Last Hours in Penang

We spent our last day in Penang making sure we left with a vivid final impression. The Dhamikarama Burmese Temple and Wat Chaiya Mangalaram Thai Buddhist Temple were on our list, as was another visit to the Kapital Keling Mosque, this time during visiting hours rather than Friday afternoon prayers.

Like other Buddhist temples, the Dhamikarama Temple has many buildings and altars scattered around the grounds, and the far corners of the complex were relatively tourist-free. We wandered to a bell tower in the back, and climbed up four floors in order to get a view of the temple and the new glass-and-metal high rises going up around it. We were the only ones there and admired the carved marble reliefs showing sacred Buddhist sites from around the world. We also tried our hand at tossing coins into alms bowls circling above a pond, but had no luck.

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Temple roofline; bell carriers; statue of Garuda, the mythical King of the Birds

The main hall was the tour group stop, and its towering Buddha statue was the center of attention. It was surrounded by some of the most detailed carving we’ve seen so far – what looked to be a fine lace mesh hanging around the walls was actually hundreds of wooden panels fit together to look like cascades of foliage. It must have taken years to create and assemble. Behind the main Buddha was a row of statues of revered monks, each representing a country with a major Buddhist populations, and all life sized.

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Standing Buddha, a row of honored Buddhist monks, seated Buddha in another hall.

Directly across the street from the Burmese Temple was the vibrantly decorated Wat Chaiya Mangalaram, a Thai temple that looked similar to the ones we grew familiar with in Chiang Mai. This temple is famous for its reclining Buddha statute; at over 100 feet long it is one of the largest in the world.

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Wat entrance, a statue of a monk covered in offerings of gilding gold, the reclining Buddha.

Outside, the nagas protecting the front of the temple are covered in glass mosaic tiles and were my favorite so far because of their bright, jeweled colors. Other guardian statues stood near the entrances and several side pagodas held altars to various deities. Incense, flower garlands, and bright fabrics seemed to be common offerings.

Nearby was a mee goring stand that had the most delicious tofu we’ve ever tasted… and more of the famous Penang white coffee with ice.

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Nagas outside the Wat, other temple guardians, altars from some of the other buildings at the temple.

Our last stop for the day was the Kapital Keling Mosque. We arrived as the mosque itself was closing for prayers, so we spent a few minutes in the Islamic Outreach Center located in the minaret. We came back after 2 p.m. to see the interior of the mosque itself. I donned a robe to cover my hair and bare arms. Modesty works both ways though – Kevin also was given a wrap since he was only wearing shorts and men need to have their legs covered to their ankles in order to enter. The mosque itself was peaceful and quiet, just a few people were finishing their prayers and greeting one another.

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Kapitan Keling Mosque and its minaret.

The Islamic influence in Penang is something I didn’t touch on yet, in part because the island is so diverse. However, Malaysia is officially an Islamic country, so there were a few interesting things we noted. For example, shopping centers and large attractions have prayers rooms for Muslims to use if they happen to be there at one of the five times each day the call to prayer is given. From our apartment, we could hear both mosques in our neighborhood broadcasting the call to prayer from their PA systems.

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Placards for the prayer rooms at Fort Cornwallis, sign pointing to Mecca in our apartment, the Non-halal section at Tesco, sinks for washing at a hawker stall.

Consuming pork and alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but stores still carry those items to cater to other segments of the population. The beer/wine/hard liquor was in its own corner or room in the store, so it was still easier to get than in some US states. Pork was also in the same section or its own room, usually with “BACON” emblazoned prominently above the door. Washing is a must before eating, so restaurants and areas with hawker stalls have sinks readily available out in the open. I got the sense this was also part of the local secular culture – napkins were few and far between.

Malaysia was such an interesting mix of influences that I can’t wait to go back. We were told multiple times that we should see Kuala Lumpur in all its crazy-traffic, delicious-food, impressive-building glory. As long as air conditioning is part of that, I agree.


 

We’ve already made our 24-hour trek to Lisbon, Portugal. Our first flights on Malaysia Airlines, which booked us on an earlier flight after we arrived at the Penang Airport early, and on British Airways, which has those fancy new Boeing Dreamliners, were uneventful except for a mad dash of a transfer at Heathrow. (Does anyone else get the feeling that a transfer from one gate to another that requires walking, a tram, more walking, a bus, even more walking down back-hallway looking corridors, going up escalators, meandering through another maze of corridors, passing through security – which we had already done once at Penang and once at Kuala Lumpur – and then a mad dash from security to the gate… literally as the gate is closing… is badly misplaced British humor?)

Lisbon feels like half a world away from Malaysia, and reminds us a lot of Italy so far. We’ll have to get used to driving on the right again, and 60 degrees does seem rather cold. Still, time to explore a new corner of the world and Europe!

 

 

 

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Thaipusam

Over the weekend we attended Thaipusam. We didn’t know anything about it in advance other than a couple Uber drivers had mentioned it to us as an Indian festival that we had to see. As we found out afterward, it is a Hindu commemoration of the Lord Murugan receiving the Vel spear (representing knowledge and wisdom) which he used to slay evil. As we found out while we were there, it was an unforgettable experience that is the most memorable thing we’ve seen so far on our trip.

Georgetown’s large Indian population makes it one of the largest Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia with tens of thousands of attendees. On our way to be dropped off, crowds were forming blocks away. We got out of the car at the start of the closed street, and were instantly on sensory overload. Heavily-beated Indian music was pouring from massive speakers. Bright colors were everywhere – clothes, altars, highly decorated tents. Free lunches were being handed out in booths and at temples up and down the street, and the air smelled of delicious curries and vegetables. People were everywhere, some as participants and others to see the spectacle.

In Penang, the center of activity is the Waterfall Hill Temple, where a statue of Lord Murugan is brought the day before in a long procession. On the day of Thaipusam, devotees carrying kavadi walk and dance their way down the street and then climb the 500+ steps to the temple – all in blazing tropical sun & heat.

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A little hard to make out, the the top left is one of the metal altars being carried by a man about to start up the temple steps; two of the altars set up along the route.

We learned later that are many types of personal offerings and rites associated with Thaipusam, and each one has deep meaning. People may decide to go through with their offerings as a way to further their spiritual growth, as thanks for answered prayers, or to fulfill a vow.

Many shave their heads as a sacrifice and as a reminder to not let ego control their lives. Some devotees also bear some type of kavadi (burden) to the temple. We were awed by the physicality involved on the day of the celebration, even more when we discovered this is a culmination of a 48-day preparation time. During the lead-up participants, eat only vegetarian meals, fast the day before, practice celibacy, and strive keep actions pure and God foremost in their thoughts.

The most basic kavadi is carrying paal kudam – pots of milk symbolizing purity – the length of the route and up the temple stairs where the milk will be poured over the statue of Lord Murugan. We passed by dozens of people carrying the silver urns on their heads; many were wearing yellow and had yellow flowers. They all looked calm and their concentration seemed to be on making it to the temple amid all the heat and humidity.

Others carry tall, elaborately carved altars over their heads. Some are made of painted and decorated styrofoam and others of metal leaves adorned with peacock feathers. In either case, the altar is balanced on the shoulders and tied to a waist belt for stability. Stopping to dance en route, the journey to the temple can take hours. We also saw dozens of these – some of the styrofoam altars were shaped into peacocks or had dolphins, shrimp, or mice. Each was painted or decorated with feathers, bells, or ribbons, and some had milk offerings balanced precariously on top.

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Two men carrying portable altars – the silver jars are attached to hooks run through their skin.

More extreme is bodily piercing and skewering. While not quite as common as the first two, the numbers of people doing this shocked me. Thin spears, representations of the Vel, are run through the cheeks, tongue, or lips. Hooks bearing fruit or small pots of milk are attached to all sides of the torso, arms, and legs. There might be only a handful of pots; others had more than 100 hooked to their body. I can’t imagine what that would weigh, or how long it would take to prepare.

Occasionally, two lines of hooks were run down the back and tied to ropes held by a friend; the bearers leans forward, straining against the piercings during the journey. We even witnessed four men, with double rows of hooks down their backs, roped to a wagon topped with decorated horses and statues. They were slowly pulling the entire float down the length of the street, surrounded by crowds of onlookers.

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Look closely – two rows of hooks allow him – and several others – to pull the float.

Drummers accompanied those bearing altars or who are pierced, and loud music was piped through speakers all along the route. Kavadi-bearers often stopped to dance in the street – barefoot on burning pavement. Occasionally, someone was standing with a hose to cool and clean the pavement as a way to show their support. Each kavadi was accompanied by friends there to make sure the altars stayed balanced and carrying chairs so they could rest as the journey progressed. Finally reaching the stairs to the temple, the goal seemed to be to run up as fast as possible. It is a blend of solitary pilgrimage and group effort – the person making the journey was aware they were not alone, even though they were experiencing it on a far more intense level.

Food and drinks are served to all comers as a form of charity and a way of giving thanks to God; by feeding others you are feeding God. Along the route, temples and businesses set up booths that give away free meals and drinks – we saw Bosch, the Penang Airport, Intel, local doctors, and the police (who had an especially long line). We were pointed into a temple by a couple who was leaving. I suppose we looked confused on whether or not we were allowed to go in! They insisted the food was great and that we should just get in line. We did, and it was: yellow curried rice with sweet peppered mangoes, and a couple of kinds of veggies and sauce on top. It reminds me of Easter brunch at church, everyone is welcome and seated at communal tables in the back hall once you go through the meal line. Eating is done with your fingers. Drinks are thankfully served along the street all day -we needed as many as we could get in the tropical temps. We even got a take-away meal box as we were leaving the festival to have for supper.

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Meal at the temple, and the front of a booth serving hundreds of meals.

The atmosphere reminded me of a mix of religious procession, concert, county fair, and family picnic. Even though the main focus was on spiritual growth and making offerings to Lord Murugan, this blends seamlessly with stalls selling snacks, fabric, and jewelry, and what is obviously a time for people to come together.

Families are dressed in their best saris and tunics – absolutely beautiful clothes featuring incredible beading and lacework, often with intricate gold jewelry and strings of yellow flowers. In quieter corners, like down the street at the Botanic Gardens, picnics are going on. Everyone is incredibly friendly – people would come up and ask us where we were from and how we were enjoying Thaipusam.

Our photos are not that great, in part because it feels rude to me to photograph people who are on a spiritual journey. In any case, pictures are never going to capture the character of the celebration, the constant barrage of colors and noise and food, the fact that every second is something new to see and hear. I’ve never witnessed such a blend of the spiritual with the everyday or seen such enthusiastic devotion.

Georgetown

We took our first trip into Georgetown to see some of the tourist sights and eat some local cuisine. Rather than taking the 45-minute bus ride (we really are out in the suburbs) or a taxi, we opted for Uber. It worked out pretty well – our driver had good advice for what to see and eat in town – and dropped us off in front of the best mee sotong (squid and noodles) stand in Penang, which happens to be in a food court outside of Fort Cornwallis.

The British (if the names Georgetown and Cornwallis weren’t giveaways) were responsible for the construction of the fort under the direction of Captain Francis Lightfoot. Ironically, he died shortly afterward and the first recorded marriage in the fort’s chapel was his widow’s to a new husband. Fort Cornwallis isn’t overly impressive – it has a relatively low brick wall and a few sea-pointing cannons; it never saw combat, so more secure battlements were never needed.

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Cannon at Fort Cornwallis, incense burners outside a Taoist temple, birds for sale – to be freed upon purchase, Armenian Street buildings.

Georgetown has an eclectic mix of architectural styles and heritages – a British-colonial style still defines the buildings of the banking core, just down the street is Little India (with saris, curries, and spices for sale in shop windows), Chinese and Buddhist traditions show up everywhere (temples are common in the Old Town, as are small, red altars at the front of businesses, and Chinese-language signs), Armenian Street betrays European character (low building with shutter-covered windows), and Islamic influences also have great significance (mosques, beautiful patterned and flowered tile work, and signs in Arabic). The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the unique blend of cultures and traditions that has shaped the city.

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Kapitan Keling Mosque, St. George’s Church, Kuan Yin Teng Taoist Temple – all within about three blocks of each other.

The area around Armenian Street is known for murals and street art, both intentional and unintentional. While we were there, some of the paintings were serving as the backdrop for a music video. I don’t think the group is overly famous yet as there was no crowd of screaming hangers-on.

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Armenian Street artwork.

The diverse types of meals that are available reflect the mixing of cultures. Chinese, Cantonese, Indian, Malay, Nyonya, Western, Portuguese, Thai, and Japanese are all often available at the same food court. Rice and noodles are still central components, as are spicy peppers and rich sauces (often too spicy for me, sometimes too spicy for Kevin).

Clay-pot-cooked meals have been my favorite discovery since arriving in Penang. Rice is already heated in a clay bowl and a choice of meat or veggie topping is added when you order. The flame is turned up and the flavors blend together for a bit. It is served piping hot with a separate plate so you can dish it out as you go and share with friends; the rest of the meal stays toasty in the insulated bowl.

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Other street art from around the Old Town.

One final note about humidity – the actual air temperature is only a few degrees fahrenheit warmer than Chiang Mai, and we adjusted to that fairly well. Penang averages about 88-90 degrees; we were often up to 85 in Thailand. But the humidity – 70% or higher -makes it feel much warmer and far more uncomfortable. Michelle, our Uber driver on the return trip, was amazed we had spent a few hours walking around outside in the middle of the day. She admitted even locals never get used to it, they prefer go from one air conditioned place to another. At least our apartment is higher up and near the water, meaning some parts of the day offer cooling breezes, but between about 1 and 6 p.m. and after 9:30 p.m the air stagnates and all pretense of comfort vanishes.