Another taste of colonial Britain and the Chinese

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
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Trip End Nov 30, 2009


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Flag of Malaysia  , Pulau Pinang,
Saturday, October 1, 2005

After an invigorating stay in the highlands, I left for Penang on the west coast of Malaysia on a wet and dreary day. It must have been a sign of things to come because since then I've had my first real taste of the monsoon.

The road to Ipoh was interesting enough. The dense jungle I'd marvelled at, and on occasion lamented on the way in (due to the scale of logging and deforestation), was more dense and verdant on this particular route. Low cloud and mist swirled through huge vine clad trees in these rugged valleys and everything dripped with moisture and contented life. A blur of green and grey soothed the soul as the miles flowed by. It was almost a shame when we levelled out closer to sea level and entered another strange environment - the limestone hills and crags around Ipoh itself.

Miners cutting a swathe through the limestone hills Cave temples cut into the limestone

Miners and cement manufacturers have descended on this area and cut swathes through the easily accessible lime resources. However there still remains many unusual and imposing formations jutting obtusely skyward, as they have no doubt done for millions of years. A number of temples, originally established within convenient caves at the base of these monoliths, have flourished and become attractive and substantial places of worship cut directly into the surrounding rock. It was fortunate that we had a petrol stop across the road from one so I could get a picture or two.

Penang looking miserable in the rain

After Ipoh, miles of palm tree plantations (not coconut or banana so unsure what they are farmed for) and a scenic route across the industrial centre of Butterworth, we crossed the bridge at dusk and eventually made Penang in the early evening. Approaching visions would have been better if the weather was on side but that was not to be. After a run in with the local taxi mafia, I made it to a hostel (not the right one) and decided in frustration that I'd probably only stay one night. It was just too bleak and if the locals are going to blatantly rip you off and then screw the service pooch I'll take my business elsewhere.

Heather with some moss Ornate street temple Wall mounted shrine

So I hit the town in search of food and some sights to take in so the visit wouldn't be a complete transit write off. The rain had by now abated and in an Indian restaurant I bumped into Heather from Canada who I'd met on the mossy forest walk in the highlands. Sorry Heather, I had to include the cute photo above. After a pleasant meal and chat we decided to do some late night sightseeing.

One of the first things I noticed was the prevalence of Chinese styled shrines and temples around the place. The next was the magnificent buildings and facades left by the British in their time here when Penang was Britain's first outpost on the strategically critical Malacca Strait. A lot of money had obviously poured into the place and some truly spectacular monuments are the result.

Church facade in the moonlight The town hall in all its glory

The government is rightly proud of this early colonial commercial centre and have invested heavily to maintain and present the buildings in their best possible light. Some, like the Supreme Court building below, have been specially lit and the funky pastel colour schemes are most becoming. I had a field day testing the long exposure settings on my new camera so thanks to Heather again for her patience as I snapped away.

Central court complex in pastel relief Neighbouring building in pastel too

Final highlights of the impromptu night tour were the clock tower and an elaborate Chinese mansion. Unfortunately I don't know the history behind them (I managed to get through Malaysia without a guidebook) but they are other examples of attractive architecture of a bygone era in a (now) thoroughly modern business and commercial centre. Looking back on it, I probably didn't give Penang the time it deserved. I certainly didn't get around to see one of the main attractions, the fort, or the rest of the island, so probably missed a few things out there too. Oh well, it's pretty central so there may be a next time.

Chinese mansion from over the fence Clock tower adjacent to the fort

We completed the circuit and stopped for a nightcap at an inordinately expensive Irish pub - Malaysia is not a place you want to develop a drinking habit in or you'll be a very poor drunk indeed. I bid Heather adieu and had an early night to prepare for the Langkawi expedition ahead.

Penang looking a little happier

The weather had improved by the morning so after a good night's sightseeing and some rays of sunlight on the aft deck of the Langkawi ferry my perceptions of Penang had improved remarkably.

From the things I've seen here, about the only other perception I can hazard a comment on is that Malaysia is a proud and nationalistic country - flags and national slogans abound on houses, cars and public transport. I suppose that's healthy and why not, the locals seem to enjoy a good standard of living wherever I've been and visitors have a lot of good things to say about the places they go.

Next entry -> Langkawi

Life's Little Luxuries

When you're on the road backpacking, space and weight in your pack are at a premium. Still, you have to allow some room for those little things that make life just a little easier and more pleasant. Here are some things that are making my life a little more pleasant:

- full sized towel: many people have the newer, fast drying chamois style mini towels but sometimes you just feel like wrapping a towel around the waist and chilling out in it, so I've included a semi quick-dry and reasonably light full sized towel from Kathmandu. Gets a bit stinky sometimes which is a bit of a downside...

- aerosol deodorant: i just don't dig roll-ons, so a little extra space taken up in the wet pack goes to spray on smell-good. Noice.

- mini Laptop and support gear: to bring this sparkling account to you dear reader, add probably 5kg for a 10.3" laptop, extra battery and electrical equipment, plus some security precautions like a Kensington lock. On the upside, is also very handy for playing pirated DVDs when the monsoon is having its way.

- snorkelling gear: i've lugged snorkel, mask and fins through Indonesia and up the Malay peninsula and have made good use of them. Should only be another few weeks before I can donate them to someone in southern Burma and lighten my load a little.

- enclosed shoes: jeez they take up some space. Maybe i'll wear them when it gets a little colder.

- comprehensive first aid kit and medicines: most of which I fortunately haven't had to use yet. Still, best to have it in an emergency.
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