Glorious George Town and Penang National Park

We were in Ipoh for all of 24 hours before hitting the road again, this time towards Penang and George Town. A couple of hours later we were checking in to our hotel in the centre of the old town and immediately heading out again in search of lunch. We knew where we were going to have lunch before we even stepped on the flight to Malaysia; Tek Sen came with a personal recommendation from close friends as well as rave reviews in Lonely Planet and on tripadvisor. It 100% lived up to the hype and we ended up eating there twice.

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The restaurant gets super busy but the turnover is quick so no one was waiting for long, we went for lunch after 1:30pm both times and had a table within minutes. Don’t worry though, you don’t feel rushed through your meal, it’s just that your food is served quickly and then you practically inhale the deliciousness. Tek Sen is famous for its double roasted pork, which is awesome but actually not the best thing that we had. We would also recommend trying the deep-fried chicken with Thai sauce, the foo yung, the winged beans and, above all, the sensational stir-fried aubergine that Caro would happily live off of exclusively for the rest of her life.

Refuelled, we set off on a heritage tour of the town combining a lonely planet walk a leaflet that we had picked up at the information centre. Today was more about exploring the town rather than going in to places (most of those on the heritage tour aren’t open to the general public anyway) so we ticked a lot of our list on that first afternoon. As in Ipoh, the colonial state buildings gleamed white.

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The waterfront esplanade is slowly being reclaimed by the sea and the walls do little to prevent the water cascading across the path. A huge regeneration project is in the works but for the time being there is a sort of shabby charm about the walk which culminates at Fort Cornwallis. Apparently, there is relatively little to be appreciated inside the fort itself so James satisfied himself with an exterior photo with a cannon.

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We wound up on Chew jetty, perhaps the most famous and certainly the largest of George Town’s clan jetties, where clan members still live perched on stilts out over the water. The stalls along the jetty are all aimed at tourists but it’s nice to wander out to the end and admire the hodge podge of houses.

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You may be slightly put off by the less than solid looking foundations consisting of poles set in buckets of concrete, but the jetty has been there for around 150 years and seems to be holding up.

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A quick side note: Available on the jetty, and absolutely everywhere in Malaysia, is durian ice cream. Let’s be perfectly clear here; durian is revolting. It is a local thick skinned, spiky fruit, larger than a coconut, smaller than a pumpkin. It is not allowed in hotels, on public transport, in airplanes and in most buildings because it absolutely reeks of dead animal. So, whenever you do see it for sale, it will be outside. Apparently, the flesh itself has a creamy texture and a sweet taste but as we never got closer than 10 feet from the things if we could help it, we aren’t able to confirm that. Caro, in particular, cannot stomach the smell and is now so tuned in to it that she can smell a durian from 100 metres away. According to one of our many helpful Grab drivers, it still stinks in ice cream form. Also, if you drink alcohol and eat durian there’s a good chance that you will die, so a winning fruit all round.

There is absolutely no doubt that George Town is best explored on foot. The UNESCO world heritage area is nearly all one way, making it a bit of a warren to drive around and with narrow streets and people everywhere you are better off walking, the area is an easily manageable size. Being on foot also means that you can appreciate George Town’s big ticket items; the Chinese shop houses, temples, clan houses, mosques and heritage buildings that earned it its world heritage status, and its abundance of street art. Rather than trying to tackle the street art all in one go, we got hold of a map and marked things off as and when we saw them on our wanderings. Ernest Zacharevic features heavily once again but there are huge numbers of artists represented, here is a small selection of the art we saw over our 3 days:

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Perhaps more prevalent than the painted street art is the worked metal installations created by Penang based studio, Sculpture at Work, as part of the Marking George Town initiative run by the Penang State Government in 2009. The sculptures were designed to capture and give insight in to Penang’s history and culture in a fun and accessible way.

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Every street and corner revealed something to be admired and you find yourself getting used to the beautiful buildings, as though it’s like that everywhere, quite a shock on the eyes when you leave the bubble of the old town and venture back in to the real world.

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On our second day, we visited Penang’s only national park. We boarded the public bus at the jetty bus stop and it took over an hour for us to cover the 23 kilometres to the park due to traffic and many many stops. The bus drops you off at the park headquarters where we registered before setting off. Many people take a boat to skirt around the park’s coastline and then walk back, or vice versa. At the time of our visit, a boat was the only way to access some of the beaches due to weather damage to the walking trails. Also, sadly, the canopy walkway was closed for restoration works.  We decided we needed to stretch our legs so tackled the trail to Pantai Kerachut and the meromictic lake.

The walk starts along an immaculately swept path next to the water leading to what looks like a solid bridge before the trail branches off in to the jungle. We both stepped confidently on to the bridge at exactly the same time only to stumble around like drunks as it swayed alarmingly beneath us. We STILL haven’t mastered swing bridges. From here the path is rough and you find yourself climbing up washed out steps and picking your way through roots.

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Part of the path is set into a deep ditch, this is an historic path worn by Ox pulling timber out of the forest. The deepest sections of the trench were first dug out of the hill by hand in order to clear a route, an absolutely massive and presumably exceptionally sweaty undertaking of manual labour.

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Having ascended for a good 45 minutes, we clambered our way back down the trench on the other side to reach the lake and the beach, which is pretty enough although swimming is prohibited.

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For those who are interested, Lonely Planet describes a meromictic lake as a rare natural feature which is composed of two separate layers of unmixed water, freshwater on top and sea water below. Cool as a concept, visually uninspiring.

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At the end of the beach is a turtle hatchery which we understood to be conservation scheme supporting the turtle nesting which occurs on the parks beaches. Intrigued to learn more we wandered along. We found the hatchery awful, they had large turtles confined to tiny tanks and children were banging on the sides unchecked. There was scarcely any information and no one around to ask why the turtles were being kept like this.

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We have since googled the hatchery and cannot find any information beyond tripadvisor. It may be that they are doing good work but with no one there to manage visitors or explain anything it was a truly disheartening experience.

We retraced our steps through the jungle. Aside from the hatchery it was an enjoyable stomp through the humid and sweaty jungle. If you plan to explore the National Park take plenty of water and wear sturdy footwear. As usual, we saw numerous people walking in flip flops or wearing jeans or long dresses. It is a reasonably challenging trail, so prepare appropriately.

We were strolling back along the immaculately swept path, commenting on whether it really took 5 people to sweep the 250 metres, when we passed someone looking avidly out to sea. Not thinking much of it, we wandered on for about 50 metres before registering what he was looking at; an enormous monitor lizard was swimming along the shoreline.

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Feeling glad we hadn’t encountered him on land, we hopped on a bus back to town, making a brief stop in a mall to purchase our next batch of Lonely Planets. After a couple of hours hiding in the air conditioning at our hotel we went out in search of dinner amongst George Town’s hawker stalls. Being hawker stall newbies, we decided to head to Lebuh Chulia where the stalls are popular with tourists and English is widely spoken. The stalls are also conveniently located near to backpacker haven, Love Lane, and it just so happened to be happy hour, so a quick pre-dinner beer was deemed necessary. Love Lane is also home to some of George Town’s best preserved buildings and more street art.

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The hawker stalls were buzzing with locals and a few tourists mixed among them. It was very busy and all the tables along the road were full. We dived down a side road and found a spot by a drinks stand, we bought drinks to secure the table and then delved in to some of the edible delights on offer.

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We went a bit noodle mad trying the curry mee, laksa and hokkien char, all of which had heaps of flavour although the much-lauded laksa wasn’t really to our tastes. We went back for seconds of the excellent spring rolls, the contents of which we could not fathom beyond being pretty sure that there was mashed potato involved. Everything was pretty cheap and the overall experience was great fun, hawker stalls are now one of our go to options for food, you just need to be prepared to get a bit warm.

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The next day we were flying to Kuala Besut in the evening so had the best part of the day to whip around some more of the sights before heading to the airport. First up was Cheong Fatt Tze’s Blue Mansion, which is also a hotel. If you aren’t a guest you can only visit the mansion on a tour, which we hadn’t booked, so here is a picture of what you can see of the outside (not much).

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A majority of our morning was spent at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion which we would 100% recommend. Entrance is RM20 each but this also includes a free tour which takes about 45 minutes and they give you heaps of information. The Perankans (also known as Straits Chinese or, rather more charmingly, Babas and Nyonyas) were a community of highly influential and prominent Chinese settlers in Malaya. The 19th century mansion, despite not actually belonging to a Baba, is an excellent example of the style in which these wealthy people lived. Within the museum you can see exhibits depicting the extent to which the house had deteriorated following World War II and therefore appreciate the enormous restoration work that has taken place to restore it to its former glory.

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Caro was particularly taken with the mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture and wondered whether or not we could make it work in our London flat. A two-seater chair designed for conversation and so that both parties could catch the breeze on a hot day was also a favourite.

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There is so much stuff in this house and after the tour its definitely worth taking another half hour or so to appreciate it all. The house is connected by a “secret passageway” to the beautifully restored, brilliantly colourful ancestral temple next door, which is also home to a colony of bats.

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There was time for a bite of lunch before heading to the airport and where better to round off our fabulous trip to George Town than back at Tek Sen? The food was just as delicious as it had been before and the only difference this time was that we ordered more of it. We figured that there was a good chance that we wouldn’t have dinner that night and therefore it was totally reasonable for us to eat enough for eight but the reality is that we are just really quite greedy. And we are totally fine with that.

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