Trying to find information on obtaining a 60-day Indonesian tourist visa in Penang is like trying to find the Holy Grail. We couldn’t find any legitimate source, like a consulate website or working email address, and the only application form that we found online was for the embassy in KL. There were conflicting accounts about the visa requirements such as whether or not we needed to present an onward ticket and the background color of our photos (they used to require red background visa photos).
After scouring the interwebs for hours and not being able to find any solid information I walked over to Chulia Street to inquire with a travel agent. The woman said we didn’t need an onward ticket but we definitely needed a red background visa photo. She only served to confuse me more because this was the complete opposite of what I found on the interwebs!
This may sound crazy, but we almost skipped Penang, the food capital of Malaysia! Sometimes our travel plans make no sense. There are so many places to visit that we get overwhelmed and end up sticking with the more popular destinations. This was the mistake we made when we left Thailand and flew straight to Kuala Lumpur. We were in the southern part of Thailand already and could’ve entered Malaysia by train, hitting up Penang first. Instead, we flew directly to KL and plunked ourselves smack dab in the middle of a loud, polluted, and way-too-busy city. To escape the insanity of the Islamic New Year in KL, we headed towards the Cameron Highlands and if you read my post (you best have read my post!) you’d know it wasn’t the peaceful, quiet haven that we were seeking. After paying higher prices for crappier amenities and dealing with too many crowds we were ready to leave Malaysia altogether.
But, we decided that our bellies would be very disappointed with us if we didn’t check out Penang. It didn’t hurt that its airport was the closest and cheapest option to our first destination in Indonesia. Our decision to go to Penang was the best choice we made during our entire Malaysia trip. Besides the fascinating historical architecture in the UNESCO-preserved Georgetown district, the impressive street art, and the exceptionally friendly people, Penang absolutely lived up to our expectations for excellent food.
If you have any doubt about the great food that Penang has to offer, just ask a local. They will wax poetic about their city’s incomparable dishes and insist that the Penang version is unlike the ones you’ve had anywhere else in Malaysia. We had the good luck of talking to a couple of the locals during our stay because the communal eating style makes it quite easy to strike up conversation with unexpected dining companions. The first person we chatted with was an older man who left Penang to go to New Zealand when he was younger and after spending a year there he realized that he desperately missed the food and lifestyle in Penang so he came back. He also told us that an old acquaintance of his owns a successful Malaysian restaurant in NYC, but he doesn’t know the name. That was very helpful of him!
Another guy we met was much younger and moments after asking him about a tofu dessert that he was eating he began to spew a whole list of food in Penang that we must try. He offered to take us to a local food night market, but we already had dinner and dessert so we politely declined. (We also have a rule of not getting into cars with strangers at night. Unless they have candy.) His passion for popular local dishes, however, motivated us to eat a lot more over the course of our stay. That’s a lie. We don’t need any encouragement to eat, but it’s always nice to hear a local get excited about his city’s food.
My favorite mealtime in Penang was breakfast. We stumbled upon this traditional coffee shop set up in an alley near our hotel where we met a friendly lesbian couple (we are everywhere!) who invited us to sit with them. They helped us order amazing hot coffee, tasty nasi lemak wrapped in brown paper, and my new favorite breakfast dish: soft-boiled egg on thick-cut Hainan toast with soy sauce and white pepper. I absolutely love it when I find a dish that is so simple yet so perfect and the best part is that I can easily replicate it at home. And, the coffee is the best we’ve had since we had to leave our beloved Vietnamese iced coffees behind.
Toh Soon Cafe
Location: Alley way on Lebuh Campbell not too far from Jalan Penang
I love it when we get to a place and find so much more than we expected. In this case, we came to Penang for only food based on a recommendation by my college friend Jia-yi, and arrived in an unexpectedly cute little city chock full of fantastic food, beautiful old buildings, interactive street art and friendly people. An added plus was that the Georgetown Festival — the annual arts and culture event — was going on when we arrived.
In 2012, a Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint interactive wall murals in the Old Heritage district of Penang. Tourists flock to these murals — along with others painted by other artists — and wait patiently to pose creatively in front of the street art. We made our way around from one mural to another while consulting a wall mural map we found online, and eventually found ourselves at the Clan Jetty.
We went to the Cameron Highlands in search of clean, fresh mountain air. Instead what we got was overpriced lodging, a relatively tiny selection of food options including a ridiculously first-world priced Starbucks, too many tourists, price-gouging taxis, and gimmicky tourist attractions. If you can’t tell already, we weren’t crazy about Cameron Highlands.
We saw a lot of foreigners including the typical backpackers, but more interestingly we saw a ton of Middle East Arabs. We know they were from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq because we overheard some of them talking to hotel staff or wait staff about where they were from and we soon learned that it’s holiday time in the Middle East. Their holiday lasts for two months and I assume they come to Malaysia because it’s cheap, different, and they don’t get discriminated against for their conspicuous religious attire. Islam is the federally recognized religion of Malaysia. It’s also the most practiced religion here, over 60% of the population is Muslim. I haven’t seen this many Muslims since we were in Turkey last year and I have rarely seen Muslim women fully covered in black with only a slit for their eyes. Sure, I’ve seen a few here and there in Brooklyn, but not this many. They seemed to be having a blast in Cameron Highlands.
The backpackers like us, on the other hand, didn’t seem to enjoy it as much. They all had the same bored look on their faces as they walked up and down the one small street in Tanah Rata trying to decide if they want to eat at the only decent Indian restaurant again or go to Marrybrown for fried chicken. Like us, they probably found a brief description about the beautiful tea plantations and decided to come here since it’s only a bus ride from KL and on the way to the beaches on the east coast. By the looks of it, they were just as unimpressed as we were with the place.
There were only two attractions that we found worthwhile in Cameron Highlands — The Boh Tea Plantation and Cactus Point. The Boh Tea Plantation is the largest in Malaysia and it’s probably the main reason most people visit the Highlands. We were lucky enough to have a driver who had a fascinating background in the Highlands and he told us about his time as a tea picker and how he used to make about .23 cents per kilo and now most of it is picked by machine except for really hard-to-reach plants. The plantation has little cabins around the perimeter for the workers and he lived there with his young family while working as a tea picker and even though they were poor, he said it was the happiest time of his life. Now he’s a taxi driver who works 10-hour days and has to eat his meals in the car while waiting for clueless tourists to wander around the plantation. He drove us to the plantation and pointed us in the direction of the tea factory before going back to wait for us in his navy blue Mercedes.
After spending two weeks with a total of 3 dining options in Tanote Bay we, and our bellies, were very excited to get to Kuala Lumpur. KL is the federal capital of Malaysia and one of the more diverse cities we’ve visited in Southeast Asia. The three main ethnic groups are Malay, Chinese, and Indian which is only important to me becaue it means I can get deliciously diverse food. If you’re interested in the cultural, social, or political dynamics of these peoples living together go read another blog because I can only tell you about how these three cuisines intermingled in my belly.
You’re probably familiar with Indian and Chinese food, but Malay food isn’t as common. At least not in the U.S. Malay food is like a marriage of Indian and Chinese cuisines, but I’d say it’s an unequal marriage because you can really see the Indian influence in the strong spices used in most dishes. If you didn’t know Malay food, you could easily mistake it for Indian. Popular Malay dishes include nasi lemak, satay, and nasi goreng. Just to name a few. Another popular cuisine in Malaysia is Nyonya food which came from the literal marriage between the early Chinese migrants and the local Malays parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. If you’re like me you’ll call it “Malaysian” food, but technically it’s a distinct cuisine with it’s own history and signature dishes. KL isn’t known for Nyonya food so if you want the best of this cuisine you will have to go to Penang or Melaka.
I love Indian food. I love it so much that if I couldn’t marry ice cream and cake I would marry Indian cuisine. Wait, who says I can’t marry ice cream and cake? I figured since same-sex marriage is legal food marrying should be too. Damn these religious zealots and their lies!
I’m less enthusiastic about Chinese food, but there are some great dishes in KL that you should try while you’re there. We were lucky enough to have a local introduce us to some of the best Chinese chow in KL.
Our arrival in Kuala Lumpur just happened to coincide with Eid, the Muslim New Year. Having done no research prior to arriving in Malaysia and underestimating just how Muslim this country actually is, we were thoroughly punished with the unbelievably insane crowds converging on the nation’s capital for the holiday.
Compared to the craziness of Kuala Lumpur (or “KL”, as the locals call it), neighboring Petaling Jaya (or “PJ”) was sounding very pleasant, and we heard that excellent food could be had there. We decided to hop on a bus and visit Grace, a Malaysian local we had met three months back on a tour bus in Vietnam. Upon getting to her quiet neighborhood, we immediately sensed that this was more our style. She walked us to her house to relax before tackling the night market.
Grace and I had met briefly on a tour bus and talked for maybe ten minutes. After that we kept in touch through Facebook, but in reality we were strangers to each other. I was touched that despite this fact, Grace took on the role of hostess since we landed in KL.
So there we were in PJ, sipping on soy milk and chatting with Grace, Goh and their surprisingly tall daughter Pei Ji. Soon, we were walking down the narrow streets towards PJ’s smaller Thursday night market, checking out the various fruit, candies, electronic accessories, and of course, the food stalls. Grace had warned us not to eat too much because we were having durian for dinner, so we just drooled our way past the deep-fried fruit, satay, dofu fa, and other delights. After purchasing a salt-encrusted smoked chicken leg and two kilos of mangosteens (they were crazy cheap), we headed to the durian tents.
My parents have been worrying sick over my well-being for the past few months. While they were mostly fine with us traveling through Europe (except for a brief conversation I had with my father about Russia), they were secretly alarmed when we told them Southeast Asia was next. In true Japanese fashion, they tried to hide their concerns from me.
The Taiwanese student demonstrations were on the news every night and they silently beared it until we were a few days away from leaving. My mother asked why we felt the need to go to Taiwan, right now, in the midst of these demonstrations. They got annoyed with me when I responded that I wasn’t planning on participating in the protests.
Two weeks into my gastric issues in Vietnam, China started stirring shit in the South China Sea and bullying Vietnamese boats in Vietnamese waters. My parents were terrified. When I told them that we were watching the developments and we would be careful, they responded with a barrage of angry questions. “Why haven’t you left already? Why do you want to stay in Vietnam so much? Do you understand that Japanese factories were torched? Do you even watch the news? Why aren’t you leaving when the Chinese are escaping through the closest border available?!” I imagined a horde of middle-aged Chinese women with curly perms, colorfully patterned clothes and Louis Vuitton bags on their arms screaming and running along a dusty road towards the Cambodian border while deeply-tanned tuk-tuk drivers waited on the other side to whisk them away to Nowheresville, Cambodia.