East meets West in the Exotic Cultural Cocktail of Penang

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August 1st 2019
Published: August 4th 2019
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Graceful and GloriousGraceful and GloriousGraceful and Glorious

The intricate facade of the Cheah Kongsi ceremonial hall
After five days in the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, Linda and I took a bus five hours north to Butterworth on the coast, from where a small ferry (with passengers and cars sharing the top deck!) tackled the ten-minute crossing of the North Channel to George Town, on the island of Penang. Despite being uninhabited until around three centuries ago, Penang's past status as a vital port on the trade routes linking Europe, Africa and Asia has endowed it with a historical significance that – along with that of Melaka further south – rivals that of any other town in Malaysia, if not Southeast Asia. Indeed the central cores of both George Town and Melaka have been inscribed on Unesco's list of cultural World Heritage sites.

With such a history of trade between empires and nations, it's hardly surprising that modern day Penang (and George Town in particular) harbours a rich combination of races and religious faiths. This fact became immediately apparent as soon as Linda and I left our hostel on Saturday evening (July 27th) as within five minutes we had passed both a Chinese Buddhist temple and a typically-colourful Hindu temple; before the melodic (if not
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Masjid Kapitan Keling (Captain Keling Mosque) in central George Town
particularly well amplified) call to prayer of the Islamic faith came wafting by – carried on the gentle sea breeze which had been sadly absent in the capital – from the heights of a slender minaret attached to the beautifully-proportioned Masjid Kapitan Keling (Captain Keling Mosque).

Another change we noticed immediately (in addition to the welcome, if subtle, sea breezes) was the more laid-back atmosphere, which we put down to a combination of the seaside location and the fact that George Town – despite being easily the largest city on the island – is only a fraction of the size of Kuala Lumpur. In the narrow streets and laneways radiating out from our hostel – all full of ramshackle old wooden houses and shopfronts in various states of dilapidation – it seemed as though pedestrians had the right of way, and it was the cars and motorbikes that had to defer. Perhaps this apparent serenity existed only in the tourist-dominated area around the backpacker ghetto of Love Lane, where we happened to be staying – where touts outside every bar and restaurant replaced traffic as the main object of annoyance, attaching themselves like flies to a carcass whenever we
House of Culture (and Colour)House of Culture (and Colour)House of Culture (and Colour)

Outside the Blue Mansion
passed by – but regardless, the chance of pace from KL was a most welcome one.

Starting with an overcrowded guided tour of the aptly-named Blue Mansion, we spent most of Sunday wandering the streets of the old town, where vast communities of Straits Chinese (also referred to as Peranakan) and Indians inter-mingle with the ethnic Malays. After enjoying a delicious lunch at a local Chinese eatery named Teksen – for which we had to wait half-an-hour to get a table, during which time we were kept entertained by the energetic host's 'take no prisoners' approach to tending her hungry flock – we paid a visit to the Cheah Kongsi, which is perhaps the most spectacular example of the many Chinese 'clanhouses' in George Town.

These clanhouses have traditionally served as a community hub for the extended family to which they belong, helping to integrate new arrivals into Penang society, whilst reinforcing the bonds between sometimes distantly-related family members. They were also designed to portray the glory and power of their respective 'clans', with the richest families building the most beautiful and elaborately-decorated clanhouses, such as at Cheah Kongsi – where the main ceremonial hall would have to
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Interior of the main ceremonial hall at Cheah Kongsi
be one of the most visually stunning rooms I have ever entered!

After taking a quick solo tour of the Penang Peranakan Mansion and Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum – while Linda enjoyed a leisurely wander and coffee break – we met up again to check out the nearby Chew Jetty on George Town's waterfront. Built up on stilts over the tidally-inundated mudflats, the jetty houses an almost self-sufficient community – complete with houses, shops and temples – where most families seem to make their living from tourism, setting up shops in the front of their houses to capture business from the passing crowd. The day-to-day differences between these people's lives and our own offered a stark contrast, and I found this insight quite fascinating.

Venturing beyond George Town the next day, we hopped on a local bus to explore the Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple complex in nearby Air Itam – which turned out to be the highlight of the holiday so far! From the cute (though overcrowded) little pond full of turtles at the bottom of the hill, we slowly made our way up to the enormous 36-metre-high statue of Kuan Yin crowning the top of the
Temple of Supreme BlissTemple of Supreme BlissTemple of Supreme Bliss

Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple
hill – weaving our way between countless exquisitely-decorated temples and peaceful, leafy courtyards as we went. Everything from the thousands of little golden Buddha statues lining the walls in the Kek Lok Si (Temple of Supreme Bliss), to the finely-detailed tiling surrounding each shrine in the seven-tiered Ban Po Thar (Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda) seemed to have been touched by the hands of the finest craftsmen, while the overall layout of the sprawling complex rising up the hill in terraced waves was a landscape architect's dream... Kek Lok Si would surely have to rate as the finest attraction I have ever seen that I had never heard of before (nor had to pay to enter)!

Making our way over to the base of nearby Bukit Bendera (Penang Hill) for a much needed lunch break, we had hoped to take the funicular railway up to the top of the hill, only to discover that we would have to wait for up to an hour due to the volume of crowds already waiting to go up – so naturally we called it a day and headed back to the hostel to crank up the air conditioning in our room... exploring hillside
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Steps leading up to Ban Po Thar
temple complexes in 30+ degree heat and 70%+ humidity can be tiring work!

Setting our sights even further afield on Tuesday, we took a bus one hour along the coast to Teluk Bahang in the northwest of the island, where we passed a couple of hours exploring Entopia – which combines a butterfly farm and various other insect, reptile and amphibian exhibits set within a veritable forest of flowering plants and trees, and all enclosed beneath a giant cocoon-shaped glass dome. From the curious facial features of the Malaysian Horned Frog to the metre-and-a-half long Water Monitor Lizards, there was no shortage of exotic species to ogle at; though the undisputed stars of the show were the multitudes of butterflies themselves... though photographing them turned out to be slightly more difficult than I had envisioned, when one particular specimen took more than a passing fancy to me – first crawling all over my camera, then perching on my arm and sucking on my sweat for the next five minutes or so! Still, better to have a butterfly sucking my sweat than a mosquito sucking my blood, I guess.

Heading a few kilometres back along the coast, we stopped
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The 36-metre-high Kuan Yin statue at Kek Lok Si
off beside a picturesque beach to fill our stomachs, taking the opportunity to sample a couple of slightly unusual local 'delicacies' in the process... with greatly differing degrees of success! While I was prepared to declare my deep-fried bananas with chocolate sauce and cheese an instant classic; Linda got a little more than she'd bargained for when her Kacang Ais ABC – seemingly some sort of shaved ice dessert judging from the picture on the menu – turned out to contain both corn and kidney beans! And all the while a boy who looked to be no more than twelve-years-old did an admirable job of running the place – though admittedly with the relaxed attitude to customer service and short attention span (he needed a gentle reminder before he actually passed our order on to the cook...) expected of a primary school-aged boy!

Across the road lay the Tropical Spice Garden, where a leisurely walk took us past various spice terraces, ginger gardens, poisonous plants (though we didn't come across the sign indicating the poisonous plants section until after we had passed through it!) and even a beautifully-camouflaged snake curled up on a tree branch, which turned out to
Coiled, Camouflaged, and just a little bit CuteCoiled, Camouflaged, and just a little bit CuteCoiled, Camouflaged, and just a little bit Cute

Wagler's Pit Viper in the Tropical Spice Garden
be a venomous Wagler's Pit Viper. Thankfully Linda was able to resist the temptation to reach out and touch it...

For our fifth and final day in Penang, we headed back to the base of Penang Hill – where we were shocked to find an almost complete absence of visitors waiting for the funicular train, when just two days earlier we had been surrounded by them! Climbing around 700 metres along it's 2km length (making it the longest funicular railway in Southeast Asia) in just under five minutes, it wasn't long before we were enjoying the noticeably cooler conditions at the top... even if the combination of clouds and smog severely diminished any views we might otherwise have enjoyed.

Hitching a ride on one of the oversized golf buggies that are used for transport, we headed up to The Habitat, where a mile-long nature trail leads through secondary forest (planted since the clearing of the original forest atop Penang Hill by the British settlers two hundred years ago) providing numerous opportunities for observing some of the plentiful wildlife that lives within the protected nature reserve. We were even fortunate enough to see both resident species of monkey: firstly
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Dusky Leaf Monkeys taking it easy atop Penang Hill
the long-tailed macaques – which we had previously seen at both the Lake Gardens and Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur – and then the dusky leaf monkeys (otherwise known, rather appropriately, as Spectacled Langurs) whose cute faces made them the stars of the show... at least for Linda, whose heart was well and truly stolen away by these enchanting and peaceful little primates!

Leaving the heights of Penang Hill behind, our return trip on the funicular railway turned out to be more thrilling than expected, as the gradient got steeper and steeper until it felt like we were riding a roller coaster! Nevertheless, we eventually made it back to the relative civilization of George Town, where a final delicious meal at a restaurant we stumbled over by accident left us nursing full bellies and overwhelmed tastebuds... just a typical end to a typical evening in Penang, really!

Additional photos below
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Welcome to PenangWelcome to Penang
Welcome to Penang

The World Heritage-listed waterfront of George Town
House of WorshipHouse of Worship
House of Worship

Kapitan Keling Mosque at dusk
Issuing the Call to PrayerIssuing the Call to Prayer
Issuing the Call to Prayer

The beautifully-proportioned minaret of the Kapitan Keling Mosque
Light in the DarknessLight in the Darkness
Light in the Darkness

The unusually austere facade of a Chinese Buddhist temple in George Town
Into the BlueInto the Blue
Into the Blue

Outside the Blue Mansion
Oasis of CalmOasis of Calm
Oasis of Calm

Central courtyard inside the Blue Mansion
Expression of PowerExpression of Power
Expression of Power

Cheah Kongsi clanhouse
Elaborate FacadeElaborate Facade
Elaborate Facade

Exterior of Cheah Konsi's main ceremonial hall
Lime GreenLime Green
Lime Green

Exterior of the Penang Peranakan Mansion
Beautiful DetailBeautiful Detail
Beautiful Detail

Beautiful internal courtyard inside the Penang Peranakan Mansion
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Follow the Lanterns

Chew Jetty, on the George Town waterfront
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Living on the Water

Boats moored near the end of Chew Jetty

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