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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pleasures of Penang

Arriving in Penang

Penang was culturally so rich we have had to assign four blogs to it. In addition to this one there follows:

0. Pleasures of Penang the central blog of our stay with the pictures of Georgetown.
1. Penang Chinese Temples and Clan Temples including the Kuan Yin Teng Goddess of Mercy Temple
2. Penang Indian Temples including the Sri Mariamman Temple
3. Penang Environs including Batu Ferrenghi, Air Itam, The reclining Buddha, Penang Hill Cableway, the Botanical Gardens and the Snake Temple.
4. Old Penang 1974

At Hat Yai, we connected with another air-con van which took us cleanly through the border to Malaysia, and all the way over the harbour bridge into Penang as well, avoiding the cross transfer and ferry ride from Butterworth on the mainland where most buses stop.

We then took a taxi for the exorbitant sum of 10 Ringat (cut from 15 at our protests since no taxis here have meters or this one didn't 3.67 ringat to the $US) and found the guest house 79 we chose full, ending up staying for another exorbitant sum (45 R ) for an air con room without hot water of a private shower - but it has the enchanting title of the Love Lane Guest House of Love Lane. The extra 10 was really for providing an ambient environment of TV and a travel agency for lazy backpackers, who want everything done for them for a commission and a free pint cup of coffee each in the morning.

Love Lane Inn and bedroom

We ate a pretty distasteful meal in the street because we didn't locate the best street stalls and today moved to a charming guest house called SD just up the street which has air con doubles for 35 R well back from the street where its quiet and a sunny spotless environment with a nice dining-room cum kitchen out the back.

Spending the day taking it easy from nine hours of travel in cramped minivans. We'll visit some of the temples and look out for a hire motor bike to circulate round the island tomorrow.

Which we did, firstly hot and sweating in the thirties at ninety percent humidity and finally cooler in the evening after the daily thunderstorm around four in undated the area and cooled things down to a dull humid grey. We saw the old Kuan Ying Teng Taoist temple we visited in 1976 a little the worse for wear and the South Indian Sri Mariamman temple covered in a temple mount of luscious images of Indian goddesses, and a stark Krishna temple with the god of the cowgirls playing the flute to his spouse, and several old Chinese houses and scattered temples, as well as a plethora of relatively featureless Mosques.

Scenes from the SD Guest House

We have also scored rental motorbikes from several outlets in Lebuh Chulia for 20 R a day and plan to drive round Penang Island tomorrow if the weather is right. We have heard there is a line of dentists serving tourists with cheap dental restoration along Batu Ferringhi beach like the cheap medical units in Bangkok that will perform cosmetic surgery, or even a sex change for less than an airfare, but don't know if I have time to replace my home made superglue gel incisors and molars right now.

A series of views of traditional architecture in old Georgetown near the SD.

We are now entering little India.

We also hunted high and low for food, among the rich choices of Chinese street carts, expensive European, Indian Thai and Malay, finally settling on the 24 hour South Indian / Malay chain Kayu Nasi Kandar, where we had a slap up banquet of Chicken curry with whole breasts, cabbage and spiced rice with roti done in the very clean way South Indian cooking excels at for 7.40 R each or about $2 US. Christine has thus finally been tricked back into eating Indian curry after swearing she never would again after the Delhi Belly in Varanasi.

Today we started out well, riding the bike out to Air Itam where there is a huge Buddhist temple with a pagoda overlooking the city from the mountain. We then cut back to the cable railway to the top of Penang Hill which was a precipitous ride, curving upward to an almost impossible gradient and just when we thought the ride was over they dumped us out of one train and into another to ascend to the peak, which did have simply fabulous views, far better then the occluded views from the 60th floor of the Komtar complex I paid 10 R for yesterday.

In the afternoon, we began trying to find a suitable hospital for Christine to get her next rabies shot. We covered the options in the Lonely Planet and the internet and first made a beeline for the general hospital, only to find it bursting at the seams with impecunious Malaysians with waiting queues a mile long in every department and of course they didn't have the Vero vaccine Christine had been taking.

Then we did a break for a private hospital called the Island Hospital navigating the one way circuits by memory. They were very helpful but didn't have the vaccine either, but they did phone to the Adventist Hospital and found they did have it, so we set off getting hopelessly tangled again in huge one way loops taking us almost back to Batu Ferringhi beach before we found the Adventist in time to register and see a doctor, but then we found that the vaccine cost almost $140 NZ, five times the cost in Thailand and half the cost of our entire time in Malaysia so far. So I had to run berserk through an adjacent shopping complex looking for an ATM and finally Christine had her fourth shot. Apparently the reason is that there is so much rabies in Thailand that they have entered into a joint partnership to produce the vaccine in Thailand for a fraction of the cost. Malaysia, which has much less rabies because Muslims kill a lot of the stray dogs, has to import the international variety.

We then went back to our Indian restaurant to make up for a hectic day with little food only to find when we had eaten most of our curried chicken breast that it was running with blood. Just as I was remonstrating with them for the second time that all the chicken they had given us was either full of camphylobacter or salmonella, a huge tropical storm broke out, scattering everyone in the restaurant deeper in the building to seek cover from the wind rain and lightning. Although the humidity remains at around sweltering 90% in the 30s, every day in Penang seems to start out a blue sunny sky, but by around 4 pm heavy thunderstorms billow up short circuiting in heavy thunder and torrential rain as the evening sets in. The third time around they gave us some reheated chicken pieces and we took off through the storm almost getting stranded in a street flood deeper than a bucket on our fiesty Honda dream 100 racing home to swallow a doxycycline to give us confidence we weren't about to get gastroenteritis or typhoid fever.

Some people are jamming accordion, guitar and mandolin in the little eating space in the back of the SD Guest House. Tonight I'm about to go see if there is a free concert of music and culture in Little India, just down Chulia a block away.

Later: Went to see the concert but it was a washout - not because of the rain but because of the lack of a program - just a few drummers and men dancing with sticks in the street and a lot of restaurant stalls.
Later I really blew the fuse in the hotel in a flash of blue flame trying to download our photos to the hard drive using the funky connection from Tibet for the back light that left my fingers blackened, crashing the air con and power points in our room and had to then do an espionage job on the hotel wiring, sidling past the security cameras to find the trip fuse for our room and resetting it (successfully) so we haven't made out name mud. They are already tolerating our tregia stove spilling burning alcohol on the tables!

Friday: Today we went out to the snake temple after visiting three other clan house temples in Georgetown. We had to ride the freeway, which made Christine rigid with anxiety, but we finally found the temple near the airport and after a round of confusion where the snakes were, suddenly saw them suspended on the temple altar on wicker trellises. They really were mesmerized with the incense smoke or else so full of chicken egg that they could barely move. Small green and deadly like those around an ancient Greek oracle!
Saturday: Today late starting and trying to decide whether or not to struggle south to Pulang Pangkor when the SD Guest House is so luxurious - a delightful room so quiet we sleep in for ten hours, air con, hot water, toilet paper, soap all for 35 R!!

Well we failed to get out of Penang. Too luxurious, too hard to wake up in a quiet dark room and still interesting here. Looked around for a few gift trinkets after having our previous collection stolen in Thailand. We then rode out to the reclining Buddha temple. We are frankly sick of idolatrous Buddhist obsessive-compulsive culture, especially the South East Asian ticky-tacky variety, but it is still vivid and imaginative, although repetitious. Chinese, South Indian and Buddhist temples here stand out florid and artistically wild by comparison with the restrained, restricted, conformist architecture of Muslim mosques and Christian churches. Even though these pretend to some limited innovation with different interpretations of Muezzin towers and some, as in Iran, sport Arabesque mosaics, the basic theme is conformity. If you depict anything, your head might go! A bad throwback from the commandment not to make any graven image.
Tomorrow we'll really try to get out of here as early as possible.

Komtar complex and some views from the top of Penang

One of several mansions that are kept as museums.

Cheong Fatt tze mansion

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is located at 14 Leith Street, 10200 George Town, Penang, Malaysia. The mansion's indigo-blue outer wall makes it a very distinct building in the area. The Circa 1880s mansion built by the merchant Cheong Fatt Tze at the end of 19th century has 38 rooms, 5 granite-paved courtyards, 7 staircases & 220 vernacular timber louvre windows. The architecture of the mansion however originates from the Su Chow Dynasty Period in China. The distinctive blue colour of the mansion is the result of mixing lime with natural blue dye made from the Indigo plant. The mansion was purchased from Cheong Fatt Tze's descendants in 1989 by a group of local Penang individuals in order to save the edifice from encroaching development and possible demolition. While it remains until now, a private-residence, the property operates as a 16 Room Bed & Breakfast-cum-museum as part of the adaptive-reuse of an ongoing restoration project.

St George's Church

Penang Town Hall

Penang City Hall

Penang Museum

Returning to the mainland ...

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