the island.
They also happened to have some beautiful pet poodles that looked more like Bichon friezes (which they had never heard of) and the owner brought out four adorable little two-week puppies for us, unsure if they’d keep them or put them for adoption (Hopefully they stay because there’s already too many beautiful strays on Penang and I’m always scared people are not yet informed enough as countries with millions of pets to become responsible owners). GIven that dogs need to go out and Malaysians mostly hate walking and the heat, I wished we could take them but in our maximum-security luxury condo, that’s a big no-no. Most units stay unoccupied, owned by filthy rich mainland Chinese investors that think pets are dirty.
Guided by a little brochure and Google Maps, we made our way down the well paved country roads of rural Penang Island, occasionally passing a block of brand new single story suburban houses that no local could afford in six lifetimes. Mostly the small towns and villages are refreshingly rural, exactly what you’d expect once leaving the more developed areas of any city. Bound for Balik Palau, the largest town on the back-end of Penang Island, the town’s biggest claim to fame is Asam Laksa that’s superior to anywhere else in Malaysia. Unfortunately, the little brochure only listed one place in town and it took us four wrong turns and several stops until we finally parked and wound up right next to Kim Laksa, the most popular place in town selling only laksa and drinks.
Immediately thrilled, I anxiously ordered a bowl and Diane chose the less famous but equally delicious Siam version. Tasting nothing like the poor excuse we tasted in KL, the Siam laksa was dripping with Thai flavors of coconut, basil, galanga and lemongrass with a moderate spice. As expected, the Asam Laksa was a perfect combination of ingredients with a sour and mildly spicy taste that runs rings around the more famous tourist versions served at Air Itam. Anthony Bourdain missed the boat by not coming here when he made his Penang episode.
Still hungry after a small bowl of laksa that now costs $0.92 USD thanks to a continuously crashing Malaysian ringgit, we walked to the next stall and found rows of bun carts which I’ve not really seen in great numbers in the rest of Penang. Unlike the others, these were all under 1 ringgit for each item, tasted superbly authentic and best of all, have a bottom tray with hot dim sum including shu mai, har gow and various other tasty items. Ordering a few, they served some on a toothpick and others in little plastic bags (including the sauce) and even spoke better English than other Chinese vendors on our side of the island.
Still only 2 PM, we looked at the brochure but the town didn’t really seem to appear the way they described it. Packed with never ending throngs of less expensive cars, motorbikes and the occasional large Rapid Penang bus that sends four bus lines all the way out here from the main part of the island, it wasn’t exactly the rural backwater town they promote it as with one exception. Deciding we’d stroll down the main street, we began exploring the small mom and pop shops that provided every service from sewing to barber shops and everything in between. Unlike in Georgetown or even in our town, the stores all had a throwback rustic feel to them, had no air conditioners and were teeming with merchants that appeared stuck in a lifestyle we imagined most of Southeast Asia was during the Vietnam War Era.
With cats and dogs roaming thru many stores, we came across a general goods store that had a beautiful old coffee grinder in the front of the store, circa 1955. Selling coffee whose origin they couldn’t name for an amazingly low 11 ringitts for 1 kg (about $2.25 a pound), Idy purchased some very strong-smelling coffee that we imagine we’ll be chugging at 8 AM while watching live hockey from yesterday. Pressing the proprietor in Cantonese about how potent it might be, he shrugged and kept telling her to add more sugar, the Malaysian response to almost anything when it comes to beverages. Also featuring biscuits in tin cans that I vaguely remember from my childhood, the town’s stores felt like a set in Universal Studios, refreshingly different from the condo-development side of the island and we enjoyed it immensely.
Another store confused me because the right side appeared to be selling pet supplies while the left side sold various poison chemicals. The barber shop had stools that literally looked like they came from The Dust Bowl Era but I couldn’t get a picture because the Indian proprietor kept egging me in for a cut and I finally had to take off my hat and show him I had no merchandise for him to trim. And even the toilet was more rustic than most of the island with a place cut out in the floor for peeing into that looked like it dumps right into the river (Hopefully it goes to a sewer pipe).
Feeling we should go all the way as far as the road can take us, the next stop was the Pulau Betung, a small fishing village. Stopping on a beautiful little bridge that looked like a scene out of Apocalypse Now, we enjoyed the view and watched dozens of huge monitor lizards mulling through the water. Able to catch fish simply by pulling them out of the water, they bear a striking resemblance to crocodiles. Wanting to eat dinner at the local seafood restaurant called Jia Siang Cafe, it was too early to eat so we headed out to the local beach but I’ve read you pick your seafood from the adjoining market and they cook it for you any style you want so it’s still on my list for our next visit.
Continuing down an increasingly narrow but well paved road, we drove to the most Southwesterly part of Penang Island where there’s a stunning little stretch of shady beach called Pasir Panjang Beach. Warning you of strong currents and undertows, the sign indicates three drownings so we walked down and simply relaxed while taking in the view and engulfing our feet in bathtub like water. Pleasantly beautiful, there was no haze on this side of the island, perhaps due to its opposing direction when it comes to prevailing winds from annual illegal Indonesian burns that endanger the health of all Penangites and have almost made me question if I want to keep living here. Instead, we enjoyed crystal clear blue tropical skies and took in the serenity offered by a day trip to the other side of the island, culminating in a beach unaffected by overdevelopment.
Highly recommending a trip to this part of Penang, we enjoyed a quiet ride back and pondered what to eat for dinner. Figuring we’ll probably take more day trips with our neighbors, we paid for dinner at a Japanese charcoal restaurant that I will talk about in another post. Receiving a generous amount of food for $49 USD, four people can feast when using a USD credit card these days and this morning we awoke to a beautiful clear day after eight straight days of horrific haze that felt like living in the middle of a forest fire. And then it rained heavily while I wrote this post. Just another perfect day as an Experimental Expat. Thanks for reading and cheers for now.
Please share comments about similar back island adventures elsewhere in Southeast Asia. We’re open for ideas.