Reflections on Penang, Malaysia
The trip to Malaysia started as a necessary visa run. Every 30 days the country of Thailand feels the need to extricate me from their paradise and with options like Burma and Cambodia, Malaysia seemed like the natural spot for a visa run.
The last time I was in Malaysia was 1988. I was 12 years old and lucky enough to be good enough at soccer (back then I was devoted to calling it soccer and thought I could convince the rest of the world to change). My first stop in Malaysia in my last year as a pre-teen was Penang. I was placed with a foster family for the 5 days I spent in Penang. The father was an executive of Malaysia Airlines and for a small stipend, he agreed to put me up in his home. He displaced his brother and gave me the spare bedroom while he, his wife, his brother, and their two kids huddled up in the master bedroom so that young whitey (me) could be treated to his own room. This family was dirt poor. I remember the toilet being a hole in the ground and the food was served on one plate that we all ate off of. Despite being poor, the family enshrined a part of their living room to the television and a relatively new invention called the VCR. They had jack shit tapes to watch but they were poised for the coming of VCR tapes and entertainment in their living room,. It amazed me that they could forego living materials for the luxury of TV. But the tech was all the boom back then and it was for sure a status symbol.
Flash forward 20 years. I arrive in Penang by 4 public buses from my hood in Khanom, Thailand. I left at 9 am and arrived in Penang at 10 pm with only little breaks here and there. The border going into Malaysia was hilarious. You are actually allowed to simply walk across with no one even checking you. Most people get a stamp so that you can leave the country again at a later date, but if Malaysia is your last stop on earth, they welcome you with open arms. They grant you a 10 year visa just for showing up!
In Penang my guide book told me to head over to Lovers Lane where the budget hotels were. Sure Lovers Lane has a proper Malay name but every calls it by its lusty moniker. And for good reason. I arrived just late enough to see some street walkers that made me wish it was even darker outside. Picture the Asian friend of Han Solo in Star Wars and put a dress on that guy and you are half way there. They street walkers seem even embarrassed to be hocking their wares. They spoke to me with hushed beckons like: “Date?” “Honey?” – I was sad for them.
But they must get plenty of business. It is damn near impossible for men to get laid in Malaysia unless you are married. Muslim law keeps their women wrapped up like Christmas presents and there is zero flirtation in their eyes. Malaysian men are notorious for slipping over to Thailand for a quicky. I passed through Sadao, Thailand which is on the border. This is commonly known as the world’s largest outdoor brothel. Sure enough, every storefront is massage or Karaoke – which is just code for brothel.
But back to the land of getting none, Malaysia. My fondness childhood memory of this country was a delicious meal we had which involved all you could eat sticks of beef or chicken that you could dip into a large vat of peanut sauce. The peanut sauce was like melted peanut butter to my adolescent tongue and it stuck even firmer to my brain. The word I equate with this treat is Satay. I was lucky enough to have a Satay stand right outside my fleabag motel and I befriended the owner quickly. His name was Jimmy and he speaks good English because “My generation was told that English was the most important language. Now the Malay children only speak Malay. What a waste!”
Jimmy is first generation Malaysian and his parents and grandparents are from China, specifically the Hainan island outside of Hong Kong. There is a lot of Chinamen in Penang and I often heard Mandarin being spoken in the streets. Some street names have 3 names, a Malay, an English, and Mandarin characters written on the sign. Go equality! Jimmy was good to me and fed me a dozen satay sticks with his peanut sauce for RM $4 which is about $1 USD. While we were chatting, his neighbor stopped by. The woman was at least 80 and was riding a bicycle. She handed Jimmy two plastic bags full of porridge and rode off. Jimmy explained that she makes it every day and instead of throwing it away, she gives it to him. The porridge was plain, but warm and comforting. When I suggested that we could add some honey to it, Jimmy scoffed. “Some people like cinnamon or sugar – not Chinese people. This is how it tastes.”
I had some great meals in Penang. Indian food is the staple as Indians were the first to colonize Penang. After my trip to India, I found the Malaysian style to be quite greasy and not as satisfying. I did have an amazing food stall meal with Chinese egg omelettes with duck cooked inside. The duck was so good I asked for a whole plate of it and they brought me nothing but Daffy flesh – delish!
Leaving Penang was not hard to do. I muddled some of my childhood memories by returning there and found that it is more of a leaping point than anything else for me. Plus, I am getting old. When I went for dinner at 10 pm, I asked the Indian waiter for Doner Kebab (one of my faves). He told me they stopped serving that at 6 pm but would start again after midnight. Penang prides itself on being a 24 hour town. Me? I was actually looking forward to getting back to my mosquito filled, fan cooled, fleabag motel room. I am getting older and wiser. Penang – we will meet again.