Star Date: May 2014
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
you? Literally What news? Malay)
“We're all a little weird and life's a little weird. And when we find someone who's weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.”(Dr Seuss - Children's author)
Smoke billows from massive incense sticks in front of a intricately decorated Chinese temple; every combination of black and red and gold blending together. Indian music blares from the shop behind in Little India. A rainbow of sari's offsets the jammed neon colored shop windows. Greasy smoke belches out from the local non-vegetarian restaurant into the face of the local sidewalk fortune teller, spurring us towards the sumptuous veggie buffet beyond the alley. Call to Prayer from a large mosque down the street vies for attention 5 times a day. Only the sunrise loudspeakers are noticed. Not to be left out, an early century Christian Church reserves its turn for Sunday morning bell ringing. This spicy, rich diversity all within a 4 block radius. Tolerance in action. This is Penang!
The weft of the fabric in Penang has changed but not the warp. Like India, it is impossible to make a dent - even when running a bus headlong into the very texture of existence. Life goes on as it has for centuries. Cultural diversity and some of the best food in Asia makes this a true "Pearl of the Orient." Everything from crusty old shops to modern mega-Malls are open for your every need. As if further incentives are necessary a talented City Council highlights regular Thai New Year dance festivals, Chinese Temple light ceremonies with Opera, Islamic Ramadan specials, Christmas lights, and Indian Dewali festivities complete with fireworks. Old and new, young and old alike turn out to celebrate each group, honoring the other's customs. Besides when a Muslim gets the day off work for an Indian Dewali Festival who is going to complain?
So we landed years later into our old surroundings. Hotel quality has improved, prices risen but not much has changed. A few hours found us wandering the streets amazed at the number of windowless, shared bath budget establishments. One Chinese place had the shared bath almost a block away, and down a flight of stairs. Go figure that. We ended our journey at the Star Lodge in the middle of Chinatown. Clean, quiet, but basic this was our 'home' for the next few weeks. Besides who could resist waterfront windows (an open ditch) down a side alley, greenery (a tree growing out of a crack in the tile roof across from the window) with Mrs Wong singing to a full moon? The day staff and owner are extremely helpful and the crowd of regular inhabitants was diverse - expats on visa runs or long timers hiding away.
Being the 'party animals' we are, if we hear drums or music or see fireworks we check it out. Might be a parade or a ceremony or?Something not to be missed. One night we heard fireworks, then drumming and followed it down the dark back alley, past Mrs Wong, and discovered a wild Taoist celebration complete with men going into and being snapped out of trances. We sat in the back and enjoyed the festivities and before we knew it we had an old Chinese Grandma loading our plate with all the vegan food she had specially prepared. So at 11pm we partied, in great company!
Staying right in the heart of China Town I was led back into the ancient Chinese healing practice of acupuncture. Acupuncture is inserting needles in specific points on the body to manipulate the flow of energy or Qi. In the west a treatment is usually in a quiet room with soft music playing, pictures of serene Buddhas looking down on you. You are always asked, "Does this feel ok?" They want your treatment to be a relaxing experience.
It's all about ambiance. There was a dubious looking Chinese clinic two doors down, open from 7:30 to 8:45 Tuesdays and Fridays. Who could resist? In I walked and discovered I was the only foreigner/westerner in the place. Just me and a bunch of old Chinese Grampas and Grandmas. Given a number I paid my $6, collected my 3 day supply of liquid Chinese herbs, greeted everyone with a smile and "Nihau!" and waited my turn. I was taken to a small room with 4 people already sitting in plastic chairs. Under the florescent lights the needles protruding from every limb glistened. Four acupuncturists did the usual tongue, pulse and eye check. I pointed to several sore vertebrae then they proceeded to talk loudly right in my ear. In went a needle and they waited for a reaction of pain. No pain they tried a nearby point. When they hit the right painful spot I would squeal and they would all smile, making sure to wiggle the needle around a few more times. There I sat like a metallic porcupine for 20 minutes, at which time they would start wriggling all your needles to get a good energy surge for the remaining 5 minutes. I knew it would feel good when they stopped. Not a peaceful, relaxing experience but so 'Chinese' utilitarian that I left chuckling and feeling better. Traveling on buses and trains around China for 14.5 months had prepared me well. I became a regular and was greeted loudly and warmly for the next 2 weeks. Xie xie. Keep the Qi flowing.
From here we explored Georgetown and the whole island of Penang. Definite districts exist from crowded local suburbs to ex pat houses to rural farming villages. Limited land has seen the popping up of high rises, most looking out at the blue ocean. This allows for views of the Indian Ocean, with a decent price. If you look carefully you might glance all the way to India or Africa, the closest land masses. We hiked in the beautiful Taman Negara Pulau Pinang National Park, with turquoise waters and bays full of deserted beaches and naughty monkeys. Joseph likes unique small railways and so we took the vertical ride on the cog railway up to the top of Penang Hill. Great views and miles of walking through the forested roads made for a fun day with the locals enjoying a Sunday outing. We just wished we had known about walking down the other side, arriving into the spacious Botanical Gardens. Going to the gardens on another day we walked for miles through the lush foliage, but skipped the annual World Music Festival, not knowing how we would get back into town late at night. We met some performers at a similar event on Borneo years back but the slate of bands was much more indigenous in nature. Not to be missed are the Buddhist temples set up by Thailand and Burma; quiet, colorful and unique like those back in their home country. The old waterfront areas downtown are a trip down memory lane in this century old bustling port city.
We always shop at the local street vendors and Joseph makes a delicious fruit salad for breakfast. For lunch we are out looking for our one cooked international meal a day. Salad at night is a healthy, light option. Phad thai noodles at the Red Garden Food Court were tasty and authentic. For the best Indian Food outside of India (and we've been to a 'few' around the world) we hung out in Little India regularly at Sri Ananda's Vegetarian Buffet. North Indian, South Indian, buffet or ala carte it was hard to beat. We became regulars and if we missed a couple of days our friends Rajesh and Deepok, who served tables, seemed worried. Indians can rival the Chinese in the noise department but just get into the experience. Lots of fun and laughs amongst the rich aroma of spices.
Walking the city center of old town is where the action is. We found quiet small alleys that avoided busy Chulia Street or the noisy boulevards. Buses are easy to get around on in Penang and #101 seemed to end up wherever we wanted to go. Someone mentioned organic shops near Pilau Tikkus Market and soon we were exploring Penang's answer to Health Food stores. In the back of the market, just past the raw chicken tables, is a small stand with organic produce and juice. T.C.K. and his wife are a wealth of health information. In front of the market are Go Organic and 2 more shops. Setting up an organic kitchen could be a pleasure here, that is if we had a kitchen. We just finished circumnavigating the planet over the last 12 years, ending with South America. As we started around the world again we were on a recognizance mission scouting where in Malaysia we could hang out for a bit if we obtained the 10 year Malaysia My Second Home visa. For $30 a year Malaysia welcomes expats and visitors alike - unlike neighboring Thailand and now Indonesia who require regular visa runs or expensive $800 a year visas. An unbelievably amiable, helpful group of expats is ready to answer questions and the option of making Malaysia a base to travel from is looking more and more a possibility. I stress a place from which to travel as these nomads are far from wanting to settle down. We still want to go out there, "where no man has gone before." We have fallen in love with the colorful, wild, eclectic facets of Penang Island. To quote Dr Seus it's a kind of mutual weirdness.
And so it goes.........................................Next a long anticipated Rest and Relaxation (and Healing) time on the unique Indonesian island of Bali. Until next month Keep Smiling and embrace the mutual weirdness in us all! Take care and Keep in Touch!
Love, Light & Laughter,
1 US Dollar = 3.16 Malaysian Ringgit
Try agoda.com for possible discounts on some of the hotels listed below. Sometimes when you fly on Air Asia they offer discounts if the hotel is booked at the same time. Worth checking.
Airbnb.com also has options - usually starting around
Indian Rest. across from Woodlands is on Jl Lebong Penang
Victoria Inn [$30] just East of Little India and only 2 blocks from Ferry to Butterworth.
Star Lodge, 39 Munthri-
Great guesthouse but limited number of rooms. Basic but
clean and extremely helpful staff during the day. Get a
room on the 2nd floor
Traveler's Lodge 75 Munthr , same owners, Just down the road - give them a try until the Star opens up - bigger rooms
New Asia Heritage Hotel [$35 including fees--but not including breakfast]: discovered Dim Sum place we frequented; but a breakfast place starts at 5 am and woke us up both days.
Acupuncture clinic 71 Munthri. - a few doors down
Tuesday there was no acupuncture because of the Koran Bee [the national contest to see who reads the Koran best]. Ramadan is super busy, expensive and best to avoid Penang
Red Garden Food Paradise: Great Thai food Opens at 5pm A wild local, fun hang out with music/Kareoke at 9pm but be careful walking home at night after dark. (Always/Anywhere) Don't stay nearby (Red Cabana Inn) if you want to sleep.
Red Cabana Inn [$24 with horrible breakfast]--just off Muntri: nice rooms but the Red Garden next door is an open air night club with loud singing until 2 AM. They hand out ear plugs after your credit card is swiped haha (Thanks for the info Paul & Reese.)
Another option is Hutton Inn, a little more expensive but the upper floors of this old colonial style hotel are quiet as is Hutton JL on which it is located. Check agoda.com
Organic shops: All near Pilau
LSY Health and Organic Products:
open 7-noon for juice
Teoh Chooi Keat Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Go Organic: 7j Marble Arch Pulau Tikus
Other veggie restaurants near downtown:
Lilies Vegetarian Kitchen: Madras Lane. From Komtar
walk down Burma Rd past Komtar Center (round building) - left on Madras Lane
Believe it or not - one of the best places in Penang is the lunch cafeteria of the Penang Adventist Hospital - first floor All types of curries, Chinese, etc for only about $2