“Selamat” is how people say “hello” in Malay. Penang is an island that is part of Malaysia but the people on Penang just say “hello” because they speak English, in fact, in school they teach both Malay and English. A taxi driver told us that the students spend more time studying American history than Malaysian history. He knew all about the Boston Tea Party and George Washington. We were impressed because we do not know much about Malaysian history.
One of the reasons that English is spoken on the island of Penang is because the island was first settled by the English in the 1700s. It was the first English settlement in Asia. The main city, Georgetown, was name in honor of England’s George III. The English wanted a harbor on the Spice Route safe frompirates. Today spices are easy to get but in the 1700s they were very expensive in Europe. When Columbus sailed west and landed in the Americas he was looking for a faster, cheaper way to get to where the spices are grown. We visited a Spice Garden where we learned about the many uses for spices and their importance.
We loved the diversity of Penang. About 40% of the people are Malay, another 40% Chinese, 10% Indian and the rest a mixture of other groups. It makes the island very interesting. The Malay people are Muslim, the Chinese are Buddhist, while the Indians practice the Hindu religion but there are many Christian churches, too. The Buddhist and Hindu temples are very interesting and colorful. Several times a day we could hear the Muslim call to prayer.
At our hotel, the Holiday Inn Resort, there were Malay, Chinese,Indian, Europeans, and some from Saudi Arabia. Penang is a honeymoon destination for Saudis. The Saudi women are completely covered in an abaya, which is like a long coat worn over their regular clothing. Some even have a face veil with only their eyes visible. When the lady eats she lifts up her veil just enough so they can get the food to her mouth. It is interesting because there are Europeans in bikinis. The Muslim women have a special swimsuit that covers everything but their face, feet, and hands. One lady had a bright pink one.
We were lucky to be at the hotel for Chinese New Year. In the morning we received red envelopes with chocolate money in it and a orange all symbols of good luck in the future. There were some people with big drums and cymbals making a lot of noise while other people set off fire crackers. The noise will drive away all the bad spirits. Then there was a colorful lion dance with the noise of the drums and cymbals. The hotel staff had tied small bunches of lettuce highon the walls. The lions had to jump up or climb up (there are two people in each lion outfit – so one had to climb on the other – tricky). When the lion gets the lettuce we all clapped. I was another sign of good luck. Afterwards the hotel provided a “Loh Hey” which literally means to 'move upwards.’ It is a wish for good fortunes to grow during the coming year. It is called a Prosperity Toss. That night there were fireworks. The day we left was a Hindu holiday. We wished we could have been there to see the Hindu celebration.