I pushed through the wall of people, feeling like a drill tunneling through the ground.
The temple was crowded to the point of insanity, everyone anticipating the start of Chinese New Year in Penang. I simply wanted to get out — that’s if I could find the exit.
Still searching, I coughed as the incense engulfed me. It spewed from burning sticks, but not the tiny ones from an incense burner. These had dragon’s faces and were a person’s height. My lungs filled with their acrid smoke.
I pushed deeper into the crowd, the incense lingering. My ears were filled with a thousand conversations in Chinese. They were hushed, respecting the temple’s solemnity. I inhaled as the smoked faded, only to be replaced by Malaysia’s cloying air. The sun had set, but it didn’t make a difference. My shirt clung to my back in the tropical night.
With the sun banished, the sky had changed from pale blue to deep indigo. The red lanterns which had waited patiently all day burst into life, like stars going supernova. My senses were overwhelmed and I stopped to appreciate the moment.
All through the temple spiraled ornate carvings, dragons dancing around pillars and along the ceiling. Their ornate paintwork flickered from the sea of candles burning below. Not to be outdone, the hundreds of lanterns swinging overhead bathed us in red.
It was a magical moment. Then without warning, silence descended on the packed crowd. The temple’s altar emptied, anticipating the impending event. The sound system beside the altar screeched into life, unleashing a painful distortion that made me clutch my ears.
Moments later, a group of dancers bumbled onto the stage. Gaudy Chinese pop music started blasting. I stared in disbelief at the unceremonious scene, but the crowd cheered. This was the moment the ancient temple had been waiting for: Chinese New Year in Penang.