We left Pakbara by land and took a mini-van across the border and into Malaysia. We had a brief stop in the city of Hat Yai. This southern-most portion of Thailand is home to the minority Thai Muslims, and they are easy to spot with the women wearing headscarfs. There is infrequent violence between the Thai police/military and local Muslim extremists in this area, so we were just passing through. Hat Yai had a bunch of punk rock Thai kids hanging out at the downtown, dressed up like they had just spent all their money at Hot Topic (a ‘punk-rock’ store at many American malls). We had some really good donuts at Mister Donut, then got back in the bus headed for Malaysia.
Our mini-van arrived on the island of Penang from the Malaysian Peninsula by ferry. There is a bridge that seemed to be a much quicker way of arriving, but the approach by ferry was more scenic. Penang is a really interesting place with an incredible mix of people on an island off the coast of Malaysia in the Strait of Melaka. On Penang, the city of Georgetown is the oldest city on the island and the most popular destination for modern tourists, and where we spent most of our time.
Georgetown was established by the British East India Company in the 1700s. Chinese traders, Malays, European colonialists, Eurasians and Indians populated the port at this time. Penang was at the crossroads of the many trading ships passing through the Strait of Melacca from India, China, Europe and others resulting in a population mix of many Chinese, along with many Tamil Indians, and Muslim Malays. Today, Penang has a thriving technology industry and is a common tourist destination.
We walked through Little India, listening to Bollywood tunes, browsing through saris, passing shops selling gold and statues of Ganesha while smelling Nag Champa. A few blocks later we were looking at old Chinese houses, Buddhist temples and watching street vendors whip up Chinese noodles and steamed buns while the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer echoed throughout the city. The old part of Georgetown is an amazing mix of cultures in a small area, with mosques, Catholic churches, statues of Ganesha, Buddhist temples, with a great mingling of many types of people, languages, clothing and food. Walking down the street you see all types of writing on the signs: Arabic, Chinese, Malay, English and others.
The food here is great, especially the food from little carts on the street. We have had excellent Indian curry, Chinese food, and Malay “Baba Nonya” food for very good prices (nothing much above $3 US). The roti on the street is great, and we have had lots of delicious and cheap seafood as well. Signs tell locals if the food is halal vegetarian.
We rented a scooter and rode out to a big Buddhist temple (Kek Lok Si) on a hill, with nice views of Penang below. They are building a new temple and for a $10 donation we wrote our names on a tile that will be used on the roof of the temple. Next we will take a boat across the Strait of Melaka to the town of Medan, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
***click to enlarge photos***