Penang: Road Trip

Penang is a small island. Though most of the population and activity is in George Town, in the northeast corner, extending south and west from there, we thought it might be a fun day trip to rent a car and circumnavigate the island. Our new friends, Karen and Rick, thought so, too, so we set a date and arranged the car.

While researching what to see and do around the island, I came across a blog post, Driving Around Penang, which we found very helpful. With that post and Google maps, we were good to go.

We picked Karen and Rick up at the condo they are staying at for 3 months. It’s south of George Town near Queens Bay Mall. We hadn’t been to the area before. It’s very busy with the airport and a bus depot nearby, lots of shopping, and both high rises and single family homes on every available bit of land. They can see both bridges to the mainland from their suite.

We followed route 3113 south and were surprised to see how populated and quite modern the southeast corner of Penang is. From here, we set our next target to be Gertuk Sungul (or Gertak Sanggul), a small fishing village about 6km off the main road.

Fishing boats at rest in
Gertuk Sungul

Google maps were offline at this point (and I hadn’t downloaded offline maps for Google nor maps.me) but it said we could continue along the little road we had driven in on. We headed that way, passed a bus sitting in a bus turn around, and drove down what looked like a little lane. The lane turned into a narrow dirt 4-wheel-drive path that climbed up the mountainside and did not appear to be welcoming to our little 2-wheel-drive sedan. We turned around and drove back out to the main road to continue our journey.

Our next stop was Balik Pulau, the main town on the west side of the island. We parked and walked along the main street.

Several buildings sported huge murals. The one we got closest to seemed very spiritual while clearly representing the fishing culture of the area. Down a tiny alley, I spotted a wall covered in whimsical little people frolicking along a cable and onto the belly of a snoozing pig. It’s a delightful piece illustrating all sorts of adventurous activities along with plenty of durians (!). It deserves a leisurely stop to take it all in.

The munchies hit us so we stopped at a small cafe where roti was being grilled, and steaming curries invited us in. Probably since I have no oven here in Penang and I miss baking, I especially enjoyed watching the roti man at work.

North of Balik Pulau there are several attractions, but we were particularly interested in stopping at The Nutmeg Factory, which is the first attraction along the route. We walked down the hill from where we parked and it wasn’t clear to me as I perused the buildings in front of us what we would actually get out of this stop.

We looked around at a few trees, trying to figure out if they were nutmeg trees or not. Out from a little shop next to the garage came a woman who turned out to be the fourth generation in her family working the nutmeg farm. She explained that what we were looking at was actually bitternut, and then pointed us to a real nutmeg tree.

And that began our nutmeg tutelage. I knew of ground nutmeg and whole nutmegs that, when grated fresh, put pre-ground nutmeg to shame. I did not know (but now do):

  • what nutmeg fruit looks like, that there are male and female fruits, how to tell them apart and why it’s important to be able to
  • what mace looks like in its natural state
  • the number of products that are produced from the nutmeg tree, like snacks made by pickling and sweetening the outside meat of the nutmeg fruit; tea made from dried leaves, stems, and flowers; juice, oil, and balm
  • that luck plays a big part in the annual yield (details available during the tour)
Our tour begins as we sip on nutmeg drinks
Red mace wraps around a nutmeg seed
Male fruit produces two nutmeg seeds, female only one
The makings of nutmeg tea
Great grandaughter shares her knowledge while her ancestors look on
Father begins a tour for the next arrivals

After purchasing a few items from the shop, we continued on, winding our way up and over a mountain with a quick stop at the top to check out the view to the west side of the island.

We stopped at Teluk Bahang Dam and had a birds-eye view of Entopia (a butterfly farm) and Escape (water slide and ziplining), and further north to the Penang National Park and the north coast. Though we had agreed not to go to Entopia, I was impressed by the imposing green-walled (a little wilted and brown at this time of year) building. The dam itself was completed in 1999 and retains a large reservoir, part of which is used for the Penang International Dragon Boat Festival each December.

Looking north over Escape and Entopia toward Penang National Park

We headed down the hill and over to the entrance to Penang National Park. We were hoping for a short walk, but we were now in the mid-afternoon heat and the main trails were about 3 1/2km long or closed (Monkey Beach). There are a few kiosks near the entrance that offer boat trips to Monkey Beach if you are interested. Before you go, you need to register at the park building (which also houses interpretive signs and washrooms).

This wharf was cordoned off
This wharf was open for business

Since we had all previously been to Batu Ferringhi, on the north coast, we just made a short refreshment stop at a beach bar. Not far from Batu Ferringhi is Miami Green, where we are staying. We took the opportunity to show Karen and Rick our digs, and then we all took a cooling swim in our beautiful pool.

We had picked up our car right in George Town at the Good Hope Hotel. Though the car rental desk was closed, we had been told we could return the car after hours by parking it at the hotel and delivering the key to the hotel reception. We bundled back into the car for the drive into town, where we returned it after a quick petrol stop (18RM or $6 CAD to fill).

Free of the car, we could enjoy dinner accompanied by a beer for our intrepid driver, Ken. Google directed us to the nearest hawker center, Pulau Tikus. As we walked among the stalls, a fried rice one caught Rick’s eye. Karen and I were attracted to a cinnamon bun stall and I was excited to see whole grain cinnamon buns on offer. Armed with tomorrow’s breakfast (and custard-filled puffs for dessert or ?), we continued on and came across a few tables that were loaded with platters filled with skewered food. We couldn’t believe how much each group had ordered!

When we arrived at a table with some empty seats, the proprietor encouraged us to sit down. I asked her to explain what was going on at the table, and she showed me the colour-coded price list (anywhere from 1-1.80 RM per similarly colour-coded skewer). We were welcome to purchase rice or noodles at another stall and bring them to the table. Likewise beer and other beverages. This table was all about the skewers, the bubbling broth in the center of the table, and the sauces.

We shared our table with a couple of long-term Malaysian residents from Chicago and they kindly explained what some of the skewered foods were (fried pig’s ears weren’t recommended), how long to leave the skewers in the broth, and which sauce was the spiciest.

With fried rice on the side, we had a terrific feast, trying and sharing all sorts of impaled foods. When we were sated, they counted up the skewers and announced the cost: 34RM (about $11.33 CAD, or less than $3 per person). I have since found out that this local style of eating is called lok-lok.

What a great day of exploration, lovely villages, lush jungle, learning, good food, and good friends.


TripBits

  • Car rental: 170RM ($57 CAD) including mandatory insurance and taxes for an economy class car, which gave the 4 of us plenty of room. We had booked through rentalcars.com but didn’t receive our confirmation in time. So we phoned the dealer, Kasina, and they provided a better quote and confirmation.
  • Street art in Balik Pulau: Map and guide
  • Parking at Penang National Park: 3RM collected by an attendant after you park.
  • Cinnamon buns: I can highly recommend the whole grain ones!

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