On the bus to our plane leaving Bangkok, I noticed a group of women wearing colorfully patterned headscarves. Since we were bound for a Muslim country, this was not surprising. What I didn’t expect was for one of them to be wearing a T-shirt that said “Harley-Davidson, Krabi, Thailand.” My imagination has since created a whole story for her: that she rented a motorbike and rode all around Southeast Asia, as people her age and younger are wont to do…
We almost didn’t make our flight to Malaysia. We had to change planes in Hat Yai, Thailand, which involved collecting our bags and re-checking them on a different airline. The helpful woman there (we were the only passengers in line) explained that we’d have to backtrack to where we’d just collected our bags and get them cleared with security stickers. At this point, my handy little recharging device, which I’ve used twice in eight months, became a “charger” which was banned in checked bags, something that has never been an issue anywhere else—including the flight we had just been on! I had to unpack my backpack completely before finding what the problem was. Again, fortunately, the security woman was nice, and didn’t make me throw it away or anything, but at this point we were under a bit of time pressure. Not my favorite.
We headed upstairs to exit Thai immigration and then had to go through security again, ourselves. As we hadn’t anticipated this many steps, we were relieved to find that once again, no one was in front of us in line. Only when we reached the gate did we realize that was because everyone else had already boarded the plane! The gate agent raced us down to the plane which, almost as soon as we were seated, took off. Took off early. I’ve seen a lot of things in my travels but I have never, ever, heard of a flight leaving ahead of schedule. Only in Asia!
It was perhaps the first time I’ve felt stressed on these travels, about the trip itself. It didn’t help that I hadn’t slept much. The night before, after all, had been New Year’s Eve, and (having gone to bed early because of our early morning flight) I awoke to some banging and booming outside. I couldn’t see many fireworks from our sixth-floor window, but registered that it was midnight. Happy New Year.
When we arrived on Penang island in Malaysia, things felt instantly different. This was, after all, our first taste of the former British Empire since Hong Kong. The taxi radio played Dolly Parton singing “9 to 5,” followed by Anne Murray. It was as if the Malaysians were trying to welcome a Tennessee-born Canadian on purpose. At least the English was refreshing.
Our luck continued to hold when we walked around George Town the next day. We were trying to get train tickets on to Kuala Lumpur, the capital, without having to go to the Butterworth station, which is on the mainland part of Penang. After a lot of unnecessary walking around in the heat, we finally located the office and went in. As we did so, a worker started pulling down the blinds, and we realized the office must shut at 4:00, which it then was. Incredibly, the woman at the desk went on to serve us politely, rather than throwing us out and telling us the office was closed. No such luck for the couple of backpackers after us who were a moment later and shut outside for the day!
We also succeeded in finding a post office. From time to time, I’ve mailed things “home” from the road, either items that would make my backpack too full, or small gifts for other people. Postal services vary widely, though, and I’m never quite certain if it’s going to work. I had to try a few different offices in Italy just to get service, while the Laotian post was slow, but effective. Never have I experienced anything like Malaysia. A woman came right over to me and asked if she could help, got me a number, then came back over after realizing she had given me the wrong number and I was up next! I got helpful service immediately, and it only cost 10 ringgit. These are the kinds of things that endear a country to me.
|Bicycles and rickshaw outside the "Blue Mansion" (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion)|
It helps that Penang, and George Town in particular, is beautiful. We took a local bus for about 2 ringgit along the coast of the island. While there, a couple asked us for information about the bus (people always seem to ask me for directions or help when I walk or use public transportation, even if it’s the first time I’ve ever been in a place). It turned out he was from South Carolina and she was from Ohio, but they had been teaching in Myanmar for five years. They noticed the Burmese patch on my daypack, so I had to confess that we’d only been in Myanmar for an hour or so. They had their baby daughter with them and were talking about moving back to the U.S.; eventually, it transpired that they’d looked at houses in Bristol and Elizabethton, Tennessee. They wanted to know “the dirt” on those places, since I went to school in Elizabethton! I told them it was a great place to grow up but as far as their questions about homelessness and opioid addiction, I hadn’t lived there for twenty-eight years…
Back in George Town, we walked along Weld Quay (the combination of Malay and English place names is fascinating) and the Clan Jetties. These jetties are unique Chinese settlements, each community originating as a particular clan of immigrants from China. The clans built their houses and other buildings on stilts, and today you can still walk down the jetty and see homes and temples that have been preserved as part of George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage site.
At Chew Jetty T. took a picture for some more Americans. Two of them teach in an international school and the rest were their relatives visiting. There are a lot of international schools in Penang.
In Siem Reap, I had heard music from the pool bar late into the night; in George Town I heard the Muslim call to prayer. The last time I remember hearing the siren song of the mosque was probably in Moshi, Tanzania. Malaysia is a Muslim country both in the sense of being majority Muslim, and in that Islam is the state religion; the cultural implications are many. While beer is freely available, there are no local brands, and the taxes make it very expensive. At least compared with Cambodia!
|The Cathedral of the Assumption, list of priests. The new plaque shows a shift from European to native priests (though all with Christian first names!)|
|Masjid Kapitan Keling, built by Indian Muslims|
|Church of the Assumption|
While Malaysia is officially Muslim, freedom of religion is guaranteed. I am not saying there are no problems with that. Personally, I am opposed to any establishment of religion, whether mosque or church. But what it means on the street is that churches, Hindu and Chinese temples, and mosques are practically (and sometimes literally) next door to one another. While the Malay ethnic majority is almost all Muslim, nearly a quarter of the population is Chinese, and there is a significant Indian minority as well as many Westerners. All of these groups, as well as aboriginal Malaysians, include many Christians, along with practitioners of their ancestors’ faiths.
|Sri Maha Mariamman Temple|
|Teo Chew Association|
In addition to its many houses of worship, George Town is famous for its colonial architecture, and its street art.
The most popular street art is by Ernest Zacharevic, who is from Lithuania. He incorporates an actual bicycle and motorcycle in his work.
There are said to be great sunset views from Penang Hill. We didn't see those, as it rained late every afternoon we were in Penang, but we did get the funicular up to the top (even we were daunted by the prospect of climbing it!) Given the cloudy weather, we didn’t have the exhilaration of the 360-degree view in Nong Khiaw, Laos, but we did enjoy another fabulous street dish—chickpea masala.
|View from Penang Hill of George Town and the 13-km bridge to Butterworth on the mainland|
As I mentioned, this was my first Muslim country, and it was interesting to see how Islam permeates people’s everyday lives. For example, in every hotel room there is an arrow indicating the direction of Mecca, so Muslims know where to kneel when it is time to pray.
I’ve thought before about how Islam requires its adherents to be visible. Not so much in clothing terms, because depending on their culture, Muslim women (or men) may or may not wear certain items. I mean praying five times a day, which is one of the pillars of Islam. That’s a lot of praying, but it’s also visible: you have to find a place to do it, and you have to kneel in the right direction.
Christians can pray without anyone knowing it, unless we say grace in a restaurant. According to the Sermon on the Mount, that is how we’re supposed to behave. Almost any Christian practice, even celebrating Christmas, can pass unnoticed in the general culture. But if I had to pray five times a day, I think it would be hard not to keep my devotion to God foremost in my mind. And sometimes I wonder, as an old youth group sign said: “If you were arrested as a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
My volunteer at the Kuala Lumpur mosque said, “When we are in the marketplace we are not worshipping God.” He was talking about the need to regularly practice religion, but in the KL market, it seemed to me Malays were still practicing their faith. It’s just that they wore it somewhat lightly. The women, for instance, seldom appeared wearing black headscarves or covering their faces. Instead they wore an array of colors, along with jeans or whatever else they chose to wear, and the headscarf seemed to be an accessory to express themselves personally as well.
|Shopping for headscarves, night market|
Not willing to take the oft-maligned Lonely Planet guidebook at face value, I had done some research about the quick, modern, user-friendly KL public transit I’d read about. Someone on TripAdvisor assured me that the hop-on, hop-off bus was a waste of time, because KL traffic is terrible and it is so much easier to get around on the monorail or trains. We did not find this to be the case, as merely getting to a station was only the start; from the train to the monorail system, for example, there was no straightforward way to walk and almost no signage. We keep getting directed to different entrances and exits but only in the vaguest way; had to pay simply to enter the subway for the purpose of crossing under a road; and, best of all, had no decent map (this is the first city I’ve ever been in where a hotel didn’t have any). So after spending at least an hour after the National Mosque walking around trying to go one stop, from the old Kuala Lumpur train station to KL Sentral, we found the Malaysian tourism office.
|Kuala Lumpur Station with KL Tower in the background|
These women were wonderful. We had failed to find their office on our first day despite numerous people “helping” us, but now we had good maps, plus advice on the hop-on, hop-off bus. It turned out to be excellent value on our third day. It took us to all the places we wanted to go and, as it was a Sunday, the traffic posed no significant delay at all. It cost less than half of what such a bus ticket would cost in London.
|St. John's Cathedral (Catholic). Photo by Wikipedia|
If this monument looks familiar to U.S. readers, it’s for a couple of reasons. First, the Malaysian flag has seven red and six white stripes; and second, the sculptor was American (born in Austria) Felix de Weldon, best known for the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima) in Washington, D.C. I got so used to seeing the red and white stripes that when I actually saw an American flag flying over what must have been the U.S. Embassy, I almost didn't recognize it!
T. wanted to go to the Bird Park, which was pretty cool too. It’s the largest free-flying aviary in the world, though not all sections are as enlightened. They had lots of birds, monkeys and, perhaps best of all, char kway teow, my favorite Malaysian dish. These stir-fried noodles certainly beat the cold vegetables and chicken full of bones that we’d been eating off banana leaves lately. Plus, none of those outdoor restaurants serve beer!
After lunch we went to Dataran Merdeka or Independence Square. Here, an enormous Malaysian flag flies over what once was the cricket pitch, in colonial times. Around the square are several heritage buildings. Two, strikingly different, are both credited to British architect A.C. Norman: the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (originally Government Offices) and St. Mary’s Anglican Cathedral, a structure whose modesty, in its own way, impressed me equally. I later read that whereas the first building was largely designed by others, St. Mary's Church was by Norman's own hand.
|Sultan Abdul Samad Building, 1897|
|St. Mary's Cathedral (Anglican), 1894|
|Petronas Towers viewed from the KL Tower|
Malaysia is an interesting example of how there is more than one way to be a Muslim nation. In fact, although we hear a lot about the strictest and most repressive way, far more of the world’s Muslims live in Asia than in the Middle East. That doesn’t mean I would want to live there. There are ethnic tensions in Malaysia that have at times turned deadly—not unheard of where a minority group (in this case ethnic Chinese) is seen to have disproportionate economic power. Then there’s the establishment of an official religion. I’m against all blurring of church and state, particularly when it means gay sex is outlawed (as it still is in Singapore as well). Sometimes The Discreet Traveler feels the advantage of the fact that lesbians are less visible than gay men virtually everywhere. We book whatever rooms we feel like and no one bats an eye. We are only women; what harm can we do?
Having said all that, I enjoyed our time in Malaysia. It’s a thriving nation, noticeably so after most of the other places in Asia we had visited. The mix of cultures was as refreshing as the obedience to traffic rules. In Chinatown, where even beer was relatively cheap, it felt like we were watching all the world go by.