Sunday, 8 July 2012

Expressions of Penang (Pt 2 of 2)

June 15th - June 18th, 2012

We returned to Penang to take care of getting our Thai visas processed before entering the country.  We could have gotten a free 15 day tourist visa on arrival however were hoping for a 90 day multiple entry visa which would allow us to use Thailand as a 'home base' so to speak during the next few months. 

We arrived at the embassy in the nick of time, leaving our passports for a few hours as they processed our request; service and efficiency unheard of in past visa application experiences.  Unfortunately however, they informed us multiple entry was impossible.  They offered us a 60 day single entry visa to which I hesitated spending the RM110 on; the entire point being the allowance of multiple entries.  Not being one to stand there and argue with bureaucrats at the 11th hour, Julian pushed our passports through window to be processed anyway. 

We had a few hours to spare before picking our passports up later that afternoon.  After pausing at a local market for a suspiciously over-priced lunch, we stood before the gold, red and blue gates of Wat Chayamangkalaram;  a Siamese Buddhist temple home to the worlds third largest reclining Buddha.  

A gorgeous, traditional Thai temple lay just beyond the entrance of the gate boasting its red and golden pointed roofs which I anticipate seeing more when we travel north out of Malaysia into Thailand.  Removing our shoes and entering the first temple I stood before a large, gold plated statue of a standing Buddha.  He gazed down at me with intelligent eyes and knowing smile.  Devote worshipers knelt down on a thin carpet which covered the tiled floor with lotus patterns.  With burning incense in their hands, they bowed their head and raised their hands to their forehead presenting their offerings and prayers. 

Outside, in the elaborately painted courtyard glowing with shades of gold, red and blue, more shrines lead us to a large shallow pool filled with some of the largest Koi I have ever seen.  The signposts insisted shoes be removed here too and I felt my feet swell as I skipped across the surface of the ceramic floor, almost burning with the heat of the sun. 

Originally, in 1900, the main shrine was of Chinese structure which stood for 88 years before massive renovations became necessary.  Today, it is of traditional Thai Buddhist architecture, elaborately painted to match the rest of the grounds in the familiar golds, reds and blues.  Two large, green dragons approximately six meters in length greeted us before we passed through the main doors which were guarded by tall, brightly coloured warriors with exaggeratedly fierce facial expression.  Removing our shoes once more and entering the shrine we stood before the 33 meter gold-plated statue of the reclining Buddha;  a peaceful half-smile gracing its serene face, he lay on his right side with head resting in the palm of his hand.  Surrounding him, the wallpaper on the walls lay imprinted with golden figures of Buddha set within the royal blue while the legend of Buddhas life has been painted by skilled artists.  Behind the statue and beneath its 'bed' sit  hundreds of beautifully decorated urns containing the ashes of the devout and deceased inside niches on the walls. 

Time passed quickly and we realized it was time to pick up our passports.  I was thankful Julian agreed to take the 50 minute return trip journey back to the embassy alone as I sat in the shade of the rear gardens of the temple.  As he was gone, the heat penetrated me deeply, further intensifying my persistent headache and bringing waves of dizziness.  I lay on the grass until my skin began to itch fiercely.  I sat up to notice a red rash where I had been in contact with the grass as one of those red and black ants crawled up the back of my leg.  I unsuccessfully swatted it away as it pierced my skin, leaving me with a awful stinging sensation that stayed with me hours to come.  I went straight to the nearest toilets, grabbed the hose which was attached to the wall beside the toilet and drenched my hair, legs and arms in attempt to cool my overheated body.   Feeling beaten and bothered by persistent discomfort I headed for the small shop in search of something to cool me down from the inside out.  I found Julian laying back on a bench, ice cream in hand and worn look on his face.  He too had suffered on his walk to the embassy as I noticed the similar faint look on his face.  Passports and Thai visas successfully collected we retreated to the comfort of an air conditioned shopping mall and decided on spending this night in Malaysia in front of the big screen.  Surrounded by the cold, dark air in a modern multiplex we sat back to watch Men in Black III.

It was Julians turn to endure the hardships of traveling through developing countries.  He spent the night and following day keeled over a bucket in what appeared to be far more pain that I was in.   Either that, or I am just far better at being ill than he. (far more ill, but still not calling for an ambulance / priest…. ed)  Upon hearing Julian was ill our family in Taiping insisted we return and get out of the budget accommodation with no air conditioning.  Julian couldn't move though; I bathed him regularly with a wet towel as a heat wave still sat upon Malaysia. 

His illness passed far quicker than mine and he felt almost 100% by the next day with the exception of having no appetite.  After attempting a bowl of oatmeal we boarded a bus to visit the Snake Temple.
Walking up the stairs we entered the temple and stood before a shrine facing Buddha.  There was green snakes hanging off branches, a sign warning of their poison and not to touch.  I was not convinced however;   they lay motionless with a skin resembling plastic.  Unimpressed, I walked through the temple to another room to find a couple men guarding two large pythons.  Beside them inside a plexiglass cage were two more species; vipers and a albino constrictor.   Turning my attention to the pythons they offered the opportunity to hold then and get a picture taken for RM30.  Julian being a borderline professional there was no way I way paying that much for a picture to be taken of me and I politely declined, though secretly disappointed to have to turn down the opportunity to have one of these creatures wrapped around me.  I placed my hand on their scales, feeling their muscles rippling and waving.  Offering my hard towards his face, his tongue graced my skin as he smelled me.   When we were the only people in the room Julian finally asked if I might hold the python without having the photo taken and I was soon wrapped in three meters of constrictor. 

That evening as the sun set we visited the UNESCO World Heritage sight of the Clan Jetties. These extraordinary constructions reach out on stilts into the ocean. An entire community live under conditions that can only be described by the untrained eye as "precarious". The jetties were built by Chinese settlers over 100 years ago using (it appears) any materials they had to hand. Supported upon concrete piles a small shanty town holds a few dozen families still; many operating shops, guest houses and other businesses out of their premisses. Though now (with World Heritage status) a constant renovation program is under way to maintain and improve the structures, still some of the piles are simply stacks of paint cans filled with concrete, roofs are corrugated iron and rotting boards were being replaced as we passed. Most of the tourists seems to have gone by the time we walked the boards, leaving us to wander through this setting as the local people went about winding down their days and relaxing for a few hours as darkness fell.  Fishing boats were coming in from a day at sea,  a family worked together repairing their deck and housewives sat together on the boardwalk with cups of tea as they laughed together. 

After a bite to eat, we headed towards the Fort Cornwallis anticipating a martial arts performance we had found advertised in a leaflet, until we realized that it was in fact at 9:00AM rather than PM.  Disappointed, we kept walking and ended up in a pleasant evening stroll along the promenade, apparently where locals like to come in the evening with their children and eat their evening meal, fish, or walk along the coast as we were.  In no real rush, we gradually made our way through Georgetown itself, the former administrative centre for the British and also a UNESCO World Heritage site in its own right; the colonial architecture apparent in just about every building as we walked back through Little India and on to our accommodation in China Town. 

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