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Penang, Malaysia
Saturday, June 22, 2013

To be honest our first impressions of George Town were not good. To be totally scathing it reminded us of Colombo in Sir Lanka, the first holiday we ever took which we hated. We disliked the food, the weather, the people and the snipers on the roof tops (we are not making this up) so much so we only lasted a few days before we jumped on a plane and headed to Thailand. To be honest we have heard nice things about the rest of Sri Lanka and maybe if we had given it a bit longer and seen the countryside our opinion might have been different. But time and money is precious and it will be a long, long time before, if ever, we return to find out if our opinions were misguided So we agreed we would not be drawn on our first impressions of George Town and Penang as a whole and only make a well informed judgement after a few days of being on the island.

George Town is a city, nothing more, nothing less. It has just about everything, but in our opinion offers little for the tourist. We say everything but they forgot to build any footpaths. The few that do exist have massive holes in them with nothing to stop you falling into the storm drains below, which is just an accident waiting to happen. Unless your hotel/guesthouse is very close to the ferry do not expect to be able to walk as the lack of footpaths make it difficult and at times just plain dangerous.

Georgetown is billed as a UNESCO city and parts (small parts) of it are beautiful but in no way is the whole city beautiful or worthy of such a title. If you have time make sure you get out of the city and see the nearby sights such as Kek Lok Si temple, Penang Hill, Penang national park and the beaches of the north west coast as you won't be disappointed.

Brief history of Penang

Penang is a place steeped in history and was taken over by the British East India Company in the late 1700's where it soon became a great trading route. Penang stayed in the hands of the British until World War Two when the Japanese attacked. All of the British and European settlers were immediately evacuated leaving the people of Penang feeling let down as they were largely defenceless against the Japanese. The lives of the people living in Penang during this time went from relaxed and carefree to hard as nails and the next three and a half years were the darkest in Penang's history. In 1948 Penang became a state of the federation of Malaysia and eventually became one of Malaysia's 13 independent states in 1968.

Day 1 - Walking Tour

Today we decided to go for a stroll to soak in some of the atmosphere and take in the main sights of Penang. We started at the Penang Museum which showcases all of Penang's history. We learnt about the many different ethnic groups that have co-existed together for generations and it was nice to see how these communities have managed to merge together. It was clearly evident when walking around the tightly packed lanes and in between communities just how interlocked they are, for example it's not uncommon to have a Buddhist temple in little India and a Mosque in China town, it's just accepted and there are many religions including Muslim, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity.

After this information overload we walked over to the sea front and made our way across to the Padang (which is basically a park) overlooked by the Town Hall and City Hall. Both very European and it was clear to see how the British and European settlers made a big impact on many of the buildings in Penang today.

Next stop was the Pinang Peranakan Mansion (Pinang is not a typo) which once belonged to a 19th century merchant who did well for himself and led an elaborate life in Penang. It was an interesting place to visit but not what we would call a mansion, especially when we compare it to many other grand Palaces and other Mansions that we have visited on our trip so far. When we arrived we managed to walk straight onto a film set with an array of wires, lighting, cameras and actors dotted about the place. At one point we were starting to think we should have had a discount, after being asked to stay quiet and not go into certain areas 'for a while' ...... err we came to look around, not stand and wait, but hey it was quite cool watching the actors for a few minutes while we waited quietly (a difficult task for Sonya.

We dodged the rickshaws and made our way to China Town and visited Khoo Kongsi. The Khoo is a clan dating back 25 generations and a Kongsi translates to a Chinese clanhouse. Out of all the buildings in Chinatown this one is the most important to the community and has been the centre of China Town since 1906. When we arrived we noticed straight away how peaceful the place was even though it's situated right in the heart of China town's busy community. There were stone carvings that filled the entrance hall and they are proudly etched onto the stone pavilions which are meant to attract good luck and wealth. Once inside it was hard to miss the impressive murals that told stories of great weddings and birthdays. Although fairly similar to buildings we saw back in China it was worth the visit and we are glad we made the trip. On our way back to the jetty to catch the free tourist bus, we walked back through little India but took a slight detour to take a look at a Muslim Mosque called Masjid Kapitan Keling. Unfortunately we couldn't take a look inside, but if the outside is anything to go by, then we know that it would have been beautiful, as it was a stunning piece of architecture.

Day 2 - Penang Hill

Eventually bus 204 arrived and we headed in the direction of Kek Lok Si Temple and Penang Hill.

Lek Lok Si Temple

The temple is one of the most recognisable buildings and the largest Buddhist Temple in Malaysia. As we have found with many of the Temples that we've visited it can be a challenge to find the entrance with masses of shops that seem to congregate around the temple selling a wide range of merchandise, mostly not related in any way to the temple or religion. This was no exception as we had to walk through a maze of shops and stalls as we made the way up flight after flight of steps to the temple entrance.

The temple was more of a complex of buildings and was dotted with both large and small temples and some relaxing gardens where we went to escape from the crowds for a few minutes. Lek Lok Si Temple is the only temple we have ever visited that has an inclined lift to move people from the lower part of the hill to the upper. The upper part of the temple complex has the most recognisable statue at the temple, Kuan Yin a bronze statute which stands at an impressive 36.5m. We enjoyed the trip to the temple and we can see why it's such an iconic building in Malaysia.

Penang Hill

Our next destination was Penang Hill and our intention was to take the Funicular Railway to the top and then walk the 5.1 km down the trail to the botanical gardens, as recommended by Lonely Planet. When we arrived at the sales counter and asked the girl for 2 one way tickets to the top she seemed confused and stared at us blankly. Feeling more than a little confused at her response we went and double checked the board, which confirmed that one way tickets were in fact available. With this knowledge we asked her again only to be asked 'you only want to go one way?' At this point we both wanted to bang our heads against the counter in frustration, but thinking this would be rude we nodded and said 'yes please' at which point she finally gave us our tickets! We thought maybe she was just double checking because the majority of people buy the two way tickets which on reflection should have been a warning sign.

The ride up the funicular railway took about ten minutes and as we ascended the views of the city below got larger and larger it seemed much higher than 712m! After taking some lovely photos at the viewing points and wandering around for a while we started to search for the trail down but couldn't find it anywhere. In the end we resorted to asking somebody who told us 'there are no trails, only a road' and pointed to a steep winding road that definitely wasn't a forest trail :-( Lonely Planet if you are going to employ freelance reporters make sure they don't just make stuff up. This isn't the first and undoubtedly won't be the last time on our trip where things have been poetically written or just plain wrong.

After scratching our heads for a bit we decided to walk down the road as we really wanted to see the botanical gardens.

To say this road was steep was an understatement but we plodded on and although it was amusing to start with we soon stopped laughing when our legs felt like we had done a million squat's. As our descent got slower and slower we were passed by a man walking backwards (we kid you not) The expression on Sonya's face said it all! Just afterwards we rounded a corner to see a large group of wild monkey's and a large one jumping around on the back of a passing car. When it got bored it looked for somebody else to play with and headed right for us.... luckily for us the man walking backwards shook a stick at them and shouted loudly which scared them off. Who ever said they were cute animals haven't met this bunch! We eventually got down to the bottom of the hill in one piece after a tiring hour and a half. We headed straight for the botanical gardens only to walk straight into a big sign saying the gardens were shut.

Doh! and a few expletives....

We were not impressed, and nearly stamped our feet in frustration. The only positive being the bus we needed to get back into town was sitting and waiting for us.

Day 3 - Penang National Park

Conveniently bus 101 runs from near the hotel direct to the national park terminating just a short walk from the main gate. Easy, well it should have been if the bus didn't take a last minute diversion to drop some other passengers off, unfortunately we got off too thinking we had reached the end of the line. Grrr What should have been a short walk to the main gate turned into a 2km hike. Nevertheless we were not put off so when we finally arrived we chose our walking trail and headed into the wildernesses. We decided to go to Pantai Kerachut Beach also known as Turtle Beach via the tree top canopy walk. The first hour went by quickly as we enjoyed the views and being in the great outdoors. The tree top canopy walk was good and for just 5RM (approx £1) was outstanding value for money and was a highlight of the day.

After this the hike got harder and harder and 3km seemed more like 30km in the heat. We were more than glad to arrive at the beach and the thought of retracing our steps did not appeal in anyway shape or form.

The beach itself was picturesque but unfortunately due to the strong tides, swimming was not allowed and were no turtles to be seen roaming free either. There was evidence of recent turtle activity on the beach but we weren't lucky enough to spot any in the wild and had to resort to visiting the turtle research centre to see some tiny babies. They looked so cute and one day we hope to actually see them in their native environment.

The other unique thing at the beach was a meromictic lake. A lake that is fed by both salt and fresh water, which do not mix as they have different densities. Salt water is denser and falls to the bottom of the lake whereas the fresh water sits on top creating a unique eco-system. From a photo perspective it just looked like a murky lake. Apparently there are just 18 such lakes in whole world.

After spending approximately an hour on the beach both bracing ourselves for the marathon hike back we decided to try and charter a boat back to the entrance. The so called 'haggling' had to be the best we have ever done bearing in mind we never said a thing as we were prepared within reason to pay anything.

First quote: 90MYR for boat
Second quote: 100MYR per person

We decided to try and find some others to share the cost with as a boat turned up.

The price started at 80MYR for the boat but then he changed his mind and it went down to 60 which we agreed to. Some more people turned up and we headed off to Monkey Beach. After the beach drop off with just 4 of us left in the boat the price was renegotiated again and went down to 20MYR per person! Some of our best 'haggling' yet especially as we didn't even query the price once!

Hard Rock 47!

On the way back to George Town we stopped off at Hard Rock Café, the 5th of the trip so far and 47 to date, the big 50 is getting closer.

KL here we come

So next stop KL and then Singapore both of which are experiencing high levels of air pollution. Back in February we arrived in Beijing just days after the worst ever air pollution was recorded in history. Luckily it didn't affect our plans too much, we just hope the same goes for KL and Singapore as we have so much planned.

Ross Health Update

Just a quick note as a few people have been asking how Ross' leg is, it has healed but he does have a light scar which overtime we hope will fade. Secondly you might have noticed the lack of photos of Ross on the blog recently. This is due to him continuing to lose weight, unfortunately since his first op he has now lost over 15kg or in old money 2 stone 5lbs, a massive amount when he didn't have anything to lose in the first place! Although Ross' digestive problems seem to be stabilising they have not gone away, in addition the heat and the mystery bug we recently experienced both haven't helped. As Ross struggles to gain weight all we ask is please don't keep saying 'you've lost weight' or 'you need to put weight on' as it isn't that easy and the battle is becoming mental as well as physical. You wouldn't say the opposite to someone that has put weight on, so why do people speak without thinking. Rant over. Thanks it just makes things easier.

Ta Ta for now

Team Chip

Hotel Review

We stayed at Hotel Mingood in a double private. The hotel is too far from the ferry to walk especially with the lack of footpaths in George Town. A taxi cost us 12MYR or you can take the free CAT bus service to bus stop 7 or 8 and walk approximately 5 minutes. The hotel itself was dated and looked like nothing had been updated since it was built, however it was clean, everything worked well and most importantly it was reflected in the price. Our room had air-con, a TV, safe, fridge, private shower and bath and came with free breakfast and cost the same as shared bathroom facilities in a local hostel. The hotel could do with a refresh but it was more than adequate for our needs.


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