Lazing around on tropical beaches is enjoyable enough, but after a few days we decided enough was enough, and struck north from Pulau Pangkor for the island of Penang. Pulau Penang is as famous as Melaka when it comes to colonial history, due to its strategic position at the north of the Straits of Melaka, and although it's probably best known these days as for the popular beach resorts on the island's north coast, we didn't come for sand, sea or surf. Nope; we came for Georgetown, the big old settlement on Penang's northeastern coast.
Georgetown is predominantly Chinese, and as a result it buzzes with energy and an underlying layer of mania. The food is cheap and thoroughly excellent; from murtabak to thosai to strange noodle soups to curries, the quality of the available nosh is high. And then there are all the amazing buildings around town, like the crazy Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi clan house. From great food to great architecture, Georgetown is as interesting place, no doubt about it.
Murtabak in particular is worth an explanation; it's essentially Indian pizza, and it's quite delicious. Malaysia has some of the best Indian restaurants this side of Birmingham, and they're much more authentic than the English interpretation, which is effectively a curry, rice and nan experience. In Malaysia, Indian restaurants are more of the banana-leaf variety, where the food is served on a banana leaf, it's not that spicy, and you eat with your right hand (but not the left, which is considered unclean, as it's used instead of toilet paper). If you're wondering what to order in a Malaysian Indian, thosai (known as dosa in India) is a very thin lentil pancake, available with all sorts of fillings; roti (also known as chapati) is a different type of pancake that's a little thicker, and is also available with various fillings; and murtabak is a thosai filled with loads of egg, chopped vegetables, spices and, if specified, meat. They all come with these amazing curry dips, and they've really fired me up to visit India to check out the real thing. It's weird that sometimes the most civilised way to eat a country's cuisine is to visit an ethnic restaurant in a more developed country; India can apparently be a bit hit and miss when it comes to food, but Malaysia and England seem to excel at Indian cuisine.
I'm slightly ashamed to say that I did precious little in Penang; Charlie and I split up to attend to various mundane housekeeping chores – buying thrill-packed items like watch batteries and steel wool, sorting out plane ticket details, and tracking down second-hand guidebooks for India – and although I visited most of the central historical sites, temples and ethnic areas, I mainly spent my time hanging round town, eating and reading and soaking up the buzz. I probably missed out on some of Penang's best attractions, but Georgetown is a wonderful place for self-indulgence, and I lapped it up by the spadeful.