We chose to travel to the island (Pulau) Penang by bus from the Cameron Highlands because the trip up had been so comfortable. Unfortunately, the Unititi Bus Company does not run on the route to Penang so we were forced to use a different company and the buses were not so luxurious. We were comfortable enough, but the bus itself was a little worse for wear.
We descended on winding roads through the hills to a major city called Ipoh. The bus station there was a little grim, but then so is the Greyhound Bus Station in Edmonton. After a short break we headed out onto the toll-way towards the coast. Anil was under the impression that the trip would take only about four hours, but in the end it was closer to six. He was getting a little bit cranky, and it didn't help when the driver told us that the new bus station was not in Georgetown, but far from the city center and we would be better off getting off the bus at the ferry and taking it across to the jetty, instead of staying on the bus and crossing to the island by bridge. The channel is 3 km wide where the ferry crosses and the bridge further south is reputedly the longest in South East Asia.
The ferry ride was quick and comfortable, it reminded us of the Star Ferry ride in Hong Kong and it was nice to have the fresh air and to approach Penang after dark with all the city lights along the coast. We walked along Jalan Chulia towards Jalan Penang to find a room at the modern Cititel Hotel. We were lucky to find a room as it is the beginning of a two-week school holiday and there are tons of vacationers in town. The hotel is modern and very comfortable. But I found it to be rather soul-less. I miss being able to open a window for fresh air, hear birds singing in the mornings and to get to know the staff like we have experienced in smaller guesthouses. However, we do have a great view of the sea and the sunrise from the 18th floor. One very interesting thing to note at our hotel; each room had a special mark on the ceiling to let Muslims know the direction of Mecca.
Penang has a long history as one of the oldest of the British Straits settlements in Malaysia, founded when Captain Frances Light stepped ashore in 1786. Georgetown, the capital of Penang, is a largely Chinese city, and is often referred to as Penang. It has a Chinatown larger than that of Singapore or Hong Kong and efforts are being made to preserve its old-world feel. There are streets lined with shop houses, trishaws
(rickshaws for two passengers) and ancient trades such as seal-making and carpentry, still to be found. There is also a thriving Little India adjacent to Chinatown and it is easy to discern the boundary as one moves from sari shops and tandoori restaurants to Chinese medicine shops and elaborate Chinese temples lining the streets.
The air is warm and humid but there is a refreshing breeze blowing in off the sea and the heat does not feel nearly as oppressive as it did in Kuala Lumpur. We still use our umbrellas to shade us as we walk, or keep us dry during the afternoon showers, but we do not wilt under a blast of hot, damp air when we emerge from the air-conditioned buildings. The nights are lovely but the city seems to shut down early. Not a problem for us as we tend to settle in early ourselves.
Our first morning, we headed out to wander in the narrow lanes and came across the Cheong Fatt Tse Mansion. Tours are given each day at 11:00 am and it was just approaching that time. We jumped at the opportunity to view this historic home, built in the 1880s. I have always loved the movie Indochine
, starring Catherine Deneuve, and this mansion was used for some of the settings in the movie. Cheong Fatt Tse was a penniless teenager when he left China but was shrewd enough to develop trading partnerships with the Dutch and eventually built a vast financial empire that earned him many honours and the nickname, "Rockefeller of the East". Like most wealthy overseas Chinese, he competed to build the most impressive home he could afford. The architecture is a blend of Eastern and Western influences using feng shui
as a guide. The mansion was awarded the UNESCO Heritage Conservation Award in 2000 and restoration work still continues. We were not allowed to take photographs inside the building and only the central courtyard and rooms were part of the tour as the mansion serves as a Bed and Breakfast for appreciative guests. The tour guide was excellent, pointing out features of the mansion that we would otherwise miss and explaining how so much of the architecture aligns with the principals of feng shui
Another afternoon, we boarded the local bus to travel the 14 km to the beach at Batu Ferringhi (Foreigner's Rock). This is the way that local commuters have to travel and I like to get a taste of life in the places we visit. We knew that the beach along the north coast of Penang is nothing special, but it was a way to pass the time and see a little of the island outside of Georgetown. The beach is clean and the sand is fine but even the Malaysians don't seem to come here to spend time. There were only a couple of families in the water and the cafes along the beach were deserted. Anil had a fresh coconut and I had a cold drink and then we boarded a bus to take us back to the city. We were surprised to see the rampant development along the coast; dozens of luxury high rise buildings are being built. It seems the whole world is on a building spree and even here the middle class is emerging as a powerful force to be reckoned with.
On May 30th we went for an early evening walk through the streets of Chinatown, just outside our hotel. It was a different place at night; we could see into the small businesses along the narrow streets and the temples were all lit up with lanterns and strings of coloured lights. Suddenly, I looked up and saw the moon rising - it was a Blue Moon
. We use this expression to describe something rather rare, but there is an explanation behind the name. A blue moon is the name given to the second full moon in a single month. In this month, there was a full moon on May 2nd and Anil proudly announced to me that there would be a blue moon at the end of May because there were more than 28 days remaining in the month. He was so excited. That's the scientist/teacher in him still coming out.
We ended up extending our stay in Penang an extra couple of days because Anil continued to have tummy problems. I was at the point of taking him to a doctor when he began to feel better. It was a bit of a low point, because there was no "room at the inn" due to the holidays and it appeared that there were no seats available on FireFly flights to Langkawi either. I worried that the holidays would mean limited places to stay in Langkawi even if we were able to get there. However, on Friday morning we headed out to look for a guesthouse and a wonderful woman at the Green Cafe told us of a brand new guesthouse nearby, the Hutton Lodge. They had a room for the night, the travel agent found seats for us on the flights we preferred, and to top it all off, we managed to get a booking at the Tanjung Sanctuary Resort. It has its own private beach, a swimming pool, and states that "we will stay in luxury in harmony with nature". Their website tells it all. Visit Tanjung Sanctuary
Suddenly, our spirits were lifted and all seemed right with the world again. Anil commented that the visit to the Hindu Temple in Tanah Rata finally paid off.