Malaysia does not seem to be on the radar of most American tourists, at least not in the way that Thailand and Bali are. After an enjoyable two weeks, I think it should be. Malaysia has islands and beaches, great food and traditional architecture, history, culture, lots of English speakers, and outdoor opportunities. It’s also a developed economy (it felt just as affluent as Russia, if not more), which means you can find good grocery stores, familiar toiletries, air conditioning, functioning public buses, and well-maintained trails. But unlike many places with a similar level of development, Malaysia is also quite cheap.
We split our time in Malaysia roughly in half: first half on Penang Island (also spelled Pinang) and the second half split between the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, and Malacca (also spelled Melaka).
Quick note on spelling: many place names in Malaysia have inconsistent English-language spelling. I’m using Penang and Malacca for this blog. Other sources will vary (including my Instagram posts).
Food in Penang
We arrived in George Town on Penang island at night after a full day of travel by minibus from Koh Lanta, so our first trip out was just for food. And like most trips out in Penang, it was a success. It was difficult to go wrong with food in Malaysia. The cultural mix produced interesting cuisine.
As a result of immigration from China for centuries and further migration from India under British rule, Malaysia has a diverse population — and a diverse set of food options. Malaysia’s diversity was most noticeable in Penang and Malacca — which along with Singapore were the Crown Colony of the Straits Settlements from 1867 to 1946. That said, Malaysia’s diversity was noticeable everywhere we went.
We started with Indian food — finding a street food stand with fantastic roti (flatbread) and chicken in thin curry sauce (similar to Chicken Tikka Masala). Indian and Pakistani food was widely available and the dishes are recognizable for travelers who have lived or traveled in India, the UK, or the San Francisco Bay Area. Pork and alcohol availability may depend on the religion of the proprietor, but the cooking styles are similar across Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh-operated shops. And it can be extremely cheap. The street stand a few blocks from our first hotel consistently cost us less than RM 12 (under USD 3). More established places were more expensive, but still well-priced.
“Chinese” food is a bit more complex, though every bit as tasty. Chinese immigrants have lived along the Straits of Malacca and in the surrounding region for centuries — with new waves of immigrants more recently. Among food options where the signs had Chinese writing, we found variety of styles and ingredients. One of the best that we visited (and most expensive, at around $15-20 for two people) was Tek Sen Restaurant.
And we had lots of different Malay foods, including Cendol, a tasty desert featuring red beans and green noodles.
Honestly, we even had some foods that are tough to define as “Chinese” or “Malay” at a cluster of street stalls on Lebuh Kimberly (lebuh means street).
We returned to Kimberley Street the next night for Char Koay Teow (left) and Laksa (right). It was all delicious and super cheap.
More Food and Fun for Christmas
We didn’t plan far ahead for where to be on Christmas, and it turned out to be Penang. We made the best of it, with a focus on food (because that’s what Christmas is really about, right?) — so even though Christmas was our last full day in Penang, I’m going to cover it in here because we basically ate our way through the day:
We started with a sunrise run to Fort Cornwallis and back, which took us through the setup for a street fair. Running before sunrise wasn’t an attempt to be fancy or ambitious, it was because it was still insanely hot and humid before the sun came up.
After time to cool down, wash up, and put on our Sunday best (best of limited options), we went to the St. George’s Church for a service led by the Anglican Bishop.
The Bishop was excited to sing Feliz Navidad, which was in the program, but the musicians had other songs on their list so we never got to it. While that was disappointing, I was amused to see what I think was an attempt to spell the Spanish-language lyrics in phonetic style, which spelled “prospero ano y felicidad” as “pospero anyo lee feliz sidad.”
Then it was time to eat. We made our way to the street fair and along to a cafe that served affogatos with Baileys in cookie cups. Yum.
Then we went to the Swiss-run cafe Edelweiss for fondue. Dipping items included vegetables in addition to the traditional bread, and I had a chance to have German beer. It felt like such a luxury to have good cheese again so soon after having it on Koh Lanta!
We finished the evening with a nice slice of cake (after a quick trip to our favorite roti stand). Most businesses are open on Christmas because most Malaysians don’t celebrate Christmas. Malaysia is majority Muslim, so Christmas was in large part like any other day for most people. That said, lots of people wished us a Merry Christmas as we walked down the street and lots of businesses had Christmas decorations up, so the atmosphere was still very festive.
I was a bit sad to not have any family with us for the holidays, but we made the best of it on the far side of the world.
This post is getting long (since we spent so much time eating delicious food in Penang), so I’ll finish with the city’s sights in the next post.
[This blog post describes our attempt to eat our way through our trip to Penang, Malaysia, December 19-26, 2016.]