Published: April 2nd 2006April 2nd 2006
Pyramid of Perfection
A beautiful day at Sri Mahamariamman temple, Kuala Lumpur
Hustling hawkers, exhaust fumes, international fast food chains, neon lights, traffic…. Though this was not the vision I had conjured up with Malaysia’s tourism mantra, perhaps Kuala Lumpur was a good microcosm of Southeast Asia’s cities. For the bad and the ugly in this part of the world were also accompanied by the bright and beautiful …colorful tropical fruits and flowers in the marketplace, the bold saris and skirts of the women, artistically carved temple decorations, eternal t-shirts and flip-flops weather, softly glowing paper lanterns, and the smoky aroma of tandoori chicken grilling. Beyond all the activity at street level, a forest of chrome towers rises up to remind one of the development the region has witnessed, while a small army of beggars demonstrates whom the development miracles have excluded.
Leaving Thailand we hurtled even further towards modernity on incredibly smooth four-lane highways, which hastened our arrival in Penang, a large island off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia. Far from being a major resort destination, Penang is the second busiest commercial area in the country. The major city, Georgetown, was Britain’s first settlement in Malaysia, and colonial traces blend with the unique marriage of cultures that seem to coexist
Buddhist worshippers burn this in bins outside the Kuan Yin Teng temple -- Georgetown, Penang
there quite peacefully today. The predominantly Buddhist Chinese, Hindu Indians, and Muslim Malays all contribute different foods, architecture, and customs to make this area a medley of colors, smells, tastes, and allure. Intricately carved rafters and doors, platters of pomegranate offerings, twenty different shades of red and gold, fiery altars where paper money smolders, the sweet smell of thick-as-your-wrist florescent pink incense sticks burning are contributions of the Buddhist temples and Chinese clan houses. Particularly attractive was the Khoo Kongsi clan house, which nearly creates visual overload with its dozens of lanterns, paintings, and statues - every millimeter of its surfaces ooze decoration. Bright yellows, reds, pinks, and neon forms of every other color of the rainbow create an elaborate maze of interacting animals, gods, and limbs on the Hindu temples, while the simpler architecture and calmer atmosphere of the mosques and churches provide some balance to the scene.
There seems to be a fair number of things to see and do around the island, but we only made it out of the city once to Kek Lok Si temple. Located on a hill on the outskirts of Georgetown, Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple commands a lovely panorama over the
Three for Tea?
At one of the shrines in front of the ancestral tablets -- Georgetown, Penang
island. The grounds were basically closed when we arrived, which made me feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland clambering around the grounds alone. Seven-layer pastel pagodas sprouted from lotus flower blossoms, and marble dragons guarded passage to the upper level gardens surrounding the towering stupa.
Upon our descent we found a stall where we could sample assam laksa, one of the regional specialties which was SUPPOSEDLY reputed to have a minty taste. At first I thought it was just the surrounding marketplace emitting an overpowering horrible scent, but as I leaned closer to my dinner, I realized it was precisely this special dish that smelled like barf. The gag reflex was out in full force, and I could only stomach one mouthful before I had to leave for fear of adding to the overpowering smell with my own contribution. Back on backpacker alley, my adventurous culinary leanings waned and I settled for sampling a juice from the fluorescent pink dragonfruit, which is sweet and white inside and full of tiny kiwi-like seeds.
The main strip in Georgetown housing the food stalls, hostels, cafes, internet joints, and restaurants featuring thrice daily movies was a lively thoroughfare overflowing with
backpackers on the Southeast Asian overland trail. Though the city has its charming corners in the aforementioned religious buildings and that ‘old meets new’ appeal among its drinking quarters, one had to wonder why so many backpackers are holed up here; it seems that if one wanted to, the whole city could be explored in one day.
Even so, we made good use of this town for about a week. Our sightseeing in Penang was restricted by the burgeoning call of my bank account to stop and get a refill, so many long hours were spent searching online for jobs throughout Asia. After many ups and downs on that roller coaster ride, a location was selected, resumes were sent off, interviews were scheduled, and we were off to Kuala Lumpur to be able to receive the phone calls!
Another astoundingly easy and plush bus ride down smooth-as-ice highways brought us into the congested streets of the capital city. We stole peeks at the Petronas Towers (once the tallest buildings in the world, now replaced by Taipei 101) as we edged slowly closer to the Pudu station area, which is where most budget lodging and the giant Chinese night
Altar in Hainan Buddhist Temple (Georgetown, Penang)
market is located.
I happened upon a Hindu ceremony while touring around one of their central temples; I can’t actually say I understand what was going on - lots of banging drums, chanting, and carrying fruit from one shrine to the next around the central courtyard - but the women were dressed fabulously and no one seemed to mind me tagging along to observe. Outside the main portal, dozens of vendors sold these giant chains of flowers, limes, and coconuts to be offered by barefooted worshippers. As I followed the procession around the backside of the temple, doors opened onto a hotel lobby and I got to sneak a peek at the immaculately decorated bride and attendants of an Indian wedding party posing for pictures. I stood admiring the shimmering fabrics, elegant hairdos, the elaborate henna painting and the glimmering jewelry until they moved upstairs to continue their jovial festivities.
After the inclusive atmosphere of the Buddhist and Hindu temples, my experiences in Kuala Lumpur’s mosque left me rather disappointed… First of all, visiting a mosque as a sightseeing woman can’t be too intriguing when you have to put on these headscarves and robes that are made of
Giant fluorescent incense
Kuan Yin Teng temple -- Georgetown, Penang
what must be the hottest polyester known to humanity in the middle of a 95 F day. The modern minimalist style of Malaysia’s mosques also makes them less interesting, architecturally speaking. But I suppose what annoyed me most was that even though I had donned the garb and now had sweat gushing down my neck and back, I was shooed out of most parts of the mosque and its grounds. After my visit at the friendly and eager visitor center in Georgetown’s Kapitan Keling Mosque, I was caught off guard by the unwelcoming attitudes of the attendants on duty at Kuala Lumpur’s National Mosque.
In addition to temple-hopping and just enjoying people-watching, I loved shopping for unique gifts for the relatives. The markets were full of amazing crafts, and I was truly tempted to load up on beautiful masks, traditional kites, robes, paintings, home furnishings, and whole loads of handmade keepsakes for myself…until I remembered I don’t really have a house to put them in ;0)
I really wish I could have stayed longer in Kuala Lumpur, taking in the architecture, the street life, and great Indian food. What I enjoyed most of all was the liveliness and
Little Hairy Dude
At one of the Buddhist shrines in front of ancestral tablets -- Georgetown, Penang
the feeling of harmony among ‘different’ peoples. I always start to feel a tad bit bored visually when traveling in very homogenous societies, and Malaysia inspires to me to believe that different races and religions can live side by side in a respectful manner in this day and age, despite all the ‘clash of civilizations’ notions flying out there right now.
My last night in Southeast Asia I wandered around the central Merdeka Square just after sunset and watched thousands of twinkling lights turn the Sultan Abdul Samad Building into a fairytale castle, with the twin spires of the Petronas Towers jutting up on the horizon. As I trudged back in well-worn sandals to the 24-hour curry joint next door, this snapshot etched itself slowly in my mind - a city where colonial meets futuristic, cultural diversity meets commercial conformity, and centuries-old traditions are preserved next door to modern day convenience stores - leaving me with the perfect souvenir of a country that truly does epitomize Asia….
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