Pickles and spice.

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Pulau Penang, Malaysia

I came to Penang near 14 years ago with my family and grandma. It was just after my popa died and I think Mum and Dad thought it would be nice for us all to get away to a little peace of paradise. Last time we all flew straight from Melbourne to KL and then onwards without a pit stop to Penang. It was a night flight in a tini-tiny Malaysian Airlines plane that flew straight into a tropical storm. My baby brother was terrified, screwing up his face and holding his breath each time we dropped in altitude, thinking we would all plunge to our death from 30,000 above. As Mum would say, “he has a very sensitive stomach…just like me Rebecca so don’t laugh!”. But we made it to Penang and in all accounts really enjoyed it, particularly my brother who after a long day walking the streets nearing on heat stroke had a mini breakdown and screamed “…if we wanted to see poverty we should have just gone to Footscray!!”. He was nine at the time, and obviously very perceptive.

So more then a decade onwards, it was time to bring back the memories of the old Chinese trade-shops, peddlers on tri-shaws, the steamy night markets and of course..what Penang is famous for around the world, its diversity of the most delicious mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian cuisine. We boarded our $28 AirAsia flight which cost half the price of a taxi to the low cost carrier airport and took a comfortable 45 minute flight to the “pearl of the orient”. I could see the famous bridge that I remembered from all those years ago connecting the main-land town of Butterworth over to Georgetown, downtown Penang. Navigating the narrow streets and peak hour traffic, our taxi driver dropped us out the front of the Penanga Hotel, no ordinary hotel. This was pure luxury, a boutique hotel set right in the hustle and bustle of the old town converted from pre-wartime old shop fronts to the most decadent residence. Dark oak floors, intricate old furniture from dynasties past, tiny stained glass windows all combined with the essentials for any true backpacker – in room Jacuzzi, cable, wifi and the most incredible breakfast each morning set beside the tropical gardens and lap pool. Yup this one was tough..

Murray believed he hadn’t been to Penang before so the intention of the trip was to experience a little culture and learn how to cook a typical Malaysian dish or two (we find out later that he did visit the little island with his Dad some 22 years prior). But first a bit of history. The island of Penang is located in the Strait of Malacca and was an important trade route for Europe, the Middle East, India and China. And because of this, even today, the place is a melting pot of these cultures, from Chinatown to Little India to the old British rule. Penang was placed perfectly for merchants sailing in and out because it is on the crossing of two monsoon periods, providing solid winds. Then the Chinese came in droves around the 15th century, Europeans in drips and drabs in the 14th century before the Englishman Francis Light convinced the Sultan of Kedah to handover Penang to the British East-India Company. Francis Light founded Georgetown, after the English king George IV, developing it to make it accessible from the dense jungle.

We decided to follow a walking tour to check out some of the key architectural and cultural sites of the area. So starting at our beautiful hotel we walked down the main road Lebuh Cambell filled with Chinese merchant houses, gold jewelers, spice and Chinese medicine shops, noodle houses before taking a left down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling towards the old mosque. A beautiful mid sized white and green building with a set of minarets promoting the call to prayer. Passing a few Chinese templates including Kongsi with its huge burning incense sticks out front and locals entering its red doors for prayer. Across the road was the Sri Mariamman Hindu temple leading to the start of Little India. A few blocks of Indian restaurants, DVD shops promoting Bollywood classics, gold bracelet shops and more. Heading down towards the water runs the main road Lebuh Pantai where the old English shop fronts, post offices, banks and fire department was situated. The young Indian girl at the information kiosk gave us a handful of maps, lots of information and wished us well. There was also Chulia Street which was the backpackers quarter, and here we spent a few drinking sessions at night listening to reggae and drinking cheap cocktails.

The heat of the day was intense without a cool sea breeze so we decided to visit Penang Hill, 821m above sea level. Walking to the local bus stop we jumped on and took a 30min ride through outside of Georgetown past busy streets and a few high-rises packed to the brim with Chinese occupants. At the bottom of the hill was a cable car to take you up to the top, through the lush foliage. The British used the hill station to escape the heat and on top were a number of pleasant British mansions. We decided to take a walk around the mountainside on the road. The views down to the city, water and mainland were clouded by humidity. After a quick pit stop for coffee, scones, jam and cream we took the funicular back down to ground level and stopped off at the local shopping district. A number of large malls had been erected over the last few years filled with global brands including The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, to which we sat outside on the balcony watching the peak hour traffic and storm clouds blow in.

After another very comfortable sleep in our beautiful hotel, we had booked in a Malaysian Cooking class with Nazlina at her “Pickles and Spices” school. We choose the Vegetarian afternoon class where we would make laksa, rice paper rolls and chicken rendang. Walking down late afternoon and turning a corner at Lovers Lane we entered Nazlina’s house and sat down at a long wooden table covered with spices, vegetables and some fresh chicken. Naz was a tiny little lady with a big cheery smile. She was dedicated to slow cooking and making everything the traditional Malay way. So there we sat for the next few hours with a couple of friends from Perth and a couple from Switzerland, peeling, grinding and stirring taking directions from Naz. Then we sat down to eat, the rice paper rolls appearing first, then the chicken rendang and lastly the laksa, thick and creamy. After the food we walked through Little India, viewing a spice market before heading up for a mango lassi at Naz’s favorite restaurant before saying farewell.

It was time to head to the islands and we had booked a mini bus and boat ticket to take us all the way to the eastern side of the country. Packed up we were ready to go, heading to our final uncovered destination on the trip, it was time to enjoy our final piece of paradise.

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