Malaysia travel- Exploring Penang

Penang, Malaysia
Penang might be a small island* off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, but it is probably the country’s most popular destination to visit. Penang boasts a lot of heritage architecture, great street food, a mountain, and a small but pleasant national park on its northwestern coast. Penang was one of the British Empire’s former Straits Settlement, and its capital George Town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which it shares with Malacca, another former Straits Settlement. With almost 40% of its population being Malaysian-Chinese, Penang has the highest proportion of Chinese in Malaysia and is one of the country’s most multicultural places.

The capital George Town has an extensive heritage district that boasts many historic colonial buildings including a fort, Chinese temples and halls, shophouses, churches, mosques, and mansions. This is similar to Ipoh, the inland city which was my previous stop on this trip, though much more extensive. Some of the buildings have been restored and look very new while those that had not still have a sort of old-time charm.

There are also several murals in various buildings, with the most well-known painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic (I only came across two or three of them but I wasn’t actively searching for them). Popular with tourists, Zacharevic painted them in 2012 for the George Town Festival. My favorite mural, the “Indian Fisherman,” was painted by another artist.

One of the most well-known sites is the Clan Jetties, several long waterfront piers along which entire Malaysian-Chinese clans live. I found several of them quite touristy with gaudy signs and lots of souvenir stalls, but there were also a couple of quiet ones. To be honest, I found the view of the sea from the end of the jetties more interesting than the actual jetties. As people actually live there, remember to be respectful when walking around and taking photos.

One notable piece of Chinese history in Penang is the Sun Yat-sen Museum, the preserved house where the Chinese revolutionary Sun, often considered the “father of modern China,” lived for several months in 1910. While there, he organized and raised funds from the local Chinese community in his efforts to overthrow the ruling Qing Dynasty. The house is a fine, elegant two-story dwelling that is very long and features open space in the centre.

Penang is famous for food. However, I’m not a foodie and was traveling solo, so I didn’t indulge in too much of the local delicacies. I did enjoy Chinese noodles and Indian food, as well as nasi kandar, which is rice with fried chicken.

*Penang also includes part of the neighboring coastal mainland called Seberang Parai, which is larger than the island. But travelers usually just go to the island, which for all purposes is Penang.

How to get there: You can fly to Penang or you can cross over on a car ferry from the mainland, after getting off the train at Butterworth station (which I did).

Penang, Malaysia

Penang, Malaysia
Goddess of Mercy temple (Kuan Yin Teng), built in 1728, Penang’s oldest Taoist temple Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Exploring Penang”

Malaysia travel- trekking in Penang National Park

Penang National Park, Malaysia
Malaysia’s island* state of Penang is rightfully known for being a food and heritage paradise, but there are other things to do besides eating and wandering around historical neighborhoods. Hiking on Penang Hill is one, and trekking in Penang National Park is another. That’s right, Penang has its own national park which covers a corner of its northwestern point, featuring beaches, forest paths, and a little turtle conservation center.

While sometimes described as the world’s smallest national park, it is still a decent place to get lost (figuratively speaking) in forest and hike to secluded beaches. There are two main beaches- Monkey Beach and Turtle Beach – which you can hike directly to on different trails from the park entrance. The latter is where the turtle conservation center is located. When I visited, there were a few mid-sized turtles and a few tiny baby turtles. I’m not sure if there are monkeys at the former, but there are definitely monkeys on the trails.
Penang National Park, Malaysia

If you’d rather not hike through the forest, you can take boat rides at the entrance to get to the beaches directly.

Right before Turtle Beach, there is a meromictic lake, where there are two distinct layers of water – one saltwater from the sea, and the other freshwater from the rain. However, this lake is only full during the monsoon season from May-November so unfortunately, when I went there in January, it was just a dried lakebed.
Penang National Park, Malaysia

How to get there: In Penang, you can take the 101 or 103 bus from the KOMTAR bus terminal and get off at the final stop, which is the park. The ride takes around 45 minutes.
Note: The park is free but you need to register at the front desk.

*Penang actually consists of an island (the main part) as well as a small part of the mainland coast next to the island. This mainland part is called Seberang Perai, which is where Butterworth train station is located (from the train station, you transfer to a ferry to get to Penang island). Continue reading “Malaysia travel- trekking in Penang National Park”

Malaysia travel- enjoying art, religion and scenery in Ipoh

Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh is an attractive city, especially its Old Town and its surroundings. The city is ringed by limestone hills, some of which feature Chinese Buddhist cave temples, while the Kinta River runs through it, with the Old Town on the west bank and the newer areas to the east of the river.

In my previous Ipoh post, I mentioned the Han Chin Pet Soo or Hakka Miners’ Club museum. This used to be a clubhouse for Hakka Miners and is now a museum, with most of the inside maintained as it used to be decades ago. The museum offers free scheduled tours, which you need to book online in advance, and so I did. The tour was led by a local Hakka Malaysian-Chinese, naturally as the museum is about Hakkas, who did a very good job telling everyone about the mining club’s history and members, as well as the Chinese community as a whole.

It was amusing to learn that some of the local Chinese magnates had multiple wives AND mistresses (this seems to be a common old Chinese custom), what the different Chinese groups who came to Malaysia did (Hakkas and Cantonese went into tin mining, the Hokkienese opened shops etc), and what the Hakka club members did at the club – gambling, smoking opium, playing mahjong, and even enjoying the company of prostitutes. You might be able to tell that the miners’ club was men only and the wives were not allowed. While all of this sounds quite raunchy, I don’t want to give people the wrong idea, so let me assure you that our guide was a humorous and friendly guy who wasn’t bawdy or anything like that.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Meanwhile, besides the giant murals spread out across the Old Town, there is an entire lane filled with beautiful wall murals across the Kinta River from the Old Town. The Mural Arts’ Lane features colorful depictions of local Malaysian people and culture. It doesn’t seem to be as well-known as the Old Town murals which were done by a well-known Lithuanian artist, but that suited me as I didn’t mind being one of only two people there. However the lane of murals has another surprise – an attractive blue and white mosque tucked into one end, the Panglima Kinta mosque.

When I walked inside the mosque’s compound to take pictures, two girls suddenly called out to me from the mosque. I was a little surprised when they asked me if I wanted a free tour inside, but I agreed and met A and R, two local Malays who were mosque volunteers. They showed me around the mosque, including the worship area, and told me about the rituals for worship. The mosque was right next to the Kinta river, and back in the old days, worshippers would actually come on boats to the mosque. We ended up having a good discussion about different things, including that A was interested in Chinese and could actually speak some Mandarin. Though the two of them wore hijabs, the traditional Muslim women’s veil that covers the head and body, they were quite friendly.

That was a very memorable experience, and I have to say, maybe there is something good in the air about Ipoh. I already talked about the city having Asia’s nicest Cantonese in my previous post, and these two girls were like the nicest Muslims I’ve ever met while traveling. To be fair, in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, when I visited the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, three men came up to me and started telling me about Islam. In Kuala Lumpur, while visiting the National Mosque, a woman volunteer (one of several there) spoke to me about Islam as well. I did tell them I was a Christian but I didn’t mind hearing about Islam. An amusing thing that both the Kuala Lumpur mosque lady and A and R mentioned was why Muslims segregate men and women while worshiping – to avoid being distracted by the opposite sex while praying. It’s a reasonable point, I suppose.

Moving on from Islam to Buddhism, I visited three Buddhist cave temples. Two of them were south of Ipoh while one was north of it. Perak Tong is a large cave temple, but even more relevant to me was that it was located in a hill from which you could ascent to the top and enjoy a sweeping view of the surrounding area.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Back in Ipoh, one unexpected artistic discovery was a building in which each floor was lined with colorful murals showcasing local lifestyle from the 1920-60s. These murals featured mostly Chinese while the murals on Mural Arts’ Lane were Malay, Indian and Chinese. It was free to enter though on one floor, there was a small concubine (mistresses of Chinese men) museum. The building, Wisma Chye Hin, was mostly empty but it was a new venture aimed at creating an artistic and shopping center. I hope they succeed because they really put a lot of effort into it as the murals were fantastic.

I like museums a lot and I tried to visit one in Ipoh, but it was closed, which I only learned when I arrived at the museum’s closed gate (the guard told me it was being renovated). This was the second time it happened to me in Ipoh, the first when I walked up to the Sam Poh Tong cave temple and saw the gates were shut though it was 2.30 pm. There was a security guard and when I asked him why it was closed, he said, “because the workers decided to get off work.” That was very annoying but I had no choice but to leave. That said though, the positives in Ipoh outweighed the negatives by a lot.

Ipoh, Malaysia
What looks like dirty, rundown houses overrun with vines are actually modern boutiques set in a picturesque complex (mentioned in my previous Ipoh post). Next to these shops is the restaurant below.
Ipoh, Malaysia Continue reading “Malaysia travel- enjoying art, religion and scenery in Ipoh”

Malaysia travel-Introducing Ipoh

Ipoh, Malaysia
The word Ipoh might conjure puzzled looks or recognition of a certain coffee brand. But Ipoh is actually one of Malaysia’s largest cities, the former center of the nation’s tin mining industry, and a gateway to the Cameron Highlands. It is also a rising travel destination in its own right, and rightfully so.

Lying between Kuala Lumpur and Penang (roughly speaking) as well as between KL and the Cameron Highlands, Ipoh used to be overlooked. But Ipoh has a very decent old town with impressive colonial-era buildings, a thriving cafe culture, and is surrounded by limestone hills, some of which harbor well-known Buddhist cave temples. Ipoh also is home to white coffee and the Old Town brand, which is popular across parts of Asia such as Hong Kong.

When I plan my travel trips, I try to visit lesser-known cities that have decent attractions. Examples include Hiroshima, Milan, and Hue in Central Vietnam. Ipoh is another example. Having traveled by train from KL, when you arrive in Ipoh, you have already visited one of the city’s most attractive landmarks, Ipoh train station. While not very big, the 101-year-old station is regal in its all-white form incorporating Edwardian Baroque and Indo-Saracenic architectural styles.

Across the street from the train station is the city’s Old Town, which features more stately colonial-era buildings, shophouses, and a large mosque. There are also several large murals dispersed across the Old Town, painted by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who also painted the well-known murals in Georgetown, Penang’s capital. Also in the Old Town are several modern cafes and old Chinese restaurants. One particularly impressive building I came upon was an art boutique center in which the building’s old, worn-down exterior was left intact while the interior was renovated. The building in the top photo in this post follows a similar concept – don’t be fooled by the hanging plants, the shops at the bottom are new, modern cafes.

Ipoh lies in the Kinta River Valley, surrounded by limestone hills and tin deposits. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was home to a booming tin mining industry hence its stately colonial-era buildings and large Chinese community, many of whom worked in the tin mines. However, the tin deposits were depleted in the 1970s and the city suffered a decline. Recently, Ipoh has seen a resurgence thanks to tourism, with the city having made an effort to renovate and conserve its heritage buildings. Ipoh did not have an air of decline at all, and seemed fairly well-off by Southeast Asian and Malaysia standards.

Ipoh’s large Malaysian-Chinese community is mainly Cantonese-speaking, being made up of Cantonese (people whose ancestors were from China’s Guangdong Province) and Hakkas (also from Guangdong but with a more complex origin. Half of my family is also Hakka). Penang, in contrast, has a Chinese community that is mainly Hokkien-speaking (a language from China’s Fujian Province, which many Taiwanese speak as week). Michelle Yeoh, Malaysia’s most famous actress, is from Ipoh.
The city’s Hakka heritage is preserved in Han Chin Pet Soo or Hakka Miners’ Club, a former clubhouse for Hakkas which is now a museum.
Ipoh, Malaysia

Across the street from the museum are Chinese eateries serving specialties like bean-sprout chicken and Hakka mee (noodles). There are a few lanes which historically served as the homes of prostitutes or mistresses, hence two of them are called Concubine Lane. These lanes have been renovated for tourists and instead of ladies, are filled with stores, cafes and hostels. Ipoh white coffee originally was made from beans roasted with margarine and served with condensed milk, though nowadays white coffee doesn’t need to be roasted with margarine. Apparently the white coffee has a caramel flavour when roasted with margarine, which I found a little off-putting.

What was surprisingly pleasant to realize was that Ipoh’s Cantonese are probably the most polite Cantonese-speakers I’ve encountered in Asia. People who have been to Hong Kong or Guangdong might know what I mean. Whenever I spoke to local Chinese, whether service staff or museum guide or even an entrepreneur at the center I mentioned above, they were all polite in responding to my queries, with none of the surliness or brusqueness you’d get in Hong Kong.

Ipoh is also famous for its limestone hills just outside the city. While not as beautiful as the ones in Guangxi, China or Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, Ipoh’s limestone hills are pleasant enough. In fact, so pleasant that several temples were built inside of these hills. I visited three of these cave temples, but a fourth turned out to be closed even though it was only 2.30 pm.
Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh Train Station
Ipoh, Malaysia

From the way I’ve written about Ipoh, you might think everything was fantastic. But the truth is I had a few small issues. First is my hotel was actually next to a mosque, which you know broadcasts the Muslim call to prayer several times a day. For some reason, the morning call was particularly long and would go on for at least 20 minutes. I have nothing against mosques (I actually visited one in Ipoh, after I was invited in by two friendly local volunteer guides, but not the one next to my hotel) but I wouldn’t want to stay next to one in the future.

Second is Ipoh’s buses are very scarce and not reliable. While I knew in advance they only come about once an hour, I twice experienced seeing buses drive past me while I was waiting at bus stops outside the cave temples to return to Ipoh (I’d taken the bus from the Ipoh station to get to those places). Given I was the only one at the stop and that these buses don’t get many passengers, perhaps the drivers just didn’t see me. I ended up getting a taxi back to Ipoh both times.
Third is the Old Town is rather quiet at night and most of the streets are dark as there aren’t many restaurants or bars open, besides the street next to the Hakka Miners’ Club.

But weirdly enough, I actually enjoyed visiting Ipoh and all these issues couldn’t make up for the good experiences. I heartily recommend visiting Ipoh if you go to Malaysia.
Ipoh, Malaysia
Ipoh, Malaysia
Two of Ipoh’s giant murals done by Ernest Zacharevic (above and below)
Ipoh, Malaysia
Continue reading “Malaysia travel-Introducing Ipoh”

Malaysia travel- Kuala Lumpur round 2

Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s political, business and commerce center as well as the nation’s air transportation hub. While I don’t rate it as highly as Bangkok, Singapore or Hanoi, it is still a decent major city. I actually visited it twice though both times I didn’t spend too long.

The city’s most iconic symbol is the Petronas Towers, which I visited during the day and in the evening. Besides admiring it from outside, make sure to go inside to check out the mall at the base or go up to the observation level. At the back is a park which is also quite pleasant. The center of Kuala Lumpur has a giant park, Lake Gardens, which has a lake, a botanical garden, a deer park, a butterfly park, and a bird park, which I visited. It is a large aviary divided into several zones, but not all birds are flying around freely as some are caged. There are some peacocks that walk around on the paths and it is always beautiful to see one spread his tail feathers.

Along the boundaries of the park are the National Mosque, where friendly volunteers approach you to talk about Islam, and several museums including the Islamic Arts Museum, which I found very fascinating, and the National Museum, which was underwhelming and did not have a very large collection. Merdeka Square was where the Malaysian flag was hoisted for the first time at midnight on August 31, 1957. It’s a pleasant open space surrounded by several colonial buildings including the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (top photo), former British colonial office and now a Malaysian ministerial building, and Royal Selangor Club.

Visited the Petronas Towers at night and during the day. Both times, the towers were impressive. 

Mosque Jamek, KL’s oldest mosque

National Mosque

National Museum of Malaysia, with a plane on display near the entrance
Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Kuala Lumpur round 2”

Malaysia travel- Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia is one of Asia’s most visited countries but I only made my first visit there last year. While the port city of Malacca was my first stop, Kuala Lumpur was my main destination on that visit. I then visited the city again at the beginning of this year on a second visit to Malaysia. The Malaysian capital is probably most famous for its Petronas Towers, twin titans that are unmistakable for their appearance and which used to be the world’s tallest buildings.

Malaysia might be an Islamic country, but it is also a multi-ethnic one with a Malay majority and two sizable minorities, Chinese- and Indian-Malaysians, as well as indigenous peoples. Kuala Lumpur reflected this diversity as I stayed in a predominantly Indian neighborhood for my first visit, then in Chinatown this year. The city is relatively prosperous and orderly, though it is also a little grubby in some parts. Strangely for an Asian city, KL has a reputation for street crime at night but I was still able to take a few night walks around my hotel without any real concern. However in Chinatown, which was not that impressive, I did pass by a troubled person throwing things onto the road and on another evening, I had another troubled lady shout at me near my hotel.

To be honest, Kuala Lumpur didn’t seem as interesting to me as Bangkok nor as attractive as Singapore. That said, KL has a few decent colonial heritage buildings, a lot of open space and city parks, as well as the aforementioned mighty Petronas towers. Just outside KL is the Batu Caves, a cave inside a hill which is used by Hindus to worship, which is actually more well-known for the giant golden statue of the Hindu god of war Murugan at the foot of the stairs leading up to the caves. The Batu Caves’ main cave is very tall but not that long as it is basically two connected giant, open chambers. There are smaller, but longer caves at the side of the hill which you need to join scheduled tours to enter. For me, KL’s most interesting attraction is the Islamic Arts Museum which has a huge collection of artifacts from across the Islamic world as well as China and India.

KL actually is a youngish city, having only become a town in the mid-19th century before growing steadily and then being made capital of the Federal Malay States (what the four Malay states around KL were then called during British colonial rule). Its name sounds exotic, but it actually means muddy confluence in Malay as the city lies at the point where two rivers come together. KL is a little like Bangkok in that there are fancy malls and towers, as well as some dirty streets and visible poverty. While it was nice to have visited another major Asian city, I feel that two visits are enough.

The Hindu god of war Murugan stands guard at the foot of the stairs leading to the Batu Caves

This monkey was also standing guard too. There were lots of monkeys on the stairs leading to the cave.

Masjid Jamek, the city’s oldest mosque (1909) Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Kuala Lumpur”