Penang Festiv(als)(ities)

Due to its religious diversity, Malaysia has a plethora of nationally recognized holidays. Lucky for me, this means I have many vacation days! I’ve only been teaching here for 4 weeks, and I’ve already had 4 days off school. Amazing.

I wanna tell you all about Thaipusam and Chinese New Year. I got to experience both in George Town, Penang (one of my new favorite cities). A city on an island about 1 and a half hours from Sungai Petani, George Town is a mix of Asian and European cultures (thanks, colonialism), and is known for its FOOD. When my friend Niki asked her mentor what sort of clothes were appropriate to wear in Penang, his reply was, “Nobody is going to be worried about how you dress because they’ll be focused on eating.” Therefore, my knees and shoulders saw the light of day for the first time in weeks!

I’ll start with Thaipusam. This is a Hindu (particularly Tamil) festival dedicated to Lord Murugan, specifically celebrating when Parvati gave Murugan a Vel, or “spear,” so he could vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman.

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Chillin’ with Lord Murugan at Batu Caves near KL

Thaipusam is often practiced through the offering of kavadis, or burdens. This can come in several forms, including bringing containers of milk to the temple. However, many people carry their burdens by piercing the skin of their backs, chest, or face with hooks or skewers and either hanging the jars of milk from these piercings or carrying elaborately decorated altars on their shoulders.

The best way I can describe my Thaipusam experience was sensory overload. The colors of the clothing and kavadis and street vendors, the constant drumming that mimicked heartbeats, the smells of incense, the heat in the air… I was awestruck. Despite the idea of suffering we might associate with the piercings and skewers, the atmosphere in the parade was incredibly joyous. People were dancing with their buddies and goofing around. I really wish I could post a video here (but I have to pay for the upgrade and I gotta save that ringgit). Words don’t do it justice.

As the heat and sweat and overstimulation got to us, part of the group left mid-afternoon. Veronica, Mike, and I pushed onward and climbed the 513 steps to the Balathandayuthapani (or Waterfall) Temple, where participants in Thaipusam bring their burdens and offer them to Murugan. The atmosphere during the climb and at the top was serene and somber. Partway up, we realized that we didn’t see many foreigners anymore. I contemplated turning back, as I didn’t want my presence to disturb the worshippers, but a Hindu man saw our hesitiation and urged us onward, telling us it was OK as long as we didn’t take pictures inside the temple. We had already removed our shoes at the bottom of the stairs. Being a tourist is weird.

Speaking of tourists, George Town during Chinese New Year was teeming with them. I hadn’t seen that many white people in one place in a while! It also marked the first major ETA reunion for me–there were about 30 of us total staying in various hostels and AirBNB in George Town that weekend. It was a bit overwhelming trying to coordinate with everyone, but it felt good to see some friends from orientation again. We gave Holy Guacamole some darn good business, found actual bagels with cream cheese, and I spent two days on the beach! It was a very vacationy vacation. But I can return to Penang and see the sights any time.

As far as CNY stuff, Kek Lo Si Buddhist temples were gorgeous. Like, beyond words exceeded expectations. It reminded me of something from Spirited Away (yes, I know that’s Japanese, but still). It was an extensive labyrinth of lights, colors, incense, greenery, and offerings. Each time I thought I’d seen every temple, I’d turn around and there’d be another entrance.

Our last night in Penang, we went to a street fair for CNY. There was a ton of free Malay and Chinese food (I got ais kacang), performers in the street and on stage, and my favorite part, the lion dances! Young men all over Malaysia trained in martial arts perform these elaborate routines that require gymnastics and teamwork. Again, a video would be better. Sorry I’m cheap, everyone.

I’ve been working on this blog post for weeks now… Things at school have been busy busy! I started a speaking workshop, held drama auditions, played lots of ping-pong and Slapzi, and spent several hours sitting in the bilik guru thinking, “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” It’s a work in progress, and I can’t say I’m enjoying every second of it, but I sure am enjoying a lot. 🙂 Until next time, selamat malam!

One thought on “Penang Festiv(als)(ities)”

  1. Great post! Be sure to see the snake temple in Penang sometime. And the butterfly garden was pretty neat also. Good to see that you are having a good time and growing as well.
    Rex (and Karen)


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