October 24 – November 7, 2016
At 16 years of age Mark remembers feeling sad that his best friend Fred returned to his home in Penang, Malaysia to spend high school summer vacation with family. Mark thought… “one day I need to see this place called Penang”. While Mark was out at parties, drive-ins, riding mountain and dirt bikes, hanging out with friends, he often wondered what Penang must be like. He and Fred wrote letters back and forth and Fred kept sending gorgeous postcards of cool buildings and beautiful beaches. Thirty-two years is a long time but good things come to those who wait.
We started this leg of the journey from Kuala Lumpur just hanging out and completing our stock up of incidental items unavailable in Bali. But unlike Chevy Chase in his wood paneled Ford Country Squire wagon in National Lampoons Vacation, we hop into a super comfy, ultra luxury Toyota minivan. Our vacation crew consists of high school best bud Fred, his lovely wife Doreen and their two adorable daughters, Hannah and Maya.
A 10″ video screen plays the finest Barbie movies! Who knew Barbie was a secret agent, gymnast and/or Princess? Super talented, Ken should totally hook up with her.
When I ask Hannah and Maya do you know how long I have waited for this, they cannot comprehend 30+ years. We hit the road playing games like “name an animal”.
Mark’s 48 (almost 49) year old bladder is the first one to require a stop. “Mom, Dad, I have to pee!” Darn old age, couldn’t even last longer than the young girls!
Five hours later and we are driving across the huge Penang bridge connecting mainland Malaysia to the island of Penang. Crossing the ocean provides glimpses of beautiful green hills framed with concrete high rises at their base.
While Malaysia is officially and predominantly Muslim, the Chinese population in Penang has remained mostly Buddhist including traditional, Thai, Burmese, Tibetan and Sinhalese. We love Buddhism. Penang has the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.
An interesting fact, by the middle of the 19th century, Penang had a large Chinese opium trade network. It was run by the Chinese mafia providing a truckload of revenue. It was a dangerous place to be complete with brothels and gambling venues. Doesn’t sound very Buddhist, does it?
Penang Island’s capital city Georgetown is a melting pot of cultures. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. English, Indian, Malay, Baba-Nonya and Chinese people combined with hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world get along peacefully in a city known for its very cool mid 1800’s to mid 1900’s clan houses. These houses built for families to live under one roof were built narrow, stretching an entire city block complete with ornate exteriors. We spend hours just walking around checking out the hundreds of clan houses.
Getting around Georgetown had its complications. One-way roads, many with two names (Malay and English), always had us double checking our paper maps, Google maps and MapsMe maps. But hey, that just added to the adventure.
The city of Georgetown is a proud sponsor of the arts. While walking around looking at clan houses, we are treated to numerous wall art paintings spread throughout the old town. A fantastic idea, it provides another huge attraction. A particularly beautiful piece adorns our lock and home screens on our travel phone.
One cannot speak of Georgetown and not mention the hundreds of food hawker restaurants. Places that look like they are not fit for storing boxes, these hawker stalls churn out delicious tasting, fresh and super cheap dishes such as Char Koay Teow, Nasi Kandar, Fried Oyster, Mee Goreng and Assam Laksa. Fred’s secret addiction… visiting these hawker restaurants after dark and sampling as many items as the tummy will hold. Right before bed!
Malaysia has an excellent incentive for foreigners who want to call Malaysia home. It is called, “Malaysia, My Second Home”. Just say the word, show a certain amount of money in your account (it is not huge) and Malaysia issues you a renewable ten-year visa! As a result, Georgetown’s unique blend of culture, amazing food, ocean and temperate climate make it home to a large ex-pat community.
These clan jetties are a waterfront society home to houses on stilts for various Chinese clans. Originally the area was a wood yard. The jetties are over a century old with the “Chew” and “Tan” jetties the oldest of seven clan homes. Fun fact, residents do not pay any taxes since they are not living on land.
While we stayed in an old, very cool, converted clan house in downtown Georgetown, our friends stayed at the oceanfront resort area called Batu Ferringhi. Known for its beaches and nice hotels, sadly, it was also a victim of the horrific tsunami in 2004. We were treated to an early birthday massage at the Hard Rock Hotel for Mark (Christine takes advantage of the opportunity) compliments of our friends! We are melted goo afterwards. A perfect ending to another great stopover in South East Asia.
A long time coming, Penang was a real treat.
The bonus… We will never look at Barbie the same way again!
Ho ho ho,
Merry Christmas everyone! Perhaps we meet in 2017!
Love and hugs,
Mark and Christine