Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Notes from Penang, Malaysia

I arrived in Penang on a Friday evening and checked into my $35/night hotel (the Sunway). The hotel gave me a free map, which gives a very vague idea of the layout of the downtown. It seemed only the main streets were listed. The street my hotel was located on was not listed. The concierge aka server in the dining area circled a spot on the map and said the hotel was roughly located in that spot.

With my sense of direction being as bad as it is, I was a bit trepidatious about setting off on a walk just before dark, armed only with a mediocre map. But on a 48 hour trip, one does not hang out in the hotel room.

Not too far from my hotel I happened upon a temple of some sort. A big sign said WELCOME over the door, so I wandered in. A man in a turban sitting by the door said, "go in, go in!" A couple of women told me to go ahead and go upstairs. The motherly one of the group showed me where to find a loaner scarf and where to leave my shoes. I went and had a look. Honestly, there was not much to see and I felt strange being trusted to be in their worship area all by myself.

Back downstairs, the motherly woman said they were going to a festival and asked if I'd like to come. I said, "thank you, no," and headed back in the direction of my hotel on foot. A few minutes later, a car slowed beside me and beeped. It was the 3 women. "Are you coming?" the one said. What the hell, I thought. An adventure.

They took me to another temple, where they were celebrating the birthday of the prophet Guru. Shoes off, head scarf borrowed from the communal pile, upstairs to pray. I held back, but she beckoned me over. An old woman sat on the floor, doling out small portions of some sort of sweet, mushy grain. I ate the portion offered me. A man on a dais was reading from a holy book. The four of us women retreated to the back of the room where we sat on the floor and ate the snack.

Back on the first floor, they insisted I join them for a vegetarian Indian meal. It was nothing special, but I felt compelled to eat it all. My appetite was then ruined for other Penang delicacies. But I rallied and went to the Red Garden hawker center after taking my leave of the Sikhs.

One of the Sikh women ate soupy lentils with her fingers and then used a spoon to eat custard. I think custard would have made for easier finger food. There were no napkins, only sinks.

On Saturday I took a taxi to Penang Hill. It seemed extravagent to take taxis everywhere, but they were cheap according to US standards: $14 for a 35 min. taxi ride. There are two funiculars to reach the summit of the hill. Each one goes halfway. There are several cars with one bench per car. Everyone else squishes in and stands. It's a little excrutiating, but I think the walk back down would have been even more so. It takes nearly a half hour to reach the summit.

I was extremely disappointed to discover that the capopy walk is indefinitely closed for repairs. I was really looking forward to that. To make up for it, I wandered off of the well-marked paths, but did not see anything particularly interesting.

After Penang Hill, I went to Kek Lok Si, a large Chinese Buddhist temple complex, also containing a small funicular to reach the top level housing the 50-foot Buddha. I think this was the highlight of my trip. The temple was so striking.

I felt I had to see the beach. A drive-by would have been more than sufficient. Instead I spent 2 hours on the dirty beach, waiting for the night market to open at 7pm. Turned out the night market sells mostly the same stuff they sell in Chinatown in NYC.

Sunday a.m. was a bit of a wash. I failed to budget my time appropriately to explore more of the downtown, but did see the so-called floating mosque and the snake temple (underwhelming as well) and had one more delicious meal from a hawker market. Due to a lack of clear communication, I got a taxi at 10am to take me to those 2 places and arrive at the airport at 3pm. I should have realized I was leaving waaaay too much time for this excursion and wandered around the downtown before getting a taxi. Oh well. Lesson learned. The driver suggested taking me to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion museum, which was not a bad choice. And I still did quite a bit with my half day.

Note to self: when buying a can of iced tea in Asia, first check that it doesn't contain aloe bits. YUCK.

Penang photos here.

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