Personal Journey: Doctor fish, and 'worms' for dessert

Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram (Reclining Buddha Temple), a Thai temple in Georgetown, Penang, on the west coast of Malaysia. The 100-foot-long statue of Buddha stretches above niches holding ashes of the deceased. All visitors remove their shoes out of respect.
Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram (Reclining Buddha Temple), a Thai temple in Georgetown, Penang, on the west coast of Malaysia. The 100-foot-long statue of Buddha stretches above niches holding ashes of the deceased. All visitors remove their shoes out of respect. (PATRICIA MOREAU)
Posted: July 24, 2011

A 10-day visit to the island of Penang in Malaysia introduced my husband and me to a remarkable variety of cultures and peoples.

In Georgetown, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site that has Chinese, Indian, and Malay sections, we parked outside the Gurney Mall, where cars were washed away in the 2004 tsunami.

My Chinese hostess treated me to "fish spa therapy," which involved placing my washed feet into a series of tanks with successively larger "doctor fish," which specialize in nibbling away dead skin. This incredibly ticklish experience was surprisingly fun and relaxing, with gentle music playing in the background and subdued lights, and I left with feet as soft as a baby's.

In a Chinese restaurant where mine was the only Caucasian face, we dined on delicacies plucked by chopsticks from their lotus-leaf-wrapped rice beds. Each of the three friendly Chinese women at my table ordered dishes for me to sample and laughed at my reactions to new tastes.

These Buddhist women told me of the importance of numbers in their belief system - one had just come from the temple, on the seventh day of the seventh week since her dog had died. Later, a visit to the indigo Cheong Fatt Tze mansion with its seven staircases illustrated the Chinese adherence to proper numbers in construction.

A side trip to a hawker stall - a roadside food vendor, which is the primary venue for daytime eating in Georgetown - had us surrounded by locals eager to get cendol, or "green worms." Cendol is an iced beverage/dessert, with red beans and strings of green pea flour in sweetened coconut milk. It looks something like iced coffee.

A Chinese Christian friend bought me coconut water from a hawker, served in a plastic bag with a straw. In this hot, humid land where drinks are essential, she also treated me to a delicious cold homemade nutmeg drink, reminiscent of lemonade. And the red dragon fruit she served was a notch above the white version, both of which look like sliced kiwi.

Another day, we took the bus to Georgetown from our Lone Pine boutique hotel in the resort area of Batu Ferringhi, passing colorful Hindu and Buddhist temples and mosques.

Giggling Malay girls in their school uniforms and Muslim tudung, or head scarves, graciously gave up their bus seats to us as we traveled to the Botanical Gardens. Those who brought lunch into the park found themselves attacked by large, hungry macaque monkeys jumping onto their shoulders. At one point, my husband brandished his umbrella to scare off a threatening male monkey screeching and baring his teeth. We later learned it's best to avoid eye contact with the macaques.

A nearby funicular ride to the top of Penang Hill provided a cool reprieve from the tropical heat and a view of much of the beautiful island, where we had met so many friendly people.


Patricia Moreau lives in Quakertown, Bucks County.

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