Monday, February 9, 2009

The Indians are Coming!

So we’ve ended up staying in Penang for a few days.  It’s been a nice little town on an island off the coast of northwest Malaysia.  We got here rather late on the seventh and learned that the “Thaipusam” festival was on the 8th, which means the place we wanted to stay was booked . . . . and the next place we checked . . . . and the next.

All of Chulia Street (where we wanted to stay) was booked.  We had to stay in a side-street called Love Lane, but it seems to be okay. It runs 25 ringgit (RM) a night.  Exchange rate is 3.5 ringgit to the dollar, so that’s about $7.25 for the room.  For extra credit, that’s 10 baht to a ringgit.  The place (SD Guesthouse) is basic, but nice and clean.  There’s a bed and a fan.
To answer your question, Chalain, it appears that Malaysia is about 70-80% the cost of Thailand so far.  Internet access is 2RM an hour and you can get a meal for aroun 7-16, depending on what kind of quality you’re looking for.   We haven’t looked into transport yet, but that’s where we’re going right after this.  We’re going to look into jungle trekking in the Cameron Highlands :).   We have found Malaysia to be much easier on the pocket than southern thailand though.  The taxi was 5RM ($1.20-ish) and everything has been quite reasonable. 
Back to Penang. 
Penang was a small island with only a local population until the British East India Company set up shop and named it “Prince of Wales Island”.  The commander, seeing his mistake named the capital after the King, so we’re staying in Georgetown.  The British brought with them a bunch of Chinese workers, forcibly imported some Indians which intermingled with the native Malay population.  As a result, modern Penang is a melting pot of different cultures and is known world-wide for fancy foods.  Along with those are a strong contingent of Siamese (Thai), Achinese (no clue who they are), Europeans and Eurasians.  
We were expecting another little island with sand and tourist shops, but instead found a bustling city capital of 700,000 people :O  having just finished a massive Chinese New Years celebration and preparing for Thaipusam.  You can find a map  We are in the second row, fourth column.
We managed to check in to our place and headed out in search of non-Thai food.  We headed to the Banana Hotel, where we originally wanted to stay and I had some Singapore Noodles while Leslie has some Baba-Nonya (local Malay-Chinese mix) food Chicken dish.  We were both VERY happy before going to bed. 
We woke up the next morning in search of breakfast and found a little place on Chulia Street which had some decent eggs, beans and toast before heading off in search of “the festival” as we had absolutely no idea what “the festival” was yet.  In fact, we didn’t even know the name until about an hour ago. 
Our first guess was to head to Little India, which was pretty close by.  We made that trek and found one of the historic walks and headed around looking at Hindu temples and historical sights in Little India.  Eventually, the historical walk was cut off by people setting up stages and the like.  We looked around a little and then a nice lady told us “tonite”.  We took that to mean that we needed to head back later that evening, so we began a quest to find Leslie some new sandals, as one of the pair she had was taken by a dog (I think) back on Koh Lanta. 
Walking down Buckingham Street showed us exactly what Muslim shops look like on a Sunday.  Closed.  They were all shuttered, so we headed back to Chulia and made our way east to the main penang street and ducked into a little Indian place for lunch.
This place has become by far our favorite place to eat on the trip.  It’s on the expensive side  . . . $5 a plate :O, but was absolutely amazing.  I was hungry, but Leslie not so much, so she ordered a cucumber salad while I ordered some chicken dish, and naan flatbread. 
They put down what appeared to be 1 x 1.5 foot leaves in front of us before bringing the salad, followed by the bread and a small bowl filled with sauce and chunks of meat, something between a soup and a chili.  Upon the look of confusion on our face the manager offered to help.  He took the spoon and piled the dish on the leaf, which is the plate.  Then, informed me that I’m supposed to tear off chuncks of the bread and use it to grab the food. 
It was phenomenal.  The flavors were great, the bread warm and the chicken tender.  The staff hovered and it was a bit uncomfortable at first, but the service was good.  We planned to get a taxi to try and find a mall, but then asked the manager.  He informed us that we had a few blocks to go until we made it to the mall and gave us the directions. 
Following his directions brought us first to a street market, followed by a very large and modern looking mall.  On the way there though, we had our first encounter with Thaipusam as we saw a large man dragging a vehicle behind him with ropes attached to metal hooks attached to his back.  Picture: 
We canvassed the mall looking for sandals, but didn’t find what we wanted.  Instead, we managed to get some iced coffee as it was HOT! Post coffee, we went to take a nap. 
Finally, we decided to break down and ask some people at the hostel how to get there.  They told us that the main body of the festival needed to be attended by bus.  All we had to do was go fifty feet and get on the 101, which would take us there. 
So we headed to the bus stop and asked the people there and a nice couple Indian guys said they’d help us get there. 
We all got on the next bus (202) and headed down the road.  We ended up talking with a nice Malaysian woman who has traveled the world and loved talking about it.  Eventually, she talked with the guys we were traveling with and we learned that they weren’t Malaysian-Indian, but actually from India.  Twenty minutes later we found out we were on the wrong bus :(
An hour later we were the only people on the bus as it turned around and started heading back the other way.  The first people to get on were an Indian family of four that was actually FROM Penang, and they were a big help. 
I do not remember the name of the father, mother or 12-year-old girl, but the seven year old boy was named Sanji.  The father was very helpful and began to explain the festival. 
First, he explained that Hinduism is a very liberal religion with many different beliefs.  As he put it, “Ask 10 Hindus what the festival is about and you will get 10 answers”.   He said the basics of the festival is that you make the journey to the temple and dump milk over an idol is a purely symbolic act.  The act in intended to wash away bad forces from the world, such as earthquakes, tsunami, war, etc.  It doesn’t work, but it’s the thought that counts.  The hooks in the back or large nails through the cheeks ( represent penance for your sins and is done to earn forgiveness. If you want more of an explanation, the use wikipedia (
He sure could talk.  His son was quiet for the first ten minutes, but ONLY the first ten minutes.  Sanji pulled on his dad’s sleeve and whispered something in his ear.  His dad said he wanted to talk to me, I said okay.
Then Sanji said in near perfect English, “Planets that are closer to the sun absorb heat and therefore are very, very hot.”  Without pausing he went on, “The first telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, the human femur is stronger than concrete, but it is the job of the human to keep it strong.”  For the next hour, Sanji rattled off “informations” from the science text books he apparently reads for fun.  His father was a bit embarassed, exasperrated and did not know how to make him stop.  Once, he even threatened to take away the science books.  He tried to get Sanji to ask a question about the USA or give some information on Malaysia, but it was just “The first car was built by Enzo Ferrari” and long-winded descriptions of technical devices as I just laughed. 
We finally got back to a stop fairly close to Georgetown and got off the bus.  Almost immediately, an enormous amount of indian people began to gather around us and swept us up in the procession towards the temple.  We’d been informed that it was about a 5 kilometer walk to get to the temple, but it would seem really short as the crowd just swept you along. 
After a block we parted ways with our friends.  They said we “could”, which I wasn’t sure if it meant that we should feel free to, or they wanted to be alone.  We decided to leave them alone and made our way forward. 
Traffic was still trying to make it through the crowd for a few blocks, but then the traffic was blocked off as the crowd became thicker.  Stalls were lined up along the sides, with some being closed or sitting places for watching the procession.  Most appeared to be blasting music out towards the crowd as people danced, jumped and made their way amongst towards the temple. 
Some of the guys were wearing no shoes and large metal contraptions that looked like this : 
The designs were different, but that’ll give you an idea of what they were like.  The swastika has been an Indian religious symbol long before the world had heard of nazis.  They were prevalent.  
Each guy dressed like that had a few handlers blowing whistles to try and make enough space for the guy to get through and not smack anyone with the large metal objects. 
However many of those guys were also the drunk teenagers, with one group having a very large metal spike poking out the top that they’d swing in a circle around belly-height to the music.  People would dance and duck as the spike came across. 
Probably the most elaborate thing we saw was a large vehicle with a goddess of some sort on it being hauled by 5-6 guys with hooks in their backs.  It was pretty impressive.
As we got closer to the temple though, it became incredibly congested.  One of us had to hold onto the other to avoid getting seperated in the crowd.  As it was late, the crowd was a bit drunk and the smell of strong alcohol would come by every once in awhile.  Imagine the front few rows of a rock concert for four kilometers leading to a temple with hooked people, people with needles through their cheeks and massive amounts of revelry and you’ve got the idea.
We made it about halfway before deciding to head back to the hotel and get some food.  We ended up taking a taxi back, which cost us 5RM as opposed to 3RM for the bus.  We ended up talking to the driver and asking him about his home in Bangladesh.  The taxi driver gave us a discount for “when I see her walk it is fun”.  I think we got the “nice guy / hot girl discount”. 
This morning we returned to the same place for breakfast before heading back towards the Indian district and getting a trishaw to take us to Fort Cornwallis foir 8RM. (trishaw:
We then did the “colonial walk” and took pictures of all the historical buildings along the way before going to the Penang State Museum, which charged all of 1RM entrace and gave us a “iNPenang” tourist magazine, which finally taught us the name of the Indian festival.  The colonial walk ended with us being back at the same Indian place we ate at yesterday as we managed to stuff ourselves. 
We’re thinking we’re going to make one more stop in Malaysia and look for a jungle trek before heading onto Singapore and Bali.  We now gotta find out if that’s Cameron Highlands or this other place Leslie’s been looking at while I’m typing this. 
Then, we’re gonna head to the botanical gardens and the ticket center.  With a little luck we’ll be out of here tomorrow morning.

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