“Situations in which Fortune Threw Me”: Singapore and Penang
An Early Vacation:
After just an inaugural week of living and teaching in Maran I was unexpectedly sent on a holiday for the Chinese New Year. I figured that my school would almost certainly not have the Chinese New Year break since we have no Chinese students, but I guess I am just going to have used to totally unannounced 10 day vacations….shoot.
After discovering that I had a full week off of school in Maran and my roommate did too, we started looking at options for travel. We found an Air Asia deal on flights from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore for 48 RM, or $21 US dollars. We booked the one way flight. I know two other ETA’s that are living in Johor Bahru, which is right on the Singapore Malay border, and we planned to spend some nights there. We figured it was an economical easy decision; when else would we be able to go to Singapore for 21 dollars? Never. From there we figured cheap bus ticket prices, also brought down by the holiday travel could take us back home and allow us to see much of the country. The open ended plan was set. Traveling about the region is probably one of, if not the most educational aspect about the Fulbright program and I was excited for my first international adventure.
After a pretty tolerable and speedy bus ride to KL we went to the discount airline terminal and boarded our flight to Singapore. We arrived pretty late in the evening, but met up with our friends quickly. The next day we woke up ready to attack the city. Singapore is a pretty large city, but a pretty small country. What it lacks in size though it makes up with cleanliness and safety. It is literally top in the world in both of the categories; partially, because things like littering, theft, and drug trafficking are met with a $1000 fine, public caning, and execution…respectively. Singapore also has a very striking skyline and some real engineering marvels in the city. All in all, it is an impressively modern and almost eerily western city—it doesn’t have the grit and grim that is so common among the average Southeast Asian cities.
The main and most impressive spectacle to see while we were there though was surrounding the Chinese New Year. It seemed that most people across the Malay Peninsula traveled home to be with friends and family for the annual celebration. Many of these people traveled to places with high concentrations of other Chinese in Southeast Asia, like Singapore, which has a vast majority of Chinese, thus, one of the reasons it separated from the Malaysian nation. The streets were filled with homeward bound Singaporeans poised to enjoy the holiday with loved ones and to visit one of the many elaborate Buddhist Temples to pray for health and Prosperity for the coming year.
The festivities were pretty spectacular. Just walking down the street we saw a number of loin dances, listened to a variety traditional cymbal and drum circles, tried a lot of great food, and met some very friendly people. We checked out Chinatown, Little India, the main shopping drag on Orchard Road, the famous Raffles Hotel and the Singapore museum, which was very well put together. It gave a great history of the little nation and its vital importance as an emporium in the ages of the silk and spice trade and it’s development into a technologically futuristic city. My favorite of the first day definitely included a walk through the National Botanic Gardens. This precisely laid-out haven of flora was probably the best put together expanses I have seen. The Orchid Garden was definitely my favorite place in the city. If you have ever tried to imagine what paradise might look like, you probably imagined a place that looks pretty similar to the National Orchid Garden in Singapore. I tried to take a few photos, but like most things the scene was hard to capture. But, the evening was also quite a scene.
The night of Chinese New Year itself I made my way down to Chinatown to be engulfed by the crowds. The throngs of people made it feel like I was back at Thiapusam (except maybe a little cleaner). I walked down the street, did some food testing for good measure, and observed the performances and hordes of people. The highlight of the night however, was walking along the large bird nest-like sky bridge that crossed the main river and watched some remarkable fireworks against the backdrop of the Singapore skyline. The effect of the towering ultramodern buildings, the massive crowds, and the display of lights was enough to make the moment surreal; I was in Singapore for Chinese New Year. Unbelievable.
The next day was followed with some more local taste testing, and temple hopping, but what set the day apart was the Buda Tooth Temple in the heart of Chinatown. It was absurdly ornate with its heavy usage of gold leaf and fine woods. The structure itself was enough to make you pause on the street, but what was inside was one of the most elaborate displays of gold I have ever seen. The most extravagant part of the temple was, bar-none, the forth and highest floor where an actual tooth of Buda is supposedly held. Every other day of the year the tooth is held behind a closed door and vial, but on New Year’s Day it is open to the public, but no photography was allowed in the inner chamber. Like what has happened to me so many times before already while I have been here I was just in the right place at the right time to see something pretty exceptional. Despite getting rained on pretty profusely I had a great time both days.
After being in Singapore for two nights we were anxious and had enough time to see other places on the Malaysian peninsula. As a collective effort we found very cheap bus tickets and hostels in Penang, the former “Pearl of the Orient”. We, meaning me and 3 other male ETAs hopped a bus to KL and then road on one of the worst overnight train ride in the world to Penang. The train was rocking all over the place and uncomfortable, which is to be expected, but what made this train particularly heinous was that it was at least 40 Degrees Fahrenheit all night while I was stuck wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Zero sleep was had on the ice-box death train from Hades and as I shivered for 7 hours and watched frost form on the windows I tried to find relief by wrapping my head in a turban of dirty clothes. At the end of the ride I was sufficiently cold, tired, and putrid; although not before all four of us turned around simultaneously and began laughing hysterically at the irony of being so cold we couldn’t function in one of the hottest countries in the world. It was actually a lot of fun.
We arrived in Penang and immediately ferried across the straights of Melaka to the Island of Georgetown, the old colonial hub of Southeast Asia, by 5:30 AM. Sunrise over the peaceful island was remarkable as we walked along the Old Portuguese constructed streets and watched a sleepy city wake up. I viewed the morning routines of all the shop owners as they shrugged off the shroud of night and came alive: cooking, cleaning, conducting morning business, and merely gossiping. From that morning, Penang quickly became close in rank to my favorite place in Malaysia; the novelty and liveliness of the city was beautiful. The diversity of the city was also quite noticeable from the beginning. Such diversity provide for some local delicacies that were out-of-this-world good.
We filled our first of three days in Georgetown temple hopping, again, and observing some pretty exceptional Chinese Clan Houses that were full due to the New Year. We also checked out what used to be the lifeblood of the Island as we walked the old jetties where many merchants made there livelihood, and fortunes, off the perpetual trade that floated through. That evening though, we saw one of the most audaciously extravagant places of worship in the world, I’m sure. The Buddhist Temple Kek Lock Se is the largest Buddhist Temple in Southeast Asia and it’s pleasantly situated on mountain top at the center of Georgetown Island. There were more light bulbs covering the Temple than I had ever seen before in my life. There was not a square foot that was left untouched by one of the thousands of mini-light bulbs (that were essentially just like Christmas lights) and Chinese lanterns. Without the lights it would have been a very impressive structure by itself, but with the lights it was visible all across the Island city and was seemingly pulsing with radiance. Its pagoda towered and climbed into the night sky and as soon as we figured out we could climb it as well, we too spiraled into the sky to find a breathtaking view of the whole city. Despite being caught in the rain and not being able to find a bus back to the city center the night was perfect.
The next day we made one of my favorite decisions of my time in Malaysia: we rented motorbikes for the day to cruise around the Island for 24 hours. It was gorgeous. We rode to some more cool sites like a floating mosque and the Sleeping Buda Temple, but then we rode all the way up to the north end of the island to explore the National Forest Reserve. Once there we paid a boatman a little bit to take us to a beach. He floated us in his long boat to a place called Monkey Beach, and monkeys there were. After walking along the still very primitive beach huts we hiked to the top of a nearby light house and climbed it. The lighthouse led us to a really great panoramic view of the Forest Reserve. After a very hot hike down nothing sounded better to me than a swim, so I did. I wadded in the Pacific and Indian Oceans in a matter of two weeks, and I think it was the first time I had swam in the ocean since I was 8 years old.
For the rest of the time there I really made it my mission to try as much delicious food as I could. The gastronomic experience in Penang is pretty much as good as it gets. There is so much food in the city that you literally cannot go wrong: Nasi Kendar, Nasi Lemak, Penang Laksa, Mee Gorang Mamak, Fried oyster, Tandari Chicken, Char Kuay Teow…if it looked good I ate it, and I regretted nothing. We joked that we ate our way through the island, which is not an unfair statement. Every meal is so cheap, but I easily spent more on food than I did anything else on the trip, if that says anything.
The people there were overly welcome in the good old Malaysian fashion too. I met countless people that were more than eager to help me, fill me in on historic and current events, and even offered to take me on personal tours. It is more than safe to say that I learned so much from these people just by chatting with them over tea in the morning, sitting next to people in the restaurants, or buying produce from them in the streets. I am convinced that traveling is one of, if not the greatest learning tool, simply because you meet so many new and different people constantly.
After a bitter farewell with the Island of Georgetown we had our final meal and my roommate and I boarded the night bus back to KL. From KL we hopped another bus to Temerloh and from Temerloh we took yet another bus all the way back to Maran, Pahang. The trip was not very long but was a perfect amount of traveling learning and resting (while eating). I am now back teaching full time, tutoring and coaching and the busyness is starting to hit me. Life is good back in Maran and everyone is very excited to hear about our adventures. I am constantly reminded of just how blessed I am when I know that so many in Maran and other rural areas across the world have never been more than a few miles from their home. I can only hope that I am able to have such experiences so that I can share them and the lessons learned from them with as many as possible, and continue to learn about myself in the process.
“For these reasons, as soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors, I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world. I spent the remainder of my youth in traveling, in visiting courts and armies, in holding intercourse with men of different disposition and ranks, in collecting varied experience, in proving myself in the different situations into which fortune threw me, and, above all, in making such reflection on the matter of my experience as to secure my improvement.”