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Malaysia

Penang

Take one southeast Asian locale, throw in some British colonialism and a bit of China and what do you get? Georgetown.

Penang is the island, Georgetown is the main city on the island. And as part of our annual exodus from Thailand to escape a holiday where folks celebrate good will to all people by dousing them with filthy water and talcum powder we spent three days in April 2004 on the island of Penang.

I liked hanging around Georgetown for a few days, it's small enough to walk, though in what seems to be typical Malaysian urban fashion (Kuala Lumpur certainly qualified), Georgetown is not particularly pedestrian friendly and sidewalks (okay, pavements) are not part of the urban design in many areas.

Practical details first. Our mode of transportation was to take a regular government bus from Bangkok to Hat Yai, where we then switched to a private van for the three and a half hour drive from Hat Yai to Georgetown. There are numerous transport services to Malaysia available across the street from the public bus station in Hat Yai. I forget the cost of the van ride, perhaps somewhere I have a receipt and maybe one day I'll find it. The van let us off in the heart of Chinatown on Lebuh Chulia (that's a street) and we were walking distance to numerous accommodation choices, budget and mid-range, including the one we had a reservation for, the Malaysia Hotel. April is low season and a number of the mid-range hotels were offering deals, we got a decent room for 88 ringgit net (about $24 US) and we were satisfied with what we got for the money.

Tired from the long bus ride from Bangkok we spent our first afternoon doing next to nothing, though as usual I had to satisfy my cyber addiction and seek out an internet cafe and as usual, the connections in Malaysia are awesome - 1024 kbs for about 3 ringgit an hour.

Eating options are vast. We found one place in Chinatown, the De Tai Tong Cafe which I cannot recommend enough. We ate there twice and had two of the best Chinese meals I've ever had outside of China. The place is on Lebuh Cintra just below Lebuh Campbell, east side of the street.

Day two we rented a motorbike to explore the island. Small 100cc step-throughs which I don't like at all, rent for around 30 ringgit a day. I enquired about renting a real bike, 400 or 600cc, and yes they are available but the cost is quite high, upwards of 150 ringgit per day and as much as I enjoy the security of a real bike, it was too much for just putzing around the island for a day.

Driving in Georgetown is a bit of a challenge due to the layout of the streets. Most of the streets are one-way and they forever change direction, rendering a map almost useless. No sooner do you connect two points and head off that you find yourself turned left and then right and then left and then you're lost again and back on the side of the road re-reading your map and trying again to connect two points never mind you're no longer sure where it is you are supposed to start now. But other than the confusing one-way streets, driving in Georgetown, and Malaysia for that matter, is considerably more civil than in other southeast Asian nations.

Being in the accompaniment of a Thai, who by the simple fact that I'm married to her would be cause enough to have her along, we made our first visit of the day to the local Thai temple, Wat Chaiyamangalaram. The temple sits across the street from a Burmese temple where they were celebrating their version of the Songkran holiday with usual inane practice of throwing dirty water on each other. Fortunately, by some fluke, Songkran didn't really make it to the Thai temple and other than our own perspiration we might have remained dry. Penang was experiencing its hottest weather in twenty years, or so the local paper claimed, and there was a lot of perspiring.

Standing around the temple and looking at things one looks at when they are in temples I was approached by two reporters writing for a Chinese-language newspaper who wanted to interview me about my being at the temple and the ongoing Songkran holiday.
"Do you know about the festival going on this week?"
"Yes, I do."
"So you've come for the festival."
"No, actually I've come to get as far away from the festival as possible."
And that left them a little bit confused but a few more probing journalist questions and my distaste for all things Songkran related were explained, a few photos of me and the missus and who knows what they wrote about me in the next day's paper. Never saw it, never will. Probably something along the lines of "spoil-sport foreigner comes to escape the Songkran holiday and drowns in his own perspiration."

As it was, I wasn't sure if visiting the temple made me any Karma points or not. One of the rituals is to light a candle, held in a glass, and place it on the table for the Buddha. I'm not sure what the function of this ritual is except that you pay a little money for the candle and it does make for a nice little display with a table and dozens of lit candles there already. The missus lit the candle and passed it on to me to place on the table and be respectful and all which due respect was displayed by my clumsily letting my daypack slip off my shoulder and fall onto the table sending about three candles crashing to the floor in a blaze of splattering wax and glass. I swear the reclining Buddha woke up and started laughing at me in stark contrast to the emotions of whoever had to clean up the mess I just made. So after getting what candle wax I could off my daypack and pants we retrieved our shoes, well-guarded by a sign in English and Chinese reading "beware of shoe thieves" and we departed.

Next destination: the Botanical Gardens. Some nice trees and grass but not much by the way of flowers and it was too hot to do much walking anyway. So back to the bike and off to Penang Hill (821m) where a little railway car takes people to the top - except when it's not working and we were told it hadn't been working since December. Hence we didn't go to the top as the only choice then is to return to the entrance of the Botanical Gardens and hire a 4WD to take you up the hill from there. Expensive - one guy offered 120 ringgit, so we opted to drive around Penang some more continuing to get lost in our effort to find things to look at that don't require the services of a non-functioning tram car or 120 ringgit.

The largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si, is on Penang and is definitely worth a look and is not a bad place to eat up an hour or two wandering around exploring the various rooms. It's predominantly Chinese in character though it has Thai and Burmese influences and images as well - one Buddha image is a gift of the King of Thailand. And the candles remained safe as I was smartly no longer allowed near the candle table and the missus took to sorting out this ritual herself.

Below: Images of Kek Lok Si

After lunch it was off to the other side of the island to the Snake Temple. A rather unimpressive structure famous for having a bunch of pit vipers hanging around the place. A snake handler makes sure all tourists see plenty of them and the handlers solicit for donations, five or ten ringgit will make them happy. The snakes do appear very docile, supposedly it's the incense - so we can assume they are all stoned, but I still wouldn't touch one.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon driving around the island which is more rural on the west side and some of the winding roads would have been a lot of fun on a big motorcycle. There are more attractions to see on the island but we didn't bother. We were hot and getting tired.

The beaches are on the north and a few resorts have been built, but none of the beaches seemed particularly special from any vantage point we had.

For dinner we took a walk up to the Esplanade Food Centre where we were anticipating some kind of outdoor night market, but instead found some indoor food stalls that looked more like a shopping mall food court then a true night market so we left but not before bumping into a couple of friends from Bangkok who were also fleeing the Songkran holiday and sharing an equal disappointment with the Esplanade. So the four of us had another meal at the De Tai Tong Cafe which again I was well pleased with.

The next day we strolled around the colonial district a little (it was too hot for anything else but a little stroll) we visited the small Penang Museum, which is quite nicely laid out and highly educational about all things Penang and then some.

That cultural excursion dispensed with it was time for more important things, at least to the missus, who wanted to explore all the shopping malls. So we walked down to the Komtar and Prangin Malls (liking the latter a little better, but neither one particularly much). I was most impressed by the large selection of dodgy DVDs and VCDs that were all priced at a ridiculously cheap 5 ringgit a disc. Of course I didn't buy any.

That pretty much summed up our visit to Penang. The following morning we hopped on the ferry for the two and a half hour trip to Langkawi and three days on the island resort.

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Kuala Lumpur

Perhentian Islands

Langkawi

Penang

Tioman

Malaysia

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.