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Malaysia is jungle, jungle and more jungle, with an incredible number of palm trees. I soon stopped counting them in the train from Kuala Lumpur to Butterworth.

Getting out of Kuala Lumpur was a challenge we hadn’t expected. The province of Penang, in northern Malaysia, was our next stop. We first wanted to take the bus and walked to Puduraya, the central bus station, to buy tickets. But the bus station was under renovation and we were sent to a temporary location, which turned out to be almost an hour away by public transit. We ended up in a far suburb and the bus station was nothing more than a huge tent with dozen of counters and touts inside it. There was no way we could make the trip there again with our backpacks by public transit and this station was too far from everything.

So we decided to take the train. The ticket to Butterworth, a seven-hour trip, was only about $20 and KL Central wasn’t too far from where we stayed in Chinatown. The train wasn’t full and even though it wasn’t fast, it was pretty comfortable.

Once in Butterworth, we jumped on the ferry to Georgetown, on Penang Island. I’m not sure what we were expecting exactly but the city threw us off at first. Traffic was almost as bad as in Kuala Lumpur and you didn’t feel like you were on an island. Most stores were closed (presumably because it was Friday, the Muslim day off) and for a popular city on the backpacker trail, well, there weren’t a lot of people out in the street.

Eventually, we got around the idea that it wasn’t the type of paradise island we had somehow imagined and enjoyed it for what it was, a colonial world heritage city. The local beach, Batu Ferringhi, was quite dirty and mostly used for watersports, such as parasailing. Yet, Penang is intriguing. The province’s world-famous tasty food is great. The empty streets were bustling with activity at night: we were right in Little India and we could almost taste the smell of incense, burning in front of most shops. We were also close to a Mosque, and the first night, we suddenly woke up to the sound of the prayer call in the wee hours of the morning—it was pretty surreal.

It’s funny how quickly you learn about a foreign culture. I didn’t know much about Malaysia before coming here, and I didn’t know a single word of Bahasa Melayu. But I noticed I picked up a few words here and there: jalan, lebuh, lorong, masjid, pulau, bandar, pasar… and air, which means “water” and confused me at first! A lot of words are easy to understand because they are so close to English, such as “bas” (bus), “tren” (train), “januari” etc. There is also a large Chinese population and being able to read Mandarin is a huge help. Pretty much everybody can speak some English, which amazes me—tourists would have a hard time getting by in most of Latin America, China or Europe speaking only English.

We also learn other customs, which can be a bit puzzling at first. For instance, all hotel rooms have an arrow stuck somewhere on the wall or the ceiling that reads “kiblat”. Eventually, we understood it shows Muslims the direction of Mecca. We noticed that a lot of Indians and Malays eat rice-based meals with their hand, this is why most restaurants have a communal sinks to wash your hands before and after eating. Toilet paper is pretty rare but there is always a hose which you are supposed to use as a bidet.

If you want to lean more about Malaysia, I strongly encourage you to visit Kyh’s blog (he is based in Penang), and Kenshiong’s blog. Both write in English and have great pictures and insights about the country—I learned a lot from them.

You can see the complete set of pictures taken in Malaysia on Flickr.

Batu Ferringhi

Indicating the direction of Mecca

Train to Butterworth


Ferry to Butterworth

Ferry To Butterworth


Old Buildings


You Give Me Two Hours, I Give You Healthy!

Batu Ferringhi

Rush Hour

Little India


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Salut Zhu,

    I can understand you being thrown off; everything is so different!
    Lets say different is not bad; it is just a challenge for you & Feng.

    I have to catch up to your posts! My question; will you gone all winter in these beautiful places? Ah; c’est peut-être la surprise 🙂
    Bises du vieux pays xo

  2. We call our ‘provinces’ as states. So it’s Penang state. :p

    Anyway, Penang is very densely populated, esp in and around George Town (the spelling of the city’s name is usually spaced). George Town itself is predominantly Chinese, and Penang has a Chinese Chief Minister – the head of the state’s executive arm.

    Well, Penangites (and those living in and around KL) generally have a good command of English compared to people from the other states due to their economic prominence and their position as a centre of international tourism.

    For more pristine beaches, you have to head towards Teluk bahang on the NW tip of Penang island. Batu feringghi has succumbed to rapid development esp resorts and hotels and the throngs of tourists there contribute a part to the pollution, regrettably.

  3. Hi

    As a Malaysian born in Penang, and working now in Kuala Lumpur, holding a Canadian PR, I find out blog most interesting and a good read in the afternoons when I need to take a break from work.

    I had some pretty good insights into Canadian life which I will be facing when I move there permanently this year

    Keep up the good work

  4. Ha, I wonder what kind of healthy they would give you. And yes, Asian cultures have a lot of linguistic borrowings from European languages, due to history. Even my knowledge of Tagalog allowed me to easily comprehend Spanish when in Mexico, and yes, I agree that if one only speaks English in Latin America, one won’t go too far. In Mexico, I only used English in the hostel. Outside, it was Spanish all the way.

  5. @barbara – Ah no, we will get some winter… we are coming back to Canada on February 11th. Yay, snow ahead!

    @kyh – Thank you for the information and explanations! Makes sense. And “ooops” for calling your states “provinces”, it’s a Canadianism I guess 😆

    @khengsiong – It was a very interesting country to visit, and I’m glad I was somewhat a bit familiar with various issues thanks to your blog.

    @Sidney – It is? Funny!

    @lynn – Thank you for the praise and welcome to Canada! Where are you going to live in Canada? Unfortunately, we don’t have any cool tropical islands there, but it’s a nice country anyway 🙂

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I wondered too and was that close to try! 😆

  6. Ha! We actually use “state” in Malaysia like America.
    “Province” is very China.

    It’s actually Penang State.
    The funny thing is part of Penang (the one on the mainland) is known as Province Wellesley.
    That’s the only province we have, the rest is state.

  7. I think I was in Penang at about this date! It was my first visit to Penang (er…Never travel back to this island) and my friend said it is nicer now than it was 5 years ago!

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