Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kota Bharu and Georgetown (Penang), June 18-21, 2011

Main Street, Kota Bharu
Kota Bharu and Georgetown (Penang)

I arrived in Kota Bharu with no reservations or even a plan except to come into town and to take the bus out the next morning. It wasn’t much of a plan, and it was a bad one. First of all, a fantastic rain squall, complete with lightning, greeted those of us getting off the train. I ended up sharing a cab into town with the British couple. They were staying in a rather fancy hotel in the center of town. I wasn’t interested in paying several hundred dollars for a room for the night, but figured I could find a place to stay nearby. I asked if there was a hostel and was sent just down the street to a “budget hotel.” It was 50 MYR (about $18) but the worst looking place I’ve stayed since at least the summer I hiked the Appalachian Trail. There was one room available. By this time, the rain had begun to let up and I looked around and didn’t see any other options. I could hear what I thought as a mullah on the loud speaker and a crowd yelling. I asked the proprietor what was going on and learned that instead of it being a call to prayer or a sermon broadcasts over the city, Myanmar was in town and playing Malaysia in football (soccer). The stadium was only two blocks away. Realizing that this was a big night in town and not wanting to risk not having a room, I went ahead and took it, figuring I’d get a bus out early the next morning.

The room had the thinnest walls I’d seen (the walls were only about an inch thick and actually moved when you pulled the door shut). There were two shared bathrooms at the end of the hall, traditional Asian style (with squat toilet and a shower in the same space). The bathrooms weren’t as clean as I’d like, but before I needed to use them, someone had cleaned them up and they weren’t too bad.

The hotel proprietor told me he could get a taxi driver to get me a ticket and I gave him another 50 MYR for the ticket. A little while later, he came back and said there were no seats on the morning bus to Penang. He said he could get me one in the afternoon. I agreed. He came back with a ticket. The afternoon had been sold out too, but he’d gotten me a seat on the 10 PM bus. I’d wanted to able to see and enjoy the drive across the peninsula, through the mountains, but that wasn’t going to be the case. Instead, I found myself wishing I’d booked myself back on the train through Kuala Lumpur (there was a second class sleeper). From KL, I could take the train up the west coast to Butterworth. But with the bus ticket in hand, I was assured I could escape the city.

The sign by the door was all in Chinese characters
Kota Bhura is a conservative Muslim city and there were few westerners around.  Many of the men wore the robes and hats and most of the women wore veils.  The call to prayer was heard throughout the day.  Interestingly, there was a Chinese Church (with their name, Christian Praise Center, also written in English) just down the street from where I was staying.  Since I was stuck in the city on the Lord’s Day, I stopped by at the time on their marquee (it said 10 AM) and it was locked up.  Since everything else on the marquee (except for the numbers) was in Chinese, they might have been Seventh Day Adventists and worshiped on Saturday, or maybe they only gather every other weekend.  It was hot and humid.  That Sunday morning, I went back to my room and read a few Psalms before taking an hour nap.  At noon (check out time), I lunch at a local establishment next to the hotel where I’d talked the evening before to one of the cooks.
Hussein and co-worker in front of restaurant
Squid, prawn, ladyfingers and spicy rice
The restaurant is the Nasi Kendar Istimewa (I’m not sure what it all means, but nasi is Malay for rice).  The cook I had talked to the evening before was working the lunch hour and I got to know him better.  His name is Hussein and he’s from India.  He dresses in a traditional Muslim fashion.  He was one of the few people around who could speak English (probably because of coming from India) and was very helpful.  I asked him what he’d recommend for lunch and he asked if I liked food spicy.  Agreeing that I do, he fixed me a plate that included Malaysian spicy rice, a prawn that was so big would shouldn’t call it a shrimp (it was the size of a small lobster), some spicy grilled squid that was delicious, and some fried briyari (translated as ladyfingers), but known to those of us from down south as okra.  The food was delicious and the meal cost 23 MYR.  I was drinking lemon tea when I noticed two men come in and be served what appeared to be a beer.  It came in a bottle that was shaped like a beer bottle, had a golden color just like a lager, and was poured into what appeared to be a mug.  I was surprised that in a Muslim restaurant that they served beer and asked Hussein if that was the case.  He assured me that they do not serve alcohol, but that the drink was from Saudi Arabia, some sort of fruit drink.

I spent much of the afternoon in a coffee shop with Wifi (and no air conditioning but it was shady and they had fans), updating my blog and securing a reservation in Penang.  Later, I dropped my pack at the restaurant and walked around town to see what I might see.  I came upon the English couple from the train as they were making their way back from Chinatown.  He was cursing that supposedly high-end hotel where they were staying had two bars and neither sold beer.  But he did find beer for sale in the Chinatown as the Chinese tend not to be Muslim.   We talked a bit more about my trip and they suggested that when I am in Britain that I go to York, both to see the train museum there (supposedly one of the best in the world), but also to see what’s left from the Roman era.

About seven PM, the taxi driver met me by Hussein’s restaurant.  I said my goodbyes and he took me to the bus station where I waited another three hours for the bus to Penang, much of the time spent talking to a couple from Finland who were heading to back toward Singapore after spending time scuba diving on some islands east of the Kota Bhura.  They left at 9 PM and at 9:30 PM, I boarded my bus for Penang.  It was a double-decker and I am sure the driver thought he was being nice when he gave me the front seat up top.  It would have been a great seat in daylight, but the top of the bus tended to roll more on the curvy roads we had to traverse (but the seat also had more room allowing me to stretch out).  I was tired and, despite the rocking, slept well.  I don’t remember much about the trip to Penang.  I know we stopped to pick up additional passengers, stopped again around 2 AM for a bathroom/snack break, and then again at Butterworth to let off passengers, before crossing the bridge to Penang.  Had I known, I could have gotten off at Butterworth, walked over to the ferry and taken it and been just a few blocks from where I was staying.  Instead, we went across the bridge and stopped at the other end of the island.   We arrived at 6 AM.   
Hutton Lodge, a great B&B in Penang
In Penang, I had an angel watching over me.  Mahed (or Cyclops as I’d known him) and I had read each other’s blogs for four years or so.  He’s a talented poet and when had encouraged me to come to Penang.   He’d made some blog posts over the years about Penang which were intriguing.  When I emailed him that I was heading that direction and told him where I was going to stay, he insisted on meeting me at the bus station at 6 AM (when he had to be at work later that morning).  Not only did he met me at the bus station, he’d already checked out the Hutton Lodge (where I had booked a room for three nights) and found it to be a comfortable place.    He dropped me by the Lodge (I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to let me get my room so early in the morning, but they’d assured me when I made the reservations that I could drop my bags even if the room wasn’t available).  It turned out, the room was empty (I had to pay a little extra for a partial night, but that included breakfast) and I headed to the shower then to bed.  After a nap and bed, I set out to explore “Georgetown,” the former British town at the south end of Penang Island. 
The train station that never had tracks!
After walking around town, I headed to the ferry terminal where there was a small KLM train station.  The British had built a large train station here by the ferry terminal that’s now used for other purposes.  It has a tall clock tower and is reported to be the largest train station never to have tracks!  The trains have never run to Penang; instead, you cross the water on a ferry and it drops you off at the train and bus stations on the mainland.   Today, there is just a small office that sells tickets and I book a berth on “The International,” from Butterworth to Bangkok on the 24th.    Next, I sat out to find some lunch.   Most of the food places were closed, but I found a few open and had a plate of noodles and shrimp.  I spent most of the morning and afternoon walking around and seeing the old colonial buildings.  I tour and old fort and run into a familiar face.  Cornwallis, the British general that Washington defeated at Yorktown and the one who disliked the way he was treated in my hometown so for revenge, he used a church for his stables, had been here also.  It turns out that after the American Revolution, the British government sent him to Indian and Malaya and today a statue of him stands by the waterfront.  There is also a fort here, built by the British, that bears his name. 
Lunch on the Waterfront
With Denise and Cyclops, toasting fellow bloggers!

After walking around in the hot humid air, I return to my room to shower and clean up.  Cyclops picks me up at 7 PM and we head out to eat dinner with Denise, another blogger and a co-worker of his.  We start out at a vegetarian restaurant and later drive over to the north shore where there is an open air market.  We walk around some and end up having drinks on the beach, enjoying the night air.   Although they have both lived their lives in Malaysia, Cyclops is Indian and a Hindu, while Denise is Chinese and a Buddhist.  We have an interesting conversation about life in Malaysia, about their work with handicap children, about family, politics, religion and fellow bloggers.  It has been a good day.


  1. Wow, cool. Definitely an adventure. And the foods. A far cry from what I usually eat over here. or even see.

  2. Wonderful experience. Nice write.

  3. I love your description of everything, including the food. The people you are meeting all sound lovely.

  4. Dude, do you know that you were eating Penang food in Kelanta (Kota Bharu)? No kidding. Look below the words Nasi Kandar Istimewa, you will find the words Pulau Pinang (Penang) :)

    Nasi Kandar Istimewa: wonderful Kandar rice, a type of dish prepared by the Indian ethnic group.

    Btw, is Denise a Chinese (Mainland Chinese from China) or Malaysian Chinese? Because so many races living together in Malaysia, they way they classify themselves is a bit different, according to the ethnic group, which may not necessary mean the "country".