Penang: exploring a cultural melting pot

A few long-weekends ago, I went to Malaysia to explore the islands of Penang and Langkawi with my fellow Bangkok Expat friends: Petra (from Croatia) and Brad (from USA). This combination of personalities turned out to be a grand cultural adventure in itself, as we managed to intrigue, disagree with, and amuse each other with our European, Australian and American views on life.

However we definitely agreed on one thing… Penang was a brilliant surprise!

I was not expecting a vibrant city of interesting characters, amazing food and incredible street art.

Nor was I expecting such diversity of cultures, religions and ethnicities, and their corresponding temples, churches and mosques.

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One of Penang’s many Malay-Chinese temples

I certainly wasn’t expecting a cow to walk by McDonalds in the centre of the city!

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Nor for our 60 year old rickshaw driver to own this cap:

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Penang – a cultural melting pot

These idiosyncrasies reflect Penang as a whole. Around 45% of Penangites (isn’t that a great word?) are ethnically Chinese, 40% are Malay and around 10% Indian. The streets thus bedazzle the observer – imagine an Indian woman in a beautiful sari, walking past a Malay woman in a headscarf, against a backdrop of Chinese-Malays queueing for Penang’s best dumplings. It’s fascinating.

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A city of contrasts: a Chinese temple nestled next to a Colonial building. Protocred: Alaena Bateman

And speaking of food – I’ve never been to such a delicious city! Our motto quickly became ‘No Regrets’ as we ate our way around the city, stuffing ourselves with cheese roti, falafel and other delicious morsels of Malay, Chinese and Indian street foods.

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Petra and Brad lining up for Char Koay Teow, a Malay noodle dish
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Cuttlefish with convolvulus anyone? … What?          Photocred: Drhtgoon

Street art street art everywhere

But it was Penang’s street art that stole my heart. Walking Penang’s streets is a delicious way to spend the day – simply for the possibility of seeing some huge mural appear around the corner. On our first night, we found this mural across from our accommodation.

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For us, it was completely out of the blue. For Penang, it was normal.

We may, or may not.. have spent more time than was absolutely necessary with the art-work …

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Petra and me …

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As well as at the Penang Interactive Museum with murals painted on the wall – designed to appear 3D when interacted with:

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As I wandered Penang’s streets, I couldn’t help but wonder was happening behind the scenes.

Who was working behind the walls of street art, turning the cogs that run the city? Who was sewing the beautiful saris, cooking the delicious food, and cleaning the houses?

Were the domestic workers human trafficking victims? Were they paid? Were they children? Did they still want to live in Penang and Langkawi, or did they want to go home… but couldn’t?little-children-on-a-bicycle-mural

Working in anti-human trafficking, I couldn’t help but wonder about the foreign workers who travel from all over Asia to work in Malaysia. Attracted by the comparatively high salaries, many migrants land in terrible situations of exploitation. Promises of employment are often false and the hopeful individuals wind up forced to work in textile factories, plantations, construction sites or as domestic workers.

Malaysia is not just a melting pot of cultures. It’s also a melting pot of human trafficking victims….

I suppose, like any holiday destination, we saw the glitzy, fun town with its dazzling food and interesting architecture. What lies behind the walls may be another story altogether… Like any city, I guess…

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