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- 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”

Sri Lanka travel- thriving Galle Fort

Despite being a small island next to a giant country (parallels with Taiwan), Sri Lanka boasts historical sites, lush mountains, elephants, and beaches. The country is really special for travel; so special that I wrote two articles about it. I mean how many countries in Asia, especially small island nations, can you go on safaris to see elephants in the wild? And the country’s historical sites include both native structures like the 5th-century mountain fortress of Sigiriya and the ancient cities of Poḷonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, as well as the Portuguese-Dutch colonial fortress of Galle. The latter was my first stop during my trip to Sri Lanka a couple of years ago.

Located on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in the late 15th century by the Portuguese before later being expanded by the Dutch (who captured Galle from the Portuguese). It is the largest European-build fortress in Asia. Guarding the bay of the town of Galle, the fort lies on a small peninsula and still is home to a residential community of locals and expats. When you come here, you aren’t just looking at sea walls and gun emplacements of a historic fort, but museums, lighthouse, mosques, churches, shops and hostels.

The sea wall of the fort is a great place to look out at the Indian Ocean, especially sunsets, but even better for walking the lanes inside the fort. That’s because the lanes are full of interesting colonial homes, many of which house shops, cafes, and restaurants. The most interesting building I came upon was the Historical Mansion Museum, a former colonial administrator’s mansion, which housed several rooms of antiques and a jewelry workshop. It is free though there is a jewelry gem store on site. If you are not interested, there’s no need to buy anything of course. I also made a quick visit to the Maritime Museum, which besides a mounted whale skeleton had a disappointing sparse collection.

Continue reading “Sri Lanka travel- thriving Galle Fort”

Singapore travel- Exploring the (Mer)Lion City

While the city-state is basking in the spotlight as the location of the Crazy Rich Asians movie, I thought it was timely to showcase Singapore here as well. Modern, attractive, orderly, the city is without doubt Southeast Asia’s most prosperous metropolis and one of Asia’s as well. The only drawback is that it possesses those attributes in such great quantities that it overshadows any gritty or distinctive character and lacks a certain kind of charm that say, Hanoi or Bangkok have.

Nevertheless, Singapore has several interesting places of attractions and attractive landmarks. The Gardens by the Bay was very interesting, with a massive domed plant conservatory and an indoor waterfall, as well as its “Supertrees.” As the entry fees were not exactly cheap (foreigners are charged much more than locals, which is surprising since Singapore is one of the world’s richest countries), I chose to forego walking on top of the Supertrees. Nearby are the unique Marina Bay Sands hotel which features a long upper deck that lies atop three towers, and the iconic Merlion, Singapore’s lion-headed fish statue that is also the city’s symbol. Its downtown boasts some decent skyscrapers, lots of open space, museums like the Asian Civilizations Museum, as well as colonial architecture like St Andrew’s Cathedral and the National Gallery Singapore, housed in a magnificent gray colonial building that overlooks the Padang, a large playing field which also houses the Singapore Cricket Club. The Asian Civilizations Museum features artifacts from India, China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and Pakistan, which is a great idea but the collection was not that big.

As befitting its multiethnic society, Singapore has neighborhoods like Little India, Kampong Glam (sometimes called Muslim Quarter), and Chinatown. Little India, where I stayed in, was very busy on the weekend with lots of Indians, both local Singaporeans and migrant workers, as well as tourists. The main attribute is that there are tons of Indian restaurants and just thinking about it now makes me want to go back. Kampong Glam is a former Arab and Malay neighborhood that has been extensively restored and fixed up for tourists with cafes, shops and some nice murals. The neighborhood still has a lot of Muslims and is home to Singapore’s largest mosque, Masjid Sultan, a handsome building built in 1928. One can walk inside the compound and peer at the main hall as well as walk around. Chinatown did not seem that interesting to me (there is the Buddha Tooth Relic temple but I didn’t bother to go inside), but there are some older shophouses and decent open-air shopping streets.

Supertrees, Gardens by the Bay

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore’s most famous landmark

Masjid Sultan, Singapore’s largest mosque Continue reading “Singapore travel- Exploring the (Mer)Lion City”