Peaceful Penang

We arrived in Penang just as the island was preparing to welcome the Chinese Year of the Rooster, which it continued to do throughout our stay with lion parades, fireworks, paper lanterns, and poultry-themed decorations.  The ethnic Chinese of Malaysia celebrate Chinese New Year on the first day of the lunar calendar but also the Hokkien New Year nine days later, and the celebrations last fifteen days in total, so the first half of our visit was one long Chinese party. How could we help but feel festive?

In the midst of this, the island’s ethnic Indian population observed Thaipusam, a Hindu rite marked here in Penang by a long pilgrimage to the Waterfall Temple carrying heavy burdens. The especially faithful drive metal hooks and spears through their flesh, which makes for a rather gruesome spectacle, but there is joy to this celebration of good triumphing over evil and, being Indian, plenty of bright colours and delicious food as well.

The Malay didn’t observe any major holidays during our stay, but we felt that between the Chinese and the Hindus we really got an excellent cultural immersion by being in Penang from late January to late February. Next time we might try arriving for the Chinese Moon Festival in October and staying for the Muslim Hari Raya Haji (though probably skipping the animal sacrifices) and the Hindu Deepavali, the festival of light. There will definitely need to be a next time, because we left feeling that there is a lot more to explore (and eat) in Penang. I found out the day before our departure that I even have a very awesome distant relative living there, so when we do return we’ll have an insider to help us discover all the things we missed this time around.

We were thrilled by Malaysia’s vibrant and largely peaceful cultural mix, something that we had adored in neighbouring Singapore and were glad to witness here as well.  Everyone was friendly – this was our warmest welcome in Asia, even compared to ultra-hospitable and charming Chiang Mai. Our Airbnb host set the tone when he insisted on picking us up at the airport, driving us around Georgetown for an orientation tour, stocking us up with fresh fruit, and offering to buy anything that would make us more comfortable in his super-deluxe apartment.

We’ve nearly perfected the art of living where the well-heeled locals live, and our Penang neighbourhood was rich in everything but tourists – we saw more Ferraris, Bugattis, and Bentleys than white people during our stay, at least until we ventured up-island to Batu Ferenghi for an overnight at the Hard Rock Hotel to see if we would have preferred to be where everyone else goes. We wouldn’t have, even though Hard Rock was fun and Batu Ferenghi is well worth a short visit. Another option would have been to rent a renovated shophouse in old Georgetown for the month, but we’ve learned that heritage charm often comes with bugs, rats, questionable plumbing, and noisy tourists so we went with the glamorous high-rise option and were not disappointed.

Our neighbourhood had everything that we could possibly want for the kind of stay that we enjoy. I joined a Zumba class just around the corner, where I was befriended by shy Malay women covered up from top to toe for a workout in 32-degree heat, confident Chinese showing off in sports bras and shortie shorts, Indians somewhere in between, comfortable in their own skin…everyone was friendly, and some were openly curious about me, the only white person in the room. They were really concerned about whether we’d be going to Kuala Lumpur and Batu Ferenghi, more “exciting” destinations, and were only appeased when I told them that we’d been to the former on a previous visit and would definitely make it to the latter before leaving Malaysia. We had enjoyed our time in KL ten years ago on our favourite pre-Sam trip with our friends Jason and Paule, who lived there for two years and introduced us to Borneo and Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands. We had considered going back to the Perhentians this time, but I’m glad we discovered Penang instead: it’s a better family destination for a long stay and we definitely did not run out of things to do.

We were very active and worked out virtually every day. Patrick found a Crossfit gym just down the street and stopped by the amazing Karpal Singh food court for dinner on his way back most nights. For the first time in our travels he found himself adopted by a local family when he was dining solo one night, and so he was able to enjoy a range of Malaysian dishes as well as a good conversation with nice people. The worst thing about my nut allergy and Sam’s is that Patrick is so often stuck eating alone, and it made us all happy when he was treated just the way I imagine his family would treat a nice-looking Malaysian guy sharing their table at Aylmer Barbecue. Another highlight of the neighbourhood for Patrick was his thrice-weekly shave at the barbershop downstairs for about $3.

For Sam, the advantages of our location were excellent wifi, a great pool, and our waterfront location overlooking a lively esplanade with hoverboard and rollerblade rentals, families enjoying the ocean breeze, and dog owners who like to get their pups together there for playdates. He made a lot of friends among the dog crowd. It was really easy to strike up a conversation with people everywhere we went in Penang, Sam included. We are so grateful that he’s both outgoing and easygoing – the very best travel companion.

We found that we enjoyed staying close to home, although the glamorous Georgetown malls were a $3 Uber ride away if we wanted to see a movie or restock our suitcases a bit, and even the up-island attractions were within an hour’s drive, which cost about $10 with either Uber or its local competitor, Grab. Uber was getting some bad media coverage because of apparent sexism within the corporation, so it was encouraging to see that about half of our Grab drivers were women. I don’t think that we will be able to boycott Uber during our travels, even now that there are racism accusations on top of the sexism ones, but we were glad that Grab offered us an easy solution to a possible moral dilemma.

Sam and Patrick used Grab to get to Escape, an amazing adventure park with ziplines and mazes and everything two rugged boys could want. That was possibly the highlight of Penang for Sam, although he was also thrilled by the chance to borrow an electric guitar during our stay at the Hard Rock. We really glammed it up there, renting a beach cabana, signing Sam in to the kids’ club, enjoying outdoor massages….but we wouldn’t have wanted to spend a whole month there surrounded by tourists. He also got a big kick out of the catcafé, a very low key opportunity to relax with ten kitties for an hour or two, so I don’t think he’s grown immune to the simpler pleasures.

We were quite sad to bid adieu to an apartment, neighbourhood, island, and country that we grew to love. I have a strong feeling that we’ll be back: how could it be otherwise?

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