A childhood in Penang

My first overseas journey was to Penang, Malaysia, when I was only nine years old. My father got a job teaching at the RAAF school and, for the next three years, every day was an adventure.


I think this is where it all began … my lust for discovering new places and cultures. Watching baby turtles hatching and scrambling out to sea. Gliding along a river into the midst of a jungle. Bartering with the locals at a crowded market square. Encountering a Russell’s Viper on a hike up Penang Hill.


A visit to the temples. Colourful, ornate, fascinating. Reptiles draped around visitors’ necks at the Snake Temple. Lively markets on the steps of Kek Lok Si. A giant reclining Buddha.

Processions and festivals. Young men pierced with hooks, carrying elaborate floats. The noise, the chanting, the smell of incense. They walk on fire. Their beliefs allowing them to endure such pain, in the hope that the Gods will smile on them.

Thaipusam ThaipusamKuantan. Malacca. Pangkor Island. Exotic sounding names for a young girl from Victoria, Australia. 

The street where I lived was raised above the kampong … but was typical of any street you would find back home. Brick houses with fences separating us from our neighbours, backyards to play in and tree-lined paved roads. But this was Malaysia and down in the kampong the children played hide and seek in the alleys and in a small patch of rainforest that separated our districts.

Their homes were made of bamboo, chaotically built, one on top of another. Rickety stilts provided meagre protection against the potentially devastating monsoon, and the thatched roofs, when seen from above, looked like a patchwork quilt.

Foreign sounds and smells drifted from the kampong, mysterious and tantalising for a curious Aussie girl. “Cream puffs! Apple Pies! Donuts!” screamed the young Indian man, as he cycled his rickety bike toward me, the cane basket wobbling precariously on the rear rack. He was our baker and the bakery came on wheels. While I eagerly awaited his cry, it was more from a desire to see him riding by than a wish to sample his wares.

Dressed in a bright red sarong, a woman rode her motor scooter into our district every few weeks. She was the lady who repaired our shoes and I remember watching her as she transformed her scooter into a mini repair shop. Her skilful hands expertly stitched my shoe as she sat on a wooden stool right outside my home.

Karen in Penang

Driving a tiny yellow truck full of fruit and vegetables along our street every morning was a wizened old Chinese man. He was the grocer, but we called him the Lolly Man because he had a shelf devoted to a glorious array of sweets. Once a week we would run home from school in time to greet this ancient man.

But my favourite was definitely the Chinese Pancake Man … I watched him pour batter into six mini hot plates on his mukan cart, producing delicious nut and caramel flavoured pancakes. It’s a recipe I’ve never been able to replicate, but I did get to try them again many years later, on a return trip to Penang. So many memories …

What do you remember about your first travel experience? Were you, like me, left with a lifelong desire to explore the world?


13 thoughts on “A childhood in Penang

    • Thanks! It’s never too late for new adventures 🙂
      I had a look at the photos on your blog and really love your shots of Peru… they bring back some memories of my trip there last year to hike the Inca Trail.

  1. Is that a photo of you when you were 9? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pic of you as a child. What great childhood memories. You’re lucky you had the opportunity to live in such an exotic place compared to Australia.

  2. Great story Karen – brings back so many memories. You have such a way with words. Can’t wait to read more.

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  6. I was a schoolkid in Penang too, but my Dad was a bank manager. I ran into Aussie kids all the time at the swimming club or town. Great bunch!

    Great blog too. Enjoyed it a lot!

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