Thursday, November 28, 2013

An American Thanksgiving in Penang

This is our third year celebrating Thanksgiving in Malaysia. It has been a crazy, unpredictable week where I discovered I have so much to be thankful for. (For instance, I am thankful that my middle school language arts teacher isn't grading this and marking off for ending the previous sentence with a preposition.)

A week ago, I was trying to figure out what to do since we weren't planning on traveling anywhere for the school holiday or invited over to anyone's house for a communal feast. I contemplated cooking everything myself, but the prospect of literally sweating in the kitchen for days for a meal that would be over in less than an hour didn't appeal to me. I thought about heading to the American Thanksgiving Buffet at the G Hotel, but I knew that I'd see other friends there and wish that we were all sitting at one huge, huge table. Eight days before Thanksgiving, I figured out something.

I am thankful that I realized that Thanksgiving for me is not about the food; it's about the people.

The more that I thought about it, the problem with the above scenarios is that my meal would not be shared with a large circle of people. The traditional Thanksgiving foods would be there, but the sense of community would not.

I am thankful that when I texted my husband that I had invited 100 people over for dinner, he merely replied with "Not feasible" as opposed to "You are out of your mind you crazy woman!!"

I reserved the party room in our condo complex because I may be a little crazy, but I'm not so crazy as to invite that many people over to my apartment. A couple other friends offered to help me to host the shindig for which I am very grateful. After a leisurely coffee morning, we had our guest list.

I am thankful that it turns out that there were only 65 people on the final guest list.

I sent out an Evite to everyone and set up a potluck sign up.

I am thankful that six days before Thanksgiving, I got the last two turkeys at the market since they weren't expecting another shipment until Thanksgiving day.

I panicked a bit at first because the man said there weren't any turkeys at all. After some conversation, he mentioned he had turkey breasts, and I immediately claimed them for myself. They were frozen ones from Australia. When I opened up the packaging, I was surprised to discover that the turkey breast was actually the back 75% of the turkey, complete with miniscule-for-a-turkey, chicken-sized legs and thighs. All that was missing were the wings and the front part of the bird.

I worried that we wouldn't have enough turkey for everyone and mentioned it to hubby.

"I think people will be disappointed," he replied.

That's when I realized that for others, Thanksgiving may indeed be all about the food. Perhaps I had lured someone away from the delectable hotel buffet for a dinner that might end up being mostly chicken satay.

Peppermint Patty stared in amazed disappointment. "What kind of Thanksgiving is this?!" she asked. "Don't you know anything about cooking a real Thanksgiving dinner, Chuck? Where's the turkey? Where are the mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. What blockhead made all this?"

I am thankful that my friends found other turkeys.

With the fowl situation sorted out, it seemed that everything would be smooth sailing until the day of the party when I would inevitably freak out about playing hostess.

I was wrong.

Early Tuesday, in the middle of the night, my teen woke up with excruciating stomach pain.

I am thankful that my hubby is strong enough to lift my boy down the stairs and into the car. I am thankful he took him to the hospital and stayed the night with him.

My original plan for Tuesday was to go grocery shopping and start baking and prepping for the big feast on Thursday. Instead, I spent the entire day at the hospital with my son. When it became clear that the problem was something minor, thank God, my mind strayed towards thoughts of the two turkey chilling in the freezer instead of thawing out and brining as I had intended.

I am thankful for friends I can call to help out with my other kids while I'm tending to the one who really needs his mommy right at that moment.

One of my worries about moving overseas was losing the support of my parents and in-laws in caring for my children. My friends here have not only become the people that I share Thanksgiving with in lieu of family, they are the ones who don't mind being part of the village it takes to raise a child.

I considered the possibility that we'd still be in the hospital by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. The doctors here are more likely to keep patients hospitalized than in America. With multiple hostesses, the celebration could easily carry on in our absence.

I am thankful for friends who will pitch in with party planning.

He was eventually discharged from the hospital late Wednesday afternoon, 38 hours after he first checked in.

I am thankful that my darling boy is okay after all and that the hospital stay costs all of US$800 before filing for insurance.

It was exactly 26 hours until the Thanksgiving celebration was slated to start. I sent the kids up in the elevator to our home, and immediately jumped back in the minivan to hit the grocery store. I spent the rest of Wednesday night and all day Thursday cooking.

In the end, everything turned out fine. Some people had to cancel due to illnesses or visitors who wanted more exotic cuisine  than a traditional American Thanksgiving. There were 45 people who actually turned out. The food was bountiful and delicious. Surprisingly, we were able to have all the traditional foods including cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. Peppermint Patty would have been satisfied.  The chips and salsa, and the guacamole and hummus were rather awesome, too.

All the kids at the feast were thankful for these. treats my friend made.  They gobbled them up.

The unofficial theme for the night was Abundance.

I am thankful that as I tucked my teen into his own bed in his own bedroom tonight, he looked at me and said, "It was a really good Thanksgiving."

Happy Thanksgiving from Your Friend in Malaysia!

And last but not least, I am thankful there is no Black Friday craziness here as I have to hit the mall on Friday to take the kids clothes shopping.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Terracotta Warriors and Tandem Bikes: 24 Hours in Xi'an

The Terracotta Warriors were uncovered in Xi'an, China

Imagine being a farmer just outside of Xi'an, the former capital of ancient China and starting point of the legendary Silk Road. It's 1974, and frankly, all that you are looking for is a new source of water during this time of drought. You start digging a well in the same earth where generations before you have plowed and buried their dead. You uncover bits of a clay figure. Odd shards of pottery have been dug up around here for centuries. Unlike others, you don't dismiss it as insignificant. You've just discovered one of the greatest archeological finds in the world a life-size army of terracotta warriors and horses.

The Terracotta Warriors are one of the top tourists draws in China. Note that it is nowhere near Beijing, the Forbidden City or the Great Wall. Most Westerners hop on a plane to get here. The clay army is what draws most tourists to Xi'an, but other historical sites exist in this 3,100-year-old city, too. It turned out to be a place my whole family, both kids and adults, enjoyed even though we had just 24 hours to get out and explore.

The centuries-old wall encircling old Xi'an is the largest in the world.

Cycling on the City Wall

After our delayed flight finally arrived in mid-afternoon, our first stop in Xi'an was the City Wall which happens to be the largest one in the world. It measures 12 meters (36 feet) tall, 18 meters (54 feet) at the bottom, and 15 meters (45 feet) across at the top. The rectangular city wall wraps itself around the old city, covering 13.7 km (8.5 miles) and is interrupted by gates on each side which were closed each night when it still provided fortification for China's former capitol.

When the kids saw the bicycle rental shop on top of the wall, they immediately decided that it was a much better option than walking. At US$6.60 per 100 minutes for a single bicycle and double that for a twin, we adults didn't argue with them. Hubby and I both got tandem bikes to share with the younger kids while my teen took off on his own. This was indeed a very popular way for tourists to get around, so I was quite glad that the wall was so wide on top. Rental shops are by each gate, and customers can return their bikes at any of them. As we rode around, we peeked out through the battlements and kept smelling the inescapable aroma of stir-fried food. After an hour, we were ready to head off to the next stop.

Taking a break from biking at one of the corner towers on the Xi'an City Wall.

The Bell Tower and Drum Tower

Both hubby and I weren't expecting much from our Bell Tower visit, thinking that it was just a way to fill time before heading to the hotel. It turned out to be more interesting than we thought. Standing at the geographical center of old Xi'an, it's surrounded by a giant roundabout connected to the North, South, East, and West Streets which extend outwards towards the City Wall gates. The juxtaposition between the tower built in 1384 and the luxe shopping malls with Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs on the outer side of the roundabout sums up Xi'an perfectly. It's a mix of old and new.

The massive 5-ton bell that tourists are NOT allowed to ring much to my kids dismay.

The wooden, 3-story tower sits atop a tall brick base. Centuries ago, the bell was rung at dawn to signify that it was time to open the four city gates. At nightfall, the giant drums of the Drum Tower a block away were played to indicate it was time for the gates to close. I imagine that in the 14th century, it must have loomed over the town. Both the outside and the inside are covered with intricate paintings. You can climb the stairs inside and go out to the surrounding balconies for a good city view.

The Drum Tower at night as seen from the Bell Tower

By now, it was time to head to our hotel for dinner and a restful night's sleep.  The next day would bring the highlight of our time in Xi'an, a visit to the Terracotta Army.

An Army Frozen in Time

The Terracotta Army stands ready in Pit 1.
See the tourists standing behind the railing against the side walls?

Qin Shi Huangdi, the "First Emperor," unified China in 221 B.C. and died in 210 B.C. He is best known in the modern world as the man who required an entire terracotta army to protect him in his afterlife. In the almost 40 years since the first pieces were discovered, archeologists have located 600 underground vaults within a 22-square-mile area. Only three vaults (pits) have been thoroughly excavated so far. This small sample of Qin Shi Huangdi's necropolis contains an estimated 7,500 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses.

When you walk into Pit 1, the army is amassed and standing at attention as if ready to head off to war. The sheer size of the dig invokes awe. That's something that cannot be transported to the touring exhibits in museums around the world.

Imagine what the other 597 pits must contain. Test digs have revealed bronze waterfowl as well as clay officials, musicians and acrobats. I guess he needed counsel, protection, and entertainment after death. A forested berm has been identified as the Emperor's actual tomb, but it has so far been left undisturbed until archeologists are certain they have adequate techniques to protect what they find there.

Amazing attention to detail, even down to the tread on a soldier's shoes.

The warriors were crafted with mix-and-match molds, allowing each one to look a little different from the next. They were mass produced and painted before being carted down into the underground vaults. Earthen walls between the army columns supported wooden beams that held up reed mats, waterproofing clay layers, and the soil used to bury the terracotta soldiers. As time marched on, the beams collapsed, crushing the warriors beneath them. By the time the 20th century rolled around, archeologists were left with a gigantic jigsaw puzzle of attempting to reconstruct each man. As the paint was exposed to air, it quickly disintegrated. This is why the scientists have been proceeding with caution, nervous at uncovering other materials that they currently cannot preserve. As each soldier or horse is completed, it is moved back to its original position.

Some paint remains on these Warriors.

Each warrior is tagged and his location noted as they are unearthed in Pit 1.

The "hospital" in Pit 1 where archeologists reassemble warriors.

Restored warriors at the front with the fragments in the back.

Four soldiers are displayed so that you can get an up close look at them.

After three hours visiting the Terracotta Warriors, we headed for the airport in hopes of finding a late lunch there before we departed. It was just under 24 hours since we had first set foot in Xi'an.

What happened to the farmer who was looking for water but discovered an army? He now sits behind a desk at the gift shop, signing autographs and posing for photos for those willing to pay him. It's nice work if you can get it.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper and "Sunday Traveler" on Ice Cream and Permafrost. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Seeking The Statue of Liberty in Paris

Everyone knows that when you head to New York City, the Statue of Liberty is high on the list of popular sights to see. How about when you head to Paris? That's what we did when visiting the  Île-de-France last June.

A little background history

France has been wrapped up in the United States of America's history since the USA took its first baby steps to becoming a free nation. In an effort to stick it to the British, the King of France helped to fund the American Revolutionary War and sent his soldiers over to fight under George Washington. The United States won their freedom, and France was left with a debt that's the equivalent of 13 billion U.S. dollars in today's money.  The French citizens were deeply displeased with spending money on a foreign war while their own people went hungry. It was a major cause of their own push to end sovereign rule, otherwise known as the French Revolution. Isn't it ironic (a la Alanis Morissette)?

Fast forward to America's 100th birthday when France proposed a gift as a symbol of the friendship between the two nations. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was tasked with designing the privately funded sculpture that was to be in the classical tradition of the Colossus of Rhodes. It's official name is Liberty Enlightening the World. Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame designed the inner metal skeleton that supports the outer copper plates. For a few weeks in 1884, the 46-meter-high statue towered over Paris as the workmen did the final assembly. It was taken apart, shipped overseas, and finally inaugurated at the entrance of New York Harbor on October 28, 1886. On its pedestal, it reaches 93 meters up into the sky. Over the years, the statue morphed from being a tribute to America's independence and France's friendship to a powerful symbol of emigrants' hope for a better life in the New World.

The copper statue was brown when it was erected. Over thirty years, the copper oxidized and turned green. Have you ever used ketchup to clean a penny? My kids have wondered how much ketchup it would take to restore the Statue of Liberty to its original copper brown color.

Senate building at Luxembourg Garden.
(Psst... this is NOT the Statue of Liberty.)

Searching Luxembourg Gardens

On our first day in Paris, we searched Luxembourg Gardens for one of the Statue of Liberty replicas. Numerous guidebooks and blogs mentioned it, but I never bothered to find out exactly where it was. We found a bunch of other statues and stopped for a while to play with the sailboats in the pond. We walked all over the place (which is in itself quite an enjoyable way to pass the time). We asked other people if they knew where La Liberté was. Someone pointed us in the general direction of the tennis courts. We never found it. Jetlag overcame us, and we gave up.

On Île aux Cygnes by the Pont de Grenelle

Sneaking up from Behind

We finally caught sight of another Statue of Liberty replica while on the Eiffel Tower. You can see her from the back, standing 11.5 meters tall on the Île aux Cygnes next to the Pont de Grenelle. Frankly, she's kind of small when you're looking at her from that high up.

Her tablet has two dates. One is "IV JUILLET 1776" (July 4, 1776). It refers to the date America's Declaration of Independence was signed, and it is on the tablet of the New York City statue, too. The other date is "XIV JUILLET 1789" (July 14, 1789) which marks the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution.

My family later tried to get a closer look at this replica by taking the Bateaux-Mouches Seine River cruise. However, a sign on the ticket window dashed our hopes by announcing it did NOT go by the Statue of Liberty. I guess we weren't the only hopeful tourists wishing to get a better look. Oh well.

The Flame of Liberty at the Place de l'Alma

Do you have a light?

While walking from the Eiffel Tower to the boat cruise, we stumbled across the Flame of Liberty at the Place de l'Alma. It is a gold-leaf and copper, actual size replica of the torch from the New York Statue of Liberty intended as a symbol of Franco-American friendship. Dedicated in 1989, it became a makeshift memorial to Princess Diana who died in 1997 in the nearby tunnel beneath the Pont de l'Alma. When I look at the picture above, I wonder what the lady in front of the statue is thinking.

La Liberté at the Musée d'Orsay

A Work of Art

We finally found a Statue of Liberty that we could see up close at the Musée d'Orsay. She is the best know work of sculptor Bartholdi, so it's only natural to examine it in an art museum setting.

Here's the surprising thing... (which I only figured out as I was researching this post)

This is the same statue that we were looking for in Luxembourg Gardens! No wonder we never found it there. When it was standing outside in the gardens for 115 years, La Liberté was subjected to pollution, weathering, and vandalism. In an effort to preserve the statue, it was removed from Luxembourg Gardens in December 2011, restored, and introduced at the Musée d'Orsay in July 2012.

Some sources say that this 3 meter tall bronze statue was the original model for the bigger version in New York City. Other sources say it is a study done after the New York one was put in its final place. Bartholdi offered it to Paris' Luxembourg Museum, and it was displayed in the garden because the museum interior was out of room.

If you find one still standing in Luxembourg Gardens, it is newly cast from a mold made of Bartholdi's original in the Musée d'Orsay. It's a replica of a replica. Got all that?

Liberty Arcade at Disneyland Paris


Disney Imagineers always goes the extra mile in creating an authentic setting. What better way to connect Disneyland Paris to Main Street U.S.A. than an exhibition on the Statue of Liberty? The large sign evokes the excitement of the day when France's gift to the American people was inaugurated in New York Harbor.

See the sights and hear the sounds on that exciting day
Step inside the darkened alcove to experience the tableaux of the celebration. From the viewpoint of a boat in the Harbor, watch fireworks explode over the statue and hear the excited murmurings of the people around you.

It really is a Small World after all.

Our last sighting of the Statue of Liberty in Paris was on the It's a Small World ride. I've always considered it a symbol of America, but after our trip to Paris, I realized that the French embrace it as part of their country, too.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox and "On the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Four Points by Sheraton Penang

The new Four Points by Sheraton Penang hotel is near my home, and I've been watching its construction over the last few months. Located in the old Tanjung Bungah Beach Hotel building, the kids and I have been fascinated to see it stripped down to a bare bones structure, including removing all the old windows, and gradually rebuilt into vibrantly colored holiday accommodations. The prominently displayed sign for "The Best Brew" intrigued one of my friends enough that she did a little research and reported that a Chief Beer Officer hand selects craft beers to serve at Four Points hotels. So, when I was invited to attend the Opening Ceremony, I jumped at the chance to get a closer look at the place.

The beach is just outside the hotel.

Location, Location, Location

One of the best attributes of the Four Points by Sheraton Penang is its location. Visitors travel to Penang for its beaches, historic area, and a little shopping. This hotel is conveniently located to all these activities.

Historic George Town is located 20 minutes in one direction, and the National Park where you can do a jungle trek to Monkey Beach is 20 minutes in the opposite direction. The big shopping malls, Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon, are less than a 10-minute drive away. Upscale Straits Quay Marina Mall and Convention Centre with its abundance of restaurants and the Penang Performing Arts Centre are merely 2 km from the hotel. TESCO and Viva Food Haven hawker center are less than a 1 km walk. Believe me. I live right by this hotel, so I know how long it takes to get places.

The beach right outside the hotel is quieter than other beaches on the island and perfect for relaxing. Four Points by Sheraton Penang is the only hotel on this little stretch. Unlike the busier Batu Ferringhi tourist area, it is not overrun with massage shacks, water sports activities, buggies, and novice horse riders. Shade trees along the hotel property line offer some sun protection for young children and others trying to avoid getting a tan. You can walk to the tiny island during low tide without even getting your feet wet.

Go for a Swim

Interestingly, many people like Penang's beaches, but they don't like to actually get in the water. Four Points by Sheraton Penang has a pool by the beach area with a separate wading area shallow enough for young children to splash and play. Lounge chairs invite you to lay back, close your eyes, and let everyday worries fade away...unless you are supervising kids. In that case, keep your eyes open.

Four Points by Sheraton Penang Pool Area

Enjoy the Air-Conditioned Comfort

When you've had enough of the sun, heat and humidity, come inside to The Best Brew. Cozy chairs let you enjoy the view and sip a beer while sitting in air-conditioned comfort. Have fun at the pool table if you start getting bored enjoying the beach life.

The Best Brew has great views of the beach.

Offerings at The Best Brew start at RM10+

Are you Hungry?

The Best Brew also offers snacks, burgers, sandwiches and other hawker delights starting at RM15+. It's open from noon until late in the night.

All-day dining at The Eatery

The hotel's other restaurant, The Eatery, offers all-day dining from a breakfast buffet starting at 6:30AM to a la carte lunches and dinners until midnight. They offer pastas, salads, burgers as well as local favourites. I recently met a group of friends having dinner with their youngsters at The Eatery. While sitting outside, they lingered over their meal and drinks while parents took turns watching the kids on the nearby beach. What a lovely way to spend the evening! When it was time to pay the bill, hubby remembered that our Starwood Preferred Guest card gave us a 20% discount.

On the day of the Opening Ceremony, Four Points by Sheraton Penang had a scrumptious lunch buffet with plentiful offerings. The buffet was just for the auspicious occasion, but the deliciousness of each dish makes me think they would do well cooking for special events taking place in their ballroom and meeting rooms.

So much deliciousness to choose from

Spend the Night

After checking in at the breezy, open air lobby, you'll be handed the keys to one of 220 guestrooms and suites. All of them are newly furnished with a stylish, contemporary design. Each room has an LED flat-screen TV, free internet access, and complimentary bottled water. Free Wi-Fi is available in the public areas. Suites have a separate living area and pantry perfect for families and long-stay travelers. Book an Oceanfront room if you want to enjoy the beautiful view of the Straits of Malacca.

The Four Points by Sheraton Penang is part of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts group. You can use or earn Starwood points during your stay here.

Open air lobby greets you.

Opening Ceremony Events

I've never attended the opening ceremony of a business in Penang, and it was quite a festive occasion. Everyone moved outside when loud drumming announced the start of a fabulous Dragon Dance on Stilts performance. You could hear the intake of breath from the crowd whenever the dragon made a big leap from one rod to another. This was followed by ceremonial events in the lobby and welcoming talks plus a Q&A session in the ballroom.

Dragon Dance on Stilts

Madame Elsie Chuah of Plenitude Berhad,
Charles Abbot, Regional VP - SE Asia for Starwood Hotels,
and Kurt Vieren, General Manager of Four Points Penang

Opening Remarks by Madame Elsie Chuah of Plenitude Berhad

Special Introductory Offer

Four Points by Sheraton Penang is offering a special introductory rate of RM199++ per night in a Deluxe Room for stays between now until March 31, 2014. This introductory offer includes double SPG Starpoints, 20% off food and beverages, and complimentary in-room Wi-Fi access.


Phone +60 4 371 8888

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Little India Preps for Deepavali

Little India is bustling right before Deepavali

Happy Deepavali! The Little India section of George Town, Penang is always a vibrant and bustling feast for the senses. In the week leading up to the Deepavali (also called "Diwali") celebration, everything is amped up a bit. The crowds are bigger, the stores are busier, and the Bollywood music blares from large speakers out on the sidewalk. Most stores have open fronts, and their merchandise displays extend on to the street. As you stroll through Little India, it's easy to see what everyone has to offer without having to stop to poke your head through a door.

Deepavali is a five day "festival of lights" and quite important in the Hindu religion. Traditionally, a row of lamps is lit to signify good's victory over evil, and people celebrate by shooting off fireworks to ward of harmful spirits, wearing new clothes, and sharing sweets with each other. As I write this, firecrackers have been going off all night on the streets below my home.

Delicious sweets from Sri Ananda Bahwan

Last Monday, I dropped the kids off at school a mere 12 hours after our return from our trip to China and Tibet. In the school parking lot, I ran into a friend who invited me out sari shopping in Little India that morning. Hmmm.. go back home to unpack and do grocery shopping or hang with my friends to go shopping? The decision was not difficult.

Dosai and Saris
Note that the Dosai is almost as long as the table.

Our first stop was Woodlands Vegetarian on Penang Street to fill up on Paper Dosai, a paper-thin pancake made of fermented rice batter and black lentils, served with masala potatoes. To say that my friend ordered the Large size would be an understatement. Afterwards, we headed down the block to Maya Silk Centre to check out their sari cloth collection. As Mr. Rajan pulled out one beautifully embroidered silk after another, we quickly became overwhelmed by the selection. His shop was quite busy that week finishing orders for Deepavali, but by next week, he could make our custom saris in as little as an hour. Thankfully, he could also hide Velcro and hooks in the folds of the fabric so we wouldn't have to rely on our Indian friends to come over and dress us whenever we wanted to wear it. After mulling over the vast selection, we decided to come back post-Deepavali to figure out what we wanted.

A little shop on the corner of Penang Street and Market Street

On Thursday, I found myself back in Little India for a walking tour with Teresa from the Penang Heritage Trust and organized by Spiral Synergy. Teresa was part of the committee instrumental in getting part of George Town named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had no idea that they were rejected 8 times before getting the recognition. I commend them for persevering and bringing the charms of George Town to the attention of the world.

Indian Treats from Thali NR Sweets on Penang Street

This day began with a traditional Indian breakfast at Sri Ananda Bahwan or SAB as it is affectionately called. While the open kitchen has become a trendy concept with swanky restaurants,  SAB has had an open kitchen for a long time. With griddles positioned at the front of the restaurant, people walking by on the sidewalk can easily be lured in by watching the cooks spread out elongated ovals of dosai batter or flip Roti Canai dough around in the air to stretch it out.

Making delicious Dosai and Roti Canai by the sidewalk

Afterwards, we headed to a small beauty centre to watch a demonstration of threading and henna art. Threading involves removing unwanted hair by twisting thread around each wayward strand and yanking it out. According to Teresa, it's better than using tweezers. In either case, ouch! Although, I will admit that it's rather a bargain at US$1.70 a visit. Henna tattoos are created by squeezing natural dye from the henna plant out of a small cone and onto the skin. After leaving it on for a few hours (careful of smudging), you wash it off and have a temporary design that will fade away over the course of a few weeks.

Applying henna to make a temporary tattoo.
The finger in the background has the color after the dye is washed off.

Then, it was off to visit a sari shop. It turns out I was headed back to Maya Silk Centre. We learned how to tell "art silk" with a polyester blend apart from real silk. Let's just say that setting fire to a store's merchandise might put you on the bad side of the shop's owner. I think I may have also found a gorgeous georgette which is much more affordable than silk, US$30 versus US$100, that I may have made into a custom sari for myself. Most of the tour group could have easily spent the rest of the morning shopping for saris and Punjabi suits, but Teresa pushed us out of the store so that we could stay on schedule.

Gorgeous silk sari cloth with Swarovski crystals and gold thread

Our next stop was a spice shop further down on Penang Street called Mohamed Meera Sahib. The savory smell of curries mingled with other spices wafted out onto the street. Early in the morning, this store was packed with customers. I could barely move. Tubs of powdered spices sat at an angle along one side while sacks of lentils, dal, cinnamon and star anise sat around the scale. On the shelves, I saw tin after tin of Ghee and solid chunks of Gula Melaka palm sugar. It smelled heavenly in there. Teresa scooped up handfuls of each item and told us how they were used. Some were even in the breakfast we had dined on that morning.

Spices are historically an important part of George Town's heritage

After we exited, we turned left to head down Market Street towards a lovely shop where ladies can find all sorts of accessories to dress up their outfit, hair, and faces. Stick-on Bindi dots above the nose can signify a woman's married status if it's big or just a beauty mark if it's small.  I was particularly drawn towards the stacks of golden bangles and the elaborate necklaces. So pretty!

A variety of adornments in this shop

A streetside flower stall a few doors down was making garlands with fresh flowers from the Cameron Highlands. Some blooms were their natural colors while others had been dyed a brilliant hue. Hindus purchase these flowers and take them to the temple or one of the nearby altars as an offering.

Lush garlands are used as offerings at Hindu temples and altars.

We made it to Queen Street's Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang, just in time for a blessing before it closed at noon. I've always wanted to go in and look around but have been a little intimidated by my worry that I would ignorantly do something offensive. With our guide, Teresa, there, I wasn't worried and listened carefully to her explanations of the various statues inside the temple. At the end, she received a blessing from the Hindu priest.

A blessing on your head

With all the scents of street food floating through the air, it was hard to ignore the rumbling in our stomachs. We sat ourselves down on a plastic stool at a streetside table and watched a man prepare Teh Tarik, "Pulled Tea." To quickly cool hot tea, streams of the sweet, milky brew are poured back and forth between two cups, starting with them close together and then pulling one higher and higher into the air. Veggie Samosas from the stall across the street provided some yummy noshing, too. Teresa also recommended the buffet style Nasi Kandar meals at Restoran Tajuddin Hussain on Queen Street near the temple as being an important combination of hygienic, frequently replenished, and tasty.

Making Teh Tarik "Pulled Tea"
Veggie Samosas, only US$0.33 a piece

With my hunger sated, I peeled of from the tour and made my way back to the car. Even though it was only noon, the streets of Little India were packed with people. What I had mistaken for a pedestrians only street was actually open for vehicular traffic, and cars slowly made their way down the road with the crowds parting before them. This part of town is certainly busy during the festive Deepavali season.

People were eager to buy a new outfit for Deepavali. Perhaps a Punjabi Suit?

The rest of Penang is happy to share in the Deepavali celebration, too. It's not just limited to Little India. Shopping malls and office buildings will decorate the floor with a kolum, an intricate design made of colored rice, that is also known by the name "rangoli." They are sacred welcoming areas for Hindu deities and are meant to bring good luck.

Rangoli at Straits Quay

A closer look at the colored rice kernels of the rangoli

Here's wishing you a very Happy Deepavali!

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