Penang : 'The Pearl of the Orient'
Penang Travel Blog› entry 105 of 268 › view all entries
So my first full day in Penang. āPulan Penangā - island of the Betel Nut. The Betel Nut being what is extracted from the Areca Nut when whole. The Areca Nut being the fruit of the āPinangā tree, the Malay name for the Areca Palms indigenous in large numbers to the island, and from where Penangās current and most lasting title has been derived. Penang has had many names. Bequeathed throughout history. Many layers of history. Situated with perfect strategic positioning at the entrance to the Straights of Malacca, as with many naval-port towns within modern day Malaysia its fate has been bound through the centuries to the oceanic movements of trade and the colonial conflicts so often born there from.
Iāve been getting a little lazy and not fully engaging with some of the history and culture of my destinations of late and I can sense that this is cheapening the travel experience a little. Just a little. I am missing out on cultural and historical context. Penang is rich in both. Not least the colonial relationship with my own nation, Britain. Following on from my visit to the rather bland Fort Cornwallis yesterday afternoon, I am heading at opening time (9.00am) to the Penang Museum to try to immerse myself in all that lovely info.
Before I get there though, as I am up early and being inquisitive, Kenny, the temporary Malay co-manager of ā100 Cintra Streetā, the fabulously idiosyncratic hostel-building I am staying at, invites me to accompany him to the early morning Chinese Market just around the corner.
And having been boning up on my facts at the Penang Museum I can tell you where Malay ākopiā gets its distinctive taste.
Penang, is an intense ethnic microcosm of Malaysia as a whole. Settled by so many peoples who brought their goods, cultures and families over the seas from the four corners of the world to trade first with the historic, indigenous Malay monarchical rulers and then later their various colonial collaborators and conquerors. The three predominant ethnic groups today are Malay, Chinese and Indian accounting for 90% of Penang Stateās population however these can be subdivided further any number of times again.
For the part played by us Brits, effectively Penang was nabbed through various treaties and (false) assurances of military support to the Malay provincial rulers by Captain Francis Light, a maverick emissary of the notorious British East India Company. Possession of the island was formalised on 11 August 1786, when Light claimed the crucial trade-gateway in the name of āHis Britannic Majesty King George IIIā.
Anyway, stocked to the gills on history and all that stimulating stuff, I depart and grab a local bus from the seafront inland towards the hills and the village of Air Itam (āBlack Waterā). This is the base point for two of Penangās most impressive scenic activities. The rainbow-tiled and pillared random magnificence of the Kek Lok Si temple and then 10 minutes walk down the road the funicular railway up to the summit of Penang Hill.
Kek Lok Si is a curious site in many respects. Not least in the approach to the temple grounds itself. This is so obscured from view that I couldnāt for the life of me find the stairway in what was clearly the ācorrectā direction and ended up strolling inadvertently into and around a kids primary school. āOoops!ā Finally the path to Kek Lok Si is located; indicated for me. A long, shallow corridor-stairway leads up and towards the temple grounds, but this space is entirely suffocated by an endless retail cobweb of infinite cheap tackiness. Sloganeering T-shirts and dresses cascade all over, and stalls selling trinkets and plastic toys spread their wares all the way up the ever inclining stairs. A moment of something cultural caught amidst the retail swarm, the āLiberation Pondā.
This theme of retail outlets fusing with religion continues all the way throughout the various temple grounds and spaces. Even right within the heart of Kek Lok Si, T-shirts, towels, Chinese-lanterns, votive images and calendars and candles and cakes and crisps and rubber ducks and dinosaurs and ācroakingā wooden frogs and wooden buddhas and cards and plastic guns and buns and sweets and other shiny treats are hawked right within the gaze of the faithful and the architecturally grand. Curious. Mercifully it adds rather an air of bizarre intrigue in oneās response to the Temple rather than - I feel - spoiling the experience entirely.
The Temple pagoda towers, and beautifully coloured tile roofs are a feast for the eyes on this sunny blue-sky day. It looks like a controlled explosion of a childās wax crayon and paint collection. Primary colours forged into shapes of all descriptions and architectural swerves and lines blaze onto your retinas from all directions. Red, gold, green, orange and blue. In the distance, now already far below the city spread and the waters of the Malacca Straights stretch out in a hazy, distant panorama. An āincline liftā can be taken up and back to the Temple summit for 4 Ringgit (80p). Here resides the stupendously large bronze statue of Avalokiteshvara āGoddess of Mercyā whom Kek Lok Si is dedicated too. Otherwise referred to as the āKuan Yinā statue.
Leaving Kek Lok Si (and its thousand and one shops) behind I head on over to the Penang Hill funicular train station. Established by the British in colonial times, this train now reaches practically all the way to the top of the renowned Penang Hill. A funicular train in two stages takes a good 45 minutes to get you up there. On the summit are various things for ones consumption, but the most notable probably being the views back down over Georgetown from the Upper Station. Also reflecting the very tangible religious harmony or ātoleranceā that I hope Iām correct in sensing in Malaysia, here at the Hillās summit a Hindu temple and mosque sit happily 50 metres apart from one another, a brightly coloured childrenās playground separating them.
I attempt to get a little entwined in the Malaysian tropical undergrowth by deciding to walk down along a signposted path to the Middle Station. This though turns out to be a disappointing, nasty trek. Itās clear that the path, though clearly signed has been left to go to wrack and ruin - neglected by both custodians and tourists alike for many, many a long month. Nobody I feel comes here! Strange. And so clearly signposted too. The path is littered and cluttered with debris of man and Mother Nature alike - often obstructively, destabilisingly so. Not 100% at points where grotty, frayed old ropes offer meagre assistance to your progress. Just to cap it off, a frustrated hour later, as the path finally becomes clear and safe, a large pack of very, very angry dogs suddenly appear to threaten and permanently halt my descent.
Back at Cintra Street. A stomach-bloatingly large and delicious bowl of street soup splendor, unknown and unidentifiable ingredients abounding. I have had some cracking street food in my time here.
Then FMFs (Five Minute Friends) Britton (from LA) and Mike (UK) and I get some beers and a bottle of Malay-distilled āNight Heatā whiskey in to sit with, chew the fat over and imbibe whilst waiting for the fun and fanfare of the U.S. Presidential Inauguration ceremonies and speeches to roll out, live across the globe. This revolution will be televised! Time difference accounted for, itās about 1.30am in Penang before Mr Obama takes to the podium, we hope to usher in some kinda new dawn and new hope and all that Jazz.