Georgetown

Mention Georgetown or Penang to anyone in Malaysia, the reply is always the same: “Ahh good food”. Surprisingly enough, with a response like that, it was firmly on our radar as somewhere to visit. 
Along with Malacca and Singapore, Georgetown was a key administration centre in British Malaya – it was actually the first place that the British landed on the peninsula. Technically a British protectorate for over a hundred years, Captain Light and the East India Company cleared back the jungle and founded a town that still remains an important port for trade. 

As a result, it is probably the most multicultural place we’d been to, possibly since London. Although now mainly Chinese, Georgetown is a real mix of religions and cultures, with mosques, churches and Hindu temples all in close proximity. Street signs are in English, shop fronts in Mandarin, and bus stops in Malay. And that’s before you even get into Little India…

Most of the cheap hostels and hotels centre around Love Lane, a street of historically dubious morals – wealthy businessmen bought properties here to house their mistresses. That said, it’s a nice enough place, with coffee shops, a few bars and a sprinkling of restaurants. We even found a 24hr laundrette! 

It is safe to say that we dined like kings for the best part of a week, although, we must confess, not really on Malay food. Yes, the Nasr Goreng was delicious (quite how they manage to encase an entire meal in omelette is beyond me!), but I wouldn’t say it was any better than others we’d had elsewhere. No, we firmly ate ‘multicultural’, and used restaurants as staging posts for exploring different parts of town. 

  
A stroll along the waterfront and around Fort Cornwallis, the walled British outpost, in search of the tourist information office (a treasure trove of information for once) uncovered a food fair in the park by the Town Hall. An excellent start! As Kat remarked, this part of town looked almost exactly like parts of Portsmouth – even the bricks used to make the fort were of a similar colour. Admittedly, the palm trees blowing in the wind were a bit of a clue that Southsea wasn’t just round the corner! Dinner that night was at ‘That Little Wine Bar’, where Kat continued her education in red wine. Wine has been so poor in SE Asia that we’d practically written it off, but this place was a delight and the service was excellent. Did I mention they did a cheese plate? Oh, and BAKED CAMEMBERT. Perhaps the most remarkable thing though was that neither of these things were the highlight of the evening. A glance at the specials board saw ‘Ravioli…. 35RM’, and we overheard the table next to us ask what was in them. The answer was met with stunned silence, and a double take back at the board. 35 Ringgit for Lobster, Scallops and Truffle Ravioli. The liberal sprinkling of grated Parmesan didn’t hurt either. It was, (potential over claim warning), probably the best single dish we’ve eaten on the entire trip. 

Another day saw us head for Penang Hill, which at 860m, has spectacular views over the whole island, and across to the mainland. A 4km road starting from the very pleasant Botanical Gardens winds its way steeply uphill and makes for some welcome physical activity in our largely sedentary existence. It was strange to be walking up switchbacks rather than driving them! There are several footpaths through the woods as well, but in the heat of the day, wearing flip flops, and with monkeys eyeing up our rucksack with glee, we opted for the most direct route! When I say the most direct route, I mean the most direct hiking route. There is of course, the funicular, reputed to be one of the steepest in Asia, and the masses of people at the top made it clear as to which was the more popular mode of transportation! We felt slightly pleased with ourselves, and much more deserving of the inevitable coffee and cake… 

  
The highlight of Penang Hill for us was dinner at David Brown’s. It had initially came to our attention as a possible site for afternoon tea, but a glance at the menu gave us other, more grand ideas. “Oh my God, they do Beef Wellington”. Oh yes, oh yes they do. It was sublime (and with a 30% off Groupon voucher, didn’t completely break the bank!).  

A wander around Little India was an obvious choice for another evening. With a different style of music blaring into the streets (to blend in with the car horns), brighter colours and more exotic smells from the hawker stalls, it is a distinct change from other parts of town. Needless to say, we were looking forward to dinner. Kapitan’s was our choice, and it had come recommended to us. Fully 24hrs and with huge neon signs, it was a busy place, and really good. It was also probably the first Indian we have been to where neither of us got a curry! Quick, cheap, and very tasty. Perfect. 

No trip to Penang would be complete without some sort of recognition of it’s importance to the Empire. What better way to do that, we reasoned, than to combine a trip to the museum with a spot of English Afternoon Tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel? Founded by the same Sarkie brothers who later started Raffles in Singapore, the grand buildings have a commanding view of the waterfront. We consider ourselves to be slight experts on afternoon tea, and the general consensus was that this one was ‘bloody good’. Oh, being cultured is sometimes such a hardship…

  

The Perhentian Islands – possibly the best island paradise so far

 And trust me, that’s an achievement. Read on to find out why I’m making such a big claim!
Right up on the north east coast of Malaysia, close to the border with Thailand, lie the Perhentian Islands. There are two: a big one, and a small one. They have proper names of course, but most people here just refer to them by their size. Ironically, there isn’t actually much difference… But still, we went to the smaller of the two, and absolutely loved it. 

   
 Like many of the islands in SE Asia, there are two distinct sides, with distinctly different vibes. We chose Coral Bay, rather than the more popular Long Beach. Diving is pretty much the main activity for both sides of the island (it’s ludicrously cheap) but we spoke to someone who’d done their PADI course at a resort on Long Beach and said it had a bit of the Koh Tao factory feel about it. Maybe it was just because we were doing fun dives, but everything seemed a bit more chilled on Coral Bay. 

We stayed at Maya, which is pretty much the cheapest place there is. You can even camp there if you want to save even more. I can’t remember staying in a friendlier place. There are hammocks all over the place, and our first night turned into an impromptu ‘bring your own booze’ party (where we could finally offload the rest of our Laotian boxed wine…!), with free food laid on by the owner. 
The diving varied from average to the best we’ve done so far. We dived with two dive shops, Quiver and Ombok, and much, much preferred Ombok. Although slightly more expensive, (still only RM80 per dive – about £14) we just had a much better time, especially with Alif our dive master. I think Kat summed it up by saying that if she ever wanted to do her dive master, she’d go to them. We loved it. Diving with black tip reef sharks on our last morning was just the jewel in the crown – amazing.

Malaysia

Entering our 23rd and final country with the Beaut (we’d been to a couple of others on route without her) had mixed emotions. Was this really to be our last border crossing? Would we finally, finally get searched properly? No, it turns out. The border crossing was simple if not particularly well signposted, resulting in the usual aimless wandering around with a carnet, desperately hunting the man with the elusive stamp. Having some Ringgit before the border would have meant we didn’t get shortchanged from our Baht when paying a toll fee, but it was hardly the end of the world. Our first impression of a country is normally based on road condition. In this case – excellent, but you have to pay for it! The highway from the border to KL is all a toll road, and it does add up eventually. 
Our situation was a bit strange – we were powering through a country that we were desperate to explore, and driving past signs for places we knew we wanted to visit. For the first time on the trip, we were on a deadline – the Beaut needed to be in KL to be dropped off with the shipping agent. Her time was nearly over. One final night was spent in a motorway service station about 200km north of KL – not exactly the most picturesque last campsite… And we spent the morning packing up the roof, and generally cursing the existence of Nylocks. One final bizarre experience was being blessed by a coach load of Christian missionaries (every little helps keep Lucas, the Prince of Darkness at bay), before we rolled slowly into the KL traffic. 

In KL we were kindly hosted by our friend Luke, who we’d met whilst at Angkor Wat, and him and his family made us so welcome. I can’t really explain how nice it was to not have to worry about finding somewhere to stay, or even where to eat, especially as we were on a tight schedule, having left ourselves just 24hrs to sort out shipping the Beaut home before our flights to the Philippines! He even came with us to the port when we dropped her off at the warehouse. Hero! 
3 days spent in Malaysia. Zero time exploring. We would be back. In the meantime, a Filipino holiday awaited us!