Published: October 26th 2007October 4th 2007
Kuan Yin Teng Temple, Penang
The ferry to Penang is all cockroaches, vomit and karaoke - perhaps not an unusual combination for South East Asia?! It's also stinking hot. I'm grateful for my gut of steel and for my blocked nose. I'm even more grateful for my sense of humour!
My destination, Penang, the so called 'pearl of the Orient' was first settled by the British back in 1786 and prospered as a major trading hub of the east - attracting many Chinese merchants to the area. When I arrive in Georgetown, Penang's capital, I quickly realize this isn't your garden variety SE Asian Island. There's no crystal clear water, sunsets next to palm trees laden with coconuts - its more commerce, grey buildings and trading - than beach and lazing. In fact - there's also a bridge to the island from the mainland. I need not have taken the ferry!
I get to bustling Georgetown during the Chinese lantern festival and find myself a guesthouse in the Chinese quarter. The quaint colonial buildings are squeezed between temples, and rickshaws fly past hawkers peddling their goods on the busy streets. The population here is predominately Chinese and Malay, but there's also an Indian quarter.
Lantern Festival, Penang
The night I arrive, children parade through the Chinatown streets with elaborate Chinese lanterns and proud parents in tow. The gang at the guesthouse sit out on the veranda with cold beers and watch the procession go past.
The food in Penang is renowned all over Malaysia for its variety and flavour - from curries, to noodles and right now moon cakes. There are moon cakes for sale everywhere - a type of flavourless Chinese pastry with bizarre ingredients like beans and egg - which is the traditional food of the festival. The night I arrive, children parade through the Chinatown streets with elaborate Chinese lanterns and proud parents in tow. The gang at the guesthouse sit out on the veranda with cold beers and watch the procession go past.
Temples are to SE Asia, what churches are to Europe and ruins are to Turkey. So there's nothing else to do, but fully immerse myself in the temple experience. I start with Kek Lok Si Temple - the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia - which is over one hundred years old. It's perched on top of a hill in an area of Penang called Air Itam and is adorned with gold, 10,000 buddhas and other glitzy additions no doubt born from giftshop proceeds and shameless fundraising schemes. Like the buy-a-tile-for-the-new-roof/-get-your-name-written-on-it scheme. The most recent glitzy addition to the temple is a hideous air-conditioned elevator to the top
of the complex to view the 30 metre bronze statue of the goddess Kuan Yin. It gets worse - the most disturbing attraction at the temple was the tiny pool filled with hundreds of turtles heaped on top of one another that the public could pay to feed. The Irwins would be outraged!
My favourite temple is the Goddess of Mercy Temple - Kuan Yin Teng. Filled with Sunday worshippers burning incense and scraps of paper on which they'd written their wishes - the air is thick with eye watering smoke. This isn't a tourist attraction and there's no one selling postcards out the front. A man collects incense sticks left in massive pots of sands with a sort of dustpan and beckons me to follow him. The temple has several rooms and altars - people seem to be leaving incense and flowers at all of them. Another man standing in the grounds tells me about the tiny caged birds. On Sundays children come and pay about $1 to make a wish and release one. Later, a family brings hundreds of bags of food which they distribute for free to the homeless and poor (for their good luck!).
Other attractions worth mentioning include Penang Hill - a hill station reached by funicular with sweeping views of Georgetown and the peninsular, the Penang Museum and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion - the home of the late Chinese entrepreneur. However, I was getting a little tired of the tourist trail - so decided it was time for a day at the races!! The Penang Turf Club was established in 1864 and is the oldest horse racing and equestrian centre in Malaysia. Unfortunately, the horses were racing in KL that day, but it didn't stop thousands of locals from hitting the track to part with their hard earned cash and watch the races on tv screens. Sonja, a Canadian from my hostel, and I hit the track with a fistful of ringit and a form guide. We arrived to find ourselves the only Westerners there. Brilliant!! With the assistance of amused locals, who can't afford to drink at the track, we place ourselves a few each-way bets with little, actually no success. The most success we have is meeting Lindsay - a Kiwi trainer in the bar - who shows us the 'backside' of the track. We get a guided tour
The crowd goes wild!
Punting at the Penang Turf Club
of the stables where many horses are kept in 'refrigeration' stalls - then forced to compete in sweltering conditions. Apparently, race fixing and all sorts of underhanded stuff is commonplace here - so the horses are kept in these stalls more for security than the cold. An eye-opening experience.
The people at my Penang guesthouse are intriguing. There's the topless old man with a snowy beard and bunk 'pole position' in dorm, who reads standing up and throws annoyed glances at his noisy roomies. He arrived years ago from Zimbabwe and is a scientist specializing in insects. One gets the feeling that he arrived there a young man and aged standing there by the bunk with his book. Cindy is an American nomad who in her 60s, has spent most of her life traveling the globe and living in weird and wonderful destinations. However, my favourite characters of all are Mr Low and Jimmy who run the guesthouse which offers dorm beds for $2.50 Aussie per night. The Chinese Mr Low is a card - he has just a couple of teeth, cracks jokes, pulls off a corker Aussie accent and knows everything about Penang and traveling in the
Jungle Trek Group
region. Jimmy gets the early shift and is more the sleazy side of friendly - 'Good morning Ewen (Ellen), you sooooo happy!!' he screams and suffocates me with hugs reserved only for young, female guests.
I unexpectedly find myself in Ipoh, Malaysia - it's just halfway to my Cameron Highlands destination. "You have 15 minutes", says my bus driver, "I'm waiting for the mechanic". Confidence instilling! Ipoh, the Lonely Planet warns, is a sleazy centre for prostitutes and shady characters. I haven't seen any Westerners since the morning and it's serious Muslim territory here. I'm not sure whether it's exacerbated by Ramadan or just that they don't get many tourists, but all the men are staring at me. Not in a threatening way, more in a comical stop-a-few-metres-away-and-stare-because-(apparently)-she-can't-see-me way. Very amusing! The mechanic arrives caked in grease and oil and appears to have climbed into the transmission. Another official looking guy from the bus company calls someone on his mobile and farts loudly. My bus driver is MIA. It's coming up to an hour since we stopped. Bus drivers in Malaysia are notorious. Apparently their erratic driving causes almost as many accidents as their Bolivian and Indonesian counterparts. The
sun is setting when we finally leave Ipoh.
A little later we are driving through the jungle - there's only 5 other passengers - all Malay, when we pull into a bus graveyard up a dirt track. There's a fire with burning tires, piles of rubbish and a corrugated iron fence all around. I'm not sure what the problem is and strangely unperturbed, none of the locals has asked. The driver finally tells me that the bus wouldn't have made it up the mountains, so we clamber onto another bus and head for the hills. The headlights on the new bus don't seem to work and our driver is conserving his high beams. The winding roads up to the highlands are narrow and I'm sure daylight would deliver stunning drops to one side and a cliff face to the other. The driver maneuvres the bus with one hand, the other talking on his mobile. We break down again - it's late and I'm hungry. Another mechanic arrives. We limp up the mountain and finally make it to the bus station in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands... phew. I'm even happier when the charismatic Paul from Fathers Guesthouse materialises with a
lift - I haven't booked, but was planning to stay there. It transpires that the bus driver was worried about me, so called the guesthouse. Bless. Also bless the hot showers (quite the novelty) and the late night snack the cook manages to conjure up on arrival!
Set on a hill behind the town and surrounded by forest and gardens, Father's Guesthouse is like a school camp. The dorms rooms are real deal corrugated iron army bunkers, with single beds all lined up in a row - which were used by the British back in WW2. The weather in the Cameron Highlands is cool and damp owing to its altitude - about 1500m above sea level. I'm expecting a highland retreat in a town famous for its tea plantations and jungle walks - but am disapointed by the glut of ugly hotels and apartments in Tanah Rata. The place is sadly overtouristed - with butterfly farms, strawberry farms, rose garden, reptile parks - you get the drift ... Getting out of town helps. I take a 1/2 day tour - including a 'mossy forest' trek and visit to the Boh Tea Estate. As it turns out, I'm not much
The building is absolutely amazing - a futuristic architectural marvel. But when it comes down to it, a visit to the Skybridge is a complete waste of time!
of a fan of mossy forests. The guide is exceptional and the group lovely, but I'm no green thumb and not one for botanical pursuits - like rare species of orchid and even the carnivorous pitcher plant fails to get my heart racing. Give me a challenging hike, coupled with a great view and a few waterfalls anytime! The tea estate is pretty interesting. Locals still manually pick tea from the plantations using massive baskets, wearing traditional hats and listening to MP3 players! The architecture of the Boh Tea Estate is impressive - like a winery back home - it's all timber, steel and outdoor deck areas. Boh is the number one tea in Malaysia and we checked out the refining process, before settling down to sample the goods.
After my sojourn in the highlands it was back to KL. A decision had to be made - do diving and the Thailand beaches or skip straight to Northern Thailand. With a deadline to be in India in November and Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam still very much on my list and having visited some of Thailands beaches before, I made the (very) difficult call to take a cheap Air Asia
flight to Chang Mai. Another day in KL offered the chance to see the Petronas Towers Skybridge which I'd missed last time around. Getting there at 8.30am to get my free ticket, I returned in the afternoon at my allotted time and was ushered into a theatre with a pair of 3D glasses. A Petronas Fuel Company propaganda film ensued (not sure why it was 3D), before we were security checked and elevated up 41 floors to the Skybridge for our 10 minute experience. The building is absolutely amazing - a futuristic architectural marvel. But when it comes down to it, a visit to the Skybridge is a complete waste of time! I farewell Malaysia with the requisite cold tiger beer and a night out with some fellow travelers, leaving me not-so-fresh for my early morning flight to Chang Mai!
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