George Town, Penang - A Perplexing Melting Pot of Culture & Cuisine

George Town, Penang, Malaysia • April 2017 • Length of Read: 9 Minutes

Panting heavily, I leaned on a waist-high wall, wiped my sweaty brow, and cast my eyes over the ant-sized streets and buildings; sprawling out like an endless spider web from beyond the dense green foliage that lay below me. Lauren, Derek, and I had spent the last five-hours climbing the torturously steep Penang Hill; wrestling through insect-infested undergrowth and trampling along the baking-hot and winding roads. The view with which we were rewarded from the restaurant at the top, however, was staggering. As the sun slowly began to set, thousands of lights flickered on and off like fireflies; the two bridges which connect Penang Island to the main Malaysian Peninsula melting into the darkening, cloud-filled, sky. One of the last states in Asia to gain independence from the British Empire, this densely-populated economic powerhouse finds itself at a crossroads between the East and West; with a thriving port, a barrage of different cultures, and a bustling tourist trade. And no more so is this evident than in George Town, my stomping ground for the previous twelve days as I wrote my next book, watched Sergio Garcia secure his first green jacket by winning The Masters golf tournament, and gorged on the awesome food.

Situated at the North-Eastern tip of Penang, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is covered pavement to ceiling in the commissioned 3D graffiti of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, and going on just the shortest of evening strolls around George Town will leave you absolutely perplexed. Turning right out of Ryokan Muntri Hostel, where I resided for the majority of my stay, you are immediately hit with conflicting smells of the artesian cake shop on one side of the road and the flame-fired wok of the Chinese woman selling flash-fried noodles from her living room on the other. Continuing past a cat café and hipster whiskey bar to the end of the block, an Odeon cinema then looms over you. Just when you fancy a bit of British home comfort and look to see what movies are playing that day, however, you realise that the cinema has since been converted into a high-class French cuisine restaurant.

Taking the next left, a 7-Eleven Minimart and Thai massage parlour sharing the street corner, you then find yourself on Love Lane; tables and chairs sprawling out from the dozens of drinking establishments that have commandeered this aptly named avenue. Don’t count on finding any local beer here, though, as it is technically illegal to brew alcohol in this Muslim country (although moonshine isn’t too difficult to come by). Instead, glowing neon signs advertising Carlsberg, Tiger, and Heineken blind you as hordes of drunk tourists blether away in English and party until the sweltering early hours of the morning and the mosques signal that it’s time for sunrise prayer.

There was a Scottish guy staying in a nearby hostel called Tipsy Tiger who, not once, but two days in a row, missed his flight back to Kuala Lumpur because he slept through his alarm clock. Surprising, considering that the bedrooms sported triple bunk beds with no mosquito nets and looked more like the inside of cargo shipping containers than my nicely air-conditioned paradise down the road. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that every guest got two free double-vodka mixers each night of their stay and that the beer pong table never seemed to be empty. Whatever the reason, I’m glad he was doing our little nation proud.

Hungover, you bleakly apply some sunscreen and make your way to one of the myriad hipster cafes that can be found hidden down inconspicuous alleyways, a flat white and liquid-nitrogen infused chocolate ice-cream sure to kick start the brain neurons. The property market in George Town seems to entirely negate neighbourhood differences, and commercial prices are apparently unaffected by whether you have a five-star hotel next to your establishment or an impoverished slum. The comic value of munching down an organic vegetarian salad at Yin’s Sourdough Bakery and then having to hop-scotch around a collection of homeless people residing in the entranceway is something to behold.

But more than any of these quirks, the primary draw of George Town for tourists has to be its world-renowned food scene. Traditional Malay, Chinese, and Indian street food stalls line nearly every sidewalk, creating a melting pot of flavours and smells. Don’t expect to find any English-translated menus or table service here, pointing at the perplexing food being cooked before you is the only way in which you’re going to fill your plate, 50% of which you’ll be able to identify and the other 50% a complete guess as to what it actually is you’re about to eat. And forget about portion control, £5 never bought me so much grub. Perhaps avoid the seafood, though. An American guy I had the displeasure of dining with one evening found himself bedridden for a few days after trying to stomach a raw octopus stew.

Taking the funicular down the hill, Lauren’s suggestion of saving money by retracing our footsteps having been quickly dismissed, we went to a highly-recommended restaurant called Two Buns for dinner. Twelve days of hit-or-miss Asian cuisine had got me salivating for some Western food, and as we waited for our succulent burgers to be cooked, Derek and I played Street Fighter on the retro arcade video game machine that the owners had installed in the corner. Now, it feels wrong to say this, but the order that soon arrived was hands-down the best meal of my entire stay in George Town. Perhaps it was because I was as ravenous as a wolf after all the hiking, perhaps it was the distant taste of home. Either way, at that moment Asian street food had no place in my belly or heart. Say what you like about mama’s home-cooked curries and hand-crafted noodle dishes. For me, a massive, succulent, juicy, burger is just too hard to beat.

Stuffed, we headed around the corner to a bar called B@92 for a few quiet drinks, strangely named after the popular Serbian radio station of all things. This made a bit more sense when we were welcomed in by a burly, bald-headed, Eastern European dude, however, who introduced himself as Aleksandar and his Chinese wife as Jun. The place was a yard sale of random memorabilia, with a fish tank behind the bar where the spirit bottles are usually found, war propaganda posters acting as wall paper, various medieval weapons pinned loosely to the wooden fittings, and a tiny little dog jumping between the tables and licking every face it passed.

A gregarious Serb, Aleksandar’s caustic voice was all we heard for the next hour as he regaled tales from his hometown, fed us conspiracy theories, and boasted about how much he could drink. Opening up a treasure chest in the corner, which looked like it could literally have been dragged from an actual shipwrecked pirate ship, we saw that it was completely filled to the brim with whiskey corks; his undoing locked away and for only a reserved few to see. To be fair, if I had to spend the rest of my life in Penang, as nice as it is to vacation to, I’d probably end up going the same way. One thing Aleksandar didn’t to us was how he’d ended up owning a bar in Penang in the first place, but when his ten-year-old Asian son came downstairs to say ‘hello’ to us, we felt that no further questions in this department were necessary. Finishing our drinks, we thanked him for the hospitality in a bar which was clearly also his front room and got up to leave.

“You said that you had a close friend who was Serbian?" Aleksandar said to me as I shook his hand goodbye.

“Yeah, someone very close to my heart.”

“Well, I have a message for you to pass on the next time you see her,” he chuckled, scribbling something down on the back of my receipt. It read: ‘Polizes mi Jaja, do Jaja’.

Walking along the golden sands of a Cambodian island beach a fortnight later, the little group that I’d befriended decided to stop at a makeshift tiki bar for a drink and to get some much-needed shade from the scorching midday sun. Ludicrously, another burly, shaven-headed, Eastern European guy welcomed us, and I started to scoff when he said that he was a successful Serbian-born businessman who had since retired to this quaint beach life.

“Can you translate something for me please?” I asked, still unsure as to whether I believe him or not. I mean, what were the chances?

“I’ll do my best,” he laughed, as I handed him Alexander’s scribbled note which had been folded at the back of my wallet ever since leaving B@92. Looking at it with furrowed brows, he started to shake his head. “Do you really want to know what this says?” he asked, seemingly a bit offended.

“Yes, please. It’s been bugging me for two-weeks now.”

“It’s quite hard to put this phrase into English,” he began. “But I suppose the literal version of it would be: ‘lick my ball sack, twice’.”

“Of course it is,” I laughed. “How could I have expected anything else?”