Penang was the last stop on our tour and the site of the famous Uma and Ian wedding, which was the main reason for the trek to southeast Asia in the first place. We spent 4 nights in the heart of Georgetown, Penang in a 4 person serviced apartment with Emilie and Mikel (of Wimbledon fame). It doesn’t get much more authentic than that!
The Indian wedding ceremony/reception was on Friday morning and the Western reception was on Saturday night. We arrived Wednesday night and did wedding related activities for pretty much the whole duration of our stay. Even if we weren’t doing “wedding activities”, we were hanging out with the Western group of wedding attendees, so it was a lot of fun. Even though we were in a crazy unfamiliar place, we were with a group of people that we knew so there was an added degree of fun and familiarity that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. There were probably 20 or so English/Scottish/Spanish/French aka Western people who made the trip to Malaysia, along with 2 token Americans. We were all staying pretty close to each other in downtown Georgetown, Penang.
Penang is known for its amazing food. The best way to experience the wide range of Penang specialities is to go to one of the many hawker stalls. This is basically a stand-alone food court with tons of food vendors on the outside and tables on the inside. You get served drinks as you walk around and order things at the various stalls. The groom himself was kind enough to organize this event and walk us through the logistics.
One of the other things that makes Malaysia very cool is that the exchange rate really works well for Westerners. 1 USD equates to 3 Malaysian Ringgits. Most of the meals at these places cost between 4 and 12 ringgits. So if you were to order an “expensive” dish at the hawker stall, you would only be paying about $4. Because the food is so cheap, we were encouraged to try some stuff that you wouldn’t typically see in the UK.
The next day, Ian led the group of Westerners on a walking tour of the city. Actually a local Malaysian guy did the tour, but Ian organized it so he gets the credit.
Malaysia was under British control from the 1700s to August 31, 1957. As a result, there are a lot of English things around the city. Here is a clock tower built as a celebration of Queen Victoria. Even the name of the city we were in, Georgetown, was named after King George III.
The core city center area of Georgetown was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. The tour guide explained that the majority of the city center buildings were built around 1950 and hadn’t been updated since. To me, that doesn’t really warrant a historic protection title. That just seems like the buildings should have been updated, but weren’t. That would be like awarding the Rolls-Royce Indianapolis office building a World Heritage Status because it was built in the 50s. In reality, it is ugly, out of date, and costly. I have the same quarrel with the English brick townhouses that are all over the place in England. I get that they were built a long time ago, but why do you have to protect EVERYTHING? They are just houses. You should be able to do whatever you want with your own house. Anyway, sorry for rambling. Little India and the other protected areas of the city were very nice.
The Chinese used clan houses as a sort of halfway house for Chinese immigrants to find their feet. These clan houses helped the new Chinese immigrants with a place to stay until they found work. I totally understand protecting something like this. But why protect a 1950s building that’s currently being used as a jewelry store or pawn shop?
After the walking tour, the guys and girls split up. The girls went to Uma’s house to do girly things and the men continued with more sightseeing. We had a quick shopping break because I had to buy a veshti for the Indian ceremony. A veshti is a long skirt that is worn for formal Indian occasions. We had a quick stop in little India to haggle over some veshtis. It took 3 different stores and a lot of haggling, but I eventually got a veshti for 50 ringgits, or about $16. The original price was 170 ringgits, or $56. I’m still not sure if I got a good deal or not. Those Indian guys seem like masters of haggling. I have a feeling the veshti that I ended up getting was worth about $5. Oh well, you can’t argue when you look this good.
After a quick lunch and a very nice air conditioned bus ride, we ended up at Kek Lok Si Temple. This place is the largest Buddhist temple in SE asia and it’s situated at the top of a big hill. To get to the top, you walk up through a covered corridor of shops and vendors before emerging at the really impressive temple grounds.
And the end of the corridor, there is a pond with a million turtles, naturally.
After the turtle pond, comes the main event…..
Meanwhile, back at Uma’s house…..
After the temple, we took a funicular up to a higher point on the hill to see this giant statue of Kuan Yin. You can’t really tell size, but this thing is very big.
That evening, we had a nice meal back at Uma’s house and went to bed early in preparation for the 7:30 am ceremony the next morning! 7:30 am seemed quite early for a wedding ceremony, we but got there right on time nonetheless. When we arrived at 7:30, we were the first ones at the hall. This is about when we started to realize that the agenda for the weekend was set to Indian time, which allows a large buffer between the posted start time and the actual start time so that all of the Indian people can arrive an hour late. Oh well, since we were there early, we were able to snap some good photos in our Indian gear. Just to clarify, the bride is south Indian, but grew up in Penang. That’s why there is an Indian wedding in Penang. I would think that a typical Malay wedding would be a lot different.
After breakfast, the ceremony started. We got a really informative document, which was written by Uma’s dad that described what all of the different rituals were and what they meant, but I’m not going to try and explain what’s going on in these pictures. There was a lot going on and it lasted a few hours. It was very cool to see, but I’m not sure that I followed what was happening the entire time.
After the ceremony came to the end, there was lunch! I thought it was pretty cool that you get a meal on each side of the ceremony.
After the ceremony, we headed back to the apartment for a nap before we had to head to the temple for some more rituals.
After the rituals, while we were all waiting for a taxi, some guy who was involved with the next wedding asked if all 12 girls could help them out with the next ceremony. Apparently all of the Indian girls that were supposed to be there to do this task were late (surprise surprise) so he was in desperate need of 12 girls in saris. He really lucked out. All of the girls were asked to hold some sort of food dish and participate in a musical parade where they take the food from one temple to another. It was pretty hilarious to watch all of these white girls in saris participate in this Indian ritual. Here is Tara and her doughnut plate.
After the temple rituals, we headed back to Uma’s for yet another meal. It was really amazing how much Uma’s family fed us during the wedding. I can’t begin to think of the cost, but I am very grateful. This particular meal was my favorite because there was meat and because there was dosa (thin pancake type bread) that could be used as a tool to absorb all the liquid. I had a lot of difficulty eating rice and curry without a fork or spoon. The dosa was the perfect middle ground.
That evening, our group headed to a rooftop bar to get some drinks and celebrate. It was a lot of fun, but I don’t think we took any pictures. Drinks are the one thing in Malaysia that aren’t cheap. They seemed to be about the same price as in England. Oh well, can’t have it all.
The next day (Saturday), all we had on the agenda was the Western wedding reception in the evening so we decided to do some more touristy things during the day. While some of the others went to the beach, me and Tara headed to the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, aka the famous blue mansion. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is the way we have been getting around all week, which was with taxis. There are a few busses, but the best way to get around the actual city is with a taxi. They seem to be everywhere, and they are relatively cheap if you are willing to be hard nosed and haggle with them. As a general rule, if you don’t agree the total cost of the ride before you get in, you will pay a lot more. The meters were never used while we were there. Most of the taxi drivers immediately try to rip you off because you are white. The blue mansion house was a 45 minute walk from our apartment, but because we didn’t feel like arguing with a taxi driver that particular morning, we just decided to walk. After about 30 minutes of walking in 100 degree heat and 80% humidity, I was starting to question that decision.
Once we arrived at the house, we had 30 minute to kill before our tour so we decided to check out the extremely touristy chocolate museum next door. It was air conditioned and it sold iced coffee so it turned out to be a magical oasis in this steaming urban desert.
Made it to the blue house!
This house was built by a Chinese merchant in the late 1800s. The house is still in use today so all we really got to see was the courtyard and a few rooms. The house had some good examples of techniques used to keep the house cool before air conditioning. For one, they used air foils on the wooden window shutters to draw air through the house. The house was okay, but I think I would have rather gone to the beach or hung out by the pool.
That evening was the final wedding activity, the Western reception! It was held at a nice hotel and it was a ton of fun. Uma’s parents put on a great ceremony and once again the food was great. Here are some photos.
After a lot of fun, drinks, food, and dancing, our time in Malaysia was pretty much over. The next day, we flew back to London (via Singapore) with Emilie and Mikel.
We checked out the Singapore Airlines lounge in the Singapore airport and it was really nice. I was kinda expecting to be treated like a god when I walked in because the Singapore airport is so nice and I figured that the Singapore airlines lounge would have been the nicest place in the world. It was super nice, but I think the Senator Lounge in Frankfurt still holds my nicest lounge award.
The regular waiting area for this flight was actually incredibly nice. There was tons of space, free tea and coffee, and nice airport employees handing out candy. The Singapore airlines mascot even came over and took a photo with us on a polaroid camera.
That about does it for Singapore and Malaysia. This was a once in a lifetime experience and I’m very glad that we went. It was really eye opening to see this part of the world. I might even start to hold my tongue a little more when I start to complain about how inconvenient something is in the UK compared to America.
Last Malaysia food collage:
That’s all for now.