Penang      Last Updated: 30-Oct-01 

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Bee Choo Lim, who worked with Roswitha in Intel Japan (and lived around the corner from Scott), is back working in Penang. She is one of the few people who can eat food as hot as Scott, and they have both shared stomach aches as the comparisons escalated. She has taught us to cook some Malaysian (and other SE Asian) cuisine, and Penang prides itself on its food, so this promises to be a major foodie event. She has been our host on the Island.

Saturday morning started with breakfast in the wet market, and then a stroll through it. The guy who roasts pigs had none left, but he insisted that Scott pose with some roasted chickens. (Some recognition of special kinship, I suppose.) There is a guy who "recycles" aluminium cans into cute little sculptures, and we knew that we were near his booth by the incessant "bip-bip-bip" of his array of alarm clocks. A wide array of fruits (mango, papaya, carambola, mangosteen, black coconut, rambutan, and of course, durian), leafy and root vegetables, spices and herbs, fish, crabs, prawns, and meats made a riot of smell, texture, and color. White-feathered chickens surprisingly appeared as black-skinned fryers. The market is divided by type of stall and food, and, while crowded, was well organized. Bee Choo kept running into friends, and was welcomed as a regular by many of the shop owners (or else they were just acknowledging the pair of red-haired monkeys she had in tow).

Look at the legs on those chickens!  Spiral-cut pineapple  Jackfruit  No clue  Weird Chinese vegetables  Washing bean sprouts  Black chickens  Chicken heads  Roosters at rest  Sauces and spices  Between two bellies  Tidying up 

We then moved on to the Chong Fatt Tze Mansion, a restored home of one of the more powerful Mandarins of China and SE Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century. He built a significant empire, and one of his last remaining homes is located here, where his seventh (and favorite) wife lived. After his death in 1916, the house slowly fell into disrepair. As ordained in his will, the house could not be sold until the death of his last son (in 1989). Thwarted from the risk of demolition by the rescue by three local (unrelated) Penang families, the house has been lovingly restored. They brought in craftsmen and experts from all over the world, staying faithful to the original techniques and styles, with the only changes being the addition of electricity and indoor bathrooms. Sixteen of the bedrooms have been converted to rooms for a B&B run in the house (to provide living financial support), and weddings and concerts are also performed in the mansion. Most striking about the house is the color - it is a deep indigo, imported from India. Our tourguide was Mrs. Loh, one of the people who purchased the house, and she described the history, state, and restoration in enthusiastic detail.

Indigo Blue - Following Feng Shui  Detail of colorful mosaics made from ceramic bowls 

After a quick check of email and page upload at a cybercafé, we visited a Thai Buddhist temple which houses the largest reclining Buddha in Penang, and an amazing collection of cremation urns. Many colors in a huge space, the temple was buzzing with activity. Right across the street is a Burmese Buddhist temple. It was more quiet and serene, and subdued in color, primarily white and gold.

Large reclining Buddha  Where are Scott's shoes?  Burmese Buddha 

In the evening, we drove up the winding coast road to Batu Ferenghi on the North end of the island, and entered the tourist zone. We started with chicken Satay and drinks at the posh Mutiara hotel, and then went to a small Indian restaurant. Scott further developed his theory of the chips-and-salsaification of the world's cuisines. There is a Pasar Malam (night market) along Batu Ferenghi, tuned to the tourist trade, with knock-off Rolexes, software, and perfumes. While there were a few artful and novel items, it was mostly crap, but, alas, not kitschy enough to find a souvenir for Johnny. We were also unable to find a fake Swatch.

Oh, the food! The food!
- With apologies to Col. Kurz

Sunday saw the continuation of the food fest, starting with dim sum right next door to the hotel at the Corner Club. While fairly typical, it was outstanding.

We then braved Penang traffic to go across town to the Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple which sprawls up the hillside West of Georgetown. The climb up the steps winds through tourist stalls crammed with people of many different cultures. We came to a surprising gazebo-like enclosure housing what looked like several thousand turtles, with finger-sized dime-store greens perched on the backs of soft-shelled behemoths. They looked well-enough fed, so we did not buy salad for them. According to Bee Choo, the temple has recently been extensively expanded, including a large room housing three golden Buddhas completed around 1995. Intricately carved granite columns match anything of antiquity, and the ornate detail and color were breathtaking. It is clear that this temple is well funded, and there are numerous shops within the temple grounds which no doubt contribute to its growth. I was not aware, however, that Pikachu (in the form of house slippers) was an important Buddhist icon. Behind the temple proper is a large Amida Buddha which has been the source of some controversy. Through some contorted metrics, it stands higher than the State Mosque down in Georgetown, so it has to be shortened by several feet. The goofy thing is that it seems to start from several hundred feet above the mosque, so there is some odd angle reference.

Pagoda (new) and Stupa (old)  Big and little   
   
Three gold Buddhas in new Pagoda  Granite column detail   

On the way down from the temple, we continued the quest for the correct Penang oil (nutmeg), Monkey brand. There are a number of shops with medicinal oils and salves, so we had to get the brand story from each. We also had to taste the pickled nutmeg, sweetened nutmeg, and avoid the Durian. (But don't worry, Durian lovers, we're bringing some paste - in hermetically sealed tubes.) At the bottom, we finally struck a deal (with help from Bee Choos's fine Intel-honed negotiation skills), but not for Monkey brand. We're having the oil shipped in our very own tanker ship. We also stopped at the bottom to cool down with Laksa and tall glasses of fresh-crushed sugar cane juice over ice.

We took a quick tour through the Penang free-trade zone, the economic engine which drives a significant part of the local economy. We saw plants for Intel, AMD, Seagate, Komag, Motorola, Hitachi, Toshiba, and many others from around the world before stopping at the Snake Temple. Built a long time ago, it quickly became overrun with poisonous snakes who were pacified by the incense. Unfortunately (or fortunately, according to some in our party), the industrial construction has blocked access to the snakes, so there are only a few remaining, coiled in bushes and on altars. Bee Choo remembers seeing large numbers of snakes years ago, but this has dwindled to just a few - we saw no more than a dozen sleeping around the altar, and three more at the Kodak corner ("Get your picture holding a poisonous snake!"). We also finally found the perfect souvenir for Johnny: His name on a rice grain in an amulet. (Johnny, try to be surprised, OK?)

We accept no liability  Yes, he's poisonous  Precision engineering 

We stopped in little India for Murtabak to look for spices, and then drove along the Esplanade (Note to Suku: all the other suggestions were dynamite, but you can drop the Esplanade from your list. The walks along Gurney drive or Batu Ferenghi are much better.)

A quick pass through a mall to get beau coup car air fresheners yielded a haul, and left behind some very amused shop keepers. (No doubt muttering Mat Saleh)

An older mall with MANY small shops  Our Booty 

After a final top-off back at Hot Wok, we collapsed back at the hotel, being careful not to explode. During our entire time in Penang, we found the people to be very friendly, and we felt safe. Other than the newspapers, there was little hint of the world's turmoil. In Penang and Malaysia, the stir-fry of cultures appears to mix well.

The temple we visited the day before  The Northern Resort area 

We cannot thank Bee Choo enough for her energetic taste of her home island. And her exciting driving.

Penang Meals:

27 Oct.

28 Oct. 29 Oct.

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