Cultural (con)fusion

Trip Start Feb 06, 2005
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28
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Trip End Jul 2005


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Saturday, July 2, 2005

The most amazing thing happened on the way to Penang... an easy border crossing! Wait- stop. Think about it. Appreciate it, as I did. This was bloody amazing. Innumerable minibus, bus and ferry transfers worked seamlessly. No one ripped me off. Customs were not a pain in the arse. In fact, I walked around the metal detector just to see what would happen and they just waved me through. Fantastic.
I got to Penang planning to stay for half a week, but realised quickly that I would be struggling for things to do. European Christians, Chinese Buddhist, Indian Christian, Sikh and Buddhist, Sumatran Evangelicals and Animists, Arab Muslims and Malays have all colourfully merged in Penang over the last 200 years and created what is probably the most boring seaside town in the world. I expected a village, but what I got was a skyline of skyscrapers, apartment buildings and shopping centres.
It was Penang which started to bring me to a state of near disillusionment with the religious text of the backpacker- the South-East Asia Lonely Planet guidebook. Its exultant descriptions of Penang had left me breathless with anticipation: The 'party town' (where beers cost the same as Sydney and spirits are even more expensive); with fantastic food (all 24-hour Indian curry houses with 48-hour-old curries); and an amazing Chinatown (where half the shops are closed and the rest are fronted by lady boys).
I visited the snake temple, which is a sacred site for Chinese Buddhist. It turned out to be an uninspired concrete bunker with two small green snakes in a cage. It does though have a sign out the front exhorting mediums to not fall into trances on the front steps, which suggests that in earlier times it was a whole lot more interesting.
I rode the pride of Penang; the train up Penang hill. All too clearly I remember swearing at Nepali mountain trails and wishing for a chair lift. Here was what I had wished so fervently for and so I had to take it. It is admittedly a great view on the hill. The train rises up the jungle-covered hill, which is scattered with 19th century British mansions, up to a peak covered with Hindu temples and Muslim mosques. Below is the city of Georgetown, the opposing city of Buttersworth on the mainland and the massive bridge joining the two.
I had intended to head straight to Kuala Lumpur after Penang, but I decided that I had to find somewhere interesting before I hit the big smoke. Thus, on the advice of other travellers, I decided to head to the Cameron Highlands hill station.
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