Malaysia - Penang

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Friday, March 2, 2007

Arriving into Penang after a long day of two flights, from Kota Bharu via Kuala Lumpur, we hopped in a taxi and drove to our accommodation just north of Georgetown, the islands capital. You may wonder why we took this route as any map of Malaysia will show that Kota Bharu and Penang are both in the very north of the country, whereas KL is towards the south. The simple answer is that it was the cheapest and quickest way, as trains don't run directly between the two.
Once we had checked in we spent the rest of the day relaxing in the relative luxury of the Evergreen Laurel Hotel (PICS). The location of the hotel wasn't exactly prime but the facilities were such that we didn't need to leave the place that night - room service, free internet and cable TV were all we needed!
The following day we wandered along the waterfront outside the hotel, along Gurney Drive to the massive Gurney Plaza shopping centre. Gurney Drive is famous for its hawker stalls that used to be set up all along the waterfront selling cheap food to locals and tourists alike. Unfortunately these stalls are no longer all along the drive but some still exist at the end of the road in a hawker centre - still with plenty of great value local food. The waterfront in this area is sadly not as idyllic as it would at first suggest. It is mostly greyish mud for the first 50m and eventually gives way to murky uninviting water, and as for the smell - well lets just say that there must be some connection between the local sewers and the sea around this area! The only saving grace of the 'waterfront' was the presence of hundreds of amusing little mudskippers. These land-based jumping fish chase each other around the muddy pools and disappear as soon as they detect any sort of danger - making photos pretty difficult to get (PIC).
Within the Gurney Plaza we strolled about looking at loads of things we couldn't afford, the shopping centre is very geared towards western holidaymakers who have far more disposable income than us poor travellers! We did however find an amazing food loft on about the 4th floor that had a very original method of food selection and payment.
On entering the 'restaurant' you are given a card with a barcode - you then peruse the various areas each serving a different type of food (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Western, Italian etc.) and order what you fancy. If you don't know what a meal is then you can see what ingredients are used in each dish as they are displayed around the counter. The order is electronically tagged to the barcode and you then take your seat. The food arrives soon after and once you are finished you take your card to the cashier and pay the bill. Simple, cheap and above all, DELICIOUS! (PIC)
We left the Plaza and took a quick look at the hawker stalls next-door. They were packed with locals, a sure sign that the food must be good, but if it was like most other cheap Malaysian food that meant it involved meat still covered in skin and bone and the obligatory dried fish 'sprinkles' on top. We were glad we had found the restaurant in the Plaza.
The next day we relaxed at our hotel for a few hours to let the amazing buffet breakfast digest and then succumbed to the Starbucks temptation around the corner. Over a relaxed mug of coffee we discussed our plans and eventually made our way towards the Wat Chaiyamangkalaran Temple just down the road. The temple is famous for its enormous Reclining Buddha but also has a host of other impressive structures and a giant room full of thousands of smaller ceramic Buddhas (PICS). The temple buildings all oozed gold and once again enforced our opinion that it is bizarre how a religion can be so important to the poor people in the community, despite demanding so much financial commitment (both in terms of offerings and the intrinsic value of all that gold).
The temples and their grounds were baking in the midday sun and we were beginning to suffer in the heat. Luckily we entered the marginally cooler room housing the Reclining Buddha and were able to gain some shelter. The statue was the biggest we had seen since the Giant Buddah in Lantau Island over 16 months ago. Even its feet were taller than Andrew! (PICS) A fortune teller machine next to the Buddha caught our eye so we dropped in a couple of coins and picked a card based on the number it span for us. Unsurprisingly, Andrew's fortune was a prosperous one whereas Verdi's was decidedly more bleak! Load of rubbish anyway!!!
Almost in proof of Verdi's dismal fortune prediction, immediately after leaving the temple Verdi started to come out in a rash of what looked like tiny bites. Itching like crazy we returned to our hotel to get a cool shower and hope that the air-con might help reduce the effects.
With slightly less irritation we headed back out to the Gurney Plaza for another great value dinner at the food loft and then jumped in a taxi to the Esplanade. Our hotel concierge had told us that there would be a special ceremony on the night to celebrate the last day of the Chinese New Year Celebrations. Also known as a kind of Valentines Day the ceremony involved the local young single women who would throw an orange into the sea and make a wish for a handsome and rich husband.
Unfortunately the ceremony had been the night before (we assume) as there was nothing resembling this spectacle taking place along the esplanade. A number of oranges lying along the shoreline also suggested we had missed out. This was a shame as we had quite been looking forward to seeing a load of desperate women lobbing fruit into the ocean!!
Having made the journey to the esplanade we had a quick look around and found Fort Cornwallis and its battlements illuminated against the night sky (PIC). The fort had been built for a British Captain in the 1800's and the cannon on top of the battlements actually dates back to the early 1600's.
We returned to the hotel in time for a special performance by a local women's group, as part of the aforementioned celebrations (PICS). They were apparently a widely renowned group and our hotel would be the only place they would perform this year. We watched the show for a while but the repetitive music and slow dance moves eventually became too much for us to bear. Nevertheless it was an unexpected addition to our stay and made up for the disappointment of missing out on the orange-chuckers!
The following morning Andrew woke up feeling rough (wasn't it Verdi who was supposed to be having the bad luck?) but couldn't stay in bed as we had booked a driver for the day to take us around to a few of the sights in Penang.
Our first stop was the Snake Temple. This small, modest temple is famous for one (obvious) reason. It houses a number of Pit Vipers (PICS) that are thought rendered harmless by the incense that burns within the building - we weren't taking any chances though! Apart from the presence of these few serpents, which are clearly kept there to maintain the temples allure, the building is fairly unremarkable. The adjoining snake farm is worth a look and Andrew spent quarter of an hour getting some snaps of the more interesting ones, including a 23-foot python and an albino cobra! (PICS) A wonderfully cute sugar glider was also on display and a worker there got him out for a few pictures (PICS). Andrew hoped that the little squirrel-like creature wasn't there to be used as a snack for the python - poor thing!
Our driver then took us to Batu Ferringhi, the islands main beach resort on the northern coast. We were surprised to see that even on the best stretch of beach (apparently) the sand and water were far from perfect (PICS). There was litter dotted around and the surroundings, although not too affected by tourism, didn't have the kind of facilities that you would hope to find in a well-known beach destination.
Leaving the northern beach we headed back inland and after about 90 minutes of traffic jams we reached Kek Lok Si Temple, one of the biggest temples in South East Asia. The temple is a sprawling complex of brightly decorated buildings and stairways embedded into a hillside (PICS). The giant Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda dominates the area, with its seven-tier, 30m high tower that is supposedly designed with Burmese architecture at the top, Thai in the middle and Chinese at the bottom. The temple was impressive in its enormity, especially when you consider that it was built over the course of 20 years with funds largely raised through donations.
Our final stop on our island tour was Penang Hill, an 821m mount on the outskirts of Georgetown. The summit is reached by a succession of Funicular trams that climb the steep side of the hill. The journey is fairly long and uncomfortable but eventually gives a great panoramic over the north of the island (PIC). Whilst at the top we spotted a few monks staring out over the edge and, more worryingly, a number of giant spiders hanging from telephone lines - each as big as Andrews hand! (PICS)
Back at the hotel Andrew began to develop a fever and felt progressively worse throughout the night. This was perfect timing for a 5am wake-up call and a long flight to Phuket (once again via KL).
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