Friday, September 30, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 15: Penang to Kuala Lumpur

March 15, 2011

Twin Towers in the evening

That was almost the end of our short – two night – stand with Penang and also the start of a similar thing with Kuala Lumpur.

We were again late for the ‘Best of Penang’ breakfast; however, we had enough time to have a chat with the University troupe, before catching the 11 hrs KL bus, we met yesterday, and their group leader who volunteered in Pakistan after the earthquake of 2005.

She was speaking very high of Pakistani hospitality and the entire group– some of which may know the country through CNN – were listening with all their ears. It was awe-inspiring the way she explained the natural beauty of our gifted homeland.

Scope of the discussion started widening, from life in America to the differences between Western and Eastern cultures. Before it would have got unending and we would miss our bus, we said goodbye to them after exchanging our email addresses.

The Labour Day
We had to take the bus from outside the Prangin Mall, close to the famous Komtar building, which was walking distance from where we were staying. But that was not an easy walk with the heavy rucksack on my back, a loaded stroller in the front, and a hot sun over the head. For Urooba also, it was hard to hold Misha who refused to keep stuck in her pram due to humid weather. I got dehydrated and even started fumbling.

Thankfully, we reached to the bus stop well within time and without any major happening. Taking the time advantage we did some quick haggling inside the shopping mall.

Yet Another Bus Journey
The Mesra Liner Express first took us to Sungai Nibong, the main bus station of Penang, before tracking back to join the Penang bridge, which connects the island to the mainland. Rest of the journey was uneventful except for two brief stops, first somewhere midway to have a quick snack-cum-lunch, and then at a local bus station in KL to offload some passengers. It was around 4 pm when we reached KL Sentral, the trademark transportation hub of the capital city.
Long sot of Penang Bridge from inside the bus

Misha in good mood

Spacious seating of 2x1 buses
Umair of Lahore
Unlike Penang, we did have clues where to stay in Kuala Lumpur! Umair Rafiq, a Pakistani expatriate – and a Couchsurfing member – was kind enough to spare a bedroom of his cozy flat located in Wangsa Maju, one of KL’s residential neighborhoods.

As per Umair’s instructions, we first took LRT – Light Rail Transit – from KL Sentral to Wangsa Maju and then walked a couple of furlongs, with all the luggage, to finally find our couch.

March 15 will be remembers as a labour day in mozumbus’ history!
Back to Work
It was around 6ish when I received a phone call from Saad, a Travel Buddy member from Karachi who was also visiting KL at the same time to attend a youth conference, informing that he and his colleagues are planning to visit the city center, referred to as KLCC in the local jargon, and that we could join them too.

We did not waste much time and, after setting our bags in the room and getting a bit refreshed, made it back to KLCC, again through LRT, this time without the heavy luggage. Our tummies could not afford any further socializing, so we chose to have dinner first.

While we were discussing if the food taste’s differently as compared to what it does in Nando’s Karachi outlets, Saad managed to spot us. Actually, it was our first meeting, and that too in a foreign land, while we share the same suburban town!

Saad et all
The group with Saad was multicultural; one from Thailand, one from Indonesia, a couple of guys from Malaysia, and one from Bangladesh. Xxx guided us to the popular showground to take some night snaps of world famous Twin Towers!

From inside LRT

Roof of KLCC

Twin Towers
It was past midnight when we got back home and had a brief chat with our host Umair – a young software engineer who grew up in Lahore and Dubai before settling in KL with his equally welcoming family.

A long shot from Wangsa Maju

Misha and Umair's son Rayan
A decorated mosque from Umair's window

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 14: Wandering Around Georgetown, Penang

March 14, 2011
Entrance of Thai Temple
Although we managed to wakeup relatively early but that was already late to catch the ‘best of Penang’ breakfast which the hotel staff collects from famous hawkers around the island. So we had to bear with the more traditional toast, jam, and butter type!

Study Tour
At the breakfast, we met a bunch of University students who came all the way from the US on a cultural cum study tour. Incidentally, their group leader had visited Pakistan and in fact stayed in the earthquake area for a couple of years while working for an NGO!

Postponing our detailed discussion about her Pakistan experience for the next day, we took some help from one of the helpful group members about today’s sightseeing itinerary and walked to our first destination; Kuan Yin Teng or the Goddess of Mercy Temple.

Newly renovated Red Inn Heritage
Why Penang is so Famous?
Penang is famous for its diversity of food and cultural heritage, both of them relate back to its history of British Raj and Chinese immigrants. The island is too popular among tourists, especially from the West, so much so that we mostly found and met foreigners rather than locals! Infrastructure is excellent while tourist facilitation was better than what we found elsewhere in Malaysia; two top reasons why most tourists choose Penang as a vacation spot.
Trishaw: Penang's trademark transport
Culture, Food, and Nature
Penang’s heritage scene is mainly consisted of British era buildings, Chinese clan houses and mansions, and places of worships. While the other interesting aspect, i.e. food, is evolved from a combination of Hokkien, Malay, Indian, and Continental cuisines! The island is not that well-known among nature lovers, however, the Penang Hill Railway, or the funicular, which climbs up the Penang Hill is a treat for everybody.

Bad Luck
Unfortunately, and so unfortunately, the track had been closed for a major overhaul and did not open, even with many ‘dead’ deadlines, when we were there. A big disappointment indeed, especially when we were not that interested in staring those over glorified building structures!!

Goddess of Mercy
Without much choice, we started our sight-seeing day from the nearby Kuan Yin Teng which is the oldest Buddhist temple in Penang established by Hokkien Chinese back in 1801. Located on a narrow street, off Lebuh chulia, the place is frequently visited by followers and tourists both. We saw worshippers burning joss sticks and offering fruits to seek good health, peace in life, and a bright future for themselves and their children.

The ambiance was kind of suffocating and smoky, however, clean, peaceful, and original. Outside, there were street stalls selling joss sticks, including some big size varieties, and other offerings. A similar sight what one can expect from outside sufi shrines in Pakistan!

Shop outside Kuan Yin Teng selling joss sticks

Joss sticks burning outside Kuan Yin Teng

More joss sticks burning outside Kuan Yin Teng

A sacred place

Shopkeeper sleeping after a busy week last month

Kuan Yin Teng
Walk Continues
We then walked to the now abandoned Chinese clan house, Khoo Kongsi, through Jalan Masjid Kapitan (Jalan = Road) and took a couple of snaps of the enroute Aceh mosque, built by Acehnese Muslims in the 19th century.

Aceh mosque
Cheah KongsiAfter learning that there is one another clan house located in the same vicinity, with free entrance, we changed our mind and instead headed to Cheah Kongsi. These clan houses represent secret societies which Hokkien Chinese settlers formed in the 19th century. These societies had been vanished since long and their properties now serve as museums. The building was ornately decorated with the sumptuous use of gold along with traditional ornaments and would be a place for interest for Jackie Chin fans, however, not much for us, at least for this trip! In fact, it was ridiculous to see an English style shirt on display in a wooden frame dating back to mid 20th century!
Cheah Kongsi; one of Penang's clan houses
Now What
It was not a fulfilling day so far, if not disappointing at all. Or maybe we were too demanding after the rich Bali and Cameron Highland experiences. In order to avoid further spoiling of our only full day in Penang, we looked at the tourism brochure, listing Penang’s various attractions, again!

More Temples
We found no choice but to visit yet another temple Wat Chayamangkalaram, which claims to host world’s largest reclining Buddha and runs under Thai descendents! So, we took the red bus to Lorong Burma where we found another big temple, which runs under Burmese oriented people!

Actually both of these temples face each other hence making Lorong Burma a busy street. Before that, we bought bus tickets for Kuala Lumpur for tomorrow’s journey from outside Prangin Mall.
The bust Lorong Burma

Burmese Buddhist Temple
First we entered into the Burmese one, where an innocent looking monk was engaged with children, brought there by their parents. Monk was sitting on an inclined seat and reciting holy words in front of respectfully bowed kids. He then came to us also and offered good wishes to Misha. We requested to have a couple of pictures with him, with a big Buddha statue in the background, which he happily agreed!

The ambiance was as peaceful and holy as was in the Kuan Yin temple we visited earlier in the day; however, it was not suffocating because of high roofs and spacious prayer hall. Probably that was the most spiritually inspiring and the least commercial looking of all the temples we visited during our Oriental Outings.
The impressive Burmese temple

The monk is saving kids from bad luck


A big statue

Monk and the kid
The gold plated reclining Buddha in the next door Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple was overwhelming. Extra large Thai style dragons were erected outside the prayer hall as they were guarding the sanctuary. The overall ambiance was, however, rather commercial looking, maybe because of tourist hordes. Unlike the other temples, burning of joss sticks was loudly prohibited, and instead small candles could be bought and lit up to show the expensive reverence.

Thai temple

A structure inside the temple arena

A guide (in pink) is exaplaining something to his customers

Reclining Buddha and tourists

Misha found a friend there!

Please dont burn joss sticks

And instead buy this!

For rich worshipers
Enough of Religious Harmony
That was enough to embrace the belief that Penangites have been living together with religious harmony. We were also enough of the cultural experiences, so found it better to rather focus on the food aspect! We started right away. A food stall was selling freshly peeled pineapples just outside the temple! Too tempting to resist! So, we bought a couple of big size slices before heading back to Lebuh Chulia.
A fruit vendor on Lorong Burma

Fresh and juicy
Before the food frenzy would continue, we took a detour to Giant hypermarket to search for souvenirs and gifts, especially for Ahmed, our 1 ½ year nephew.

The Food Scene
Around late afternoon, Chulia Street rather starts looking like a food street where hawkers sprung around with their respective specialties. We first stopped at a vendor selling Mie Goreng! Meaning “fried noodles”, the derivative of Chinese Chow Mein is not as innocent as it sounds! It is spicy and served really hot! Literally fried with Achar, Indian pickle, these noodles are so flavorsome that it is hard for me to control my Ramadan fasting while I am writing this!

Garlic, red chili, onion, tomatoes, and other vegetables are also added to enhance the tang along with other desi herbs. Think this is an Indian variety? I guess no! You may find it all over Indonesia and Malaysia but the Penang one has got its special feel. One reason I may think about going back to the island.

That was the time to hit the fruit vendor selling fresh juice as the soft drink could do little to placate Urooba’s excited buds! Once again we targeted the pineapple! No surprise as we can only have them in Karachi tin-packed.

Pineapple rip-off juice; more ice less fruit!
Tourist Trap: Chocolate Boutique
Wandering around purposelessly took us to the Chocolate Boutique around Lebuh Leith. The shop showcases such an extended variety of chocolates that I fear start drooling, especially thinking of those unconventional tiramisu and chili flavors.

Good for us that the staff was giving a tour, with free sampling, to the tourist herd. We also bought some chocolate only to find out later that the same brand was available outside, with not-that-chic packaging, for one third the price! A rip off actually for poor packaged bound tourists.

Food, Again!
Next door was located a big food court. Although, we had already stuffed ourselves with random junk; even then we had been tempted for the veggie stall selling aaloo bhaji (potato curry), with chapatti!

The food court

The food court again
Back in the hotel around sunset, we found a Swiss couple, on their extended South East Asian trip, to chitchat with, before packing our stuff for tomorrow’s journey back to KL.

The trip had started winding up!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 13: From Highlands to Low Ones

March 13, 2011 
A view from Penang Bridge
Getting early in the morning was tough in the chilly hill station but no choice. We had to take the first bus to Penang.

It was so early that hotel’s front door was closed and the staff was sleeping! Luckily, the side door was not locked and was wide enough to let our luggage through.

On the other side, it was an opportunity to catch birdsongs. Priceless indeed! A chance for self discovery. A moment to find out what nature is and if there is a creator. 

Life looked shorter and worthless!

That was peace and tranquility versus crazyness and hypermarkets. That moment I discovered how Arif Lohar got it 100% right! 
Misha sleeping tight
No Breakast!
Outside, most of the shops were yet to open depriving us from the much needed hot tea sips. Around the bus station, some vendors were selling homemade food stuff, from where I bought a few doughnuts to make up for the regular breakfast.
Waiting for the sun

Listening to Birdsongs
Of Bus Seats
There were a few bus companies running Cameron Highland – Penang route, all via Ipoh, out of which we selected Unititi Express. It cost us MYR 34 per person (~ USD 11), a little more than what others were quoting, but still reasonable for the 4-5 hours route. It was 2x2 seating arrangement, less comfortable than the 2x1 we found in the upward journey.
Cameron Highlands to Penang: inside the bus
A Scenin Jorney
The ride was scenic, and this time we were able to see a lot more, due to the daylight, than we could during the journey up the hills. Low height clouds were playing hide-and-seek with lush green valleys and sunrays started peeking into the vale making their way through dense mountainous skyline.

Medan Gopeng
After about two hours we reached Ipoh where the bus stopped at busy Medan Gopeng for 20 minutes. The bus station was bigger and a lot cleaner than the Medan Kidd, which we used for the earlier Ipoh – Cameron Highland passage, and consisted of a decent waiting area, a multi-story commercial building, and kiosks selling bus tickets.

Salespersons did not hesitate to try selling us tickets in a slogan style chanting, while we were walking around; an authentic Malay style which we observed elsewhere also! 
Medan Gopeng Ipoh
A salesperson in Medan Gopeng Ipoh
Ticket kiosks in Medan Gopeng Ipoh
Palm Oil
The second part of the journey was quite different from the first one; most of the times the bus ran through unending palm plantation, a major source of exports revenue of the Malay land, and at the same time a key element of import expenditures of my beloved homeland.

Just to mention, we Pakistanis consume around a billion dollar worth of foreign vegetable oil per annum; not a surprise in a society where the already soaked curry is topped up with a few spoons of fat and where doing so is still considered a status symbol!
Palm trees
Crossing a bridge
Bus Stations in Penang; Too Many
Before entering into the proper island, which is connected with the mainland via 13.5 km long Penang Bridge, the bus took a sojourn at Butterworth bus station. The bus took yet another stop at Prangine Mall, after getting into the island, which is located in Georgetown, the city center. We also got off here rather than going all the way to Sungai Nibong, island’s main bus station. 
Penang bridge (see top right)
Penang Bridge
Penang Bridge continues
Another view of Penang Bridge
Enjoying the scenery
Butterworth bus station, Penang
Go by Ear
Since Penang was the Plan B, in lieu of Taman Negara, so I took the risk of not booking a hotel in advance and rather decided to test Penang’s popular image of a tourist friendly place, which we did not found that wrong later during our stay. All I knew was to make it to Lebuh Chulia, or the Chulia Street, the main artery of Georgetown, to find an affordable place to stay for a couple of nights. 

Red, Hot, and Humid
We then took one of those red Rapid buses, which was quite doable even with that entire luggage. However, finding an accommodation was daunting while strolling the stuff and managing a temperature shock. It was sunny, hot, and humid – around 35-40 C – as compared to the cloudy, cool, and dry morning when we left the hill station!
Rapid red bus in Penang
Red bus had enough space for luggage!
View from the front screen
There's no 'Google' in the Real Life!
The search continued till we got drained out of energy! There seemed to be an issue with every place we glanced into, and the strategy to ‘go by ear’ started proving fatal, until we found Red Inn Heritage, a mid range accommodation which was in the final stages of finishing and decoration. An AC room – with free breakfast, running hot drinks and internet – was quite a deal in MYR 50 per night (~USD 17), which would easily go for MYR 100-150 once the place would be completely ready for commercial sale! 

Red Inn Heritage

Lounge of Red Inn Heritage
happy happy!!
Love Lane
The basic hotel is a comparatively upscale version of the old Red Heritage which is a popular backpackers’ dugout. Both are located on the infamous Love Lane, off Lebuh Chulia!

As everything in Penang, especially around Georgetown, has a history associated with it, the Love Lane is also a reminiscent of old colonial Penang as the neighborhood was then used by wealthy businessmen to provide their second, or third for that matter, wives with a hideout! 
A view of Lebuh Chulia
Food hawker
Chicken Tikka and the Palestinian Fellow
It took us a couple of hours more to settle down before going out for our first meal in Penang, which was too late to qualify for lunch and too early for the dinner! While we were having Chicken Tikka at Restoran Kassim Mustafa, a mid-range Arab looking man sat besides our table and started chitchat with us after exchanging Muslim greetings. He thought we are Arabs!

He further introduced himself as a Palestinian who had to abandon his family, with three kids, and the homeland as he was targeted by Israeli forces.

He told us that he was out of money even for the bus ticket for Kelantan, an east coast Malaysian province, where he is enrolled in a University. Though he did not bluntly ask for any monetary help which – frankly speaking – we were not even in a position to respond to while traveling, however, the incident kept ticking me for coming days.
After the meal, we took an easy stroll around the town till the sunset before getting back to the hotel as we wanted to have enough sleep to fully utilize the next day, our only full day in Penang.

See you tomorrow!