It’s official. If I move anywhere in South East Asia it will be to Georgetown, Penang, in Malaysia. I have only seen a tiny part of the world in my twenty-five years of life, but from what I have seen and where I have been, Georgetown was my favorite place. It is truly a global city, and I am still glowing from the weekend I spent there. I met really interesting people, I ate some of the best food I have ever had, I spent half the weekend at the beach, and the other half exploring a gorgeous city.
I followed Anthony Bourdain’s advice and tried a few different dishes that were featured on “No Reservations.” Of everything he recommended, my favorite was Wan Tan Mee, an amazing meal that cost less than two dollars. It was a noodle dish that I bought on the side of the road and was made within minutes right before me. The contents of my bowl included ramen, pork dumplings, thinly sliced barbequed pork, a mix of vegetables and wan tans, all swimming together in a delicious broth. As much as I wanted to try all the different foods that Penang had to offer, I have to admit that I had this multiple times.
The second dish that I tried was Penang Laksa, which ranked 7th in a 2011 list of the world’s 50 most delicious foods. I had been at the beach all day, and was walking back to the bus stop to catch a ride back to my hostel, when I saw a sign for Penang’s world famous Laksa. It said the food stand/outdoor restaurant was rated number one in the city, and I remembered that Bourdain had eaten it and loved it, so I followed the arrows, found the place, ordered a bowl and had a seat. While I am glad I gave it a try and broadened my horizons, I can say with certainty that it was the first and last time I will eat Laksa. I wasn’t too sure of what to expect, but what arrived was a soup in a clay pot, that was a combination of noodles, onions, cucumbers, mint, ginger and lettuce.
It looked amazing until I took my first bite, and was instantly taken back by how fishy it was. The thick broth was a murky brown and got its flavor from mackerel that had been stewed with lemon grass and chilies. Aside from the fish taste, I enjoyed the blend of spices, but not enough to eat it again.
Another must was Indian food. My first night in Penanag I had the banana leaf Indian dinner, and over the weekend I went for Indian again with a friend that I met. I had tandoori chicken that was roasted from a street vendor and served with garlic nan and multiple dipping sauces, my favorite being the mint cilantro chutney that had a spicier kick to it than I expected. For breakfast one morning I also went to Little India and ordered roti canai, an Indian-Muslim style flatbread that you dip in sauce or curry. I watched the man at the food cart knead the dough, toss it around in the air, and then throw it on a hot flat skillet where it was brushed with butter before being flipped over, folded up and wrapped up in paper for me to take away.
And last but not least, I had a bagel for breakfast; A sesame seed, fresh bagel, stuffed with cucumber and bacon in the middle. Bagels were part of my every day diet during college, and I haven’t even seen one since arriving in Thailand. The bagel was quite possibly the most expense meal I ate while in Georgetown, but I cannot convey the bliss it brought to my morning, when paired with a coffee and a side of fresh fruit from a street vendor.
World renown cuisine may be what Georgetown is well known for, but I did more than just eat while I was there. I spent the first day on my own, exploring the city by foot, and didn’t return to my hostel for six hours. It was never intended to be such a long adventure, but apparently my ability to read a map isn’t as good as I thought it was. I started on Love Lane, the area my hostel was located, and headed to the waterfront, which was about a ten-minute walk.
Once I got to the water front I just followed it all around the edge of the city. After six hours of weaving though side streets, turning the map around again and again trying to figure out where I was, cutting down little alley ways with unmarked signs, I had completely circled the city and found myself right where I had left from that late morning.
(The side of the city where I started)
(When I got to the very end of it and looked back and how far I’d walked)
Although I was exhausted and had considered taking a taxi multiple times, I am pleased that I didn’t, because the only way to truly get to know a place is to explore it on foot. My Tom’s were a little more worn down, my skin flushed from the sun, but during my afternoon adventure I had randomly stumbled across creative street art by a famous Malaysia artist, as well as passed some of the best architecture I have ever seen.
Georgetown first began as a British colony, so much of the architecture that still remains is left from the colonial era. Giant white mansions rest on street corners, with wrap around gardens bursting with tropical plants and towering palms.
These colonial buildings sit across the street from Buddhist temples, with sloping Asian style roofs, on properties that boast statues of dragons with multiple heads. The streets are lined with row houses that the British built, but are now occupied by Chinese, who hang red lanterns and birdcages outside their front doors and over their patios. If you turn the corner you will enter Little India, where you are instantly transported to an entirely different world. The smell of Indian spices and incense drifts through the streets, Indian music blares from open shops, mannequins dressed in traditional Indian fashion stand guard outside of clothing stores, and jewelry shops filled with sparkling brackets beckon you inside. There is also the modernization of Georgetown, and all the new architecture that wealth has brought with it. But there is no such thing as wealth, without poverty to compare it to.
Beautiful high rises framed in glass raced toward the sky and were surrounded by manicured lawns and modern art sculptures that sometimes served as fountains and sometimes simply as art. Each street that I walked down became a representation of a different part of the world, and I saw more flags blowing in the warm winter air, than I was able to identify. My favorite part of the day was when I found the Chinese jetties. These jetties were first established over a hundred years ago, when Chinese families settled in Georgetown. Each jetty was built to act as a mini neighborhood for a family or clan of people. Over the years they have become homes to generations of Chinese families, and the inhabitants all live in wooden houses built over the water. The reason for building their neighbors over the water was to originally evade paying land property taxes. I wandered down the jetties, and stumbled across more art by the same famous artist.
The most astonishing thing about Georgetown was how many people call it home. I have never been in a city that was comprised of people with every skin color, from every country, dressed in all different styles of traditional clothing, heard so many different languages around me, and tasted such a wide variety of foods. It was a collision of culture, yet all the pieces seemed to fit seamlessly together. There was harmony and cohesion and everyone was friendly and it seemed that people were accepting of all the differences around them. It seemed natural for such a global community to exist as it was doing in Georgetown, and it made it seem odd that in many places of the world we live in areas that are segregated into one type of culture or people. I left Penang hopeful that this is what the future will be like. Cultures will all learn to coexist in the same space, and rather than feeling like our neighbors are stepping on our toes with their differences, they are actually teaching and inviting us to dance.
The second day on my own I decided to explore one of the beaches I had over heard other travelers talking about. I jumped on a bus out front my hostel, which cost me around eighty cents, and took a half-hour ride along the edge of the city. From my window seat I watched as the winding snake-like coastline changed, and I finally buzzed the button that signaled the bus to stop when I saw a beach that looked like a good place to spend the day. The sun beat down on my shoulders that early December afternoon, as I threw my towel down in the sand. The weather was hotter than most San Diego summer days, and sunscreen was a must. The fact that I hadn’t brought a bathing suit with me on my trip did not stop me from swimming. The beach was almost deserted except for a few people, so when a family was near by I swam in a tank top, and when there was no one else in sign I swam in shorts and a bra. About twenty feet to my right were giant boulders that started at the sand and were scattered throughout the water, I climbed on some and swam out to others, and spent the afternoon jumping off of them, into the salty sea.
The most surprising thing about the coastline in Georgetown was how similar it looked to certain parts of Lake Tahoe. As I rode the bus, a flood of memories washed over me as I looked at scenery that was too familiar. I was reminded of the time I spent with him, and the afternoons we spent climbing on giant rocks and admiring the frigid lake water, surrounded by a ring of snowy mountains. Its been a year since we lived together in Tahoe, and it was depressing to realize that he should have been here by my side, spending this weekend with me. At the same time, I found beauty in the fact that I was alone, comfort in my own company, and the security of knowing that I had come so far in a year, and I had taken a giant step to completely change my life, and I was doing it on my own. In Tahoe there were days that I was truly unhappy and wanted to change my situation, but couldn’t bring myself to leave his side, despite how badly I had wanted to. Now a year later, there was nothing that could make me sacrifice my own happiness for another person, and riding on the bus, I realized how much stronger I have become in taking control of my life.
I had an unforgettable weekend away, and the entire time I was in the city I was dreading the Monday afternoon when I would be forced back onto a minivan to return to Thailand. But as I rode back to the country I am temporarily calling home, I watched the city behind me growing smaller as Caribou pulsed through my head from the headphones wedged in my ears, and I knew even though I was leaving, I was so fortunate to have spent the last four days there. Georgetown was like a cup of perfectly brewed tea that included spices that had been traded all over the world and shared between many people. After generations and generations of trying different blends, the perfect cup was produced, and everyone was enjoying and sharing it. And all I wanted was a sip, a taste of something my own country has never been able to offer me.