Trip Report by Rainy January/March 2003

 

I tried my best to keep it short but didn't succeed! so here's part 1 of 4.....


PART 1 OF 4:
Although not as exciting as last year when I went to Penang for the 1st time, I had a very nice 2 month holiday again this year (early Jan to early Mar). I needed a familiar holiday without stress or too much excitement this time after my open heart surgery in September. I was stationed in Batu Ferringhi (BF) in a rented condo at the Eden Fairway condo complex again. I did see some new sights though & revisited many old favorites while playing ‘tour guide’ for daughter Carol & for Aussie friend Jim, both visiting Penang for the first time. They both loved it....


New sights:
Went to the Snake Temple but like Jim, I wasn’t impressed with the frequent requests for donations there. There were a few snakes, but they were rather small so not that scary.... Local bus service to the temple was fine with the bus stop across the street, but we had to stand on the side of the road in the blazing sun for quite a while before we were able to flag down a bus returning to the city. No one seemed to know where the bus stop was. The new Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Butterworth is a stunning temple with ornate concrete carvings - well worth a visit. We went to the mainland by ferry, then took a taxi, cost RM25 return including the short time he waited for us while we took pictures. I also went to the Butterworth railroad station to see the legendary Eastern & Oriental Express train that passes through there on Mondays & Thursdays on its way to & from Singapore & Bangkok/Chang Mai Thailand via KL. Was not able to find anyone to give me an inside tour so was a bit disappointed. We also hired a local car/driver for 4 hours to do an island tour (his rate was RM20/hour, min 4 hours, contact me via email for his name & number). We did the loop west from BF to Teluk Bahang, then down the scenic west & south sides of the island to Batu Maung to see the Emperor’s Footprint temple & gardens on the waterfront (very nice), then to Air Itam to see Kek Lok Si temple from a distance (it was CNY, much too busy to visit the temple that day), then to the city to see the main temples & sights.


Favorite places re-visited:
The fishing piers & Monday night flea market at Teluk Bahang, the Kapitan Keling mosque, the nearby Goddess of Mercy temple, & the Chinese clan jetties in the city; the reclining & upright Buddha temples across from each other on Larong Burmah in Pulau Tikus; the fabulous Kek Lok Si temple complex in Air Itam (the new lift to the Goddess of Mercy statue & area up top costs RM4 return) Touring tip: My visiting guests enjoyed the quick inner city ‘tour’ riding the free shuttle bus, a highly recommended orientation exercise before you go out walking the heritage trails or shopping.


Special events attended:
We went to the Chief Minister’s open house at Fort Cornwallis again for Chinese New Year. It was well attended & well organized as usual, but I noticed more food being wasted this time.. that’s a shame. Watched the Thaipusam chariot procession on Jln Data Kramat beside Gama Dept store this year, a popular spot to watch the procession, especially if you want to watch lots of coconut smashing. The next day (Sunday) we took a local bus to the Larong Kulit flea market grounds on Dato Kramat to watch some of the body piercing. It was gruesome but tolerable. (Any of the many buses going to Air Itam go right by there.) We then walked a few block to watch some of the procession from there instead of going to the crowded Waterfall Rd temple grounds where the procession ends.


Shopping excursion to Hatyai Thailand:
Two days, one night. Hatyai is about 3 hours from Butterworth including the border crossing stops. We booked through a BF travel agency & bargained a rate of RM105 return per person for 2 of us. The rate included transport in a shared 12 passenger van, pickup & drop-off in BF, + one night in the well-located downtown Diamond Plaza Hotel in Hatyai (4 stars). Popular items to buy there are cashew nuts, fake watches, Tshirts & golf shirts, & liquor. The exchange rate at the bank across the street from our hotel was 9.66 baht per ringgit. Other rates for buying baht using travelers cheques were - USA = 42.62 bahts/dollar, England = 68.68/pd, Australia = 24.89/dollar, Canada = 27.60/dollar.


Cameron Highlands excursion:
Great tour, highly recommended. We booked through a BF travel agency. The cost of the 2 day/1 night tour was rm188 for 1 night at the Heritage Hotel in Tanah Rata (incl intl breakfast & steamboat dinner for 2 p) + RM400 for the private car & driver/guide. (He was a very good, safe & knowledgeable driver. I can supply his name & hand phone number if you send me a private email.) The hotel was fine but the meals were very poor & the cocktails very expensive. We heard they were even more expensive at the Smokehouse. We ran into John & Angela there who didn’t like the remote location of their Strawberry resort hotel. Our tour included sightseeing stops on day one in Taiping to see the Lake Gardens area & war cemetery, & Ipoh for a traditional koay teow lunch (rice noodle soup), & two marvelous cave temples - the Sam Poh temple & the one beside it, & a stop on day 2 in the fabulous royal town of Kuala Kangsar to see the old & current royal palaces + the striking royal mosque. These 3 stops & sights are very popular & are well worth the effort to see them.

We loved the steep winding roads past Orang Asli (aboriginal) villages in the Tapah/Ringlet area leading up to Tanah Rata and the picturesque tea plantations in the mist as far as the eyes could see when we got there. Tanah Rata is a touristy but quaint mountain town. One souvenir/craft shop in particular, near the outdoor cafes, had shelves of amazing pottery & wood carvings. In the Camerons, we saw all the usual sights, terraced tea plantations & vegetable gardens, strawberry farms, & rose gardens. We toured the immediate area the morning of day 2. We saw acres of terraced tea plantations & vegetable gardens, & strawberry farms & rose gardens. We were supposed to tour the Boh tea factory but when we got there we found out it was closed that day because it had rained that morning. The trip up was worth it though. For quaint accommodation, check out “Bala's Holiday Chalets”, lot 55, Tanah Rata, an old English country Inn right in the heart of the highlands forest, & known for their scones served with tea, of course. Although a little out of the way, I was impressed. Their website is under balaschalet.com, their hotmail addy is under balasch, & their tel 05-491-1660.
I loved the Camerons - very scenic, very green, with cooler fresh air. A highly recommended excursion.

 

PART 2 OF 4:
Places to eat - upscale:
Went to Mario’s in BF twice, very popular, great food & service but expensive, RM25+, great pizza = RM28. We were also taken out for dinner at Eden Seafood Village in BF which has new owners. It’s still a great place to eat, especially for a special occasion, & they still have a great cultural stage show during evening dinner. If you get a chance to go with a member, the Penang Swimming Club in Tanjung Bungah has great food & service in a fantastic setting.


Cheaper places to eat:
Although my favorite place for evening drinks & nightcaps in BF (Tiger beer rm5.50, big one rm10), I also discovered that Harz’s (we called it Annie’s) Restaurant in the lower level of the Mutiara served good/cheap food, i.e. yummy fish & chips for rm11.50 incl a Tiger, also really good seafood nasi goreng (fried rice...), only rm3.50 for a large serving. One of the several stalls along the main road to BF just out of Tanjung Bungah is a wonderful & popular fritter stall that sells a variety of fritters, including the ever-popular banana fritters, of course. There’s also a great fritter stall on the side street along the Mutiara Arcade, great banana & corn fritters, 5 for rm1. The Long Beach in BF is still my favorite & is still very popular, even with the new Global hawker center now open nearby. That center was fine too, has many more stalls, more people, so it’s noisier. Some new foods that I tried & liked at the Long Beach this year were the banana pancakes (roti canai) with ice cream at the Indian stall next to the satay stall at the entrance, & the pizzas a couple of stalls down from there, & the cheese chapatis from the chapati stall at the back. My all time favorites were still the chicken satay & the char koay teow (fried rice noodles). Want a late night snack in BF for rm1? Stop the bread vendor on a bicycle who does his rounds jingling his bell most nights around 11pm, especially in the Mutiara Arcade area, & get 2 thick slices of yummy fresh warm bread or buns smeared with butter & coconut jam.


Some nightlife:
For the older crowd, I highly recommend Rozell’s in Tanjung Bungah on Thursday nights to hear oldies singer Colleen Reed, a teeny lady with a huge voice. I met her & chatted with her, a very gracious & personable woman. On all other nights they have great/live country & western music. They have a good-sized dance floor that is often busy with a mostly local clientele. It’s in a great location on the beach. Sigi’s beach bar at the Golden Sands has happy hour every day (2 for 1), a great latin combo playing the night we went.

 

PART 3 OF 4:
Favorite department stores:
Still Gama near Komtar & Sunshine Square in Bayan Baru. This is where most locals shop so you pay local vs inflated tourist prices. Both have great mens' departments (I'm told). Sunshine Square has a good food court in the mall (up a short flight of stairs near the elevator). There’s no longer a bakery in the mall but there are 2 cake shops nearby behind the mall - Secret Recipe & Eden Bakery, as well as other shops back there. (Note that like most malls & department stores here, Gama doesn’t open until 10am, & some don’t open until 11.)


Favorite malls, shopping centers:
My favorite was Midlands/Onestop, especially the Mudd watch kiosk on the ground floor & the software shops on the upper levels. I didn’t mind Komtar either except I found it a maze to get around in. Gurney Plaza & Island Plaza were too upscale for me + I think I wore their sizes when I was eight years old! I didn’t mind Prangin Mall but again, small Asian sizes & almost all platform shoes/sandals.... Ouch. The pedestrian crossing lights at the major intersection at Island Plaza in Tanjung Tokong weren’t working while I was there, making this an extremely dangerous & stressful crossing, so I never went back to that shopping center again. For 'low-priced' computer software & games & DVDs etc - the many shops on the 6th floor at Midlands One Stop center was still the best place for selection & prices. There are also similar shops on the top floors of Prangin Mall & on the 2nd floor at Megamall on the mainland & hidden away on some floors in Komtar. For cheap/fake watches at better prices than yoi can get at the BF night market without haggling, check out the “Mudd” kiosk on the main level at Midlands/Onestop center. They had a great selection, most under RM20 & the young staff there were very friendly & helpful. I bought most of my watches there.
Megamall - in Seberang Prai on the mainland is another good ‘local’ shopping place but it’s hard to get at by public bus making it at least a half day excursion. It’s best to go there on weekends as many shops & kiosks only open at busy times. Transit Link bus #18 from Komtar goes by the mall via the bridge (fare rm2). Ask the driver to let you off on the road in front of the mall instead of 3 blocks beyond where the bus stop is - there’s no bus stop at the mall. ;o( To go back to Komtar, you have to walk to that bus stop 3 blocks away beside the (badly placed) pedestrian overpass & catch any of several buses going to the ferry terminal, then take the ferry back to the Jeti in Georgetown, then a bus from there to your destination.


Other shopping tidbits:
CDs at the BF night market were selling for RM5 each this year. They were raided often, sometimes several times in one night. So were the fake watch vendors. Don’t miss the Yahon (sp?) gallery in BF, a great place to shop for high quality batiks & many other local crafts. There are a couple of other great craft/souvenir shops along the strip facing the night market stalls especially the gift shop in Eden Seafood village & another good one across the street from the Long Beach but I forget the name.... The Continental Bakery in the city is still the best bakery around, by far, & still a great lunch place too. I think the Lorong Kulit flea market is only held on Sundays. We did go there but found the covered stalls too hot, humid & crowded, so didn’t stay long. Penang Road has many interesting shops. For fabrics my favorite place is still the Kamdar Dept store on Burmah Road, lots of choice & cheap prices, especially in the bargain center on the main floor. I still love the Monday night flea market in Teluk Bahang, few if any tourists, great/cheap hawker food. The Hin 93 & Transit Link 202 buses go there from BF.

 

PART 4 OF 4:
Money matters:
I used ATMs all the time, especially the one at the one bank in BF. Canadian exchange rates were between 2.45 & 2.48 while I was there, just as good as at the money changers without the time & hassle.


Internet cafes in BF:
The internet café on lower level of Mutiara arcade, next to Harz’s restaurant, was often full of noisy kids playing computer games so I avoided it. They charged RM5/hour. The internet café at the east end of the restaurant strip across the street from the Golden Sands & Rasa Sayang is still there. He charges RM8/hour but at least it's usually quieter there. There's also a small one in the “GPG Call Center” hidden away in the lane next to the Golden Sands that leads to the Poker Café & the beach. His rates are RM5/hour.


Penangtalk posters I met:
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting for the first time Richard & Bev & their daughter from the Sunshine Coast in Australia, & Jim from Queensland, Tom & Hilda Stott from Ireland, & Joe Glover & family from England. I also enjoyed seeing Angela & John from Perth again, & of course I saw Mai Loon again who also introduced me to her boss, the tourism minister - a very gracious & engaging woman. I hope I’m not forgetting anyone....


Drivers:
If anyone wants recommendations for a good local/island driver, &/or a good long distance driver (i.e. Cameron Highlands, Hatyai Thailand etc..), contact me via email & I’ll give you their names & phone numbers.


Hair Salons:
Got another great haircut from Andy at Camee (unisex) Salon for rm23 w/o shampoo, much cheaper than salons in BF. Camee is at 231-B Burmah Road, just a block past Hotel 1926 on the same side of the street, & shop hours were 11am to 730pm, closed on Tuesdays, tel 012-408-3456. He’s a very personable stylist with many years of experience. I also got an excellent haircut for rm25 from Winz at Ankiz Hair Salon on the 2nd floor of Komtar. There are many salons there & their prices are posted, just take your pick.


Getting around:
I’m sorry to have to say this, but I found the local bus service between BF & the city even worse this year. The Hin 93 buses were in even worse condition, if that's possible. And Transit Link 202 must have reduced their service as they didn't come very often. I had to stand in the buses more often this time as the infrequent buses were often over crowded. It's too bad that the 2 companies don't get together & co-ordinate their schedules so they're not arriving at bus stops one behind the other, which often happened, with long gaps in service the rest of the time. And of course, surcharging tourists 10-30 sens or more for the fare is still widely practiced. It’s not that we can’t afford it, it’s the insulting manner in which it’s done. If you're going to ride the buses a lot, make friends with the friendly ‘dispatchers’ at the Komtar terminal. or at the Jeti. They're the guys walking around with a clip board or something similar telling the bus drivers where/when to go. They are very helpful when it comes to which bus to take where. The 40ish, thinner Indian man who mostly works at the Komtar terminal, is especially good. I regret I didn’t get his name but after I gave him a pen from home, he was even nicer to me & had a big smile for me every time I showed up, which was almost every day...... If you see him, be especially nice to him..... And don't even get me started on the dangers of being a pedestrian & crossing streets here, lets just say it's gotten worse. Now I know why the locals drive everywhere - it's too dangerous to walk. I even saw motorcycles driving on the sidewalks in BF this time.... that’s pretty scary.