My Unprepared Trip to Penang, Malaysia

(October 2006) 

Visiting Penang is totally a last-minute idea. The trip wasn’t determined until four weeks before I set out. I wasn’t sure I could make it because there wasn’t much time left for me to do research and make logistics planning. However, despite all difficulties, I arrived at Penang, the “Treasure of the Orient,” an island off the northern part of the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

On my first visit to Malaysia, I had heard about Penang. The postcard stands I went to in Malacca and Kuala Lumpur showed beautiful pictures of Penang. From then on, I said to myself, I would visit Penang next time if I ever came back to Malaysia. And two years later, I was able to return to this amazing country. Penang is one of Malaysia’s main tourist draws. In the early years of British rule, the immigrant races of the Chinese, Indians, Thais, Burmese and Achinese flocked to Penang to make it their permanent home. These people, together with the local Malays, have given Penang a rich culture and unique multicultural history. My understanding to Penang grew day by day during my stay. I was a bit surprised to see the great Chinese influence in this city.

It is not unusual to find Malay Chinese being able to speak Cantonese, Hakka or Mandarin. The largely Chinese population takes up 65% of the total of Penang. Chinese signs and billboards are easy to find. In addition to that, the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, Kek Lok Si, is in Penang, too. The seven-tiered Pagoda of a Thousand Buddha is a unique combination of Sino-Thai-Burmese architecture — the base is Chinese while the middle tiers are Thai. The spiral dome is of Burmese origin. Not far away there is a “Pond of Longevity” home for hundreds of tortoises set free by devotees.

Apart from Kek Lok Si, I also visited Penang Hill on my second day. I guess I chose the wrong time to take the longest funicular train in Southeast Asia. As the tour guide said, the train cart can take seven or eight Malays but only four or five westerners. That’s why the train is so easy to get packed!!! I almost had to stand on my tip toes at the corner — even worse than on the bus in Canton!!! Anyway, once you get on the peak of Penang Hill, you will have a spectacular bird’s eye view of Georgetown, the capital of Penang. You will see the Penang Bridge from a distance, too. It is Asia’s longest bridge and the third longest in the world, connecting Penang Island to the mainland. I was lucky to see the blue sky and white clouds at the summit. It’s refreshing when cool air brushing again my face.

On the third day I went to the downtown of Georgetown. I spent most of my time at Komtar, the most conspicuous landmark of urban Penang. With 64 storeys, Komtar is the tallest building in Penang. I don’t know why I like shopping so much when I am traveling. Besides walking around the mall inside Komtar, I also shopped around the “Night Street” just in front of the hotel I stayed. Actually I took a little walk at the “Night Street” almost every night after supper. It’s certainly a good exercise to lose weight for both your body and your wallet. You can buy all sorts of goods, from souvenirs to clothes, at the “Night Street.” The pirated CDs and VCDs attracted the most Australians customers. Every night I saw many big fat blondies overcastting the video stands. I also got a few though. It was fun to bargain with the vendors. I assumed they could recognize I was from China through my bargain.

On the fourth day I took a city tour to get a better idea of Penang. I didn’t prepare much for the trip but a series of spontaneous questions to the drivers. On the way from the hotel to downtown, we passed by some public housing to the tsunami survivors who are mainly fishermen living by the sea. The State Museum provided us a better and more detailed picture of the past of Penang. The multicultural history of Penang is unbelievable, especially the Chinese influence. Here comes a long name which is quite difficult to remember — the Wat Chaiyamangkalaram, which houses one of the world’s largest reclining Buddha (33 meters). The entrance of this place is very glorious with golden wall and colorful figures and dragons. On the opposite of the street is a Burmese temple. Also, everything inside the temple to me was glittering in the sun. I am not quite a Buddhism type so I didn’t worship in front of the big Buddha but appreciating the architectural style of the entire building. One thing quite different from the temple in China is you have to take off your shoes to enter any temple in Penang while you don’t need to do so in China. Strange!

We went to the pier to see the vast sea and have a closer look at the Penang Bridge. I even had a chance to see how people live on the wooden houses built just above the bank of the sea. The setting of the houses is like those in Scandinavia. Of course, you won’t miss the colonial influence in Penang. Our bus passed by Fort Cornwallis and the St. George Church. What impressed me the most on this trip was taking a trishaw ride in the Chinatown neighborhood. I felt like going back to Old China when surrounded by old Chinese buildings. Little India is a fun place, too. I happened to see how the local Indians preparing for the coming Indian festival which needs lots of pretty decorations of vibrant colors. And I got a chance to see how Indians having meals with their RIGHT HAND!!! Totally a new experience!!!

Although this trip is kinda play by ear, I am content that I could relax myself in the company of boundless sea and rhythmic waves; that I could learn something about how overseas Chinese live; and above all, to experience a completely different culture from where I come from. I had a good time!!!

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