Friday, January 21, 2011

Winter Vacation: Penang

As we landed in KL, the pilot came on the announcement contraption to welcome us to Malaysia, give us the current weather report (music to my ears) and (his voice dropped in pitch) "to warn you that drug trafficking in Malaysia carries the mandatory minimum sentence of death."

It sounded like it should have been a joke, but was in fact not. I forgot all that as I stepped out the plane doors onto the movable staircase. Ahahaha. Warm humid air hit me in the face, instantly beginning my poor dried-up skin's [temporary] recovery. It smelled like Florida in springtime. Jackpot and a half.

We deplaned and indulged in some Dunkin' Donuts (Miriam is from Boston, so she lost her shit as soon as she saw that sign) for breakfast. Then we navigated the somewhat frustrating (but laid-back) task of checking our bags and getting to our next flight toward Penang. It was a short trip, and then we were wandering outside an airport half under construction looking for the bus stop. We eventually found it with help from a Singapore-dwelling Croatian. Once on the bus, we realized we had no idea quite how to get where we were going. Luckily, every person on the bus was friendly and helpful. One guy offered to go with us all the way to Batu Ferrenghi, and one lady showed us where to change buses by physically walking us to the right platform. Once on the platform, a bus transit worker came to make sure we had everything we needed.

After we changed buses, we really had no idea how to get to our hotel, so we ended up getting off the bus a stop or two early. It was raining, by then, we still had our stuff in tow, and all the restaurants at that particular intersection looked closed. It was beginning to be frustrating.

Our plan became, let's stop and get lunch, then get a cab to the hotel. But the restaurants were all closed, and I refused to eat at KFC when we were in friggin Malaysia. I spotted a food-stall apparatus by the road and with a bit of encouragement, my traveling companion agreed.

The food was glorious. It cost 7 ringgit (so around two bucks?) and was a symphony of flavors. A nice lady guided us through the buffet line, pointing out which items were not-spicy (perhaps less than 50%). The curry pineapple was what I remember best.

From Winter Vacation Part II: Penang

With renewed spirits, we got to our hotel. It had, as I would discover many thing in Malaysia to have, the look and feel of something that is old, but well kept. It was our splurge hotel ($50 a person for two nights), so fancy they didn't even make us pay up front..! We unloaded our stuff, took a freaking shower, and then boarded a bus back into Georgetown. Between Batu Ferrenghi and Georgetown, the price was 2.70 ringgit, or close to a dollar.

From Winter Vacation Part II: Penang

Baba Nonya Museum House.. closed.

In Georgetown, the museums we wanted to see were closed, but all the little shops were open. Georgetown was a dream, full of balmy air, scents of food and incense, bright colors, and cheap goods. Well okay, mostly that was Little India.

From Winter Vacation Part II: Penang

Actually this is in Chinatown, but either way, those are some giant incense sticks.

Miriam and I just sort of wandered around, sort of following the Georgetown walk outlined in the Lonely Planet book. We had no idea when the sun would set, but were merely glad it stayed out past 5pm. We happened to be standing just near this Mosque around sunset, and we heard the voice broadcast from the mosque. I filmed a little, but the quality of tone doesn't really carry well from the video. It was a pretty magical moment.

From Winter Vacation Part II: Penang

After dark, we ate Indian food on a corner of Little India, which was only partially a mistake, given the low tolerance for spicy food with which I was endowed by my creator..

After that, we wandered a bit more before heading back to our sweet hotel (Bayview Beach Resort, in case you're planning) for the night.

The next morning started with hotel breakfast buffet, which happily included all manner of things. My favorite part was the fruit bar, because at some point while walking past one of the plentiful fruit market stalls in Georgetown, I had thought wistfully, man it would be cool to get a bunch of fruit of all different kinds, and then make a big pile, and then eat it. At breakfast, I didn't even have to cut it up for myself! There was also excellent coffee, tea, curry, museli, and all kinds of breakfast-style breakfast (I guess "Continental style".. eggs and bacon etc) and also non-breakfast-style breakfast (see: Japan's liberal use of rice, salty fish, pickles, etc. FOR BREAKFAST). Oh and we were on the veranda by the garden and pool. In the warm (but not hot) morning air. It was pretty much bliss. I felt like I was at that moment ruining my future honeymoon (if I choose to get married) because it really could not be better than that. It was cool and also weird to be sharing all this with Miriam instead!

From Winter Vacation Part II: Penang

We went back to Georgetown promptly so we could visit the Penang Museum, a nicely displayed setup detailing a lot of historical and cultural stuff. We skipped the Baba-Nonya house, because we had too much to do. This was to be our beach-relaxing day as well as the day we visited Kek Lok Si, the big temple south of town.

We grabbed lunch in a little cluster of stalls, fried rice and coconut or sugarcane drinks. It was (chant along if you like) very cheap and very delicious.

Well Kek Lok Si did not disappoint. I wore a thin sweater for modesty's sake, but the clouds had scattered and it was hot as frick. The temple was completely unlike any Buddhist temple in Japan, as you may remember from any pictures I have.. Horyuji is a decent and recent example. Seriously. Brown wood for Buddhist Japan. Not so for China! And all things Chinese-style. The temple was instead very brightly colored, and coated in paper lanterns for the upcoming (Feb. 4th?) Asian New Year.

From Winter Vacation Part II: Penang

We explored the area and took a ton of photos, and I bought a prayer candle because I think if you put energy into good intentions, you should do that in front of any statue, and if you have a chance to represent it with a physical (see: ritualistic) action, then by all means! Plus my ringgits went toward the construction that is ongoing at the temple, putting a roof over the big goddess of mercy statue up top. And she is cool, and I am totally behind mercy.

From Winter Vacation Part II: Penang

One other cool thing I remember was being in the temple shop at the top, and a priest(? monk?) came in, robed in saffron and vermilion. He sang or hummed along to the music being played while he looked around, bought something, and went outside. When I went outside I saw him again and he smiled at me. I might just be projecting, but those guys always seem pretty self-possessed and happy when I encounter them.

One harrowing cab ride later, we were back at the hotel, ready to sunscreen and relax as hard as we could. We negotiated with the beach, but found it kind of noisy and full of ATVs and jetskis for hire. I fell asleep reading Murakami by the pool. Our hotel had one of those sunken bars-in-the-pool, as well as a meditation pool which I stood for about 6 minutes.

As darkness fell, M and I got reflexology massages under the palm trees in the gathering dark. My lady didn't speak a lot of English, but M's told her all about her back and stomach problems (true and true), then predicted that she'd have four children one day.

We eschewed our earlier plan of going farther down for the night market and settled for going next door to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner. I could go for a decent, non-Japan burger, I decided. But it turned out to be our most overpriced and least awesome food of the whole week. Eating decision fail! We were quite sleepy, though, so we retired, and in the morning, a driver was called to take us to the airport.

Our driver was actually kind of interesting. He provided water, for one thing, and spoke very good English. He was a real professional driver, not just a taxi, and said he did by-car tours up into Thailand and down through other parts of Malaysia as well. Sometimes families or older people especially liked to travel that way, see more of the country, hear the guy's information. He told us about how he'd driven the US Admiral stationed at Okinawa, when he visited Malaysia. He also told us that he often drove for Michael Dell when he came in for business. Softspoken guy, apparently, and frequently engaged in his laptop when seated in the car.

Then, we were at the airport, in line for Singapore.

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