“It’s all about trust. And when it comes to monkeys, I have none.“ — Anthony Bourdain
This is a good quote to live by. I should have learned my lesson a few weeks ago. Brad and I had just awoken and were strolling down a sleepy street in Cherating when we saw kitten sized baby monkeys swinging in the trees and pulling each other’s tails. I wanted to squeeze their little cheeks and rock them in my arms, and so we began to cross the street. I had forgotten that most mammal species are very protective over their young. Needless to say, we didn’t make it very far. Like a bat out of hell a massive monkey came flying out of the canopy, charging at us and screaming hysterically. We attempted to sprint away with lightning speed, yet without our morning coffee, it was more like a slow motion nightmare. When we were no longer deemed a threat, we slowed down and enjoyed a good laugh, dumbstruck by our own naiveté.
Now we found ourselves on the island of Penang, also known as the “Pearl of the Orient”. It is a place with significant location, and in the 17th century it served as a key entry point to the Strait of Malacca for Chinese, Indian, Arabian and European ships. Only becoming independent in the 1950s, it was a British colony for hundreds of years, and today it is a place which exemplifies multi-ethnicity: colonial buildings from the English territorial days, Chinese neighborhoods, Indian migrant workers, traditional Malay culture; this island had it all. There are other things that make this destination fascinating but I’ll get to that later.
Our quick jaunt in Penang began after a crossing of the Strait of Malacca via a 13 kilometer bridge. Once on the island, we had access to a landscape of jungle, waterfalls, fruit and spice orchards, fishing villages and beaches. As soon as we crossed the bridge, we veered in the opposite direction of the island’s main city, Georgetown. The maddening traffic and chaos of the city dissipated with each curve of the road and soon we were rolling through dense jungle hills and small one street villages. We explored random dirt roads and searched for a camp-worthy beach. We followed the main road for over an hour and then finally it ended. We were left wondering what to do next. Miraculously, through the trees we noticed the most picture perfect quiet beach inlet. Colorful fishing boats were scattered about and one massive tree canopied the inlet. We squeezed under and had just enough room to pop the top. We slept the night away next to a happy pack of lounging street dogs.
The next day we continued our drive, sheltered by the jungle canopy, and stopping next to a heaping pile of drained coconut husks and a strip of roadside vendors. Snacks of banana chips and the like were for sale, in addition to coconut oil for cooking and deliciously fragrant packs of local spices; cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg seeds, pepper and clove.
On our way back to the car, Brad led me to a large cage where a family of four monkeys resided. The parents sat in the center, bored and uninterested in us. They faced each other and picked through the others fur, removing bugs and anything else that looked out of place. The babies catapulted off the cage walls, full of energy, rambunctious and completely out of control. I kneeled forward, touching one of the babies’ hands. It reached out and wrapped its little hand around my index finger. I stared at its sharp but delicate little finger nails and imagined it was a human baby.
Suddenly my thoughts of this monkey, which had morphed into thoughts of human babies, and then specifically my future babies, came to an end. I felt myself being yanked forward, like my hair was being sucked into the fan of ten hair dryers. My head faced the ground and I couldn’t see what was going on, yet I could hear the scream of an alarmingly angry monkey. The crazed mother tightened her grip on my hair. I tried to display submissiveness by allowing my body to go limp while leaning forward to reduce the tension. Brad, seeing that I was one swipe away from having monkey nails in my face pulled me away in one quick motion. The mother had won. In her hand she proudly displayed a fistful of my hair.
I was humiliated. As I peered back at the monkeys, head burning, I watched as my hair was distributed amongst the four. They twisted it between their fingers, studied it closely, wrapped their tongues around it, and then ate it.
By lunchtime we had looped around the island, ending in Georgetown, Penang’s main city. And here was the reason why we really came to Penang: Season 8 Episode 8 of No Reservations; my all time favorite travel documentary visited here just one year prior. It was a surefire guarantee that really good food waited nearby.
The essence of the show is this: famous New York chef turned author turned television host travels to wild and foreign places, sampling local cuisine and seeing local culture. It is action packed with food erotica; unfamiliar faces, steam billowing from the hawker stands, alleyways with twisted jumbles of lights hanging from above, heaping piles of pork, and lots of bowls of chili and sauce. I freaking love it.
When we lived in Flagstaff, we often watched these shows at night. They were a source of entertainment, but also of inspiration, pushing us forward, keeping us focused on our goals. We wanted to go to these places too.
I was curious what Anthony Bourdain, host of the show thought of the place. Here’s a quote:
“I feel inexorably attached to Malaysia for many reasons, but one of them is that I got there early in my career as a traveler, wasn’t really ready for it, and was changed by the place. It seduced and overwhelmed me at the same time. The smells and colors and flavors—the look and sound of the place, the at times impenetrable mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures—it f***ed me all up”.
“Lots of people, lots of food, lots of cats. The cats are a good sign.”
I too have been left with an overwhelming excitement from Malaysia. The joy of first experiences – Malaysia being my first encounter with Asia – is that every sensation is intensified. Everything is more exciting and more intriguing. You feel like you are never going to get used to it and never shake the butterflies in your stomach. It is a wonderful feeling.
Georgetown didn’t disappoint. We spent most of the afternoon in the Chinese neighborhoods filled with antiques, electronics, keys repair shops, and quiet alleyways where the locals sat on their patios. We searched for interesting murals and were rewarded with a few glimpses of Ernest Zacharevic’s street artwork emblazoned on alley walls, which interestingly incorporated physical objects in his scenes as well.
Our highlight in Georgetown occurred on Chulai Steet at the Sky Hotel. On the street corner, a handsomely smiling Asian man worked behind his stand organizing and cutting strips of pork. After we chose between our two options of pork or duck we sat down in the open air dining area which consumed the ground floor of the building. An older man stood in the back washing dishes while his wife took drink orders. This place, like so many others, comprised a teamed up drink and a food vendor working the same clientele, yet requesting separate payments; seemingly unconventional yet incredibly efficient from a timeliness standpoint. All at once, our drinks came from the back of the building and our food came from the front: two plates of white rice, topped with sautéed greens, and barbecued honey-sweetened pork, or char siew. The combination of hearty greens, simple rice and sticky, gooey, crispy yet juicy pork was unbelievably good. I’m not kidding, it stayed in my thoughts for days.