Small, steaming stalls surround a central area of Formica tables and plastic chairs, quickly filling up as evening approaches with groups of friends and families. Buckets of ice with bottles of beer are ordered and brought to the tables from the drinks stalls by waitresses, then dishes are selected and paid for from your vendor of choice and your table number given. Simple, no-fuss, fast, delicious, sociable and great value… welcome to hawker food eating in Malaysia.
Hawker centres in Malaysia are essentially permanent collections of street-food stalls, normally in an open-air complex, with communal tables. A wonderful diversity of nationalities, culture and religions in Malaysia has resulted in a fusion cuisine which boasts some of the world’s best street food.
Extensive menus seem to defy the limited space and basic set-up of each makeshift food outlet, staff whirl round in a cramped space; barbequing meat, draining steaming noodles, tossing unidentified morsels in sizzling woks and stirring huge vats of bubbling soup. Bowls of raw ingredients are lined up and meticulously displayed on the stall fronts; cubed tofu, black mushrooms, sliced raw vegetables, squid rings, dumplings, prawns, shellfish, gelatinous noodles and chopped crab sticks.
Our big, empty table at the CF night food court in George Town, Penang Island, was soon filled with a laughing group of local friends, who quickly included us in their beer-top-ups as bottles of cold Tiger flowed continuously. Chatting to them, they said they came to the food court every week, preferring the laid-back atmosphere and bustle to more formal restaurants. The beers washed down plates of Char Kuey Teow; greasy, thin stir-fried noodles topped with egg, prawns, spring onions and beansprouts and wrestled with chopsticks. Three young cabaret singers belted out pop covers from a round, glittery central stage, pausing every time the electricity cut out then starting each tinny, rhythmical ballad from the start once the power surged back.
On another evening in George Town at the Red Garden night food court we tried Penang’s signature dish of Assam Laksa, a pleasantly pungent, fish-based soup with sour Tamarind and noodles, chilli, cucumber, lemongrass and prawn paste.
In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, we sampled Nasi Kandar, an Indian-influenced rice dish topped with different meat, seafood, vegetables, with a speciality being fish head curry. An array of oily, spectacularly spicy, chilli-infused dishes are laid out to choose from, then added to light, fragrant rice.
For breakfast, find a small space on a street bench for Roti Canai, delicious fresh, puffed flatbread served with a dish of spicy lentil Dhal and a mug of sweet, milky chai.
In the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur the street of Jalan Alor heaves on both sides with bustling restaurants, stalls and pop-up eateries. Crowds of locals and tourists perch on plastic stools around pavement tables. Sticky jack fruit is sliced into finger-licking pieces, tiny stalls crammed with piles of Kuih Kosui banana-leaf wrapped sweet coconut dough parcels and no-nonsense menus of dim sum and fried fishcakes line the walkways.
From our shared table at Wong Ah Wah eatery we people-watched and picked at Batu Maung Satay, a selection of different grilled meats on thin bamboo sticks dripping with a rich, thick peanut sauce. Not just a means of satisfying your hunger, Hawker centres are an entire experience of food and friends as you rub shoulders with fellow diners and enjoy a whole menu of weird and wonderful new snacks and dishes.
The capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang, George Town, is a hectic mix of distinct historic cultures, urban cool and some of the best food we’ve had during our entire trip.
The city’s history is rich; established in 1786 by the British East India Company, George Town was one of the first British colonies in South-East Asia. During it’s British heyday the port town served as a trading post, with various ethnicities and religions arriving on its shores and passing through. During World War II the town was conquered by the Japanese empire, at the end of the war the Japanese surrendered and the British took control again.
It’s this diverse mix of influences, the coalescence of local, British, Chinese, Indian and Islamic elements that has shaped George Town’s large variety of eclectic architectural styles. It’s this mish-mash of Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and all manner of buildings in between that led to it being awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Nowadays George Town is considered a city; wandering around the narrow streets of the old town it is easy to forget that fact. ‘Little India’ and ‘China Town’ are authentic as it gets, the sights, sounds and smells of Little India transported us straight back. Like India, the British influence is apparent and the cities charm lies in its backdrop of colonial architecture. The architecture is easily on a par with the likes of Mumbai, although it lacks some of the grandeur.
Alongside the traditional architecture are stunning Art Deco buildings from the 30’s and 40’s and modernist buildings from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Then comes the post-modernist architecture from the 90’s and 2000’s; these later additions add something for any architecture enthusiast and augment a surprising amount of charisma.
The city is cultured. Cool coffee shops, art galleries, public sculptures and design houses are nestled amongst the quaint streets, they’ve even got a container hotel! The cities burgeoning street art scene is also drawing a lot of attention from tourists.
Reputed as the gastronomic capital of Malaysia thanks to the ubiquitous street food, George Town is heaven for foodies - but we’ll save that for another blog.
George Town really is quite unique; it’s colourful history and compactness means you can soak up the multicultural essence of the area with ease. One of our favourite stops in South East Asia.
Thailand has a love affair with the pick-up truck, literally everyone in Thailand drives a 4x4 pick-up. Sales of the Mitsubishi Triton, which is made in Thailand, practically saved the Japanese company from going out of business after a partnership deal with Germany's Daimler fell through. In 2007 they’d exported over a million Mitsubishi trucks to other Asian countries.
Mitsubishi’s are not the only popular model, all the Japanese manufacturers are represented, which is great for us being a Toyota owner as spare parts are easy to find.
What is noticeably different about Thailand in comparison to the rest of South-East Asia is that they like to modify their vehicles. Some are jacked up to ridiculous heights whilst others are slammed to the floor. One thing that Thai garages do well is suspension!
We spotted some incredibly well prepped off-road vehicles as well as some serious street racers. Like the Paykan pick-up in Iran most customised vehicles are still practical. In fact many of the suspension mods on the slammed vehicles are designed to handle extra weight, the upgraded suspension in combination with steel rear wheels and uprated tyres dictate the style of many vehicles.
Most towns and cities operate a private minibus system utilising the flatbed of the pick-up trucks as a seating area. This informal taxi system is the lifeblood of most cities.
Most of the minitrucks (the slammed ones) have custom soundsystems too that you’ll hear bumping from miles away.
Customization isn’t just limited to 4 wheels though; anyone who doesn’t own a 4x4 owns a scooter.
There are three models of scooter that are abundant throughout South-East Asia. The 125cc Honda Sonic, manufactured in Thailand and the similar Yamaha Mio and the Yamaha Nouvo. All three bikes are cheap, mechanically simple, relatively pokey and most motorcycle shops sell a whole host of accessories allowing for complete customization.
Scooters are frequently fitted with race handlebars, painted up in neon colours and covered in race inspired stickers. The mods are not just cosmetic, typically thinner wheels and tyres are fitted along with a big boar exhaust system, upgraded fuel delivery systems and brake upgrades.
Unlike any other country we have visited, and for reasons we don’t understand, Thailand is absolutely obsessed with modifying vehicles, which is great for any motor head!