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Published: February 24th 2019
Our flight to Kuala Lumpur, and onwards to Penang, an island in Malaysia, left Australia in the middle of the night. We had an uncomfortable and sleepless night - the joys of foreign travel out of Australia! I survived the flight by watching downloaded Netflix movies. After getting slightly lost at KL airport (put down to tiredness, not advancing years....) we found our departure gate to Penang and spent a boring couple of hours watching airport ground crew on the tarmac.
The KL to Penang flight was a short 40 minutes. It was hot and very humid when we landed, and as we were very tired, we were both looking forward to our air conditioned hotel room and a shower. We had booked the Hotel Jen in Georgetown, for six nights, since extended by another three, as it proved a good choice. However we were unable to pay for the room as we had forgotten to unlock our credit card for international transactions. Not a good start but a phone call to Oz sorted that problem out.
We spent the afternoon sleeping after eating lunch from a hawkers stand near the hotel. Cheap, tasty food eaten whilst sitting on
tiny plastic stools, beside a busy road and under a blue tarp roof. Definitely no air conditioning.
The Hotel Jen is on the edge of the historic old town, in the shadow of The 68 floors of the Komtar building and conveniently next to the bus station. Despite it’s age the Komtar (construction completed in 1986) it is still the tallest building on Penang Island. Penang is continually growing upwards and outwards. Skyscrapers, both for tourist and local accommodation, ring the island - many of them constructed on reclaimed land.
Georgetown is the capital of Penang and it’s historic old town area was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008. It is also Malaysia’s second largest city. The city is full of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European influences. The streets are lined with Chinese shophouses, many in a sad state of disrepair. There are also many solid buildings from the British colonial era. One thing lacking in the historic area are footpaths - they are virtually non existent and where there are footpaths, the levels are constantly changing, or there are sudden holes, making walking along them quite challenging.
On our first evening we walked
towards the centre of the old town. We were aiming for Love Lane, which is the epicentre of the tourist area. Despite going in the wrong direction many times, we eventually found it and celebrated with a drink at a little bar in the lane. Part of the fun of exploring is what you discover along the way. Odd little shops, lots of strange food and some very quirky steel street art dioramas which are caricatures of Penang life. We have a lot more of the street art to discover yet.
Next morning we ate breakfast in a small cafe across the road, after spending half an hour on a fruitless search looking for another recommended breakfast spot. By then we were already getting tired - the heat is draining - It was very hot, only mid 30’s but with very high humidity.
We set off to explore the maze of streets in the old town, stopping for coffee in one of the shophouses, now restored and an expensive hotel. We spent an hour exploring Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi, an ornate Ancestral Hall and Clan Temple built in 1810 by wealthy immigrants from China. Dripping with gilt
and decorated with dragons across the roofline it was very impressive. It was only restored in 2015 so the colours are still vibrant. There are five such clan houses in Penang, all built by different groups of Chinese, as places of worship and support.
The wealthy Chinese merchants of Penang had money but no position in society so they married Malaysian women to attain status and the resultant blending of Chinese and Malay cultures became known as Peranakans or Staits Born Chinese. In their heyday, the Babas (males) and Nyonyas (females) were wealthy and influential people in the business world. This was evident in their opulent lifestyles, elaborate jewellery and costumes and their homes filled with a mix of heavily decorated Asian furniture and rare European art, glassware and pottery. The Nyonya women were highly skilled in embroidery, particularly embroidering with tiny beads, sewing and cooking. In the early years a young Nyonya girl was not allowed in public from the age of twelve - she spent the next few years perfecting her embroidery skills. She was chosen as a wife by her embroidery skills - her face was unseen until her wedding day.
We went to the
Chew Jetty, one of eight clan jetties in Penang. This jetty has 75 stilt houses built out over the water, and today it is not a particularly peaceful place as it is very touristy. So many tour buses lined up and every house now has a shop in it’s front room. We may go back later to check out some of the quieter jetties. We had caught the free bus from Komtar to the jetties, but decided to find our own way back. A few hours later we arrived back at the hotel, soaked in perspiration and with sore feet
Late that afternoon saw us back at the bus station trying to find the right bus to take us to Kok Lok si Temple. This temple is built on a hill outside the main city and is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. For the fifteen days of Chinese New Year the site it is covered in millions of tiny lights and strung with hundreds of red lanterns. Construction of the temple was started in 1890 and today they are still extending the temple size. It has a 7 story high Pagoda holding ten thousand alabaster and bronze Buddha
statues. The latest addition to the area is a very tall 120 feet bronze statue of Kuan Lin, the Goddess of Mercy.
We ate dinner in Air Atam at one of the many hawker stalls lining the road up to the temple. I tried Nutmeg juice, a local drink of Penang, and loved it. It was slightly tangy and very refreshing. Nutmeg juice is sold as a cordial base. We were really feeling the heat so decided that walking up the hill to the temple was all too hard so paid 16 MR (approximately AUD $5) to catch the funicular car up the hill. The trip up was actually divided into three sections, two furniculars and one buggy.
At the top of the hill stood Kuan Lin, dwarfing everybody who stood beside her. Devotees we’re buying handfuls of tokens and walking around her placing them in the prayer bowls which were lined around the base of the statue. You could also buy coloured ribbons (each colour represented a certain wish Eg. purple was for a successful career, and then hang them on a wooden frame ‘tree’. We were surrounded by thousands of red silk lanterns and knew when
Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi
The oldest Clan house in Georgetown.
the lights came on at sunset it would be beautiful. Penang has twelve hour days - it is pitch black till 7.30 am and sunset is not until 7.30pm.
And it was beautiful.. There is something captivating about the glow of red silk lanterns. We were unprepared though for the spectacle of the tiny LED lights which were covering the temples, fences, woven through all the trees and outlining all the tiny statues. It was like fairyland.. We spent a couple of hours wandering around and left as the crowds were building later in the evening. Unable to find the bus stop back to Penang we managed to flag down a Grab (Asia’s version of Uber) to drive us back to our hotel. It had been a great, but very tiring day, in the heat. We realised later we had walked 22 kilometres so no wonder we slept well that night.
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