MY PENCHANT FOR PENANG, MALAYSIA'S ISLAND PARADISE
It is February 2004, and I am at Penang’s Golden Sands Resort. I stand on my balcony looking out at lush green lawns, tropical palms, flowering hedges of bougainvillea and people sun-bathing on the beach. A sapphire sea stretches to the horizon, and small ringlets of waves sigh as they uncurl against the sand. At the time, it would have been all but impossible for me to imagine a 40 foot high wall of water hurtling across the hotel’s grounds, smashing deck chairs and gazebos, tearing up plants, sweeping people in its furious swirl, and then carrying victims out to a watery grave.
In reality, none of this happened. Malaysia was lucky this time around, and without detracting from the tragedy and loss suffered by thousands of people, it is heartening to know that at least one country in the area has a good news story to share with the world. Penang’s Batu Feringgi beach front, is set in a relatively sheltered bay within the Straits of Malacca so that Shangri-La’s Golden Sands Resort and other five star hotels such as The Mutiara Beach Resort located along this waterfront, escaped the full onslaught of the tsunami. Within a week, according to Malaysia’s Tsunami Aftermath Advisory, all signs of whatever peripheral damage might have occurred, had disappeared and visitors today are once more splashing in hotel swimming pools, surfing, boating and soaking up the sunshine on the beach.
Photo courtesy of the Golden Sands Resort
Penang Island is linked to Malaysia’s mainland by a 13.5 km bridge built in 1985. Admittedly when I drove across this last February, the island didn’t look at all inviting, shrouded as it was in a shimmering heat haze. When I flew out of the airport on my way to Kuala Lumpur a week later, I was genuinely sorry to leave.
Cities have personalities. Some, like Paris, are flirtatious and feminine, others like Delhi are sturdily masculine. San Francisco has a playful insouciance, London wears a dignified air. With her temples and mosques, her white colonial style mansions, her Chinese heritage homes and her fishing villages, Penang is a woman of elegance and grace—but with just a hint of mystery behind her dark, almond-shaped eyes. She is also capricious. My tour guide, Yap Hong, drives along a highway where sleek high-rise buildings, are stacked against the skyline like blocks of dominoes. Then, as we turn a corner, we plunge into a narrow winding lane flanked by seedy shops with rust-spotted signage advertising hardware, automotive parts and electrical gear. Above them, first floor apartments with paint peeling off their walls, have clothes lines looped like untidy streamers across their balconies. Barely five minutes later we are bowling through a broad avenue of graceful palms fronting palatial, impeccably maintained bungalows set within landscaped gardens.
“Penang is little bit of ever’t’ing.” Yap flashes me a grin. “Little bit of old-style kampungs (village settlements), little bit of Beverly Hills…” He gestures at the mansions we are driving past. “Also little bit of history, little bit mix-up of many different peoples—Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians—and big mix-up of many temples, churches and mosques.” He chuckles. “Don’t worry, I show you ever’t’ing!”
True to his word, Yap takes pride in showing me “his” city. Whimsy, takes centre stage at our first stop - Penang’s Snake Temple. When the temple was built in 1850 in memory of a Buddhist priest, the first lot of snakes (“deadly pit-vipers” according to the sign outside the temple) which adopted the temple as their abode were “servants of the resident deity” and could be seen “coiled around pillars, beams and potted plants in the temple.” Today, a few bored reptiles are draped over an arrangement of branches and twigs in an ante-room—where, so I am told, the incense smoke drugs them into lethargy. By Penang standards, the temple itself is unremarkable; but like most visitors, I can’t resist posing with a de-fanged viper draped over my shoulders to show the folks back home!
Indicative of Yap’s “mix up of many different peoples” are two Buddhist temples on Burmah Road. The Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram temple has a 33-metre reclining Buddha (the third-longest in Asia), and I’m intrigued to hear that the complex was built in 1845 on five acres of land donated by Queen Victoria to the Thai community. The courtyard entrance is ornate: two heavy-weight green-faced ogres guard the doorways, while a couple of sprawling mythical dragon-headed serpents rear their painted heads for camera clickers. Across the street is the exquisite Dhammkarama Burmese Temple. It is remarkable for its intricately carved wooden ceiling, a huge standing Buddha set within a gilt filigree framework, and a dazzling white icing-sugar pagoda set within flowering tropical bushes in the surrounding garden.
Of all Penang’s temples, The Kek Lok Si Temple (Temple of Supreme Bliss) and monastery, is inarguably the most dramatic, and its white wedding-cake tower surmounted by a gold tapering spire dominates the hillside. In the entrance prayer hall, ten thousand tiny replicas of Buddha line the wall and, like me, several visitors pause to photograph the massive central Buddha statue flanked by glittering gold pillars.
The temple also has an unusual feature: below the main prayer hall, a large pond swarms with almost a thousand turtles. Catching my questioning glance, Yap explains that these little terrapins symbolize longevity, strength and endurance, and this sacred pool provides them with a refuge from predators. At any rate, they are more animated and entertaining than the pit vipers at the Snake Temple and I linger to watch amorous couples disporting themselves on rocks, and mischievous baby turtles slithering past matronly mamas snoozing in the sun.
Out in courtyard once more, beyond a maze of corridors, we board a glass-walled funicular which takes us to the summit of the hill. The haze which has enveloped Penang for several days, turns the view into a smudge of red-roofed city buildings set against a pale and distant sea. The temple terrace itself is dominated by a 128 foot bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. As her name implies, her expression is gentle and benign—and, not surprisingly, she is one of Penang’s favourite deities.
I meet her again the following morning in historic Georgetown. If Kek Lok Si is Penang’s largest temple complex, Kuan Yin Teng is its oldest shrine, built over two centuries ago in 1801. The heavy red and gold brocaded draperies, the lacquered inlay work on furnishings, the scent of joss sticks, the brass notes of temple bells and the continuous traffic of devotees—some kneeling, others bowing repeatedly before the goddess, their eyes closed, lips moving in supplication or thanksgiving—all contribute to an atmosphere of deeply-felt piety. Tourists are not unwelcome in these places of worship, nor is photography prohibited, but given the temple’s spiritual aura, I feel like a clumsy interloper. I stand in the shadows and bow my head in deference to Kuan Yin, Penang’s most sweet-natured goddess.
Georgetown is a warren of streets lined by shops, imposing Government buildings and historic landmarks. The Penang Museum in particular is a treasure trove of the city’s cultural and historical artefacts: old photographs, paintings, furniture, rich costumes and vivid dioramas of festivals, religious ceremonies and traditional customs. I drag myself away reluctantly, but it is now lunch-time and Yap is eager to whisk me off to Little India to sample a South Indian vegetarian meal served on a banana leaf.
“You must also try hawker food,” Yap advises as I scoop up rice and lentils with my fingers, Indian style. “Thai Satay and Malaysian shrimp Nasi Goreng…all delicious!” And where do I find this? “Right outside your hotel, along Batu Feringgi,” says Yap.
Malaysian cities’ night markets are legendary. So, too, is the country’s variety of hot fresh food cooked in open-air sidewalk kitchens. Penang is no exception, and the shops along Batu Feringgi offer the usual tourist wares, ranging from trendy T-shirts, batik-imprinted cotton sarongs and straw hats, to pirated DVDs, electronic gadgets, leather goods and “genuine-fake” Gucci watches. However I’m here for the buzz, rather than any serious shopping. I pause to eavesdrop on furious bargaining sessions, listen to sales patter, and watch a sidewalk chef in action. He rolls out a small circle of dough, pats it flat and then spins this around his forefinger (so that the dough flares out like a circular napkin), before slapping it down to bake on a curved iron hotplate. The cooked rotis are stuffed with curried mutton kebabs and handed out on paper plates to waiting customers. It is quite a performance. I opt instead for a plate of sizzling Szechuan-style fried spicy noodles mixed with shrimp, shredded crab meat and mussels.
On my last evening in Penang, Yap takes me on a night drive through city streets illuminated by thousands of tiny coloured bulbs. They are looped like jewelled canopies across the road, and cascade in glittering strands down the facades of buildings. Couples stroll along Gurney Drive’s sidewalks and its outdoor cafes and hawker’s stalls are thronged with families and friends dining, chatting, laughing and enjoying the cooler evening breezes off the ocean. The water whispers against the seawall, and the tang of seaweed drifts through the windows of the car.
I am filled with the wistfulness that every traveller will recognize—the regret of missed opportunities, filtered out because of the constraints of time. Will I return some day? Perhaps. For the moment it is enough to know that Penang has been spared great tragedy. Is she, I wonder, the daughter of that most benevolent Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin?
by Margaret Deefholts
IF YOU GO:
Air: The Penang International Airport is 16km from Georgetown. Cathay Pacific, Eva Air, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Thai International offer connecting flights to Kuala Lumpur and other international destinations.
Rail: Butterworth is a major station on the north-south railway from Singapore to Bangkok. The ferry terminal to Penang island is within walking distance from the station.
Road: The North-South Expressway is an excellent freeway linking Alor Setar, in the north of Peninsular Malaysia, through Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru in the south.
WHERE TO STAY:
Choices run the gamut from luxurious resorts to budget hotels.
Climate: Equatorial - humid all year round with temperatures between 21 and 32 degrees Celsius (70 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit). Rainy months August - November.
Languages: Although Malay is the national language, English is also widely used, particularly in business and the tourism industry. As Penang was (and still is) a meeting point of many cultures, other languages include various Chinese dialects (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien) and Indian languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi and Telegu.
Religion: The official state religion is Islam, but freedom of worship is observed. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism and other religions are freely practiced.
Attire: Clothes made of light cotton. Swim wear, sunglasses and sun block will come in handy on the beach. Flip-flops, sandals are best for walking. Some classier dining establishments or clubs in Penang may require formal evening wear - check out their dress code before leaving home.
Travel Documents: Visitors to Malaysia must possess a national passport or other internationally recognised travel documents. Passports must be valid for at least six months beyond the period of allowed stay in Malaysia. For further information contact your local travel agent.
Miscellaneous: In general, Malaysians are gentle and discreet people. Blatant displays of affection like kissing, fondling, caressing etc in public are offensive.
• Most credit cards are accepted at hotels and restaurants, but if you travel away from the cities, you will need cash.
• Smoking is prohibited in air
conditioned public places by federal law.
• Keep your passport handy. It is required when changing money at banks.
• International driving licences are required should you desire to rent an automobile to drive in Malaysia.
• Driving while under the influence of alcohol is a major offence and can involve steep fines as well as detention.
• The wearing of seatbelts while driving are compulsory.
• Crash helmets are compulsory while riding motorbikes.
Article and pictures by Margaret Deefholts.
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