Where does the time go? Approaching the last few weeks of spring, it’s almost one year since Diane and I stepped off the airplane in Malaysia to begin our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Already in full swing, Ramadan began a few weeks earlier this year and coincides with the second week of Malaysian School Holidays. Commemorating the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islāmic belief, Muslims began fasting for 30 days and although it’s less noticeable in Penang due to the large Chinese population, some of our favorite Nasi Campur and other Malay style food courts won’t serve lunch for a month. Not really understanding why the island seemed so quiet last year, we now know that after school starts next week, it’s the best three weeks of the year for vehicle challenged expats like us. With more room on the buses, we’re not totally clear why it’s so much less crowded but if I had to exist on no water and food from sunrise to sunset in such a hot and humid environment, I’d probably be hospitalized quickly from dehydration so maybe those who observe the fast simply have less energy to travel around.
Ironically, the word Ramadan derived from the Arabic root ramida, meaning scorching heat and dryness. Knowing I’d make a lousy Muslim since fasting is almost physically impossible for those who engage in cardio training almost daily, Diane and I happily hopped on the empty bus the other day and headed for our favorite food court in Penang. After one year, we find ourselves gravitating mostly to the same food courts and haven’t really found all that many restaurants worth the extra cash. Granted our point of view is probably in the minority because we disagree with Penang’s claim to be Southeast Asia’s best food, but after watching a slew of culinary series’ featuring chefs, restauranteurs and average folks traveling and discovering food all over Southeast Asia, we’re convinced Malaysia’s food is the least interesting of all ASEAN nations. Having said that, there’s a few places we consider above and beyond the others like Chang Sern Enterprises Hawker Center in Palau Tikas. Probably the standard by which all food courts should be judged, this gem is clean as a whistle, has friendly attentive vendors and staff and some of the best local food on the island.
Unlike many other hawker centers, Chang Sern has metal gates that close each day making it one of the cleanest centers on the island. With portable air conditioners, the comfort level is better than most and the floors are spotlessly clean. Offering a variety of typically Penang dishes including Curry Mee, Wanton Mee, Laksa, Chicken Rice, Char Kway Teow and Hokkien Mee (my favorite), the vendors recognize us and treat us better than other shops. Recently we ordered Hong Kong Shrimp Mee for the first time and it came with shrimp roe, a strange salty variation of the more familiar salmon roe found in sushi. There’s another vendor serving dishes like Otak-Otak (ground fish cake steamed in banana leaf) and I decided to try a dish whose name slips me but appeared to be unusually flavorful taro with a sweet bean sauce. Highly recommended, the hawker stand is walking distance to Gurney Plaza, Penang’s leading mall and we recommend the upscale neighborhood of Palau Tikas if you’re looking for an alternative to the UNESCO Heritage area of Georgetown.
With few exceptions like McDonald’s and KFC, most North American chain restaurants in Asia rarely taste like they do back home. We’ve had Tony Roma’s in Costa Rica and the quality was poor not to mention the bland sauce. Trying to replicate North American pub food at TGI Friday’s in Malaysia turns into a feeble attempt at chicken wings doused in strange European style sauces, nachos resembling anything but Mexican style and various other Halal dishes unfamiliar to most Western consumers. Lacking customers, many western chains in Penang go out of business and Chili’s at Gurney Plaza is the latest victim. In its place is The Barn, a new western style restaurant billing itself as a “wine, small plate and fire grill” joint. Offering a very reasonably priced deal on Australian rib-eye steak through June 30th, we tried lunch first and were pleasantly surprised to find a grilled pork chop worthy of its 20 Ringgit price.
Like almost all Penang restaurants, they didn’t have at least 30% of the items on the menu. One of Penang’s worst habits, we’re unclear why they put items on the menu that they either never carry or simply tell you “finish” as if to imply they sold out of an item two hours after opening. Food vendors constantly do this and maybe it’s understandable given the cyclical nature of their business but placing items you’ll never have on the menu is a poor business model. Additionally, we wish someone would teach Malaysians how to bring out everyone’s meal at the same time. One of the biggest complaints by expats along with total lack of customer service, they always serve one person’s meal way before the others show up. On the day we visited, Diane wanted chicken but when she inquired about an item called “Chicken Maryland”, nobody from the server to the manager had any clue what it was or how it was prepared. Malaysians love to invent names for Western dishes and we recommend steering clear of most of them. And never expect a well-known dish like a “club sandwich” to bear any resemblance to a traditional North American Turkey BLT. Settling on fish and chips, Diane’s lunch order was OK for its $4.50 USD price tag but once again, this aesthetically pleasing new addition to the Penang dining scene won’t make our list for a second visit.
Often the most asked question from readers (and relatives, despite having been here almost a year) is “What do you do every day?” or “Don’t you get bored?” The short answers are “not much” and “No“. Questions about daily life in Penang compared to Kuala Lumpur (known locally as “KL“) often come to my inbox also. Honestly, Penang is not the most thrilling and exciting place in Southeast Asia and that’s why we like it. Except for the never ending rash of construction that’s going to ruin our town over the next five years. it’s a good place for relaxing. People accustomed to night life, parties, kid friendly activities and large expat organizations might be bored in Penang. Although there’s a rash of festivals, cultural events and monthly activities in various places, we have no vehicle so it needs to be worth the bus trip. We tried the annual Hot Air Balloon Festival during Chinese New Year only to find out they wouldn’t launch them due to the heat wave which turned the festival into a large patch of grass with food vendors and entrepreneurs pushing various commercial products.
Arriving just in time for the island’s largest event last year, Diane and I spent time exploring the annual Georgetown Festival but found it relatively boring compared to similar cultural fairs in Canada or California. Attending a dance show from Spain billed as the best of the expensive performances, the show disappointed and was OK at best. Photography exhibits are worthwhile and there’s often some other interesting cultural events on the bill but don’t expect anything close to well-organized exhibits with lots of attendees. Cancelling the one movie I really wanted top see last year due to “censorship issues“, it’s a reminder that cultural norms are often determined by a government dead set on maintaining its power despite the supposed free media. There is a wonderful and perfectly sized auditorium at Straits Quay where we attended an Australian Comedy Festival last year but there’s not very many events scheduled nor does the entire complex attract the number of shoppers the developer must have hoped for.
Spending our first few months last year exploring all the main tourist attractions, hiking trails and occasionally venturing to the remote side of the island, we enjoyed being resident tourists but chose to live in Batu Ferringhi for the proximity to the beach and quieter environment. Choosing serenity over convenience quickly diminished our desire to occupy every day going somewhere when it means a 30 to 60 minute bus trip. Wishing to travel economically but not as budget minded as backpackers, we soon learned what works for us financially and since Penang is not a hotbed of social events, we usually limit our outside entertainment to dinner once or twice a week, a very affordable matinée at the cinema and occasional festivals or cultural events with friends. (We do often eat lunch out especially when we travel into civilization to shop but prefer inexpensive food courts over most restaurants). Having now visited Thailand, Australia and Myanmar for three weeks each, the annual budget looks like it’ll come in just under our proposed amount including travel.
Returning to the original question of what do we do, I start each day about half an hour before sunrise and hit the condo’s gym every other day for a strenuous 30 minute cardio workout. On non exercise days, I walk to our local wet market which operates daily until about 10 AM and buy some fresh ingredients for dinner. Then it’s blogging, checking my Facebook rants and some time on Huffington Post. Meanwhile, Diane prefers sleeping in and only when we travel is she out of bed before 9 AM. Unable to comprehend this concept, I love the mornings when the heat is bearable but to each his or her own. Learning a lot about Asian cooking from many great series we download from IFlix, I try to experiment and Diane makes delicious homemade pizza once a week as well as fresh bread that she prepares the night before so it’s ready for breakfast.
As vehicular challenged expats, we usually have two types of days; ones where we travel somewhere on the bus and take Uber back and ones where we don’t leave town. When we need things like groceries, medications and the ATM, we usually venture out just before noon, enjoy one of our favorite food courts for lunch and do our errands. Sometimes we just go to Tesco at Tanjung Bungah (the closest town to us) and other days we enjoy some time at Gurney Plaza, the island’s best mall that’s about a 30 minute bus ride away. About once a month we venture out to Georgetown for specialty items and usually spend the afternoon strolling around the UNESCO Heritage Area since it’s about 50 minutes by bus. Penang has excellent semi-annual book fairs that are worthwhile and sometimes we patronize a great bargain sale at mall or other locations. Usually returning before rush hour to avoid the traffic, you’ll find us at our always empty infinity pool most late afternoons enjoying the view, reading a book and sometimes just napping. Hey, it’s retirement.
Sticking to the same routine we had in our working life, I do most of the cooking and Diane does the laundry and dishes. Most evenings we download something from IFlix which is Malaysia’s version of Netflix after watching the glorious sunsets (assuming it’s not one of the cloudless hot months or haze season). Enjoying Southeast Asian cooking shows hosted by interesting people, we highly recommend any series from a Vietnamese born chef and restaurateur Luke Ngyuen. Other great shows include BBC’s The Hairy Biker Series featuring two chubby Brit hippies that travel and cook their way through Asia and Marion’s Thailand hosted by an Australian whose mother is Thai. (Sorry folks; we don’t say “Mum” and absolutely hate the British abomination of the word filet that we know as “fill-eh” but they all pronounce as “fill-it“) We’ve also spent spans of ten weeks at a time watching an entire series like Dexter or Madmen.
And what about those non-traveling days? Limitations arise without a car so I spend the days where a bus trip isn’t in the picture walking around town, lounging out at one of the local beach resorts reading a book or hiking the awesome trail behind town that parallels the main aqueduct. Shaded in the morning, sometimes Diane gets ambitious and we spend the morning hiking and then feast on our favorite local Nasi campur food court for lunch. But unlike Diane, I’m antsy and can’t ever spend an entire day indoors unless it’s pouring continuously (rare for Penang) or I’m sick (also rare). With so few guests almost all year at the local resorts, it’s hard to enjoy people watching so I usually walk to my favorite spot across from the local international school and spend hours watching tame macaques enjoying large amounts of human food that locals leave for them.
Diane often spends time in the afternoon speaking to people from China on NiceTalk Tutor, an excellent app designed to help people in China practice their English. Having made some great friends, we’re planning on visiting China next year and utilizing a personal guide is an excellent way to enjoy an unfamiliar country. Before you know it the days melt away faster than in our working lives even though it seems like our experimental early retirement is mostly spent waiting for our next travel adventure.
Summarizing our lives after almost one year, I still contend that Malaysia is an excellent choice for expats albeit not the most exciting or interesting of the ASEAN nations. Having answered several emails and met a few of you who’ve contacted us, Diane and I are always interested in meeting new friends and we’re happy to show anyone around or give advice when we can. We’re easily entertained by small things like the adorable swifts and swallows and even the occasional large Brahminy Kite that sits down on our balcony allowing us a close up encounter with local wildlife. Although we’re not as active as I’d sometimes prefer, I understand Diane’s less than stellar feelings about hiking in the tropical heat and Penang provides just enough mental and physical stimulation for our relatively tame lifestyle without boring us to tears. Next month we’re off to Bangkok for a week to escape the crowds during Hari Raya. Also known as Eid, the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast is a huge two-day national holiday that attracts almost everyone in Malaysia and Indonesia to our little town so this year we’re taking the overnight train from Butterworth that’s a bargain at $67 USD for two comfortable sleeper cars.
Until then, we’ll be here enjoying the quiet time often associated with Ramadan. Drop us a line anytime; we’d love to hear from you.