Gong Xi Fa Cai

Trip Start Sep 13, 2007
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Trip End Apr 24, 2008


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Friday, February 8, 2008

I continued by train northwards, getting off at Butterworth for the ferry to Pulau Pinang, a large island off of Malaysia's northwest coast.  It's main city is Georgetown named by (guess who) the British for (guess again) King George ?, when the East India Company used this island to establish a trading post in the area.  Having been traveling in this area for a while it is impressive to realize the extent of the British trade empire and colonialism, and how much influence it still has.  I read a book entitled 'To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World' and its right on. Most signs are in English too and most everyone knows enough to communicate.  It strikes me as similar to today, in a sense, with the golden arches of McDonald's popping up everywhere and other trends- but it does give one faith for the successful continuation of local culture in the face of the economic (I hestitate to use this word but it closest to what I mean:) imperialism going on today.  Or perhaps it can just be seen as the beginning of a now rapid process of making the world a 'smaller' and more interconnected place. Of course the British brought many other cultural influences (from India and China for example) to this and other areas. 

There I am going off topic again.  But it does conveniently bring me to the highlight of my trip here, the observance of Chinese New Year- the title of this entry means "Happy Chinese New Year" in Chinese.  All of Chinatown, the temples, and most businesses were decorated with red paper lanterns, red and gold signs, and Mickey Mouse cutouts.  Huh?  yes, I don't know if it's because it's the Year of the Rat (close enough maybe?), or if Disney is just that popular, but there were a lot of Mickey Mouse posters of red and gold with Chinese characters. 

I stayed mainly in the Georgetown area, where again there was an interesting mix of Muslim mosques, Chinese shrines, and Indian and Buddhist temples.  Most activity was going on at the Chinese shrines, where there were large incense logs (not sure what they are called) and offerings being made on the days surrounding the new year.  It was a very colorful and smoke-filled spectacle, with devotees lighting candles, incense, and burning what I am guessing are prayer sheets.  The night of New Year's itself was filled with a few firecrackers but the best part was the dragon dances- teams of two teenage boys would control each dragon while others would play the drums and other instruments.  The dragons are quite cool, and are made so that the eyes can blink and the ears can move.  They would enter the temple to pay respects to the shrine, and would then go along the street to various businesses to bless them and wish them prosperity.  I will admit I am not very familiar with these cermonies and did not have a handy guide to explain, so I am guessing as to the meaning of these rites, so if I am way off I apologize.

Most of my other days were spent touring some of the other shrines and walking around until my feet were very sore or the heat was too much.  I am battling some sort of cough and felt a bit worn out, sleeping in sometimes and therefore going out to explore around noon when the sun was most fierce (not the smartest move).  I rode a 1920's era funicular (or fundalicker as nicknamed by my old squadron on a trip to Puerto Rico), basically a train up the slope of a hill, to the top of Penang Hill.  It was cooler there and had the usual temple, shrine, and mosque. As I was strolling around a group of girls asked to have their picture taken with me- not that I've mentioned it, but as you can see from the picture, little did I know I've grown 5 inches taller on this trip.  Joking aside it is pretty cool to feel tall around here.  After going back down the hill I headed to Khok Lok Sei (if memory serves), one of the largest Buddhist complexes in southeast Asia.  It was impressive and was reached by climbing a long stairway lined on each side with market stalls of clothes, toys, trinkets, just about anything. It was a big day for visiting- the temple had a large turtle pond literally teeming with pretty large turtles (which can't be very healthy), a large ornate pagoda, and many gilted statues of Buddha and other figures.  An impressive complex and even better to see it near one of the biggest holidays of the year.

Books: Finished 'The Sparrow' an engaging story of morals and cultural misunderstandings mixed with some science fiction.  Hard to put down and very good.  I read a while ago 'Freakonomics' a well known book from a couple of years ago, and found out that 'Garrett' is number 15 out of the top 20 'whitest boy names'.  A very good book not only for that reason. 
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