Exploring Georgetown: Chingay and Kuan Yin Teng Temple

Guess what? Today we are headed to Thailand!!

Peter has a couple days off work this week and next Monday is election day here in Malaysia so we are staying on the Phi Phi Islands for my birthday! Woohoo!!

I turn 25 on May 15th and feel very indifferent about the whole thing. I used to joke that I was approaching my quarter life crisis and once that happened all bets were off. Well I think that crisis actually happened once I graduated from college and now, 3 years later, I feel much more settled and secure in my twenties. I am not worried about turning 30 in five years. Instead I am excited to see what unfolds in these next five years.

Ugh I sound like a grown-up. To avoid going into responsible grown-up discussions I will  steer the conversation back to a fun topic… Georgetown!

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The most well known area on the island of Penang is Georgetown, a beautiful and eclectic city with old colonial buildings, great food, and of course many temples. One of Peter’s coworkers graciously picked up at our apartment in Bayan Lepas and drove us to lunch in Georgetown one weekend. It was my first time in Georgetown and I was so excited.

She and her husband brought us to an open-air world food market which was crowded, hot, and packed with food stalls selling various regional and international dishes.

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I chose Japanese and ordered a platter of salmon, white rice, vegetables, and miso soup. But first I needed some hydration in the form of my favorite natural beverage… COCONUT! I love coconut so much. Remember when I was so desperate for some coconut that I nearly sliced my finger off in Shanghai? Yeah, I like coconut. It is perfect for these hot tropical days in Penang.

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As much as I enjoyed the Japanese food, I wished I had ventured to try some unfamiliar dishes in the other stalls. For example, Curry Mee is a Malaysian dish that is a spicy curry soup with thin yellow egg noodles, chili, coconut milk and your choice of add-ins like fish, egg, pork blood, and fish balls.

GIMME. Next time I will have to try this. Pork blood is actually very delicious. Seriously.

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After lunch our friends took us on an unexpected car tour of Georgetown. First stop was The Padang, or field next to Fort Conwallis. When we arrived we noticed a huge group of Chinese students carrying enormous flags. We learned that this is Chingay, the skilled art of balancing a giant sized flag while performing various acrobatic tricks and stunts. The very basic skill is balancing the flag on your forehead.

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After wowing the students with his fluency in Mandarin, Peter decided to give Chingay a try. It couldn’t be that hard right?

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After barely managing to bring the flag up to his hands, Peter shifted it into one hand… and started running as the flag began falling away. It was hilarious to watch as he sprinted down the field. Thankfully the guys in charge managed to grab the flag before it crashed to the ground. Not so easy huh!

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Chingay is not easy but is definitely amusing!

Next to The Padang is The Espanade, an ocean-side promenade expressing Georgetown’s colonial past. It is full of locals and tourists walking, lounging, and relaxing in the heat. In Penang people love to relax by the ocean, even if it is 90 degrees and humid outside. It is impressive really.

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Because it was a scorching hot day, we set our sights on the various street food stalls offering refreshments. Peter recommended the lime drink which is basically ice cold water with lime and sugar. Can you say delicious?

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For RM1.50 it was a sweet deal for a sweet and delicious treat. Peter enjoys anything with sugar so he was happy.

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Next, our wonderful tour guides drove us by some well-known places in Georgetown including Fort Cornwallis, the Courthouse, and Little India. We noticed that many Chinese temples were celebrating some event or holiday with dozens of pillars giving off dense smoke. At the end of China Street we got out of the car to take a look at the most prominent Chinese temple in the heart of Georgetown, known as Kuan Yin Teng Temple.

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As we approached the entrance, the smoke from the burning incense torches blew directly into our faces, not a pleasant experience I might add. This is probably why I have no photos of the entrance, too much smoke!

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I love the ritual of lighting incense candles and waving the smoke in prayer. It reminds of how we light prayer candles in the Catholic church, it is symbolic and smells good!

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Now the one ritual I failed to understand is the little birds they had for sale. People were purchasing the birds to be released somewhere inside the temple. Why? I have no idea. Where did they get these birds? And why are they are so small? So many questions. I felt sad for the birds crowded so closely in the small cages. I almost bought a few just to set them free.

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It was honestly much too hot to explore the temple throughly so we took a quick stroll through the crowded courtyard and exited. But first I snapped this hilarious pictures of an old Chinese man in a “We Build This City” Journey t-shirt. Rock on dude.

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Across the street we encountered a small Hindu shrine next to a sign pointing towards Little India. This is no surprise since Georgetown is a small and diverse city (town?) with many cultures located side by side. From Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and British colonial influences, Georgetown offers a variety of experience similar to Epcot. Sounds strange but if you’ve been to Epcot you can understand what I mean.

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In the vicinity of the temple, we also found a flower market with bright bouquets and wreaths for decorating homes as well as shrines like the Hindu shrine above. At each flower stall, florists were hard at work cutting blooms and creating custom bouquets for customers.

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The flowers were so fresh and beautiful. I learned that many of the flowers are dyed to achieve elusive bright colors like blue and hot pink. For a second I wondered what is the name of the electric blue flower!

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After the flower market, our friends had to go home so we hopped in their blissfully air-conditioned car and headed home.

Although we did not get to spend much time in Georgetown, I had a great time getting introduced to this quirky city. The city may be small but there are so many things to see and experience. I now have a running list of places to explore and I am excited take my sweet time throughly diving into the unique culture of Penang.

Peter and I made a pact to explore at least one new place each weekend for the rest of our year in Penang. Whether it is a temple, beach, Little India, or food market, we are determined to see it all. Besides there is much to expat life (link) than malls and Starbucks :-).


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