Friday, 29 June 2012

Expressions of Penang (PT 1)

June 7th - June 10th, 2012

Julian woke with one of the most impressive burn I have ever seen.  Not quite as good as my face after a day of skiing on Blackcomb Glacier but the white of his bum contrasting with the intense burn on his back amused me immensely (humph!… ed).  Unfortunately he will not allow me to post the photo but I'm sure you can picture what it would look like!  He winced as he swung his heavy pack onto his tender back and we trudged out of the jungle to Coral Bay to catch the first ferry off the Island - a mode of transport I would rather avoid after the 'land sickness' I experienced last night. 

The driver was nuts. He threw the boat over the waves at high speeds which effected my head and stomach in undesirable ways.  The American girl across the boat from us clung on to her seat with her eyes closed for almost the entire duration.  Having not eaten yet, I arrived back on the mainland feeling almost worse than I had the night before.  We were immediately accosted by eager cab drivers enquiring about our destination in hopes of being hired.  

We were driven to the main bus terminal in Jerteh to find that we had missed the morning bus to Penang having to wait for the evening one leaving at 2030hrs, some 11 hours later.  Hungry, frustrated and irritated Julian sought a ATM.  Relieved that the branch manager at Yellowknife CIBC had sorted our issues he was able to withdraw funds and brought me back a canned coffee drink.  A young muslim girl with a gorgeous smile and dancing eyes approached us and informed us in broken english, that a bus was to depart to Penang in an hour.  We eagerly followed her to purchase our tickets and leaving our bags in her charge, we headed off to find a late breakfast from a buffet style eatery in a covered square.  Our chef spoke no english and an eager young muslim man (having nothing to do with the operations of the business) approached explaining the dishes set out before us, ordered drinks, set up our tables and received our payment.  We ate in comfort and found we were left with just enough time to photograph the gorgeous town mosque across the street.  

Our bus appeared to be late (or regular tropical time) as one pulled in heading south. Concerned, a man waiting for this bus approached us asking where were going to ensure our bus was not about to pull out of the station.  The kindness we experienced from these people in Jerteh was infectious (even Julian has taken to offering help to random strangers!) and heartwarming.  The city itself, other than the mosque, was not all that attractive but the people made it beautiful experience and after the disillusionment of the impression left from Kecil, the restoration of faith in the Malaysian people was much needed. 

The 6 hour bus ride across northern Malaysia from the east side to the west, turned into the type of journey that I had been dreading.  Our enthusiastic bus driver insisted on keeping up with the cars as he twisted and turned the winding road though a mountainous jungle road blaring Malaysian radio which consisted, I believe, mostly of advertisements.   I am sure it was beautiful but I spent the entire journey with my eyes closed and head either between my knees or fully reclined battling an awful headache and waves of nausea.  He drove for 5 straight hours with no stops to use a toilet. Up and down the twists and turns of the mountains I retreated within myself desperate for some relief.   I stopped drinking fluids due to the fullness of my bladder and found that I was beginning to feel dehydrated and increasingly more ill.  Probably the most uncomfortably bus ride I have experienced I stumbled out of the bus, finally, in Penang. 

A very crowded bus took us to Georgetown and the main backpackers hub as we hunted for accommodation down the infamous Love Lane.  It was loud and crowded as reggae music pumped from one of the first hostels we came across. I had no intention of looking into this one further but a man ushered us in. I was relieved upon finding they were offering dormitory beds only, at a ridiculous RM30 (US$10!) per bed per night we left to a budget hotel across the street and down an alleyway at his suggestion.  The proprietor brought us up the stairs and showed us a  room on the second floor with a bed, desk, dresser, fan and en-suit wet room for which he was asking RM30, half what we would have paid for the dorm across the street.  Being down the alleyway there was little noise pollution which I imagine is close to impossible to find for this area.  Ideal!

Penang is famous for its street food and a huge amount of vendors line the full length of the streets in this area from Chinatown to LIttle India with a plethora of choices.  Noodles, rice, dim sum, soup, meats on sticks, fruit smoothies and juice bars.  Intensity, flamb√© and fabulous aromas came from the large steel woks as the vendors kept pace with the demand for dishes.  A husband and wife team worked efficiently together combining noodles, meat and bok choy.  We pointed and held up two fingers to indicate our choices, took our seats on the plastic patio furniture and were soon presented with a bowl of pork noodle soup which we attacked with relish, stimulated by the sights, sounds and smells of Penang. 

Following a somewhat uncomfortable sleep on a particularly hard bed we woke the next morning and caught a local bus to the largest Buddhist Temple in SE Asia.  Goodness was it ever hot out.  I am immediately drenched in sweat, avoiding the sun via every available awning, overhang or umbrella.  Once more confirming in my mind that -35C is far more comfortable than +35C and find myself daydreaming yet again of glacier fed streams.  I have been dealing with a persistent headache for a few days now which I just can't seem to be able to get rid of. 

We followed the busy streets, past the persistent and constant presence of street vendors calling out in attempt to interest the passing crowds in their wares up to the entrance of Kek Lok Si Temple (or "Temple of Supreme Bliss").  We ascended the stairs forced to follow hallways lines with stalls, up more stairs and down more hallways filled with a seemingly endless line of shops until we reach the first level of the temple; Liberation Pond.  An impressive collection of over 100 turtles of various sizes filled the pond waiting for passers by to toss some of the food available for purchase. A courtyard with a fountain, rocks with Chinese characters initially carved then painted in red, and a golden Buddha surrounded by red clay roofs. 

A series of more hallways and stairs led us through several large and elaborately decorated rooms for worship and prayer.  Statues of Buddha, four-armed Vishnu (Hindu)  and Chinese gods lined the walls and were engraved into the ceiling and tile work.  Intricate woodwork, often painted, complimented by series of red lanterns. Donation boxes stood at just about every statue and devoted people contributed to every one.  The constant opportunity to be parted with your money was available through every hall, every statue and every staircase.  Consumerism seemed, to me, to be the main theme of the experience which put things in a slightly disappointing perspective, however beautiful and elaborate the temple may be the price of a nations guilt can always be measured in cold hard cash. 

As we neared the upper terraces of the multi level temple built up the side of hill, we passed a 7 story white pagoda.  After passing through yet another gift shop, an inclined lift (for an additional charge) brought visitors to the upper most level of the temple where we stood before a 30 meter bronze statue of the Kuan Yin; the Goddess of Mercy. The statue lives in another recent structure, the Goddess of Mercy Pavilion; 20 stories tall, a 3 tier red and gold roof supported by 16 intricately carved granite pillars.  We rested in the shade of a Bodi Tree admiring a golden rooved water pavilion adorned with hanging red lanterns, standing above a pond with Koi of shimmering reds, yellows and golds. 

Of course, Julian HAD to photograph the Temple from the hill opposite rather than the car park where everybody else takes their shot so on our return to the bus we slogged up what appeared to be someones private terraced garden in the afternoon heat, through banana trees and pineapples until we stood some height above the lower levels of the temple. 

Sweat still streaming from my pours, my body was desperate for fluids and body salts to be replenished.  A road side stall offered the solution; bunches of fresh sugar cane were fed through a mangle and the machine squeezed the juices from its hard fibres and poured into a plastic bag to be enjoyed pure.  

Across the street two men discussed a live monitor lizard which one had brought bound to a board unable to move. Julian headed across the road to take a closer look and I was told in no uncertain terms not to photograph the scene. One man walked away down the street and the other took a few paces back. This was our first encounter with the illegal trade in exotic animals and it was in broad daylight in a busy market street below one of Penangs most popular tourist attractions.  Not entirely sure how to process this strange scene.

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