Epicurean Traveler: Penang, Malaysia

By: Tracey Teo

In a prayer hall at Kek Lok Si, “The Temple of Supreme Bliss,” I stood rooted to the cool lotus blossom tiles beneath my bare feet, awestruck by an array of enormous golden Buddha statues that seemed to be simultaneously meditating and welcoming me with a secret, benevolent smile. Built in the 1890s in the Malaysian state of Penang, an island off the northwest coast in the Malacca Straits, this sprawling Buddhist temple complex is among the largest in Southeast Asia and a testament to Muslim Malaysia’s tolerance of other faiths. It’s a maze of rooms, towers, pagodas and gardens, so every time I thought I had seen it all, I would stumble across something new. After a morning of sightseeing in the inferno-like heat of this tropical country, the relative coolness of this shaded oasis built into Penang Hill was enough to put me in a Nirvana-like state.

I was wondering if there was an English translation somewhere for the Chinese message engraved on the prayer hall pillars when a saffron-robed monk with a shaved head floated in as quietly as a butterfly alighting on a flower. He was followed by a somber group cloaked in black.

I retreated to a corner and waited expectantly. The aura of the place had changed subtly with their entrance. The gods seemed to gleam brighter, like the sun suddenly emerging from a cloud.

The monks began to chant, and I was spellbound by the ritual. Their hauntingly beautiful prayer, punctuated by the dulcet tones of a bell and the striking of a drum, reverberated throughout the temple. It began as gentle as the soft patter of rain on bamboo, but the pace of the hypnotic rhythm eventually became quicker and urgent, a sonorous invocation as powerful as the crashing of waves on rocks.

Silence.

The monks swept out as soundlessly as they entered. The spell was broken.

I asked my husband, Wesley, a naturalized American citizen born and raised in Malaysia, if he could give me any insight into the meaning of the prayer, but he could offer little. He is ethnic Chinese, but his family is Christian, not Buddhist.

We snapped a few photos of the impressive seven-story Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas, then concluded our temple visit by taking the Sky Lift uphill to view a newer section of the complex that houses the 90-foot statue of Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy.

 

Penang Street Food

It was well past lunch time, and Wesley and I were famished. We made the short trip back to our base in George Town, the capital of Penang and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and headed to the CF Hawker Centre, a food court of sorts that specializes in Penang’s legendary street food. The tantalizing aroma of a million different spices hit us the minute we walked in the door.

It was a niece’s wedding that brought us to Penang, and while planning our trip, Wesley talked incessantly about the comfort food of his childhood: big bowls of steaming oxtail soup, skewers of chicken satay served with peanut sauce, piles of fluffy noodles, endless curries, and, of course, asam laksa, a wicked-spicy fish and rice noodle soup seasoned with chili and sour tamarind – one of Penang’s most famous dishes.

Street food is common throughout Asia, but for me, Penang’s fare is second to none. There are several reasons it’s superior to that of its neighbors. First, the island has a unique cultural amalgam comprising native Malay, Indians and the Chinese, who account for the majority in this part of the country. Each ethnic group has contributed its culinary best, in some cases fine tuning the recipes of other ethnicities to suit their own palate, resulting in novel flavors found nowhere else. Second, most of these “hawkers,” or food sellers, only serve one dish, so they have perfected it. Lastly, competition is fierce.

Wesley and I roamed through the CF Hawker Centre, passing signs in Chinese and English that advertised clay pot frog porridge, fish head curry, and a number of other exotic offerings.

You can eat like a king in Penang without putting a dent in your budget. Two people can enjoy a satisfying lunch of street fare for less than five U.S. dollars. It’s so cheap, I never hesitated to try something new. If I didn’t like it, I just pitched it and went to the next hawker stall.

I finally decided on fried mee, spongy egg noodles mixed with shrimp, bean sprouts, and green onions. It was served with a side of sambal, a chili pepper-based sauce that I added in small dabs to make sure it didn’t get too hot to handle.

After slurping up every bit of his soup, Wesley announced he was ready for dessert – meaning ice kachung. This Malaysian shaved ice dessert is sort of like a snow cone in a bowl, but instead of being drizzled with a fruit-flavored syrup, it’s sweetened with condensed milk and is chock-full of red beans and corn.

I know. Who wants veggies in their dessert, right?  I don’t get it, but Wesley couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

Another thing he couldn’t get his fill of was durian, a bizarre, spiky fruit the size of a football that emits an odor about as inviting as a sewage treatment plant. You either love it or hate it. I’m in the hate it camp. The stench is so powerful, it’s actually banned in some hotels and other public places.

Penang has many fruits that are unfamiliar to the average American, and unlike the notorious durian, most are luscious tropical ambrosia that make it nearly impossible to go back to mundane apples and oranges in the U.S. My favorite is mangosteen, a fruit with a hard purple shell that, when opened, reveals delectable snow-white segments of sweet, floral-scented flesh.

 

George Town Attractions

After lunch, we took our full bellies to Fort Cornwallis, built in 1793 on the spot where Captain Francis Light first landed in 1786. The founder of Penang claimed the tiny fishing village for the British East India Company, setting the stage for the strategically located island to become a thriving maritime trading hub.

A bronze statue of Light stands near the fort entrance. Wesley and I checked out several of the old cannon and toured the only remaining buildings, a gun magazine, and a small Christian chapel.

Afterwards, we aimlessly strolled George Town’s colonnaded porticos that lead to Chinese “shop-houses” and admired the dilapidated, yet charming architecture – remnants of the city’s colonial past.

On Muntri Street, I was startled to see a larger-than-life, pig-tailed girl in blue hovering over me like some kind of Asian superhero. The mural “Kungfu Girl” depicts a Chinese child balancing herself on two pre-existing awnings in preparation for a big kung fu kick. It’s just one of several examples of the whimsical street art that adorns the exterior of many of George Town’s historical buildings.

Before long, we were as parched as the pavement, so I stopped for a sweet iced coffee served in a plastic bag (just as good as Starbucks and a fraction of the price). Wesley bought a fresh coconut and sipped the water through a straw.

We got a big kick out of a guided tour of the Blue Mansion, a boutique hotel in the heart of George Town that was once the private residence of Cheong Fatt Tze (1840-1916), a Chinese tycoon with a poignant rags-to-riches story. The 38-room architectural marvel built around five courtyards features intricate Chinese timber carvings, Art Nouveau stained glass, Chinese porcelain, and Gothic louvered windows – a melding of European and Asian influences. Cheong lived here with his eight wives and concubines and a team of servants.

 

Our tour guide told the tale of beautiful Wife Number Seven, Cheong’s favorite, who was about 50 years his junior. Their union resulted in the birth of a son when Cheong was well past 70. Wesley and I exchanged knowing glances, and I suppressed a giggle. We have a May-December romance of our own, but no children together.

 

I elbowed him and whispered, “I would never settle for being Wife Number

Seven no matter HOW rich you were.” Wesley grinned and said he was pretty content with one wife. Good answer, Honey.

 

Little India

I’m a bit of a fashionista, and no way was I leaving Penang without a custom made evening gown from Little India, an ethnic enclave where the reverberations of the latest Bollywood soundtrack pummel you in the chest, fragrant flower garlands hang in shop windows, and the intoxicating aroma of cumin and coriander wafts from shopping bags carried by women donning elegant saris.

A shop with brilliantly-hued clothing displayed on the sidewalk lured me inside. It was sauna-hot, and the air was so heavy with incense, I felt lightheaded. I soon forgot my discomfort.

We were greeted by an ebony-haired woman in a Punjabi suit who looked cool and fresh. I dabbed at the perspiration on my brow with a crumpled tissue. I told her why I was there, and she got to work pulling fabric from the shelves, her gold bracelets jangling with every deft movement.

Silks in every color of the rainbow were heaped on the counter. Showing customers everything in the store instead of asking what they want seems to be the norm here. I was so overwhelmed by the pile of dazzling silks, I couldn’t make a decision, so I said nothing. She took my silence to mean I needed to see more. I guess she was right, because when she brought out a turquoise and jade silk embroidered with beads and sequins, I caught my breath. Wesley saw the look on my face and asked the price.

“What?” he said incredulously, as though she had asked for his first born child.

“Very good quality,” she said.

“Too much,” Wesley insisted.

“I have cheaper,” she said, reaching for a lower quality fabric.

“No, no. We want THIS one.”

I walked away and let them haggle. Bargaining is a part of Malaysian culture that is baffling to most Americans, but expected here.

They finally agreed on a price. I was ushered upstairs where a team of tailors got to work making a dress that would be ready the next day.

As our stay in Penang came to end, I realized I was going home with much more than a new dress; I was leaving with a new perspective on my husband’s homeland. Initially, I found Penang to be chaotic and bewildering, but I had gained enough insight into the culture to thoroughly appreciate this unique corner of Southeast Asia and to look forward to a future visit.

 

Where to Stay:  

Shangri-la’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

Batu Feringgi Beach, Penang, 11000, Malaysia

www.shangri-la.com/penang/rasasayangresort/

 

Where to Eat:  Penang is known for its street food, so skip the white tablecloth restaurants and try the hawker centers, a collection of stalls that sell delicious, inexpensive local delicacies.

 

 

 

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