The Pearl of the Orient

Day 58
Penang, Malaysia

Thousands of miles from the Pearl of the Adriatic sits the Pearl of the Orient, or the Malaysian state of Penang. The largest town on this island is Georgetown, whose British architecture and old street names harbor back to a colonial past. It’s worth noting again the strong sense of diversity you feel in a place like this — is it possible to define the Malaysian national identity? — and how remarkably well all of these different people appear to co-exist.

With only one day here, we hit the ground running early. Our first stop was Penang Hill, the tallest vantage point on the island at 821 meters. An ancient Swiss-built funicular from 1923 crawled us to the top in just over a half hour. The incline was steep and the 5 degree celsisus drop in temperature once at the summit, much welcomed.

While at the top, we stopped in a small restaurant for some nourishment. My gutsy roommate, noting the abundance of locals eating the same dish, ordered a Malaysian Ice Cream Sundae. It arrived with just about every ingredient but the kitchen sink — including beans, corn, nuts, licorice, fruit — and tasted as you would expect: like complete garbage.

Once back on the ground, we took a local bus a couple of stops to Kek Loksi Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Sitting atop the hillside at Air Itam, the temple was constructed in 1890 — it took 20 years to complete, and today, perpetual additions (a la Sagrada Famiglia) continue.

We walked back through a maze of market vendors, where a deck of knock-off Uno cards caught my eye among Buddha statues and other tourist schwag. After some negotiating, they were in my pocket for 3 ringgit, about $1USD. The day’s heat and humidity had left us dehydrated and drenched, so after a water refill, we grabbed taxis to Batu Ferringhi, or “Foreigner’s Rock.” This is a pleasant beach about 30 minutes from Georgetown, and while it doesn’t even come close to comparing to Thailand, it does offer a relaxing getaway — as well as views of my burgeoning flip-flop tan.

There’s a constant tout for water sports on the beach so we finally conceded to a banana boat ride. We jumped into the warm Strait of Melaka, climbed aboard an inflatable banana and were pulled briefly out to sea before our motorboat starting smoking and promptly went dead. Detaching us to float freely in the sea, our driver said another boat would return to pick us up. The two women in headscarves behind me glanced around nervously. “Maybe we could swim,” I joked. “We don’t swim,” they replied.

Alas, another boat soon arrived to take us on our bouncy 10-minute ride. The skies opened, which didn’t make much of a difference, and we headed back to the hotel, feeling remarkably cool and refreshed. For dinner, we walked to Little India, a section of Georgetown that felt as though we were in Mumbai. The ensuing feast of butter chicken, mixed vegetables in a curry sauce and garlic nan was much welcomed and quite delicious — and not only because it’s the first Indian food I’ve had in two months.

Another big travel day awaits us tomorrow when we take a 7-hour public bus to the Cameron Highlands. Can you sense my excitement?

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