Cycles of Life – Penang P2

After my ill fated but still highly recommended food tour, I fell into a total food coma, hoping to wake up hungry before my long awaited cycling tour the next day.

While I did wake up with plenty of time for a street food breakfast, my stomach was having none of it. I wasn’t hungry at all and the smells I experienced as I wandered around, trying fruitlessly to work up some sort of grumbling in my stomach just made me feel slightly nauseous. Super annoying on any day, but on the day of a cycling trip? Downright disruptive! Anyway, I wandered, empty handed and empty stomached back to my Airbnb to await my pick up by Matahari Cycles. They were on time, the van was super comfortable and I actually really enjoyed being one of the first pick ups as it meant I got to see some of the other areas of Penang- and see how the other half travel!! The hotel that we stopped at first was like something out of Getaway or Luxury Escapes and while I do love my flashpacker lifestyle, there were certainly some hints of envy tugging at my heart.

It also gave me a hint to the route I could take to my mum’s old house and I got extremely excited as we passed by the old swimming pools she used to train at. It seemed relatively easy to find and navigate to, so I knew I would find it the next day.

Eventually, we had picked everyone up and were soon winding our away around the hills of Penang, avoiding the cyclists for whom this must have been a regular pilgrimage. I became very glad that we were being driven for this section as it went on for quite a while. We soon arrived at a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere really, on the other side of Penang Island. We seemed to be in a different world entirely than that of Georgetown and its heritage listed street art. This was proper, rural living- a world away from the city life I was so used to. I love nature and so was thrilled by the opportunity to escape.

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It wasn’t a total escape, however… there was still a 7/11 and so, even though I wasn’t hungry I knew I needed to eat something or my body just wouldn’t do well on the ride. Dried chickpeas were my friend for the morning. We met up with our awesome guides and after receiving the run down on the bikes (amazing, Giant brand, mountain bikes with everything a girl could want except a padded seat) which had been set for our heights which we had sent through earlier. It was so smooth, organised and it filled me with confidence for the rest of the day.

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The ride itself was incredible, we rode through the back streets of villages, past schools (closed for the holiday), farms and canals; through palm plantations, mangroves and over rice paddies. The riding was mostly flat and therefore really easy, although riding through the rice fields was mildly terrifying and a few people did fall- they weren’t hurt and Matahari dealt with it fine- but still, if you’re not confident on a bike- take the longer way around (which they did tell us to do!).

The highlights of the day were the stops we made- first, an unplanned one at a local Mosque where they were marking a Holy Day which marks the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son and the mercy of God in providing a lamb instead. Vegans or vegos may want to stop reading now as the way they marked this particular day was by slaughtering livestock and dividing the meat into three portions- one as a sacrifice to Allah, one to give to the poor and one to feed themselves. We were lucky enough to see the portioning process and be invited to learn more about it, take photos etc. It was incredible to see and I felt really lucky to experience it.

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The next was a planned stop at a local goat farm where we got to try goat’s milk ice cream (which my stomach actually totally appreciated by this stage), pat adorable goats and also learn about some of the local farming methods and plants they cultivated in the area, such as rubber.

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Our next stop was tea and kaya toast (and curry puffs) at a local fishing village. Again, my stomach appreciated these tasty treats (though I don’t think I’ll be indulging in kaya much in the future- it was very sweet and I was grateful for the blandness of the toast itself to balance it out). We also saw how the fishermen sorted their “subcatch” from the nets. While a catch might be mainly large fish, the nets also pick up much smaller fish- destined for pet food or those fish ball things depending on quality-, prawns and other crustaceans and, I was pleased to see not too much, litter. So, these men and women would squat down and pick out the debris and subcatch from their nets, separating and sorting it as they went. It was a long process and by the time we were there at around 11, they were almost finished, starting the job in the wee hours of the morning.

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We cycled for another hour and a half or so before we came to our lunch spot- overlooking rice fields which stretched out to the horizon was a little bamboo hut- loaded with, glasses of nutmeg juice, bowls of laksa and plates of fresh fruit. It was a welcome sight and a beautiful one, at that. I could only eat a few mouthfuls of laksa- I think partly due to the fishy-ness of the dish of which I’m not a fan, and also because of my stomach issues that day. I think I was still full from my toast- ridiculously. The fruit and nutmeg juice was very welcome, however, and I felt ready to take on the final stage.

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Now, I had booked “The Twist”- an optional ending to the tour which was billed as a challenging climb. I’m fine with climbs as long as I have gears but I realised on the tour that this wasn’t a road climb, it was a mountain bike climb on very rough tracks which often got quite skinny and were always extremely bumpy. I’m certainly no wimp, but I’ve never mountain biked before and I was also very aware of the fact that what climbs up must also climb down. One of the guys in our group had done this ride in reverse and said the climb required you to carry your bike part of the way and there were sections that he had to focus entirely on controlling his bike so he didn’t fall.

And he was experienced.

Scared for my limbs, I spoke to our guide and he suggested that we turn it into a hike for me and the other girl who was now having second thoughts. Our reverse ride friend was fine to ride himself and we would meet him on the other side. I was overjoyed and excited. I love, love, love hiking and was totally pumped to be able to incorporate my two great loves on one trip.

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I’ve never been so thankful in all my life- the climb was steep, yes, but more than that, it was treacherous. AND the views were magnificent- something I wouldn’t have seen if I had been on my bike as I would have been staring at the track in front of me the entire time.

This section of the tour was cool too- we stopped in front of cacao tree (as in CHOCOLATE) and there was a ripe pod which our guide picked and beat open for us to taste. Cacao fruit is DELICIOUS- similar to mangosteen in texture and taste- and not at all like I was envisaging.

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The climb ended and we started heading down and it’s then that I really became grateful- this wouldn’t have been any fun for nervous little me. Plus, the other girl and I were chatting away about all sorts of things which again, would NOT have happened had we been on bikes. I feel like my vocab would have been limited to grunting, swallowed screams and muttered unmentionables as I toppled over on what I’m sure would have been regular occasions.

When we reached the bottom, we were both so glad that we hadn’t skipped “The Twist” entirely- the views of the beaches were stunning during the hike, but the beach itself was so chilled out. There was a hammock, a restaurant with drinks waiting for us and a plate of noodles too. I had a few mouthfuls but again, my stomach betrayed me and resisted the deliciousness despite the amount of energy I had exerted that day.

After relaxing at the beach for a while, Matahari drove us home again, dropping me at my door where I looked forward to scrubbing myself clean in my lovely shower before exploring Georgetown and its festival! The day was already so great that I was a little skeptical that it could get much better.

I can’t emphasise enough how excellently run and organised Matahari was and I HIGHLY recommend them to anyone who likes cycling. It’s such a great way to see Penang and you really do get off the tourist track. I can’t encourage you enough to give them go if you’re heading to Malaysia- it was an incredible day.



Penang- Night One. A foodie tour for someone who doesn’t feel like food.

Visa runs are part of the life of a long term traveler- no one can escape them. I’m particularly fortunate that with my visa all I have to do is leave the country (even for like, 5 minutes) and walk back in and I have another 60 days to my name. But while leaving the country for 5 minutes is convenient, it’s a lot more fun to escape to a neighbouring country for a weekend away! Which is what I did when I went to Penang- and a lot more fun it was! You’ve already read about my love for the place and the memories it sort-of held for me (maybe. If you haven’t, pop back a post and there you’ll find my lyrical waxings on the magic of shared histories.), but in terms of the trip itself, I didn’t go into much detail. SO. That’s what this post (and the next) is for.

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I woke up stupidly early on Friday morning to be greeted by the same lovely uber driver who took me to the bus headquarters to buy my ticket to Mae Sai- once you find a good one, see if they have a card and if there’s anything important you need to, give them a call- who drove me to the airport. The flight there was a noneventful, apart from the fact that despite my quite small amount of breakfast I wasn’t hungry at all throughout the day apart from briefly in BKK where I couldn’t find anything resembling a health food apart from overpriced coconut water which I drank- potentially a bad idea. Once I got into Penang, I made my way to the bus terminal and hopped on a bus for 1.5 ringgit- pro tip, as soon as you get your cash out at the ATM in Malaysia, buy some water so you have some change for the bus- otherwise you’ll have to run back into the airport consequently missing the first bus. The bus ride across the island was interesting- everything seemed really quiet, probably due to the fact that I later learned that I arrived in the middle of an extra long, long weekend- this didn’t affect my travels at all- except that it was exceptionally quiet and exceptionally busy at times when I wasn’t expecting it.

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Anyway, I arrived at the station around 3 and walked the 5 minutes from the shopping centre to my AirBnb where I was met by my lovely mouse of a hostess. Her name was Annabel and she was so, so quiet! Her beautiful heritage house reflected this- very minimalist and seemed almost empty but the minimalism was highly stylised- she was an artist and a pianist, the grand piano acting as an interactive monument in and of itself. I was lucky enough to hear her play when I came home on Friday night. My room was basic but with high ceilings and lourved windows I would soon see on many of the buildings around this awesome town. I dropped my bags and Annabell whispered to me about the George Town Festival which was taking place that weekend- pointing out a few shows which were free or which she thought I might be interested it. She also gave me a few maps showing all the amazing street art and historical spots around GeorgeTown. Gratefully, I deposited these in my bag and headed out into the heat to begin my food tour.

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Having not had lunch, I was expecting to be extremely hungry but I just wasn’t feeling super great (I’m convinced that coconut water was off). Nevertheless, I trotted off to find my guide, Lily and go on my (private) tour! I toured with Delish Asia and they were seriously excellent. Lily not only showed me food, but she also talked to me about the history of Penang and the reasons behind the amazing mix of cultures and cuisines which Malaysia in general, but especially Penang can lay claim to. We tried Char Kuey Teow from the best cart in the city who had a huge line up in front of him, Squid with Morning Glory and a dark soy with sesame seeds, a noodle soup (not laksa…), roasted duck, nutmeg juice, cendol… and that was only in our first stop. I had a bite of everything and already I could feel myself becoming full. This was NOT ok.

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So, we walked for a while, checking out some of the oldest bars and markets in the city, relaxing at a converted shop house and taking happy snaps of the amazing street art. She showed me where the locals drink (aka- where I would NOT be, unless I had a group of friends with me, it was the seediest back alley I’ve seen… and that was literally it, no real inside- just milk crates in front of an open window.) and showed me one of the oldest book shops in the city where I managed to contain myself and not buy anything- thank God for only having carry on luggage! She showed me Harmony Street, where there’s a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Chinese temple, a church and a Buddhist temple all on the one street.

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After a little while, the initial food baby passed by and so we stopped in Little India- what I was most looking forward to. We explored a market, had some masala tea, some ginger tea, dosa (or tosai as it’s known in Penang), some roti chanai and a famed murtabak which my mother had told me so much about. I literally had one bite of the murtabak and just could not do anymore, sadly, but if I had been at full health, than this evening of my holiday would have been the greatest.

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After we finished off, Lily took me to a little coffee shop where she was meeting some friends who had been out (like the rest of Penang- it was SO crazy!) and we chatted a bit about her life as a timeout editor/researcher and now as a tour guide and a writer. I picked up some hot tips about the festival for Saturday night but declined their invitation to join them. I needed to be away from crowds.


In an attempt to walk off my food baby and the nausea which was unrelated to the relatively small amount of food I had eaten, I meandered my way through the crowds, down to the harbour, onto a clan jetty and just sat there- listening to the water and the distant sounds of revellers.

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It probably wasn’t my best idea in terms of personal safety- if I had been cornered it was the ocean (where I would have sunk… or that’s about it- but it was so peaceful and serene and I was so out of it that I didn’t even think about the consequences. Soon, I stumbled home, into the shower, onto my very comfy mattress and fell asleep- ready for another early morning tomorrow…

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Revisiting a shared memory…

I’ve never been to Malaysia before. I’ve never even had a layover there. I’ve never had reason to use my tiny amount of Bahasa Indonesian which is leftover from years 3-8 and so very similar to Bahasa Malay…

But sometimes I feel like I have.

Not so much because so many of my closest friends have their ancestral roots in Malaysia and so when they travel to visit their families I see lots of photos and hear lots of tales of the malls of KL and the splashes of the theme park there.

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More because of my own family history. Despite the fact that I am as white bread as they come, I have my own roots laid down in Malaysian soil. My granddad was in the RAAF and as you may be aware, there is an Australian Air Force base situated in Penang which he was stationed at for about 2 and a half years. My grandmother, mother and two uncles joined him and lived there, in the humidity and the heat and exotic haze- a family of five forever intertwined with the cultural heritage of that tiny island which is already so culturally diverse.

So, when I set foot there and hopped on a bus across the island- I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner, but more like someone who was returning to a dream. I’d heard so much about this place of fresh seafood straight from street vendors who didn’t just pass on their wares, but also the dirtiest words of their language to my infant uncle; this land of Chinese Swimming Clubs and monsoonal rains; this land of murtabak and chilli and curries and the call to prayer. I was prepared for the experience of revisiting this new/old place to feel strange but I don’t think I was quite as prepared as I originally thought.

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Walking through Georgetown- with it’s heritage listed status and therefore it’s unchangedness- was like walking through a faded postcard. The houses were colourful, magical… an explosion of nostalgia and history which ticked every box I have. Cycling through the relatively quiet streets- especially on a cool Sunday morning- to explore and discover the street art before the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks descended only enhanced the feeling that I shared more than I knew with this old-new-familiar-foreign place. When I rode through the city to a hipster filled market, I knew that Penang knew me better than I ever thought it could.

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When I booked my flights to Penang, I wanted- more than anything- to visit the house, or at least the area, my family lived in. I love and miss everyone who lived there very much at the moment and my granddad passed away 5 years ago now. I thought by visiting their old neighbourhood, I’d feel their presence so strongly and while I was hoping for this- I didn’t really expect it.

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But when I arrived at the address and the trees were large and the house looked old- foreign- amongst the redone and renovated town houses surrounding it, I could feel the ghosts surrounding me. This was more than I hoped for. This was authentic and this road was the one my uncles and mum walked along everyday on their way to school. This tree which was once small, now shades the window of my mum’s old bedroom. This home housed my Grandma and Granddad, protecting them against the lashings of monsoonal rain- the cool tiles providing some comfort from the tropical heat. My uncle had a paddling pool in the front yard where there is now a motorbike. This house, this place, was a part of my history- despite the fact that my skin was now, after riding there in the hot morning sun, bright red- a feature that belies my EnglishIrishScottish blood.

The illusion of belonging was broken a little when a lady peeked out of the curtains- reminding me that this is not just mine and I am very much an outsider in this street, city, island, country, continent- but belonging is more than skin, it’s more than blood, it’s about where you feel you belong and where the people accept you.

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After my journey to the past, I rode to the aforementioned hipster market and got talking to a lady selling kefir (because of course I did). She asked what I had been doing in Penang and I told her that I had just visited my mother’s old house. She smiled wide and said she remembered fondly the Australian officers who worked in Penang and Butterworth, remembered the makeshift bars and remembered the RAAF school which my mum and uncle attended. She said- honestly and genuinely- that I should bring my mother and grandmother back with me next time, that she would take us to the places they would know, they would remember. She said “welcome back” to me.

Belonging is about how you feel, where you feel accepted, where you feel a part of a shared past.

And Penang- against all odds- held that for me.

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Also- I wish Identity and Belonging was still a part of the English curriculum because dayum, sample piece for Mind of a Thief for days…

I’ll post more about what I actually DID in Penang soon. I just felt like writing something other than what would essentially be a review post.