Sunday, June 3, 2012

Happily Surprised by Penang

Before we arrived in Malaysia, I assumed that Eric and I would be making a quick trip through the country.  We'd spend a few days in Penang, maybe see the Cameron Highlands for a couple days, maybe some islands on the east coast, and then we'd make a quick stop in Kuala Lumpur before flying to Indonesia or northern Thailand.  Even though Malaysia kindly gives tourists a free ninety day visa, I figured we'd only be in the country for a couple weeks.
A relaxing setting outside a restaurant
This is actually how I always pictured the British experience of colonialism,
plus a couple of gin and tonics.
It's been eleven days and I have no plans to leave.  After booking a hostel for three nights in Georgetown, Penang, we extended our stay for a full week.  I have fallen for Malaysia completely. 

In Penang, the British, Indian, Chinese and Arab influences are apparent in the architecture, the temples and mosques, and the food.  Little India is bustling with people going from restaurants to movie stores to shops selling gorgeous dresses while music blasts into the streets.  Chinatown seems to encompass a majority of the old city, with Chinese characters marking stores of all kinds.  Five times a day, the Muslim call to prayer echoes over the city.

Exterior of a Chinese-style temple
Inside a Chinese-style temple on the main road
The labeled tablets honor ancestors who have died. Each represents a husband and wife.
Exterior of the mosque in the center of the old city
The old city of Georgetown is protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.  The heritage area and a buffer zone surrounding it are maintained by careful zoning codes.  New buildings and renovations are strictly regulated to preserve the historical feel of the city.  Perhaps because of this, the look of buildings in the heritage zone varies significantly.  New, bright buildings sit next to run-down townhouses.  The contrast adds to the city's charm, showing both its past and present at once.

The Art and Tea building contrasts with its neighbors.
I love the contrast between the "Penginapan Modern Hotel"
and the massive Eastern Oriental Hotel behind it.

Laundry day
Shutters on a side street
I'm not sure if I'm more concerned about the meaning of "Laundry" service
or what would happen if I signed up for the "Penang Island" Tour.
While the buildings in the heritage zone reflect colonial era British architecture, the rest of Georgetown is decidedly in the twenty-first century.  When some friends mentioned they were headed to the movies at a mall one evening, Eric quickly looked up show times for "The Avengers," a film he's been looking forward to for months.  We arrived at the mall with plenty of time before the screening, and I was happy we did.  Walking in to the seven-story air conditioned jumble of stores and kiosks, I began to wonder if the entire population of my hometown could comfortably shop there at once.  Once we got directions to the theater, we rode up five escalators, purchased tickets (two for less than the cost of a matinee in the US!) and settled in to watch some avenging.  

Later, we learned that this was one of three attached malls and a fourth was nearly completed fifteen minutes away.  Somehow there was more shopping to be done.  Penang is one of the great tourist destinations that doesn't completely rely on tourism.  The island was clearly busy with other industries, giving it a more vibrant feel than an island that depends on beach-goers and resorts.

One of the three attached malls - I can't think of a more modern shopping center.
Penang Times Square, the newest mall, is half-filled with shops.
Soon, the massive entertainment center will be finished.
I'm still amazed that the island of Penang can support so many stores.
As regular readers of this blog know, trying different food is one of my favorite parts of travel.  Georgetown didn't disappoint.  From the food stalls to the restaurants, I ate incredibly well in Penang.  Eric and I made our daily lunch stop at a samosa stand in Little India.  I tried biryani, a spiced rice dish.  I also had sushi for the first time in months, enjoyed several pork and rice meals, and ate delicious Malaysian noodles.

Biryani in a little clay pot
Clay pot rice with chicken, a Chinese dish

Not pictured: samosas, because every day I devoured them before I remembered to take a photo
Eric and I have been trying to identify what makes Malaysia different from the other countries we've visited so far.  The best explanation we've come up with is that we haven't had to say, "I like this, but...," which happened almost everywhere else we've stayed.  I just like it here.

Phone booths on Love Lane
Where have been your favorite places to travel?
What makes you like a place more than others?

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