The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Penang - The Pearl of the Orient

I was in my element, like a child in a lolly shop not knowing where to turn, what to sample first, what delight to grab with both hands. 

Surrounded by temples, mansions, antique and vintage shops,  street art and colonial architecture of the exotic kind – an eclectic mix of Dutch, English and Chinese with a bit of Indian and Arabian thrown in for good measure this is my nirvana, my heaven, my mecca. And if I knew what the ultimate paradise for a Taoist was, it would be that too.  We are in Penang, the pearl of the orient and like a pearl, her opaque luminescence swirl surrounds us. One minute we are being lulled into a fantasy of “wouldn’t it be great if we brought one of these fabulous run down colonial mansions and renovate it back to its majestic glory” or “how romantic would it be to live in a former concubines terrace, a secreted pleasure of rich Chinese merchants”.  The next, we are being slapped in the face by Penang’s hyperactive presence rushing headlong at a frenetic pace breathing in her heady spice fragrance and narrowly miss being run over by her crazy traffic. Penang packs a punch!
We left Langkawi in a striking blaze of colour, a sunset of fire washing over a silver sea giving an impression of warmth, yet our three hour ferry ride was as chilly as an Antarctica crossing, the air-conditioning set so cold that even the locals were banging the ferry masters door down demanding a less frosty passage.  Upon arrival, Penang’s steaminess thawed our bodies to almost puddle status and we scrambled into the air-conditioned taxi with sighs of relief.   The ironary of the situation leaving me less than amused and cursing the ferry master “If I get a death of a cold, I’m going to haunt the bastard,” I vow to Big M. 
Penang islands main township, Georgetown was floodlit and bustling. Beautiful pastel buildings in baby blue, cream, and princess pink stand gracefully over lit gardens, their grand arches and lacework peeking through decorative gold-flecked and black fences and gates. The streets swarmed with diners enjoying outdoor cafes and food carts, market stalls jostle for room on the footpaths and trishaws with ancient looking peddlers slowly wheel thru the endless stream of traffic.

Our lovely taxi driver pointed out the many places of interests  as he drove manically thru the traffic, at the same time trying to check out the contents of other cars boots, playing frogger with unsuspecting opponents and pretending (I’m sure) that he was colourblind to the changing traffic lights.  I suddenly developed a case of turrets as my ‘oohs and aahs’ of delight became punctuated constantly with screeches of ‘Oh god and Arghs’ and much worse.  When we arrived at our hotel I tried very casually to show my delight at being in his beautiful city by patting the ground (I really wanted to hug it!)  

Our hotel was gorgeous, a beautiful old heritage listed building with wide tessellated hallways, big rooms and French doors.  We were so looking forward to splashing out and going upmarket for night of luxurious sleep.  Our little guesthouse at Langkawi was wonderful but the previous night had been a little sleepless due to the young chap next door to us developing a romance with his toilet bowl and on the other side of our room, a rave party had raged into the wee hours at a cool hip place called Daddy’s, so we were definitely in the mood for a good nights sleep.  Unfortunately the hotel had rented the upstairs floor to a heard of wilderbeast and they galloped up and down the hallways all night. I also think they were cavorting with antelope as there was much jumping and springboarding  upon the upstairs furniture.  Needless to say the very next day we went in search for something a little less animal friendly.  Our new guesthouse, at half the cost, turned out to be an absolute gem.  (Note picture beside this is of Georgetown Town Hall, not our hotel)

Penang’s mugginess totally robbed us of our energy but we just couldn’t stay still during the day.  Like the proverbial ‘mad dogs and …. well you know the rest, we traipsed out into the midday sun and walked around Georgetown’s beautiful  chaotic streets.  Georgetown is a UNESCO world heritage city, receiving this accolade in 2008 and rightly so, every step taken in this city takes your breath away.  Colonised  some 200 years ago, but dating much older than that, the city is a blend of Chinese, Indian, Arab, Malay, Acehnese, Siamese, Burmese and European architecture.  
Most of the buildings in the higgle-piggle streets are two-story terraces with gorgeous timber shutter windows upstairs and decorative tiled patios and French doors downstairs.  I particularly love the downstairs ‘peanut shape’ lattice windows.  They are simply gorgeous.  Then there are the  Malay-Colonial mansions; elegant two story abodes with beautiful fretwork, shuttered arched windows and big wide double doors.   Both the terraces and the mansions come in a various tones of white, cream or pastel.  Throw into this mix, the chinese mansions of bright hues with richly decorated mosaic scenes splashed across their verandahs and curved frilly rooftops corners with dragons about to fly away.  
I drag poor Big M to every single mansion and notable terrace listed on the ‘must see’ pamphlet, as well as every mansion and terrace that’s not. He eventually puts up a fight and refuses to go into the bright lime green Peranakan mansion (choosing to read outside in the garden) and the psychedelic periwinkle mansion that belong to Cheong Fatt Tze… when I tour this one, he goes to the pub instead.

Seeing Big M waning from the mansions,  I throw in the temples until we are overstuffed with gold icons, joss sticks and bells.  Along with all the Chinese temples (literally on every street corner), and Hindu temples (also in just about every street) we visit the stunning the Wat Chayamangkalaram Thai temple that features an enormous reclining Buddha (one of the largest in the world) and across the road from is the Dharmikarama Burmese Temple with its enormous gold standing Buddha. 

These two temples sit directly opposite each other and it’s almost as if they are having a ‘temple off’ as they outdo each other in their glittering goldness. 

A couple of days later we head to the Kok Lok Si Temple which features a ginormous ‘floating’ Buddha; the Buddha of Supreme Bliss.  This temple also has a huge Pagoda of ten thousand Buddha’s which we climb.  Unfortunately, we don’t inhale the blissful serenity we’d like to as nearly every turn costs us 2ringett each – I suspect this temple is a bit of a tourist trap, as we have to pay each time to go into most of parts of the temple and when we’re not paying for that, we’re encouraged to buy, buy, buy from the many ‘icon shops’ throughout the temple and it’s complex.  It becomes obvious where it’s money spinner origins come from when I read that ‘Tiger Balm’ Aw Paw had a big hand in its construction and running. 
I knew my run of temples had come to an end when we went searching for the Tapak Gedembai  – the mysterious giant footprint of Hanuman, the monkey god.   At the time I didn’t know this footprint was in a temple. According to the map, the oddity we were looking for was a huge footprint on a boulder on a beach in the fishing village of Batu Maung.  Big M likes fishing boats and fishing villages so it was easy to get him to agree to go in search for this….and I assured him I was positive it would be more exciting than the ‘burnt field of rice’ we’d spent days searching for in Langkawi. 

We had hired a car for twenty four hours and late in the afternoon off we went in search of this fishing village.  And search we did, up and down the same road.  We drove in any direction that appeared to lead to a beach including into private yards (by total mistake, I assure) and yet couldn’t find this boulder.  We asked so many people about directions for the footprint I’m sure we spoke to just about everyone from that bit of coastline.  We even got a stern ‘you go’ from a guard at a jetty who really didn’t care that we were lost.  Finally in exasperation we were about to give up when I spied a tiny temple on a cliff overlooking some fishing trawlers and asked Big M if we could just ‘poke’ our heads in for a minute.  Lo and behold, there was the footprint!  Except it wasn’t a footprint and it wasn’t on a boulder, nor was it on a beach…. It was just a triangle shape impression in some cement down a hollow tunnel with a bit of muddy water in it.   No-one needs to know what Big M thought.

Penang was not all mansions and temples for us.  The highlight of our time here was taking a cooking class.  Penang is the foodie capital of Malaysia, the saying being that every great cook has been in Penang at some time.  We pig out every night at the hawker stalls and markets, our favourite being the Red Garden, and I’m sure every kilo we’ve lost over the last few weeks from our constant walking and sweating has re-joined our frames upon arrival at Penang.   Our cooking class is run by a pocket dynamo – Nazlina – a fast talking, fast chopping, former electronics engineer turned cook who is gathering worldwide recognition at a rapid pace.  On the day we were there, she was being photographed for two different magazines plus she told us that she was appearing on the Kerri-Anne Show with Masterchef winner, Adam Law in October.  The day after our class she was interviewed by a world renowned food magazine and in the week since our class she has open her first ‘shop front’, its opening splashed across the Penang newspapers.  So of course we were delighted to find ourselves being taught by her on the cusp of her forthcoming fame.
Our class took place at the elegant (and oh-so-very-grand) hotel, The E&O (Eastern & Oriental), a sister hotel to Singapore’s Raffles.  After meeting at the hotel, Nazlina galloped us down the street, stoping traffic with her tiny frame like wonderwoman,  to the extremely busy morning wet-market where Big M bonded with a fishmonger and chicken cutter-chopper and had to be prised away.  He was taking great delight in rummaging through the fishmongers frozen bits and fascinated by the halal  beheading of a poor chook. The same chook upon being placed (live) on the scales just laid there as if hypnotised.   I wanted to flap my arms and encourage it to ‘run away’ but of course didn’t dare - the chicken chopper had a very large knife.  My horror wasn’t helped any when, after the live chicken was removed from the scales, three plucked chicken carcasses were placed on the same – unwiped- scale… our three chickens carcasses we were to cook. 

Back at the E&O we chopped, diced, pestled and cooked up a storm – and produced an amazing traditional Nyonya curry using sixteen big chillies in two woks.  As one who can’t really eat chilli, I was dreading what my backside would be saying to me the next day.

Big M took delight in wearing his ‘special bear’ apron and plunged into the cooking with great gusto.   Once we’re back home, he’ll be the one to cook this amazing dish – although, I don’t think we’ll be tossing in sixteen chillies, of any size.
On our last day in Penang we decided to hire a car.  Over the week we had sampled the bus system, the taxis and on one occasion a trishaw.  This experience left us with bum-complexes, as when we tried to both hop into the seat of the trishaw, we kinda well,  got stuck.  Well and truly wedge in to the extent we almost popped out upwards with such force we could have been fireworks.  We tried to explain to the trishaw peddler that we were too big for his little colourful contraption but he either couldn’t understand us or refused to listen and scooped us up and peddled us away into the maddening traffic.  It was so uncomfortable that Big M decided to sit on top of the trishaw seat, obscuring the ‘drivers’ view and I sat in the seat.  We really must have looked a sight as we were peddled around the streets of Georgetown.  Not only were we too big, but we were also too hot.  Our beetroot faces sweating it out in the midday sun, our legs, arms and necks also turning a shade of bright red that should only be seen in Chinese temple fabrics.  Because Big M was sitting on top of the seat, the hood couldn’t be put up and the attached brolly only covered the peddler.  We had hired the trishaw for an hour but after only 30mins of slowing marinating and  BBQ-ing in our juices, begged the chap to stop and let us off so we could find the nearest air conditioner.  He was most disappointed as takers at that time of the day are pretty scarce to say the least. 
So after trying the various forms of transport the city had to offer, we  took our hire car and drove over to the mainland via the 13kilometer bridge to Butterworth, got lost, paid lots of tolls and returned to Penang to try and locate the road to Penang Hill.  The night before, after visiting the footprint, we had tried to drive up the middle of Penang but got hopelessly lost and ended up in a suburb of ugly high-rise tower blocks where every building looked the same.  It took us ages to find our way out again.  This time we decided to head for something that was visible from most parts of the island.  Trouble was Penang has lots of hills.  And lots of crazy drivers who don’t know the difference between green and red, or that traffic normally goes in one direction on one side of the road and in the opposite direction on the other side.  Big M felt he had been in Malaysia long enough to be classed as a local and so, drove as such. We are still talking although that was almost off the cards when he ran a red light and played chicken with an ambulance.  All I can say to that is, the two stands of red cord given to me by a good friend and blessed by a Buddhist monk have been rubbed to threadbare status.
Penang Hill turned out to be a blessed oasis of absolute coolness and beauty.   To get to it, you need to go up on a funicular train up 830mts – almost vertical.  The 4minute ride up was exhilarating, the return trip down, adrenalin-charged! It was a good thing I didn’t give myself too much time to think about it all before buying the ticket, the alternative being a good 2hour walk down a winding 8kilometer road.  The views over Penang were stunning, we could see out over the port and bay, the enormous tankers and ships coming in, the small timber fishing boats heading out, a luxury cruise liner docked next to the beautiful  colonial township of Georgetown and out over to Butterworth and beyond.
Penang’s bustling vibe has added spice and flavour to our trip and woken us from our gentle meanderings of the Perhentians and Langkawi , and just as well as the following day we embarked on the next leg of our journey on a wild, crazy mini-bus ride from hell with a sergeant-major for a  driver. Thankfully Penang’s punch had us ready for the journey.