Georgetown: Asia’s Melting Pot

There aren’t many places in the world where these two cultures co-exist so prominently as here. The super powers of Southeast Asia, China and India are thrown into a melting pot with Malay cultures and what results is the fascinating island of Penang, Malaysia.

A mostly uneventful overnight train took us from Surat Thani across the Thai-Malay border to Butterworth.

DSC01718WWe were unable to book the train that would have us crossing the border the day our Thai visa expired, so we opted for the day after, feeling assured the Internet that stated we had a day grace period was accurate. It was not. Arriving at the border we were quickly ushered into a separate room where we were asked to each pay a visa overage fee. The fee was not so great, but we had purposely spent all of our Thai money. After brief directions I scurried across over the tracks and across the border to a bank, only after assuring the border patrol that I just needed the ATM. I ran back to the station money in hand just as our train whistle was blowing to announce the departure. Rushing through stamps and customs, we were the last passengers to board the train before it pulled away to steam towards Butterworth.

DSC01722WArriving in Butterworth and still recovering from our close call, we walked a hundred yards and caught a short ferry to Georgetown; a city that defines the island of Penang so much that, for many people, they’re interchangeable.

DSC01858WAfter finding a suitable guest house, we admittedly slept most of the afternoon away in our windowless and thus very dark room. However, the next morning we were refreshed and ready to explore the city.

DSC01723WLuckily for us, the Chinese New Year was still in full swing

DSC01734Wwhich insured that the entire city was dressed up to celebrate.

DSC01760WIn some ways, this made the cultural juxtapositions even more clear. Chinese lanterns not only hang outside of Chinese Ancestral Temples

DSC01773Wbut, Muslim mosques

DSC01781Wand Hindu Temples as well all within 100m of each other.

DSC01844WWe spent the afternoon exploring the numerous jetties that stretch out into the strait.

DSC01729WTypically each jetty is populated by a clan or a group of people that originated from the same village in China.

DSC01736WDaily life seemed to slow here as old women and children relaxed outside of their homes, and watched tourists stroll by.

DSC01728WUnintentionally, we next stumbled into the Georgetown Heritage area, filled with Chinese traditional medicine shops, bicycles and beautiful architecture.

DSC01740WWhen cultures clash, so does the cuisine and as you can imagine it was some of the most unique we have encountered. We spared no time in seeking out the nearest hawkers stalls to sample the goods.

DSC01743WWhat we found was a very amusing night food court complete with lights and of course, karaoke. Luckily it was covered as a monsoon-force rain storm began in the middle of our dinner. Although we had but a 10 minute walk back to our guesthouse, we were drenched.

DSC01840WThe next morning we got going thanks to some Malay style coffee which is made with palm margarine and condensed milk and is very sweet. With the sun already high in the sky, we escaped the oppressive heat in the Penang Museum which was very well put together and informative concerning the history of all the cultures that converge on the island.

DSC01754WErik especially liked the intricate inlays on the opium couches.

DSC01746WWe spent the afternoon darting into the Chinese temples whose distinct architecture was a novelty to me,

DSC01779Wbut maybe old hat to Erik after his trip to China.

DSC01766WOur time in Penang was an intriguing and relaxing lesson in culture and history, and at the end of a week I was somewhat reluctant to leave the vibrant and unique atmosphere.

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