Penang : 'The Pearl of the Orient'

Penang Travel Blog

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Malay Kopi - coffee and traditional pastry

So my first full day in Penang. ‘Pulan Penang’ - 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 ‘Pinang’ tree, the Malay name for the Areca Palms indigenous in large numbers to the island, and from where Penang’s 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.

The T-shirt drenched walkway up to Kek Lok Si
  It remains affectionately known also as ‘The Pearl of the Orient’.

I’ve 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 ‘100 Cintra Street’, the fabulously idiosyncratic hostel-building I am staying at, invites me to accompany him to the early morning Chinese Market just around the corner.

  He spends his life between living in Queens (New York), Penang and a new orphanage project he’s attempting to establish in Cambodia.  A busy man!  He very kindly invites me to join him for breakfast at a traditional Chinese Malay ‘Kopi‘ or ‘coffee‘ house.  A cup of sweet and thick traditional Malay ’Kopi’ is served up for me along with Poh Pah (meaning ’thin biscuit’ cake) and an elongated pastry he pronounces U-Cha-Koy ( ’oil fried stick’ ).  I am instantly addicted and Malay ‘Kopi’ will remain my beverage of choice throughout my time in Malaysia.  I thank you Kenny!

And having been boning up on my facts at the Penang Museum I can tell you where Malay ‘kopi’ gets its distinctive taste.

'The Liberation Pond'
  The coffee beans are not roasted, but instead fried with butter and sugar.  The coffee powder is then put in muslin strainers and hot water passed through it.  It is then further sweetened with sugar and condensed milk, this often sitting in a sweet sedimentary layer at the base of your cup to be stirred upon delivery.  The coffee shops are referred to as ‘Kopi Tiams’ in the Hokkien language.

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 State’s population however these can be subdivided further any number of times again.

  The original, now nearly totally assimilated with later waves of Chinese migration, Baba Nyonya (or ‘Peranakan’) meaning ‘Straights Born Chinese‘.  The Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims that have come over the centuries from the Indian sub-continent.  All this before we even get to the complexities as to how you start to define a ‘Malay’ person.

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 “His Britannic Majesty King George III”.

Kek Lok Si Temple
  It was given the rather stilted title at this time of ‘Prince of Wales Island‘.  This was the first incursion of Britain into the Malay archipeligo that it would remain, heavily, if unprofitably involved with until the post Second World War era after its return from the brief Japanese wartime occupation. 

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 (‘Black Water’).  This is the base point for two of Penang’s 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 couldn’t for the life of me find the stairway in what was clearly the ‘correct’ direction and ended up strolling inadvertently into and around a kids primary school. “Ooops!”  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 ‘Liberation Pond’.

(Kek Lok Si) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
  A rather dank looking pea-green soup of a pond within which hundreds of terrapin (?) turtles of varying sizes swim, doze and clamber about.  Still even this little area, is shaded and flanked on all sides by cheap snack outlets.

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 ‘croaking’ 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 one’s response to the Temple rather than -  I feel - spoiling the experience entirely.

Kek Lok Si (Abstract)
 

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 child’s 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 ‘incline lift’ can be taken up and back to the Temple summit for 4 Ringgit (80p).  Here resides the stupendously large bronze statue of Avalokiteshvara ’Goddess of Mercy’ whom Kek Lok Si is dedicated too.  Otherwise referred to as the ’Kuan Yin’ statue.

Giant guardiuan statue at top of Kek Lok Si
  I don’t know how big she is, but she’s BIG!  And, sadly, robed almost entirely in scaffolding at the moment, for both restoration and elaboration of her site I think.  Maybe the shops are paying for all this?

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 ‘tolerance’ that I hope I’m correct in sensing in Malaysia, here at the Hill’s summit a Hindu temple and mosque sit happily 50 metres apart from one another, a brightly coloured children’s playground separating them.

'Goddess of Mercy' under renovation
 

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.  It’s 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.

The Penang Hill funicular train
  Always a cat man first and a dog man… well, never if I can help it really truth be told … I am nursing a growing antipathy towards Man’s Best Friend during my travels.  This probably is mostly due to the fact that most of the dogs you meet in hills, beaches, back allies and streets don’t want to fetch your slippers and the daily paper for you but would rather chase you; shout and bark at you; terrorise you and try and give you rabies!  I give up, double back a ways and thumb down the train from one of the tiny, abandoned intermittent stations to take me back safely down.

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.

Georgetown in the distance with the Penang Hill Railway
  An island whose culinary reputation precedes it.  The New York Times just recently hailed it as the World’s Number 2 destination for diversity, richness and quality of its cuisine, behind Number One Spot… you guessed it, New York!  Hey I’ve been to both and can testify to their mutual flavoursome magnificence.

Then FMFs (Five Minute Friends) Britton (from LA) and Mike (UK) and I get some beers and a bottle of Malay-distilled ‘Night Heat’ 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, it’s 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.

'Tree Print' (Penang National Park)
  Thank you Penang.  And God Bless America etc, etc... ;D

hlek says:
great stuff...
Posted on: Aug 02, 2009
Stevie_Wes says:
Thank you so much guys!!! Much appreciated... the entries are getting a tad jaded at the minute in this author's opinion as I'm playing catchup on about 6 weeks worth of blog, so I thank you loooooads for the smiles to still be coming :))
Posted on: Mar 02, 2009
hummingbird50 says:
Perfecto!!!!
Posted on: Feb 25, 2009
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Malay Kopi - coffee and traditiona…
Malay Kopi - coffee and tradition…
The T-shirt drenched walkway up to…
The T-shirt drenched walkway up t…
The Liberation Pond
'The Liberation Pond'
Kek Lok Si Temple
Kek Lok Si Temple
(Kek Lok Si) Muju [www.mujuworld.c…
(Kek Lok Si) Muju [www.mujuworld.…
Kek Lok Si (Abstract)
Kek Lok Si (Abstract)
Giant guardiuan statue at top of K…
Giant guardiuan statue at top of …
Goddess of Mercy under renovation
'Goddess of Mercy' under renovation
The Penang Hill funicular train
The Penang Hill funicular train
Georgetown in the distance with th…
Georgetown in the distance with t…
Tree Print (Penang National Park)
'Tree Print' (Penang National Park)
Terrapins or somesuch turtle in th…
Terrapins or somesuch turtle in t…
One of the maaaany retail shops in…
One of the maaaany retail shops i…
Kek Lok Si grounds
Kek Lok Si grounds
Kek Lok Si temple grounds
Kek Lok Si temple grounds
Kek Lok Si
Kek Lok Si
Statuary within Kek Lok Si
Statuary within Kek Lok Si
Buddhas within Kek Lok Si
Buddhas within Kek Lok Si
One of the beaches in Penang Natio…
One of the beaches in Penang Nati…
Kek Lok Si chinese  lanterns
Kek Lok Si chinese lanterns
Kek Lok Si chinese lanterns
Kek Lok Si chinese lanterns
Rubber Ducks at Kek Lok Si
Rubber Ducks at Kek Lok Si
The huuuuuuuge Goddess of Mercy …
The huuuuuuuge 'Goddess of Mercy'…
Monkey Beach within Penang Natio…
'Monkey Beach' within Penang Nati…
Statue at Kek Lok Si
Statue at Kek Lok Si
Monkey Beach, Penang National Pa…
'Monkey Beach', Penang National P…
Hindu Temple
Hindu Temple
Passengers on the Penang Hill Funi…
Passengers on the Penang Hill Fun…
Georgetown from on high
Georgetown from on high
Monkey Beach (abstract)
'Monkey Beach' (abstract)
Georgetown seen from on top of Pen…
Georgetown seen from on top of Pe…
Hindu Temple at top of Penang Hill
Hindu Temple at top of Penang Hill
Mosque on top of Penang Hill
Mosque on top of Penang Hill
Spiders and Wires (abstract)
Spiders and Wires (abstract)
Cuuuute, weirdy squirrel-cousin th…
Cuuuute, weirdy squirrel-cousin t…
Lighthouse at the far point of Pen…
Lighthouse at the far point of Pe…
Penang Hill railway viaduct
Penang Hill railway viaduct
Morning Chinese market in Georgeto…
Morning Chinese market in Georget…
Interior of Chinese Clan House, Ge…
Interior of Chinese Clan House, G…
Monkey on a wire, Penang National …
Monkey on a wire, Penang National…
Penang Hill Railway
Penang Hill Railway
Interior of a Chinese/ or Baby Nyo…
Interior of a Chinese/ or Baby Ny…
Clan House door painting (detail)
Clan House door painting (detail)
the fab looking old architectural …
the fab looking old architectural…
Beach within Penang National Park
Beach within Penang National Park
Tree Print (Penang National Park)
'Tree Print' (Penang National Park)
Poor Mr Crab comes of worse in som…
Poor Mr Crab comes of worse in so…
Stevie at Penang National Park
Stevie at Penang National Park
Penang
photo by: Aurora78