Sunday, 24 January 2010

Blog 2: Penang

Penang was fun. Here we were able to do some of the things we love to do in Australia but limit because of the cost. At $1 a game, we fitted in two games of indoor bowling most days. Huds was particularly thrilled because he scored his all time record of 174 and followed it up the following day with a 172.

Films were just $2 a seat so we saw 'Sherlock Holmes' (a definite thumbs up), 'Avatar' (enjoyed more by some family members than others) and 'The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus' (enjoyed by all but not fully understood by any.)

This is my $5 haircut.

We bought trousers and shorts for Huds at very good prices. However,these chocolate coated coffee beans were not so cheap but Huds could not resist buying them.

We have been giggling over such bits of Engrish as

Wellcome shocks (socks) sneaper (snapper) fork (pork)

but this really tickled Huds' funny bone

Our accommodation was in the middle of Chinatown, which was bustling with Chinese Malays. With the abundance of Buddhist and Hindu temples and a good scattering of Christian churches, one sometimes forgot we were in Muslim Malaysia, but the following sign was a reminder: Muslims using female masseurs will be reported.

Another notice—For Non-Muslims Only—was found in or alongside free religious books and publications in temples and even the doctor's surgery, and reminded us that proselytising Muslims in Malaysia is illegal.

In the street we came upon a game of Chinese Chess.

It is played on a 12 x 12 board, with 16 pieces each side, and in the same way as draughts except that:

• If a piece can take and doesn't, the opponent then removes that piece from the board.
• Once a piece becomes a king, it moves like a bishop on the chessboard, but is also able to change direction when it takes a piece. This means a king can wipe out many pieces in a single turn.

Huds was most impressed that some of the public buses have free Wifi.

On our first night there, the 27th of December, there was a street procession starting around 7pm and finishing around 11pm. I had listened to the pounding of drums for quite some town but couldn't convince anyone to come with me to look, because the guys were very tired after travelling from Denpasar to KL to Penang. I set off on my own but without my camera, because there were numerous signs at the hotel and in the shops warning of bag-snatchers on motorbikes and the news reported that crime was up 27% in Penang in the last year. The taxi driver had also warned us that the streets weren't very safe at night. Hence there are no pictures of the parade, but it was quite safe. This was a family event and all Penang's Chinese families were out to watch it. There were Chinese dragons, a female high school brass band and young guys carrying flagpoles four storeys high. Periodically they'd balance them on their foreheads or shoulders. If the pole fell, four to six young men in their cohort would run to catch it before it smashed into the crowd.

When out walking one afternoon we came across the ferry terminal. Ken, who loves boats, wanted to take the ferry across to the mainland but neither Huds nor I was overly interested. Later, I offered to take Ken on the ferry as his Christmas present. We went early in the morning, leaving Huds to sleep in, and arrived at 7:30 to find that ferries left every 12 minutes and were packed with workers and had the lower deck full of cars and motorbikes. And, it was free. We wondered why the cars would take the ferry across rather than the bridge. A taxi driver had said that it was to save petrol. Since the bridge is many kilometres from the traffic packed city, the toll is the same as the car ferry price and the ferry takes only 20 minutes to cross, we could see that taking the car ferry was indeed a good option.

We had to take Huds to see the sights we had seen 13 years ago.

The Snake Temple, where you are eyeball to eyeball with poisonous snakes before you have even registered that they are close by. Fortunately they are so snoozy they are not dangerous if you are sensible.

The reclining Buddha, which is just a very large piece of painted cement with beautifully painted toenails. Behind it are walls full of funerary urns dating back to the beginning of the century.

The famous Penang funicular, which is about to close once the school holidays end because it takes half an hour to reach the top and requires an inordinate amount of money to maintain. It is to be replaced by a 12 minute whizzer.

Since all of Malaysia (presently on school holidays) wanted to ride it before the new and probably expensive funicular appears, the wait to go up and the wait to return was extremely long. This is how Ken killed some of the time.

A new sight was the Keh Lok Si Temple.

Its 120 foot Buddha dominates the skyline. We climbed the 7-storey pagoda but for Huds, it was the 12 sculptures representing the Chinese years and the benches held up by animals which were most exciting.

Ken spotted this sign near the pond containing enormous fish.

The walk back was through a narrow, covered arcade with souvenir stalls on each side manned by fairly aggressive shopkeepers. But this is what caught our interest.

My favourite tourist destination was the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion. He was a merchant trader, a penniless teenager from China who went to Indonesia and built a financial empire on tea and coffee. He expanded to Penang and built this house for his favourite wife (out of 8).

Throughout his wealthy and influential life, he held concurrently nine ministerial positions for the Portuguese (Dutch East India company in Indonesia), English and Chinese. His mansion was a Feng Shui house with 220 windows to bring in the wind, an open courtyard to let in rain and built on a dragon's back that is built with a slightly sloping floor. It had a series of gently sloping gutters in the walls that kept rain moving around the house. A set of slow release drains below the house meant the water drained away very slowly. Cheong Fatt Tze believed we should manage wealth in the same way as he dealt with the water in his house, by letting it flow in, then holding it and dispensing it little by little.

To restore these ceramic motifs decorating the outside veranda, craftsmen were brought from China. The motifs are made from pieces of broken porcelain pots, each filed to fit.

Ken's ear was still bothering him. Fortunately there was an ENT very close to our hotel. The doctor discovered a large fungal infection which required six flushes to remove. He gave ear drops but said that he must keep the ear completely dry for 10 days. Ken was most disappointed because this means he will only be able to start swimming on the last day of being at Sharm-el-Sheik. He will get Dahab though.

The ENT told him some very interesting stories about the difficulties of providing ordinary people with affordable health care when things are taxed etc.

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