We’ve been in Penang for a little over 24 hours now and, thanks to some good luck on our part, I feel like we’ve already had a great introduction to this Malaysian island.  (Incidentally, as I write this, I can hear a nearby mosque’s call to prayer–a common occurrence, as we’re here five days into the holy month of Ramadan and, although this island (unlike most of Malaysia) doesn’t have a Muslim majority, Muslim people still comprise about 30% of its population.)

We arrived here last night and checked into the Hotel Continental, which–at about $33 (or 108 Malaysian ringgit) a night–is affordable and comfortable and passes my new test for our lodging: its shower is more than simply a spigot on the wall.  (My need for a self-contained shower perhaps means that I’m not a true backpacker but, hey, we all have our limits…)   As luck would have it, the Continental is right next door to the Red Garden, a night market Penang 054.JPGthat offers a mix of locals and tourists all kinds of Malaysian and Chinese food, as well as regular karoake performances.  Having skipped lunch, we were all too happy to partake in the food stalls’ offerings, from dumplings to crabs to prawn noodle soup (the best on Penang island, according to the sign).

After a quick hotel breakfast of noodles, rice and cereal (there’s something here for everyone), we boarded one of the trishaws that move comfortably on the streets here, despite the fairly unregulated flow of trucks, cars and motorcycles. Our driver, Jetty, turned out to be a great tour guide, and he pedaled us from our Georgetowwn neighborhood to Penang’s bustling Chinatown, through Little India and then to the British colonial area. (History lesson – Malaysia is a former British colony that became independent 50 years ago; Penang was a major trading stop between India and China due to its location in the Melaka Straights, explaining the majority population of Chinese and Indians in Penang).

Along the way, we stopped at Khoo Kongsi, an elaborate, colorful Chinese “clan house” that used to serve as a meeting house and Penang 009.JPGtemple for a certain Chinese family or clan, but now is predominately a musuem and tourist attraction. We then wandered through a tiny fishing village doomed to be destroyed in the coming years by the construction of a new highway. Next, we visited the wildly colorful, Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple. Penang 015.JPGFinally, Jetty (who is fluent in 4 languages, English among them) took us to Fort Cornwallis, the site of Penang’s first British port.

Derek and I then meandered back into Little India for a delicious vegetarian lunch at the Madras New Woodlands Restaurant. If you ever find yourself there, I highly recommend the channa batura, which is essentially a larger-than-your-head piece of fried bread accompanied by a spectacular garbanzo bean curry.

We then explored the city on foot (one of our favorite activities), stopping in various Chinese temples and seeing other remarkable sites until we came across a tiny shop in Chinatown, where we had what has to be one of my favorite experiences so far on our trip. Picture us for a second: we’re standing on a little side street in Chinatown. We’re clearly foreign, and we’re overloaded with 2 cameras, a Malaysian guidebook and various bags. I would not want to hang out with us. We’re looking in this little glass case at the front of the shop, trying to determine the contents of some frisbee-sized packages wrapped in paper. The proprietor of the store joins us on the street and explains that they’re packets of Chinese tea.

She then invites us to the back of the store, where we join her, her husband (who, as it turned out, spoke 6 languages) and a local customer on little stools in front of a small table that holds a number of tiny teapots and an electric kettle. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, the proprietor and her husband served us countless Penang 032.JPGcups of Chinese tea (green, black and oolong) in tiny teacups. With occasional translation from the other customer (who was around 19 and will study accounting in Kualu Lampur starting next year), we discuss various aspects of life in Penang and talk a little politics (both Malaysian and American). When, over-caffeinated and full of life, we’re finally ready to leave, they press a big container of freshly sliced watermelon into our hands and refuse to accept any money from us for the watermelon or tea. Incredible.

Indeeed, our time so far in Penang has been much like our experience in the tea shop. Surprising, different and wonderful. Nearly everyone here speaks English (excepting a 20-year, prime minister-caused lapse starting in the 80’s, it’s taught in all of the schools here) and, because it’s the low season, we have many of the more popular tourist attractions nearly to ourselves. Everyone we’ve met here so far has been incredibly kind to us, but not in a way that is overbearing or revealing of any motive other than simple friendliness.

Tonight, we plan on having a drink at the historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel and then, per the recommendations of our teahouse friends, we’ll have dinner at the Golden BBQ Steamboat Restaurant before trying to go to bed early since we have to leave for a flight at 5:15 a.m. Perhaps we should go take naps first.

UPDATE – the Golden BBQ Steamboat Restaurant was a wild experience. It was a style of eating that combines Mongolian Barbecue and Fondue. Penang 017.JPGBasically, you choose what you want to eat from a huge buffet of uncooked meats and vegetables and cook them up on a pot and grill in the middle of your table. It was delicious and overwhelmingly filling.