Penang, Malaysia: Miracles do Happen

“Do you believe in miracles?”our local guide Ronnie asked us in the van.

We gave him curious looks, unsure of how to respond. He gave us all a smile before continuing with his story: During the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Penang was the Malaysian state that was hit the worst with 68 casualties. During this time, a story of the baby on a mattress stood out among locals. It was Boxing Day, or the day after Christmas, and the baby’s family was having a picnic at the nearby beach. The huge wave came in, swept away the baby, then came back to the same spot with the child unharmed. This story has inspired many locals to move on after the tragedy. Ronnie said the people of Penang have always learned to endure despite so many changes throughout its rich history. And to emphasize his point, he asked us to look at the map of Penang—it was the shape of a turtle which is a symbol of fortitude and longevity.

Born and raised in Penang, our guide’s enthusiasm in talking about his hometown showed his pride for the “Pearl of the Orient.” He said he’s a true Penangite or a Penang local. He was a bundle of energy from the onset, asking us about our flight. We were touched by his concern and told him we were able to get proper rest during our smooth one-hour flight via Malaysia Airlines and Firefly. He seemed glad to hear this but he expressed his disappointment that we won’t get to stay longer in his beloved state. However, he assured us that our one-day trip will be filled with all that represents Penang: the heritage, the culture, the food and the island life.

Keeping the faith

Our first stop was the Snake Temple or the Temple of the White Cloud. It’s a Buddhist Taoist temple built in the honor of the deified monk, Chor Soo Kong. Snakes have been associated with him, particularly Wagler pit pipers. Construction of the temple was initiated through the donation of a Scottish man named David Brown who is said to have been healed by Chor Soo Kong of an illness that western medicine could not cure.

Ronnie pointed us the temple’s design, which is similar to other Taoist temples: a pair of Chinese lions at the entrance; a dragon at the left side and a phoenix on the right side of the roof; and having a dominant color of red and gold all throughout. The Snake Temple is just one of the many Taoist temples in Penang, he shared. Out of the about 1.5 million population, he said that approximately 70 percent of Penangites are Taoist Buddhist.

A touch of the old and the new

Our next destination was declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Heritage site in July 7, 2008. It was none other than the capital of Penang: Georgetown City, particularly the area known as Core Center. It boasts of a wellpreserved mix of colonial, Chinese and Indian influences in its architectural design. We passed several pre-war buildings that have been restored and are now home to modern day offices and other establishments. Ronnie said that they are allowed to upgrade facilities inside the building but must ensure that the original structure and façade remain.

Our guide took us to one of the popular destinations among tourists: the grand Khoo Khongsi clan house at Cannon Square which is located at the heart of the Core Center. A clan house is the home of a migrant Chinese family. This is where relatives are given a job, protection and shelter as they enter a new way of life in a foreign country. The Khoo Khongsi Clanhouse, completed in 1906, was so elaborate that it took 12-years to build. We were able to go inside the association building which was ornately designed with gold foils and intricate hand-carvings on large slabs of stone. The building has the Ancestral Hall where wooden ancestral tablets are housed as a symbol of respect to the clans’ predecessors. The Main Hall bore the mark of master craftsmen and this is where the clan gathers and observes practices and rituals that revolve around the Chinese calendar.

Afterwards, we were introduced to a new element in Georgetown City which is now fast grabbing the attention of tourists: the interactive street artwork of Ernest Zacharevich. His artwork showcased illustrations of local scenes with real objects incorporated in them. The first and perhaps the most familiar is the painting of two kids on an actual bicycle. According to a souvenir merchant across the street, the inspiration of adding street art in Georgetown City came to Zacharevich when he took a photo of actual kids on a bike on the very same spot where he placed this piece.

A taste of Penang

Ronnie ushered us inside an open spaced building brimming with locals and tourists. It was lunch hour at Restoran Kapitan, a Muslim Indian restaurant famous for its briyani (basmati spiced) rice. “Don’t worry, I ordered the best,” assured Ronnie. A few moments later, a spread of fish curry, quail sambal (chili sauce), spicy fried chicken, cuttlefish curry and fried vegetables were placed before us—each rich in flavor and spices that is identifiable to Indian cuisine. We enjoyed our feast as we and Ronnie talked more about Penang food.

Famous for street or hawker food, Ronnie said Penang has gathered various compliments from local and international food critics. Known as the “Food Capital of Malaysia,” Penangites are able to fuse Chinese, Malay and Indian influences and make the best qualities stand out in their local cuisine. “Next time you come back, make sure to try our laksa,” he declared with pride. He said that the local dish has been declared by CNN Go as #7 in the 50 Best Food in the World.

Island life

After Georgetown City, we took a few minutes’ drive to Batu Ferringhi or Foreigner’s Rock. Ronnie said that he has the perfect way for us to cap off a long day: to lounge at the soft, white sands of the beach while we waited for the signature view of a spectacular sunset and enjoying a tall glass of mint iced tea. I noticed few actually swam in the open water. Our guide said that this was because the beach is more known for sports activities such as parasailing and windsurfing.

After a relaxing rest, Ronnie urged us to get back on our feet to check out one last spot. At the other side of the beach, the main street of Batu Ferringhi is notorious for its night market or “Sidewalk Bazaar” where we saw a varying array of products from clothes, souvenir items, local handicrafts, jewelries, food stalls and massage parlors. Of course, we couldn’t resist a bit of shopping.

After an action-packed day, we bade farewell to Ronnie, thanked him for sharing his beautiful hometown to us and promised to come back and spend more time at Penang. In retrospect, I found myself curious as how Penangites are able to manage the amalgamation of contrasting influences and make it uniquely their own. The differences complemented each other and highlighted a community who is able to maintain their identity. And then I remember Ronnie’s story early on. Perhaps it’s because of a miracle or perhaps it’s simply because of the ability of locals to endure.