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3 Days / 2 Nights in Penang, Malaysia

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Insight Penang

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Morning Walk

I woke up one morning in Penang looking forward to my walk along the east coast of Penang island. There are not that many places to go for a nice morning or evening walk in Penang. Most locals will walk around the Botanical Garden or up the Penang Hill for the cooler climate. To do that one will need to either drive there or lucky enough to live nearby.

I love walking and looking at the scenery. At the Queensbay area, which is fast becoming overdeveloped with more and new high rise apartment living has a nice walking and bicycle track. This track was recently built to promote a better and healthy lifestyle for the residents living in the area.P1160564P1160560

It is not a long track but good enough for a start. An easy 20 minute walk from one end to the other end. Eventually this track will continue all the way to the city. It is a lovely spot to sit, relax and watch the sun rises from behind the small island “Pulau Jerejak” across the channel. Unfortunately there are not that many people taking advantage of this public space in the morning. However, it is different in the evening. It is extremely popular with the locals who come usually in a small group sitting on the many provided benches to enjoy the view of Pulau Jerejak, and the 2 Penang bridges – the oldest one towards north of the island and the recently opened 2nd Penang bridge towards the south which is the longest bridge in Southeast Asia spanning approximately 24 km!

This morning, I was interested to explore and find out how far I could walk along the coast towards south without taking too much risk on my life as the busy motorway runs alongside the coast line. I was glad that I have done it. No crazy local will do what I did. I was the only person that could be seen walking along the coast line among the heavy morning traffic with commuters rushing to work.

Starting the walk at Queensbay was a safe pathway for pedestrian. However, once it ends I had to gingerly stepped onto the beginning of the motorway and walked as close as possible to the side a few metres from the beach. There are a few obstacles. The beach doesn’t stretched all the way. It ended with some rocks and a wide stormwater discharge into the sea. There are a few trenches which I had to perform my little jumped. I am pleased to see that there are decent footpath after a couple of km walks. The view was nice looking across the channel to the Jerejak and the new bridge, a Malay fishing village with colourful fisherman boats, a few Malays rod fishing.P1160477P1160472P1160423P1160490P1160459P1160436P1160461P1160494P1160406

On my way back walking along the beach, I saw a few little amphibious fish skipping in group. They are the most peculiar little fish with big bulging eyes that breathe out of water. I am thinking they are mudskipper or walking fish. Some of them were resting on small rocks. Their fins must be pretty strong for them to hold onto the rock without being washed away as the waves crashed against the rock and their bodies. They seem to be having a great time.P1160511P1160550

The walk took me 2 hours with intermittent stops to take some photographs. Will I do it again? Probably not. It was noisy with the heavy traffic. I will stick with the nice and safe pathway along the Queensbay coast line.

Tok Tok ala Talk Talk

That is the name of the place. A catchy phrase, pop culture or just hip and trendy…probably all in one. It is an unassuming place in a standard block building in a suburb surrounded by other shop lots of food eating places in a residential neighbourhood in the southeast of Penang island. This trendy, rustic and arty place with a wine bar that looks something like a western movie set “saloon bar” would be more suited for the old part of George Town in the city amongst the boutique hotels, galleries and cafes.P1160325P1160305
The place started off as “Tok Tok”, a small single shop lot café of fusion style food with a Thai-Chinese crossed Nyonya local Penang fare. It was last year when I first stumbled upon this place with my partner, my mum and sister. We frequented that area for the food at a Chinese restaurant, “Wang Chao“. But it was shut and we decided to try “Tok Tok” which was a couple of shop lots from Wang Chao. I had good memory of the place, the food and the service.

This morning I caught up with my mum and sis for an early breakfast. After a local Penang all time street favourite, “Char Koay Teow”, I went for a walk around mum’s local wet market. It was a small market but each individual stalls was a delight to look at from fresh poultry to fishmongers, fresh flowers, vegetables and herbs, fruits, wet and dried spices, fresh grated coconuts, cream, milk, organic food, snacks, biscuits, Taoism religious and prayer matters. I was tempted to buy a few things. In my mind – fresh grated coconuts, coconut milk, ready mixed wet chilli and curry pastes, fresh turmeric, fresh tofu…the list goes on. But wait! I can’t take them home to Australia. I opted for something less to satisfy my urge – a packet of organic red rice and “sugar cane” sugar. I was thinking of the organic cold pressed coconut oil, but remembered that I am going home with only a hand carry bag. No check in luggage!

After a whirlwind of wet market, I told mum that I will take her and sis out for dinner tonight. It was her idea that we go back to Tok Tok, because she remembers that I enjoyed the food the last time. For a 78 years old lady, she has a better memory than me!

Tok Tok is the sound of “tok tok mee” or wanton mee. “mee” is “noodle” in the local Penang dialect, Hokkien. A memory flashed back to old Penang. There was a street vendor who pushed his cart in the neighbourhood selling his wanton noodle by making a distinctive “tok tok” noise by banging a pair of bamboo sticks on the surface of his cart. This was to let the people know that he is getting near to their home. I remember hearing this “tok tok” noise and will yell out to mum that the wanton man is here! How easy was that? The food came to your doorstep in the old days. Even a wondering Indian Barber with his high chair wooden stool!

The modern day “Tok Tok” at Bangunan Lip Sin at the Pekaka neighbourhood is nothing like the old “tok tok” days. There is a generous size ala carte menu with some Penang famous street food fare including as you would expect, “Tok Tok Mee”, Nasi Lemak, Siam Laksa, Lor Bak, Sang Mee and others. There is rice dishes which focus mostly on Thai and Nyonya dishes. We ordered dishes to accompany with rice – Loh Bak as entrée, a salted vegetable with tofu soup “Kiam Chai Tau Hu Teng”, deep fried Siam chicken, Pattaya fried rice and mixed vegetables. For drink we ordered a homemade warm beancurd drink.P1160274

After we have ordered, I looked around the place which has now been extended into 2 other shop lots next to each other. The immediate left shop is “Talk Talk” wine bar featuring a live jazz band on a weekend. Next to this is a more relax coffee lounge. All three are interconnected inside. There are opened atrium upper floor seatings. The place is hip, trendy and cool. I would love to come back next time to listen to some live music.P1160278

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The food…they were delicious! The only let down for me was the Loh Bak. It was better the first time I tried it last year. I don’t believed they were freshly made tonight. They were hard and overcooked. Probably been deep fried a few times. They were served on a bed of very old lettuces.P1160304 It was not a good start when it first came on the table. But I was very glad that the rest of the dishes were top notched! They were very good. The highlight was the finger licking good crispy and crunchy chicken and yet moist and tender inside. One of the best deep fried chicken I ever had for a long time.P1160312 Next was the nyonya style “Kiam Chai Tahu Teng” ie the salted preserved vegetable soup with silken tofu. It arrived in a steamy, bubbling hot claypot with heaps of fried garlic on top giving the soup a nice all round flavour. It was salty, sweet and tangy with slivers of fresh ginger in the broth.P1160308. The mixed vegetables and Pattaya fried rice were also very good. I must say I have ordered too much for 3 of us, but like most places they allowed us to take home what we couldn’t finished.P1160319

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P1160313 The food was a bit pricey in the area. The total bill came to $115 Malaysian Ringgit but still a very good value for what I couldn’t get in Australia, roughly $40 Australian dollar.

The other thing that impressed me was the commercial kitchen. It is enclosed in glass wall as you walked to the toilet. It is like a showroom which you can watch the kitchen in action – well organised and clean.P1160307 I gave the “Auntie” who cooked our meal two thumbs up for her food.

“Tok Tok” and “Talk Talk” is certainly the talk of the town in Pekaka and the surrounding suburbs. If you haven’t been there yet, I suggest you better go for “Auntie” homecooked meal. There is nothing pretentious and she was a bit shy if you try and snap a photo of her through the glass wall.P1160322

Nona Bali

It has been awhile since I have written about a restaurant and its food. I guess I haven’t been to one that tick all the boxes – the food, the service, the price and the location.

Two days ago, a couple of our new friends introduced us to a Balinese restaurant in Penang. They are food lovers and told us there is a very good balinese restaurant. They took us there. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Always keep an open mind and expected the unexpected. Be surprised. I told myself that we are in good hands and our friends know and love their food. So, they better not be wrong! We arrived at the restaurant for lunch. It is located in a new seafront promenade facing the channel and mainland. The location is ideal with light sea breezes. It was a Saturday afternoon slightly after 1pm. The area was quiet and peaceful without much traffic, being a few years old. It is mostly residential with new high rise condominiums and townhouses and shop lots. Not all the shops were occupied. I felt at bliss.P1150950

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P1150948Our friend parked his car just a few metres from the restaurant. The front of the restaurant was decked with potted plants, red balinese umbrellas on both side of the entrance and some red Chinese New Year’s decorative items for prosperity and good luck. That is a good sign of a welcoming restaurant. P1150951P1150946 On entering Nona Bali, it was even more impressive. It is well decorated with colourful pictures on the wall and balinese fabric sliding panels above the bar/front counter. The colour scheme was charcoal black on all walls and ceiling with matching lighter beige tone wooden tables and chairs. It is the sort of place that I would see in Melbourne, but in Penang, it definitely has style and class but yet casual.P1150934

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P1150932There is a lunch special between $20 rinngit to $24 ringgit. The lunch menu is a “nasi campur” which means mixed rice. It is the best way of trying out different dishes on one plate with some rice. I ordered the version with fish and partner ordered the chicken version. Our friends ordered a fish version and a fried rice version. The food came with a refreshing drink of either an iced peach drink or iced lime drink. I have to say when the food came, I was very impressed on how the dishes were plated with the cone-shaped rice in the middle.P1150927

P1150925 Now for the taste. It was delicious. The pan fried mackerel fish on top of a spread of spicy sambal was delicious. I love a real kick to a hot sambal. It was spicy and I couldn’t get enough and had to ask for more sambal. The grilled mackerel fish paste wrapped around the lemongrass stick was smooth and aromatic with a nice zestic flavour. The slice of cucumber and tomato help to tone down the spiciness of the sambal. The soup was tangy with dried shrimp and dried shallots. The blanched green topped with red skin peanut sambal chilli gave a nice crunch and texture to the overall “nasi campur”. The serving size was just right and sufficient for a nice afternoon lunch. Topping up the whole experience at Nona Bali is the gracious host, Peter, who is charming and charismatic, who is passionate about his restaurant. He talks about his satay cart outside the front of the restaurant, with some seatings, which we all agree will be a nice addition to the whole character of the restaurant. I really look forward to come back to Nona Bali again. A great addition to the food and culinary scene of Penang. P1150939

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Nona Bali is located at 25Grd Flr, Lebuh Sungai Pinang 5, 11600 Penang, Malaysia. Phone number 04-281 5983. Website address http://www.nonabalipenang.com

Art is Rubbish is Art by Ernest Zacharevic

When I first read about a solo exhibition by the popular Penang street artist, a Lithuanian born Ernest Zacharevic, long time residence of Malaysia, before I left for Penang, I had to include that as a “must-see” exhibition in my calendar on my recent trip.

Zacharevic has make himself famous national in Penang and Malaysia after he started painting his wall mural on some of the old, dirty and exposed walls that nobody care to repaint in the old town of George Town, gazetted as worth preserving as a world heritage site by UNESCO. These walls have since been painted over by Zacharevic displaying some of the most famous photographed painting by the locals and visitors to Penang. Zacharevic has now attracted even a wider international interest with coverage by BBC news and other international publications. He is being compared to other world famous street artists, like Banksy whose painting can fetch a fortune.

Zacharevic launched his first solo exhibition in George Town called “Art is Rubbish is Art” at a disused bus depot, Hin Bus Depot, an ideal location for such an exhibition. The venue is interesting itself with a sheltered main building leading to an exposed open space in the back with broken walls and overlooking the back of a row of old brick terraces.P1150646

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I went there with my partner and a couple of new friends whom we came to know and met in Penang. I came to love street arts after living in Melbourne, one of the street art capital in the world. Penang street art painted by Zakarevic has a different feel to the street arts in Melbourne. Zakarevic’s painting of his local social experience and children happily playing and laughing are the sort of scenes that the locals will accept. There is nothing controversial about his artwork. However, there was a recent work that he did in Johor Bahru of a snatched thief that didn’t go down well with the authority.

His recent solo exhibition; however, I believed is a bit more moody with interesting subjects. It will be interesting to see what he does next.P1150636

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Bangkok Floating Market

There were two things that I wanted to do on my last trip to Bangkok. One is “Wat Arun” or Temple of the Dawn in English. The other is the Floating Market. Bangkok is a fascinating city with a population exceeding $10 million people. It is massive and sprawling like no other city in Southeast Asia countries, except probably Jakarta and Manila.

The last time I have been to a Bangkok floating market was in 1989. I was seconded to Bangkok to work for IBM Thailand by a Malaysian IBM Business Partner, Sunway Computer Services. That was a long time ago. But the memory is still with me because it was a good few months experience living and working in Bangkok until I had a viral infection due to food poisoning. It left me sick for several weeks unable to work and almost had to be hospitalised. That was a frightening experience. Bangkok at that time was nothing like today. The public transport system is dependent either on the bus, “tuk-tuk” or the motorcyles. The road traffic jam was like a carpark and the air pollution quality was very poor. The food hygiene was not regulated and the drinking water quality was not recommended to drink off the tap.

In today’s Bangkok, modernisation has seen Bangkok quality of life improved significantly with a better public transport network system – the “Skytrain” monorail, underground subway train, elevated pedestrian bridges connecting several mega building complexes and hotel river boats transporting the tourists from a riverside hotel to the Skytrain station at Sapak Taksin Pier. It is much easier for the tourists to move around without getting stuck on the notorious peak hour traffic jam.

In 1989, one of my Thai IBM colleagues was showing me around Thailand. Thai people are very hospitable and gentle. They spoke eloquently in a soft melodies tone of voice. Their language is as enchanting as their culture and country. They are mesmerising. This is the beautiful and true side of Thailand. Not the other side – the sex industry – that many foreign male tourists are accustomed to – like “Patpong”, the Go-Go Bars and “Lady Boy”.

My Thai colleague took me to the ancient ruined kingdom of Ayutthaya and the floating market. It was one of the best experiences I had while living in Thailand. It was a living and breathing culture on the canals with boat vendors floating gently on the water selling their fresh produces and “make to order” cooked food. That was a true Thai floating market. There was hardly any tourist around except the locals.

Tourism is a big industry in Thailand. The floating market is no exception. It is touristy – the one nearest to Bangkok. It is easy to get to from the Chao Phraya River. There are canal tour services by the hours at the Sapak Taksin Pier. Before I left Bangkok and headed back to Penang for a few more days, I thought it was a nice idea to go on the canal riverboat tour to the floating market. I hired one of the longtail boat for 1½ hours trip to the floating market for 1, 600 Thai Baht for two of us. The weather was overcast and windy. The river was choppy and rough. There were intermittent stopped when the very dark and brown Chao Phraya river got too rough. It was thrilling and nerve racking at the same. I would hate to think what would happened if the boat got overturned into the brown river! After twenty minutes from Sapak Taksin Pier, we came to an opening leading to a narrow canal snaking through several brick walled houses and stilt wooden houses.P1130823P1130808There were other longtail boats along the way. Around a narrow bend, our driver yelled out to us, “floating market!” and pointed towards a tiny boat vendor in front of us. We laughed. I was astonished thinking that, “is that it?!”. Then our boat pulled alongside the tiny boat. The boat vendor smiled, the usual Thai charm, and said, “Buy Beer nah?…” “…only 100 Baht” “…buy for your driver nah.” “…he can drink after finish work.” I said no. Then, she took out a small canned coffee. “How about Ca-Fey?..” “…only 30 Baht.” “…buy for your driver nah.” I said no again. She was very persistent. Then she said something in Thai to our driver. Probably cursing us. We moved on. Thank god! That was an ordeal, but funny.P1130834We finally arrived at the real floating market. There were so many tourists and boats pulled alongside the wooden platform to let the tourist on and off. Our boat driver said twenty minutes. We hopped off the boat. It was like a Hollywood film set except this was real as it gets in Bangkok – with tourists and the odd numbers of boat vendors parked alongside the wooden structures platforms for people to sit and eat. There were boat vendors selling grilled seafood, satay, noodle soup and “Som Tam” (green papaya salad). The place felt authentic and rustic without making the place looked new or modern. The wooden platform was an extension of a solid ground where there are more stalls selling different kinds of Thai street food and drinks, fresh fruits, plants, kitchenware and souvenirs.P1130848P1130895P1130861 P1130859P1130911 P1130905 P1130897 P1130871 P1130869 P1130847I bought a block of ‘coconut sugar’ for 45 Baht, which I initially thought it was ‘palm sugar’ until the vendor corrected me. Hopefully I can take into Australia. I have never tried a coconut sugar in my drink or cooking. This will be interesting and a new food experiment when I get home to Melbourne.P1130875This Bangkok floating market is vastly different from my experience in 1989, which was truly an authentic Thai floating market with the boat vendors floating gently on the canal river selling their fresh vegetables and fruits or serving their boat food to early morning market goers and village homes along the canal. Nevertheless, the Bangkok version of the floating market is still a good experience for many tourists.