Monday, 30 May 2011

Property Developers - Penang

Just for the information of those who may also be house-hunting in Penang now or in the future, the following developers have also been recommended to me by locals. They seem to be quite highly regarded. Won't go into the details of properties here as they will of course change over time but the Ferringhi Residence (Battu Ferringhi) and Icon (Georgetown) developments, both by Mah Sing look interesting:

Other developers which you can pick up fro previous posts are:

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Time Out - Penang (2011/2012)

Time Out is visitors guide which is published World-wide and covers the vast majority of the major tourist and business destinations you would be likely to visit. Mostly I find it far superior to the What's On guide which is also available in many places.

Time Out contains articles of interest and in particular contains a great deal of information on tourist attractions, restaurant, bars, nightlife and activities. Time Out has now come to Penang and will be published annually. This annual version is thicker than most at 162 pages and is well worth picking up from a newsagent or stall. You may even be able to grab a free copy from some of the larger hotels. Excellent publication for either visitors or residents IMO.

Vehicle Purchase Considerations

On my recent trip I did a day of foot slogging around the Sungai Penang area of Gerogetown. I managed to take in many of the dealers and have posted below the prices that Honda and Toyota were offering on the MM2H discounted cars I was interested in (where the better benefit is to be had through buying CKD (completely knocked down) as opposed to CBU (completely built up) cars). Apologies if not all vehicle prices are quoted on same basis but different dealers use different listing principles and I was more interested in some vehicles than others. To be fair the dealers all seemed very professional and very switched on to the MM2H scheme:

CRV 2.0 L i-VTEC - RM 105, 298 (with insurance) (sum insured RM 145,000)
Accord 2.0 VTi-L - RM 103,322 (with insurance) (sum insured RM 145,000)

VIOS 1.5 G (AT) - RM 63,500 (non MM2H 87,300)
Fortuner 2.7 V (P) A/T - RM 108,500 (non MM2H RM 177,500)

Disappointingly the Corolla and Avensis models are both CBU so, while there will be some saving on price, the tax is much lower so the value for money in terms the cost of the vehicle if you were to but it locally is not quite so good, depending on how you view 'value'. After 3-5 years though I suspect you'd get better return for your initial outlay if you bought a highly desirable CKD car.

On the CBU front, and particularly with regard to the small town runabout option I also looked at a couple of cars from Perodua:

Alza: I thought this was a cracking little motor. About VW Golf size, very nice interior, good spec (Sat Nav, Bluetooth, reversing cameras). The top of the range 1.5 auto model was RM 69,000 and could doubtless be got down some with MM2H albeit the savings won't be so good as on a CKD car. 3 year warranty (extendable).

MYVI: Very popular on the roads in Penang. Bit smaller than the Alza but still a nice spec level. The top spec with a 1.3 engine and auto comes in around RM 50,000. 5 year warranty.

Of the others I looked at, mainly out of interest and in comparing CBU/CKD prices:

Proton Inspira: A Mitsubishi essentially, very nice levels of trim and a nice looking car. The 2.0L top of the range comes in at around RM 82,000 and would come down some (RM 5,000 - 8,000) with the tax off I suspect.

Hyundai Santa Fe: The 2.4 petrol auto is RM 158,000 and I believe this is a CKD car. Very, very popular in Europe, these vehicles are often raved about by the 4x4 crowd, esp the caravan tuggers, and the levels of spec and comfort are very high. Provided they are CKD and the tax saving is significant it could be a consideration, but even if they could be got for around the RM 1000, 000 mark, I can't help thinking that the money might be better invested in a Honda CRV or Toyota Fortuna which seems to be more 'desirable' when it comes to selling and maybe better on the reliability front, if indeed you feel you need / want a 4x4.

Hyundai Tucson: Again a very popular SUV and the 2.4 auto comes in at around RM 154,000. Same comments regarding the Santa fe on this.

Three things I have been considering since I started to look into vehicle options in Penang:

1) 4x4s and petrol prices: Fuel prices are nowhere near as prohibitive in Malaysia as they are in Europe, at least yet. But will that stay the case? In some cases, people can't give 4x4s away in the UK now at £1.35 a litre to fill them up and certainly not get back anything like what they paid for them. Some praise the height, protection and long-distance comfort of 4x4s. Depends what you will use it for I suppose. I'm not so sure.

2) Related to the above, couple of people I spoke to in Penang (one who imported a CRV and a local who also bought one) said that they wish they hadn't. The importer actually said that if he had the time again, he'd buy a local hatchback/runabout for the mall/beach/town runs (where the small size adds to the ease of driving and parking somewhat) and hire a luxury car for the rare occasions he'd need one. Worth considering IMHO.

3) The other aspect is exporting from the UK. I have yet to explore the costs of this (freight etc.) and whether you get the VAT back on a new one (which I assume must be the case). Part of me thinks it's just too much hassle though and I really wonder if export is worth it? I certainly I would not consider driving anything in Penang that was not common on the roads (and therefore likely be cheap to maintain) and desirable (for after sales). My experience with the reliability of the so called prestige brands such as BMW and Audi leaves me slightly less than convinced on the badge value for money. Furthermore, I often find dealers better disposed to sorting out problems if you bought the vehicle from them than if you just take it to them for service, warranty issues would also need careful scrutiny.

Finally, I was driven in a Peugeot 308 a couple of times whilst in Penang. Now these are VERY popular in Europe (What Car car of the year 2010 IIRC), have a very nice design and a very nice level of spec. As a CKD car in Malaysia I suspect the deal on one of these could be good, subject to the parts and service being a reasonable price. One to ponder for me for sure.

Friday, 27 May 2011

ET Phone Home - alternatives to Skype (VoIP)

Many people living overseas will often find the need to make calls to their home countries (or indeed elsewhere) to keep in contact with friends and family. Choose the wrong way of doing this and it can get expensive, especially if your need to make such calls is more frequent than others!!

Skype has proved to be a very popular solution for many over the years, particularly those from Europe. Skype also benefits from having the ability to chat for free to a user who is also using the Skype application on either a PC, Mac or smartphone. Skype may not always be the cheapest option though and, as with any "Voice over Internet Protocol" (VoIP) service, the sound quality can vary considerably, and this is particularly the case when chatting to another Skype user through the direct application.

My friend Mario in Penang mentioned the VoipStunt service he uses with considerable success whilst in Malaysia to call friends and family in Europe and elsewhere. This is a German based company and you basically sign up with them and pay a 10 euro credit which lasts for 120 days. Once paid you can actually make FREE landline calls to many countries (subject to fair usage) and make calls and send SMS at very reasonable rates to others and /or mobiles etc. Details of the charges can be found here.

One problem with Voipstunt is that its software is Windows based but if you are on a Mac you can get round this by downloading the free (and very good) X-Lite 4.00 software from Counterpath who are one the leading 'soft-phone' developers. Do not confuse X-Lite with the ads that will pop up for Briar 3 which is the "paid for" soft-phone which has many more "bells and whistles" on it than most people will need. Xlite is a SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) application which displays as a telephone on your screen an interacts with the VoIP provider (in this case VoipStunt) of your choice. You just have to programme in which one you use and instructions on how to do this are also provided by VoipStunt here under "Using a SIP device". Users of Smartphones, including the iPhone, Android and Nokia phones, will also be able to configure VoipStunt to work using one of the popular SIP apps such as 'Fring'.

I have signed up to Voipstunt but have yet to try it for calls. It certainly seems popular with many users though and I plan to give it a try. It may turn out to be cheaper / better than Skype and once I have given it some protracted testing I'll report back with a comparison review.

ADDENDUM: I did try a call on VoipStunt from the UK to an agent in Penang. The call lasted about 20 minutes, was to a mobile and my credit dropped by about 1 Euro. The call quality was excellent at both ends.

VoipStunt also allows very cheap SMS to be sent via their Windows desktop client or the web interface. I have also found an iPhone application, VoipStunt SMS, which I have downloaded and plan to try both in terms of reliability and to compare costs to Skype.

I also hope to find a good Mac desktop SMS client that may make life easier than using the web interface.

Bagan: Arabian Night Party (Saturday 4 June)

Been advised by my good friend Xixi at Bagan that they are holding an Arabian Nights Party on Saturday 4 June. Doubtless, as with any of the party nights at Bagan this will be one to remember with special cocktail promotions and of course the sounds of the band, Roz and the ever popular DJ Jey. There will be special prizes for the best dressed so break out your best silks and finery and maybe grab a look at the movie "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" for some inspiration!!!! The night will also be of some 'historical' significance as it will likely be the last party night hosted by Bagan before it moves to its new location in Georgetown. More to come on that closer to the time!!!

Really wish I could be there. Soon though, soon. Meanwhile have a great night at Bagan and best wishes to everyone there!!!!

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Moonlight Bay - Batu Ferringhi

I was shown the Moonlight Bay development by Peggy Khoo of Ivory. It is clearly one of their premier developments and I have to say I was very impressed with the design, the location and the landscaping. To the right is a view of a villa-condo show unit interior.

Consisting of condo-villa style apartments and detached villa properties it really had a sophisticated feel to the whole place. At the time of writing there were a few condo units left (facing towards the 'Greens' and the pool areas of the development, priced at around RM 1.3m and, I believe, some of the semi D properties which go for between the RM 2.5 - 4m mark.

Very nice properties I have to say and, had my place in the UK sold, I would have been very tempted with one of the condo units. As a committed socialite though I am still a little unsure of the Batu Ferringhi location as a viable place to live long term. Depends what you want but if frequent trips to Georgetown would be on your agenda I have a feeling the trek from here would become a little tiresome if you needed to do it frequently, as would the fact that there are no eateries within walking distance nor even a supermarket close by. Nice set-up though, nonetheless and clearly right on top of the BF beaches if that appeals.

Restaurant: Chins Stylish - Georgetown, Penang (Top Pick)

I visited this restaurant one evening and it is actually on the QE II Pier down at Quay Weld in Georgetown. I have been to a quite a few Chinese restaurants in Penang and I have to say that this was one of the most impressive in terms of style, d├ęcor, ambience and, thankfully, the food!!

Chins Stylish Restaurant is very aptly named and the clientele that eat there tend to reflect this in the main. This isn’t really a "jeans and T-shirt" joint but I doubt you be turned away if you chose to "dress down". The place is nicely decorated and furnished in a classical Chinese style with lots of use of rich reds, dark wood, atmospheric lighting and widespread use of traditional Chinese paraphernalia.

The staff are very helpful and friendly and the service is attentive but not intrusive. The menu here is quite extensive and they have a good range of signature dishes on offer. This was more of a relaxing night out for me and less of a ‘review’ night so I apologise if this write-up lacks some detail.

Many of the diners here select the fix menu options and we chose the one which comprised the Chinese Crispy Duck and a Szechuan style fish cooked in oil/stock with a maximum of chillis. Two of my favourite dishes at any time. The meal was preceded by a range of small vegetable appetisers and 3-4 small dishes of meat/prawn based dishes which were excellent (again, apologies for the lack of detail but the meal was some time ago and the reviews have got a bit behind as the time to depart Malaysia seemed to rush up on me).

The crispy duck was very very good and was served traditionally with pancakes, hoisin sauce, spring onion and cucumber after being deftly ‘carved’ (forked apart) at the table by a waiter much more skilled than I at this. It truly was superb. This was followed then by the Szechuan Fish which was again very nice indeed being both hot and fragrant. Accompanied by steamed rice it was an excellent meal. Rounded of with banana fritter and ice cream and a good bottle of wine to accompany the meal the whole bill came to around RM 300.
Chins IMO is a first class restaurant and one to which I will definitely return. It would be ideal for that special occasion or a romantic dinner for two, or even just a night of good food indulgence. They have tables by the windows overlooking the Quay which are of course popular so it would be an idea to book if you wanted one of these. Indeed, I think it would also be a good idea to book if you wanted any table on a Friday and Saturday, especially at peak hours as even on a Tuesday Chins was very popular. Easy to see why and Top Pick from me!!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

HSBC (UK) Security Token Roll Out

For anyone resident in Malaysia but holding UK HSBC bank accounts you need to be aware that the security token roll out for holders of HSBC (UK) accounts and internet banking is underway and will take a few months to complete. Once tokens have been sent to you will only have 30 days during which you will be able to log on to UK internet banking without one. I would assume that for holders of UK accounts overseas that HSBC will mail the tokens to your overseas address so it would be a good time to check that your details are up to date.

HSBC Malaysia already issue security tokens for access to Malaysia based accounts. The internet banking systems for each country are different though (despite the fact you can access them via Global View) and the tokens are, as such, country specific. Thus if you have accounts in the UK and Malaysia you will be the proud owner of two tokens. Hopefully the batteries on these things last a LOOOONG time!!!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Restaurant: Maharajah (Georgetown, Penang)

I ate at the Maharajah restaurant one evening after a few beers at the Soho bar following my trek around the various car dealers out by the Sunai Penang. It was 38 degrees and sunny that day so possibly not the BEST day to go on a foot slog around Georgetown’s Industrial quarter so I was quite looking forward to the beers I must say and at RM 17 a pint they were quite good value, in fact I think London prices would be equivalent or even more.

As I walked out the door of Soho I was VERY tempted to go and see Manoor at the Kashmir and sample some more of the excellent cuisine and hospitality there but, having seen the Maharajah a couple of days earlier decided instead to turn right and give it a try as it is also only a few metres up the road.
Situated at the T junction formed by Lebuh Chulia with Jalan Penang the Maharajah is an attractive looking restaurant on a corner location and, like the Kashmir, it has a definite upmarket look and feel to it. Inside the restaurant is nicely decorated and atmospherically lit in a classical Indian style. It is not too dark and is spacious and the restaurant also has an upper level seating area which can be used to accommodate either private functions or even overflow from the main restaurant below. There is seating on the terrace at this level too. The washrooms are also situated here and are clean and tidy, something which can be an issue in some establishments and particularly in the Penang shopping malls (take your own loo roll if out for the day and anticipate getting caught short).

I started the meal with a plate of vegetable samosas which were light, dry and crisp with a nicely cooked and spicy filling. At times samosas I find can be a little greasy and stodgy but that was not the case here. They were preceded by some papadums and pickles with a raita which were very well received after the triple Tiger aperitif.

For the main meal I had a Guntoor Chicken which was very spicy, tasty and rich, if slightly too salty for my taste. The chicken was also a little dry compared to the more succulent offering at the Kashmir. I paired that dish with a rather nice gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian which was very nice indeed, well flavoured and the vegetables nicely cooked. It was still a fine and very acceptable meal which, together with a plain nan and a bottle of Tiger came to RM 60 for a meal which would probably have fed two.
A good range of drinks and beverages was on offer and the price very reasonable. The staff were also pleasant and helpful and the place is clearly popular. Like the Kashmir, booking may be advisable at the busiest times. If I only had the time or inclination to visit one stylish Indian restaurant in Penang I would chose the Kashmir but, if you are resident in Penang or your travel plans allow you to take in more than one such establishment the Maharajah would make a worthwhile alternative. Not quite a Top Pick from me but not far off and, who knows, after a few more visits that may change.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Apple Prices - Malaysia

Just for those who are going to Malaysia either to live or for a holiday and who may be contemplating buying some Apple goodies while there (and no I don't mean Golden Delicious or Royal Gala), these are a few prices from the store called ‘Switch’ in Gurney Plaza which is an authorised Apple re-seller. iPhones are mainly offered through authorised resellers on a contract basis in Malaysia (though these are actually quite reasonable) and, while you may be able to get the phones without contract at other outlets, you need to be careful of their origins (and related warranty matters) as many can be ‘grey’ imports.
iPhone buyers also need to be particularly careful as the Apple warranty on these always used to limit warranty work to the country of purchase, unlike other devices where the warranty is world-wide. It could be that this policy was to restrict the purchase of unlocked phones and their being imported to countries where the phones are sold on a locked only basis. The ‘supply locked’ of iPhones is becoming less problematic now as most countries offer the phones through more than one provider in contrast to many of the single distributor agreements that were around when the iPhone launched. Anyone contemplating buying an iPhone in a country other than where they live/work would be well advised to check the status of their warranty with official Apple distributors before buying. Sellers will often claim to offer a warranty but this is likely to be through an unauthorised agent which could be problematic if things start to go wrong.
Mac Book Pro
  • 2.3 Ghz – RM 3,699
  • 2.7 Ghz – RM 4,599
Mac Pro
  • 2.8 Quad Core – RM 8,199
iPad 2 (Wi-Fi)
  • 16G - RM 1,899
  • 32G – RM 2,199
  • 64G – RM 2,499
iPhone prices to follow.

MM2H Application Clarifications

Once back in KL over 16 to 20 May I decided to get the MM2H application in and sorted. These few snippets should be read in conjunction with the MM2H post of Thursday 7 April as I was able to clarify some queries with the very helpful Noor Zaliza while I was there. The MM2H processing office is situated on the 23rd floor at the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) which is about 10-15 minutes in a taxi from the KLCC area at a cost of about RM 15 in an ‘Executive’ (blue) cab. The taxi drivers all know the building so you just need to ask for PWTC. You will need your passport or some other form of ID as there is a police control point in the PWTC entrance from where you will need to collect a visitor pass. The hours of operation of the MM2H office can be found on their very helpful website and at the time of writing are 07:30 - 17:30 with lunch between 1pm -2pm on Monday to Thursday but 12:15 - 14:45 on Fridays.

Key things I got clarified on the visit to MM2H

1. The checklist that forms part of the bundle MUST be submitted with the application. You should tick off the boxes as you attach the items and they will use that form to cross check it all AND endorse that all is in order once they get your application.

2. Covering Letter: It is good to explain the reasons as to why you want to join the programme and what appeals about Malaysia etc. In addition, I was applying under the criteria of having a pension of in excess of RM 10,000 each month (wherein you do NOT then need to leave an FD of RM 150,000). Noor advised that I inserted the following at the end of my letter:

“If my application is successful I would wish to utilise “offshore finance” as my financial criteria”

Otherwise they will assume you plan to open an account with an FD and may issue the visa on that basis. It thus seems a good idea to clarify in your covering letter precisely which criteria you are applying under - 'Fixed Deposit' or 'Government Approved Pension Fund'.

3. The Letter of Good Conduct LGC can be up to 12 months old at the time of submission. It DOES NOT need to be (and has NEVER needed to be) under 21 days old as has been suggested elsewhere, possibly because of a third party (agent) applying their own criteria. One of those areas where it is clearly advisable to check with the organ grinder and not the monkey. I should have checked this out earlier as, had I done so, I could have confirmed that this was a completely bogus requirement and applied for my LGC earlier, allowing me to take it to Malaysia and hand in all the papers together, instead of having to forward it on separately. Internet forums can be useful but lesson learned in this case, not all the information posted, regardless of how well intentioned, can be relied upon to be accurate, especially when there seems to be no audit trail as to where the info comes from and/or it is not coming from those who call the shots (MM2H / Mo Tour in this case)!!! Lesson learned!!!! For UK citizens this will be in the form of a police subject access certificate (costing £10) and you MUST submit the original. For UK applicants I would STRONGLY suggest that you apply for your LGC AT LEAST 2 months before the date you intend to submit/use it, for other applicants your turn round times for the LGC maybe longer (or shorter if you are lucky) and this needs to be taken into consideration.

4. The actual application form needs to be witnessed. This can be any person from any country but if a non-Malay national does it they need to put their passport number on the form. If it is a Malay national (I grabbed the Head of Security at the hotel) they only need to put their Malaysian ID card number.

5. Within the downloadable document bundle there is a Social Visit Pass application form (IM.12). This is a little confusing as you may not be quite sure what boxes to tick at the bottom of the form. At the top it’s quite easy, type of pass is “Social” and for new applicants it’s ‘New for application type. What was made clear though is that the boxes at ‘Section D’ DO apply to the MM2H visa. Those using agents may well find they tick these boxes on your behalf BUT if doing a direct application, where the form says “Visa Requirement” (Question 14) you tick ‘YES’ and also you also tick the box “Type of Visa” (Question 15) for “Multiple Entry”. Some have been of the view that Section D applies to different types of visa. IT DOES NOT. While it also does not stipulate this in the pack, three of your 4 photographs should be attached to the 1 + 2 copies of the IM.12, the other being attached (glued) to your application form.

6. The download pack contains a Financial Authority form (for MM2H to check with your bank re financial criteria should they feel the need). This form has a coloured crest on and contains details of the legislation under which the form is created. This is THE WRONG form and should not be used. A simpler and fully black/white (e.g. no crest) version is available from the MM2H office and one would hope their online pack will be updated soon.

One of the requirements is to submit certified copies of several documents such as pay slips, passport details page and bank statements (unless in the case of statements you are submitting originals). You can get this done in your own country but as I was in Kuala Lumpur to visit the MM2H offices I decided to get it done there. I did a quick Google for “Commissioner of Oaths near PWTC” and came up with the following company:

Rajah, Daryl and Loh
18th Floor
Wisma Sime Darby
Jalan Raja Laut
Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03 2694 9999

Having given them a quick call explaining what I needed they told me to just call in, again, they close for lunch between 1-2pm. Their COO is a very nice guy called Mr Ideraju and he did all my documents (6) in about 10 minutes at a charge of RM4 per document. Very reasonable I thought. The beauty of using this firm is that the building is VERY well known to taxi drivers, is easy to get to and is only a few minutes from PWTC.

If you need any photocopying doing you can also walk out of the Sime Darby building main or side entrance, turn left and there is a row of shops on the main road, near the 7/11 with several printers/copiers who charged me about RM3 for about 20 copies. It’s literally a 2 minute walk.

Many people I know have used agents to assist with the application process and that is clearly a personal choice. The problem for me is that, whether you use an agent or not, you will need to put together ALL the papers yourself anyway and once you’ve done that you will just pay the agent to submit it for you. Some will also praise the hand-holding service agents offer Malaysia but again I think it depends I think on how resourceful and/or confident you may be. For me, grabbing a cab and saying “Sime Darby, Jalan Raja Laut please” and then “PWTC please” didn’t seem too taxing and cost about RM25. The taxi even waited (I paid the first fair and he switched the meter back to flag fall charge rather than me paying waiting time) outside Sime Darby until I was done. Whole, thing, start to finish, 2 hours, done and that included printing off statements and a letter at the hotel Business Centre. Having clarified some of the issues with MM2H I would be just as happy to submit the papers by post AND to return and get the other issues sorted upon collecting the visa (e.g. medical).

Air Asia – Internal Flights (Penang to KL)

When I travelled from KL to Penang readers will know I took a coach (Nice Plus) and a very pleasurable experience it was too. When I returned to KL I decided to take a flight as the flight times coincided more with the time I wanted to get up after what was a late night for my last night in Penang. I have often seen comment made that a flight is better as it’s “only an hour”. More on that later!!!!
I booked with Air Asia and if you book online you can get some significant savings if you book a few days in advance. At the time of booking I chose to upgrade my baggage allowance to 25K for about RM 30 just in case I had crept over the allowed 20 kg. You also get the option to book a ticket at half price (RM 4.50) for the Sky Bus that will take you on the 1 hour journey from the KL Low Cost Carrier Terminal (KL LCCT) at which these budget flights all arrive. If you don’t book this it’s no problem as you can buy a Sky Bus ticket on board the Air Asia flight or as you get on the bus outside the terminal. One thing to watch when you book is that the screen will default to a premier seat option with an RM 30 booking fee. These are just seats with more leg room and for a 1 hour flight (it’s actually about 40 minutes in the air) isn’t worth it IMO. You can select the standard seats at an RM 5 booking charge when you get to the “Select Your Seat’ stage of the booking. For those with printer access you can also check in online and get your boarding pass before getting to the airport, cutting out this stage if the queues are long.
Penang airport is in a bit of a state at the moment with much renovation work going on so it can be a bit tricky to find your way around. Suffice it to say that once you are in the terminal, departures is up a level on the first floor. Fortunately it is not a massive airport so there is less room for error.
If you book online you will get a booking reference which you will need at the airport. To the right of the Air Asia check-in desks there are a few ATM style machines that you use to book in. You enter the details the machine asks for and a boarding pass gets printed. You then take this with your luggage to check-in. Either their scales were out a little or my suitcase had indeed crept over the 20 Kg so I was glad I’d ‘Supersized’ my luggage as they call it online. Budget airline excess charges can be punitive. After check-in I went to departures to await the flight which departed on time and had a very pleasant and attentive crew on board. The aircraft was clean and tidy to with leather seats which are quite resilient to the heavy use.
So what of this “It’s only an hour”? Well, all in all, it’s not only an hour, not by a long way. Penang Airport is between 30-60 minutes away from Gurney etc, longer if the traffic is bad. You need to check in2 hours before the flight so that’s already 3 hours. Add to this the 1 hour flight, 30 minutes for bags to come off, 1 hour on a coach from KL LCCT to KLSS and there you go. Five and a half hours, and that is if you are confident traffic in Penang will not delay you, otherwise you may need to add a further 30 mins plus. Add onto that a traffic jam in KL (which we had due to a road closure) and the journey took 7 hours.
For me, to be honest, unless it was out of necessity I would not do it again. The coach was far more enjoyable, less changes of transport, half the price AND drops you in KL (either at the Old Railway Station or at the Corus Hotel dependant on operator). If coach times are not convenient for you then the flight is another option. Just don’t expect it to “only take and hour”, far from it. I understand the non-budget operators fly into KLIA which will reduce the hassle somewhat but I suspect the prices for these would be anything but budget. With luggage upgrade and taxes the flight came to around RM 130. It would be more if bought on the day at the airport, easily twice as much.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Hotel: Muntri Mews - Muntri Street, Georgetown (Top Pick)

I was taken to this hotel by a very good friend of mine one evening and thought I would post the details here as the Muntri Mews is another very nice boutique style hotel in the heart of Georgetown. Often I prefer these boutique hotels to the large corporate offerings as they generally offer a more relaxed and welcoming atmosphere and a more personal service. Some are better than others though and I am pleased to say that the Muntri Mews definitely falls into the 'better' category, much better.

The hotel is nicely designed with cooling whites and contrasting colours in a tasteful style which flows through the whole hotel from the Mews Kafe (the hotel restaurant and cafe which is situated at the entrance to the building), through the courtyard (where guests can also take breakfast) to the relaxing bedroom suites all of which have LCD TVs and seating areas which open on to the verandah of the Mews. The hotel is decorated with a nice mixture of local art and paraphernalia and free wifi is also provided for guests.

On Friday and Saturday the hotel also offers a restaurant style meal in the Mews Kafe. We tried the Nyonya specialities last night which comprised a very tasty range of dishes from the 'Top Hat" spicy starter with Asian vegetables and spices in a light and crispy pastry basket, through to the nicely presented and tasty Nyonya mixed plate (curry, vegetables, salad, and rice), finishing with a very light and tasty caramelised banana fritter with ice cream. The price is very reasonable indeed and the meal can be accompanied by a range of wines, beers and/or soft drinks with a bottle of Tiger at RM9.

I have to say that the Muntri Mews is a lovely find and thanks to my good friend for taking me there. Much of the time you will be in the good hands of the very welcoming, charming and helpful Chona who will I'm sure ensure your stay is a pleasant and relaxing one. I would certainly recommend this hotel to anyone looking for the more quaint, atmospheric and relaxing type of hotel, particularly one located so close to the heritage sites of Georgetown. At around RM 300 a night I will certainly look to stay there in the future.

Restaurant: Hai Nan Town, Weld Quay, Georgetown

The Hai Nan Town restaurant is in a somewhat enviable location, adjacent to the QE II pier on Weld Quay. It has a fairly large seating area outside with views over the Quay and numerous tables both under a covered patio and inside the restaurant which is air conditioned.

I have to say I was somewhat surprised with the menu here is it was not as extensive as I expected it to be and it comprised mostly Nyonya food. Now this is no bad thing as I like Nyonya food very much but I did expect there to be quite a wide range of, dare I say, Hai Nan province dishes on the menu. Hai Nan cuisine is quite distinguishable from much of mainland China in that it is generally lighter with much less oil being used in its cooking. Sea food and shell fish tends to predominate and the dishes are more delicately spiced than many regions. Surprising then that the only Hai Nan dish on the menu was a lamb stew??

We ordered a range of Nyonya dishes including a Kapitain chicken curry, a spicy chicken based spring roll, some mixed vegetables and spicy king prawns. The curry and the chicken roll were very nice but it has to be said that the mixed vegetables were less appealing. The prawns, though quite tasty were a little unremarkable.

Overall I was not so impressed with the Hai Nan Town I have to say. The menu was quite limited and certainly was not what I expected. I would go there again I think but I am not sure how often given the quality, range and variety of eateries in Penang. If the somewhat limited menu is not off putting the location might just make the Hai Nan a pleasant change. The meal was nice enough and was quite reasonably priced but I would not suggest this venue as a 'must do' in Penang.

Cafe: Old Town White Coffee (Top Pick)

If you are out and about in Georgetown and fancy a coffee you might want to try what I found to be quite a nice and stylish cafe called the Old Town White Coffee (OTWC), which is in Beach Street (not too far from Weld Quay). It's quite an upmarket place decorated in a Colonial style with a cooling white interior and comfortable seating. It makes a very refreshing change from your usual Starbucks, Coffee Bean and such like which are often functional but lack much by way of character.

OTWC offers free wifi for customers and is open daily from the early hours until 11pm with last orders being taken at 10pm. A good selection of snacks and food is offered along with a very wide range of coffee, tea, chocolate and soft drinks. Service is friendly and efficient and the prices very reasonable. I had an excellent Hazelnut Coffee which was piping hot, rich and creamy and priced at RM 4.50.

When I'm in Georgetown I imagine this is where I'll be going most of the time for a coffee. If you fancy a coffee in cafe with a bit of style and character and with a pleasant atmosphere you should give it a try.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Rapid Penang Bus Service / Bus Passes

I tended to travel quite a lot in Penang and did consider hiring a car but as with driving anywhere you tend to spend more time concentrating on driving, and especially avoiding the "Suicide Jockeys" (moped/scooter riders some of whom seem to lack a self preservation instinct when they take to two wheels!!!) here, than you do looking at the surroundings.

So for a few days I j ust jumped on the odd bus here and there which will cost you anything between RM 1.4 - RM 2 for a trip. The cost is very reasonable indeed. As I intended to explore the area a lot though I decided to look at the travel passes that Rapid Penang offer. Called 'Travel Passports" these are credit card size passes and are available either for 1 week at RM 30 or 1 month at RM 80 for the first purchase and RM 75 for a top up.

The passes are available at several places though one might question if they are strategically the BEST locations (check the Rapid Penang website for details) but I got mine from the main bus terminal on the Quay Weld in Georgetown. As you face the terminal it is actually split distinctively in to two areas, it is the area to the right (from which all of the services starting '10' seem to depart) which houses the information office from which to get your pass. You will need to take your passport with you when buying either of these passes. If you are buying a one month pass you will also need to take one passport sized photograph as the card is a photo-ID type.

Overall I found the Rapid Penang service to be excellent. Most of the services are frequent and many also have free wifi on board. One particularly useful service if you are stopping in or around Gurney is the 304. This departs every half hour on the hour and at half past the hour and goes to Queensbay mall, the journey taking about 1 hour out of rush hour. It also passes Penang Times Square (albeit you can catch the 103 from behind Gurney Plaza that also runs nearby and get off at Jalan McAllister). The 304 departs from the traffic island at the hawker stall end of Gurney Drive where it runs up to meet Jalan Bagan Jermal. The other popular services I used a lot (to get into Georgetown and back) were the 103 and the much more frequent 101 which stops in Jalan Bagan Jermal and also runs in the other direction to Tanjung Tokong and on to Batu Ferringhi.

The Rapid Penang "Travel Passport" I think is very good value for money and proved a great way to see a lot of Penang and get about locally to places like No Eyed Deer. Well worth considering if you are holidaying or house hunting here. If you use an iPhone you can also download the very useful Rapid Penang iPhone application from iTunes which lists all of the services, provides a map and details of the stops for each and every route (see previous post).

Best Char Kway Teow in Town (Top Pick)

Char Kway Teow (CKT) is a firm favourite in Penang and can be had at almost any food court and restaurant. CKT is eaten in many places in Asia but that from Penang is renowned to be the best in the World. Most people will agree though that by far the best quality, and value for money, can be had from the hawker stalls and of all the hawker stalls, none is more famous than that run by the 'red beret lady' in Lorong Selamat (in front of Cafe Heng Huat), Georgetown. Lorong Selemat runs between Jalan Burma and Jalan McAllister in the eastern part of Georgetown.

Now this place is popular!! People have been known to queue here for an hour, even two, just to get a plate of this delicious fried noodle based dish with prawns, cockles and as much chilli paste as you can handle. Yes it's expensive, well, compared to other hawker stalls here, but hey, we're talking RM 7 here!!!!

I went at about 3pm one afternoon so had avoided both the lunch time and middle evening heavy rushes where that one hour wait might become a reality for you. But it's easy to see why. The CKT here is scrumptious. Very fresh, very well cooked and all of the ingredients manage to maintain their texture here, in contrast to some of the less popular stalls where they can tend to much down a little. Additionally the smoking red hot wok that 'Auntie', as she is affectionately known (or not so affectionately for some - just Gooogle), uses really impart a distinctive flavour. So, if you are going to try just ONE CKT here in Penang, do make sure it's this one, just try to avoid the rush. A highly recommended Top Pick!!

Anti Social Behaviour

I have seen this subject crop up on several forums as people compare Malaysia with UK or wherever they come from. I must say that compared to the UK I get a much better feeling about Malaysia, and particularly Penang, when walking around at any hour of the day, even in the late hours be it in Georgetown or down the backstreets around Gurney.

Sure you need to be mindful of crime here, just as you do anywhere (the main problem the locals warn of is the odd snatch thief on a motor scooter or even the potential for robbery if you are isolated late at night and come across an unruly bunch). In all the time I have been here though I have never experienced it, have never felt uneasy, and in particular have never come across the kind of borish and yob like behaviour that you will often see on the streets of Britain, especially when the pubs and clubs turn out.

I have also found the local population to be very friendly and helpful be they Chinese, Malay or Indian. Only yesterday I was given a lift into Georgetown by a Malay girl who stopped when she saw me standing at a bus stop, indicating that the service past there had not yet been commenced. Of course I couldn't get that in Britain, but that's largely down to the fact there where I live, despite all the promises of the Labour Government to improve public transport, there is no bus service, and no bus stops!!

Everywhere has it's problems and Britain of course is no worse than many places, and far better than some, this is just one aspect of life in many British towns that is thankfully absent in Malaysia and Penang.

Most Useful Travel Item

I have to say that the ONE most useful thing I brought with me to Penang was the iPhone with its 'Maps' application. It has been excellent for getting me from A to B and for finding places on the move when out and about. Sure, a map can do the same BUT, you need to know where you are on the map and, if the place you are looking for is not on it, what then? As 'Maps' is essentially Google maps you can find and locate bars, restaurants and such like and it proves invaluable when travelling by bus as you can use the normal 'search' screen to just track where you are and, for instance, get off nearest to Penang Times Square, when travelling in on the 103 Rapide service. I also caught out one taxi driver who went the long way round in KL. So I halved the fare and suggested he called the police if he wanted to chat things through. For some reason he didn't.

Of course any smartphone with a Google maps interface will do the job. What is useful with the iPhone is that it interacts with the inbuilt GPS to tell you exactly where you are.

Property Agent - Penang (Top Pick)

Since I have been in Penang I have met several people who have had some pretty dismal experience with property agents. Often they have been shown a limited selection of properties with agents pushing what they have to sell, rather than seeking to understand the needs of the client and showing them properties that might match their profile.

I was fortunate in that I was recommended a very, very good agent by several people who have used her previously, a very nice lady by the name of Catherine Loh. Catherine certainly does get to understand your needs and will show you a wide variety of properties, as well as providing you with much information on the areas you may be contemplating buying. She is very friendly, helpful and , above all, knowledgeable and well connected. I have spoken to several people who have use agents in the past and when I told them of my experiences with Catherine they commented "you have been lucky then". Some clearly felt that agents were trying to "have them over" but that is certainly not the case with Catherine.

I can wholeheartedly recommend Catherine Loh to anyone looking for a property agent here in Penang and I would be happy to pass her contact details on to anyone interested. I haven't posted them here merely to avoid the 'spam bots' from grabbing the e-mail address etc. Rarely would I envisage giving a 'Top Pick' award to a person as it is mostly something I use to identify my top choices of the places I visit. I do however think it is a useful and well justified award in this case.

Lonely Planet Guide: Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Penang

Lonely Planet (LP) are one of my favourite travel guides as many of their books tend to be more specific in focus rather than covering say, in this case, the whole of Malaysia. The good news is that an updated version of the LP guide to Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Penang is due to be published on 17 June 2011 with considerably updated content biggrin

The book is available for pre-order at Amazon now at a cost of $15.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Restaurant: Kashmir - Jalan Penang, Georgetown (Top Pick)

I visited this restaurant recently after the failed attempt to try out Spice and Rice (which is now closed down). I really wanted to try a good quality Indian restaurant with great food, nice decor and a good atmosphere and the Kashmir was suggested. It turned out to be a very good suggestion indeed!!

The Kashmir is located in Jalan Penang in the heart of Georgetown and is situated in the basement of the Oriental Hotel. If you are travelling in by bus from the North of the islan it is very easy to get to. Simply get on the Rapide 103 service which actually goes up Jalan Penang when it enters Georgetown. About half way up the bus will turn off Jalan Penang (because of the traffic routing system) it will then turn right a little further up and right again to rejoin Jalan Penang. Just before the bus reaches the end of the road before Jalan Penang press the stop request button and get off there. The Oriental and Kashmir are straight across the road in front of you.

The Kashmir, in business since 1984, specialises in North Indian cuisine and is renowned for some of the best tandoori dishes anywhere. The restaurant has a classical feel to it with a vibrant, rich and relaxing decor and the owner Mohan and his staff make you feel very welcome. The restaurant is nicely laid out with a variety of table layouts so large groups can be accommodated just as easily as those seeking a romantic dinner for two or a meal with a few friends. There is a well stocked bar with beers and spirits and a wide selection of soft drinks and lassi.

The owner Mohan is rightfully very proud of the restaurant and is very happy to advise you in terms of the dishes to try to best meet your needs. He will also point out some of the Kashmir's specialities just one of which is the tandoori chicken. Because this takes a while to cook we ordered this straight away and then sat with a beer to ponder the extensive and well explained menu. While we waited the restaurant served us with a chicken pakora and an onion bhajee together with a very nice mint raita and a chilli sauce. The bhajee and pakora were fresh and succulent and very tasty and in stark contrast to the over spiced balls of doughy garam flour that you will often get in many Western Indian restaurants. A plate of fresh, light and crispy papadoms were also served.

After making our selection the chicken tandoori arrived. Now I have to say that this was, by far, the best chicken tandoori I have eaten anywhere. In many places the dish can sound appealing but can so often be an anti-climax with a piece of chicken smothered in a yogurt and spiced based dressing but with the inside of the meat dry and tasteless. Not at the Kashmir!! The dish was moist and succulent and really was mouth-wateringly delicious. It had clearly been very well marinated and lovingly prepared, cooked in a charcoal fired tandoor oven that imparts a flavour that no other cooking method can replicate. Truly the Kashmir is a place that you should make a point of trying for the tandoori chicken alone!!!

Our main dishes then arrived. We opted for a fiery and aromatic mutton vindaloo which was very tasty indeed, a delightfully rich butter chicken, a plate of the yellow lential dhal makahni (a superb and healthy accompaniment to any Indian meal) and a palak paneer (spinach and indian cheese curry). All of the dishes were truly superb, particularly when accompanied by fresh and light butter nan (there is a very wide variety of Indian breads available here). We also tried a puree which is a very light and puffy Indian bread which melted in your mouth.

In all honesty we probably ordered a little too much at the Kashmir but we did want to try a wide range of dishes to get a good feel for the place. The staff were very pleasant and attentive without being overly fussy. The whole meal including several beers, and a mango lassi which was very tasty with a nice sharpness to it, came in at RM 184 but I should think a meal for two with one or two drinks could easily be had here for RM 100-120, and what a wonderful meal it would be.

My praise for the Kashmir perhaps sounds a little gushing and, to be honest, it is. I think it is a fabulous restaurant with outstanding food with a welcoming and passionate owner and attentive staff. I shall return again shortly with a decent camera and take some shots of the delightful food here but until then, the Kashmir qualifies with ease for a Top Pick!!!

The Kashmir can be contacted on: 04 263 7411.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Bar: Overtime - Gurney Drive, Penang

I strolled past this place on Sunday night at about 11pm after having had another fix of chicken wings at Song River. As you come out of Song River you just turn left and walk towards G Hotel and you will come to 'Over - Time' on your left.

It is a semi open-air bar with some seating outside completely uncovered, some partially covered by a shower roof and the rest inside, fully covered but with the whole place open to the front. The palm trees and which grow up through the premises create a very pleasant feel to the place, almost Caribbean in influence. An ample scattering of plants and such like, combined with the almost 'marine timber' feel of the place and the very subdued lighting go to create a very pleasant ambience. There was some good music playing and, although it was 11pm on Sunday, there were more people in here than in all of the bars in UPR put together on the Friday evening before (I can only assume it was a one-off abysmal night in UPR).

As yet I can't comment on the place fully and have no idea of the prices etc but I will certainly check it out as it was much more busy and had a better ambience than the bar called Martini which is not far away, is often mentioned as a good place to go but, on every occasion I have been past it has fell into the 'moon-base' category - empty and no atmosphere. There was good contemporary music being played at Over-Time too, loud enough to give it a semi-club like atmosphere but not too loud that you can't talk to people, the further you move away from the sound system (e.g. towards the front and the more open-air seating) the more subtle the sound got. Looks like a nice place and well worth a visit.

NB: Overtime in Gurney Drive is now closed.

Restaurant: Tho Yuen - Lebuh Campbell, Penang (Top Pick)

Many visitors to Penang may well have heard of Tho Yuen. It has been in business for over 20 years and is in Lebuh Campbell in the heart of Georgetown, right in the centre of Chinatown. Tho Yuen is famed for its dim sum which is so popular that in the early hours around rush hour it can be very difficult to get a seat as the local workers and residents flock to the place to sample the delights of the best dim sum in Penang.

Tho Yuen doesn't benefit from a sign in English so you need to know where to find it. About half way up Lebuh Campbell as you head towards Jalan Penang you will come to a shop with a Rolex sign (corner of Lebuh Cintra). As you face that shop Tho Yuen is the second shop in from the corner. You will see the tables outside and the metal topped tables inside. The place can seat a LOT of people and it needs to!!! I got there around 10am and it had quietened down some but don't leave it too late or you'll miss the dim sum as they switch to lunch-time fayre.

Following the welcome at the counter you will be taken to a table. You then just take a seat and ask if you want a drink of some sort (I opted for the China tea - in this case a strong and earthy red tea that goes really will with food). The staff will then bring your tea, cups, chop sticks and bottles of chilli (and this stuff is hot!!) and soy sauce. There is then a constant flow of trolleys with freshly cooked dim sum in all varieties which the helpful staff will explain if you are a little lost. I had 5 different varieties (too much really but I love dim sum and was very hungry) and have to say they were all superb. A portion is either 2 or 3 pieces depending on the size of them. The prawn filled dumplings were particularly tasty, as was the spiced chicken and a longer parcel filled with black mushroom, bean sprouts and pork. The dumplings were all perfectly steamed, firm and bulging with filling. They also serve a very nice steamed bun (Siopao) which is softer and more doughy the European bread and is filled with either a savoury or sweet paste. They look like very large dry dumplings and are very tasty, you should try at least one.

With the 5 portions of dim sum, the siopao and the endless supply of tea (you just keep filling up from the hot water urns) the whole bill came to RM 14!! Excellent value, fantastic taste and the best breakfast I have had in Penang. For me this is a Top Pick that has to be visited at least once. If you manage to get there at lunch time as well I am told the chicken rice is also very very good. I intend to find out!!!!

Get fit and lose weight in Penang!!

For those of a health conscious nature it would be well worth checking out the opportunities offered under the Bootcamp PG programme offered by Cactus Fabulous Fit. Bootcamp offers a fitness training programme to keep you fit and help lose weight and offers it's led classes at a range of venues and times that should provide a slot for everyone (check the Cactus website for full details).

The founder of Cactus has been in the fitness industry for over 20 years and the company can also provide:
  • Personal Training
  • Corporate Classes
  • Team Building
  • Fitness Walks
  • Marine Bootcamp (swimming pool based)
  • Fitness for Kids
  • Fitness Camps
  • Team Training
  • Survival Training
The fees for the workout sessions are very reasonable with each session led by a qualified instructor. So, if you need to burn off that Char Kway Teow or just raise the fitness levels it would be well worth checking out Bootcamp. I certainly plan to use it once I get to Penang full time.

Food Court: Mee Sotong - Fort Cornwallis, Georgetown (Top Pick)

Recently I was taken to a place called Hameed Pata Mee Sotong (to give it its full name) in Georgetown. It is in the food court opposite the Immigration building (as you face away from Immigration it is to the left of the car park which is opposite).

Mee Sotong is only open during the day time and can get VERY busy. We went at about noon so it was not too bad. This stall has been open for years and is famed for its Mee Goreng, a dish of noodles fried in spices and topped with squid cooked in spices with more than a hint of chilli!! I have to say the dish was very nice, piping hot, nicely cooked and very well flavoured. If you are used to Thai food you will be OK, even the hotter Indian food but it is spicy!!

To accompany the Mee Goreng I had one of the also famous coconut milkshakes from the stall nearby and also tried one of their Ice Kacang for desert which was very very good. For a quick snack lunch, provided you hit it at the right time, the Mee Sotong and its Mee Goreng and coconut shake well justify a Top Pick. Anyone wanting some more details as well as a few pics can visit this link.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Great Music / Great Atmosphere!!!

Followers will know I am a fan of Bagan bar and restaurant but even more so now!!! My friend and outstanding DJ Jey from Pitchwizard DJ Academy now has a permanent slot at Bagan every Friday and Saturday night. If you fancy hearing some great sounds in a place with great atmosphere I would suggest checking out Bagan on a Friday and Saturday as this DJ will enhance further the cracking entertainment provided by singer Roz and the band. Great decision Bagan!!! This Top Pick just got even better!!!

Food Court: Song River - Gurney Drive, Penang (Top Pick)

My friend Ken at No Eyed Deer recommended this place to me me as he said it did the best chicken wings in the whole of Penang. It's almost a food-court style place (somewhere between hawker and restaurant) with seating that fronts on to Gurney Drive (you can sit way back inside if you like) and it houses several places serving different types of food, mostly Chinese/Nyonya.

On this occasion though I was there for the wings!! The guy that does them is right at the front of the court and you can see the racks and racks of wings ready to be barbequeued as you enter. The helpful and bubbly staff got me a table almost on the Drive and I ordered a plate of 6 chicken wings and a large (640 ml) bottle of Tiger which at RM 13 was good value. After about 5 minutes the wings arrived and what can I say!! The were absolutely fantastic. Perfectly cooked, moist and meaty they were just oozing with flavour and the aroma merely makes you want another plate full. I don't know about best in Penang - I'd challenge anyone to find better anywhere. At RM 12 for 6 they were good value too. I have not yet tried the other food there but for a nice cold beer, a plate of the best wings ever and watching the world go buy I think it would be hard to beat. You can find Song River by turning right outside the G Hotel (as you come out the door) and it's probably 5-7 minutes walk up the road on a corner. For the wings alone, a well justified Top Pick!!!

Hotel: Yeng Keng - Lebuh Chulia, Georgetown

When I was walking around yesterday ( I do ALOT of walking) I came across a lovely looking boutique style hotel called the Yeng Keng in Lebuh Chulia which is right in the heart of Georgetown. It took my fancy so much I popped in for a chat and a look around. It really was a delightful looking place if you fancy the small and friendly type hotel as opposed to the more 'corporate' offerings of the big hotel chains. They have 20 rooms ranging from standardsat about RM 300 - 350 a night up to the suites at approx RM 600 though for longer stays (or those good at bargaining) you may be able to get those rates down some. They have s nice looking bar/restaurant too for that sun-downer (or sun-upper of you feel so inclined) and there is a courtyard which encloses the pool. The hotel offers free wifi forguests which is always useful.

I wouldn't give it a Top Pick yet merely because I haven't stayed there but it looks like it could well deserve one once I do. Definitely looks worth a visit and I've added it to the 'Travel Links'. The hotel can be contacted on +604 262 2177 or by e-mail (see their website).

HSBC Georgetown, banking and exchange rates

In the UK I am with HSBC Premier and in readiness for my impending move here I thought I'd pop in to the Georgetown Branch of HSBC in Downing Street to open a local account. You don't need to have your MM2H visa to do this. If you are coming from the Gurney, Tanjung Tokong or Batu Ferringhi side it's dead easy to find by getting on the 101 Rapid bus. As the bus passes the Rapide terminal (on opposite side of the road) just get off at the next stop which is on the Weld Quay road, at the junction of Downing Street. Just walk straight up there to the branch. Standard Chartered is also there. I could have opened the local account from the UK but as I was in no rush I decided to go for the personal visit, more chance to chat to the locals that way too and get more ideas of places to go. As always, there is water and coffee available on the Premier floor and, at the branch near Queensbay Mall, you can even park for up to an hour free of charge in their car park as a Premier Customer.

As I am a Premier Customer in the UK I qualify automatically for Premier in Malaysia so went to the Premier service centre on the first floor (the lift is just inside the branch entrance). Bear in mind you will need to take your passport. Once there I saw the very helpful Chai Pei. The account opening process is quite quick. I opened the Premier (MYR/Ringgit) account and also opened a GB £ account. The Ringgit account is opened free of charge but if you open other currency accounts (useful for holding sums of money until exchange rates are in your favour etc.) there is a RM 50 charge per account, so you could have US $ and Euro too if you like. I was very surprised that they issued me with my ATM card and PIN there and then. Whether it is the same in all branches I don't know but they certainly do this in Georgetown which is the oldest branch here. You will need to change your PIN when you get chance and PIN numbers in Malaysia are 6 figure. One thing to bear in mind is that the ATM card, unlike those in the UK, is not also a Visa debit card, it only works in ATMs. They also issue you with an internet banking secure key token and a telephone banking PIN.

Once all the paperwork is done they will set up the internet banking with you to check all is working and activate your key token. You have to select a user name (to avoid confusion I used the same 'IB' number that you are obliged to use in the UK), a first and second password (they are used for different things) and two security questions. They also explained about a dual currency conversion option they offer. This is useful and while I need to explore the full details it sounds the best way to exchange you imported £ or whatever. Essentially, you can either transfer the money direct from your UK account into your MYR account and you well get the bank rate of the day which tends to be a little lower than exchange rates on the currency markets. Or, you transfer you money into your GBP account and, depending on how quick you want it exchanged, you can opt for a 1 week, 2 week, 1 month, 2 month or 3 month dual currency exchange. HSBC did advise me that 1 month is the longest they recommend as it's easier to predict rates etc. The minimum you can convert in this way is RM 50,000. The bank then basically 'deals' in your exchange currency amount and, at the end of the period you select, they will pay you back the money to be 'parked' in the currency of your choice. This way you will generally get a much better exchange rate (often higher than market rate) and also some interest. Whenever you do such a 'deal' the bank provides a kind of mini contract which sets out the rates, guarantees and such like and you have to authorise it each time. You can also sign an authority allowing you to do this by email. If the dual currency option appeals you have to ask at the branch so you can fill in some pre-authorisation forms but HSBC will likely advise you about all this when there.

On the exchange rate front I found some interesting things. Firstly, in the UK, the Post Office advertise their 'no fee' foreign currency exchange. No fee it may be but the rate they give you is crap. Without doubt the worst option IMO. At the time the £/MYR rate was hovering around the 4.9 mark yet at the Post Office, 4.6!!!! That's around £60 extra to pay on RM 2,500 (you should only bring in up to RM 1,000 by the way). No fee - yeah right!!!! When I switched some currency directly from the UK account to my MYR account it converted at around 4.85 which was better. The best rate I got though was using my UK Premier debit card in the ATM which gave the rate exactly as it was on the currency exchange at 4.91, and of course there is no overseas usage charge with HSBC, or at least with Premier. Without doubt this was the best deal. Clearly you are limited by ATM limits (but these are high with Premier anyway) but for me, and particularly when living here, I think the use of the UK ATM card followed by use of a local ATM card using currency converted at the better 'dual currency' rates will be the best option.

The other thing of note is when you come to link your accounts under the Global View option from the UK internet banking site. Confusingly, when you select Malaysia from the 'add country' options you will be asked for your user name (the IB number in my case) and your 'Memorable Information'. Now, you don't choose anything called this in Malaysia but I can confirm that the information they are after here is the 'Password 1' that you chose at the branch. You then select the characters they ask you for from 'Password 2'. Once you do that it links and you can transfer straight away, it normally arrives (free of charge of course) the next working day in Malaysia.

The other thing I did clarify is that the secure token they give you is not universal, it only works with your Malaysian account. Likewise the UK one (which they are just starting to issue) will only work with your UK accounts.

Overall I found the process painless and efficient and hope this information may be of use to others.

Restaurant: Spice & Rice - Green Hall, Georgetown

People may well see a write up about this in travel guides or on the internet indicating that it's a very good, classy Indian Restaurant to go to, situated at 1 Green Hall, near the esplanade in Georgetown. If you have plans to go there, at least for Indian food, forget it. Spice and Rice is no more. It has been replaced with an Arabic style restaurant, which apparently has a belly dancer at the weekends. Having not long returned from nearly three years in the UAE I'm a little maxed out on Arabic food still so I passed on going in here. Maybe some time in the future.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Restaurant: Sri Ananda Bahwan - Tanjung Bungah, Penang (Top Pick)

Many thanks to Peggy from Ivory (property developers) for taking me here for an impromptu lunch after we had been to look at the Moonlight Bay residences in Batu Ferringhi this morning. Peggy had a couple of clients to show there and I tagged along out of interest just to check if anything immediately appealed as Moonlight is built now. More of Moonlight later. As we had finished there at about lunch time (nothing too specific here :-)) we decided to grab something to eat. Taking advantage of the local knowledge I asked Peggy to decide where to go. We ended up going to a superb Indian mamak style restaurant called Sri Ananda Bahwan. It just rolls of the tongue so dead easy to remember.

The restaurant is opposite the Flamingo Hotel on the Tanjung Bungah road and despite being lunch time it was busy, and I mean busy. They do however have plenty of staff and finding a nice table was still possible. The restaurant serves a wide variety of dishes and has an extensive menu which is very reasonably priced. They also have a tandoor oven so are able to offer a wide range of traditionally cooked tandoori food also. We opted for a selection of dishes including:

  • Aloo Gobi (potato and cauliflower)
  • Palack Paneer (spinach and cheese curry)
  • Butter Chicken Masala (what it says on the tin!!)
  • Prawn Masala Sambal
  • 3 Plain Nan

They were flat out busy so the dishes did take a little time to arrive but it did give me chance to whet the appetite and slake the thirst with a large ice cold Tiger (640 ml bottle) at RM 14. And besides, who cares how long it takes really. It was nice to see that the do serve a very wide range of drinks including beers, lassis, shakes, sodas, canned drinks and several interesting tea and coffee options.

When the meal arrived it was WELL worth waiting for!! The chicken was tender, spicy and rich and the aloo gobi was well flavoured and the vegetables were well cooked with a little bite rather than the pulpy mush some places can turn out. The prawn masala was the only slightly weak offering and for me could have been a little more spicy and rich, having said that it was still very pleasant and provided a nice balance to the meal. The paneer dish though was really outstanding. Well flavoured, intensely aromatic and each mouthful a real delight. Complete with 2 bottles of Tiger (well, it was sunny and it was a public holiday - for some), a mango lassi and tea it came to a staggering RM 77. Staggering for an obvious reason. Many Westerners will be used to paying this for the chicken dish alone.

It is nice when you come across places like this at opportune moments and the quality of the food and prices for me make the Sri Ananda Bahwan well worthy of a *Top Pick*, a place to which I will definitely return.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Thank You G-Hotel

I had my birthday while staying at the G-Hotel and on the day I was talking in reception with the charming and very helpful Joanne. Joanne checked me in at the hotel and was very helpful then also. We were chatting about how my house hunting was going and I happened to mention I was going out that night to celebrate my birthday. It was a nice surprise when i got back to my room later to find a birthday cake together with a birthday card signed by several members of staff. So, thanks very much Joanne and G-Hotel.

Eat Malay - Places to try around Tanjung Tokong / Gurney

I am indebted to Ken at No Eyed Deer (NED) for his top tips on where to eat some of the best Malay specialities in and around the Tanjung Tokong and Gurney Drive areas.

Firstly, for those stopping at the G Hotel or visiting the Gurney area, you could do worse than head up towards Jalan Bagan Jermal and turn right at the first lights along Jalan Tanjung Tokong to mamak shop (many open 24 hours) called Subadiah. It's situated on the right hand side of the road as you travel towards Tanjung Bungah and is hard to miss. Open daily it is not particularly renowned for any one dish but would be a good place to try a Roti Canai (a paratha style bread served with a small portion of curry) or Nasi Kandar, a more substantial offering of rice with a variety of curry and pickle accompaniments. Listed mainly for its convenience (maybe a 10m minute walk from Gurney Plaza) I plan to try here for breakfast tomorrow. If having Roti Canai, ordering it 'kosong' will result in you getting the drier plain version rather than that which contains a lot of margarine

For some of the best Nasi Kandar Ken recommends a place called Jamal which is further up Jalan Fettes on the opposite side of the road to NED. Apparently serves a very good range of dishes (most times with the same price charged on different days!!!) you may need to be careful to be sure of the price of the shellfish as it can rack the price up somewhat. But, being Malaysia, that is still going to be good value and nowhere near European prices.

If you come out of the NED, turn left up Jalan Fettes (as you would to get to Jamal), walk/drive up the road to the first set of lights and turn left you will immediately notice some hawker food stalls on the right hand side. in Ken's view the lady here serves one of the best local 'Char Kway Teow' (CKT) you can get around here. Penang is considered the tops for this tasty dish the world over. It consists of fried flat noodles with often with Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, cockles, prawn, with garlic and chilli paste. Ken tells me you can also get a nice Ice Kacang here, a Chinese desert of sweet red beans, jelly and creamed sweetcorn over a bed of shredded ice with lashings of fruity sauce topped with ice cream. You can't miss the CKT stall as there is only the one stall doing this local speciality (rated tops in Penang along with Assam or Penang Laksa) and one which I intend to try as soon as time permits.

Finally, for today at least, travelling up Jalan Bagan Jermal (as I tend to do quite a lot!!!) you will go past Bagan bar/restaurant and will come to the Chinese Girls School on your right. Opposite here is another Mamak shop called Taman Emas . Here you can apparently get some of the best Curry Mee, a Chinese style broth style flat noodle dish which is a little less fiery than the similar Curry Laksa. Its ingredients will vary but generally always include beansprouts, long beans, soyabean puffs, coagulated pigs blood (with a texture like tofu and tasting less spicy than the black pudding you can get in the UK, it may then contain a variety of fish types and chicken. It will vary from stall to stall. Generally the dish is topped with a chilli paste which is stirred in just before you eat it, stirring in only as much as your taste buds will handle. I like Thai food and Szechuan Chinese so for me, the lot I suspect biggrin At the hawkers they will generally ask if you like it spicy or not and it will be cooked with their best guess at the right amount of chilli paste.

One of the other dishes I have been advised to try is Tam Yam Mee. This is actually a Thai dish and is the favourite of several people I have met here including Jeffrey and the Blue Reef restarant. I will give this a spin too.

Once I have tried these places I will return and update this post. Happy eating!!!

Restaurant: No Eyed Dear - Tanjung Tokong, Penang (Top Pick)

I have delayed writing this review a little as I wanted to try at least a couple of dishes and at different times. No Eyed Dear (NED) was recommended to me by MM2H forum members and it turned out to be a very worthy recommendation indeed. Situated on the upper level above the shops on the corner of Jalan Fettes in the Tanjung Tokong area (opposite side of road to Island Plaza) the NED it opens every day except Tuesday from 6pm until 11pm, but opening earlier at the weekend (from mid day). The restaurant has both inside (air conditioned) and outside seating which, being on the upper level, is a pleasant place to sit. On the 7 occasions I visited I have eaten outside and found it very comfortable.

The restaurant is owned by Ken in partnership with the very lovely and charming Elfina who, along with their staff, are very helpful and welcoming and Ken is of course a mine of information about the surrounding area and where to go for the tops in Malay specialities. More on this later. In the meantime, back to NED.

The first dish I tried there was the mutton rogan josh curry. If is is mutton it has been cooked well and for a very long time as the meat is so tender. If not, it's some of the tenderist lamb you could have. The curry is rich and aromatic and the meat falls apart. Served with a good portion of biryani style rice and a portion of pickled vegetables which I found make a nice refreshing accompaniment. At RM 13 (RM 23 with a bottle of ice cold Tiger) I found this dish to be outstanding and very good value for money.

On a later visit I tried the Laotian Laksa, a Malay dish, traditionally served with beef the NED also does a chicken version. The Laksa is soup style dish of flat noodles with beansprouts and basil served with a very spicy, but really tasty soup style sauce. This is the signature dish of the NED and it is easy to see why. It is absolutely delicious and is a substantial dish. It is spicy though but I am sure that unless you have a very tender palatte such that a korma is too hot for you, I'm sure you will be fine. Again, I found a Tiger beer to be a pleasant accompaniment and, again, came out at about RM 23.

Finally I tried the coffee jelly there. An interesting desert which was a refreshing change and was richly flavoured and not bitter. Served with a cream and coffee style sauce at RM 6 this was a very pleasant and different end to a meal.

NED has quite an extensive menu and includes a variety of dishes. They serve a very good steak with a pepper sauce (on the list for my next visit), fish and chips is a firm favourite for some customers as is an Italian style chicken in tomato sauce. There is much much more. Serving a range of beers, soft drinks (including a nice assortment of lassi) and hot beverages the NED is well worth a visit. Coupled with the welcome extended by the owners and their staff, with Ken often working 'front of house' rightly gets the NED a well justified *Top Pick* from me.

Labour Day Party - Bagan

Well, what a night!!! Got home at a rather late 4:30 am and thanks so much AGAIN to my wonderful friends William and Xi Xi for getting me back to the hotel in one piece. I only hope you got back OK. It was a really really good night at Bagan and I must send out a really heartfelt thanks to all the people I have met here that have made my stay here so memorable, people that I will be thankful to have as good friends in the years to come.

This post is nothing more really than an opportunity to show just how hospitable and welcoming Malaysia and the Malays can be and also an opportunity for me to flash some pictures of some of the nicest people I have met having fun and enjoying this time of celebration!!! I apologise that the shots are not as good as I would like but that is a result of having to leave professional equipment behind - for now. Once Bagan relocates, and I get back to Penang, a number of new sets will be taken. For me, I only hope the people in them remain the same, truly wonderful friends. I hope you like the pics!!!!

Just a quick pictorial trip this time around and no pictorial reference of Bagan would be complete without a picture of the charming and delightful manager Xi Xi who always goes out of her way to make people welcome and ensure you have a pleasant time!!

So, for all the sports enthusiasts out there, 10 points for guessing the identity of our dancer in the black top. Give up??? Ok lah. Squash followers will of course have had no problem in recognising Nicole David, World No 1 women's squash player. What a pleasant surprise that she is so friendly and down to earth. Jumped up soccer players please take note!!!!

Cocktail anyone?? My friend Bob rustles up another tantalising cocktail at Bagan. He does a wicked Mojito!!!

Just Dance!!! The renowned Lady Gaga track belted out as other friends I met at Bagan enjoyed the celebrations. Centre pic is Elise, school chum of Xi Xi!!

The man himself!! DJ Rey. And a top guy he is!!! Having listened to numerous full sets of this excellent DJ's sessions tonight he just gets better and better.

And finally, for now, no pictorial account of this night would be complete without a pic of my two really good friends Xi Xi and her husband William. Their friendliness, warmth and hospitality is truly overwhelming even though you make me stay out MUCH later than I intended!!