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November 30, 2021

Venturing into Penang, Malaysia

By CARTER BANKER | March 28, 2012

As promised, this week I will be talking to you about the Pearl of the Orient, otherwise known as the island of Penang in Malaysia. Penang is most famous for being the home of Georgetown, a small colonial city known for its charm and delicious street food. I was skeptical that a place could be so well known for its street food, because after all, how hard is it to fry something? But then I met an Australian woman on the plane who was traveling with her family and told me that whenever she is in Asia, she always flies over to Georgetown for the weekend, solely for the food. Well there you have it folks!

I arrived in the afternoon and made my way to the Yeng Keng hotel. It is a small, renovated old colonial house right in the center of the city, which was perfect walking distance from everywhere that I wanted to go! One of the great things about the city is that it is so authentic. Sure there were tourists, but most of them were hippies (think dreadlocks and no shoes) and backpackers, so the tourist scene was very laid back. Also, the small hotels and hostels were interspersed with local houses.

The next day, I set out to explore the whole city on foot. According to my map, there was something to see on virtually every street, so I planned my walk to see as many streets as possible without repeating any. I wandered through Chinatown and Little India, but I didn't notice all that much difference between the two because there are so many different cultures that are present in the city and they all infringe on each other's space. For instance, I saw a mosque, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and a church all within a five to ten minute walk of each other. I can honestly say that I have never seen such a fantastic mix of cultures in my life. You could be walking down the street and see a beautiful old colonial house with Chinese lanterns hanging from the entryway, then pass a brightly colored Buddhist temple while hearing the call to prayer, and finally stop to eat in an Indian restaurant.

During my walk, I stumbled upon the old Protestant Cemetery. The scene was like something out of a movie. There were cracked, moss-covered tombstones covering the ground, some practically on top of each other, all under the shade of dozens of mangrove trees. It was quite a creepy sight. The plaque at the entrance to the site mentioned that the husband of Anne, from the story The King and I, was buried there. As I wandered around the cemetery reading the old tombstones, I discovered that many were missionaries. There was also a captain from Salem, Massachusetts! Many of the people in the cemetery had died very young and I realized that this was probably due to malaria.

Next, I came upon the clan jetties. Back in the 19th century, Penang was run by a bunch of Chinese family clans that were basically like the mafia. Each had their own clan house and a clan dock, which was where they did all of their trading and fishing.

Today, the clan jetties are basically long wooden docks with fishermen's houses on them. In the afternoon, I visited the most famous clan house in Georgetown - Khoo Kongsi. Once the most powerful family in the area, this clan owns an entire complex that spans the length of an entire street. It is no longer a mafia organization and from what I understand, the clan house now serves a mostly ceremonial purpose.

On my last day in Georgetown, I decided to explore the rest of the island of Penang. I first visited two Buddhist temples on the outskirts of the city. One of them contained a giant reclining Buddha with little cubbies underneath that were filled with people's ashes. That was a little creepy. On my way around the island, my taxi driver pointed out all of the new beach resort towns.

In the botanical garden, I proceeded to get attacked by yet another monkey (see my last column). I was taking a photo of it and then all of a sudden, without any warning, it charged at me at full speed while snarling. My boyfriend saved me with some quick thinking as he yelled really loudly, which stopped the monkey in its tracks. So I give you a word of warning: whenever you come across monkeys at tourist sites, DO NOT get close to them and DO NOT feed them. It has taken three close calls for me to learn this.

On a lighter note, that night I had a fabulous dinner back at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Sitting out by the water I felt like I could be back in the 19th century and sipping tea with British colonial elites!

To sum it all up, the Pearl of the Orient, which is fairly unknown among Americans, is an enchanting place where the past comes alive and is worth a visit if you are a history buff, a culture fanatic, or a Victorian romantic (just stay away from the monkeys)!

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