S: Readers, note the day, Thursday the 12th of April; the time, around 5:15pm; and the place, our guesthouse in Penang, Malaysia. It was then and there that we experienced our first ever earthquake. Our accommodation in Penang comprised of an authentic colonial building (a creaky old wooden house). So when the earthquake hit we felt the whole house sway from side to side, and the wooden panels creak and crack in fear.
At first we weren’t sure what was happening, and our immediate instinct was to get out of the house. We consulted our guesthouse owner who was staring up at the building from outside. It appeared there may have been an earthquake. Our emotions were all over the place at that moment as we were not sure what to do or think. Luckily the quake did not last more than a minute and did not leave any immediate visual damage. Shaken, reluctantly we made our way back into the guesthouse. We logged onto the BBC website and our fears were confirmed. A earthquake measuring 8.7 had hit the Achen sea off the coast of Indonesia.
Warnings were issued of a potential tsunami being generated by the quake across the Indian Ocean. Videos of panicked Indonesians fleeing to higher ground were dominating the BBC headlines. Around an hour later we felt our second quake. Again, we immediately made our way out of the guesthouse. The evening was drawing in and with it darkness. We were both frightened at the thought of spending the night in our rickety guesthouse, fearing the next creak could be our last.
However, what was worrying us most was that we were due to travel by boat to Thailand in the next two days. Images and thoughts were making their way through our heads of numerous possibilities. What would we have done/felt had we been in Thailand when the earthquake hit and a tsunami was on its way? Also, it was only around a month ago that we had left Indonesia.
Thankfully, we got through the night with no more quakes or shakes. In the morning word had spread that the tsunami warnings had been called off. Lucky escape.
Penang’s clock tower built as a tribute to Queen Victoria. The clock tower sits at a slight angle, due to a previous earthquake.
The morning after the earthquake we made our way to Langkawi by boat. Rather than a sightseeing stop, this was more of an administrative pause before we crossed the border into Thailand. Langkawi is a small island, just under 500 sq km, at the north west edge of Malaysia.
But before we went to Thailand we first had a serious matter to address in Penang. It is of course that glorious subject which has been following us around Malaysia – the Malay cuisine!
Our bus journey from the Cameron Highlands was long and painful, no surprise there then. However, it got rather interesting when we arrived at our drop off point at Georgetown in Penang. (Penang is a small island off the north west cost of Malaysia.) Our bus driver picked out us and three other ‘Jonny Foreigners’ and offered to drop us off at our various hostels in the centre of town. He claimed the taxi drivers would charge us a considerably higher amount than what he was offering. The five of us agreed it made financial sense and hopped back on the bus.
While driving us to our hostel, the driver who never uttered a word to us during our six hour bus ride, all of a sudden became very chatty. He told us about his darling wife and then gave us a lesson in life. He also advised of the places in which to sample the best of Penang’s food. He strongly advised against eating from the hawker stalls. Something which our Lonely Planet Guide advised we do.
The following day we ventured down the back streets of Georgetown in search of Malay’s mouth watering cuisine. One of the first things to strike us was that either we were walking down the streets with our eyes closed or that there was a stark lack of eateries around. We completed a loop of the main streets where all the eateries claimed to be and only came across pizza, pasta, fish and chips. On our second outing we lucked out on a brilliant little Indian restaurant. It served us up two deliciously spicy curries; each served on a banana leaf, they were accompanied by a selection of sambals filled with an array of dips and sauces.
One of the few trend we have come across in restaurants while in Malaysia is how the waiters quiet literally like to wait. Upon entering a restaurant and taking your seat, a waiter will issue you with a menu and then stand right beside the table and wait for your selections. Now bearing in mind we are in a foreign county, coming across foreign ingredients and foreign language, it takes us a bit of time to make up our minds. In the UK, you may ask for ‘a few minutes, please’. But in Malaysia they almost take that quite literally, writing down ‘a few minutes’ on their writing pad. We didn’t let it go far enough but we do wonder what a few minutes would look like on a plate.
Also, the Malays don’t cope very well with bringing out dishes together. We have often sat at a restaurant, where I have been given my main course, eaten it and then my starter and Richard’s main course is brought out. They also love clearing up as you eat, taking away plates one by one as you eat off them. And when it comes to asking for the bill… Where have they gone?! They are either nowhere to be seen or to busy waiting on other guests. Small but noteworthy observations.
As for Malay cuisine in general, it would be accurate to say that it doesn’t really have a distinctive identity of its own, unlike, say, Italian, Indian or Mexican. Rather it is a fusion of Indonesian, Indian and Chinese dishes. And of these three, Indian was our clear favourite during our time in Malaysia.
As we briefly mentioned above, we are now off to Thailand. We had planned to visit Thailand near the end of the trip, but since we were so close to Malaysia it made sense to cross the border now. We plan to do some island-hopping and little much else. You can expect blog updates to be brief and a little less frequent. Hooray!