Penang, Pinang


The minibus to Had Yai, the border of Thailand and Malaysia, picks me up before 7 am. The driver is surly and insists I sit in the back seat, which is quite uncomfortable with a broken head rest and no ability to recline. He probably is as poorly rested as I and needs a strong and sweet Thai coffee to whip himself into shape. I send him love after wanting to smack him in his face for being so rude. Sleep deprivation makes most unnecessarily ugly.

I sit next to an English guy who also is moved to the back. This is the first time in Thailand that I have experienced a discrepancy in treatment between the locals and tourists and for this, I must be grateful. Thais are so generous, compassionate, and friendly to all; hospitality is treated as an art.

The ride is about five hours or so before we change buses, the Malay driver also not in the best mood, and pass through Thai immigration and then Malaysian immigration and customs. Selamat tengahari, good afternoon Malaysia!

The whole process is quick yet messy. Cues are indistinguishable and no one is monitoring the screens as the baggage is passed through the scanners. The energy is as laid back as the authorities and the air is very humid and warm. It is 88 degrees Fahrenheit and feels like 101. As a summer born baby, I love it all.

Around 5 pm we cross over the bridge connecting the mainland to the island of Penang. I find the guesthouse called Roommates as per suggested a friend in Ton Sai and am greeted by a throng of men lounging outside on the front porch, enjoying cups of sweet milky tea in the late afternoon sun.

The hostel is immaculate, newly opened since February in a high-ceiling historic building. The beds are individual pods and have plump mattresses with white sheets, the stone floors lined with antique tiles. Gorgeous. The host is the most generous Chinese Malay man, holding my hand as he guides me through a detailed map of the area, marking the locations of interest with a red pen. He feeds me Indian trail mix, insisting I take the bowl in my hand as I walk out to explore the city. The other guys also invite me to join them for dinner, two Canadian Chinese men, one from Holland, a German, an Italian, and one from mainland Malaysia. There have been so many dudes surrounding me lately, I ponder where the ladies are at? I decide to sup alone, desiring to sight-see as well, and head out on to tramp through the colorful streets of Penang.

Penang is another world heritage UNESCO city and features the most eclectic mix of Asia, a perfectly harmonious mix of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. Skin color, hair texture, eye shape, body physique. It is all represented. The streets are lined with a few who look more traditionally Chinese, there are ladies dressed in traditional saris, women in modern jilbabs, men with Islamic caps, others are darker skinned beauties. Shops and restaurants and food carts include the equivalent variety. I feel like I am in the rainbow utopia of creation. And Malaysian people are all so kind.

It is a foodie paradise of Asian delights, a place where one can eat Southern Indian Thalis with chopsticks, halal meat with Chinese duck sauce, pad Thai and mango sticky rice with one’s hands. There are carts with exotic fresh fruit juices (sapodilla, sour mango, longan, lychee, dragon fruit, pomelo), tea stands where men pull the tea, mixing it back and forth in pots with sweetened condensed milk, nasi lamak (a national favorite of thick coconut rice) served with fried eggs with peanut and cuttlefish or stewed beef, curry mee/curry laksa (some form of thin rice noodle soup with a million ingredients), char kway teow (fried fat noodles with a dark sauce), cendol (a crazy colorful dessert of shaved ice with sweet coconut milk, slimy green rice jelly slivers, raisins, red kidney beans, boiled corn), fish head this and fish head that. I am told Malaysians in Penang in particular take eating as a favorite pastime and there is much truth to such statement.

I cook individual skewers of tofu in a communal hot pot, licking them up with three different sauces before tasting a cup of sweet lime juice over crushed ice at another throbbing night food market. Galactic yum.

I cry as I walk through the streets of Little India feeling as if I am again in New Dehli with deliciously loud mantra music, henna shops, sari and bangle bracelet stores, men making chapati. I feel so connected to the yogis/hindu gods, Ganesh in particular. A man makes me a masala chai and I smile from my belly. It tastes perfect.

At the garishly decorated Mahamariamman Temple, I am graced with all the deities of Hinduism as priests are performing pujas. I stay and send them all love. The temple was built in 1800’s and is the oldest Hindu temple in Georgetown. And when I take ten steps further, I am playing with Buddha under red Chinese lanterns. Yes, this is Penang.

At a corner tea stand I am lulled over by a man named Happy. He rides a motorcycle well and claims to be friends with the host of my hostel. Georgetown Penang is a small place, all is possible. He is accurately happy but probably from something more than sweet tea. I sit on one of the tiny plastic stools next to a girl from California.  Thank you goddess, thank you. She has returned to Penang for the last six months after completing a ten country in ten months tour guided by her call to serve. In Penang she works for an organization called the House of Prayer, a 24/7 community that seeks to spread the word of God (mostly the Jesus version). She runs several programs for women; her favorite part of her job is when she goes out to the bars and nightclubs to hang out with the sex workers just to make them feel loved and beautiful without having to provide any services in return. She empowers the women, shares a cocktail, and invites them into a sacred community. Aho sister. She is picked up by a friend after offering to tour me around the city any time I want. The bounty of love continues with two Malay men who insist I sit with them for a sweet tea. Masala chai and sweet tea in the evening…worthwhile sacrifices for sleep.

Back at my lavish hostel I chat with the Chinese host and his friends. The host feeds me sweet and salty plum tea (a secret recipe he has yet to divulge) and encourages the snacking of more Indian crispy curry sticks. I may not only love but look like Ganesh by the time I leave Penang. The rest of the gang of boys returns and we all lounge around in the common area, the two Chinese Canadians like elder friendly uncles who seek to assist my journey in all ways possible. Gratitude universe.

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