Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Durian and divination: a tour of Penang

I'm all templed out! I joined a tour (well, a brisk Hokkien guide and a Thai mother and daughter) to see the awkwardly-located sights of Penang. We began by riding the earliest funicular train very slowly up 700m to the top of Penang Hill. The view at 9am across the city and harbour to the mainland was breathtaking, the vast expanse of water twinkling with shining morning tranquillity.

At the top I was able to get a cup of kopi, the exceedingly strong local coffee served with evaporated milk. It's so thick and rich you savour the mouthfeel of it, even though it's joltingly intense. For breakfast, I asked for nasi lemak, which normally comes as a tiny pyramid the size of a tennis ball, parcelled up in banana leaf. However, it arrived on a plate and for the first time I had to stare the little fishes in the eye ... For those not acquainted with this Malaysian delicacy, it's rice cooked in coconut milk, chili paste, boiled or fried egg, slices of cucumber ... and tiny, crispy, salty morsels with the taste of Scampi Fries and the texture of crispy bacon. Staring at them exposed on the plate for the first time, I realised these were the tiny dried whitebait I'd been shrinking away from in snack shops because ... you know ... they've still got eyes in. They are tasty, but only if their shrivelled faces are hidden within a forkful of rice. Sorry.

On the way down, a grandmotherly lady chattering in one of the Chinese dialects found herself next to a baby boy, whose family looked Indian. She chucked him under the chin and cooed away to him, but his solemn dark eyes remained fixed on her. No smiling, no chuckling, just a serious assessment of her. He seemed an old soul.

We visited the nearby Chinese temple, a colossal, exuberantly coloured complex from 1891, aligned with the sea for good feng shui with the wind and water. The guide explained that worshippers offer piles of 4 of 5 fruits, burn joss sticks, and light candles in front of the aspect of Buddha they choose. There were 6 or 7 different Buddhas in this temple alone, each dealing with a different area such as health, business and education. The shape and colour of the candle depends on which Buddhist culture you come from - Thai and Burmese worshippers take pink lotus-shaped ones, writing their names on them before settting them alight; while the Chinese faithful use yellow pineapple-shaped ones.

Next, we went to the Botanical Gardens, where in accordance with the Lonely Planet we ensured that we carried no food, and that should a monkey challenge us we would not look it in the eye: an ineffective-sounding solution akin to the dingo safety advice on Fraser Island ("Cross your arms across your chest and don't go to the toilet alone.") Walking through the gates I honestly expected a screeching primate attack at any moment. After cautiously peering up into the trees, I realised the truth - there were no monkeys. No, wait - five or six on a far-off lawn saw our movement and scampered away. Perhaps the Lonely Planet writer had provoked them unwisely, taunting them with bananas or something. The gardens, though, were nothing spectacular - all the Houses (of cacti, orchids, bromeliads etc) were padlocked closed, much to the dismay of the Thai girl's mum who was a retired horticulturalist.

After lunch, featuring sliced jackfruit (another first for me, tasting rather like a mango but with smooth, non-fibrous flesh), we headed out again to visit two more Buddhist temples opposite each other. The Burmese one was serenely beautiful, with light golden roofs; ponds and water features outside (with the cryptic instruction not to put turtles in the pools); and sentimental paintings of scenes from the life of Buddha, reminding me irresistibly of the sentimental paintings of scenes from the life of Jesus found in Christian churches.

Over the road was the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, apparently the third largest of its kind in the world. It's 33m long. There's not much more to be said about it - I didn't find the figure that attractive visually, although of course there's the challenge of trying to take a photo with the whole thing in it. Why build a Buddha longer than a swimming pool? It's too much to take in. The temple was built by the Thai community, but with Chinese influences. There were separate Buddhas for each day of the week, and each animal in the Chinese zodiac. You could buy squares of gold leaf to smear onto your favourite statue: the popular ones looked as if their faces were crumbling and disintegrating into metallic fragments with each gust of wind.

We made some commercial stops, at a pewter factory where we weren't allowed to photograph the rapid creation of a tankard handle, the liquid metal setting in around 5 seconds. Then we saw an expensive batik factory, where fast-talking women placed one wax stamp on a sample sheet of fabric for our benefit, then funnelled us into the shop. The White Coffee factory had some tasty samples, but again sold their coffee at vastly inflated tourist prices. I sampled a durian-flavoured boiled sweet. This is the infamous fruit you are not permitted to slice open in hotels, stations and various public places because of its indescribable smell. Well, this small sweet tasted like sweaty feet smeared with antiseptic; like biting a tart onion but with the acrid reek of garlic breath; like Parisian sewers; warm clotted cream left out in the sun; Amoxyl (was that the name? The artificial banana-flavoured medicine for children with a sour aftertaste.) Well, I bought a packet, along with nutmeg and sweetcorn flavours, to challenge my cousins with at Christmas.

Reunited last night with a couple of friends from Tanah Rata, who had described Penang by day as "a s***hole," I'd heard their accounts of getting ripped off, taking all day to get out to see the sights, and finally discovering with delight a Tesco where they spent 4 hours frolicking in the air-con. I walked through the streets by myself this afternoon. Maybe my taste in cities is different. Maybe I'm more accustomed to the heat and dust. But I see such beauty in the peeling pastel shutters, the crumbling tiled pavements, the surprising patterns and elegant carvings here. Most of the buildings are no higher than two stories. Many are over 200 years old. But the architecture is so different, so far outside my experience, that I'm as charmed by Georgetown's elegant decay as I am by Venice's.

Just a few doors up from my hostel is an incredibly ornate Chinese temple. I chatted to a man there for divination purposes, and watched, fascinated, as he stood behind the high altar at the feet of the huge Buddha statue, shaking a tin full of carved sticks. When one dropped out onto the floor, he cast two painted stones down, examined how the three lay together, then selected a corresponding slip of paper with advice on it. He explained the significance of the artificial pink plum-blossom tree in the open courtyard: on Chinese New Year, people tie tags with their prayers and wishes onto its branches.

I stepped back out into the street with a new appreciation of this religious culture. On the way back I noticed just how many houses have the little red shrines outside.

In other news, I was able to tell Felicia how interesting I find her blog . She's one of the many people online that I check in with occasionally for inspiration, and I was delighted to find that despite her new book deal and associated excitement, she found the time to write back! When I figure out how to add a page of links to this blog, I'll do it.

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