Penang, Saturday: finally playing tourist! 2/3/2007

HI everyone,

Saturday was a full rich day. In the morning I did a piano master class back at University Science Malaysia -- two high school and two university students, and a good-sized audience again combined high school and college age students, plus a few teachers and parents. It's so great to be able to work in English here -- everyone in Malaysia really learns English well, as it's required in the schools and the majority of schools teach at least part of the time in English. Good students, very responsive, and a great audience as well, they interacted really well when I drew them into the class, and laughed at my humor. So I think we all had a good and productive time.

After that was done, and also a quick interview for the university paper, I was finally free to be a tourist for a while! Until now I've been located near the University, in what is sort of the modern business section of the island; but the more colorful and interesting areas are elsewhere. Since my friends also live nearer the more interesting area, they had me change hotels -- I'm now on the 25th floor of a huge beautiful hotel, with the beach and ocean right outside my windows. Quite a view!

Anyway, we had delicious lunch at another Malaysian restaurant (I have to keep saying that, because there are a lot of different ethnic groups here, and of course they all have their ethnic cuisines; large and long-established Chinese population, the predominantly Muslim Malay native group; a big pocket of Indian; and scatterings of others. I don't know what all the Malaysian dishes I've been trying are called, but they are delicious -- Jason does have to order mild spices for me, but Yumi is equally tender, so I don't feel too badly. It's interesting just watching the food ordering process, too. He doesn't just order things off the menu, there's a long discussion first with the waiter about what to have for the primary dish, and then for each side dish another long exchange; usually they end up doing something that's not on the menu at all, or at least modified from what's printed. All of this is in Bahasa Malay, so I have no idea what they're saying. People here tend to speak several languages -- Bahasa Malay, very similar to Indonesian Bahasa, is the official Malay language, then everyone can speak English; and most people also speak at least one Chinese dialect if not 3 or 4. Talk about multi-lingual!

But I do ramble on! Sorry, it's just so interesting experiencing the life of another culture!

IN the afternoon, we visited Kek Lok Si, a very beautiful Buddhist temple high on a hill overlooking most of the island. It's the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, built just 100 years ago by a Chinese Buddhist priest who had immigrated here. The various temples, courtyards, other buildings are quite beautiful. Primarily in Chinese style, with bright reds and yellows dominant; there are three main prayer halls, one for Laughing Buddha, a very jolly fat gold-leafed image; a very beautiful huge teak Gautama Buddha, founder of the faith (incredible carved-stone columns and carved wood ornamentation throughout this hall); and one for Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy. Then there is the towering Pagoda, which combines Chinese architectural style on the lower levels, Thai in the middle, and a Burmese-style top. We climbed quite a few levels up and had great views of the city, but the stairs were so narrow that we decided not to go all the way up. Besides, we already climbed an impressive number of stairs getting to and around in the temple complex.

Besides all the beautiful architecture and decoration, Chinese New Year is just two weeks away, and the temple is getting ready. There were a lot of workers about, sprucing things up, and wonderful red and yellow Chinese Lanterns hanging everywhere! Ranks of them under all the walkway roofs, hanging from every archway frame, tiny strings of them wound into the trees and shrubs, etc. Delightful! We decided not to take the funicular to the top of the temple complex, where there is a towering (maybe 100-150 feet) statue -- another Buddha or some other figure, I'm not really sure. We had a good view of it from within the temple complex.

By the time we got back down the hill from the temple, it was late in the day (the shopping stalls were closing up, even!). We were pretty hot and tired from all that walking and climbing, so to fill the time before dinner we did a driving tour through some of the old districts of Georgetown (the main old town on the island, established by the British in the late 1700s). There is still a lot of Colonial architecture in evidence, and the ruins of the original Fort Cornwallis. Some old Christian churches, beautiful mosques, gaudy Indian temples, more rarely a Taoist Chinese temple; quite a melting pot! We drove through Little India, a maze of incredibly narrow streets lined with shops; had to roll down the car windows to get the full effect, because the scents of incense and strong curry inundate the area, as does the loud Indian music that blasts from almost every shop. And virtually everyone shopping and eating there was Indian. Then drove through Chinatown as well, much more quiet, but also old and interesting. Chinatown is where the backpackers go -- cheap hotels, cheap food, cheap entertainment all available in a very walkable distance.

Victor joined us for dinner at a fun place called The Loft, at the top of another big shopping mall (Malaysians love huge shopping malls, because they can stay in out of the heat). This was similar to a place I experienced in Bangkok, a huge food court with wonderful islands offering all types of Asian cuisine. I stayed with Malaysian, and had delicious roast duck with traditional noodles and wonderfully flavorful marinated mushrooms.

And then, a Night Market. Interesting, but I actually didn't buy a thing. I'd forgotten what it was like in Bangkok, until I was at this one. Unlike the daytime stalls, the night markets seem to specialize only in knock-off goods and bootleg media -- couldn't even find a nice souvenir-type t-shirt, all they had was things like Pepsi logos, Disney characters, and the like. But it's still interesting to see and hear all the people shopping and hawking.

After that we did finally call it a night! As I said, a full day! Now it's Sunday morning, and I will be meeting up with Yumi soon to visit the Blue Mansion, a very special Chinese traditional house-museum, said to be the most highly decorated Chinese house outside of China itself. And then other things in the afternoon.

I hope this isn't too endless for everyone. Sorry, once I get started describing something, I find it hard to stop!

Love to all,


Last updated 12/07. Copyright 2007 by Richard C. Morenus. Questions? Send email to