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Culture and Cuisine: Welcome to Penang

My stomach dictates a good deal of my life choices and this time around, I’m glad that was the case. Penang, Malaysia is a culinary capital — a crossroad where Malay, Indian, Indonesian, British, and Chinese traders passed through and live(d). This intersection of cultures and cuisines is at the heart of the island of Penang. The name Penang comes from the word pinang in Malay, which means areca nut palm. And when something is named after food, it’s a good sign.

George Town: The Old World

Penang is about a two-hour flight from Jakarta. It is located off of the mainland of Malaysia and there is a 13.5 kilometer bridge linking Penang to the mainland, here it is on a map. We had a nice view of the bridge from the Princeton in Asia fellow’s apartment where we stayed. When you land there is a handy information desk with city maps and a public bus that for less than a dollar will take you almost anywhere on the island. Oh, Indonesia, if only you had information desks and easily accessible clean buses. My one transportation complaint with Penang is you are never sure how long you’ll have to wait for a bus and taxis are few and far between. Cabs don’t have meters so you have bargain for a price and the cabbies aren’t willing to budge too much. Malay is pretty similar to Indonesian, so we were able to barter in Indonesian.

Our first stop of the day was George Town, the old colonial hub of Penang, where there are many historic buildings and plenty of streets to wander.

Although George Town is the historic center, it is still very much alive with markets and street vendors and the chores of daily life. It is a great place to spend a good part of a day wandering, looking, and eating.

The mix of cultures also means a mix of religions. There are several mosques in George Town. This one is the Kapitan Keling Mosque and it is the largest historic mosque in George Town dating back to 1801. My handy map tells me it was designed in the Moghul architecture style. Since there are also large Buddhist and Hindu populations in Penang, the call to prayer is nowhere as loud as it is in Jakarta.

Chloe and I wandered the Little India section of George Town near King Road. The smell of curry hung in the air and vendors with delicious-looking samosas tempted us. Don’t worry, I will write a separate post all about the food.

Town Hall is a remnant of the British colonial past and it was used as a backdrop in the movie Anna and the King.

There are many temples all over George Town, but many don’t open until later in the afternoon. The Hainan Temple was open, so we took a look around. The temple dates to 1866 and is dedicated to the goddess Mar Chor, patron saint of seafarers.

Inside the temple a gentle breeze rustled the bamboo and incenses burned. The whole atmosphere made me want to take a nap.

The one place we wanted to tour was the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as the Blue Mansion. A co-worker of mine had visited a few months back and stayed at the mansion, it is also a boutique hotel, and recommended the tour.

The mansion is an elegant building that let’s you imagine the old glory days of Penang. It was built for the Chinese merchant Cheong Fatt Tze in feng shui style. Cheong Fatt Tze was known as the “Rockefeller of the East” and was basically a 19th century jet-setter with homes all over Asia. He had several wives and concubines living at all of his different properties.

The tour was interesting, if a little historically dubious, but the mansion is worth a look. The mansion was also featured in the Catherine Deneuve film Indochine.

Kek Lok Si Temple

On our second day in Penang we took a cab to the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, Kek Lok Si, known as the Temple of Supreme Bliss. Temple construction began in 1890 and the “Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas,” pictured below, was completed in 1930. The temple was an odd mix of religion, history and gift shops. It was a bit kitschy to look at Buddha statues people were worshiping at and then pass through a gift shop where you can buy Buddhas before moving onto the next portion of the temple.

The temple is still incredibly impressive and I am glad we visited. Be warned that entrance to the main temple is free but entrance to the Pagoda and the tram up to the Kuan Yin statue cost 2 ringgit (63 cents) each.

People were hanging wishing ribbons inside the temples. Some were nice like “Family to be safe” and “Living together harmoniously” others were personal for business success like “Success in everything” or for test results “Favorable results.”

The Kuan Yin statue is huge and a bit scary to stand below. She is associated with compassion in Buddhism.

Even though the swastika is an ancient Sanskrit symbol, it is a bit odd seeing it and not thinking of Hitler.

Penang National Park

After more delicious food, we took the bus to the north-west corner of the island, past all the swanky beach-front resorts, to Penang National Park.

We walked out on the pier and sat and took naps and watched boats pass by and looked out at the floating homes.

It was great to take a swim in the ocean as the sun set (photo at top of post). There were beautiful tropical birds flying around and we saw jelly fish swimming in the water and crabs running about on the beach.

Speaking of nature, my last story in the Jakarta Globe was all about it, read it here.

I’m back in Jakarta now with a bit of a cold and a full work week ahead, but it was nice to get away and see another country.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Zoë #

    Ohhh man, construction has progressed a lot since the last time I stood in Kuan Yin’s shadow.

    Also, I am sooo jealous. I miss Penang!!

    December 6, 2011
  2. Looks like you had a great time!

    What was “historically dubious” about the tour at Cheong Fatt Tze?

    December 12, 2011
  3. Lydia #

    @Nate: our tour guide made many references and comparisons with American history that in my opinion were not accurate.

    December 12, 2011

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