Pulau Penang, Malaysia
08.28.2007 32 °C
Getting from Pangkor Island to Georgetown, on Penang Island, was a simple 20 minute taxi-40 minute ferry-3 hour bus-20 minute ferry-10 minute taxi ride. Actually, it did seem fairly simple and fairly pleasant. We all snoozed on the (apparently) bug-free bus. We enjoyed the views on the ferry, particularly the large one that took us from Butterworth to Georgetown. Both are mid-size cities. It also afforded us a view of the 13.5 km causeway linking mainland Butterworth to Pulau (island) Penang. Our cabbie in Georgetown pointed out both colonial architecture and many, many hotels that would be better than the Hotel Mingood, where we'd asked him to take us. This seemed suspicious. Sure enough, the Mingood was just fine, our first actual hotel on the trip, and a bargain at about $30 Canadian per night, including a nice breakfast in their rooftop garden room.
That evening, however, we didn't notice much for dinner walking down Jalan Penang, and ended up at the mall beside the big communications tower. It was early for dinner, but our travelling had meant we'd missed lunch. We ended up at a pretty bland restaurant where the staff was ridiculously eager to please.
The next day, fortified by the complimentary breakfast, we were ready to see Georgetown in our only full day there. We had a brochure of a historical walking tour, and off we went. It was early, but already getting hot.
The distinctive blue wash of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
We examined the blue mansion (remember Indochine with Catherine Deneuve?), and paid our respects at a Hainan Temple (Chinese). Very elaborate and colourful. Anica said we should stroke the lion's paws for good luck. Was she making this up, or had she read it somewhere? We stroked the paws anyway.
Soon, the heat was getting to everyone. Walking for hours maybe wasn't the best idea for the day. The mantra became: get to the Fort.
Georgetown is as colonial in architecture as its name suggests. What's impressive, then, is not the originality or scope of the town hall, court, museum buildings, etc., but that they are found here on this island in Malaysia, which was very sparsely populated before the British claimed it. What was most impressive in the entire morning was the huge lizard (iguana? monitor?) we saw sunning itself on the rocks by the seashore. Think komodo dragon in size! Then it waddled off to - where else - a sewage culvert...
By high noon we'd reached Fort Cornwallis. We paid the nominal entrance fee and cooled down before exploring this legacy of Francis Light, where it all began for the Europeans on Penang. Mostly, it was fun stuff, like locking Anica in one of the cells, posing with the musket, strolling past the "wild" horses, hunkering down in the gunpowder magazine. But we did learn a lot about Light, including the matter-of-fact details about his slaves, and the interesting life of his Siamese wife. The first wedding in the fort's chapel was the wedding of Light's widow.
We took refuge from the heat at a hawker centre of food stalls beside the Fort. Just then we ran into a Belgian family from our hotel whom we recognized from breakfast. We got a nice big table and ate lunch together. Anica played with their little 3 year old girl. She only spoke Flemish, but their parents spoke very good English, and we traded travel tips and email addresses.
The afternoon couldn't possibly involve more walking in the heat, so I suggested a trip up Penang Hill on the funicular railway. This, too, turned out to be a hot and sweaty ride, and quite a lengthy process.
I forgot about Jenn's low-key fear of heights, but she managed admirably. The views of the island were magnificent. This "hill station" is at about a thousand metres above sea-level. It's a whole village at the top, starring the Macaque monkeys, but also including a Hindu temple, a Mosque, and some great lookout spots, of course.
And, it was cooler up there. The railway and many of the buildings date from the 1920s, when Penang Hill was a fashionable escape for Malaysia's F. Scott and Zelda set.
For dinner, we actually ate at a sit-down Indian restaurant that was entirely indoors. In other words, a touristry sort of place. Anica kept pointing out how many of the diners were white people. It was good food, though, and we did get to eat on banana leaves instead of plates, which was a nice nod to Indo-Malaysian authenticity.
Our final morning at the Hotel Mingood was spent taking advantage of the free wireless, reading, and waiting for our flight time. The employees were very nice, even giving Anica a piece of their Domino's pizza.