Penang (January 3rd through January 11th)
The 5-hour bus trip from KL to Penang was good, with comfortable, spacious, deeply reclining seating (somewhat worn) and large windows (reasonably clean) with curtains. In the middle portion of the trip, we saw the beautiful, green, mountain scenery of Perak and picked up some fresh tropical fruit at a rest stop.
Pulau Penang is an smallish island (285 sq km – about 100 square miles) with a population of about 500,000, mostly of Chinese (Hokkien) heritage, but also with some Indian and native Malay. It is located just 3 miles off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, about a 2 hour drive south of the Thai border. Most its population lives in and immediately around the port city of Georgetown, which itself is often referred to simply as “Penang.”
Penang is probably Malaysia’s most popular tourist destination. The food is truly excellent, and inexpensive (especially at the hawker centers), and there is a lot of local color. I was especially taken with the older Chinese part of Georgetown, said to be a true Chinatown of a type seldom seen anymore, owing its continued existence largely to the restrictive zoning/rent-control that has kept many of the historic shopfronts in family hands for generations. I understand, though, that this rent control will soon be coming to an end–so regrettably, the character of the neighborhood may soon be changing. I was, however, fortunate to get many good pictures of this area, as well as of the open-air market in Air Itam and several food hawker’s areas.
Kuan Yin Teng temple, burning incense on the 15th
with street construction
with street construction
Alley behind shops, residences
with street construction
Little India shop wares, street construction,
with street construction
Little India, construction
Khoo Kongsi roofline
Khoo Kongsi porch
Khoo Kongsi stairs & porch
Tiger relief in stone
Khoo Kongsi shrine
Khoo Kongsi porch
Artwork on back wall,
wise men contemplate good
Another Khoo Kongsi shrine
Lower level passageway
Jana & I are staying just west of Georgetown proper, in Air Itam, with her mother, brother & his family. On our first evening there, Jana’s brother took us out to dinner, where I again experienced some new foods, including the whole, deep-fried, small fishes that one could eat in their entirety, heads and all! Also, I had 2 or 3 types of local vegetables I’d never had before (in a nicely seasoned sauce, to boot).
Jana’s Mom is very nice and very much as I might have imagined. On our first night, I slept well in the air-conditioned bedroom, surprised that the blanket, which was more like a large towel, could keep me so warm (the beds here in Malaysia have only one sheet, which covers the mattress). One uses a ‘blanket’ or wrap, if needed, while lying on top . . . i.e., people don’t tuck themselves in under covers. One downside of the room, for one of my ‘sensitivity,’ is that Jana’s mother has used a lot of mothballs and room fresheners . . . I may just have to take this in stride, as I suspect that smell is not going away, even if we remove all the fresheners.
The bathing room in the house in Penang has a large, bucket-like container (maybe 20 gallon capacity) for collecting water from a tap. In it floats a smaller hand-bucket (maybe a half-gallon capacity) that one fills with water and pours over one’s head and body, as much to cool down as for washing and rinsing. The water flows down a drain in the floor. The room also has a washbasin and the more modern convenience of a shower, with the luxury of a heater for those not so intent on cooling down.
Some of the sounds and smells in the Air Itam neighborhood:
In the quiet of the morning, I hear the ‘call to prayer’ from the neighborhood mosque a block or two away, melodically lulling spoken words, Arabic, of pleasant effect. Also, the faint call of a rooster can be heard. Later one midday, I hear the melodic, singsong voice of the newspaper collector driving through the neighborhood, making his presence known to those who might wish to flag him down for a pick-up. Not only does he come right to your door to pick up paper for recycling, but he pays for it by weight. He will also pay for old clothes, furniture, or other things considered to have some value. I’d love to have a service like this in my neighborhood back home!
Walking to the open-air market on a busy street, the exhaust fumes are heavy. At least half the traffic consists of motorbikes . . . I wonder if there are any emission standards [for motorbikes] in Malaysia. I know two-cycle engines are big contributors to the greenhouse effect and wonder if these motorbikes use 2-cycle engines. Also apparent, now and then, was the smell from the open sewage ditch running alongside the road.
Similarly, in the open-air food markets, one can expect to experience a variety of sights and smells, some pleasant, some less so . . . fresh fish & shrimp, meats and poultry, flowers and produce, cooking foods at hawker’s stalls, etc. Again, in the market, the drainage system is open to the air, but the entire area benefits from a good hosing down every night.
First let me say that this is, without a doubt, the finest eating I’ve ever had on any of my travels. Admittedly, this is not saying a lot, as, when I travel alone, I normally just have fast food, energy bars, trail mix, whatever is convenient and inexpensive, preferring to focus my energy in other areas. This time, however, I am traveling with Jana (my fiancée) in her native land, Malaysia. She tells me that the process of eating and enjoying good food is very important in the Chinese culture. Mealtime is much more of a social occasion than in the U.S. Jana knows Penang, having lived here for quite a few years, so, she, and her family, can show me some of the best places to eat, not to mention that she and her mother are good cooks themselves.
Jana was concerned, in my coming with her to meet her family, that I might be a picky eater (at home, I’m concerned about the types of fats & other ingredients). That concern must go by the boards on a trip like this, however, . . . the food is fresh and is to be enjoyed in its native element. I wouldn’t dream of insulting our hosts by asking for modifications (even assuming I knew the ingredients in the dish (not likely, as I often don’t even know the name of the dish without asking). In short, I’ve been eating and enjoying most of these foods . . . though my hosts may tease me about my not eating some of the more ‘exotic’ items–for example, the contents of a steamed fish’s head, such as the eyeballs . . . these things were eaten, but not by me.
Surprising me, as I think back on it, it seems every single food I’ve had today may have been new to me. For breakfast, I had an assortment of Nyonya ‘cake’, which is not like what we call cake in the West, in that none of the items was made with wheat or yeast. They were all pretty dense and a little sticky, maybe like a cross between a semi-solidified pudding and a firm jello . . . firm enough to hold together when one of the rectangular pieces was picked up, but more flexible or slinky than stiff. They included–beng kang (whitish, seeming almost translucent & maybe with more of a coconut taste than the rest, though I’m told they all contained some coconut), tapioca ‘cake’ (orange in color & sweet), pulut tatai (made with glutinous rice) served with kaya dip (made of coconut milk, eggs & sugar), and kuih talam (top white, bottom green from pandan leaf).
In addition to Nyonya cake, we had biskut tambun (a Penang specialty . . . a sort of smallish, flaky roll with some sort of a yummy, sweet filling). Finally, we had roti canai, a delicious sort of flat bread that is pan fried on a griddle and served with curry for dipping, etc. Lest you think we prepared all this food ourselves, I must tell you we got it all from some of the nearby hawker’s stands (for which Penang is well-known).
Nor was this the end of my dining on hawker’s fare today. Mid-afternoon, Jana & I each had a bowl of penang laksa (rice noodles in a thick fish broth, with mint leaves, pineapple, onions, chilies & other things). For a tasty dessert snack, we had mua chee from another hawker’s stand (off the back of a motorbike). Mua chee is a sort of dough freshly rolled (before our eyes) in a mixture of ground, roasted peanut and sugar. It rather reminded me of the taste of a fresh & light peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Toward evening, we stopped for some fried hor fun (very wide rice-noodles, flash fried in soy sauce and garnished with pork and shrimp, served in a savory brothy sauce) before heading home.
Kek Lok Si Temple: This is a fine & historic temple, dedicated to Buddha, and located prominently on the hillside above the large, open-air market in the town of Air Itam (just outside of Georgetown). Kek Lok Si is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. To get to its entrance, one begins by walking along a fairly narrow, paved & covered pathway up the lower hillside for several hundred yards, past the permanent stalls of merchants selling various (mostly tourist oriented) goods on either side. At the lower reaches of the temple one passes by a pool where hundreds of turtles, large & small, are kept. The turtle traditionally represents ‘longevity.’ A nearby concession sells leafy greens that may be used to feed the turtles by believers, tourists & other passers by.
The temple was begun in 1890, initially taking 20 years to complete, though there have been, I understand, several subsequent additions. I appreciated the design, as a whole, and the workmanship, especially remembering some of the stone carving in the older section and the rich interiors, housing large brass? representations of Buddha. Also of particular note is the Ban Po Thar (Ten-Thousand Buddhas Pagoda), said to incorporate Chinese, Burmese, and Thai design-elements, respectively, in separate layers.
a temple rooftop
Kek Lok Si
Temple & Pagoda
Carved stone pillar
Carved stone wall
View of Kek Lok Si
from Air Itam
Tuesday, January 6, 2004
This morning (very nice), Jana & I walked around the botanical gardens, including a pathway up & down a forested hill. Jana told me I could, if I wanted, hike all the way to the top of Penang Hill on a similar pathway (through woods, shaded all the way) in 2 or 3 hours (if I took one of the steeper paths). After our walk, I jogged a lap around the main circuit of the botanical garden.
Last night, Jana took me up another hill to the local dam & reservoir. It was just then sunset & dusk, we stayed until dark, it was very nice . . . literally a breath of fresh air (maybe the first really fresh air I’ve breathed since landing in Malaysia). It was truly fine, and noticeably cooler, with a view of downtown Penang in the distance and a bench on which to sit looking over the reservoir, as the sky, with it’s delicately multi-hued clouds, darkened. Jana tells me there’s a shaded pathway through the woods around the reservoir that’s a good place for jogging.
Reservoir at sunset/dusk
Friday, January 9
This morning, Jana & I climbed the steep, mostly-paved pathway to the dam/reservoir, then walked the 2-mile circuit around the ‘lake’. The area is mostly wooded, with tall trees, majestic in a few spots, and less so (or even a bit scrawny) in others . . . lots of insect sounds/noise–in some areas sounding like continuous crickets, sometimes a very high, steady note. Jana pointed out a concentration of small pitcher plants that were growing on the higher up branches of some scrawny bushes in a small open area with lots of light-green ferns. The pitcher plant in carnivorous, subsisting on insects.
Hindu temple interior
Burmese style Buddhist temple
Burmese style Buddhist temple, interior
Buddha in golden splendor
Buddha, as imaged in