Tuesday, June 16, 2009

De-Laosing Part 1: Penang

Ok, so I did manage to get one more Laos joke out of the way, but I really do think I am spent now. So here are more pictures, although I still haven't gotten around to doing New Year's Eve in Bangkok yet. That will either be later this week or next, and I apologize for the anachronistic order. Fortunately a large number of my readers are comfortable with anachronisms. Har har.

But first...on February 25th I had to do my first Visa run, and rather than doing the normal destinations of Vientiane (Laos) or Phnom Penh (Cambodia), I found a special on Air Asia for round trip tickets to Penang, one of the major cities in Malaysia. I figured I would have ample opportunity to visit Laos (which I now have, excessively) and Cambodia later. So I hopped on a plane and winged my way to the island of Penang.

Malaysia was a fascinating trip. Like most of the other areas in Asia that had been colonies to Western powers it is an intriguing mix of cultures and histories co-existing. On one street through Georgetown, which is the capital of the island, there are two Mosques, an Anglican Church and a Chinese clan/spirit house. Proximity to China, the English colonization and the fact that according to the government all ethnic Malays are Muslim lead us to a fascinating confluence of cultures.

Of course one of the fun things about going anywhere outside of the U.S. or England is having fun with local signs translated into English. Of course there are no doubt blogs out there with people from Mexico laughing at the warning sings in Spanish we have posted in the U.S., so it all tends to balance out in the end I suppose.

I don't have any pictures of my hotel room, because it's kind of what I like to call 'Generic Cheap Chic'. Four white walls, a fan and an ugly bedspread is all it takes to get me in for the night when I'm on the road. One of the delightful benefits of being 23 is that without a significant other or child to plan for I can just book in to a cheap shack and be out the next morning to get the show on the road. Of course sometimes morning means 11 AM...but that is still morning, darn it.

I also don't have any pictures of the Thai Consulate because...yeah. The Consular section was boring, and they don't let you in to the pretty parts. So after spending Thursday morning getting my Passport submitted for a Visa, I went to play the part of the tourist. First off I hit the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi, the Khoo family Clan House. It is quiet, with a sort of restrained elegance, a subtle air about it.


Or not. It is pretty awesome, though. If your clan's spirits are going to live there for all eternity and watch over you and their other descendants, you might as well bling up the place. This is the Chinese Buddhist equivalent of spinning rims and big gold electroplated crosses. Penang, gangster style.

It is pretty impressive, however. Part temple, part shrine and part booster club, it also serves as part graveyard. Tucked away in one of the other buildings to one side of the Palace de Bling up above, is the memorial to past members of the family.

And here is a close-up on them:

It is actually very interesting to be in. You pay 5 Malaysian Ringitt to get in (about $1.50), which does give it a mildly mercenary feeling, but there is a lot of history here. Some interesting paintings that were too large to get any kind of good snapshot of, shrines and pictures and incense to be lit and all sorts of history going on in the building.

The Eight Immortals

One of the most unique buildings I have been in, and I am quickly racking up unique buildings.

Next I went to a couple of mosques. As I said there were two on the street that the Khoo Spirit house and the Anglican church. I didn't get too many pictures of the first one because it was not architecturally interesting. I walked up to a gate and let myself in to this small mosque on the end of the street, and the two old men inside paid me absolutely no notice. They wandered around for a bit, and then went to sleep. I took this as a sign that it was ok to explore, rather than that this tubby white boy wandering around was so boring as to drop them in to a coma.

Part of the Muslim service involves ritual cleaning before prayer, and mosques have pools set up for the faithful to do this in (segregated in to different pools for men and women). This is the pool at the first mosque.

The second mosque I went to was advertised on WikiTravel and in local pamphlets as being the mosque that handles tourists, a must see to stop by on the way so I went to do so. I managed to get one good picture, and about only one good picture. Not because it wasn't architecturally interesting, however.

I thought that was a particularly compelling and interesting feature to be set up in the windows of a mosque. You can't see it, but those windows wrap all the way around a kind of central dome raised from the roof of the mosque. From memory I would say there were about sixteen of the windows, sixteen green tinted Star of David windows letting in light to Penang's premier mosque.

Now I did say that I only got the one picture, and not because of a lack of interesting architecture. I only got the one picture because shortly after taking it I was very politely thrown out of the mosque. Apparently the central area that I was traipsing through is reserved only for muslims at this locale. I later found a tour through the rest of the mosque, but I can still say that I have been escorted out of a mosque which is fun. It is also interesting that the tourist mosque wouldn't let me wander around willy nilly and had a security guard, but the out of the way 'non tourist' one had two sleeping men who didn't care enough to not take a nap about my wanderings. Life is fun.

So then I wandered down to the Anglican church. The oldest Anglican church in South-East Asia (which seems, upon reflection, to be similar to claiming to be the richest white Jew in my apartment building, but sounds more impressive), it was...church-shaped and surprisingly boring. For a church that came out of decades of bloody fighting and on the backs of several decapitated Queens (Crown, not drag) they seemed to stick to pretty austere buildings.

After this I did stop by a couple of Buddhist temples, in a couple of different locations. My apartment was right in Chinatown, so I was literally next door to one and there were several on the street that included the mosque and the church.

One of the unique aspects to Buddhism, which it shares with animistic religions, is the nature of the offerings to Buddhe/the spirits. While Jews once sacrificed bulls in the temple and Christians and Muslims give to charity and donate to the church for spiritual means, Buddhist offerings different. They are actually concerned with giving the Buddha or their ancestors comforts from the real world, things that they would have appreciated while they were here. Offerings of food are common, in case they got hungry I suppose.

But at the Buddhist temple right next to my hotel I saw the best thing ever. I almost converted on the spot right there, simply on the promise that someday one of my descendants might leave me this offering, to help ease my soul in the afterlife and let me know that they were thinking of me. It was a religious experience. It stood there like some kind of divine artifact, drawing me in.

Yeah baby. I think I'm a convert.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Matthew,

    I don't know how I overlooked this delightful travelog. I really enjoyed the pictures, and the accompanying description. I look forward to more!




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