Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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I met Dr. Fauziah Ahmad in 2007, during my first ever round-the-world trip. We happened to be on the same city tour of Hanoi, Vietnam, and bonded when we had to fight to get a portion of our money back because the tour operator failed to deliver on promises to take us to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We later attended a performance at the Water Puppet Theater, followed by dinner, at the end of which we exchanged contact information and she invited me to visit her in Penang, should I ever make it to Malaysia.

Dr. Fauziah Ahmad and husband, Ahmad Shukri Yahaya

Over the years we’d exchanged a few emails, but hadn’t been in regular contact, so I held off contacting her until I knew for sure my arrival dates. Once I had arrived and recovered from my horrible experience in China, I emailed to let her know I was in Penang. Realizing it was short notice, I told her I’d understand if she didn’t have time to get together, but I underestimated the bonds of friendship made during travel.

The following week, Fauziah arrived at my guest house and whisked me away to her home for the night, where she set me up in her guest room and introduced me to her lovely family. But that was only the beginning; she had plans for me…

Sitting in on student's practice presentation to Dr. Fauziah Ahmad

Fauziah is a geotechnical engineer specializing in soil stability, landslides, and ground improvement, and a full professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (Malaysia University of Science). She had timed my visit to coincide with the Hari Raya Adilfitri, one of the high Muslim Read More

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Malaysia’s State of Penang is made up of a turtle-shaped island and a large strip of land on the mainland, joined by one of the longest bridges in the world, however when tourists refer to Penang (or Pulau Pinang in Malay), they almost always mean the island portion of the State. Featuring an exotic melange of old and new: the south side of Penang is home to the country’s second largest airport, an industrial area where electronics manufacturing reigns, and the world’s only Snake Temple; while on the northwestern tip, Penang National Park lures visitors with unspoiled natural beauty of Monkey Beach, waterfalls, jungle paths, and a meromictic lake.

Can’t view the above slide show of George Town, Penang, Malaysia? Click here.

In between, on the east coast, the capital of George Town melds a bustling port with one of the largest collection of intact pre-war buildings in the whole of SE Asia, earning it the designation of UNESCO World Heritage City in 2008. The British laid out the city in a grid system designed to segregate the races and to some degree, these invisible boundaries still exist, with neighborhoods such as Little India and Chinatown. I found the historic center of George Town to be compact and easily seen on foot; surprising me every few feet with another 200-year old temple, church, mosque, clan house, market, historic government house, or bazaar. Read More

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The driver who picked me up from the airport when I arrived in Penang suggested things I might want to see while visiting this part of Malaysia. “Of course, you want to spend time in George Town to see the many UNESCO World Heritage buildings. Kek Lok Si, Goddess of Mercy, and the Snake Temple are all interesting. And you must go to Batu Ferringhi; they have a good beach and the most incredible night bazaar.” Indeed, most of my time on Penang Island was spent wandering around George Town, but one day I just wanted to lie on the beach, so I caught a bus up to Batu Ferringhi.

From the moment I set foot on the beach I was disappointed. The sand was coarse and grainy and trash was scattered around. Granted, I’ve been spoiled by sugary white sand beaches in Thailand, the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and the Caribbean, but even the water here seemed dirty and signs warned of danger from jellyfish. I walked a couple of miles up the beach, hoping it would improve, but instead the further I went the more erosion was evident, forcing me to walk over sandbags in places.

Coarse sand and less-than-clean water made me scratch this beach off my list

Beaches at Batu Ferringhi are not swimmer friendly

I’d cut back over to the main highway and was making my way to the bus stop when rain came pouring down. I ducked under the first available store canopy and found myself standing in front of something called a fish spa. Intrigued, I peeked in the windows, until one of the proprietors stepped outside and reeled me in.

Can’t see the above video of the Fish Spa at Batu Ferringhi, on Penang Island, Malaysia? Click here.

Since he had limited English skills, he handed me a brochure that explained the concept of the spa. Garra rufa, also known as “doctor fish,” occur naturally in the waters of a hot spring in Kangal, Turkey. Locals Read More

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When I learned about the Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia, I knew I had to visit. Snakes and I have a long-standing relationship, which may have begun back in 1968, when my father brought home the new Bill Cosby album, “To Russell My Brother, Whom I Slept With.” One of the bits was about his parents, who insist there are invisible snakes on the floor so Bill won’t get out of his crib. When they leave, what ensues is an hysterical monologue between Bill and the snakes:

I’m just gonna stick my toe out here, snakes, so don’t you bite me or nothin.’ Just give it a little snaky lick when I stick my toe out. Okay, look. You can bite it, but don’t put none of your juice in it, okay snakes?

For some reason, that bit was indelibly engraved on my memory, and ever since, I have attracted snakes. As a child we had a snake that lived under the foundation of the garage. I can still remember sitting for hours, watching his little hole, willing him to come out. As an adult they have crawled across my feet in botanical gardens, sprawled across trails I hiked, and appeared wherever I lived. My magnetic draw for snakes peaked during the eleven years I lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, with a rat snake that lived in my attic crawlspace and a a three and a half foot Red-Bellied Water Snake that took up residence under my side deck. I affectionately named the latter Myrtle and I was the only person who could get close to her; whenever anyone else approached she would make a beeline for the protection of the deck. The idea of a temple full of snakes was just too good to pass up.

Can’t view the above YouTube video of the Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia? Click here.

The Snake Temple looked pretty much like any other Chinese Temple, with its obligatory concrete urn outside and red and gold altars inside, although this one was a bit less showy than others I had seen. I wandered around the main hall, watched people light candles and prostrate before the altar, and continued my circuit back to the front of the hall. I was mystified; there were no snakes here. Thinking maybe I was in the wrong place I approached a shaven-headed nun and asked where I could find the snakes. She looked at me like I was mad and insisted, “Snakes everywhere. Look.” My gaze followed her pointing finger to the rear altars, where naked tree branches protruded from china vases and intertwined to form miniature Read More

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I walked cautiously along the edge of the narrow streets, trying not to slip into the concrete gutters that separate George Town’s parading row houses from the road. Beside me, a gaunt Chinese man pedaled an ancient bicycle. The cluster of foot-long hairs growing from his bulbous black chin mole bounced in perfect time with his pumping feet, which emerged from beneath flowing pants with each down-stroke. Distracted by his flowing white hair as he pedaled past, I wandered too far out into the street; a motorbike whizzed past me with only centimeters to spare. On the other side of the motorcycle a horn sounded and for a moment we were three: a car passing a motorcycle passing a pedestrian – a trio hogging both lanes, seemingly oblivious to the oncoming panel van. Focus, I must focus.

Streets of George Town on Penang Malaysia

Concrete walkways cross gutters at edge of the street, providing access to multi-level sidewalks

At first, I tried using the sidewalks but in Penang they do not exist in the normal sense of the word. Shopkeepers and homeowners have each poured small concrete pads in front of their buildings without regard for the level of their neighbor’s stoop. In some places, steps access the multi-levels; in others the walkways simply end. Rare stretches of level sidewalk become obstacle courses of parked motorcycles, bicycles, or piles of merchandise for sale. And so, like everyone else, I walked in the street.

multi-level sidewalks in George Town on Penang Malaysia

The occasional stretch of level sidewalk is inevitably clogged with parked motorcycles and bicycles

Shops in Little India neighborhood in George Town Penang Malaysia

In Little India, shops roll merchandise to the edge of the street, blocking sidewalks

Pedicabs fall somewhere in the middle of the traffic hierarchy. One evening I hesitated a nanosecond too long in front of a row of lemon yellow pedicabs wrapped in a rainbow of plastic flowers. Sensing fresh meat, the Chinese driver smiled a gap-toothed grin and launched into his practiced spiel:

“You rike lide rady? Give you good lide. One hour. Thirty Lingit.” My feet were aching from hours of walking. I hesitated. He went in for the kill. “Give you velly, velly good lide, show you all praces in George Town.” Read More

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It is monsoon season here in Malaysia. Every morning dawns clear and sunny with a breeze that freshens, keeping the monstrous heat at bay. By early afternoon., blue-gray clouds roll in and darken the sky, threatening to release a deluge. The wind dies down; humidity and suffocating heat take its place. Everything drips. Inevitably, the rain comes, sometimes in sudden, torrential sheets that stop as quickly as they begin but more often as a steady drumbeat that lasts the afternoon and continues into the evening.

I have not yet adjusted to this pattern. It is my habit to write long into the night and sleep until 9 or 10 a.m. I do not need much sleep these days – five or six hours per night suffice – but even so I am missing the only sunny part of each day. The rhythm of life here is different and I am not yet in tune, but I like it.

Baan Talay Homestay, Tonjong Tokong, Penang

I like being in a homestay with an extended local family, where I can experience the ebb and flow of Malaysian life. Taking my shoes off before entering the house does not come easy and I often catch myself taking a couple of steps into the front foyer before I remember to back up and shed my sandals. I am taking advantage of their onsite library to read real books rather than iPhone books; it is good to hold an actual book in my hand again. My first choice was the newly released “Once a Jolly Hangman,” by Alan Shadrake. Baan Talay Homestay has a very personal connection to this book. The author stayed here while writing this expose about Singapore’s capital punishment policy, which results in secret hangings most any Friday at dawn. When Shadrake traveled to Singapore recently as part of a publicity tour he was promptly arrested on trumped up charges. Now released, he is fighting the charges but he cannot leave the country. Several days ago the owners packed up his computer and drove down to Singapore to deliver it, since he will likely be trapped there for an extended period. I haven’t seen them since, and I worry that they, too, will be in danger of prosecution, due to their association with the controversial author.

I also like the easy blending of cultures in Malaysia. Three major ethnic groups make up the population: Indians, originally from the southern part of India, who speak Tamil; Chinese who hail mostly from the Fujian province of China and speak Hokkien, a dialect entirely different from Mandarin or Cantonese; and Malays, the original inhabitants, who came over from Indonesia and speak Malay, which is so similar to Indonesian that I recognize words from previous travels around Bali. I like the way everyone speaks a minimum of two languages and how almost everyone speaks a little English, even if they claim not to, because English is a mandatory subject beginning in elementary school. I especially like the way everyone bends over backward to help, even if they have only broken English skills.

Smoke from my three large joss sticks floats toward Chinese lanterns that line the ceiling at Kwan Yin Buddhist temple in George Town

Me in traditional head scarf and abaya – a long black cloak – on a tour of the Kapital Keling Mosque in George Town

With all this diversity, I am astonished at how well the various ethnic groups seem to accept and respect one another, living side by side in harmony. Signs of peaceful accord are everywhere. In George Town, the capital of Penang, a mosque, Buddhist temple, Hindu temple, and Christian church coexist alongside one another on aptly named Harmony Street. Incredibly cheap Indian and Malay restaurants mount a friendly competition for customers with “hawkers” – open-air food courts surrounded by dozens of shiny stainless steel rolling food carts, each owned by a different proprietor offering his or her specialty.

Viva Food Court is popular for dinner, choose from any one of 20 or so vendors, each whipping up a different specialty

One of these hawker courts occupies the corner at the end of my street. If the rain has dampened my activity level it certainly has not dampened my appetite. Each day I sample something new: steamed sesame buns filled with creamy sweet custard, tempura shrimp fried in the world’s lightest and crispiest Read More