Penang, Malaysia, March 1
Georgetown by trishaw

Penang, often called the Pearl of the Orient, is a medium-sized island filled with pineapples, nutmeg, rubber and apricot trees. You can reach the island by air, but you can also dock right there at Georgetown, the largest city on the island and the state capital.

We pulled up to the city dock at 7 a.m. on the first day of March, having traveled to our third stop in Malaysia overnight as usual. They say Georgetown is a great city to explore on foot, but Vi and I had other ideas. We had signed up to see Georgetown by trishaw, the omnipresent bicycle rickshaw found all over southeast Asia.

It was the best decision we could have made! Emerging from the cool recesses of an air-conditioned ship onto the open gangway, we were hit by a solid wall of heavy, humid air, and I knew I wouldn’t get very far on foot breathing in that heavy atmosphere.  But trishaws were lined up and waiting to take us for a morning ride around the city, and as experienced trishaw riders, we were only too pleased to take advantage of the chance to be pedaled in comfort.

Only this time, our ride was to be different from before. We had to ride two to a trishaw!  No problem for a few petite passengers, but the rest of us had to be shoehorned  like fat sardines onto a narrow seat, and wiggle room was out of the question. But water bottle, camera, hat, and map of Georgetown precariously  balanced on our laps, Li, our latest tricyclist, trundled off, and once more I marveled at the strength and endurance of a no more than 90-pound rickshaw driver.

Shortly, we ambled by the silken saris, spice, metalware, and trinkets hanging in the shops on Little India street and pedaled by the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, the Mahamariammon Temple, circa 1833.

It was early in the morning. Many stalls and shops were just opening for business, and a cool breeze still kept the rising temperature quite bearable for us foreigners. We paused next at Sun Yat Sen’s Penang base, and Li tried to explain to us in language difficult to comprehend, how the Chinese leader, Sun had planned an historic uprising of 1911 in that very house. By now, I had figured out how to distinguish and repeat the mysterious syllables I had heard from our drivers.  I would listen carefully, translate into somewhat broken English what I presumed our guide had said, and then nod wisely and say, “yes, yes.”  That seemed to satisfy our eager guides, and the strategy succeeded again this time.

We passed the ever-present mosque, Chinese temple, and clocktower. Each stop brought out the contortionist in Vi and me, as we hopped on and off and crammed sideways into the trishaw’s aging plastic seat and maneuvered ourselves into a somewhat comfortable position. But despite the close encounters, we thoroughly enjoyed Li’s eager descriptions of his city, no matter how difficult to understand,  simply because bouncing along in a trishaw, if not elegant, is so much easier than walking in the heat of a Malaysian sun.

By late morning we arrived at our final stop, an Indian teahouse across from a brilliant blue mansion of a Chinese merchant. We sat in the cool darkened interior, the rich aroma of spices, curry and incense enhancing the flavor of our welcome morning tea and Indian tidbits.

Emerging onto the street, Vi and I thought the tour had ended. But Li had other ideas.

“Do you want to go for more ride?” he asked. At least, I thought that’s what he said. As usual, I nodded yes, yes, and off we went, back through the narrow streets now filled with noon-time motor scooters, busses, and car, and in the rising heat, breathing more noxious fumes than we had a few hours before.  We had no idea where the trishaw was headed, but figured it would be another interesting view of Malaysian life.

Twisting and turning through the narrow streets, finally he ended up back at the harbor. We could see our ship anchored far in the distance beyond a ferry terminal. Old Chinese houses, Li explained, signaling us to pry ourselves out of our sardine can trishaw. Ahead was a rickety wooden sidewalk, jutting out into the harbor, with aging peeling painted fishing boats standing in murky water, seemingly abandoned in the mud. Old wooden houses, somewhat resembling old mining shacks of the Rocky mountains, lined each side of the wooden walkway.

Out we walked along the uneven planked dock, we peered into the darkened interior of the tiny houses and noticed the laundry dangling in front of houses and children playing catch with paper balls and bats along the way. These were second generation poor Chinese families, Li explained, but the community was growing, and as we walked along, sometimes taking pictures, many smiled and nodded  pleasantly at us.

It was another fascinating look at another segment of life in Malaysia, and I far preferred this destination to the Taoist Snake Temple--another tourist attraction where poisonous snakes are worshipped, and you can have the snakes wrapped around you for an unusual photo op.

Another day in paradise had ended, and that night we’d be off to Thailand and hopefully, to other equally fascinating adventures.