Penang: "Temples; Little India And Chinatown Markets"


October 25, 2010

Dear Family and Friends,

For the long holiday weekend, my friend Surapee (Noy) and I agreed that it would be a good idea to fly to Georgetown on the island of Penang, on the west coast of Malaysia. Penang (110 sq. mi. 285 sq. km).  lies across a narrow channel to the mainland and faces the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea.

Once there, Noy and I also agreed that the best sightseeing strategy is to stroll around the Colonial District with no particular destination in mind.

We found the restored and almost deserted Thean Hou Chinese temple.  We found the Kapitan Keling Mosque in the midst of a very busy commercial area.  Nearby we stumbled into a raucous Indian street market, blaring with Hindi music, Bollywood video stores, bright sari stalls and bejeweled jewelry shops

Wandering again, we cruised the waterfront, the Victoria Memorial Clocktower, St George's Church and the Fort Cornwallis Park filled with picnickers, ball players and smiling Malay girls.

Many of the cities in Malaysia have large populations of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians who have lived here for several generations.  Along with the native Muslim Malays, they all live side by side yet they continue to maintain their traditions, dress and cuisine. 

Our favorite restaurant was a local Indian shop displaying an assortment of South Asian meat and vegetable curries, roti, tandoori and biryani.  Choose what you like from an array of large steel pans and add a blended icy fresh fruit beverage.

Noy and I also agreed that the best way to see the sights around the island was to hire a driver for the day.  The first stop in Georgetown was Wat Chayamangkalaram with a 33m/108 ft reclining Buddha.  Next the 30hectare/74 acre Botanical Gardens with an orchid house and a cactus house and a quiet pond and waterfall.  Kids were rolling about on the lawns and young couples sat quietly together on a bench or a blanket, barely touching hands.

The huge hillside Kek Lok Si Temple was crowded with visitors and worshippers.  On the grounds we climbed Ban Po Thar, the seven-tier, 30m/98 ft Ten Thousand Buddha Pagoda.  The views to the city were impressive. 

Out in the countryside we visited a waterfall forest park and a fishing village.  Fresh fruit is on display everywhere. (Indeed, Penang means betel nut palm and the tree is featured on the local flag.) On a reservoir, a local team was training for the dragon boat festival.

On our final morning in Penang we found the neighborhood food market.  One lady was performing a pedicure on the chicken feet.  Another was fanning the coals as she grilled her chicken satang. A father and son team specializes in preparing water chestnuts.  The barracuda was about as tall as an average Thai lady.  The durian was about as big as Noy.  Just outside the market, a young man in his golden yellow shirt offers to ride us back to our hotel in his golden yellow tri-shaw.

My friend and colleague Janet Brown recently moved to Georgetown from Bangkok.  She had a successful writing career and I know she adores Thailand. Why did she leave I wondered?  Georgetown is quite dull by comparison.  Perhaps that's the reason.  Bangkok is "in your face."  The traffic, the malls, the crowded sidewalks jammed with clothing stalls and food carts, the beckoning night life - Bangkok is intense.  Georgetown is quiet.

There are many reasons Janet and thousands of expatriates live here on Penang in private homes or high-rise condominium buildings.  The beach, the farmlands, the mountains, the gardens, the friendly atmosphere, the assortment of cultures and cuisine, and Kuala Lumpur is close enough.

Noy and I agree that we are happy to fly back to Bangkok.  Noy grew up in a tiny village (pop 800) in the north of Thailand.  Jan is a native of an enormous village (pop 8 million) in the northeast of the United States. While we both enjoy the quiet of the beach and the mountain air, we really do thrive on the intensity and the opportunities of our adopted home.       

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