Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Penang, Malaysia (7 - 8th August 2007)

Tuesday, 7th August 2007: Dad had booked Mum and I on a 4-day-3-night trip to Penang-Langkawi with Chiu Travel Sdn. Bhd. which costs RM1468, inclusive of accommodation with complimentary breakfast, bus fare, transfers and local tours.

At 9.30pm, we headed to the BP bus station to board the KKKL Express night bus to Penang, leaving at 10pm. The bus was quite spacious with seats as large as first class airplane seats though the bus felt a bit wobbly (was about to throw up halfway through the journey north). Here's Mum and me at the bus station, with a photo of a similar bus next to ours, of us in the bus and one of the large potholes after the neighbouring bus took off:





The bus stopped several times along the way to pick up and drop off passengers. There wasn't a toilet on the bus so we had to stop at Slim River, a small town in the state of Perak for a break. Frankly speaking, I don't like the public toilets in Malaysia - I wouldn't mind paying for it if it was kept clean but chances are it wouldn't be (and there was a man mopping the female toilet floor while several of us were inside!!). Photo taken at the rest area in Slim River:




Wednesday, 8th August 2007: 9 hours later (bum sore!), we arrived at Penang Bridge and got stuck in the 7am traffic jam. Penang Bridge is a dual-carriageway toll bridge that connects Gelugor on the island of Penang and Seberang Prai on the mainland of Malaysia on the peninsula - the total length of the bridge is 13.5 km, making it among the longest bridges in the world as well as a national landmark.

Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, is a fascinating fusion of the East and West. The state embraces modernity while retaining its traditions and old world charm, which are reflected in its harmonious multiracial populace and well-preserved heritage buildings. Long regarded as the food capital of Malaysia, it also entices visitors with its beautiful coasts and scrumptious cuisines.

I had thought it was misty outside as everything looked blurry; turns out to be haze. Couldn't see very far up front.

The bus dropped us off at Sungai Nibong bus terminal and we got picked up by our guide for the day, Harry, from Pan Island Holidays Sdn. Bhd. More sitting in a vehicle for us as we continued getting stuck in the Penang morning traffic. It was horrendous! The roads were narrow and there were lots of vehicles everywhere!! I've to salute the 'super' drivers here - it's all about who's daring to cut into lanes or you could be stuck forever.

Harry dropped us off at our hotel, the Hotel Grand Continental Penang, for a rest before returning to pick us up for our day tour of Penang at 9.30am. The hotel is rated 3-star but I was somewhat disappointed because it looked more run down than a Kiwi backpacker. Oh well, it was only for 1 sleep (but just didn't feel it was worth the money we paid). The hotel is located on Jalan Gurdwara (Brick Kiln Road) towering 23 storeys. It accommodates the highest swimming pool in Penang at level 23. Photos taken early this morning: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602049515819/detail/

Mum, me and another 7 others went with Harry on a 4-hour day trip to some of the key places in Penang. Harry is a Chinese Malaysian who speaks Manglish (the colloquial version of the English language as spoken in Malaysia, or better known as 'rojak language'). Malaysians would have no problems understanding Manglish since they speak several different languages and Manglish is like a mix of Malay, English and Mandarin though to foreigners, it would sound quite strange.

Our first stop was to Fort Cornwallis, built by Captain Sir Francis Light after taking possession of the Penang island from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786 and named after the late Governor-General of Bengal, India, Charles Cornwallis. Originally a wooden stockade, it is now a concrete structure and currently houses cannons, a history gallery, café, handicraft and souvenir centre as well as an open-air amphitheatre. Costs us RM3 to enter the fort.

There's a chapel located at the south-west angle of the fort and this was the first chapel built in Penang. The first recorded service which took place was the marriage of Francis Light’s widow, Martina Rozells, to John Timmers in 1799.

We explored the fort grounds on our own (lots of horse droppings everywhere!) and managed to find our way up the Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse, which had an entrance outside the fort. Mum and I attempted to climb the narrow and steep stairway up the lighthouse - I ended up at the very top; mum stopped 3/4 way up. None of the others in our group followed us (guess they weren't keen). The funny part was that we couldn't get back into the fort where everyone was - we got locked out! Lucky Harry came to the rescue to let us back in :) Photos at Fort Cornwallis: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602049935887/detail/

Next stop, U-Cap Jempol Tropiks for local product shopping. I wasn't interested and ran to the other end of the road to snap photos of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion:




I believe the blue mansion should be quite a nice place to visit to see the restored 18th and 19th century Chinese architecture but it was not in our day tour itinerary.

The weather was really hot. We headed on towards Wat Chaiya Mangalaram Buddhist temple or Wat Chaiya for short. Wat Chaiya's main attraction is the reclining Buddha statue (Luang Phor Chiya Mangol), with length of 108ft and 32ft in height making it the largest in Malaysia and 3rd largest in the world. Today, it is one of the most famous tourist spots in Penang.

We were supposed to go to the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple across the street but Harry said it was not part of tour (not what Rosie from Chiu Travel stated on our itinerary...). I went there on my own while the others in the group were still in Wat Chaiya. I could see Harry watching over me from afar with a concerned look on his face - I was just taking photos, not going in!

Stopped at Crown Pewter to see flash demo on how you make a cup handle and then at Well Known Souvenir & Batik Centre to see flash (I say 'flash' because it only lasted less then 5 minutes) batik printing demo and coffee tasting next door.

Our last stop for the day tour was at the Penang Botanic Gardens. Mum and I are probably the only people in the group who took a walk around the place. I would prefer if the trip to the gardens be our first stop of the day because walking around the gardens at midday was just uncomfortably hot and sweaty. We still had an hour to spare so I asked Harry what could we do. Oh, I think he was boiling inside and probably wanted to strangle me when the others followed suit and asked him the same. So instead of dropping everyone off, he bought some peanuts from the stalls outside the gardens and we got to feed the monkeys at the park on the way out. Photos from the temples to the Botanical Gardens: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602075190652/detail/

At 12.30pm, we headed back to city and hotel. Oh my god! The traffic jam! It was crazy!!

Met up with Ah Cheng Yi (mum's cousin sister) and her daughter Ada at our hotel lobby at 1pm. Ah Cheng Yi took us to Kek Lok Si Temple, a Buddhist temple situated in Air Itam in Penang and is one of the best known temples on the island. Kek Lok Si Temple is reputed to be the biggest Buddhist temple complex in Southeast Asia and stands majestically on a hill in Air Itam.

I had the opportunity to try out the famous Penang laksa stall at Air Itam. Very nice and different from normal laksa - it's assam laksa ('assam' meaning tamarind which gives the soup a sour taste) and is made with mackerel (or 'ikan kembung', which is poached and then flaked). It was a roadside stall so some of you would probably be inclined to try. But your trip to Penang wouldn't be complete if you hadn't tried it!
After lunch, we went to visit the temple. Took the inclined lift to see bronze Kuan Yin statue - somewhat like the Wellington cable car except this one was air-conditioned. Costs us RM4 return trip per person. Photos at the Kek Lok Si Temple: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602086605349/detail/

I had my reservations about driving the Perodua Kancil (Malaysian car) because I had once witnessed a bus making a slow left turn and 'touched' the side of the Kancil next to it, practically ripping the top and part of the side off the car (and the lady in the car was shaking in shock). However, in Penang, I think you will need a Kancil, a vehicle small enough for you to zip places and Ah Cheng Yi (also a Penang super driver) happens to be a proud owner of one.

We 'zipped' to Bukit Bendera i.e. Penang Hill next, located six kilometers from the city centre of George Town (capital city of Penang). Malaysia’s first hill station, Penang Hill is 830m above sea level. We ascended to the top by travelling in the funicular train which has been operational since 1922, enjoying the cool climate as well as the view at the summit (you could hike up if you wish too but you would want to do this early morning and with some friends). Costs us RM4 return per person. It was probably the longest cable car I've ever ridden to date! Takes about 12 minutes to reach the 1st stop and I could feel my ears popping. Cabled another 12 minutes to 2nd stop and was 701.1m above sea level. The view from Penang Hill would have been better if it wasn't for the haze in Penang.

Ah Cheng Yi and Ada were fantastic guides and wouldn't let mum and I leave Penang without making a trip to the Snake Temple, located in the industrial area of Sungai Kluang in Bayan Lepas. The temple is filled with the smoke of burning incense and a variety of pit vipers. The vipers are believed to be rendered harmless by the sacred smoke, and though the snakes have also been de-venomed with their fangs still intact, I wouldn't advice you to pick up the reptiles for a photo. Local devotees believe that the temple's snake population has come there of its own accord. There used to be many more snakes roaming the place but only few left today. There were some hamsters in cages too...are they for sale or for feeding the snakes??? Photos at Penang Hill and the Snake Temple: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602076318316/detail/

Thanks Ah Cheng Yi and Ada for being such great hosts in such short notice! We really enjoyed spending a ladies' afternoon together :) I've not seen Ah Cheng Yi for many years and it was the first time I've met Ada - do keep in touch!

A brief rest and coffee before getting picked up by Harry again for our night tour. We drove through Gurney Drive, a favourite haunt for food enthusiasts. This coastal road is famous for hawker foodstalls and restaurants offering a mouth-watering selection of Penang specialities such as asam laksa, hokkien mee and various other delicious local delicacies.

We continued our journey to Batu Ferringhi pasar malam (night market). The night market was a long stretch and here's the place for you to put your barganing skills to the test. Most of the stalls sell the same stuff but prices vary. We had dinner at Global Bay foodcourt and the food was not authentic but mainly geared towards foreigners' tastes. Frankly speaking, we could have done without the night tour. Wasn't worth it. We decided to head back early but Harry (obviously knew I would keep tabs on time) drove us around town instead to see Penang bridge at night. Got back to hotel at 11pm - so tired...Photos from our night out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8070917@N05/sets/72157602087117351/detail/

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