Selamat Datang Penang (Welcome to Penang). The Crossroads of Curry. The Pearl of the Orient. We were told that Penang Island boasts the best food in all of Asia; “You’ll never eat a bad meal there,” more than a few said. When you’re traveling through foreign lands, how could you believe such a statement? There’s usually going to be a miss somewhere along the line. We were very pleased to find that this particular lore held true.
What they didn’t tell us is that we would meet amazing people in Penang, who became our generous hosts, our tour guides, and most importantly, our friends, over the course of just 24 hours.
When we arrived to the island via bus, we were in a bit of a panic after our time in Singapore, Malacca, and the Cameron Highlands. These places were aesthetically beautiful and had unique redeeming qualities, but we had a hard time meeting locals, finding off the beaten path experiences, and digging into the local cultures. For 5 days, we had been floating down the lazy river of TripAdvisor’s Top 10 Things To Do, package tours, and drive-by-photography. Interesting at times, but not why we are on this adventure at all.
Contemplating our “trip reset button” options (CouchSurfing? Meetup.com?) in the rooftop Jacuzzi of our cheap-but-luxurious boutique hotel, we were fighting off the feeling of total defeat. We were losing our focus for this adventure and it didn’t feel good. We’re not on this trip to snap photos of landmarks; we’re here to dig into new cultures, meet new people, and share authentic experiences with locals and other travelers. After all, we do call ourselves The Neophiles.
We decided to take a breather and hit the streets of Georgetown in search of the revered Malaysian street food we have heard so much about. First stop: a 60 year old stall serving the most legit Char Koay Teow [stir fried rice noodle with egg and prawns] in town. We scoped out two available stools at a 4-person folding table in the street, half occupied by two 20-something locals and asked to join them. This was our best inquiry in a week.
Immediately, C and W showed the ultimate hospitality and friendliness, welcoming us into their world. The two had been roommates at University in Kuala Lumpur and hadn’t seen each other in 2 years. They happened to be running out of things to chat about. In their eyes, we came into their worlds at a perfect time. Little did they know about our situation!
We dug into our steaming noodles and were quickly challenged to try a local favorite, braised chicken feet. A perfect WWTD moment. K ordered the famous chicken feet, and the vendor was so shocked that we wanted to try these scrumptious talons, that he provided us each with a claw for free. As we were attempting to prove our worth to our new acquaintances by eating these fatty, boney, things – we were surprised to find that we really enjoyed them. Slimy, fatty, and reminiscent of pork belly; the chicken feet came doused in a lathering made up of soy sauce, garlic, and ginger, then reduced into a thick brown mess of beauty for hours upon hours. The chicken feet melted in our mouths, only the tiny bones were left to spit out. W wasn’t shy to declare that he sometimes just swallows these bones, out of pure, simple, laziness. Savage.
“Some more food? We know a good place to go to next”, C announced. Uh, yes. You asked the right couple. “These guys are angels”, K and I thought as we sat in the back of W’s bright white KIA, being shuttled to the next local street food hot spot by way of a quick tour of George Town.
Penang gave us a warm welcome when we needed it most, which evolved into an unlikely friendship that would grow quickly over the next 24 hours.
To be continued…
-S & K
Featured Photo: Charle and Wong, 10 minutes after we first met them. (George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia).
Char Koay Teow
Braised Chicken Leg and Complimentary Chicken Feet