Published: July 19th 2010July 18th 2010
One of my favourite shots
An educated individual such as yourself need only close your eyes to bring to mind any number of old movies or classic literary tales set in Colonial British Malaya. Surely you can recite those Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham classics, set in crumbling Georgetown, on Penang Island? For Frances and me however, our grasp of old movies and classic British literature is not sufficient to have bedded down a preconceived understanding of “Penang”. Instead, we seem at times to feel quite underprepared and poorly informed as we move from place to place. Even before we arrive in Penang (let’s be clear, the City is actually Georgetown, but Penang will suffice, as it really does ooze more charisma) there is this disconcerting absence of clarity in the vision of what to expect. Sure, we read the guidebook four times, sure the travel brochures are full of pictures, but there is always that nagging question of “What will it be like?” as you arrive at a new destination. This is, of course, the essence of travel to a new destination and what keeps one keen to pack bags again and again. Yet it’s often so disconcerting to try and picture a destination with
a blank canvas and find yourself unable to pick up the brush for the first stroke. And Penang, what a canvas! What a magnificent brush one would require to capture this place. “See it, visit it, do it now!” is all I need say.
We arrive, gaping at the change around us as we speed through modern Malaysia after the Indo-China and Thai lands. A real motorway and high quality signage direct us through the mass of Butterworth and modern Georgetown, combining to house around 1.8m people. We land in the heart of Penang, a relic of the British East India Company.
Pull out your atlas of 1790 and consider this: China is sealed to all outsiders, the Himalayas forming a barrier to the south of China; looking east from Asia is the vast barrier of the Pacific Ocean; traders from India and Persia have established trade routes to Europe. Now find and put your finger on Penang in the straits of Melaka. Understand that spices from Indonesian Islands have become the new wealth and trading currency of Europe. It’s simple, with a little history and geography, to now understand why the region became so important, why fortunes
Ahh the food
Our first lunch set the tone for the full 5 days
were made, traded and lost and why the myriad of races all settled on this little island. Bengals, Chinese, Tamils, Indians, Thais, Burmese, Armenians and Arabs - the list goes on and on. For 150 years they developed a rich and unique heritage. Then, it seems to me, somewhere in the middle of last century, the world turned its back on Penang and forgot about it. There it has lain, for 50 years, decaying and crumbling, struggling to survive as time has stalled. Maybe its neglect will be its saviour as UNESCO heritage status has now surely ring fenced the new Malaysia outside the old, like wagons surrounding the oasis.
It’s hard to put the finger on a single attraction of this place, but this is a wandering town. Building after building is shuttered or boarded, but hope exists in the slow but sure renovations taking place here and there. While small commerce lives, the city will survive, but how long can the seed merchants, the traditional Chinese herbalists, the hardware stores, the “kopi” shops, the tea shops and the unfathomable trading enterprises keep up the resistance to the circling Indians? I hasten you all to see Penang now.
Hopefully some of our amateur photography might tell those thousand words each picture deserves.
And the food, WOW! The various ethnic groups have all brought something to the table, fine tuned over 200 years, like a pot luck dinner for celestial Gods. Not a morsel of food over 5 days is a disappointment - except what must be Asia’s most expensive beer at $5 a big bottle! A street trader’s $6.00 fried noodle dish on night one has us in ecstasy. A $50 Indian meal on night 2 is amazing. With the help of a “Penang Food Trail” brochure, F & B set out to sample as many of the local specialties as we can. This involves stuffing ourselves, beyond bursting, and ignoring the 12 year old’s pleas for western food. What a gastronomic delight on night 4 at an open air food market that opens at 5.00 pm and closes at 3.00 am. Try this: Oyster Omelet, Prawns in Black Pepper sauce, BBQ Brinjals (half an eggplant roasted with garlic), Hokkien Mee (Hokkien Noodle and Prawn), Tempura Squid, Tempura fish, satay beef/chicken/pork and a couple of big beers. The beers cost $10, the rest is $37. What gluttonous
This is what needs to survive for the old town to retain its feel
greedy and self congratulating pigs Bernard and Frances are, waddling home that night. Lauren and Molly did help of course - honestly!!
It’s Borneo next, where we rendezvous with Julia, Frances’s sister, who arrives a couple of days before us. We have chosen Sabah, the Malaysian state at the tip of the massive island (world’s 3rd biggest) in our planning. Our arrival quickly confirms that we should have spent more time booking and planning. Here we appear to have come across a tourism model designed to attract the wealthy and the cash rich. It’s an interesting situation and one that the tourism industry in NZ needs to debate more intelligently. Here is an island plundered for its timber, oil and mining. But through this economic pillage are emerging some fabulous tourism products of rain forests, wild animals, coral diving and island resorts. It is here we have come to see orang utan, Borneo elephants, Long Tail, Pig Tail & Proboscus monkeys, crocodiles, Oriental Darters and Hornbills - and to climb a reasonably serious hill.
What makes Sabah interesting from a tourism viewpoint are the seemingly government-fostered cartels operating anywhere that attracts tourists. There’s a clear push to
Restored Chinese mansion
Eric the guide gave us a great tour of this stunning B & B.
force visitors to pay high prices for all tourism product. Putting aside the fact that tourists are charged up to 6 times the price of Malaysian Nationals at almost all tourism sites, there is an open and clear process to corral tourists into the most outrageously priced and heavily structured tourism “packages”. The most obvious is the process of climbing Mt Kinabalu, Asia’s highest peak east of the Himalayas. It is Sabah’s number 1 tourism “must do”. It is costing us NZ$260 pp to climb - and I have found the cheapest package! Located inside a National Park, theoretically a climbing permit and guide should cost $30. On top of that there as a collection of huts at the half way point for the required overnight stay. Creating a cartel is simple really: just hand over ownership of all these huts to a single private entity and then let them charge NZ$230 per person per night for a bunk bed in an unheated and shared facility dorm. There is no alternative to paying the cartel the asking price and, with demand outstripping supply, the price is only going one way.
This is repeated everywhere we look. Information for FIT
These rattan roll down blinds add a certain character to the town
travelers (that’s Free and Independent Travelers) is impossible to find. There is just a heavily promoted plethora of “Tour Agents” willing to charge extortionate amounts to do what is made difficult by yourself. Without a car, this place would be torture. The interesting thing here is what is right and wrong with the policy? While we find it frustrating and expensive, maybe tightfisted flash packers like us are simply not what this State wants? They have some marvelous sights and experiences to behold so why should they not simply restrict access to the highest bidders? Some attractions, like the famous “Turtle Island” are booked solid until October. The famous Sipadan dive site the same.
Every tourism-related person always asks “What company are you with?”. Almost every group of tourists we see is accompanied by a licensed guide providing interpretive information, vans are high quality, movements run like a military operation and there is a sense that the greater plan for foreign tourists is well understood at all levels of the industry. Under the current model Sabah will not become a haunt of the backpacker - it will move more and more towards the well heeled and eco-conscious traveler willing
to pay. The only obvious flaw I see is how well distributed this money is. I can only speculate who the owners of these cartels really are. I am sure the model is actually quite good, but weaved into an Asian political system one would fear that the benefits are shared by a few business elite and that they must pay their dues to the political elite.
So we arrive in Kota Kinabalu, get annoyed at the Taxi Cartel at the airport who double their rates after midnight, meet up with an excited Aunty Julia, get the laptop reformatted after Windows dies (arghh!!!!) find a car to rent, pull a plethora of tour brochures apart to decide where we will point the car tomorrow, fail miserably to find a low cost way to climb Mt Kinabalu (despite pulling out all my “tourism” cards), arrange for Molly to go shopping, give Lauren some play time, swim and then deal to the duty free Julia managed to get into this pious and puritanical nation!!
We point, drive and miraculously arrive at a seductive river lodge, on the Kinabatangan River. It’s basic and rudimentary, with no wi-fi or DVD player, but
Street scene repeated on every corner. Whatever he is selling, it will be delicious
reasonably priced for these parts. Hemmed in by the unbelievably massive expanses of Palm Oil plantations, this is an accessible rain forest experience just right for us as a family. But rain forest has rapidly lost to palm oil and the scale is unbelievable. Roads that recently would have been gravel tracks, are now tarmac and smooth. The plantations extend for 100’s of km’s, as far as the eye and elevation allow observation. The Palm Estates sprout hacienda style manager homes and huge mills are spread at regular intervals along the road. Seductively, the Oil Palm tree is pretty, it casts a beautiful light, and if it were not for the outcome of this awful explosion, one could almost suggest the land looks more attractive. The only bright spot of this destruction is that wildlife is therefore currently concentrated in a smaller area of what is left. This is a death spiral for the poor animals, but for us today, it means easier interaction.
We march off to view a “bat cave”, home to over 1m bats and thousands of Swiftlet birds. The Swiftlet birds’ nests are harvested annually for the Chinese restaurant trade, no doubt at the expense
The Red Inn
We stayed in the centre for a couple of nights. Only open 2 weeks. We can only hope the karaoke next door fails to survive
of a few local lives as the men folk here ascend maybe 100 metres on a rickety collection of urea and guano soaked ropes and poles to collect off the roof. The bats and swiftlets seem to live symbiotically, along with the easy to spot, cockroaches, rats and crabs. It’s a smelly and “disgusting” boardwalk that we navigate, stomachs churning and umbrellas extended to protect from fresh droppings. Molly is appalled and rightfully goes into a pre-teen meltdown when she fails to avoid some of the droppings and fully appreciates the surroundings. Lauren is non-plussed and wanders around content and fascinated.
Feeling dirty and pouring with tropical jungle induced sweat, we wander back to the car, Bernard and Frances lagging behind, avoiding the whinging ahead! A crash in the overhead canopy alerts us to the presence of a female orang utan. For the next 15 to 20 minutes, we watch, spellbound as a mother and baby fossic and feed within 20 to 30 metres of us. A smug satisfaction emerges when a group of Euro’s on a package tour, arrive, watch for 10 minutes then leave with frustration as the target is partly hidden at that time. Surely the
Indulge me please....
first rule of observation is patience. Incredibly their guide does not impart this to them and they wander off, seemingly bemused by our excitement. Within minutes we are rewarded again as “our girl” recommences her activity, and crosses directly overhead. It’s staggeringly beautiful, all eyes are glued, all whining is forsaken and we are rewarded for our patience by the real deal.
The day prior, we watched a wild herd of Borneo Pigmy Elephants feeding at the river bank and later today we will tick off the monkeys and a number of the major birds. A bit of a fluke possibly, but the decision to just sit tight at one spot for 3 days and be patient has paid off hugely. What triggers such an endorphin surge from wildlife observation escapes me, but it is undeniable that such a day sends the cost of beer that night into insignificance. After months of paying no more than $2 for a large beer, these puritanical Malaysians have the audacity to want $3.50 for a can of Tiger…. staggeringly expensive really!
We enjoy the river and its tributaries and the great wildlife exposure, and head to Sepilok to visit an orang
A Mosque in Penang
What a multi cultural town this is
utan rescue centre. We hand over our 30 RM (locals pay 5RM) stand on a platform with 100 other people, jostling for space, listening to dozens of amateurs shooting photos at the rate of 100 per sec with their motor drives and 18 inch long lenses - all trying to get the money picture - seeing only a mother and baby in what is effectively a zoo environment leaves us flat and frustrated. The facility itself and the work they do is absolutely fantastic and the need to fundraise from tourists is undeniable. But nothing could be more disappointing after having got the real deal two days earlier.
We move on and find satisfaction elsewhere at a quiet forest walk. Bernard and Molly get more than they want when a highly protective male Pig Tail Macaque Monkey decides Bernard is getting too close in the jungle and starts to stalk them both. It might be smaller than an orang utan, but the strength and teeth of these brutes could do fatal damage. A hasty retreat sees some great photo opportunities lost and it’s a little bruise to the ego that sees Bernard cowering and hiding behind some trees for
A temple in Penang
Just around the corner from the Mosque
10 minutes, then convincing Molly “it’s all clear now, we can walk back along that trail”.
So we are up to day 103. We are through the half way stage and it’s hard not to start thinking ahead to Turkey. We have Julia’s company for a few more days, then head to KL so Molly can have a week with her mother and Frances’s mother joins us for a 10 day stint.
The weather remains predictable. It’s gorgeous every morning, it gets hot as hell during the day until it rains between 2 pm and 4 pm. Then it gets hot again until the sun goes down and temperatures fall, accompanied by lightning and distant thunder. We are in the tropics and life and weather are much more predictable here. “Languid” is a word that best describes both the lifestyle and our own state of being. What a nice space to be in.....
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