Penang became the first British possession in Southeast Asia when it was ceded to the British East India Company by the Sultan of Kedah in the late 18th century in exchange for military protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies. It's location in the Straits of Malacca allowed the British to use the island as a natural harbour and anchorage for their trading ships.
The British declared the island a free port to encourage trade and settlers were allowed to claim whatever land they could clear, no easy task as the island was thick with jungle. As the tin and rubber trades flourished Penang became increasingly popular with people from far and wide, making the island a melting pot of diverse cultures and religions, something that is as true today as any time in the island's past.
No wonder then that the island, and particularly its UNESCO capital Georgetown, is rated as one of the world's top places for food. Somewhat ironic therefore that we suffered our first bout of food poisoning within hours of arriving. This did little to deter us however as we set about eating our way through the islands many and varied styles of cooking. Favourite amongst these was the food we had at Teksen, a local favourite for many years. We had fried prawns with tamarind sauce, steamed fish in ginger and rice wine, szechuan pork ribs and pak choi with garlic butter. It was delicious.
Street life in Georgetown is equally diverse. Various trades are carried out in and around the traditional Chinese 'five foot way' shophouses, so called because of the covered walkways within the properties which are intended for public use, providing pedestrians shade from sun and rain. In practice navigating these walkways is easier said than done as they're often built at different heights and usually blocked with shop goods, scooters, or other strategically placed obstacles!
Our visit coincided with the Georgetown Festival, an annual, month-long event which celebrates the melting pot of cultures and religions that make up Penang. We booked tickets for the Manganiyar Seduction. The 'orchestra' is made up of 43 musicians (42 muslim and one hindu) seated in 36 red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows one on top of the other. The concert begins when a single cubicle lights up and the first musician begins to play. Soon another cubicle lights up and then another, creating a dramatic build-up of musical instruments and voices. The show has been performed all over the world (as the following clip shows) but by their own admission, getting entry visas for 42 muslims in some countries is not always straightforward!
As we travel south through Asia, its multi-faith and multi-ethnicity becomes ever more evident along with its paradoxes. Tonight we walked home along Chulia Street where prostitutes were openly flaunting themselves as the call to prayer was being chanted from the loudspeakers on the minarets of the local mosques
We had planned to stay a few extra days in Penang before making our way back to KL and onwards to Malaysia's other UNESCO site, Malacca. All that has changed however as we're now heading to Singapore to house-sit for for a family. We've got to look after a dog, a cat and some fish. Fingers crossed it all goes smoothly!