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Discovering Penang: histories and flavors create a diverse culture on the island

Penang, Malaysia, has a lot for the curious traveler to discover, and its similarities with Manila go beyond colonial histories.

I have done my fair share of travel around Asia. I’ve seen beautiful temples and eaten unfamiliar food. I’ve met lovely people and heard fascinating languages. Most of the time I travel for work. A day or three for an event, a convention, the launch of some new gadget or a workshop on emerging technologies. Sometimes there is a chance for a bit of sightseeing, a taste of local cuisine and culture. Often there is not.

Of course the pandemic changed all that. But perhaps this is why Penang, my first trip out of the Philippines since the world changed, is dearer to me than most of my other work trips. Perhaps it is because I was not with strangers, but finally meeting colleagues whom I have come to call dear friends.

Whatever my bias, Penang left a beautiful mark on my memories.

Trading culture and cuisine

According to the city’s official history, Penang was acquired by Captain Francis Light for the British Empire in 1786. The island became a trading post for tea, spices such as cloves and nutmeg, black pepper from Acheh and textiles from India, and traders and settlers came from Europe, India, China, the Malay Archipelago, Thailand and Burma. In 1832, Penang became part of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Penang was under British colonial rule until 1957 when it gained independence under the Federation of Malaya. It was briefly occupied by Japan from 1941 to 1945. In 1963 it became part of Malaysia.

Today Penang is a beautiful cacophony of cultures. All over the city are well-preserved historical buildings, each one picturesque. If I’d stopped to take a picture of every single thing that was pretty, I would have run out of space and battery on my phone very quickly. 

I loved how one street had what looked like a Hindu temple, while the next corner had the city’s oldest mosque, and a little distance away was a Chinese clan house. I was particularly enamored of Georgetown, where a single eatery served all manner of food from different stalls: satay and char kway teow, noodle soup, vegetables, some I had only tried in Singapore or Taiwan. Around the corner was some of the best tiramisu I had ever had in my entire life, bought from a fascinating establishment that seemed to be several bars and cafes in a long row of eclectic art and music, reminiscent of my favorite places in Manila. Just down the street was a dark little reggae bar that served falafels and hummus, good enough to remind me of my childhood in the Middle East.

Of course there was nonya cuisine too; on our first night, we were treated to a fine dinner at Irama, where we had blue rice and kerupuk, and many dishes whose names I can neither pronounce nor spell. On our last day together as a team, we went to Jason’s Nonya House, where a lovely family laughed as we mimed and pointed at the menu, hoping to find non-pork food items for our Muslim friend, and something our vegetarian friend could eat. “Oh, and Coca-Cola please?” That one needed no translation.

Sympathy, solitude, and synchrony

My friends joke that we really just used our work trip as an excuse to eat our way through Penang, and that’s not entirely untrue. But in Penang we found more than spice and sweets, libations and karaoke and noodles. 

Every journey, every experience, every moment is indelibly marked by the people with whom you endured, survived, thrived. Perhaps I would not have been so enamored of Penang if I had not adored the people with whom I had experienced its delights. 

In Penang, over a Chinese dinner, I bared my karaoke-loving soul to timid colleagues from Hong Kong and Korea, and got dear friends to brave a song or two, despite their claims to be tone-deaf. While walking between Instagrammable buildings, my friend’s husband gave us a quick history tour. I was reading street signs while the one I think of as our little sister snapped analog shots of my tattoos. Street and shop signs showed me Malay words that sounded like my native Filipino, but meant something different, reminding me that despite our differences, we shared so much beyond our colonial histories.

Over tiramisu and quiche, two colleagues shared their struggles over living and loving as honestly as society would allow. Over beers I listened as another talked about challenges I didn’t imagine would even faze her. We shared chocolate and snacks from our home cities while the lone local plied us with masala tea and other goodies, and we were surprised and touched by expressions of gratitude and appreciation. 

As much as I found similarities and differences between beautiful Penang and my native Manila, here I found how much I shared with people who were a variety of sizes and shapes and colors and accents. 

I spent nearly a week in Penang, but as with all travels that touch you in some unfathomable manner, it was not enough. I know there is much I have not yet seen. Perhaps someday I can go back, to see more and taste more, perhaps with other people with whom I can sit quietly, whose worlds and histories I can discover. Preferably over a bite of something delicious.

Someday, Penang.  Again.