Malaysia: Penang & Back Again

With no passport, no camera and Malaysia’s police force being as useful as a chocolate teapot, it was fair to say my arrival in Penang was pretty tainted. It didn’t take too long to get myself sorted though.

With my elusive passport probably being used by my Malaysian doppelgänger, I enlisted the help of a British Consulate based in Georgetown on Penang island. He was brilliant in explaining everything I had to do to send off for my new passport (which can mostly be done online for Brits). To be honest, I was so stressed that I’d have been equally grateful for a cup of tea and some Digestives. I spent the next couple of days getting sorted and sent off my application. Now I was just stranded in Malaysia until my new passport arrived in 3-8 weeks. Could be worse…

A typical Penang street, with KOMTAR in the background.

Already getting withdrawal symptoms from my lack of camera, I bought a new one at Georgetown’s gigantic KOMTAR mall, an ugly looking tower which can be seen from all over the island. The camera was around $100 than if I’d waited until I got home, plus I could claim back on the insurance anyway. I just knew I wouldn’t last the remainder of my trip without my beloved camera. My wallet was decidedly lighter but I was well on my way to being back in my original position.

Because of all this practical stuff, I didn’t do much in the way of sightseeing during my first visit to Penang so decided to return there a bit earlier when I came to collect my passport so I could check out this wonderful island. It’s just fantastic. Georgetown, a UNESCO site, is ripe with colonial heritage, Chinese temples, mosques and crumbling buildings. It’s a melting pot of cultures and the town makes for a great walking tour. Brilliant street art covers the walls and you arrive at street corners which have a different culture on every side of the road. Just grab a map (or not!) and wander – you’re sure to find a wealth of things. Armenian Street makes a great starting point.

This fusion of cultures also makes Penang the food capital of Malaysia. I could seriously live here just for the food. At night, hawkers line the streets selling everything from chicken satay sticks to noodle soups to rotis. The nasi kandar places (huge buffet style curry joints) are rich in flavour and big in portions. We stumbled across a place in Little India which gave us a delicious and filling veg thali for just 5RM (less than £1). In other places, I’ve eaten like a king and never paid more than 15RM. You could eat something different every day of the year and still not try everything. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as well as I have in Penang.

Penang Street Art

Whilst there’s no shortage of watering holes, the high price of alcohol in Muslim Malaysia can be off-putting. If you don’t mind shelling out 10-14RM for a small bottle of beer, Chulia Street has a good number of chilled out bars, some with live music. However, for those in the know, there’s only one place to get your beer fix. Tucked away in a little corner on Lorong Stewart, there’s a small beer joint called Antarabangsa Enterprise which basically feels like you’re drinking in someone’s house. With a bunch of plastic tables and chairs put out on the street, it’s the perfect place to meet locals and travellers, whilst enjoying 3 beers for 10RM. I basically became a regular.

For some reason there was a Transformers exhibition on. Still not really sure why.

Outside Georgetown, Penang is teeming with attractions. Penang Hill is a popular tourist spot (bus 204). Most people opt to take the 5 minute train up but it’s 30RM for a return journey (if you’re a student take your student card as you get 50% off) so a group of us decided to go for the cheaper but more strenuous option and hike to the top.

The scenic jungle trek starts from the Penang Botanical Garden (bus 10 but it’s really irregular – we gave up and got a taxi for 20RM) and you’re looking for the Moongate entrance. From there, it’s a bit of a sprawling mess with lots of paths shooting off. Other hikers have put ribbons to guide you and we followed the blue trail to get us to the top. It was quite a tough climb but great fun and the jungle was full of weird and wonderful plants and animals. Swinging monkeys, centipedes which just oozed poison and big-ass trees lined the trek, along with bizarre fruits I’ve never seen before. The whole thing took us about 3 and a half hours and a lot of sweat. We looked an absolute state when we reached the top but could take the moral high ground over all the people who took the train up.

That’s dinner sorted.

At the top you’ve got some nice views over Penang, showing just how populated it is. There’s a pretty cheap food court and lots of paths to wander round. We were knackered so took the train back down. I’m glad we hiked as otherwise the hill would have been a bit lacklustre.

I planned to hike the national park in Penang too (the smallest in the country) but was either too hungover from the copious amounts of cheap beer, or the heavens opened and, given I was just in battered Vans, I played it safe and didn’t go.

Luckily, just three weeks after I’d sent it off, I received word that my passport had arrived at the consul’s office in Penang (though the Internet tracker said otherwise – it’s worth ignoring completely). Obviously, it wasn’t just as simple as getting my passport back and leaving the country. As I hadn’t been stamped in, I needed proof I’d entered the country legally which meant a visit to immigration. I was told this would be as easy as just giving them my old passport number, them checking when I entered and then stamping me back in. It wasn’t that easy. It wasn’t even close.

For a start, the immigration building was over on the mainland, safely contained in a fortress in the middle of motorway, just to make sure that humble tourists such as me had to battle to get in there. Each trip there (there were several) warranted a death-defying jaunt across various lanes of traffic after being dropped off by the bus in the middle of nowhere. After this, you’ve got to find a way across the bizarre moat, then find an opening in the fence. It’s seriously as if they’re trying to keep as many people as possible out.

Once inside, the tedious bureaucracy I’ve come to expect from these processes followed. Apparently, I had to apply for an extension of a visa I never got in the first place in order to stay, which took many hours of moving from counter to counter without actually getting anywhere. Getting the “special pass” cost 100RM and despite the vague reassurance that it would be done “soon”, took around 2 hours to actually complete. Luckily, there was a McDonalds just down the road of death.

And that was that. Finally, I was in a position to leave the country. Though, in a lovely bit of irony, that’s exactly what I didn’t do…

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