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!

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