Saturday, October 22, 2011

Malaysia Day 3: Penang: The Pearl of the Orient

Northern neighborhoods of Georgetown with high-rise condominiums

Blog Entry #38: Penang: The Pearl of the Orient

Friday, October 21, 2011

KOMTAR skyscraper over traditional 2-story buildings 
Following two days of largely driving through and around Penang on SAS trips, Pat and I were excited to finally have a leisurely day to ourselves to walk historic Georgetown.  First on our agenda, however, was a visit to the massive shopping malls beneath the 65-story KOMTAR building where I hoped to replace my tennis shoes that I inadvertently donated to the locals at the Taj Mahal.

Inside the KOMTAR shopping mall
This proved more challenging than I had anticipated: apparently there is very little market in Malaysia for size 12 running shoes.  Rather than drag Pat through 7 levels of this massive shopping center, I deposited him at the local Starbucks with an English language newspaper (headline: Gaddafi killed in Libya), while I scoured the mall for shoes.  I eventually found one shoe store that had exactly one size 13 pair of running shoes – success!  I am now breaking them in for our upcoming trip to the temples in Cambodia.

Penang is an ethnically diverse city with a fascinating population that has seen it mix together peoples from Asia and Europe for several centuries.  Wikipedia has an excellent overview for any of you wishing to read more about it (  Claimed by the British in 1786, Penang was an important link in the international spice trade through the strategic Strait of Malacca that separates the Malay Peninsula from the island of Indonesia to the west and south. 

Penang Town Hall
Penang City Hall
At the turn of the century Penang was a strategic center of planning by Sun Yat Sen, who carried out his successful 1911 overthrown of the Manchu dynasty in China following the Penang Conference in 1910.  Penang we attacked by a German ship during World War I, and invaded and occupied by Japan during World War II.  It was fascinating to see remnants of each of these and many other historic events recorded in the streets of Georgetown.

The 14 provincial flags in the Malaysian sun
Malaysia gained its independence from Great Britain in 1957 as the Federation of Malaya, following a brutal occupation by the Japanese during World War II and a subsequent armed insurgency by the Malay Communist Party against the British.  It was constituted as the current state of Malaysia in 1963.  The Malayan flag adopted elements of the US flag, with 14 red and white stripes and a 14-pointed sun to represent the 13 provinces and the federal district, and the crescent moon to represent Islam.

Kapitan Kelling Mosque, Georgetown
Kuan Yin Goddess of Mercy Chinese Temple
Yap Clan Chinese Temple
Malaysia is the second Muslim-majority country we are visiting on our voyage after Morocco, and is shows how Islam, like other world religions such as Buddhism and Christianity, has adapted to different home cultures.  Very different from Arab and Berber dominated Morocco, Malaysia has Islam as its official religion yet its constitution also guarantees freedom of religion.  Roughly 60% of the population is Muslim, though ethnically Penang divides almost equally between ethnic Malay (43%) and Chinese (42%), and 10% Indian.  Hence within blocks of each other in Georgetown are Islamic mosques, Buddhist Temples, Chinese pagodas, Hindu Temples, and Anglican churches.  It is a rich polyglot of ethnicities and religions, and tolerance is stressed greatly and seems largely to work.
Vendor at Kuan Yin Temple

Little India
Hindu Temple in Little India
After fleeing the KOMTAR mall, Pat and I headed to Little India, a several block neighborhood where Penang’s Indian population is concentrated.  Immersed in preparation for the Hindu Deepvali Festival of Lights, Little India is a riot of color, sounds of Bollywood blaring from DVD outlets, and wonderful aromas from restaurants.  We had a delicious Indian lunch, so that in our limited time in Penang we had sampled Malay, Chinese, and Indian food, all with a distinctive Penang style.

Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Clocktower
Penang "Beetle Nut" sculpture & roundabout
By sunset we had to be back on the ship, headed north and west around Penang Island and then south toward the Strait of Malacca.  We are scheduled to “bunker” off Singapore to refuel tomorrow, and then two days later we reach Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam.  It will be hard to return to teaching classes again in the mean time!

No comments:

Post a Comment