Tag Archives: Georgetown

The Penang Monsoons and Random Thoughts

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It’s been raining almost continuously for the past 24 hours and shows no sign of stopping. September began with occasional showers and a few heavy rain storms. Now, I’m told, the monsoons here in Penang will intensify and continue throughout October. Last night’s deluge kept people indoors and put a damper on the first evening’s celebration of the Nine Gods Festival. Too bad for the hawkers and street vendors — shopkeepers, too. When the weather keeps people inside, their business gets washed out along with the streets and sewers. By dinner time many of the streets were flooded. As I ventured out to find a bite to eat I donned my poncho and grabbed my umbrella then walked and waded down to Little India for some curried chicken, rice, and cabbage.

The Indians, and most Malays, eat with their hands – I should say, hand. They use the right hand only. I’ve not quite mastered the technique of one-handed tearing, mixing, and stuffing. Separating chicken meat from the bone has been a particular challenge. I either cheat by using both hands, or opt for spoon and fork (knives are never seen). The latter is readily accepted, but touching your food with the left hand seems offensive to them.

One day early in the month, I took a walk along the sea wall that lies between the bay and the park. It’s a pleasant place to be, having some big shade trees and a cooling breeze that blows in off the water. I spent some time watching a handful of anglers fishing from the sea wall. The spinning reels and rods they used were familiar enough from my own sport fishing days, but I noticed that one fisherman was using a spark plug as a sinker.
That’s the kind of improvisation I can admire and Fritz Schumacher would be proud of. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “appropriate technology.” I have to wonder – are we really entering a post-industrial era? And if we are, what new ways of using familiar high tech items will people come up
with? Has anyone ever come up with a list of the ten most useful items? My friend, the late Jim Corbett (Goatwalking), noted that the most important item for him to carry on his excursions into the desert wilderness was a metal cook pot because it was durable and could serve a number of different
functions in addition to cooking.

Want to take a cruise? Try the ferry that shuttles between the Georgetown jetty and Butterworth on the mainland side. Brief as it is – twelve minutes from one side to the other – the twenty knot breeze provides a pleasant respite on a hot and muggy afternoon. Penang’s answer to the Staten Island ferry may not be as scenic — it has nothing to compare to the Statue of Liberty — but it sure is cheap enough: 1.2 Ringgit (about 40 cents, US) for the round trip. You only pay heading onto the island; the return to the mainland is free.

Human Unity

Human unity is, in my opinion, the requisite step at this stage in our evolution as a species. Richard Flyer is one of those visionary activists who is doing a fine job in leading us toward it. A recent message from him reminded me of the work he has been doing for the past several years in his home community around Reno, Nevada. Under the rubric of Conscious Community Weavers, Richard has been bringing together people of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and political ideologies. Here is their stated intention:

I am here for mutual support to practice the universal Virtues of Love,
Integrity, Courage, Service, and Respect as a way to grow spiritually and to
become a catalyst for the emergence of a new society.
Get more details at

Many such groups appear to be forming in various places, but we have a very long way to go. As Richard observes, “Because of our human nature, group identification sometimes leads us to hang around people who think like us or who have the same beliefs. Unwittingly, we participate in dividing our society and community into those who believe like us and those who don’t.”

“When we get comfortable around people who think as we do, especially in religious and spiritual groups, we can actually hinder our spiritual growth because we are not challenged by the “other”–people who are different than us in some way. We hang out in our own “ghettos”–it could be a Christian, New Spiritual, democratic or republican, social activist, or other ghettos— all the while believing that our way is the best. This false sense of superiority (spiritual pride) is like a cancer within the society and unless we consciously try to overcome it, we are part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

Ethnic Diversity and State Religion

Malaysia provides a little different perspective on this than does America. It is ethnically and religiously diverse in a way that presents somewhat greater challenges than Americans have had to face in recent years. While peaceful and harmonious on the surface, I’ve begun to see that there are significant racial and religious tensions here, which a few politicians try to incite. One of the things about Malaysia that is different from the U.S. is that Malaysia has an official state religion. It happens to be Muslim. While other religions are tolerated and freely practiced, Islam is favored. From an American perspective that seems rather odd. Americans take for granted the “separation of church and state,” and it’s hard for us to
conceive of a reason why it should be otherwise. One’s religion, after all, seems for the most part to be an accident of birth. I happen to have been born into a Catholic family, so my religious training and early belief was Catholic. I was well into adulthood before I began to think for myself and to question what I was taught. If my parents had been, Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, I would have held and espoused the beliefs of that particular faith and practiced its rituals instead. The quest for the “one true religion,” therefore is vain. Ultimately, any thinking person must come to their own conclusions regarding the mysteries of existence, and make their own choices about their behavior based on that internal compass we call

Americans can be grateful for the fact that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part free thinkers and NOT religious fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or any other brand. One of our greatest freedoms is the freedom to believe what we want, to practice the rituals we want – or NOT, provided we don’t injure anyone, infringe their rights, or disturb their peace. There are many in the United States today who would like to impose their Christian fundamentalist beliefs and practices upon everyone else, and unfortunately the Republican Party has been pandering to them as a way of gaining support to win close elections.

What does it mean for a country to have an official religion? It means that the government supports financially that particular religious establishment, using public funds to build places of worship for that faith only, and basing civil laws upon its particular religious laws. In a country where the population comprises a diversity of ethnic and religious traditions, that’s bound to cause resentments and trouble sooner or later. Being forced to support someone else’s religious organization is patently unfair, and having to live with laws that may be in opposition to ones beliefs invites lawlessness and breeds corruption. One interesting observation I made a couple weeks ago was a sign posted outside a massage studio. It says,

“Public Notice: Male Muslims are prohibited from getting the services of female masseurs. Offenders will be prosecuted.”

Georgetown Excursions

The longer I stay in Georgetown, the more I like it. Although whole blocks are being cleared and rebuilt, much of the city, especially the areas close to the jetty, remains as it must have been a hundred or more years ago. In my walking explorations I see whole streets lined with old buildings pressed against one another that house various kinds of shops and warehouses. These are mostly Chinese neighborhoods that retain their ethnic character and old ways. One interesting fact that I discovered is that the Chinese in Penang and Malacca, because of their origins, speak the Hokkien dialect rather than Mandarin. Both of these cities have been designated as UN World Heritage Sites.

In bahasa Malaysia (the Malaysian language), pulau means “island” and tikus means “rat,” but the Pulau Tikus neighborhood is neither an island nor rat infested. In fact it’s a rather modern and pleasant middle-class area with apartments, shops, restaurants and cafes situated just a few blocks inland
from the luxurious hotels and condos that overlook the bay along trendy and expensive Gurney Drive.

Couch Surfing

Staying in Penang for several weeks now, I’ve had the good fortune of making several friends among the locals, besides socializing with a steady stream of foreign visitors. Last year, someone told me about a social network for travelers called CouchSurfing.com. It provides opportunities for people who like to travel to make friends around the world, and maybe save a little money by offering and accepting hospitality to/from one another. There is a fairly active CS community here in Penang and I’ve enjoyed meeting many of them. A couple weekends ago, one local CS member hosted a party at his Gurney Drive condo, which was well attended and lots of fun. You can see pictures at my photo gallery.


I have a preference for the food offered at the Indian restaurants here over that provided by most of the Chinese eateries. Even the Chinese themselves jokingly claim that “the Chinese will eat everything with four legs except the table,” and that’s not to mention most everything that swims, crawls, slithers or flies. Although I was a vegetarian for many years, I’ve long since added fish (with fin and scales) and poultry (mainly chicken) back into my diet. I try to avoid red meat, pork, and shellfish, which disqualifies most of the Chinese restaurants and food stalls around these parts, but one of the other guests here told me about a couple vegetarian Chinese restaurants up in Pulau Tikus. These are places where the food is good and nutritious. It only takes about 15 minutes by bus, so now I make it a point to go there to eat at least once a week. There are also a number of Chinese Chicken Rice specialty shops that I frequent, usually for lunches. These serve a few slices of roast chicken or duck on a bed of rice accompanied by a bit of plum sauce and hot pepper sauce, plus a bowl of thin broth, all for three or four Ringgit.

One thing I do miss here is popcorn. It’s my favorite snack and I eat it frequently when I’m back home,. I’ve not seen it anywhere since leaving California. I use an air popper, then drizzle the popcorn with olive oil,
add a bit of salt and grated Italian cheese or nutritional yeast. Yum. Other than peanuts, nuts are also not easy to find here. The 7-Eleven and a few other vendors do sell some roasted cashews in small packets but I don’t like the taste. I think it may have to do with the kind of oil they use in the roasting process.


I’m getting good advice from my editor at Chelsea Green, and am making good progress with the revisions to my book manuscript, which I hope to complete within a couple weeks. I plan to remain in Penang until then. In any case, I’ll have to leave Malaysia when my visa expires around the end of October. That may mean a month or two stay in Thailand, or I may decide to come right back.

Many people are asking what’s going to happen with the economy and the US dollar.

Near-term, I have no idea; long-term, I’ve been saying that the global elitist system of money, banking and finance is unsustainable, not to mention unfair and corrupt.

I see it as a good thing that Congress has refused to pass the bailout bill, but that may be just a temporary setback for the powers that be. We could be in for a wild ride.

Just remember, whatever happens in the realm of human structures, like money and finance, does not necessarily need to disrupt our ability to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves if we do not allow fear to separate us.

Sharing and cooperation will be the way toward survival and a better world.

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More Musings on Malaysia

August 28, 2008

Boxes and Behavior

Most people live their lives within a small box, seeking safety and comfort in the familiar.

But that’s another instance of the “attribution error.” Safety and comfort do not derive from familiarity, but rather more from things like having one’s wits about them, observing what’s going on around you, developing your instincts and confidence, and having a respectful, benevolent and friendly demeanor. The more I travel and explore, the more I believe that one can be safe and comfortable in strange places and situations. No adventure is without risk, however, but neither is staying put. It all comes down to doing whatever feeds one’s soul.

Discovering the “Straits States”

When I was a boy I had many hobbies. These included chemistry, model building, radio and electronics, and various things mechanical. That clearly put me in the nerd category. I spent hours alone building model airplanes from sticks of balsa wood and tissue paper, or putting together my own radio sets based on plans ordered from Popular Mechanics, or making various “products” from my collection of chemicals (including fireworks, of course). Another of my hobbies was stamp collecting. In those days it was almost conceivable, though still not practical, that one might possibly put together something approaching a complete set. The number of different stamps that have been issued since then must by now number in the millions.

I remember that amongst the stamps that I ordered “on approval” from ads in Popular Mechanics (you see a pattern here?) there were many that bore the name of “Straits Settlements.” I had no idea at the time what these “Straits Settlements” might be or where in the world they might be located. It turns out that they were some of the Malay states or “settlements,” then under British rule, that lie to the east and north of the Straits of Malacca. These included Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The independent country of Malaysia was formed In 1957 by uniting various states of the Malaysian peninsula with Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo. You might recognize some of the names of the peninsular states which include Johor, Selangor, Perak, Melaka and several others.

Hanging out here in Georgetown, the seat of the former British colony of Penang, now part of Malaysia, provides an interesting perspective on history. Fort Cornwallis, just around the corner from my guest house, was built by Sir Francis Light around the time of the American Revolution as part of the British strategy to control the Malay straits and the resources of Southeast Asia. Penang is diverse both ethnically and religiously. Unlike most other Malaysian states, it has a Chinese majority that is mostly Buddhist, but there are also Taoists and Christians (there is a strong Christian influence remaining from the colonial period). Penang also has a significant Indian population, which is mostly Hindu but many are Muslim. I suspect that it may be that long period of British control that is largely responsible for enabling Penang’s diversity.

Worlds in Contrast

A couple days ago I boarded a city bus, having no particular destination but with the expectation that it would take me somewhere I had not been before. I was wrong. While I may never have been at those particular geographical coordinates, the place where I ended up, called the Queensbay Mall a little way outside of Georgetown, was indistinguishable from so many other modern malls I’ve seen. It might just as easily have been in Tucson, Kansas City, Minneapolis, or London. It had the same stores selling the same brands at what amazingly appeared to be the same excessive (dollar equivalent) prices. Perhaps that’s why the place was relatively empty of shoppers. The Häagen-Dazs stand, for example, was offering two scoops of ice cream for something just over 15 Ringgit. THAT’S FIVE DOLLARS FOR PITY SAKE! That in a country where a good hearty meal can be had for as little as one dollar for breakfast, or two dollars for dinner. That’s exactly what I paid last night at a good restaurant in the “Little India” section of Georgetown. My two German friends, Bernie and Diane, and I each had a plate of Tandoori chicken with dal, mint chutney, a garnish of sliced cucumber and onion, with naan (Indian flat bread), plus a cup of milk tea. Total bill, 19 and a half Ringgit. That’s two dollars each.

I find the entire mall experience depressing. As lively, diverse, and interesting as the old city is, the malls to me are sterile and dead. I could hardly wait to get back to Georgetown. I rode the bus all the way back to Weld Quay (where the ferry boats depart for the mainland and Langkawi Island). There are numerous food carts and stalls in that area, so feeling a bit of a thirst I decided to sit down and order a drink. “What’ll it be?” There are, of course, all sorts of western carbonated, sugary soft drinks on offer, but fortunately, in these parts, one has other options.

“Would you please open up that cocoanut for me and hand me a straw and a spoon?”

“Three Ringgit.”

The cocoanut was so big and full of juice I could barely finish it. The cocoanut meat was a bonus that provided enough of a snack to hold me until dinner time.

Living Free and Living Well

Once you sort out your real needs from your conditioned and fear-based ones, it takes surprisingly little money to live well. You can get a family room in a guesthouse with A/C for around 10 to 15 US dollars per day. I’m alone so my expenses can be a bit lower but I have opted for the more deluxe accommodations: double room with A/C, shared bath for RM 35 (a shade above ten dollars US). This place is VERY clean, provides free internet access for guests on two computers, plus Wi-Fi if you have your own; free drinking water, coffee, tea. There’s an abundance of other similar places nearby but the SD Guesthouse is the best one I’ve found.

One correspondent from England wrote me recently expressing envy at my ability to travel and live as I do. He has a wife and two young children which does impose some additional constraints. Taking care of preschoolers is a mighty challenge, but in a couple years he should be able to take them around the world to everyone’s benefit. Just last evening, as I stopped in front of a side street puppet show, which a few minutes later attracted a family of four who told me they are on a 14 month world holiday. They are English and their two kids look to be about 5 and 8. What better school for them than the world? They are staying at another guesthouse just around the corner, for which they pay about the same as I do for mine.

Getting Beneath the Surface

Georgetown does not reveal itself easily. It takes some time and effort to get beneath the surface to see what’s going on here. That’s why I’ve chosen to stay on (I’ve already been here ten days and am considering making Penang my base in Asia). While many tourists visit Penang, and the official literature highlights the usual assortment of temples, museums and landmarks, Penang has a life of its own that does not depend on tourism. Unlike places like Bali, where so many ceremonies and celebrations are staged for the benefit of the tourists, Georgetown residents do it for themselves. I’m fortunate to be here during the Hungry Ghost festival which happens during the seventh month of the lunar Chinese calendar, and to have the guidance of Mr. Sun, a Chinese native of Penang, who is the day clerk at my guesthouse. While I noticed one of the outdoor stages that was set up for the celebration, and watched some of the performances there, I would never have known about another venue and the amazing events there if Mr. Sun had not told me about it. Last weekend I went there in the company of two French women who were also staying here. Except for a German couple, ours were the only western faces to be seen amongst the estimated crowd of tow t three hundred people. I felt as if we were crashing someone’s party, which we probably were, but we were shortly invited to join a table of Chinese who kept us well supplied with beer and food.

The Hungry Ghost festival can be loosely compared to our Halloween, but the elaborate rituals and activities designed to placate lost souls make ours look pale in comparison. I’m too lazy to write about it in detail, but you can see some pictures on my photo gallery: http://picasaweb.google.com/tomazhg. Imagine performance stages set up all over town, each providing entertainment for several nights running -singers and sexy dancers. Imagine elaborate decorations and a climaxing bonfire in which all are consumed, then everyone joining a parade to a nearby street at which each person receives multiple gifts. I ended up with 17 little packets, each containing a coin or two, which added up to about four Ringgit.

I could go on but I prefer to not burden either my readers or myself with lengthy descriptions. Sometimes a sketch is more appreciated than a portrait.

Here’s a slide show you can watch.