I'm actually really liking Penang, if for no other reason than it's so dramatically different from anything I've ever seen. It's a huge city but hardly modern, with tons of abandoned buildings, some of which only have one wall still standing. It's kinda sad and beautiful at the same time. It's also really diverse, considering. Malaysia is mostly Muslim, but there's tons of Indians and Chinese as well, and needless to say, we stand out.
Except at our hotel, where everyone is Western (lots of British and Australians) and the doormen wear khaki shorts, knee socks and pith helmets.
Last night, Ma and Pa and I headed out to an Indian place called Kashmir which appeared to be both closed and celebrating a child's birthday. Indian food is a standard here, and gloriously offered on pretty much every menu from room service to street carts. Kashmir, it turns out was open, and I can honestly say that the handful of other diners and I enjoyed one of the best Indian meals on earth. The garlic na'an alone...heaven.
After dinner, we wandered through the little, narrow, sidewalk-less streets of Penang, stumbling on what appeared to be a huge Buddhist Temple and essentially was, as well as being the headquarters of a really specific clan.
Briefly, a long time ago Chinese immigrants to Penang, and elsewhere I imagine, founded little neighborhood groups where they'd worship and help each other out and solve neighborhood disputes.
It's like an Asian Lion's Club.
Anyway, this very friendly if pushy barefooted guy encourages us to come in and look around, reminding us to take off our shoes before entering but otherwise, being really welcoming and enthusiastic. The next day, he informed us, would be the birthday party of the Queen of the Sea, the namesake of their clan. He assured us that this was a really big deal and we just HAD to come back the next day and "bling yoah camela!"
After dragging ourselves away from Barefoot, we headed over to this night market packed with all kinds of street-food I'm too chicken to eat and little shops full of crap. The food vendors were all interesting and funny, although seriously, there is no FDA here. Cooks use their bare hands on everything and it just seems like stall after stall of diarreah waiting to happen.
After a drink in the hotel bar, where the band sang "Desperado", I fell fast asleep and had a vivid dream about Big Chris leaving me with a brilliant idea. The main beer here (other than the oddly beloved Carlsberg) is Tiger Beer. Tiger..Chris...wait a second. I have to get Big Chris a Tiger Beer t-shirt! Why? He looks just like Tiger Woods.
I awoke this morning to a bizzarely international breakfast with the folks overlooking the Indian Ocean. At the bar the previous night, we'd agreed to go back to the Chinese Clan house, now referred to as "the Chinese place" and check out this birthday party.
"I'm in." My mother offered. "But I don't get why they have line dancing."
I slowly put down my drink. "Line dancing? What are you talking about?"
"Yeah, that guy said there's be line dancing and to bring our cameras."
"Mom. He said LION dancing."
I guess there was a little language ballier.
After breakfast, we walked past the Chinese place, but it looked kind of dead, save for three huge, colorfully decorated logs on fire out in front, covered in incense. We decided to head over to the Penang Museum and come back later, hoping for more action.
The Museum was great and really interesting, but mother-fucking hot. We are in the tropics, apparently not far from the equator, and I am over this heat. Halfway through the museum, I was on a mission to get water. I felt gross, I had dim sum and brie for breakfast and I was having visions of myself fainting by the traditional costume display.
Finally having secured myself the biggest bottle of water in all of Malaysia, we went back to the Chinese place. Lo and behold, there was Barefoot. As well as about 100 other people, a quarter of whom were obviously tourists. Our hosts could not have been more welcoming and I can't get over it. I'm Catholic and if some strange, oblivious foreigner shows up in the middle of Easter Mass, they'd better hang in the back and stand when we stand. But here, golly, they kept dragging us closer and closer, patting us on the back, so proud of their fabulous birthday party for the Queen of the Sea. The lions indeed were dancing, accompanied by little kids with cymbals and monstrous drums.
Inside the temple, all kinds of food was laid out as offerings, from cooked rice bowls to weird fruit to pink frosted cakes to hundreds of bags of rice and peanuts to Heineken with bows on it. Row after row of beer cans were placed delicately around the various shrines, all with a bow attached to the pull tab and everything kind of hazy through a never-ending smoke of incense.
In the courtyard, a man prepared a huge, propane wok full of noodles, which were free to everyone. As much as I liked these people, our chef was barefoot and touching everything with his hands. I know I'm being paranoid and very un-Bourdain like, but some of you may remember when I got food poisoning in Beijing 3 years ago. Other than losing 12 lbs. in a week, I don't really want to relive that experience.
The folks went back to our hotel to find Alex, who arrived this morning after 24 solo hours in Bangkok. He had a marvelous time, and I went through his digital camera making sure their were no dirty shots of 11 year old Thai boys.
While mom and dad checked in with the prodigal son, I wandered down the main street to the Muslim market where all kinds of stalls sell crappy t-shirts and lots of fabric. Batik is the big tourist trap here, as if pewter for some reason, and I was tempted to buy Zoe some funky sarong. But if I know my BFF, she's much rather some fake Tiffany and Co. than a poolside cover-up that will run in the wash.
We've just had lunch by the pool and are headed out tonight to E&O's sister hotel, somewhere up the beach. Across the street is the big Night Market, where I've been assured I'll find cheap jewelry and knock-offs. Sadly, Alex reports that the knock-offs in Bangkok sucked, and as he's been trained by his big sister, I trust he knows what he's talking about. If I can't find it tonight, darlings, you North Fakers aren't getting shit. The only other country left on our itinerary in Singapore and maybe you've heard, those guys don't fuck around. As much as I love a $7 North Face jacket, caning somehow doesn't seem worth it.
Across the impossible to cross street is a pedestrian road filled with Penang's hottest nightlife. Passing through last night, the place looked dead. There were some Asian rockers belting out that 4 Non-Blondes song from a million years ago, but the 20 people in the bar seemed more interested at staring at their coasters than rocking out to the hits of 1993. One of the bars is actually called Beach Blanket Babylon. Even in Penang, that place haunts me. Anyway, I might head over there tonight with Alex, but truth be told, I'd rather take a late night stroll down the alley known in shadier circles as Love Lane...