We had become very comfortable in our Samui home. The setting on the toaster had long since been adjusted to pop the perfect toast. We knew which isles in the supermarket to whizz down to get our essentials. We had our favourite restaurants for different food moods. And after 3 months of living there we hadn’t remotely had enough. We could very easily have carried on, spending mornings at the pool or the beach, eating our usual 50 Baht (£1-something) take-aways for lunch while our tot napped, and going on little road trip adventures, sometimes new and sometimes familiar, around the island in the afternoon. But our visas were reaching their end and so we had to plan to move on.
Initially we’d wanted to go to Indonesia, but the flights were just too expensive, so we looked into alternative closer options and managed to find much cheaper flights to Penang in Malaysia. While at first we hadn’t considered staying there long, we found a condo with a 69% monthly discount, which was too good a deal to pass up on, so we plonked ourselves on the island of Penang for a month.
It couldn’t feel more different to Samui or Koh Phangan, or even to what we remember of Langkawi from a trip years ago. It’s very built up and busy, with a much more modern and methodical bustle than that of Samui. Driving along clean, well manicured roads, often lined with trees and hedges cut into tidy shapes, it doesn’t even feel like you’re on an island as you zip through neat suburbs or line up behind countless cars and snake your way through rush hour traffic, past sky scraper condo blocks and large shopping complexes.
Our new temporary home is Unit 2 C4-02 in one of these towering buildings, standing alongside another 5 identical blocks. We have to walk through a parking lot and up and down various concrete ramps to get to the lift, where we find ourselves reading the numerous rules pinned to the notice board while waiting for it to arrive. Our apartment is modern and also homely, with a cracking view out to sea. Having never lived by the sea and always been drawn to it, I’m enchanted on a daily basis by this view, even when the sky is grey and the sea a dull pastel green. At other times the sky and sea share countless shades of blues and turquoise, or the sea plays lake and reflects fluffy cottonwool clouds, or an ominous grey storm rolls in and engulfs the horizon, or the sky becomes electric with pinks and oranges before the sun slips away.
The tiny beaches nearest to us are almost completely covered at high tide, so you either have to plan trips in line with the tides (along with teams of other people on weekends), or just stick to the pool instead. On a couple of week day mornings though we’ve visited Moonlight beach, a beautiful bay with clusters of massive grey boulders basking in the sun, and we were the only people there. There’s an out-of-action restaurant behind the beach, undergoing a slow refurb, and the complete lack of any style in the concrete and tin structure is a characterless eyesore. But, with our backs to this and the bits of rubbish the tide sweeps up along the wall separating the cliff and the beach, there’s a sense of natural beauty, which we had the luxury of not having to share, despite the number of towering buildings along the busy road that follows the shore.
Our experience of the main island beach, Batu Ferringhi, where lots of large resorts are based, was very different to this though. When we first visited the beach we made our way through the Shangri-La at a point fronted by numerous well established water sport businesses, in amongst scads of massage huts, and came to realise that our experiences of quiet, palm tree lined beaches have led us to become beach snobs. We’d been to busy beaches in Samui – namely Chaweng and Lamai – where whining jet skies constantly bounced up and down at a pace through the water, boats pulled different floating vessels behind them, topped with shrieking thrill seekers, and the beach was covered with people soaking up the sun, but only a couple of times. The rest of the time we’d spent at much quieter beaches where we only shared the space with a few other people and a couple of dogs, and the view across the sea was water sport free. The number of people toasting themselves in the Penang sun differed at Batu Ferringhi (since lots of the beach goers were berkini clad Middle Eastern tourists), and there weren’t quite as many activities to choose between, but those on offer were just as popular and, as soon as the parasail came down, the wind was back in the parachute again, dangling the next person above swimmers’ heads. Whilst bobbing in the sea, aside from having to keep an eye on the ropes as parasaillers launched off and landed back on the beach, and the wakes from various boats, you also couldn’t help but keep focusing on all scum floating on the water, which you had to try and make peace with because there was just too much to avoid.
After this day trip and another to a recommended beach bar for an evening drink, we couldn’t help but feel that the beach lacked magic. I can’t quite put my finger on what that magic is on a Thai island beach, where the shabby and run-down restaurants add to the character, rather than making it feel beaten up and tacky, but Batu Ferringhi is missing this charm – at least until the sunset kicks in. This and the just as charmless, touristy main strip of restaurants and shops made us quickly write Batu Ferringhi off. But we did later follow another recommendation to have a sunset drink at Rasa resort at the end of the beach, and didn’t regret it. Sitting at one of many tables and peering through palm trees across landscaped lawns to the sea, while sipping on overpriced drinks, was a very civilised way to catch the sky turning pink. Our little tot also loved running around on the grass and spotting the parachutes she’d become enamoured with. So perhaps it didn’t deserve to be fully written off.
We’d had lots of beach time over the last 3 months in Thailand though and so have been happily spending our time in Penang differently, often being drawn into Georgetown. This UNESCO World Heritage site (whatever that means, other than that it’s something worth holding onto) is full of character, and bristles with different cultures, as well as both historical and funky, contemporary influences. It’s such fun to wander the streets and happen across exciting street art, pasted onto the side of unassuming buildings!
Little India is a regular stop for us, since you can go into any restaurant and select some scrumptious curries that just happen to be vegan, or go to specifically vegetarian restaurants and also have your pick of ‘mutton’ or ‘chicken’ curries, where I would bet money meat eaters could not tell the difference. And walking along the bustling streets is a feast for all senses, with lively Indian music blaring, brightly coloured material and clothes hanging in open shops, enticing smells escaping the restaurants, and tastes of samosas and other fried snacks from street vendors.
Keep walking and suddenly there are red lanterns hanging from ceilings and the shop signs are all in Chinese. Heritage oozes from the old buildings and businesses, and you can visit grand old kongsi houses for clans (groups of individuals from the same region or dialect group in China) that are still active associations today, or see families living on the same wooden jetties where many generations before them have lived.
Walking or driving a few streets can take you past mosques, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples and Christian churches. Different cultures have made and continue to make deep marks on Penang, while the melting pot still bubbles away. It’s uplifting to see strong Indian, Chinese and Malay cultures living harmoniously alongside each other, while lots of Penang and Malaysian flags flap patriotically from home and shop windows. And the people are noticeably friendly and welcoming. In Thailand we always felt like we could not escape our “farang” (foreigner, also directly translated as guava) label, which stands in stark contrast to the strong, singular Thai culture, but Malaysia is used to and appears to be very accepting of different people and cultures. Also due to the fact that almost everyone speaks excellent English, we’ve been invited into so many conversations about where we’re from and what we’re up to, most often concluded with recommendations from them for places to eat.
They’re rightfully proud of their food. There are more restaurants than you could ever visit, and the streets are lined with permanent hawker stalls and large squares containing loads of little stands each specialising in a few local dishes, with a communal seating area of plastic tables and chairs in the middle.
We feast on a daily basis! If we’ve had a morning at the pool then, while I’m putting our tot down for her afternoon nap, Gareth goes out to get take-away banana leaf rice for lunch, and comes back with a parcel of food for each of us. It’s traditionally a way of serving rice with vegetarian curries and sides in South Indian cuisine. In Malaysia they now offer lots of meat curries too, but most places still have great veg options, often with tofu and sometimes even with tempeh (which I was dismissive of until I tasted it here and now I can’t get enough of it in its sweet and slightly spicy tomato sauce). They also don’t always serve it on a banana leaf anymore, but it’s not what it’s served on that’s important – it’s the fact that you can step up to what’s effectively a buffet of flavour packed dishes and take your pick of various veggie options that will leave you grinning and coming back for more as often as you can! You spoon some rice from a big bucket onto your plate, and then help yourself to whichever dishes you want and someone will quickly glance at your plate and tell you how much you owe. And then you tuck into 5 or 6 delectable dishes for 6 Ringgits (£1.13) per person!
Some Chinese food stands offer this same self-service concept, which they call Economy Rice, where you also spoon rice from a bucket onto your plate and help yourself to a selection of buffet style dishes. From our experience of walking round some hawker centres and not seeing any vegan dishes (aside from potato rojak), the local Chinese and Malay food tends to be very meat and fish heavy. So, after having been spoilt with Malaysian Indian food, where (other than at a nasi kandar) we’ve been able to help ourselves to or select loads of veggie options that are meant to be that way, without having to ask for something to be excluded, we’ve stuck to specifically veggie Chinese restaurants to get the same experience. And we’ve been pretty spoilt for choice, from street side hawker stalls to more posh and modern restaurants, all serving their takes on traditional meat dishes with mock meats and/or mushrooms. We’ve devoured ‘duck’ pancakes, licked our fingers after nibbling ‘chicken’ satays (which even our dubious toddler enjoyed chomping on), wolfed down ‘meaty’ nyonya curries and different sweet and sour dishes, and slurped up veggie steam boats with ‘crab’ or ‘prawns’.
We’ve also been lucky enough to be in Penang during the annual Chinese vegetarian festival (the Nine Emperor Gods Festival). Devotees eat a strictly vegetarian diet for 9 days from the 9th day of the 9th moon in the Chinese lunar calendar, to purify body and mind (what a novel concept that us vegans are on to permanently 😉). Since it’s been on there hasn’t been much need to plan where to eat, if we want Chinese food, as it’s easy to spot the yellow flags flapping outside some restaurants and the temporary stalls set up on roadsides, indicating they’re serving veggie food.
The hardest thing about staying in Penang is deciding which cuisine to eat and whether to go somewhere new or revisit somewhere again before we no longer have the opportunity!