Saturday, January 9, 2010

I'm really glad we didn't go home

We've been in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia for five days, and I now know where I'd live if I won the lottery. Penang is a fairly large island on the east coast (a 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland) of Malaysia that was obtained by the British East India Company in the late 18th century. It has a long history as a trading and shipping port and has a really interesting multicultural feel. The Brits brought people from China and southern India to work for them, and the old town still has vibrant Chinese and Indian sections as well as what is called Baba Nyonya (the Chinese settlers who intermarried with the Malay locals). The food is fabulous (Colin keeps admonishing me for hiding the glorious flavors of Indian food from him all these years), and the architecture and colors remind me alot of the Caribbean, as does the rather relaxed attitude of the people.
Neither one of us knew what to expect when we arrived, and we were both really surprised by the abundance of EVERYTHING modern here. Not only do they have an affordable public transport system that would make any major US city proud, but the tap water is also drinkable. We went to the MALL (they even have a Starbucks, but I like the local coffee better) and saw Avatar one evening (in English with Malay and Chinese subtitles). We also noticed that we could purchase the dvd of Avatar from several stores (hmmm... who knew it was available for home viewing already- I wonder what the copyright folks would have to say about that).
There is so much to do here- one day we took the bus to Penang Hill (elevation 800 metres), which was where the upper crust built their homes in the Victorian era because of its significantly cooler temperatures. I got to take my very first funicular ride there- it's a two stage deal with a stop and change of cars halfway up the hill. It wasn't the most exhilarating ride ever, but it was a scenic one. At the top are gardens, temples, a hotel, walking paths, beautiful vistas of the island and the sea, and... the biggest spiders I have seen in my life. The thorax on one of them was a big as my thumb, and the leg span must have been longer and wider than my palm. Fortunately, they seem to build their webs out of hair's way, so no shrieking was done (by me, anyway). We also spent parts of two days doing a walking tour of the old city, taking in the Penang State Museum, with its historical overview of the island and its settlers, Fort Cornwallis, the Chinese clan houses, Hindu temples, and Muslim mosques, enjoying and absorbing the atmosphere as we went. Yesterday we took the bus to the beach at Batu Ferringhi, about 15km from town. It is, by far, the cleanest beach we've been to in SE Asia. They have TRASH CANS, which is quite novel in this region of the world, and people use them instead of just dropping things wherever when they get tired of carrying them. The sand is the largest grain I've seen, but it brushes off your feet easily and makes a good exfoliant. We did get a bit pink, even slathered thoroughly with sunscreen (I forget we're only about 6 degrees from the equator).
As I said before, the food here is terrific. I could happily stay just to eat! We've tried a bunch of different Indian and Chinese meals, not knowing what to expect (even though I can read the words, they don't mean anything in my realm of experience), and everything is delicious. For those of you who like to paddle in your food, you should try a banana leaf meal (see the photo of Colin) next time you're at the Taj Mahal.
Anyway, I think we'll probably be here for another couple of days since the nice people at the border allow us to stay for up to 90 days, so there's no need to hurry. When we were in Bangkok, getting frustrated by our inability to get on a train and by the crowds of people, we both thought pretty seriously about heading home. I am really glad we persevered, because this was definitely worth the trouble!

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