To round out Malaysia, Nate and I visited two more cities on our way to Thailand: Ipoh (pronounced E-poh like Eeyore, both a helpful mnemonic and a beautiful metaphor for the city) and Penang. I’ve added a map below for your reference. We chose these cities purely because they were stops along the railway and because we needed to stall a bit so that we could time our Christmas on the beaches of Phuket Thailand. Priorities.
Ipoh is a small, retirement city that still draws a trickling of tourists from the fifteen minutes of fame it received when Lonely Planet proclaimed it as one of the top 10 cities to visit in Asia in 2016. Our Couch Surfing host, Yew (an ER doctor who speaks at least 4 languages), confirmed the influx in popularity by complaining frequently about the swollen street and sidewalk traffic. Yew graciously spent his time when not working in the ER to drive us around to all the “hot spots” of Ipoh, including: Concubine Lane (a sad alley with vendors selling sad toys), a recreational park called Gunung Lang that had some ostriches and sundry sad animals in cages, and a sad night market that had two sad Russians busking for travel money (the citizens of Ipoh do NOT like busking Russians, not even sad ones). Ipoh is basically the St. Petersburg, Florida of Asia – perfectly pleasant, but not for the thrill seeker in your life.
In between these excursions, though, Yew steered us toward some pretty epic food. We had some tasty curry noodles (shop pictured right), fried noodles, noodles with chicken, noodles in a clay pot, and some other varieties of noodles. What I’m saying is that Ipoh at least provided some much-needed chopstick practice.
We did stop once or twice at the town’s one claim to fame: the original Old Town White Coffee. Here we gratefully put away our chopsticks and consumed some amazing egg tarts and white coffee. I’d visited the chain frequently in Indonesia, so it was fun to see the original. It lived up to the hype.
Indiana Jonesing for Adventure
My friend Tabby traveled with us from KL to Ipoh, so when Yew was doing important work, the three of us tried to squeeze a little more adventure out of Ipoh. This came in the form of limestone caves with temples and really nice graffiti. We braved the heat and humidity of Malaysia (90 degrees plus with dripping humidity) to walk along the highway toward some caves. Apparently we were the only ones. We arrived at our first cave, tentatively walking around waiting for someone to tell us we couldn’t go there or we needed to pay or we needed to dress more appropriately, but none of this ever happened. The few older people who seemed to work at the temples didn’t so much as look at us as we gazed at various versions of Buddha in caves of differing size and shape. So, we started pushing our luck, trying to go into every closed gate and hidden staircase we could find. Can I go here? (looks over shoulder at elderly people), we’d say loudly. Nothing. This led to us finding the longest, steepest, Indiana Jonesiest staircase ever. There were weird Kungfu Panda carvings in the limestone as the stairs switched back and forth and up and up.
To pass the time and to distract ourselves from the combination of height with questionable infrastructure, we made guesses about why the staircase existed and what was waiting for us at the top. The answer was…a sad view of the city. We should have known. After descending and exploring a few more caves, we learned that really endless staircases to nothing is just a thing that comes with the territory of temple caves. We also found the short little door way that led to a shallow pool covered in skipping stones. There was a poster with step-by-step photo instructions telling us to take off our shoes, say a prayer, walk across the stones, and throw a pebble over our shoulder before exiting. Here you can see a demonstration by Nate and Tabby. They are very good at following instructions.
By noon, Tabby declared that she had temple fatigue, and we readily agreed. Moving on to Old Town Ipoh next, but not before a few more pictures from our self-guided temple tour:
Next began the scavenger hunt for street art in the Old Town of Ipoh. Ernest Zacarevic, a Lithuania artist, adorned the crumbling-yet-charming buildings of Old Town Ipoh with 7 large murals. He seemed to spark a trend because while I dragged Nate and Tabby around to see each of the installations that were conveniently marked on maps throughout the city, we kept running into other fun, often three-dimensional street art.
Happy to have found a non-sad part of the city, Tabby headed back to Indonesia, and Nate and I bade farewell to Yew and headed out on the next train to Penang.
Georgetown: Scavenger Hunt vs. Cascading
After an hour train ride and a 20 minute ferry ride to the island of Penang, we stumbled onto the hot streets of it’s main town called Georgetown. An UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, this city had a lot of British colonial architecture connected (disconnected?) with a lot of missing or interrupted sidewalks. Georgetown was definitely infused with the liveliness of young backpackers and the bars and party hostels that keep them coming, but the bones were basically the same as Ipoh: great food and fun street art. There was one major difference: It wasn’t sad.
On day one, I prepped in the hostel cross-referencing internet 10-best-lists with my tourist map so that we could hit all the “best” sites and food. When we headed out on the street, I pulled out my map ready to lead the charge, and Nate immediately swatted it out of my hands. It was time to try his style of exploration. He called it “The Cascade Effect,” and I think it best to explain it through the following example.
After putting my map away, we wandered through the streets using our senses as our compass instead of red stars on a map. We followed our nose toward Toucan Sam-style toward street carts and scanned for happy-looking locals to make decisions about food instead of a foodie’s blog suggestions. Lingering past one such alley café, a Malay man enjoying his meal took note of our hesitation and yelled out to Nate. He boasted that this café sold the best coffee in Georgetown, and further, that he’d buy us the coffee if we didn’t like it. Then he added, laughing, that we’d have to buy him a coffee if we did like it. Not sure whether or not to take this bet seriously, we decided to try the coffee out but at a table a safe distance from our new friend so as to not have to make good on the bet. Well – you can guess the outcome – he was right. The coffee was good, and we enjoyed it with toast and homemade peanut butter all served to us by a smiley server who resembled a Nepali Emilio Estevez. We ate contentedly while rats scurried down the gutters inches from our feet. A local man at the table next to us told us deadpan how lucky we were to see these creatures which couldn’t be seen at any old zoo. Annoyingly, this mixture of good food and drink while communing real time with actual people instead of virtually high-5ing internet bloggers on our shared food domination made Nate right and his method of city exploration superior. One awesome interaction beget another awesome interaction. Cascading. Voila! And to top it off, now I can blog boast about the best coffee at a shop in an alley in the middle of Georgetown with rats that can’t be seen in any zoo.