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Day 27 – See Food, Point, Eat (Welcome to Penang)

March 30, 2010

Dateline: Ko Lanta, Thailand and Penang, Malaysia and roads in between, Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Yet another travel day. Christoffer, drops me off at the travel agent shop at 7:50. We part ways. Immediately, both of us appear 200% less gay. We’ll try to meet in Bangkok on Saturday whereupon we can resume our Thailand prostitutional misadventures.

The bus boards two successive ferries to the mainland. We are shuffled off the minibus onto another minibus in a town whose name I never learned. This bus takes us to Hat Yai. On the bus, I meet a friendly British couple. They’ve been on the road for a few months and are headed to Kuala Lampur. Eventually, they plan on heading to the U.S.

We decide to have lunch at a Robinson’s plaza near the train station where the minibus dropped us off. We all have to wait for various departure times. I have 1 hour to kill. I have some pork leg and rice even though I wanted to try the pork knuckle. That’s the danger of ordering when you don’t speak the language. The Brits seem a bit more picky. The girl won’t eat the yolk of an egg that’s on her rice because it has some red thing on top. I suggest that it’s just shrimp or chili paste. My suggestion does nothing.

Also, at lunch, I discover an old processed favorite. It’s Fanta (I think) flavored with orange, pineapple, and banana. The soda is exactly the same color as the can, a green not found anywhere but with the most radioactive of substances.

I also find another favorite: young coconut juice. As always, this is delicious. Of course, it comes with coconut shavings.

After our late lunch, we head back to the travel office. The Brits decide to wander around. I sit for a few minutes and wait for the bus. I hop on and find a couple—an Asian dude and a White chick. They are either American or he is her well-spoken Thai prostitute. I think they are from California.

There are also two Malay businessmen returning from holiday in Thailand, a Canadian dude, and three other Brits. It’s a long trip. We get off the bus to clear Thai immigration. I get stamped out of a country.

We reboard the bus, drive for a few miles, then get off the bus to clear Malaysian customs and immigration. I get stamped into a country. Don’t ask me what the miles in between were. Perhaps it’s a DMZ?

As we drive into Malaysia, the weather turns and it storms. Dark clouds pound us with rain. Suddenly, it stops and we’re treated to a fiery sunset.

We hit Penang at 8 p.m. or so. We disembark and I end up wandering the streets of Georgetown trying to find a place to live. Most rooms are windowless, fan rooms with shared bathrooms. After an hour of accommodation shopping, I opt for my cheapest option. It’s a dorm room with six bunk beds and a shared bathroom. It’s 15 rm ($5). I choose this option mostly because I’ve never stayed in a dorm room.

Now it’s time to head out for food. It’s almost 10 p.m. and most shops are closed. The hostel owner points me to a street and tells me to walk and search for an open shop. I find nothing.

Next to a mosque, I see a line of people in front of what appears to be a restaurant that’s in the process of closing. Customers are seated inside and out, finishing their meals. The workers seem to be packing things up. Yet, local looking people are standing in line for something. This seems like foolish behavior. I choose to follow a traveler’s rule of thumb and join the line of locals. Perhaps they know something I don’t.

Turns out they do. I surmise from the sign that something starts at 10 p.m. The shop is closing up one thing and setting up for another. Perhaps a different menu. The people in line are a mix of Malays and East Indian looking people. The purveyors might be associated with the mosque. It’s all a mystery.

It’s also a mystery how to order. I bob and weave while in line, looking at how and what people in front of me are ordering. There’s a guy standing behind a little portable metal cart. In the cart are plates of meat and vats of red and yellow broths. The guy has a ladle, which he uses to scoop rice into a shallow bowl and drip broth over the rice. He uses his hands to place whatever meat the customer asks for onto the rice. He also adds little, whole okras which have been boiled in some kind of clear broth. Each customer seems to ask for a specific combination of the four broths. “Add a bit more of that. Less of that,” I imagine they’re saying.

Really, I have no clue. I don’t know what anything tastes like. I follow another traveler rule of thumb. When I hit the front of the line I point at the lady who’s leaving the cart and say, “Same as her, please.” The guy gets the idea. He douses my rice with a red broth, then adds two scoops of a yellow, then puts two different kinds of fish on top. Then he pours a random mix of broths from other vats over the whole thing.

I follow the lead of other customers and sit down before the concoction is done. An Indian or Pakistani guy (I can’t tell the difference), brings me the bowl.

He gestures at me, asking if I want a drink. I ask for water. This confuses him, which confuses me. Another guy helps out by pointing to a board. I stare at the drink menu. It’s written in English characters (yea!) but I don’t’ recognize anything (aww). I really just want something cold.

I do what any savvy traveler does at that point and order something I can read. Something called “Teh Halia” [sic]. This turns out to be a spiced, creamy tea. It’s near boiling hot. It’s also delicious. My blunt palate suggests that it has some kind of cinnamon in it. I sip it slowly, trying to make it last.

I look for utensils and find them back on the cart where I ordered. In front of the whole line, I grab a spoon and fork. As I do so I realize, to my horror, that I’m using my left hand. If you don’t know, the left hand is considered one of the dirtiest parts of the body in Islamic culture. I’m pretty sure it’s the same in all of Southeast Asia. That’s because you use it to cleanse your privates after you’ve done your business. I’m touching eating utensils with my butthole. Everyone in line is staring at me. I try to move faster to hide my offense, but that just makes me nervous and I end up touching more than the utensils that I need for myself. Oops.

I rush back to my seat inside, glad that I got my food before I offended the restaurant owners. The meal is delicious. It’s hearty, but not heavy. The broth is just a tad spicy, but the heat doesn’t overwhelm the flavor. That lady in front of me ordered well.

As I leave the place, the line of customers still stretches out to the street. I’ve heard there’s nothing to do in Penang. If nothing else, I know I’m going to eat. Judging from tonight, I’ll be eating well.

___________________

Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: When you stand in line for food at a place where you don’t know the menu or the language, make sure you’re behind a lady that orders well.

Not So Stupid Tip: Accommodations in Penang are pretty uniform. If you’re going to shop around, don’t expect too much variance in price. Rooms are typically windowless with a fan and a bed. Be sure you check the bathrooms and whether your room has a sink. That and free Wi-Fi are what guesthouses use to distinguish themselves. If those don’t make a difference to you, look for cleanliness and location. If possible, you want a place near a well-trafficked road so you can feel safe when you come home at night.

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