Monday, 4 November 2013

Passage to Penang

After our few days spent in Kuala Lumpur, we decided to head north to the island of Penang which is off the Northwest coast of Malaysia near the Thai border. It was formerly a colony so is renowned for its European-influenced architecture, a diverse population and it's world famous street food. Getting there was really simple. We took a coach (the comfiest one we have ever been on with reclining seats and footrests!) the five hours to Butterworth and then a 15 minute ferry to the main port which is just outside the capital, Georgetown. This is where we decided to stay in order to explore the sights of Penang. We checked into our new guesthouse, Kimberley House, which is one of the nicest we have stayed in so far. It is a converted Chinese style house focused around a huge living room and our room was massive with an ultra-comfy bed. It was on Kimberly street, hence the name, which was ultra central so we would recommend! 

First things first, my rucksack had broken on the way to Malaysia (thanks Airasia) and I was perilously close to losing half of my worldly possessions so I went on a suitcase hunt, thinking a suitcase was bound to be more convenient for my last 6 weeks than another rucksack. I found one in the local mall, we seem to be drawn to these in every city, and after a wander to get our bearings we headed for dinner.

We'd heard that Indian food in Penang is a speciality because of the large Indian community so we headed to a local Indian cafe called Jaya. The place is definitely no frills but the food was fantastic and halfway through a thali I felt like I could have been back in India. For the £1.00 each which it cost we were certainly satisfied. After a day of travelling we called it a night ready to explore the following day.

Unfortunately, the next day Rob was ill (we panicked it might be dengue fever after his temperature shot up but it turned out to be the same virus I'd just gotten over). He struggled out of bed but he wasn't his usual chipper self. We stayed local having a meander around the UNESCO world heritage site of Georgetown's oldest district and exploring the Esplanade which is the area with Fort Cornwallis and the Queen Victoria Clock Tower- remnants of British colonial rule. 

Other buildings we passed when following the heritage trail included City Hall and the State Assembly Building, the oldest and largest mosque- Kapitan Keling Mosque, various smaller Buddhist temples and St George's Church. 

It's a pretty town to walk around (although Rob felt pretty underwhelmed) and there's a huge contrast between the old town and the newer areas. Penang seems to exemplify the hugely multicultural population of Malaysia with Buddhist, Christian and Muslim houses of worship, traditional Chinese, European and Indian architecture and an explosion of culinary and cultural diversity. 

Following our cultural journey through Georgetown, our next destination was Little India. This is the area around which Penang's Indian community is centred, and following my recent trip to India we were expecting it to be colourful. These expectations were certainly met. Shops blasting out Bhangra music competed with the shouts of market traders hawking various garlands and lights for the upcoming festival of Diwali. Restaurants exuded the smell of fresh currys and groups of women in colourful saris stood around in groups gossiping. All this chaos, one street away from the wide, quiet tree-lined boulevards of the UNESCO site. It was surreal enough to make us think we had just walked into a different country.

I couldn't resist getting my hand hennaed for 5MYR (about £1) and it was fascinating to watch how quickly the lady created the intricate design. 

We could have stayed longer, but with Rob's virus kicking in even more, we thought we'd save ourselves for the next day to continue the trail around Georgetown. 

The next morning, with Rob on the mend and in higher spirits, we went in the opposite direction and headed to Love Lane which is one of the more famous streets in Penang. Surrounding this is the main backpacker district and it is home to a number of niche boutiques selling handmade arts and crafts, smaller cafés and art galleries. Unfortunately with it being a Sunday, a lot of the shops and cafés were closed but it was still pleasant to go for a wander and pick up a couple more Christmas presents. We also found a cool Buddhist temple which we had to ourselves bar a solitary monk meditating. It was nice to have a wander and explore the Chinese part of Penang further.

Walking out onto Love Lane, we found it was aptly named, as we stumbled onto a traditional Muslim Wedding Ceremony. The Bride and Groom were happy to pose for photos for the few tourists on the street so we took advantage of the opportunity to get a couple of snaps.

After this we headed to Lebuh Armenian which is another famous street also housing some niche shops and restaurants. Another thing Penang is famous for is street art which can be found almost everywhere, be it wall murals, sculptures or 3D images celebrating notable points of interest in Penang. There is a high concentration of this around Lebuh Armenian and some of the most famous art is here. Here are some examples:

Walking to the end of the street, we happened upon another area of historical importance- the Clan Jetties, a unique settlement created by Chinese immigrants. Different communities linked by heritage and lineage reside on different jetties here and similar to the Water Village which we saw in Sandakan, it consists of various shops and businesses on stilts above the water. The jetty we visited was the Chew Jetty and again, it was interesting to see the way different people live around the world. 

We walked back to the guesthouse for a quick change and then headed back to Little India for dinner and to see it at night. We went to a restaurant for really good curry and biryani and the chef even let me into the kitchen to show me the tandoor oven. 

After dinner, we walked back around the streets, and found that the area is even more fascinating yet chaotic at night when even more street vendors and people come out to the streets creating a vibrant atmosphere. We walked around taking this in for a little while and looking round the various stalls before heading back.

The next day, after a paratha fix, we ventured out of Georgetown to a nearby point of interest, Penang Hill. The peak, situated about 800m above sea level, promised a respite from the blistering heat and humidity of the city confines. We took the bus to an area called Air Itam (bus 204 from Komtar mall) which stopped at the base of the hill. To reach the summit, we took a small, modern funicular which traversed the steep incline of the hill. Reaching the top, we were greeted by a great view across the island. 

Walking further, we discovered a small mosque and a Buddhist temple adjacent to each other. There are other attractions including an owl museum and the chance to hold tropical birds, but we declined as neither of these are really our cup of tea. The view itself and the scenic walk around the peak probably made the trip worthwhile in themselves. Heading back down, we caught the bus back and enjoyed a final meal in Penang at a local hawker centre.

The next day, we headed to the bus station to catch the coach back to Kuala Lumpur as we were due to fly to Bali the next day. Not the most pleasant of starts to the day, my suitcase handle fell off 10 minutes out of the hotel, we were picked up by who we thought was the grumpiest man in the world, to then be met at the bus station by a travel agent who was actually the grumpiest man in the world. All being said, the journey ran smoothly after this, until disembarking and trying to transport my broken suitcase through the streets of KL. Needless to say, I didn't carry it myself most of the way (thanks Rob). 

Another night in a hostel here, a 6am wake up to get to the airport and a quick flight with Malindo Air (who could teach Easyjet a lot- £19, 3 hour flight including taxes, luggage, a boatload of legroom and a personal inflight entertainment touch screen device) and we were in Bali. Writing from Kuta at the moment, more to follow on this.

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