Wish You Were Here: Penang, Malaysia

It’s 10 p.m. and our street in Penang is stirring to life. The two girls on the corner have been chopping vegetables and heating big pots of frying oil since early evening. They’re settling into the rush now, stirring, dishing, carrying plates, taking money, coaxing the smells further and further out of the pot and down the street, priestesses calling their people to worship. The streetlight catches the yellow sheen of one of the girls’ headscarves. They can’t be more than 20 years old, but these girls run the place like they’ve been doing it since they could stand. Laughter echoes all around them but I can’t see where it begins. The narrow cone of streetlight is focused only on them, lead actors in their play.

In the morning the street is silent, the sunlight milky. We wander down the tiles, shaded for blocks by the overhanging second stories of Penang’s old colonial buildings. Some are grey and crumbling, others have been painted in Easter pinks, blues, and greens. Never have I seen blocks and blocks full of colonial buildings preserved as they are in Penang’s Georgetown neighborhood. Apparently a rent control law made development unprofitable until recently, and so we pass under arch after rounded arch, our feet whispering across one tile design to the next, the smell of ancient stone commingling with rancid oil and baking bread.

We cross a busy street and find ourselves in another quiet neighborhood, birdsong punctuated every few blocks by the clatter of a crowded breakfast restaurant. Big faded signs proclaim curtain and carpet factories that must have closed twenty years ago. The retro feeling pleasantly overwhelms. The streets are wider here than in Thailand and the overhangs protect the space to walk. The city’s pace is neither lax nor rushed. From the little we’ve seen of it so far, Penang is sure of itself but not arrogant. It has its own tried, steady way of doing things, and doesn’t worry overmuch of what outsiders think. As for what it thinks of outsiders, it doesn’t seem to think very much at all. We are neither fawned over nor pestered and scammed, and it’s nice to wander in a city that doesn’t care overmuch about our foreignness. On one hand, there are fewer tourists here than in Thailand–we don’t feel the tension of membership in an invasive species that is slowly overrunning the local landscape. On the other hand, it’s obvious that everyone has interacted with plenty of foreigners, and no one gawks or scowls, or hesitates to tell us where the nearest taxi queue is.

We pass two busy restaurants, both of which are packed and smell delicious.  Penang makes room for a world of food: Indian, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, “Western,” and on and on. When we come to a place only half full but equally good smelling, we go in and sit at one of the green plastic tables. We are the only Westerners here as far as we can tell from the languages spoken at neighboring tables. A waitress comes over and asks us if we’d like a baby chair. She seems to know that we won’t know what to order and she has no menus. She takes David to the front where some of the dishes are being cooked, so he can see what other people are ordering

Penang Dim Sum

The restaurateur very proud of his craft

He comes back with a tray of small plates and my eyes light up. We’ve stumbled into a Dim Sum joint! The dumplings are hot, glutinous, broth-soaked, and delicious. It’s been weeks since I’ve had a meal that does so much for my general well-being. My favorite is the steamed white bun with pork, pork fat, and vegetables inside. The  bright white bread is the softest in the world. I want to take it home and use it as a pillow. But it must be gobbled up immediately, and it is.

It’s too hot to stay out much longer and we end up back at our apartment soon after eating. Penang is hotter than Thailand but less humid than Kho Phangan, the island where we’ve been staying for the past month. We have only a few days here and we explore it a few hours, a few blocks at a time. Every other wall in Georgetown is adorned with skilled street art, so that people are living and breathing art whether or not they can afford to own any. We find ourselves wondering what it would be like to live here for a while. In Southeast Asia you must choose between hot and sunny and hot and rainy, but I have a feeling that Penang would be just as charming in the rain, if not more.

On our last evening, we go down to watch the girls at the corner again after Spencer is asleep. I’m full of roast chicken and iced lime juice with sugar from the night food court, and a hot cup of teh tarik from a cart on the way home, the tea made by “pulling,” or pouring hot black tea and condensed milk between cups until well-mixed and frothy. I wish we had saved one night to try the corner restaurant, but if Kho Phangan forces you to get to know her very quickly, Penang is relaxed and content to wait. The restaurant on the corner makes you feel as if it will be there forever, not waiting for you, but open-armed when you do finally show up.

If you’re reading this, I wish you remembrance of the people and places in your life who let you pick up where you left off, who are content to let you be yourself, because theirs is a play with room for many actors and theirs a stage with room for all the world.





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