Hot in the City

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Flag of Malaysia  , Pinang,
Tuesday, January 22, 2013

So whilst we technically have a visa that allows us 6 months in Thailand, sadly we have to leave once to renew this visa, so we decided that a quick trip to Malaysia would do the trick just fine. Knowing that we were going to work our way along the South coast of Thailand the perfect route was to fly to Penang, then head to Langkawi and then onwards back into Thailand.  I have been to Penang before, back in the day when I used to have 2 week holidays in luxury 5 star hotels.  It is amazing what a different experience you get when you are staying in a 1* hostel in the ghetto.

The usual route for backpackers to renew their visa through Malaysia would be overland however Since 2001 the Muslim separatist insurgents have been waging a war against the Central Government in Southern Thailand and there are shocking murders every day.  The main targets are teachers as they are seen as agents of cultural assimilation and are shot dead en-route to morning classes.  Due to the terrible problems on the Malaysian border the only recommended safe tourist route into Malaysia is to fly.  So we hopped onto a Firefly flight and made our way safely into Malaysia.

Our 'Hotel' as they liked to call it, resembled the sort of place that you see people in on banged up abroad before they are whisked off to the airport with god knows what strapped to them.  It was small, hot, full of mossies and generally felt a bit grubby.  We knew that we were in a busy area with a Hawker market right on our doorstep, what I didn’t realise is that we were in China Town and it was a Chinese hawker market filled with the delights that I thought we had left safely in China.  Our first night we set off to check out the hawker stalls and sat down in one of the seating areas, Tim set off and ordered himself Chicken Noodle Soup, I went for a walk and couldn’t find anything that was even vaguely veggie so I returned empty handed and watched Tim eat his soup and watched the young couple next to us munch down a plate full of chicken feet like it was the best thing they have ever eaten.  Thankfully in the shopping mall a short walk away we found a trusty MacDonalds, this was beginning to feel like China all over again.

George Town was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008, we have been to a fair few UNESCO world Heritage sites over the last few months and this is an odd one.  The vast majority of George Town is old and decrepit and falling down, but apparently the status has been awarded for the impressive collection of historic buildings representing the cultural heritage of Penangs various ethnicities.

As we only had 3 nights in Penang we opted to do a one day tour to see everything in one go so we were up early the next day ready for our "Let’s Go Travelling in Penang Tour".  This was a cheap as chips tour at 10 each including lunch so we assumed we would be bundled onto a bus and carted around with 50 other tourists for the day.  As it was, it turned out that it was just us on a mini bus with our own private tour guide, result.

Our first stop on the tour was Penang Hill, en-route here our tour guide gave us an overview of Penang.  The name derives from Pulau Pinang which means the Island of the Areca Nut Palm, which is the fruit of the palm tree.  Penang has an extremely diverse population with Chinese, Malays and Indians. Around 45% of the population is Muslim and 36% Buddhist.  Penang has had an unbelievable past, in 1867 it became a British Crown Colony, in 1941 Japanese forces occupied, in 1945 British forces re-occupied and in 1957 it gained independence.

 Some interesting factoids we learnt in Penang: we saw a Muslim grave yard and noticed that the head stones were all really close together, this is because bodies are buried vertically facing Mecca.  There are two types of mosque, ones with a gold or a black onion dome, the black domes are for people who are converted Muslims.  Penang has one of the best social systems ever, the retirement age is 50, there are pensions, free education to university level and free health care.  Not bad to say the least! 

Our first stop was Penang Hill.  Penang Hill Station was established by the British in the 18th century, as it is 2,000ft above sea level it not only offers amazing views over Penang it offers temperatures of around 21 degrees a nice relief from the baking temperatures of the city.   We definitely beat the crowds here and indeed most of the staff.  You go on a funicular to the top of the hill and we shared ours with most of the employees going to the top.  There are all sorts of cafes and restaurants and for some obscure reason an Owl Museum.  We were not too sad that all of these were not open yet although a coffee would have been nice.  We had a wonder round and found monkeys swinging around having their breakfast and a vast array of HUGE spiders.  It was definitely cooler at the top, so cool in fact it was cold and rainy!

Next stop was the Kek Lok Si Temple.  This is the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia, construction began in 1890.  We visited the temple 2 weeks before Chinese New Year and the preparations had begun to put up the lanterns which are illuminated during the month long festival.  In total 200,000 lanterns are hung and lit.  The temple was looking amazing with the lanterns hanging so I can only imagine how stunning it would look lit up.  It really was no joke that this is the biggest Buddhist Temple in South East Asia.  It must have taken us a good hour to walk around the buildings with our tour guide showing us the way.  We hung wish ribbons, rang bells and lit incense for luck and prosperity and for the first time in a long time actually enjoyed seeing a temple.  Our temple fatigue must be waning at last!

Onwards to the Botanical Gardens, this huge expanse covers 30 hectares and again was created by the British during 1884.  The gardens are stunning, filled with amazing Canon Ball Trees, palms, orchids, stunning bamboo which is green at the bottom and red at the top but best of all the gardens are full of monkeys.  Not just the usual long tailed macaques which are everywhere terrorising tourists for any snacks they may have about their person but also the stunning and adorable Dusky Leaf Monkey.  These cute little black monkeys with white eyes and white mouths were just hanging around eating the leaves of the trees whilst the long tailed macaques were snaffling around the tourists.  I had somehow managed to pick up a huge furry caterpillar on my leg somewhere on route and swiftly flicked it off towards Tim, the next second there is a sneaky macaque sniffing around Tim’s feet and the caterpillar is munched in one bite, sorry Mr Caterpillar!

As with most cheap tours we were taken to a row of shops and ushered in and had a swarm of shop assistants trying to sell us their wares, first was a batik shop.  This is a bit like tie dye only they paint fabric with wax, paint or dye it then wash in hot water to take off the wax to leave a pattern.  Tim tried to ask some questions but seemingly the girl giving the demonstration only spoke enough English to give the demo, too funny!  Then we were in a coffee shop, this was the best stop ever.  Penang does something called White Coffee, which is basically instant coffee ready made with coffee, milk and sugar and this shop must have had about 30 different flavours for us to try, such as classic latte, honey, mint, hazelnut, vanilla and caramel. Then we were onto the white teas and finally the flavoured honey.  After a good feed and water we escaped without buying a thing.

The final stop was a Thai and a Burmese Temple which were next to each other.  Both temples were simply stunning and were bustling with people there to be blessed.  The Dharmikarama Burmese temple had the most stunning white Jade Buddha standing proud and also had a series of smaller white jade Buddha’s all from different countries.  Each country has the Buddha’s hands in a slightly different position.  The temple gardens were so serene and they were filled with Burmese Bamboo which is shorter than usual bamboo but looks so beautiful as if it is twisted.

The Thai Temple Wat Chayamangkalarm has a huge reclining Buddha, 33 meters in length and completely gold plated.  The back wall of the temple was fascinating, made up of small boxes with a glass front and urns containing ashes which are laid here to rest, it was amazing to see ashes of every religion here.  There was also a mummified monk which is totally covered in gold leaf, stunning.

Tour over and on our way back to our hotel, the guide had to show us one more location…. The shop where Jimmy Choo started his apprenticeship as a shoe maker, who knew he started in little old Penang!

Penang was HOT, the sort of heat that makes you just want to sit in an air conditioned room.  Perhaps I should have done just that as my body decided to turn on me and a developed the most uncomfortable heat rash all over both my legs and arms.  Luckily our room had air con and a cold shower so I spent the vast majority of my time having cold shower and lying in the air con hoping it would subside.  Itchy does not even begin to explain how uncomfortable this was.  I would get it in check and then walk outside and the burn would start again.  I felt like an 8 year old with chicken pox covered in calamine lotion and even contemplated sleeping (or trying to) with socks on my hands and feet to stop me scratching.

Heat rash or not there was one more tour that we needed to do in Penang, a trip to Snake Temple.  This is some way out of the centre near the airport so we decided to try to take the local bus, these buses were actually quite nice and thankfully we managed to get seats as the journey took a good hour.  When we arrived the temple looked much smaller than we expected but it was so cool, the alter had some metal stands on either side just covered with Temple Vipers.  They are venomous but they are also nocturnal so in the day they just lie around the alter asleep.  As we worked our way through the temple there were more rooms with snakes asleep on picture frames, a giant python that for a fee you could have your picture taken with and in the garden a walled off area with some trees and rocks totally filled with Temple Vipers asleep in every branch and on every rock.  The temple was built in 1850 and is dedicated to Chor Soo Kong, a priest who was believed to have extraordinary healing powers.  According to local folklore a religious man offered the vipers shelter from danger and since then they have stayed in the temple.  Attached to the temple is a snake farm and we really wish that we had not gone in, there were caged monkeys and snakes in glass tanks and it just looked so sad, there was even a sign over the giant tortoise telling you not to sit on him.  Such bad conditions, we about turned and headed back to the stuffed local bus and home.

Penang has so many shopping malls it is untrue, if you are a shopaholic who likes shoes I highly recommend Penang as a holiday destination, just be sure to take an empty suitcase.  The malls are shiny and bright and trendy and thankfully air conditioned to give my legs a break from the itching.

I think given that we were only there for 2 full days we did a pretty good job of seeing the sights.  And we both agreed that we definitely don’t need to go back (unless perhaps I need to buy some nice shoes!).

Onwards to the airport, for the short hop over to Langkawi.   
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