Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The final countdown

Symbas and Bigfella's big KTM with the G-town po-po
Our last week in Georgetown... what a sad statement. Actually it was about a week and a half. Before we left Tana Ratah, Colin received a message from a fellow ADV-er, Bigfella (Ian), that he had just arrived in Georgetown and was wondering if we were there. We arranged to meet up with Ian for dinner at Kapitan (mmmm, tandoori chicken) and then introduced him to our oh so classy favorite local watering hole, the “Corner Bar.” We traded stories and laughed until late in the night. 

Heartbreak Dave, aka Poose
It was such a good time that we did it again the next evening. After filling up on dim sum at De Tai Tong, we ambled back to the Corner Bar, stopping to see our favorite Chulia Street residents, Heartbreak Dave (aka Poose) and Krishna, the travel agent and bike renter who keeps an eye on her, on the way (as we did virtually every night). Back at the Corner Bar, the three of us were sitting at a table in the street, when an elderly Chinese man came and stood next to us with a beer in hand. We struck up a conversation with him, and here met Lim. He told us he was 18 years old (but said he was born in 1930), was born on the island, and was here during the Japanese occupation of the island during WWII. Colin, Ian, and I were about to leave when Lim brought another round to the table. He then sat down and continued to tell us tales of the Georgetown of old, along with stories of his travels in other parts of southeast Asia. Lim, as he reported, has been to Bangkok over 50 times. The Lim family has a temple in the city, and they meet in Bangkok annually to pay respect to their ancestors. For some reason, he also felt it necessary to fill me in on the “ins and outs” of Thai women, ie, what “activities” are safe, and what are not. While Colin and Ian laughed and talked about something else, I, was huddled, lips (his) to ear (mine) with Lim, so neither of them was privy to the indelicate nature of our tete-a-tete until later, when I had to share. 
who knew NASA offered Nepal-Thailand directs?
The rest of the week we spent getting the bikes ready to ship, changing oil, replacing the crusty old and abused batteries, and cleaning them up to finally letter the leg shields with our route, after all these months. We originally wanted to get flag stickers from each country we visited, but we weren't able to find them in many places. Instead, I got a permanent marker and wrote it out using the two-letter country codes and dotted lines. Fancying myself an “artiste,” I drew airplanes between the countries where we flew. Now it would appear to the average viewer that my Symba hitched a couple of quick rides on the Space Shuttle. The bikes did need to be crated before they were delivered to Eva Air, so we rode across the big bridge to Butterworth one last time to drop them at the crating company. We did the usual disassembly one last time (sob) while the craters double-checked our measurements. Once we'd finished, the crater kindly gave us a ride to the ferry back to Georgetown. It was a sad day.

Chew, at his childhood home on the jetty
Chinese Recreation Club verandah
On another day, Chew (who replaced Lim at the Star Lodge (the one who taught me never to let a drunk Chinese man touch my feet)), and his wife picked us up one morning to take us to the Chew Clan Jetty. The clan jetties are an interesting piece of Georgetown history. When Chinese immigrants came to the island, they would live and work from the jetties. Most of the men fished or as stevedores on the ships in the port, and each family had a jetty. Over time, each family more or less specialized in a specific business, some handling cargo from Indonesia, some from China, others in fishing, etc. Chew was actually born on the jetty and lived there until he was seven. He and his wife, Cristina, took us on a tour of the jetty, where they showed us his childhood home and introduced us to members of his family, and then drove us all over Georgetown to see the parts the tourists don't get to see. They then took us to the Chinese Recreation Club, which is a beautiful old country club in the middle of the city. Chew has been a member since 1972 (his wife refers to it as his second home since he is there every day). There isn't a golf course, but they do have tennis, badminton, basketball courts, football fields, a gym, and an outdoor, olympic size pool. It is a gorgeous place where you automatically feel very “colonial” sitting on the verandah sipping iced tea overlooking the pool. Oh, and they have what is reputedly the best Chinese restaurant on the island. Chew and Cristina treated us to lunch in the dining room, and it was truly fantastic food, service, and company. Colin and I had a great time (although we both felt underdressed for the occasion). We have met so many terrific people on our trip. I hope that we can provide the same kind of hospitality in return someday.

Fraser Hill

the start up to Fraser Hill
Feeling extremely discouraged the next morning by the weather and the issues with Colin's bike, we headed out into the gray, uncertain what our next destination would be. Our original itinerary included a stop at Gunung Stong National Park, but since it had poured overnight and still looked threatening, we forewent that option and instead, decided to ride to the little known, Bukit Fraser (Fraser Hill), which is a colonial hill station reputed to have a gorgeous road leading to the top. Beyond that general description, we had little information, including nothing on food or lodging. After a leisurely breakfast (with a second cup of tea enjoyed while waiting for the fog to lift), we loaded up and headed out. The roads were smooth, curvy, and much less populated that the previous day. To make it even better, the weather improved, with only scattered light showers to deal with. 

The house where we stayed with Philip and his family
We made it to the single-lane road that led up to Fraser Hill as the sun appeared. The road was all the rumors promised- corner after corner, rounding the mountain, climbing through the trees, and at the top was a beautiful, British colonial hill station, with buildings of gray stone and gardens galore. We pulled into the village center and stopped to look at the map of the area with the hope of finding a place to stay for the night. As we stood there, a man walked up and asked where we were from. Assuming it was an intro for yet another photo op with the crazy foreigners on motorbikes, we cautiously said we were from America. We were wrong. His name was Philip, he was a State Representative from the state of Selangor (on the west coast), and he had just arrived with his family for their holiday. 

Tree ferns
The state of Selangor maintains a bungalow on Bukit Fraser for public servants to use. Philip asked us where we were staying and immediately invited us to stay with him and his family. Not wanting to intrude in their family vacation, we considered declining, but he was so friendly and welcoming that we agreed. We followed him further up the hill to the bungalow, and what a nice place it was. The caretaker said it was originally built in 1938, and it was grand. The ceilings must have been at least 14 feet high, and the rooms were all huge. We were given our own room, where we unpacked, took a quick shower, and came out to meet the family. In addition to Philip, there was his wife, his four children, a niece, and his mother. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around looking at the beautiful gardens and hillsides and talking with Philip. Later in the evening, we hopped on the Symbas and followed the family back into town for dinner. We went to a nice Chinese place, where Philip ordered for the whole table. We had lots of yummy food and good conversation. The mist had rolled back in earnest and visibility fell to 200 feet or less. After dinner was over, Re and I went for a short ride around town before finding our way back to the bungalow in the dark and fog. We spent the rest of the evening talking with Philip about life in Malaysia. 
two of the many amazing moths
The next morning, Philip and his family invited us to join them for breakfast, so we enjoyed more conversation over coffee and kaya puffs (kaya is a coconut custard, the puff part is pastry. Yum is all I can say). After breakfast, as we prepared to leave and Philip's family waited for the fog to clear enough to go hiking, it started to rain. So we all hung out on the large porch and admired the hundreds of varieties of moths which had gathered overnight (since the porchlight was left on) on the columns, walls, light fixtures, and our bikes. They were amazing. Everywhere you looked, there were more, varying from the size of my pinky fingernail to the size of my palm, and colors from vivid red to green to all shades of brown. 

Once the rain tapered off to a mere spit, we geared up and thanked them all heartily before saying goodbye. Accepting an offer to stay with strangers doesn't come naturally to either of us. It felt incredibly awkward, and knowing that people have limited time and resources for holidays, we didn't want to intrude on their family vacation. But staying with Philip and his family was really an incredible experience; they were so welcoming, friendly, and as excited to talk with us as we were with them.

amazing spiderweb and wild orchids
From Fraser Hill, we rode back to the Cameron Highlands for a second attempt at hiking. The weather cleared once we got to the bottom of the hill, and the ride was beeeyootiful- more graceful curves, nice pavement, and sunshine peeking through the trees. We spent the night at the same guesthouse in Tana Ratah and enjoyed an evening stroll and dinner at a busy hawker stall. Shortly after we went to bed, we heard roaring thunderstorms, which continued through the night and left huge puddles of standing mud and water the next morning. Sooooo, no hiking. Instead, we decided to....go home to Georgetown.

Shipping Arrangements...check. Touring Malayisia...check. Bike Problems...check.

view of Penang from the ferry
Much of our time in Georgetown was spent trying to sort out the return of our bikes to the USA. Colin had read reports on HUBB (a round-the-world travelers forum) that it was simple and cheap to ship bikes using Malaysia Airlines' MASKargo. Unlike many carriers, they don't require that the bikes are crated. Instead, they strap them to a pallet, tightly wrap them in plastic, and send them on their way. They fly from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles, and we figured the ride up the west coast back to Portland would be a good finale to our journey. It sounded great. Too good to be true, you might say. After many days of getting nowhere, playing phone tag with MASKargo sales and service agents, we rode out to the cargo terminal at the Penang airport to meet with an actual person to arrange our cargo shipment. They were extremely nice, but politely told us... no, they could not fly our bikes to Los Angeles, because of a US government ban on “personal effects” on passenger aircraft. After the toner cartridge bomb plot two years ago on UPS and Fedex out of Yemen, it has been determined that it is unsafe to carry any kind of personal effects on board passenger planes, so in order to get our bikes back to the US, we would have to put them on a cargo only aircraft. I did some research and found the carriers with cargo planes, made a bunch more phone calls, sent more emails, and after being told no by numerous people, finally found someone who could help us. Ms. Goh from Worldlink Cargo was our savior! She arranged for shipping on Eva Air (a Taiwanese airline), which flies a gigantic freighter out of PENANG (we didn't even have to go to Kuala Lumpur (KL)!) to Taiwan and then on to Los Angeles. The bikes did need to be crated, and she coordinated that as well. Her rates were lower than if we left from KL, so we booked it, bought our plane tickets on Malaysia Airlines, and tried to enjoy the rest of our limited time in Malaysia.

Lake Temengor
We did actually leave Georgetown for a ride through the middle of the country to see the mountains and enjoy the twisty roads. We set out one morning after breakfast, said goodbye to Robert and Chew, and told them we'd be back in about a week. The weather was the usual mixture of sun, puffy clouds, and humid heat as we rode the ferry across to the mainland. Traffic was heavy in Butterworth and continued to be as we headed northeast into the state of Perak and around the very large and scenic Lake Temengor. Since we arrived at lunchtime and there was food to be eaten, we stopped for some noodles and tea at the lakeside park. The sky in the east had begun to grow dark, so we decided it would be best to get back on the road.  

some of the oldest forest in the world
A short while later, we crossed into the state of Kelentan, where the road became twisty and more enjoyable. In some of the tighter corners, it felt like the back end of my bike was moving around a bit, but I really didn't pay any attention and put the feeling down to not having ridden in a while. Dumb dumb dumb! After a while turned south toward Jeli. As we pulled away from a stoplight in Jeli, I shifted from first into second and had no drive at all. The engine was turning but my rear wheel was not. Since I was halfway through the intersection, I shifted into first, twisted the throttle, and got the same lack of response. I tried second again but got nothing. My first thought was that I had either done something wrong installing the clutch or was having a transmission problem. 

not what you want to see when you remove the rear wheel
About this point, Re pulled up and said she had seen chunks of my cush drive coming out the back of my bike. Well now, that can't be right. I duck-walked the bike through the intersection and a little farther up the road. I looked back to see that, sure enough, there were chunks of cush drive rubber in the intersection. I looked at the rear end under my bike and could see that the rear wheel had pulled off the splines that are attached to the rear sprocket and drive the rear wheel. What didn't occur to me at this point was that I shouldn't be able to see inside my rear wheel with the axle securely fastened and a non-bent swingarm. While I ran back and gathered the rubber pieces, Re rode a bit ahead to scout for a suitable work area. She found a nearby parking lot, so I pushed my bike there and got to work. Once I sat down and looked at the rear end again, the reality sank in that something was really wrong. As is pretty standard, the axle goes in one side of the swingarm, through a spacer, through the wheel, through the other side of the swingarm, and then into a nut, which holds it all together. Somehow, I now had an extra half inch or so of space where there shouldn't be any. This can only mean one thing. Sure enough, I looked at the other side of the bike and there was NO AXLE NUT! Maybe that was why it felt like the rear end was moving around a bit in the twisties. 

Re volunteered to go back and look for the axle nut while I was in a mild state of shock and left before I could stop her. I think that the nut had been gone for a long time. Quite apparently, I am going to have to fire our mechanic, since that asshole didn't tighten the axle nut after that moron changed the chain... A minute later I went to call Re back and noticed that around the corner was a motorcycle shop. It just couldn't be any handier! With Re's help, I removed the rear wheel and started to inspect the damage. While I did this and got out our spare cush drive rubbers (thank you Alliance Powersports) Re walked around the corner to the motorcycle shop with the axle and returned with a replacement nut. By the time she returned, I had removed what was left of the old cush drive rubbers, but I couldn't get the new ones installed. I carried the wheel back around the corner where the nice folks at the shop showed me how to install them. When I returned to the bike, we started to reassemble the rear end and that's when I noticed two other things: 1) the nut and washer from the right side chain adjuster were gone, and 2) the rear swingarm was indeed bent. The right side of the swingarm appears to have bent near the pivot and is now about a half inch too wide at the axle. Our swingarms appear to be made of molded, flat sheets of steel that have been welded together at the edge. I inspected the swingarm and didn't see any obvious cracking or wrinkles in the metal, so I levered it back into place while Re tightened the nut. One more trip back to the motorcycle shop got us a replacement nut and washer for the chain adjuster, and then everything was back together. I took the bike for a quick ride around a couple of blocks to make sure it was okay and then we decided to get back on the road since the sky was getting very dark. I wish I knew the name of the bike shop in Jeli since we couldn't have done it without them. The only money they would take was one ringgit (0.33 USD) for the axle nut. 

We were now heading south toward Dabong and then it began to rain. There was supposed to be some kind of government resthouse in Dabong, but we couldn't find it in the rain. There also didn't appear to be a petrol station, and we needed some. Between the rain and the bike problems, I didn't feel like messing around anymore today, so I made the executive decision to head further south to the town of Gua Musang. It was supposed to be a bigger town so hopefully, accommodation will be easier to find. Back on the road, it didn't appear that we would have enough fuel to make it, so we stopped in another small town along the way and bought some bottles of gasoline at the local mini mart. The extra liter each gave us enough fuel to make it, so we motored the last 25 miles into town. And what a 25 miles it was. Shortly after refueling, the rain went from steady to torrential. As we came over a rise, it was like somebody turned out the lights. Even though it was only around 6:00 pm, it suddenly became night. Between the rain and the wind, we decided to make a dash for the awning of an abandoned gas station. We pulled underneath to hide from the rain and waited about 30 minutes for it to slack off. Not wanting to be riding in the rain in the dark, we decided to continue on once the wind died down. 

Pulling into Gua Musang around 7:00 pm, we saw some crummy looking hotels on the main street. We kept looking and Re spotted a sign for the Titiwangsa Hotel. You know I had to go check it out. It was a bit of an odd arrangement, above a healthfood store in a newer strip mall that was mostly unoccupied, but the room was nice, the price was okay, and hey, it's called the Titiwangsa (it's hard to believe I am not 12 years old sometimes). The rain had let up by now, so we unloaded our stuff in the room and hung everything up to dry, turned on the fan and A/C, and went out for dinner. Just to make the day complete, I discovered a sore tooth while eating dinner. Great.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

And We Worked on the Bikes

Colin and Jacob, replacing the clutch
Way back when, a couple of posts ago, I mentioned that Colin's clutch was preparing to expire, and that he had contacted someone in Taiwan to get a new one. That was on a Monday, and he received a package (yay! It's like Christmas!) on the following Friday. Over the weekend, we removed the old clutch and put in the new one with the help of a local man named, Jacob. 

After draining the oil and removing the leg shield, I removed the oil screen cover and oil screen and then the eight bolts that secure the engine side cover. When I pulled off the cover, a fair bit of oil drained out, and a couple of parts fell into the tub. Once I had the side cover off, I removed the clutch lever and cam plate. After that, I removed the clutch outer cover and discovered that there was a gasket between the outer cover and the clutch assembly itself. Since I didn't have a replacement gasket, Re carefully used a thin knife blade to separate it from both pieces. Fortunately, we were able to keep it intact, because we will need to reuse it. With the outer cover removed, I could see our big problem of the day. The clutch unit itself is secured to the output shaft by a special “anti-loosen locknut.” The anti-loosen locknut requires a special tool which we don't have. Basically, the tool is a socket with four prongs that project from it that engage the notches in the locknut. The locknut sits down in a well in the center of the clutch unit, so getting to it with any other tool is difficult. I unsuccessfully tried to loosen it using a hammer and screwdriver but couldn't get a good enough angle. I knew from viewing a Youtube video on replacing the clutch on a Honda Passport, that the Hondas use a similar nut. So while I worked on removing the gasket from the engine case and case cover, Re walked over to one of the repair shops we'd seen while out walking to see if they had the needed tool. I figured if we couldn't borrow the tool, maybe we could push the bike the five blocks or so to the shop and have them remove the nut. 

While she was gone, Robert from reception asked what the problem was. I explained that we needed a special tool to remove the clutch. Fortuitously, Robert's friend, Jacob, happened to be visiting this morning. He came over to look at the problem and said that he had the tool at his house. About this time, Re returned with news that the shop was closed. Jacob said that since it was Sunday, every shop would be closed. I guess I am used to the schedule of motorcycle shops in the US, which are usually open on Sunday and closed on Monday. Jacob said if we could wait for about an hour, he would ride home and get the tools. While he was gone, we finished cleaning up the gasket surfaces and wiped up the oil from inside the cases. Jacob returned with the special wrench and an assortment of other tools and gasket sealants. With his help, we were able to remove the locknut and get the new clutch unit installed. Since we still needed to get a replacement clutch adjustment bolt, this was as much reassembly as we could do now. We reinstalled the side cover temporarily and cleaned up our workspace. We rolled the bike back across the street and then got cleaned up. Since it was now about 2:00 pm, we decided it was time for lunch. We took our adjuster bolt with us and walked over to our favorite chicken and rice place. After lunch, we headed up another street that had several motorcycle repair shops on it, but they were all closed. Since it didn't look like we'd get a replacement bolt today, we hit the grocery store for a watermelon.
We were able to get a new adjuster bolt the next day. Apparently, it is the same as one for a Honda, so the bike shop we wandered into in the morning was able to get one by early afternoon. Later that afternoon, we installed the new adjuster bolt in the side cover, and it was a perfect fit. I then used some gasket shellac that Jacob thoughtfully brought by, on both surfaces, and then carefully installed the gasket. After I installed the last couple parts, on the inside of the side cover, Re carefully helped me slide it over the kick start shaft and dowel pins. With the cover in place, it was just a matter of installing all the bolts, the oil screen and cover, and the kick start lever. After that, we reinstalled the exhaust and leg shields. We refilled the engine with oil, adjusted the clutch, and then, nervously, thumbed the starter button. It started up fine – the clutch seemed to engage and disengage normally, and best of all, there were no oil leaks. I wanted to take it for a quick test ride, so while Re picked up the tools, I ran inside to grab my helmet. I jumped on the bike and began rolling it backwards and noticed that it wasn't rolling very easily. I looked back to see that I had a flat rear tire. So we got the tools back out and grabbed one of the spare tubes and got to work. Twenty minutes later, we had it all put back together and then I went for my test ride. Since it was getting late, I only went around a few blocks, but the bike was shifting normally, and even hitting it hard in second gear didn't produce any slippage.

Ooh, shiny!
In addition to the above, we also did an oil change on both bikes, finally changed Colin's front tire after over 20,000 miles (who knew it would just keep on going?!?), replaced his chain, and gave them a good scrubbing with the "super sunday sponge" to remove the scuffs and stains the bikes amassed.  Because the culture in this part of the world is much more small bike-oriented, parts are widely available and cheap.  The prices we were given at the bike shop nearby were typically a quarter to a third of what we would pay in the US.  Since we plan to keep riding the Symbas once we get to wherever we're going, we went ahead and bought two spare Dunlop tires (real rubber harvested in Malaysia, not the synthetic crap of our original tires), an extra chain, sparkplugs, tubes, and two batteries (we abused ours riding in the high temps everywhere, they boiled nearly dry more than once, and we refilled them with whatever tap water was available. we promise to take better care of these).  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

How We Occupied Our Time in Georgetown Besides Eating

Even though we spent a fair bit of time in Georgetown on our backpacking in southeast Asia trip, there were a few sights and activities we missed.  Someone once told us never to do everything in a place you visit, because then you have no reason to return.  This time around, we saw and did some of the things we skipped last time.  

Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy
Kek Lok Si Temple was one of them. It is supposed to be the largest Chinese temple in Malaysia, with a huge bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. The statue is set in an intricately carved stone pavilion and is beautiful. We wandered around the temple grounds, admiring the temple buildings themselves, with their vivid paint jobs, but it all seemed more commercial than either of us expected. At every turn was another gift shop selling typical Buddhist amulets next to Chinese zodiac charms and “Anger Birds” flipflops (no copyright infringement here). On the way to the temple, we rode past it and up the winding road to the dam at Air Hitam (a beautiful reservoir). We got off the bikes and started across the parking lot to have a look at the water and were met by a local woman who told us about the area and that it is possible to ride around the reservoir and all the way across the island. Which we did another day.  

Malaysian blue coral snake
The ride around the reservoir and to the other side of Penang started with a left turn at a locked gate across the main road.  We started up the hill, following a sign in Chinese with a red arrow pointing toward something that way (unable to read Chinese, we had no idea if it indicated an event, a temple, a firing range, a home for wayward kittens, or perhaps, a frog sanctuary), indicating that it went somewhere.  We followed the road, up and up, and farther up a steep, narrow road covered in wet leaves, until we reached a fork.  With no more signs in Chinese or any other language, we shrugged at each other and chose the path to the right.  It led through jungle-y vegetation and what looked like a plantation of waxy, pink proteas (think Little Shop of Horrors) and then to...a dead end guarded by a pack of Bumpus hounds. 

Green tree viper
So we returned from whence we came, stopping to inspect a dead snake - it was another red-headed krait (or more specifically, a Malaysian blue coral snake, which is a subspecies) which appeared untouched but unmoving.  Continuing on, we stopped again, at the entrance to the road around the reservoir, to see what other people were staring intently at.  Apparently, it was a snaky kind of day, because the object of their attention (and now ours) was a small green tree viper (another venomous variety).  

Another day, we decided to go for a walk up Penang Hill.  Many people do it for fun, exercise, or the challenge of it.  Penang Hill is the island's "hill station," being the highest point and several degrees cooler than the surrounding area.  In the British heyday, it was where people went to escape the heat, being carried in sedan chairs the 2300 feet to the top.  Nowadays, there is a funicular train to carry visitors up and down the hill (less colonial, but easier on the locals' backs).  We took the bus to the Botanical Gardens, where we located the trail at the Moon Gate leading up the hill.  The first part of the trail was all stairs.  The second part, which was much easier to manage, was a trail that wound through the jungle and eventually exited onto a road that continued the rest of the way to the top.  

Unsure where the jungle trail went (it just seemed to end at the road, although we'd heard it was supposed to go all the way to the top), we took the paved road.  Almost immediately, we realized we should have looked harder for the trail.  The road snaked back and forth up the hill, with each straight section no longer than about 100 feet.  That doesn't sound bad at all, right?  Well, if not for the 30% to 40% incline (literally.  that's really what the road signs said.  it wasn't just our imagination) it would have been just lovely.  Instead, we'd trudge from one curve to the next, stop and sit on the guardrail, gasping for breath, and I'd say, okay... I can... make it... to the next... curve.  Fun.  When we finally got to the top, we were drenched to the skin.  We staggered into the cafe at the top, ordered some food, and collapsed on a bench.  Once we'd eaten and our legs stopped wobbling, we took the funicular train back to the bottom.  

We spent a fair bit of time at the beach at Batu Ferringhi, camped out under the trees, reading a book.  The sand is rather coarse, the water is somewhat cloudy, but it's clean, quiet, and makes a good place to spend a couple of hours.  We also went bowling.  On the waterfront in Georgetown is a bowling alley.  It's air-conditioned, cheap, and fun.  Neither of us is going to win any tournaments. We saw movies.  In any given week, there are at least three American movies in the theaters.  Most of them are blockbuster adventure type shows, but they are, again, cheap.  We almost never go to see movies in the States because of the expenditure, but when a ticket costs no more than 3 USD, why not?  We saw: The Avengers (twice), Battleship, The Cabin in the Woods, Dark Shadows, Men in Black III, Safe, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Prometheus.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Eating in Georgetown

Georgetown is, without a doubt, my favorite city in the world. We spent nearly seven weeks there, off and on, between trips to Thailand, the F1 race, and the Malaysian highlands.  I will try to summarize how we spent our time to fill in the last month's gap.  

As you all know by now, love to eat. We ate. A lot. We developed a list of our favorite dining spots and rotated through them, adding new establishments and dishes all the time. Since the main three ethnic groups in Malaysia are Chinese (70% of the population of Penang), Malay, and Indian, we know our way around the Chinese, Malay, and Indian menus in the city. 

Wonton mee
We have our favorite hawker stalls for a variety of mee (noodle) dishes.  It is interesting how many types of noodles there are, and that each kind is perfectly suited to a specific dish.  My favorite would have to be the wide, soft rice noodles, particularly when they are fried in a wok to give them a slightly charred-around-the-edges flavor and texture with beansprouts and just about anything else.  Colin is a fan of the eggy, wheat noodles, particularly when a whole block of them is fried until crunchy and served with a pile of stir-fried vegetables and meat heaped on top.  Our very favorite noodle dish is probably wonton mee.  It's a simple dish of thin, soft wheat noodles served in soy and mushroom based sauce, with char sieu (bbq pork), steamed greens, crisp-fried pork fat, pickled chilies, and soft wontons. The only kind of noodle dish neither of us enjoyed was chee chong fun, which is a sheet of rice noodle that is steamed, rolled tight, and cut into sections, and served with globs of hoisin, chili sauce, and some sesame seeds. It's not that they taste bad, they're just kind of unexciting compared to everything else.  

The best coffee man in Georgetown
We found out that the Chinese kopi (coffee) shops are infinitely better than anywhere else for a good, strong jolt of caffeine. Each morning I walked to the corner to get coffee to takeaway, and as soon as the man who takes orders saw me, he yelled my order back to the coffee guy, without even asking what I wanted. As you stroll the streets of Chinatown, you smell the roasting coffee bean aroma wafting in the air throughout the day.  The beans are delivered to the coffee shops daily, so it is always fresh, and many of the individual shops have their own 'special' roast.  

Nasi kandar at Line Clear
One style of meal particular to Malaysia is nasi kandar, which is rice with other stuff, from beef rendang, to curried squids, to okra.  To order, you walk up to the counter, on which is an array of meats, egg dishes, and vegetables.  The server puts a pile of rice in the middle of your plate and you tell him what else you want.  For the very best flavor, once your plate is loaded, the man will dip into each of the different pots of meat and fish curries and spoon some of the gravy over the top of everything.  There are nasi kandar restaurants on virtually every street in Penang, but the very best is called Line Clear.  It occupies an alley between two buildings and has been there, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for something like 70 years.  I hope it never shuts down!

Sultan, hard at work on rotis
Virtually every morning, I would walk to Yasmeen for roti canai.  Roti just means bread.  It is a flat bread, made from flour, water, salt, and ghee.  The people who make them are masters, flattening balls of dough with the meat of their palms and then flipping the dough in the air until it is paper thin.  The dough is then folded several times and placed on a hot griddle with more ghee and cooked until golden and crispy.  You can get them with bananas, eggs, onion, even sardines folded into the middle before they're cooked, but the best is a fresh plain one, served with a bowl of dhal (spicy lentil stew).  My buddies, Mohammad and Sultan at Yasmeen made the best ones we found.  Colin and I miss them terribly...

Tea cart on Lebuh Cintra
No matter where you go, at any time of the day or night, you will always find something delicious to eat or drink.  Hawker stands set up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, everywhere.  If you happen to be walking down the street in the evening and feel the need for a cup of herbal tea and a pancake, it can be had.  If you want an ear of roasted corn, a preserved egg, and some grilled squid skewers, that's yours, too.  You name it, you can probably find it.  It is virtually impossible to go hungry in Georgetown.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Party's Almost Over...

As usual, I have been extremely negligent in my blogging duties. We arrived in Georgetown on April 29, so...I am over a month behind. Since we have remained here since then (with the exception of a several day ride through the center of Malaysia) I will try to summarize our time. Georgetown is, for the two of us, very, very comfortable. We've come to think of it as our second home (considering that we don't actually have a first one, I suppose it is home sweet home). It is a good combination of old and new architecture, and has a walkable old town, with good public transportation to get farther afield. Healthcare, as well as other essential services, is modern and and much less expensive than in the US. The city has a better multicultural mix and feel than virtually anywhere we've been, and it benefits from its long history as a trading port in the variety of foods, sights, and festivals. The residents are relaxed and friendly, and you don't feel like a tourist here. We don't want to leave.  But in less than 24 hours (at 9:00 am local time on June 11th), we will be flying back to Los Angeles.  It should hopefully only take us a day or so to get the bikes released from Customs, and then we will ride back to Oregon.  We'll be taking the "scenic route" (or, not the interstate) through eastern California and stopping to see friends along the way back to Portland.  Once we get there, we'll load our remaining belongings, including the mighty Symbas, into a moving truck and drive it all to North Carolina.  I will be posting about our adventures in Georgetown, because we have had some excellent times and met some very interesting people along the way (we will be held hostage on a variety of airplanes for approximately 18 hours, so plenty of time to write).  Look for updates soon (along with our smiling faces!).