A Tropical Day on the Island

Today we have hired a driver to take us out past Batu Ferringhi to see a couple of sites that are less easy to get to.  Mouy introduces himself to us, saying in dutch his name means ‘beautiful’.  And he does have a beautiful personality.  At 68 years old, Mouy prefers to spend his time working for Tour & Incentive Travel company doing airport transfers and driving tourists to points of interest around the island.

The views as we drive up the coast and along past Batu Ferringhi is stunning.  Crystal turquoise waters contrast against the brilliant green tropical jungles and blue sky.  The road is long and winding and its nice that Muoy takes his time.

The road to Batu Ferringhi
The road to Batu Ferringhi

Our first stop for the day is the Tropical Fruit Farm.  Built to preserve Malaysia’s green heritage, the farm has planted all types of local fruits as well as fruits from around the world.  Its 25-acres of more than 250 types of tropical and sub-tropical fruits.  First up we are given a guided tour of the farm, learning about the different fruits grown here.  Some are intriguing and it was a surprise to see how some of them actually grew.

A sampling of different fruits for sale
A sampling of different fruits for sale
This is how Durians grow!
This is how Durians grow!

After the tour, we are shown to a buffet of fruit – all sliced and ready to go.  A nice selection of pink and white guava, starfruit, passionfruit, mango, papaya, longons, pineapple, dragonfruit and watermelon.  I’m particularly taken with the longons.  It was a great opportunity to try fruits you may have seen in the shops and thought twice about and it made a refreshing break from the heat.

My fresh fruit platter
My fresh fruit platter

Back on the road, our next stop is at the Butterfly Farm.  The Butterfly Farm was opened in 1986 March, and is presumed to be the first butterfly house in the Tropical Region.  It was set up as a ‘living museum’ to educate the public as well as a research centre to develop breeding methods.  There are over 1000 recorded butterfly species in the Malay Peninsular, among the highest of any country in the world in relation to her small land mass.

Butterflies seated on Malaysia's national flower - the red hibiscus
Butterflies seated on Malaysia’s national flower – the red hibiscus

Apart from the bevy of futtering wings, there are also koi fish, an iguana, stick insects, millipedes and centipedes.  At one point I turned around and one of the guides was holding the largest stick insect I have ever seen, just inches from my face.  “She’s very cranky!” she warns.  Right, well, best you remove her from my face then!

Muoy drops us at the Tropical Spice Garden and this is where we say our goodbyes, deciding to find our own way back to Georgetown, now that our five hours is over.  It has been a really good way to get around the island.  Muoy was very informative and helpful and it was nice and relaxing not having to worry about how to get somewhere, because the island is definitely bigger than you think it will be.  I’d definitely recommend hiring a driver for anyone wanting to visit the island.

Tropical Spice Garden is situated in what was once an abandoned, rubber plantation along Penang’s north-western shores.  Work on-site took 1½ years to complete, and involved the major challenge of harmonising over 500 species of tropical flora with the natural valley fronting the Straits of Malacca.  It was crucial to preserve as much of the original indigenous flora and fauna while maintaining the original topography of the site to give the Garden a timeless, natural feel.  Many of the existing rubber trees were left undisturbed, to give shade and shelter to visitors.

Lily pond
Lily pond

You have to hand it to the Garden.  During development, they utilized mainly natural and recycled building materials salvaged from pre-war shop houses or sourced from local antique stores.  It uses only organic fertilizer and integrated pest control methods to limit the negative impact on the cycle of life, and they recycle.  They also make it a point to deal with smaller local vendors and traders to support their businesses and share the success.  Really great to see.

After looking around and a spot of lunch at Tree Monkey, the onsite restaurant, we decide to catch the local bus back to Georgetown.  They run every 10 minutes (ahem, half hour).  Just almost out of Batu Ferringhi, the bus is over loaded with young boys, who look as they they’ve been celebrating Songkran, the Thai water festival.  We were intending to stay on in Batu Ferringhi for dinner, but I’ve started feeling under the weather.  And looking at the traffic coming up the hill, it looks as though BF is going to be busy tonight, which could mean a nightmare to get home later.  The bus seems to take forever, and doesn’t seem to start emptying out till we are back in Georgetown.

But we are finally home at the hotel and ready to pack our bags because tomorrow we are off to Langkawi bright and early.

Monkey Cups and a Second Chance

Apparently the coolest place to visit in Penang is Penang Hill.  Literally.  With an elevation of 833m above sea level, Penang Hill is one of the oldest colonial hill stations.  It was established by the British during their time in Malaysia. Explored in the late 18th century, a horse trail was cut by the Waterfall Gardens to the summit of the hilly spine of Penang, allowing the British to escape from the chaos of George Town to the cooler climate on the hill.  The earliest mode of transport to the hill was via horses, or a system called ‘doolies’, where masters were carried up the hill on special sedan chairs.  Carried by four porters by transferring the load onto their shoulders, the trip up the hill could take at least a few hours!

Feel sorry for the poor guys who had to lug someone up the hill on this thing!
Feel sorry for the poor guys who had to lug someone up the hill on this thing!

The Penang Hill Funicular Railway was the second mode of transport established for access to the summit. The first railway was constructed in 1901 and completed in 1905 but was rendered useless, due to technical faults. A second railway was commissioned in 1909, and works for the second line started in 1914 with a budget of 1.5 million Straits Dollars. On 1st January 1924, the 2,007m long funicular railway was officially opened by then Governor of Straits Settlement, Sir L.N.Guillemard.  It’s a steep ride to the top of the hill, but its quick, taking only 7 minutes or so.

The steep road to the top!
The steep road to the top!

Situated on one part of the hill is Monkey Cup – a special garden dedicated to the monkey cup and other such carnivorous plants.  A monkey cup is so named because monkeys drink rainwater out of them.  Its carnivorous due to the fact that the plant contains a syrup which attracts prey, and then the lid closes in to trap it.  There are about 120 species of monkey cup, so we have only had a glimpse of a few today.

One of many species of Monkey Cup
One of many species of Monkey Cup

Penang hill also houses the Owl Museum, home to all sorts of different owls – ceramic, glass, wooden, plastic – you name it, it’s here.  All shapes and sizes.  For RM10 and not being an owl fanatic myself, I would have to say it was overpriced.  It’s just as well we got our value out of the day by walking around the hill exploring.

Colourful owls
Colourful owls

There are numerous bungalows dotting the hillside – some ghosts of their former selves, some still inhabitated.  It’s quite eerie to look at the shells of some of these buildings and imagine the past.  The bungalows were built by Europeans and some rich Chinese tycoons.  It was mainly British Officers that made their homes on Penang Hill, often seeking convalescence from the malaria plagues lowlands.  Some of the bungalows have faired better than others and still quite beautifully along the hill.

Deceased estate
Deceased estate

Heading back to town and seeing as this afternoon is ever so slightly cooler than yesterday, we decide to chance visiting a few of the spots we missed yesterday.  So we jump in a cab and head to the Khoo Kongsi Temple.  I am so glad to get a second opportunity to come and see this building because it is stunning beyond words.  It glitters with extravagance – colourful lanterns, gold bas relief and stone insets tell stories of all sorts

Absolutely stunning!
Absolutely stunning!
One of many lantersn
One of many lanterns

Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi (Khoo Kongsi for short) is one of the most distinctive Chinese clan associations in Malaysia, with the clans lineage going back 650 years!  And although there is a network of clan buildings, it is the magnificent clan house that you need to see.

Even The Alley is open this time.  The Alley is a little café that has become popular for its churros.  I’ve not eaten them before because I consider them as deep fried sticks of fat.  But I’m on holidays, so I figure I’ll use the opportunity to test the theory.  My small serve, which consists of 4 sticks and costs RM6 (approx. $2) comes with salted caramel dipping sauce.  The first bite tells me my theory was right so I’m not quite sure what everyone raves about, but I’m glad to have been able to find out for myself.  Plus the place was airconditioned to let Mum cool down a bit before our next bit of walking.

The Alley's churros with salted caramel dip
The Alley’s churros with salted caramel dip

After the churros we catch the CAT bus for a stop or so until we come to Fort Cornwallis.  There’s not much to see, but it was built by the British East India Company in the late 1700s and it has never been engaged in battle.

The waterfront
The waterfront

Running behind the fort and along for a bit is the Esplanade.  When Francis Lights boys arrived here, rumour has it that Francis fired gold coins into the bush to incentivise the locals to clear it.

For dinner tonight, we decide to head to Thirty Six, which is Penang’s only revolving rooftop restaurant.  It also happens to be owned by the same restaurant people that run Beach Blanket Babylon.  They have a buffet (not another one!) of local Penang dishes and the best view in town.  The food is pretty good, but the winner has to be the icecream!

Food with a view
Food with a view

It’s been a long day and an absolute killer on the feet – hope I can walk tomorrow!

The Blue Mansion and Other Assorted Mishaps

The morning dawns foggy and warm, but its still a relief to get some fresh air out on the balcony.  Airconditioning just annoys me after not long because I have to work in it all day.  I crave fresh air.  From the balcony you can get quite a good view.  The ocean, which seems to blend seamlessly with the sky, little fishing boats dotting the shoreline and the ruins of buildings from a past era, silently rotting away.

Ghosts of eras past
Ghosts of eras past

Breakfast is an international buffet at Sarkies Restaurant and there’s all sorts on offer – waffles, eggs all styles, breads, cereals, fruit, noodles, dim sum, greasy bacon, sausages and hash browns – even quiche and german sausage.  And of course, pastries.  Plus fresh juices – which you can design for yourself, or which they will concoct for you.  It’s not hard to eat your fill in a very, very short time.

It’s time to explore Georgetown. Get out amongst it and soak up the flavour.

More or less around the corner from the hotel is the Cheong Fatt tze Mansion.  Cheong Fatt Tze, who was quite the land-hopping jetsetter for his time, maintained mansions in Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, besides the one in Penang.  Although each reflected his high station in life in, it appears that this one was his favorite.  The Blue Mansion was certainly the most elaborate.

The Blue Mansion
The Blue Mansion

The Mansion’s construction began before the end of the 19th Century, and it was said that he had hoped to house nine generations of his descendants there.  Artisans were shipped in from Southern China for the project and building materials were imported from as far away as Scotland.  Unfortunately you need to take guided tours through the mansion and they are scheduled at 11.00, 1.30 and 3.00 – which it is nowhere near.  But from our view behind the gates it certainly looks as though it would have been worth it. Around the corner in Penang Road we manage to locate the free cat bus stand.  There’s no timetable or way of knowing how frequently they run.  So after about fifteen minutes we decide to brave the heat and walk for a bit.  The streets are quietly bustling with cars, trishaws, motorbikes, sellers and buyers and a host of homeless dogs.

The cooler way to get around, literally...
The cooler way to get around, literally…

At Campbell Street we turn left.  This street began life as a red light district, and then one of the most important shopping areas for local Penangites.  Now most of the shops have been taken over by retailers.  A little way down is Love Lane.  Whilst there’s some conjecture over how its name was arrived at – perhaps after a British officer named Love, the site for brothers frequented by sailors and soldiers or after the self-flagellation procession staged by Shiite muslims in the early 19th century, it certainly is a lovely little street to stroll down.

The entrance to Campbell Street from Penang Road
The entrance to Campbell Street from Penang Road

Coming across Chulia Street, I hope to find a local jewellery store called Laconic.  Laconic make contemporary pieces, many studded with Swarovski crystals and I was taken with some of the pieces I saw when reading about Laconic.  A piece from here would make a perfect reminder of my time in Penang.  But I can’t find it anywhere.

It’s really quite humid today and I can feel rivers of sweat trickling down my front and back.  Looking at Mum, I can see she’s struggling, so its probably time to find some airconditioning.  No problems, I read about a cool little café that should be right around here.  Ah, yep there it is – CLOSED!

I decide to give up plans to explore the rest of Georgetown today – Khoo Khongsi, the Weld Jetty, the Esplanade, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.  It’s disappointing, but nothing is going to plan today so I should quite while I’m ahead.  Perhaps another chance will present itself.

It’s probably best to heard to Gurney Drive, and go shopping at Gurney Plaza, a nice big airconditioned mall.  Laconic is supposed to have another store here but its not listed on the store directory board.  Almost ready to give up on finding this jeweler, we stop in at Dome for lunch (only because we can’t find sandwiches anywhere else), and thank goodness because they have wifi and I’m able to track down Laconic’s store details.   Refreshed, its up to the 5th floor for one last look and there it is.  The shop is fairly dark, which makes it a little difficult to see the pieces in their full glory.  I see several pieces that are awesome, but there’s one in particular that catches my eye.

My new piece
My new piece

For some reason when I looked at it, it reminded me of some kind of art work featuring Peranakan flowers, so that was the piece that will be coming home with me.  There are a lot of pendants to choose from (as well as rings, bracelets and earrings), and then selections of chains for you to purchase separately, perfectly customising your piece.

Back at the hotel, its dinner time.  At Sarkies.  The Sarkies Brothers were a group of brothers of Armenian hnicity, best known for founding a chain of luxury hotels throughout southeast Asia (think Raffles).  Born in Persia the brothers were Martin, Tigran, Aviet and Arshak Sarkies.  Tonight the Sarkies are hosting a Wine and Dine Buffet. About $60 for a medley of gourmet delights and free flow of wine and beer, the Sarkies put on a generous spread.  The stand out of the night would have to be the Penang Char Kway Teow – the best I’ve ever tasted – the noodles just like silk.  And of course the miniature sized cakes – such a shame I couldn’t find room for the chocolate pudding!  I think I don’t want to see any food for a while now – well at least until tomorrow morning!

Sarkies Delights
Sarkies Delights

The Tale of Betel Nut Island

This morning has shown me one of the most beautiful skies I’ve ever seen in flight  Beautifully clear, slowly leaving Perth behind, the sun is just rising in a vibrant wash of red, orange and pink.  And then climbing into a landscape of clouds.  I’ve never seen anything like it – they weren’t just clouds – there were lakes and mountains and waterfalls hanging in the clouds.  And no, I haven’t started drinking yet.

DSC08938
See! Those are mountains for sure!

I start off my flight movie marathon by choosing 47 Ronin, cause let’s face it – it’s been a while since I’ve seen Keanu Reeves in anything.  It’s a Japanese period drama, a tale of love and courage, about a half caste boy who grows up among samurai in Ako.  The Lord of Ako dies, leaving his samurai leaderless, or ronin, and they join forces to seek revenge for the death of their master.  The costumes and scenery are just amazing and I quite enjoy the movie, except for the animated bits about demons and make believe jungle creatures (but I’m not a computer generated graphics fan in any case), but poor Keanu just looks so sad throughout the whole movie.  It was hard to tell whether he was acting or is just that miserable in his real life.  Come here Keanu – I’ll give you hug, cheer you up a bit!

For movie number two, I flit around a bit from channel to channel, instead of doing what I just should have done straight away – and that’s choose Dallas Buyers Club.  As a result I don’t get to see the ending before we land at Changi Airport, but what I did see was really good.  Matthew McConnaughy’s skeletal frame is terrifying.

We only have about an hour until our transit flight to Penang takes off, so its not long til we are on our way again.  The flight is full of bumpy moments and we land with such a thud that I’m sure our plane has bounced off the tarmac and is going to have to try again, but we have made it.  Coming into the airport you can straight away seen the lush greenery of the island.

Coming in to and from the south of the island.
Coming in to and from the south of the island.

Our luggage arrives with us (yay!  Always a good thing!) and our transfer from Tour & Incentive Travel is waiting for us.  He’s a very friendly guy and he uses my name whenever he speaks to me.  As we drive to the north east point of the island, he tells us bits and pieces about the island.

Penang was originally called Pulau Pinang, loosely translated as Betel Nut Island – the name coming from the abundance of betel nut palms scattered across the sandy beaches.  Penang was born when English captain Francis Light persuaded the Sultan of Kedah to cede Pulau Pinang to the British East India Company.  In 1786, he landed on what is known today as the Esplanade and fired gold coins into the surrounding jungle to induce his men to clear the area.

In 1832, Penang formed part of the Straits Settlement with Malacca and Singapore.  The Penang maritime port was among the busiest in the region, attracting rich merchants involved in the lucrative trade of tea, spices, porcelain and cloth.  Settlers and fortune-seekers from the all over called Penang home and it was from this interesting mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Siamese cultures that Penang became a melting pot for hybrid communities – the most famous being the Baba Nyonya, Jawi Peranakan and Eurasians.

It remained under British colonial rule for more than a century until Malaysia gained independence. George Town was accorded city status by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, becoming the first town in the Federation of Malay – after Singapore – to become a city.  Georgetown was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

Streets of Penang
Streets of Penang

Before we know it (about half an hour though), we are pulling up to the imposing white façade of the Eastern and Oriental Hotel – our home for the next four nights.  We are staying in Georgetown, because to me, why would you stay anywhere else but at the iconic E&O?  Well anyway, I had always imagined the E&O hotel when I thought of Penang, so we are here.  She’s a grand old colonial dame, a flashback to British stuffiness, garden parties, elegant marble and stunning architectural features.  Part of our amazing accommodation deal is the lure of complimentary evening drinks and snacks in the Planters Lounge, fresh fruit, breakfast, complimentary water and softdrink and free wifi (in ALL areas of the hotel).

The E&O
The E&O

The hotel lobby is extravagant.  The wide hallway corridors of the hotel are lined with prints of Georgetown’s heritage and the wooden floors – well, they make me sound like a pony!  (cue coconuts banging together to produce hoof sound).

Our room, sorry – miniature apartment – is 55 square meters of colonial luxury.  A marble bathroom housing a claw foot bath, flanked by a massive shower with the most awesome shower head I’ve ever seen, beautiful furnishings – a reading chair, a good sized writing desk, a balcony with two wicker seats and views to the Malacca Strait, across past Gurney drive and then glimpses of Georgetown.

View of Georgetown behind the hotel
View of Georgetown behind the hotel
The view from our balcony.
The view from our balcony.

After unpacking though, its time for our daily drinks, so on the way to the Planters Lounge, we stop in to check out the gym, with its horrible view of the ocean, and the infinity pool.  The daily drinks session incudes red or white wine, local beer, vodka, gin, whisky or Bacardi, soft drink, tea, coffee, juice or water washed down with cold meats, cheese, crackers, bread, fruit and a different array of little local snacks – quite a good spread for free.

Given its been such a long day, we opt for a quiet night and decide to walk down the road to see if we can locate a place called Beach Blanket Babylon that I read about.  Its supposed to be right around the corner, but the door men have never heard of it.  We decide to try our luck anyway and are rewarded when we walk right around the corner and there it is.  Just like it was supposed to be.  It’s amazing how advertising can give you a different picture and vibe of the place you are looking at.  BBB is a lot more rustic than the world wide web showed it to be.  But its quaint, the staff are friendly, and the views across the Malacca Strait are gorgeous as the sun goes down.

Taking a table on a little deck overlooking the water, we peruse the menu with its array of local and western dishes and happy hour from 11am to 8pm.  Good opportunity to try out a few of their cocktails I reckon.  We order a couple of dishes to share – char kuey tow and something else I’m sorry to say I can’t remember the name of!  But they are both really good, but really, really spicy.  Its nice to sit here with the breeze blowing against our faces, watching the sunset.  After a quick walk around the streets, we are now good and ready for bed so we can start exploring Penang tomorrow.