Those of us old enough to remember school essays that were actually written with pen and paper probably had to do at least one standard version of “How I spent my summer vacation”. Here in the tropics it’s always summer and Malaysia is one of the few tropical nations sandwiched between two influential monsoon weather patterns which means there’s not really any seasons here with the possible exception of January through March when it’s almost always very dry. Usually planning vacations in Southeast Asia around wet and dry season, we hardly ever know what month it is here and were it not for internet radio and social media, we’d probably have no clue that summer is winding down. Celebrated as the last official weekend of summer, Labor Day marks back to school for North Americans but here in Malaysia, the end of August ushers in a slew of holidays celebrating everything from Malaysian Independence to the most important Hindu Festival of the year known as Deepavali.
As seasoned expats (all of 14 months), we’re not as inclined to investigate each festival because most expats check out whatever local holidays have to offer in their first year and decide which ones are worth coming back for. Sadly, very few Penang events are worth writing home about as far as we’re concerned so as we settle into our daily lives and try to save our cash for travel, we usually avoid the crowds associated with most holidays. Living in the nation’s most popular beach resort town means withering large crowds on public holidays but unlike the big city, big parades and spectacles are not really part of the festivities for most Malaysian holidays. Indian and Chinese holidays do have more glitz but Chinese New Year 2016 was amazingly devoid of fanfare In Penang and many locals blamed a weakened local economy combined with the first full year after the government implemented the GST (goods and services tax). Choosing to spend the Merdeka holiday with the island’s non human population of mostly friendly monkeys held more appeal to me than hanging out on crowded beaches anyway so that’s exactly what I did.
Probably my favorite part of living here, the opportunity to interact with such an enormous population of urban wildlife is rare. Despite a ridiculous unsustainable and ambitious over development of the nation that’s devastated wildlife populations in many places, monkeys remain viable almost everywhere thanks to their similar DNA and amazing adaptability. Making it even more fun, there’s two dominant types of monkeys roaming the jungles, electrical wires and trails of Penang. Most commonly recognized, long-tailed macaques live in large family groups and all have unique and individual personalities. Usually fairly docile, these monkeys eat almost anything you feed them as well as a varied diet including insects, fruit and nuts. Of course it’s best not to feed them anything unhealthy like chips but they do seem to love bread although they often inspect it carefully before eating it.
Interacting with macaques in Penang is easy because you’ll find them everywhere. Walking across telephone polls, pulling goodies out of garbage cans and just hanging out right on the street is common behavior and they’re almost oblivious to humans. But I’ve got some favorite spots where they act differently due to lack of idiot tourists that tease them. Avoiding places like the Botanic Gardens where they’re spoiled rotten and have the worst diet, I prefer a quiet street in our little town where you’ll find different groups playing almost every day. Learning how to approach them takes some time and occasionally an entire group shows their teeth or even starts chasing you if they’re not into being disturbed. Stay away from mothers carrying babies and just walk away if that happens because it’s best not to test the Malaysian healthcare system and should they bite or scratch, you always need immediate medical attention. Fortunately, they’re rarely so aggressive that they’re dangerous and if one group is mean I just move on and find some friendlier ones.
One of my favorite places to hang out with macaques is a steep trail not too far from our house. Used extensively by ambitious hikers and joggers early in the morning when it’s cooler, I usually have it to myself during the midday heat. Oddly, monkeys seem to prefer the comforts of the trail when they find tasty snacks and I’ve seen them digging around for termites (a protein filled tasty snack) On a recent trip, I found this guy munching on some pine nuts. Usually not bothered by locals who give little attention to monkeys, they’re perfectly happy sharing their space with humans so I often sit down right next to them and enjoy their company.
One of my favorite places to watch macaques is a local park not far from the heavily touristy Penang Botanical Gardens. Avoid the crowds and take a left turn off Jalan Kebuan Bunga, the street leading into the Gardens, into a parking lot with and head into Taman Perbandaran (Penang Municipal Park). Go on a weekday and you’re guaranteed to find some funny groups doing interesting things. Feeding them is strictly prohibited and you’ll learn the hard way why this is so if you carry food. Approaching them with fruit, bread or junk food will lead to them chasing you and they may even grab it from your hand or pockets so please heed the warning.
Technically, feeding all monkeys is illegal in Penang but following any rule or statute is merely a suggestion in Malaysia as shown in the pictures below. Clearly posted signs saying Dilarang Merokok (No Smoking) are everywhere in one of our favorite local Kedai Kopis. But yesterday, I had my choice of five different people to photograph all puffing away. In Malaysia, everyone does whatever they want despite many laws, rules and signage prohibiting things like smoking, illegal parking and open burning. When there’s no consequences or enforcement of rules, they’re meaningless and all Malaysians know this. Listed as one my cons on the positive/negative scale, it’s part of life in Malaysia and getting used to it quickly makes living here easier. Even funnier is the sign above implying they watch for violators with CCTV. (closed circuit TV or the Asian translation of security cameras).
Ignoring silly things like laws, Malaysia is the opposite of Singapore and locals leave lots of delicious things for my macaque buddies in Batu Ferrenghi every day. That’s why they’re not usually aggressive in that area. Understanding they’ll be left some coconut shreds, a bunch of fruit or even a take away container of rice, they know who’s responsible for their spoiled life of luxury and they’re just fine smiling for a photo.
Cuter but not always friendlier, the other dominant monkey in Penang is the clown faced dusky leaf. Sometimes harder to spot, these guys are vegetarians and only eat leaves. Often quite picky, they’ll go out of their way to munch on one specific leaf that looks about the same as all the others to you and me. Told about their elusive nature, we spent the first year hitting the trails and using binoculars thinking they were shy and hard to find. Usually found roaming in family groups of five to 25, you often hear them screeching and they often cross the street via overhead electrical wires right near the beach in Batu Ferrenghi. Unfortunately, they seem to have trouble negotiating unstable and thin wires but it’s often the only way of crossing a busy street. Sometimes they simply use the street and walk across but they prefer to use above ground means. Amazingly agile jumpers, they often take enormous jumps that look like death spirals but somehow, like circus acrobats, they always find their way to a branch.
Having spent most of our first year thinking they’re shy and not curious, I’ve only recently discovered that sometimes there’s larger ones that are so tame, it’s almost scary. Awhile back we saw some on a morning walk up on the aqueduct trail and they came closer to look at us. Caught off guard, I thought it was just an unusually friendly troupe not used to seeing too many humans. But then we visited a less frequented park near the Botanical Gardens and I found a group of three so friendly they climbed down the tree and kept looking right at me. With no interest in food, their only motivation is curiosity and it’s hard to resist them because they’re simply adorable although the dark black circles around their pupils makes it difficult to tell what they’re thinking when they stare at you. Here’s some pictures of a couple that climbed all the way down the tree and had a staring contest. Even mimicking my hand gestures, they obviously thought I was a lot more fun than those stoic Hokkien Chinese locals who never give them a look.
But only recently did I hit the monkey jackpot. Apparently, certain larger dusky leaf monkeys not only enjoy hanging out watching life go by but are so tame and curious it’s downright amazing. I found this guy sitting with his buddy right in the middle of a large troupe of macaques enjoying some goodies on Merdeka.
Probably wondering why those silly macaques enjoy eating strange things like fruit, rice and bread, he hung out for a while in this funny position while a smaller family group was a few hundred feet away playing like puppies and enjoying the holiday like all the Malays.
Realizing that the really tame ones are simply not threatened by humans in any way, I moved closer and closer until I was about five feet away. And this is where they’re hilarious. Deciding to share his day with me, this rather large monkey with beautiful clean black fur turned and walked right up to me. Trained to be cautious of macaques which can become aggressive if startled, I almost stepped back but stayed put as he practically reached out to touch me. Malaysia does have places where monkeys literally hang out on your shoulders like this side trip we took to Selangor while finalizing our MM2H visa last year. But they were silvered leaf monkeys that love bananas more than anything and large groups hang out near a scenic tourist attraction while vendors sell bananas so it’s not really the same thing. Knowing that dusky leafs are vegetarians, they have no reason to walk right up to you other than saying hello and that’s why they’re my favorites.
Like an adorable cuddly pet, this guy and I were face to face for about two minutes before he either got bored or figured I wouldn’t play with him. Tempting as it is, I still don’t recommend trying to touch or pet them because it’s always better safe than sorry with wild animals although it’s kind of hard to call urban dwellers “wild“. Now my favorite monkey, I’m convinced you just need to find the large tame ones to enjoy a fun afternoon hanging out at a real life zoo.
On a different note, the expression “what a difference a year makes” couldn’t possibly apply more than the skies of Penang today compared to one year ago. As September rolls in, we’ve had lots of overnight rain which make beautiful sunsets but more importantly, keep the haze at bay. With beautiful combinations of high, cirrus and puffy white clouds, I’m happy to report almost unlimited visibility from our balcony. Checking the air quality index, it looks like almost all of Malaysia is at acceptable levels when it comes to haze free skies. Aggressively attacking the annual round of illegal clear cutting forest fires set by greedy assholes in Indonesia for the sake of profits, last year’s total disaster made international news and it looks like they may have tried harder this year. And of course a La Nina weather pattern usually follows an extended El Nino so the extra rain has really helped. It’s too soon to call it a non-event this year but let’s all cross our fingers.
So all is well here in Penang as we wrap up our first full summer and we’re being low-key while we save cash for a ten-day trip to Cambodia next month. After that, it’s a long trip across the ocean and a kick in the senses as we make our first trip back to North America since moving to Malaysia. Heading to Calgary and Edmonton during winter to celebrate the holidays with Diane’s family, the cold should be interesting to say the least. Having learned how to use apps with VPN’s that fool Ticketmaster into thinking we’re in Canada, we even scored tickets to an Edmonton Oilers hockey game and they’re playing their first season at North America’s newest and most modern arena. Just completed, Rogers Place may energize the playoff starved Oiler fans who haven’t seen the playoffs since the middle of the Bush/Cheney reign but we’re not holding our breath.
And finally, I heard that Starbucks is bringing back Pumpkin Spiced Lattes beginning the day after Labor Day. Unheard of on this side of the world, it’s one of our favorites despite its horrible nutritional reputation so if there’s any Starbucks executives reading, please introduce Southeast Asia to this annual treat. Should anyone want to visit Penang, we’d be happy to walk around searching for monkeys with you so just shoot us an email in the contact page.
Meanwhile, as the joke known as the US Presidential Election finally enters the homestretch, I pray that sanity prevails. Although we get our absentee ballots next month, we represent California which wouldn’t vote for Orange Man even if pigs fly, the moon turns blue or the sun rose the west. Having publicly humiliated and mocked Mexico’s pathetic head of state with a photo-op stunt, he’s proven that even world leaders can’t touch him so if you still think it doesn’t really matter, a future with less hatred and fear begs to disagree. Good luck America.