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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala

PENANG, MALAYSIA (continued)

June 6, Wednesday

Having spent only two days on Penang Island, I decided to skip the 22-hour train ride to Bangkok from Butterworth, a small town on mainland Malaysia just over Penang Bridge. Taking a one-hour flight instead means I have another whole day to explore Penang. Known as Pulau Pinang in Malay, the island became an important British trading port. It marks the northern entrance to the Straits of Malacca and was a crucial stopover for traders. Pinang, or betelnut, refers to the many areca palms that grew on the island. Tin mines, rubber plantations, and groves of pepper, nutmeg, clove, and areca trees all helped to make Penang a lucrative colony for the British.

Ginger flowers and fresh pineapple garnish this bowl of laksa, the best I tasted while in Malaysia. A woman had set up her narrow, near-invisible stall in the back corner of a rice plate restaurant on Georgetown’s Jalan Penang not far from the Komtar Tower. Every town in Malaysia has its own recipe for this soup, but two versions are particularly famous: laksa lemak in Malacca, enriched with coconut milk, and laksa asam of Penang, flavored with a tart tamarind-based broth. I liked how this hawker used the soup spoon as a sauce dish.
Sugumaran was born and raised on Penang Hill, with the city of Georgetown and the Andaman Sea stretched below. He learned how to make grasshoppers from young coconut leaves in a crafts class sponsored by the Malaysian government. Sugumaran generously offered me a lesson and then even made me fold two little grasshoppers myself to be sure that I would remember.
I suggested that he charge more for the souvenir, since it was only tourists that made their way up the hill on the funicular train for the views and expensive food. But he wasn’t interested in raising the price: “One ringgit is enough.”
The smell of incense drifts down Kimberly Street. Here the shops supply candles, brass urns, statues, tiny teacups, plastic fruit, spirit money, and every other altar adornment imaginable. At Eng Hong Trading Co., I somehow convince myself that there’s room in my suitcase for a box of pure sandalwood coils. When I admire a stack of paper ingots, the proprietor, Mrs. Goh, tells me that she makes them herself. She folds one slowly as I watch. Made from gilt paper and burned as offerings to one’s ancestors, the paper ingots will ensure they remain wealthy in their afterlife. Much classier, I think, than the paper credit cards and “Hell Bank” money so popular now. Like Sugumaran, Mrs. Goh makes me fold two ingots for her, just to be sure I’ll remember how when I return to the US.
Further down the road, I stop to watch a man dismantle a house with only a hammer. He’s a one-man demolition crew, knocking down bricks, columns, and beams all by himself. I stand for a long time, watching the old building fall piece by piece. The owner was renovating, said an older Indian man loitering with me. We both wonder what would be built in its place. Next door, rows upon rows of ceramic vats fill a large courtyard. I know this can mean only pickles or soy sauce. Light soy sauce, as it turns out. The owner speaks no English, but she lets me walk around and even lifts the lid of one vat so I can dip my finger in for a taste. If you bring in your old bottles, she shows me, they’ll fill them with the specific aged vat that you want.
Taking advantage of a mid-morning lull, a hawker carefully washes down his stall. Many restaurants and coffee shops will have two or three stalls included in their space. There's a mini-hawker center at every turn.
Although it’s more often than not Robusta coffee served here, Southeast Asians have figured out a way to add flavor to their beans: fry them in butter. Brewed to an opaque brown, filtered through muslin bags, and sweetened with condensed milk, the coffee in Malaysia is rich and addictive. The old cafés along Jalan Chulia still have marble-topped tables and cane chairs and old men lingering throughout the day. The owner will fry-roast his own beans, then brew each cup to order. But placards at newer cafes advertising quick, convenient Kopi Q coffee bags may be signaling the end to this tradition.
Cuttlefish and bunches of water spinach help merchandize a stall along a popular night market next to a seaside lovers’ lane. The ocean nearby is very polluted, and at low tide the stench hardly romantic. But this doesn’t seem to dissuade all the couples gathered along the restraining wall or strolling along the boardwalk. Here, a cool breeze is enjoyable no matter what the other conditions.

Next stop: Saigon, Vietnam >

June 2001