There is something relaxing about the experience of enjoying a good book, whilst watching scenery morph before your eyes. Up the West coast of Peninsular Malaysia, we travelled, through the state of Selangor and into Perak, passing through vast fields of palm oil plantations, wetlands of water buffalo and tiny regional villages.
We were up and away on a scenic railway journey up to Taiping, a historic Northern Malay city in the state of Perak. Having caught trains across many different countries in the world, I am still stunned at the quality of Malaysian trains. The seats and carriages rival those in the nicest parts of Western Europe, at a fraction of the price tag.
From Kuala Lumpur to Taiping by Rail
It was a hot, yet unusually dry afternoon for Taiping, known as the wettest place in the country. Leaving the railway station on foot, heavy packs on our backs ready for a sweaty walk down the main road. With only 24 hours to spend here, our efforts were concentrated. We made our way toward the Lake Gardens, a 64-hectares of scenic lakes, decorated with grasses and flowers. The large trees vibrated with the motion of restless monkeys and a large water monitor lazed on the river banks akin to a sated crocodile.
In the early evening, the tropical rains started. The heavy waters were hammering down within minutes, leaving us marooned & drenched in an unfamiliar food court full of curious local onlookers. The walkways were slippery and attempting to get back without sliding over or slipping into a nearby drain was a challenge all in itself. But finally, as I thought it could rain like this for all the night, it stopped as suddenly as it had arrived.
The wonders of Malay Cuisine
Dinner was a remarkable hybrid of western, Malay and Chinese food cooked by a young Taiwanese street food vendor. He had come recommended by our hotel manager and his dumplings rival any that I would go on to taste in China. For a few dollars, we ate a large meal of dumplings, hot tea and pork burgers made with Chinese Bao bread buns.
Open air food courts are the most common eateries in the country, and also some of the most rewarding. Small stands stake their place around the edges of a large room, usually with 2-3 open sides and tables spilling out onto the nearby footpath. The venue itself handles the drinks, and it is through their drink attendants that you order all beverages. Once that’s out of the way, it’s up to you to choose which street food vendors you prefer. Head over to the vendor of your choice, tell them what you want and where you are sitting. When your food is ready, they’ll bring it over and take your payment. Simple, and perfect for taste testing from a variety of different vendors too. It’s an institution in Malaysia and I prefer it over being holed away in a restaurant all the time.
It had been a long day of travelling and an early start back in Kuala Lumpur, time for an early night. Tomorrow would be a new day and another train ride. This time heading up to the historic Colonial town, tropical island and my former home base of George Town, Penang.
Transit through Butterworth
Georgetown is like nowhere else on earth, well at least not like I have ever seen. A scorching hot mishmash of cultures, flavours, smells and architecture. The place where a British colonial past meets traditional Malay, Muslim, Indian and Hokkien. A big, busy city on a tiny, tropical island. Or, as more people know it, the food capital of Southeast Asia.
Coming to Georgetown was like coming home for me. It was exactly 2 years since I had last visited. Back then I lived in a cabin on the hillside, surrounded by pristine jungle and within the open arms of the local Buddhist sanctuary. The place is heaven on an island, and it was the first time I fell in love with Malaysia.
It was a short yet scenic train trip from Taiping to Butterworth, the mainland component of the area known as Penang. The palms swayed gently and people were out in the fields tending to their crops, livestock and rice. The train pulled into the un-photogenic town of Butterworth, where we followed a series of corridors to the ferry dock.
A quick ferry to Penang Island
The lines were long, but the fare equates to less than a dollar. Besides, the journey via sea is faster and considerably more pleasant than taking a bus over the long, traffic-jammed bridge.
Our ferry was a moderate sized barge-like creature that held a few cars and a hoard of mostly standing passengers. The far corner housed a makeshift convenience store peddling snacks and fresh fruits. We jostled for a position on the edges, the place to get a good view. I tucked into a small bag of cubed watermelon with a toothpick as we pulled out from the dock, cheeks pink from the rush of air as we picked up speed along the way. Both leisure and fishing boats bob around the outskirts of Georgetown port, with clan jetties jutting out into the seascape.
The February weather was pleasant and unusually tolerable for mid-afternoon George Town. We made our way from the ferry terminal over to the neighbouring bus station and hopped aboard the 101 bus.
Penang – a tropical, colonial island and food paradise.
Pleased to be back in one of my many adopted hometowns, the rest of our time in Penang provided a dream vacation. Eating chicken rice, savouring the rich nutty rice and the perfect ratio of sesame oil to soy sauce drenching the Hainanese chicken. Afternoons meandering my beloved botanical gardens, watching tai chi and monkeys, exploring the hidden gardens where turtles paddled about lazily and plump blue dragonflies flitted about our heads.
Bidding my brother farewell in the early hours of the morning was the most difficult part – he had only limited time off from work and had to catch an early flight back to Australia.
It had been a joy to introduce him to such wonderful destinations, and show him what a life of travel was really like. As we bid him farewell, we began plotting the rest of our journey up through Asia.