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”

Formosa Moon- book review

As both a travelogue and a sort-of memoir, Formosa Moon sees Joshua Samuel Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat moving back from the US, bringing his girlfriend Stephanie Huffman to Taiwan for the first time. The trip stems from a premise years ago when after their relationship becomes serious, Brown makes it clear to Huffman that he would eventually return to Taiwan.

As a result, when Huffman finishes her studies in Portland, the couple decide to move to Taiwan and embark on journeys around the island nation so Huffman could see whether she could accept living there. The couple start off in Taipei, the capital, where Huffman is introduced to the usual tourist staples of night markets and the National Palace Museum. They then proceed down the East Coast and to Green Island, a tiny isle whose volcanic beauty belies its past as a prison for political dissidents during Taiwan’s martial law era. They then swing around to the southwest to Taiwan’s oldest city Tainan before coming back to Taipei. After a break, they travel back to the south to Yunlin, the south’s largest city Kaohsiung, as well as the central county of Nantou.

Usually, travel information on Taiwan is dominated by night markets, the National Palace Museum, and the east coast. Brown and Huffman do visit those places, but they also go beyond them to explore the quirkier and artistic aspects of Taiwan. As Huffman is deeply interested in art, especially puppetry, there is a strong artistic emphasis during their travels, especially the Taiwanese glove puppet folk art potehi.

Besides hitting famous spots like Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge, the pair also venture to lesser-known places like Smangus, an aboriginal commune set up like kibbutzes in Israel, and Gukeng, the heartland of Taiwan’s coffee-growing industry. In addition, there are visits to the world’s first hotel built around a scuba-diving pool, aboriginal artisans and a hot-air balloon ride over Taiwan’s most unspoilt county of Taitung.

Contrasting Brown’s longtime knowledge of Taiwan and Huffman’s first-time experience of the country, the book has separate dual narratives in every chapter. This constant change of pace in perspectives works well because the pair are candid and quirky people who are sincerely interested in Taiwan. It also helps that the book is filled with color photos so readers can see a bit of the places themselves.

It’s not all about travel as there are also a few chapters about life in their neighborhood on the hilly outskirts of Taipei and Huffman’s attempts to use Chinese and navigate the city by herself. The couple succeed in showing off Taiwan’s main attractions for travelers, which are not famous ancient landmarks or stunning beach resorts, but a combination of plentiful cultural and artistic sights and experiences, quirky places, and beautiful mountain and coastal scenery. Brown also succeeds in his goal of convincing Huffman to base their future in Taiwan, at least for the next few years.

One might wish for more about Taiwan’s other large cities like Taichung and Kaohsiung, which both get one chapter apiece. The Taichung chapter is particularly fascinating as Brown and Huffman stay at a hotel where guests could scuba dive in a 70-foot deep pool and explore Rainbow Village, which is famous for its gaily painted houses, all done by its lone elderly resident. For Kaohsiung, most of the chapter is filled with photos and descriptions of major Taiwanese food dishes. But the book is not intended as a definitive travel guide to Taiwan, so the sparseness of content on Kaohsiung is excusable.

There are several chapters on Tainan, arguably Taiwan’s most interesting city, not to mention two chapters on Yunlin, a relatively obscure county sandwiched in the region between Taichung and Kaohsiung that not even many Taiwanese have been to.

Brown and Huffman never shy away from testy moments such as describing arguments or doubts; if anything they are too frank. One of the more striking parts of the book is when a Tainan fortune-teller tells Brown never to marry Huffman and then tells Huffman she will have other lovers later on.

Huffman is upfront that being new to Taiwan (and Asia), she finds Taipei very intense and at times discomfiting as it is the largest city she has ever lived in. It seems appropriate that Taiwan is her introduction to Asia because, as seasoned expats and travelers know, there are many more intense and crowded places across the continent.

Formosa Moon is both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other. It is also a very welcome addition to the collection of English-language literature about Taiwan.

This is the abridged version of my review of Formosa Moon, the full version of which I wrote for Asia Review of Books.

Sri Lanka travel- Dambulla Buddhist cave and Peradeniya botanical gardens

Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
While Kandy by itself is not that remarkable other than its lively cultural shows and the temple of the Buddhist Tooth, there is a lot of fascinating sites outside of the city. This includes the Dambulla Buddhist cave, an elephant sanctuary with dozens of elephants, and Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Dambulla is about two hours’ drive, the Pinnawala elephant sanctuary is about an hour away, while the botanical gardens is very close, less than 30 minutes by bus.

Dambulla is a collection of several Buddhist caves filled with Buddhist murals and statues that date back to the first century BC. Located inside a series of caves on the top of a small hill, Dambulla is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a good place to visit along with Sigiriya if you’re going by car (check with your hotel for a driver). There are five caves, differing in size, with Buddhist statues, murals and even stupas. The murals are very beautiful, though in general, I found Dambulla underwhelming. At the foot of the hill is a Buddhist temple with a huge golden Buddha statue.

I’m not exactly a big fan of trees and flowers but I was very impressed by Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, so much that I spent almost two hours there strolling around and taking photos. Not only is it huge and feature a diverse collection of over 4,000 trees, plants, an orchid house, a spice garden, and enormous bamboo groves, but it has a colony of large fruit bats sleeping on several trees. As I visited during the day, those guys were all asleep and it was easy to take pictures of them. It was the first time I’ve seen bats sleeping in the outside during the day and it was a fascinating and slightly uncomfortable sight (not a bat fan too).

There is a central “great circle,” lawns, as well as an avenue shaded on both sides by giant palm trees. Among the most fascinating trees to look out are a giant Javan fig tree, which has a sprawling umbrella-like canopy, and Coco de Mers or double coconut palms, which bear coconuts of 10-20 kg that are the world’s heaviest nut or fruit!
The botanical garden was established in 1821 by the British, though Kandy kings had set up gardens on the site in previous centuries.

I had a slightly unpleasant experience as I was showed around the orchid house by an employee, who then asked for a tip at the end. I didn’t give him much but I don’t like it when people do something for you and then demand money, especially for something like a 5 minute tour of the orchid house, which was included in the garden’s entrance fee. A similar experience would later happen to me in Colombo at the natural history museum and I refused to give a tip (still annoyed over the orchid house guy).

I had a surprisingly pleasant experience when I came upon a bunch of local Muslim youths. They ran up to me and started crowding me, but in a friendly manner. These guys couldn’t speak much English and couldn’t tell me where they were (Sri Lanka! was all they could say) or what school or organization they were but we managed to take a few photos.


Colonial-era building in Kandy
Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka
Continue reading “Sri Lanka travel- Dambulla Buddhist cave and Peradeniya botanical gardens”

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”

Taiwan cross-country photo roundup

Taoyuan Airport, Taiwan
I’ve spent over six years living in Taiwan and have called this island nation home during most of my time in Asia, but I haven’t traveled to that many places here. However, I have visited all the big cities, all the counties in the north, and most of the counties in Taiwan. Here’s a photo tour of Taiwan, featuring the cities and counties I have visited.

The capital Taipei is in the north, surrounded by New Taipei City, which formerly used to be Taipei County and is still more of a collection of large towns and villages than an actual city. On the northern coast is Keelung, a port city which has a distinct status as a provincial city.

Taipei skyline
Sanxia, New Taipei City, Taiwan
Sanxia, one of New Taipei City’s many districts
Keelung, Taiwan
Keelung harbourfront

The other big cities include Taichung, in the central, Kaohsiung, in the south, and Tainan, Taiwan’s oldest city (and perhaps most interesting), and also in the south. All three of these cities, like Taipei, are located along the west coast. Continue reading “Taiwan cross-country photo roundup”

Milan travel- mighty Sforza castle and Roman-era basilica

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy
Milan might be Italy’s most prosperous and modern city but it also boasts several impressive historical sights. These include the massive Duomo cathedral, Sforza Castle or Castello Sforzesco, and the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, a 1,600-year-old Roman church.

Sforza Castle is a handsome brownish-red castle that was built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan that was one of Europe’s largest citadels at one point. The great Leonardo da Vinci decorated part of the interior. It boasts a central tower that looms high above the walls of the castle, which is built in a quadrangular shape. Inside, the castle is divided into three courtyards, the main one, and the smaller Ducale and Rocchetta.

Nowadays, the castle is also a giant museum complex, housing several connected museums that feature paintings, medieval weapons, musical instruments, tapestries, antique furniture, prehistoric artifacts, and even Egyptian artifacts. There is even the last work of the great Michelangelo, an unfinished marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus’ dead body.

It is an impressive diverse collection of exhibits that lets you explore the castle, while appreciating great art and artifacts and learning about Milanese history. I do find having museums inside a castle is a great way to make use of such a historic building while allowing visitors to double up on their enjoyment. Even if these museums weren’t in this castle, they would be worth checking out.

The castle is also used as venue for events like a vintage car show that was going on when I visited, which included sports cars from the 1960s and 1970s and antique pre-World War II cars. The castle is in Sempione Park, that also features an aquarium and a modern museum, which unfortunately I didn’t visit.
Milan, Italy

Built in 379–386, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio is a Roman-era church that is also brownish-red, similar to Sforza Castle. As befitting one of Milan’s main churches, the basilica is quite elegant with a smooth exterior, which again is similar to Sforza Castle. It features a triangular roof and a portico with arches with an enclosed open courtyard in front of it, flanked by two bell towers on either side. The shorter tower was built in the 9th century while the other one was built in the mid-12th century. Inside, the crypt features the remains of three saints – Ambrose, who the church is named after, Gervasus and Protasus.
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

How to get there: For Sforza Castle, get off at Cairoli Castello subway station on the Red Line or Lanza station on the Green Line.
For Basilica of Sant’Ambroglio, get off at S. Ambrogio subway station on the Green Line.
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan
Inside the basilica Continue reading “Milan travel- mighty Sforza castle and Roman-era basilica”