Pilau Penang (sic) - days 33 to 38

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  , Pinang,
Sunday, May 9, 2010

It was early Sunday morning in the sleepy town of Tanah Rata that we boarded the coach to take us to Butterworth, the port town on the northwest coast of Malaysia from where we could cross to Pulau Penang (Penang Island).  Whilst looking for our seats, we happened to notice the familiar faces of Ralf & Tanya, the Swiss couple we had met on a tour a couple of days before.  They were bound for Penang also.

We had been advised that coaches use the road bridge to cross to the island, and then go south and stop at a bus terminal before crossing back.  Georgetown, the touristic area and main urbanisation of the island, was where we were heading to; it occupies the north of the island, so having to get a taxi from south to north would be expensive and a bind.  The pearl of wisdom the guesthouse had given was to get off at the ferry terminal at Butterworth, before the road bridge, and take the ferry across for a ridiculously cheap fare, it bringing you to the heart of historic Georgetown (named after King George III).

We had not had a chance to pre-book accommodation, nor indeed search online, having made our decision to go to Penang only fourteen hours before.  The true-to-form Swiss, however, had of course reserved a room at a hotel.  It sounded pleasant with a good location, and just within our budget, so we asked if we could join them off the ferry.  They happily said yes.

This was our first coach journey in Malaysia that wasn't alarming; the previous three had shaken us up at times; perhaps this one was okay because the driver only had to aim straight ahead for the mostpart, and had several lanes to choose from rather than none if he wanted to overtake!  We arrived at the port safe and sound and made our way onto the passenger ferry.  Once aboard, we saw to our west the massive bridge spanning the channel between the mainland and the island.

Ross and Lauren had had an embarrassing job of manoeuvering their wheeled bags around the port, so during the ten-minute voyage Ross was given instruction from Ralf how best to mount the Northface Doubletrack 28 (a hybrid wheelie / backpack, with stowable strapping).  The hybrid had been a fair compromise between Ross and Lauren; Ross wanted to experience backpacking proper, whereas Lauren needed wheeled to alleviate the pressure on her operation-weakened feet.  The compromise in design, however, was unequal, and the strapping for use as a backpack was proven here to be inadequate for true and comfortable use.  Nevertheless, Ross, slightly struggling, persevered as we arrived on the other side. 

Once off, we were approached by taxi drivers who were out to rip us off.  The map in the Lonely Planet that both couples had copies of showed a distance of about 400m, which we could walk, so we did.  The Swiss had their copy, however, stored on an e-book; the glare from the sun as we used this caused us to lose our way in the maze of homogenous streets.  A sweaty twenty minutes later and we were at Broadway Budget Hotel.  Fortunately, they had a room spare for us.  We arranged to meet our new friends in the evening for dinner.

The Broadway was perfectly located, squeezed between Georgetown's Little India and Chinatown.  The main road it is situated on, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling (formerly Pitt Street), has been dubbed 'Harmony Street', since there are places of worship representing each of the major religions in Malaysia co-existing along the same street (Islamic, Confucian, Taoist, Hindu and Christian).  It was apparently the British colonists who wanted to maintain tolerance amongst the various communities who had come to make Penang the success it was.  That was the history lesson we had from a friendly old shopkeeper nearby.  (The irony is that the road has been renamed in recent years from its innocuous English name to one celebrating and referencing the mosque on this street - where is the multi-faith inclusion there, then?)

We met Ralf & Tanya, and since they have a penchant for Indian food, we ambled through the buzz of Little India's shopping streets towards a few of the eateries (which we continued to enjoy over the course of our stay; a pleasant respite from the Chinese cuisine we had become more than accustomed to so far).  We spent the evening mainly discussing life in the UK, since they had left Zurich in their mid-thirties and had spent the past few years working in the City.  They also enlightened us about places to visit on our travels, as they had been moving south through the region whereas we are heading north.  In particular, they informed us about the plight in post-Pot Cambodia, and how nice the people are despite their suffering in the past.  They spurred us into considering volunteering at some point, and we are keenly looking into this idea.  They invited us to look at their blog, and this reminded Lauren that she had primed a travel blog in the UK whilst preparing to leave...

The island was founded as a British trading colony in the late Eighteenth Century.  A couple of years ago, it received UNESCO World Heritage status, along with Melaka.  We undoubtedly had some historical exploration to do! 

We worked-out a walking tour around the most historic and protected zone of Georgetown. As well as a multitude of temples, we visited: the 'Clan Jetties' (wooden jetties formed years ago by the port; one for each major Chinese clan to live on, each known by their clan name); the museum on Straits life; a clocktower commemorating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee; the remnants of Fort Cornwallis (where a TV crew were filming).

We also walked down Lebuh Campbell (Campbell Street) in Chinatown, which is known for its commerce.  It was a little strange, if not perturbing, to see security guards standing on the street outside every jewelery shop, toting pump-action shotguns.  Ross, having suffered from IBS-like problems for years and currently a bit blocked-up, dragged Lauren into a Chinese medicine shop which had caught his eye.  The place was old-world, replete with walls of tiny wooden glass cabinets, vials of unnamed liquids and jars of dried... who knows?  Ross tried to explain to the Chinese doctor (?) that he intermittently has problems, and was in need of something to get his guts working again.  After managing to avoid a prescription of antacids for his stomach, the lady got the gist of it and, it seemed, thought the problem was his body not being used to the heat and that was affecting his bowels. 

She fished out a few boxed tubes of foul-smelling tablets, allegedly made from extracts of herbs and radishes, and advised that four should be taken twice a day with warm water for no longer than two days, in order to dissipate the internal heat.  Lauren was by this time also interested, and before we knew it the lady had us sat at her counter knocking-back the dubious tablets and sipping from mugs of just-boiled water!  (We persisted with the course, and despite some relief, cannot be sure the tablets worked!)

By our fourth day, we had decided that the sights outside Georgetown were not accessible unless we had scooters (which we couldn't feasibly use having not ridden before, nor did we have the correct driving licence - though this is apparently usually overlooked - and therefore would not be covered by insurance).  There was little left in Georgetown itself to see, so we agreed to leave.

We had heard about a sleeper train from Butterworth to Bangkok.  This was perfect; it allowed us to travel out of Malaysia and into central/northern Thailand, as was our current objective, whilst taking in some sights of the most southern regions, some local train culture, and avoided the expense of accommodation for one night.  So, we made our way to the ferry terminal wherein there was a ticket office for the train service.  We booked and paid for our convertible seats/bunks for departure the following afternoon.  (We knew about the then-quiet Red Shirt protests in Bangkok, but had been told by several people who had been there over the previous couple of weeks that it was safe and little more than a spectacle.)

The rest of the day was going to be spent at Batu Ferringhi, the beach resort a short taxi ride west.  However, the sunshine skies of the morning had quickly become overcast.  Ralf had previously recommended a Buddhist temple outside of Georgetown, which was well worth a visit.  Apparently, it is one of the largest in SE Asia.  So, we found the bus route and hopped on for a thirty-minute ride out of town.  The driver helpfully told us to get out at the right stop; it was the centre of a little township outside the suburbs.  We followed the signs, able to see the great temple buildings of Kek Lok Si looming on the hillside.  

We were surprised to find that the footpath up the hillside has been taken over and lined every foot by souvenir shops selling their repetitive and tacky wares, seemingly absent of respect for the sanctity of the temple.  Perhaps this was the first indication of the temple having passed over as a tourist attraction.

Indeed, we found full-on shops housed in every level of the stratified temple, and were forced to pass through them en route to the top.  We took a 'cable car' to the top level, where the main attraction was to be found.  At the top, the views over Georgetown were pleasing to behold, and we got to see the hillside making the peak of the island which we were unable to from the city itself.  The 30m tall bronze statue was also remarkable (its proportions not quite evident in our photos).  However, construction work was ongoing, laying a new roof over the statue, and so we couldn't get too close.  On the way back down, we were delighted to finally see two monks at prayer. 

About to leave Malaysia, it was time for us to carry on the tradition started in Singapore of getting Lauren a piece of jewelery from every country as a memento, so the number of souvenir shops wasn't such a bad thing.  It was whilst looking in the back of one of these shops, adjacent to one of the temple halls, that came a scene which Ross the animal lover is still angered by today.  He had spotted a cage in which a mouse had been trapped, and a cat was leisurely clawing at the cage and scaring the mouse.  Fine, an old building like this has a rodent problem and that needs to be dealt with.  There are humane mousetraps for that, though, so what evil was this?  Why did they have to be kept alive and endure the cat's taunting before presumably being chewed to death?  What cruel bastard was doing this, and why was it allowed to happen in a Buddhist temple of all places, where apparently all life was supposed to be celebrated and preserved?  

Enraged, Ross challenged the shopkeeper, who merely smiled.  He considered defiance and almost went to release the mouse himself.  Thinking better of it he sought the assistance of a senior-looking monk nearby, who was surely going to be horrified by this terrible deed in the house of Buddha.  The monk followed, saw the sight, spoke with the laughing shopkeeper, and related that the mice were indeed caught alive under Buddhist principles, and would be released unharmed in the nearby countryside.  Ross protested his argument that the cat was scaring the mouse, that that was surely cruelty under principles, and endangered the life in itself... but to no avail.  The monk dismissively walked away, and there was nothing for it but to give the evil eye, murmur something sounding like 'weevil shunts', and stomp away.

So, the following morning we checked-out of Broadway and went to the ferry terminal.  Whilst walking past the train ticket office, we spotted a sign stating that the sleeper train had been canceled!  Alas, it was true; the reason given was that the train had been delayed by two hours and would therefore not meet its schedule.  Oh well, we were prepared for the fact that in these countries travel might sometimes not go to plan.  The ticket service did not include an exchange facility, so we had to wait for a ream of paperwork for a refund against Ross' credit card to be completed, and were told it would take a month to be processed.  We went back later with cash to buy tickets for the following day.  The ladies at the ticket office thoughtfully suggested that we should call them before leaving our accommodation, in case the train was canceled again.  'But why would it be canceled again?  Do you know something?', to which we got nothing.  Fortunately, Broadway still had our same room, and were happy to welcome us back.

Reception called ahead for us the following morning, and we were horrified to find that this day's train had in fact been canceled also; the Thais had closed the border.  We were starting to think that there might be a relation between the trains being canceled and the problems in Bangkok; perhaps the Thais suddenly didn't want tourists coming into Bangkok (or clandestine protesters from the south, come to think of it) as something was imminent maybe?  At the very least, this was a bad omen, and we decided that we would go somewhere else by plane from Penang's airport.  Looking into it at an Internet cafe, however, we realised that Bangkok was in fact the most accessible and cheapest flight, and was the hub for any onward journey in our northward direction.  Otherwise we would be looking at the expense and inconvenience of going back to Kuala Lumpur and bypassing Thailand completely.  

Perhaps things would remain calm in Bangkok, nothing was planned, and we would be able to safely stay for a day or so whilst making our way out to the old capital cities and the region around Chiang Mai.  So, we went to the Air Asia ticketing shop on the main tourist street, Lebuh Chulia, and booked ourselves on a flight for the following afternoon.  

Outside the shop had been a skinny kitten laying on its own, heavily breathing in the midday heat.  Lauren had left a capful of water in front of it, which it ignored.  We were having 'chicken rice' at a hawker stall when we thought about taking a few pieces of chicken to the poor mite.  We went back but it had gone.  Lauren spotted it at the entrance to an alleyway, and we gave it small pieces of chicken.  It didn't eat, and was more interested in some affection from Ross, who tried to help it by wiping away the gunk almost blinding its eyes. 

We were taken aback by the presence of a heavily built white man in monk's robes who had sidled-up.  His accent revealed an American.  He was covered head to toe it seemed in a variety of Buddhism-related tattoos.  Brother Mark, or 'Bhikku Aggacitto', told us how he was a traveling monk, and in his time here he had been feeding this kitten and a few others, as well as this one's owner, a prostitute who lived rough in the alleyway we were standing next to.  We got talking to him about his conversion, his traveling and purpose, and even the place of Buddhism and monks and other religions in Islamic Malaysia.  He managed to restore some of Ross' faith in Buddhist monks after being told of the episode concerning the mouse at the temple. 

During what must have been an hour's conversation, we were invaded by a marauding angry prostitute, who came in the middle of us, scooped the kitten up, spouted something in a drug-addled way (presumably about the arrogance of us feeding her kitten which she was perfectly able to look after herself) before high-tailing it out of there in her neon hotpants.  If that was surreal, then standing in the middle of a street talking with a big, white, tattooed, American skinhead in monk's clothing about politics & religion certainly was!  But it was good-humoured and enjoyable, and we swapped email addresses and was invited to call on him if we ever needed advice.  (Two hours later and he had emailed a load of interesting resources!)

The last task before we left Penang, and indeed Malaysia, was for Ross to dispose of the beard he had been trying to grow as an experiment / for a laugh.  The Robinson Crusoe effect set in on the island of Tioman, and Ross decided to not stop the growth since his last shave in Kuala Lumpur.  The beard wasn't quite a success as Ross has fairly sparse and patchy growth; it was turning into more of a lining under his jaw and not passing to his cheeks.  However, whilst shaving it off he decided to have some fun with creative shaping.  Lauren caught sight of him before the final strokes, and in fact decided that she liked him with a goatee.  So, a goatee survived Penang.  However, his 'Malaysian Beard' was put to rest, down the plughole.

In amongst our initial blogging sessions, Ross finally engaged with the Skype phenomena.  He used it to call his sister at work and finally speak to her for the first time since leaving the UK.  We are now converts from expensive phonecards and public payphones!

In the evening we went to the outdoor hawker centre on the Esplanade for the second time in our stay.  We sat with our coffees and our books, stray cats passing through our legs, sometimes looking up to watch the bright strings of bulbs of the cruise ships float out of the channel.  The sound of the waves softly washing up on the rocks below had begun to set a serene scene after a couple of days of frenzy, before the heavens opened and light rain spat on our pages.  We had already ordered our dinner, and so had to remain in our seats, the rain adding to our soups.

Our seventh day in Penang thankfully brought our escape from this dusty melting pot of competing cultures, and we found ourselves in the airport waiting for our 5.05pm flight to BKK.
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