Penang - a Melting pot of cultures

Trip Start Nov 30, 2009
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of Malaysia  , Pinang,
Monday, May 31, 2010

After 5 nights in Langkawi it was time to move on again. We only have until the 17th June in Peninsula Malaysia, before we fly across to Sabah on the island of Borneo for 8 days.  This only gives us 18 days to make our way down to Kuala Lumpur, and during this time we are also hoping to be able to fit in some volunteering at a farm.  Busy , busy, busy. 

We've had a great time over the past couple of weeks scouring the website for possible places to help out here in Malaysia, but also in Australia and New Zealand.  With accommodation prices in Oz being about 4 times what we’ve been used to in Asia we’re definitely going to need to find ways keeping costs down if we want to have any hope of having any money left in the budget for trips to the barrier reef etc.  Luckily there are hundreds of willing hosts on the Helpx site, so we’ve now got ourselves sorted to help on a farm here in Malaysia, a vineyard in Western Australia and a cattle station in Northern Queensland.  Should be interesting.  There are all sorts of places listed on the website, from families with lots of land who just want a hand with the kids or gardening, renovation projects – including an ex-crocodile farm – and Kev’s favourite – a nudist camp!  They were even kind enough to include photos in their listing, as if our imagination wasn’t good enough to imagine naked people playing badminton or surfing the internet!  I’m hoping my choice of the cattle station doesn’t prove to be a disappointment or I’ll never hear the end of what the alternative could have been!

We left Langkawi by ferry to Penang, just over 2.5 hours by fast ferry.  I think the people who run the ferry company must have a slightly warped sense of humour as the selection of on board movies was Poseidon, followed by the Perfect Storm.  Great, just what you want to see while you’re stuck on a boat, movies about disasters involving people stuck on boats!  Kept one eye on the horizon for rogue waves until we were safely docked in Georgetown and made a quick note of the emergency exits and lifejacket procedure just in case!

With a history of immigration from China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and of course Europe Georgetown is a real melting pot of cultures.  Each has left their mark on the buildings, food and culture of the city.  There are some really fantastic old shop houses, Indian temples, Chinese Temples, Churches and some great European style public buildings.  Our hotel is on the edge of the Little India district, so we felt right at home wandering the streets, listening to loud bollywood music coming from shops and seeing foods we grew to love in India like dosas, roti and vadas back on the menu again.  The only very noticeable difference to the real India was the lack of cows and general smell of toilets that normally accompanies an typical Indian street. 

The tourist association here in Penang really has its act together in terms of free maps and information.  There is a fantastic food leaflet that highlights all the traditional dishes of the region and tells you what they are made of and where you can find them.  Takes some of the guess work out of trying to figure out what some of the street food is and for once means we can order with confidence instead of just pointing and hoping!  Wish we could have had one of these for each country we visited so we could have some idea what some of the delicious things we’ve eaten actually were.

On our second night in the city we allowed ourselves to be charmed by a friendly trishaw driver (a three wheeled bike with the seat at the front the same as the cyclos of Vietnam) and took his recommendation for somewhere to eat. Really sweet man, although looked to be in his 70’s and was about half the weight of me so not sure giving him the job of cycling us two round the streets of Georgetown we really doing him any favours!  He informed us that he’d been doing the job 35 years and had got through 6 bikes in that time.  Might have been time to order another after we got out!  Gave us a mini guided tour on the way to taking us the Red Garden for something to eat.  Turned out to be a great recommendation as the food was great and super cheap. 

Decided to extend our sightseeing beyond the city and caught a local bus to visit a newly refurbished heritage home, Suffolk House that used to belong to Francis Light.  He was very important to the development of Penang as a major commercial hub within Asia, opening up trade routes with the rest of the world.  Proved to a real hidden gem, beautiful house, that has been restored from the brink of total dereliction.  They haven’t had a big launch as yet and are not included on any of the tourist’s maps or literature so only gets a handful of visitors.  One of the staff took the time to come out of her office and told us all about the restoration project, the history of the house and their future plans.  Very impressed when we told her we were National Trust members as they had acted as consultants on the project and she even offered to give us a discount.   

Stop two of the day was to visit a huge temple complex known as Kek Lok Si temple.  It’s the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and sprawls its way up a hill via narrow staircases and a rather high tech funicular lift.  They continue to add to the temples and are currently building a giant statue and pagoda at the top of the hill.  People are able to buy roof tiles and inscribe them with their names and messages, which will then be used to complete the temple.  Good way of covering the cost of the building work and no doubt a way of guaranteeing you a chunk of Buddhist good luck for evermore.  Wonder if this would work at home in the UK?  After all it seems every church I have ever visited in England is in need of a new roof.   Seems they don’t have any problems combining religion with commercialism in the Buddhist world.  The temple contained some of the tackiest souvenirs I have ever seen – shelf upon shelf of little plastic figures, naff animals made out of shells and dozens of snow globes with religious icons.  Also got collared to hand over a few ringgits for some weeds to feed the temple turtles, who all looked like they’d be better off swimming in a lake somewhere. 

With our birthdays coming up we decided it might be time to treat ourselves to a slap up meal as an early celebration.  Somehow we’ve managed to schedule ourselves voluntary work on both of our birthdays, not great planning, but just seems to be the way things have panned out.  Kev has an unfulfilled ambition of eating in a revolving restaurant, and so was delighted to spot one overlooking the bay in Georgetown.   Arrived at 7 which was perfect timing for the sunset buffet, great views over the city as the sun went down, including watching 2 huge cruise ships making their way into the port.  Revolving while eating took a bit of getting used to, as the wall and window next to me stayed static while the floor and our table moved.  The buffet was also stationary, meaning if you took slightly too long to make up your mind and dish up you moved along and left the dish behind!  Slightly scary moment when I realised the strap from my handbag had almost slipped down the gap between the moving floor and the wall and was about to jam the mechanism!  Could have been interesting!
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