Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Best of Malaysia - Ipoh vs. Georgetown

(The following article was featured on Lonely Planet's website on the 24th of November, 2010. Click here to check it out)

WINNER - Ipoh, Perak

Winners are grinners, and the locals here are full of smiles. The city of Ipoh is engulfed by jungle on all sides. The landscape is blanketed in a brilliant shade of green that lays undisturbed, except for the limestone peak of an occasional jagged mountain. The architecture is colonial, and with it comes a laid-back feel - a welcome relief from the chaos of Kuala Lumpur. The town boasts many boulevards, a range of roundabouts and frequent fountains.

Like in Georgetown, the amount of street food stalls is staggering, but the ubiquitous hawker stands take up less sidewalk space. Ipoh is famous even by Malaysian standards for cheap and delicious foods, and most meals will cost less than $1. Backpackers take heed...

Ipoh is famous throughout the coffee drinking world for 'Ipoh White Coffee,' a regional specialty in which the coffee beans are roasted with butter and salt, and served with condensed milk. The end result is an aftertaste akin to popcorn, one which is absolutely addictive. I spoke with Amy, one of the managers at Ipoh Central Cafe (address: Jalan Raja Ekram), who shared with me the reason her cafe made the best brew in town. "We do not mix beans!" she exclaimed. "In America, or Europe, people mix beans together. We use only local harvest."

I leave the cafe after three delicious iced coffees. I cross the road, halting suddenly as somebody yells out to me from a motorcycle.
"HELLO FRIEND" he shouts enthusiastically, with his whole family piled on the small frame of the bike. I wave back a hurried response to this man who has already started to slow the traffic behind him.
"How are you finding yourself today?!" he shouts, no need for an inside voice as we are on a busy stretch of road and must shout over all the blaring horns, just to make ourselves heard.
"Yeah, really good," I reply, shocked and unable to match his level of intensity.
"Ipoh very nice city, good people here take care for you," he says, before zooming off in a cloud of dust. His two young children wave and smile in my direction, bidding me farewell in their local language. Ipoh and Georgetown both have wonderful food options, but only Ipoh can boast locals this friendly. 

LOSER - Georgetown, Penang

As I set off for the island state of Penang, I was very excited. I figured anything nicknamed the 'Pearl of the Orient' would have to be beautiful! However, this initial excitement decreased drastically, the longer the trip to get here took. This tiresome journey included twelve hours on a train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur,  imediately followed by a further eight hours on a train from KL to Butterworth, from Butterworth it was only a fifteen minute ferry, but my patience was already pushed at this point and this little island was going to have to work hard to impress me.

After disembarking from the ferry, I take a walk through the crowded streets of Georgetown. It is a rare occasion when the streets are not just crowded with people, but with an abundance of decaying buildings which although lay dormant, appear to be jostling for position. One cannot simply walk down a footpath here, as space is limited and every available inch is used. It's a constant game of back and forth, as you must alternate between road and storefront in order to proceed to your destination. I choose not to visit the northern part of the island known as 'Batu Ferringhu,' as I have a sneaking suspicion that the Malay translation is along the lines of 'beach for tourist.' No thanks.

This is not a city full of landmarks, or must-see attractions. For the bulk of visitors, it is a place to indulge in digestive decadence. A place to relax by the beach, catch up on reading or spend long periods of downtime. There is a reggae cafe with many depictions of Bob Marley, but being caught in possession of any drug in Malaysia will lead to similar penalties found in Singapore.

What catches my interest instead, is a tank with little water in it, but many thrashing eels. Thinking it was a pit of snakes, I wandered over to get a better look. The restaurant manager was more than happy for me to take a photo, and happy to explain the process. Live eels are worth more than dead ones, so when they are transported, they are kept alive with a little water and oxygen. Some diners even choose to have the specimen prepared in such a way, that it is still alive upon consumption. Apparently to 'look them in the eyes while you eat them, is to gain their soul and fighting spirit.' In other words - bullshit.

I head to Upper Penang Road, the restaurant/nightlife district, to look for a cheap feed. Penang is the home of 'laksa,' a famous noodle soup which is known throughout the world. I decide to try the local specialty, from one of the many food stalls that line the busy street. The vendor and I share a game of charades, during which I express my desire for a vegetarian laksa in which there is no fish stock. A passerby takes pity on me, and translates my concern. The vendor is all too happy to help out, and since everything is prepared fresh before my eyes - there is nothing to be concerned about. I find the soup to be tasty and fresh, but a little too sweet for my liking. In terms of laksa, my vote is with sour not sweet.

No comments:

Post a Comment