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Insight Penang

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Penang – how much time do I need

I have been asked a few times by friends, “how much time do I need to spend in Penang?”, “is 3 nights enough?”, “or, 1 week?”. This is a common question among us traveller when we visit a place for the first time. It is even more important if we only have a limited time off work and making the best of what we have got.

My answer for my friends who are or will be visiting Penang depend on what they like to get out of the trip. 3 nights and 4 days is probably enough if it is to visit all the heritage sites in George Town, sample the different cultures and food, and maybe a visit to some of the famous landmarks; like the Kek Lok Si Temple or Penang Hill, and even a night at the Batu Ferringhi’s street night market for some imitation goods shopping. But, personally this is too rush. I know because I have been there before. It is always a 3 days here and a 3 days there, and then soon the 2 weeks holiday is all over. I ended up feeling like I never have a good holiday at all. Why? Because it is always too rush. Sounds familiar? My guess is that you have been in that holiday situation yourself.

So, on my recent trip to Penang, my partner and I had 2 weeks. We spent most of our time in Penang, except 4 days in Kuching. I have, in my previous posts, shared the places I have been. In this post, I continue with the other things I have done in Penang.

A return visit to a well known Chinese tea wholesaler and retailer, Ten Yee Tea Trading, located at Beach Street. This company has been trading Chinese tea from China and Taiwan for over 2 decades, but at this beautiful premise for almost 8 years.

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At Ten Yee Tea, they sell a very good range and selection of high grade Chinese tea, including the first flush white tea, and over 10 years old Pu-erh. The longer they keep and aged the Pu-erh, the higher it will fetch in price. We were lucky to spend almost an hour with the owner who shared his great knowledge of tea and served us 3 different types of tea – from green tea to Oolong to Pu-erh – before we decide which tea to take home. This place is worth a visit if you are into Chinese tea, and the health and benefits of Chinese tea drinking.

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Be surprised by Penang, as a 3-4 days visit will not be sufficient to explore and discover the many interesting places Penang has to offer. In particular, old prewar terraces and mansions tuck away in narrow streets being restored into a fine collection of boutique accommodations, art studios, cafes and shops.

One excellent discovery that took my breath away is Number 23 Love Lane. It is one of the nicest and best restoration I have seen stretching 2 streets with different period buildings, including a horse stable, converted into a 10-suites boutique hotel surrounded by beautiful tropical garden courtyards, and eatable garden herbs.

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We were very lucky to be given a private tour of the hotel by the GM and introduced to the small and very personable staffs. Imagine if we were the guests of the hotel, we will certainly feel very much at home with the warm and hospitable staff and service.

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Every structures of the buildings and grounds were carefully restored to their original state over a period of 3 years. The place is mostly furnished with antiques and there are 2 glass cabinets showcasing broken pieces of straits Chinese porcelains and artifacts they excavated and salvaged inside the ground during the extensive restoration work. It is almost a private museum. The hotel is hidden and sheltered from the outside streets with the original high walls and gated with an ornate Straits Chinese entrance. It is surprisingly quiet, peaceful and layback once I stepped inside the property. I was taken back in time, almost like a movie set except this felt real with a missing costume to go with the period.

The heritage section of George Town is a compact little area which makes walking and cycling an interesting exploration and discovery of the past with interesting streets and artworks. It is fast becoming popular with investors and tourists.

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If you have more than 3-4 days in Penang, there is beautiful discovery of Malay village and beaches, including fishing villages.

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Penang people love their shopping malls and beauty pageants. I was lucky to come across the “Sarong Queen” beauty pageant at the Queensbay Mall.

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All the little misses “Sarong Queens” win my heart. They are a real sweetheart.

This sums up my 2 weeks holiday in Penang.

Penang Food

I have written many posts on the food in Penang – where I have been and where I have eaten. Some places I will go back again and again. Others I will only go once – it was either not worth revisiting or it was just too far to get there.

Penang is well known for the best food in Malaysia, and most who have tried do agree it is the best place to sample a cross section of a true Malaysian food culture – from cheap hawker food to the expensive fine dine restaurant at historic colonial mansion and 5-stars international beach hotels. There is food to suit everyone’s budget.

In this last visit, I have visited a couple of new places, and revisited a few of my favourites.

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“The Nyonya Breeze” is an authentic Peranakan or Straits Chinese restaurant, located at the upmarket Straits Quay at Sri Tanjung Tokong. It is a way out from where we lived on the other side of the island. It was my first visit there. I love a good nyonya food, and Nyonya Breeze did not failed me. It lived up to my expectation of a good Nyonya cuisine, especially the Nyonya curry – Kapitan Chicken. In addition, I ordered Inche Kabin (deep fried chicken), Choon Piah, Jiew Hu Char, Belacan Fried Rice and Nasi Ulam. I was blown away by the delicate and yet complex flavour of the Kapitan curry chicken. It was one the best dish on the table. I thought the price was reasonable for a restaurant quality Nyonya food, which is not a simple food to prepare and cook. I will go back again and again if I have lived closer to the Straits Quay.

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Kapitan Chicken

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Nasi Ulam
Another new place that I have tried on this trip was a seaside Thai restaurant, “Khun Thai” or “Simply Thai”. My partner and I came across this restaurant last year when it was opened only a week. It is a distance away from the city of George Town, on the way to Balik Pulau. It is located in Gertak Sanggul, and has a lovely view towards Pulau Betong and the open sea. It is idealic with a rustic “kampung” (village) feel. On this trip, we were making a road trip to Balik Pulau in search of the famed Penang Asam Laksa. I will come to that later.

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The last time we discovered this restaurant, we had a fresh coconut juice. A nice, refreshing way to cool down in the hot, humid weather listening to the waves crashing against the shore. This time, we ordered 4 dishes to share – soft shell crab, glass noodles with king prawns, kerabu squids and duck eggs salad. We love our Thai food. Unfortunately, Simply Thai is just that…simply Thai. It did nothing for us. We were quite disappointed. The kerabu squid was so spicy that killed the flavour of this dish. On a scale of 10 for hotness, it hits over the 10 mark! The soft shell crab was just plain battered, and the duck eggs were bland with uninteresting flavour and texture. The glass noodle was the only decent dish on the table, with the prawns overcooked and tough. Maybe we did not ordered the right dishes. The only thing we enjoyed most at this restaurant was the beach settings, and the Tuk-Tuk outside with a puppy sleeping underneath the front wheel.

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Kerabu Squid

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Poor puppy looked like just been ran over by the Tuk-Tuk.
Before, we stopped at Khun Thai on our way back from Balik Pulau – probably one of the remaining old township on the island – we had a bowl each of the famous Balik Pulau Laksa. This was the first time I have tried the most talkabout laksa in this small town. I ordered the Asam Laksa, and another bowl of Siam Laksa. The two types of Laksa originated from Penang, and a must try for any visitors to Penang. Otherwise, you have never been to Penang. Both laksa were extremely good at this little stall, next to the old wet market (which was unfortunately closed down by the local council). Rich and complex with plenty of all mashed up mackerels in the spicy, fragrant broth. The spoonful of “Heh Ko” (prawn paste) added into the broth lifted the saltiness with a pungent but yet aromatic flavours. I also tried the sour plum nutmeg juice served at the “kopitiam” (coffee shop). It was worth the drive and trip for one of the best in Penang. Other places that serves good Penang Asam Laksa includes Air Itam and Padang Brown.

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Asam Laksa on the left, Siam Laksa on the right.

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The washing up.

Another Thai place I tried on this trip was at the Chinese clan jetty. I have been there once, and revisited on this trip with a friend from Sydney who happened to be back at the same time visiting her parents. This Thai restaurant is family owned and they actually lived and cooked from the same jetty home. I love the tranquility of this simple and humble home cooked open air restaurant. I was even lucky enough to spot a vibrant blue kingfisher a few metres from us. This restaurant serves humble meal at a reasonable price.

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Pad Thai

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Pandan chicken

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Fish Cake

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Belachan Chicken

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As we left the place, we walked back towards the main road, Weld Quay. Along this stretch of road spreading across the five different clan jetties are pockets of street stalls selling famous Penang hawker food. One particular street stall struck me which had been there from generation to generation of the same family, selling Penang “goreng” ie Penang style battered street snacks – sweet potatoes, yam, banana, cempaka (type of tropical seed fruit), and other varieties. I had to try some and they were extremely tasty, unhealthy and addictive. This is the best stall for the Penang goreng snacks and very reasonably cheap.

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Penang without fail has to be the single most interesting place for food in Malaysia.

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The smooth and silky Hainanese poached chicken.

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Penang style Sar Hor Fun.

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The crispy egg noodle, Yee Mee.

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At the traditional old Chinese institution coffee shop at Campbell Street.

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A second visit to another old Chinese institution coffee shop famous for Dim Sum at Kimberley Street.

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The famous Penang Chendol dessert.

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Last but not least a plate of Indian Mee Sotong Goreng at an open air coffee shop in Beach Street, popular with office lunch crowd.

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Penang

It is nice to be away, but also nice to come back. I guess I am no different from everyone else who likes to travel. Before I arrived back in Melbourne, I was a bit concern that I was going to miss Penang. But, I guess I was not, and that it is nice to be back in Melbourne. Both places are unique and special.

I guess over time, I will start to miss Penang again for its food, the changing faces of George Town – street arts, heritage and architecture, boutique shops and accommodations, and most importantly the living culture and festivities of the place which makes Penang such a wonderful and special place to visit and to live. Here in this post, I highlights some of the things I have done, seen and visited from my last trip.

The culture…the Chinese Clan Houses,…”The Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi”

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The temples,…”The Kuan Yin Temple”

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The Chinese Clan Jetty,…Looking towards the other clan jetties from the “The Lim Jetty”

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The fishing villages,…Pulau Betong Fishing Village near Balik Pulau

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The hair saloon,…One of the last remaining all women hair saloon for men at Chulia Street.

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And, the Indian barber.

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The wet market,…the heritage listed “Campbell Street Wet Market”

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Little India in the heart of George Town.

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In the next posts, I will feature the food, the beach, the street arts and increasing popularity of heritage boutique accommodations in Penang captured from my last trip.

“Kuching” Take Four – Food of Kuching

I knew very little about Sarawak food except from a Facebook pal that the “must try” local street food is Kolo Mee and Sarawak Laksa. I went out with my partner, wondering the streets of Kuching in search of the local street food. We came across a very busy place at Carpenter Street across from a Chinese temple. It is an open space hawker centre with very high metal roof sheetings. There were no ceiling fans. It was hot. I could see 3 Chinese stalls – Kolo Mee, Pork Satay, and a “Leong Tau-Fu” stands. I thought to myself it had to be good as the place was completely full, and I was excited that I have found a Kolo Mee stall. Everyone seems to be ordering the dried Kolo Mee and satay. I went along with the crowd and did the same.

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I had to say that my first impression of the Kolo Mee was it looked plain and simple with little ingredients. My partner and I took turn to taste the dish. Unfortunately, we both were not impressed and thought the dish was quite plain and tasted of MSG. I decided to order another bowl but with minced pork balls to see if there was much difference. It tasted about the same with slightly more vegetables and pork.

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Next, we tried the pork satay. It seems to be very popular with the crowd. I ordered six sticks. The meat was a bit tough and overdone. It does not have the smoky charcoal grilled flavours like the version in Penang. I was surprise that the sauce was served over the satay rather than separately. It had too much liquid, rather than the thicker version in Penang.

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Overall, my first impression of the hawker food in Kuching was a bit disappointing, compare to what we can get back in Penang. Across from the hawker centre was a fritter hawker stall selling banana and sweet potato fritters. My consolation – it was hot, crisp and delicious. The batter was good. A nice little after snack.

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We made our way back to the hotel, for a rest at the poolside.

Later that evening, we went to an open air Seafood Center. A short stroll from the hotel. I have read and heard about this place, and had to try it. The place is called “Top Spot” above a public carpark building.

There were several seafood stands to select. Some stands seem to be more popular than the others. The stands sell almost the same thing with different operators and cooks. When we first arrived there, my partner was approached by the first stand and ushered to a table. Little did he knew that each of the stands was different. I was not going to be pressured by the charming young girl who tried to get us to order the food. I told her that I wanted to walk around first and look at each stand before deciding where to sit and eat. I was glad that I managed to get us out of the “selling tactic” of the first stand.

I chose stall 25, “Bukit Mata”. It seems to be the most popular with a small cashier counter in front of the stand. The lady boss stood out from the rest of the staff, dressed in traditional Sarong Kebaya collecting the payments. I told myself this was the right choice. I ordered five dishes – two giant mantis prawns grilled with garlic butter sauce, a grilled squid with black bean sauce, a deep fried fish in sweet and sour sauce, garlic stir fry “tau mew” and a fried rice. All for MYR$55, which was cheap. The best part, all the dishes were delicious and great! It was the right choice, and worth the visit to Top Spot Seafood Centre.

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In day 2 of our trip to Kuching, there was a coffee shop that I walked past the first day. It had more stalls including one that sell Sarawak Laksa. We went there for lunch. We ordered food from 3 different stalls – Sarawak Laksa, Mutton Soup and Mutton Curry (in claypot) with rice and dried noodles, and 2 vegetable dishes from an “Economy Rice” stand. I couldn’t remember how much we paid for all, but they were cheap. Cheaper than eating in Penang. I enjoyed all the food we ordered. Both mutton dishes were packed with flavours and meat was tender and just melt in the mouth. The Laksa was nice and interesting. A different version from the Penang Curry Laksa. It tasted like it had more curry spices flavour, a bit more stronger and pungent, and not as rich, sweet and creamy as the Penang curry laksa.

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Next to the coffee shop is a vegetarian restaurant, and next to this restaurant is another restaurant called “Hong Kong Noodle House”. We went to the later for our dinner. It was cheap, but the food was a bit disappointment. We ordered 4 dishes – a salted fish fried rice, a stuffed beancurd dish served with crab sauce, a stir fried beansprout with salted fish and my partner had to order a chicken dish with onion rings which I had a bad feeling just by reading the name. The bill came to MYR$35. The only dish that we both like was the salted fish fried rice. Even that, it was quite plain. And, the beancurd dish had too much flour and didn’t taste like beancurd. The worse dish was the chicken, which was tough and dry. It tasted like precooked chicken chop which was frozen, defrosted and re-deep fried. Even the beansprouts were not dehulled properly.

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Fortunately, our last meal in Kuching was on a high note. It was the best food we had in Kuching, and the most memorable one. It was a bit more expensive, but it was a big surprise and a must for any food lover visiting Kuching. It was stylish, modern, creative with a fusion touch. The ambiance was “zen-like” with nice soft music from “Buddha Bar CD” and some blues and jazz. The lighting was subdued and moody. There was water feature, plants, candles and a large Buddha head. There was exposed brick wall with a bit of rusticness in the main seating area, and plenty of colourful cushion for those who cannot sit too long on the hard wooden chairs, metal chairs and long wooden bench. It was indeed a rare and surprise find in Kuching, in a row of shop houses, which from the outside it looks like nothing special. I am talking about “Bla Bla Bla…”, an unusual choice of name for a restaurant. I guess it works.

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The service was friendly. The menu looks interesting. We ordered the soft shell crab, eggfloss halibut fish and midin salad. They were large dishes. The midin salad was served cold. Midin was a local vegetable, apparently only found in Sarawak. It looks unusual, almost miniature fern like with a curl at the tip. Tasted slightly crunchy and by itself probably plain and flavourless. But, mixed with fresh slices of shallots and chilies and dressed in a mixture of lime juice and sesame oil made it an interesting salad dish. The soft shell crab covered with some kind of salted floss (the waiter said it was a fish floss. I wasn’t too sure) and topped with julienne salad with mayonnaise and side dish of homemade chili dipping sauce was divine. It was one of the best soft shell crab version I ever had. The deep fried halibut fish cut in half and served with salted eggfloss was similar to other version of salted egg king prawns, mantis prawns and soft shell crabs that I had in other restaurants. But, never had I tried this style of cooking with a fish, and it worked and was an excellent dish. The total bill came to MYR$223, including a bottle of red wine for MYR$110. It was not cheap, but it was worth every dollar we paid for an excellent night and great food to end our trip to Kuching.

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“Kuching” Take Two – Wildlife

The one thing I have said to myself that I must do before I die is to see the “Orang Utan“. My dream came true when I visited Sarawak, and a visit to the Orang Utan’s reserve park – Semenggoh. Orang Utan is a Malay word. “Orang” means people. “Utan” or “Hutan” means jungle. Orang Utan is the largest primates of the great ape. They can only be found in the wild in Borneo and Sumatra. I understand from our tour guide that the orang utan family at Semenggoh came from the Indonesian rainforest of the Borneo Island. This family of 26 belongs to the male and “king” of the Semenggoh sanctuary. His name is “Ritchie”. I was told that he is very strong and large and dangerous if provoke. Like any wildlife in their natural habitat, it depends on “luck” if we get to see Ritchie or not.

We arranged a morning shuttle service pick-up from the hotel at 8 am, and arrived at Semenggoh about 8:45 am for the 9 am feeding time. When we arrived, there were already a few tourist shuttles. We were lucky, as not far from the parking was “Delima” and her less than a year old baby.

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Our guide told us to hurriedly move along to the lower feeding platform. There are two feeding platforms – the lower platform, and a second platform which is a short walk inside inside the forest, further away from the open space and crowd.

I made my way to the lower platform like the others. But, before we reached the platform, Delima decided to carry her baby and crossed in front of our path. We had to stay a distant away from her and her baby, as instructured by the rangers. While we waited, Delima cracked open a coconut with her two hands and teeth, to drink the juice and ate the flesh. I was about 3-5 metres in front of her. It was a great experience. She looked gentle and calm, and undeterred by the crowd. We were warned by the rangers to keep our distance and be extremely quiet. Once the orang utan gets upset, he/she can be aggresive and dangerous. There had been incidents where people got hurt, including the rangers. There were photos at the information centre to proof the damage the orang utan can do to a human.

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We arrived at the lower platform. One of the ranger was explaining some rules to follow while at “Ritchie’s home”. He warned us to run if we are told to run! We are also told not to fight with the orang utan if the primate came to snatch our bag. Just let go, as the orang utan is clever and know there is food inside. They are not out to steal the “money”! We were also told not to block the path of the orang utan if we happen to come across one in front of us. We were told that we are not at a zoo, and that this is the real thing – the rainforest, home to 26 members of the orang utan. We are in their territory. It was quite “comforting” to know that they are not tame, not like in the movies!

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While I watched Delima and her baby eating the bananas on the platform, I heard some noises up the trees at a distant. It was another female with her baby. I was delighted that I was lucky to witness two females and each with their baby making to the feeding platform. Delima’s baby was trying to get the attention of the other baby orang utan, but the other one was not happy to play along. Both female orang utan kept their distant, and kept a watchful eyes on their baby. It was fascinating to observe the primates behaviour which is not much different from us human mum.

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I made my way to the other platform, further inside the forest. When I got there, there were already a lot of people, and it was a bit noisy from some of the tourists, and teenage girls. There were several signs asking the tourists to keep quiet, but yet they were making noises. I think that was the reason that we sat and stood there for fifteen minutes and none of the orang utan came out for their feeding, especially Ritchie. The ranger finally asked everyone to leave and shut the area.

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