Saturday, March 10, 2012

World Heritage sights, night markets and more — in Georgetown

The bus ride to Penang takes two hours and entails crossing a bridge from the mainland of Malaysia to the Island of Penang. Sort of like the bridge from PEI to New Brunswick (and as Marc adds, the bridge that should connect Vancouver to Vancouver Island). The thunder and lightening storm we witnessed in KL followed us to Penang in the form of torrential rain and as we crossed the bridge, we were glad we had decided to skip the beaches of Penang and, instead, focus on the historic town of Georgetown considering the weather. Our first impression of Georgetown was definitely coloured by the weather.

After standing in the rain at the bus station haggling with cab drivers and contemplating the bus ride into town, we decided on the cab, piled our bags into the trunk and made our way to the Bayview Hotel. The rain put a damper on our spirits but once checking into the hotel, with a very nice roof over our heads, we ventured out into the streets of Georgetown.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion from the outside. No photos allowed during the tour.

As is always the case for us, the first day or first hours in each new place is a bit disorientating. With three different maps in hand and an umbrella we headed for the first site on our list, which was an indoor tour of one of Asia’s most carefully restored heritage homes, the huge and opulent mansion of 19th-century millionaire Cheong Fatt Tze. This mansion is billed as a must see and is in fact a hotel as well as a museum. The rates were quite a bit above our price range, so we settled for the tour rather than the full experience. I am not sure if we were too tired or bummed by the weather, but we were not impressed with the tour or many of the explanations. The place is quite beautiful and the guest rooms are very interestingly furnished, but the story of what happened to the house and who was restoring it and why were a bit mysterious and incomplete. It probably was due to the tour leader who we couldn’t hear half the time.

Stinky part of town.

We finished the tour and started wandering around the neighbourhood, thinking we were in the Historic World Heritage part of Georgetown. It ends up we were in the backpackers area of town, which was very colourful in a decrepit sort of way and smelled of dead fish and garbage. We were starving by this point and after a fairly long walk finally found a small café (that didn’t smell of rotting fish) filled with westerners and sat down for a light dinner. Still unaware that we were on the other side of the tracks so to speak, we were not at all impressed with Georgetown, but by day two, our opinion of this town changed dramatically.

Beautiful Anglican Church in town

The maps we received at our hotel had detailed walking tours of the city and we soon realized that we needed to turn left instead of right to hit the historic and truly worthy of World Heritage status, part of the city. The rain had stopped and the sky was beautifully blue, and the new day and good weather energized us to explore the town with a much better attitude.

These beautiful paintings were on wooden doors at the entrance to a Chinese temple.

These are details at three different temples.

The population of Penang is primarily Chinese (59%), followed by Malays (32%) and Indians (7%). Most of the heritage sites we visited were Chinese Buddhist temples, Churches and Moslem Mosques. Some have been restored but many are simply in amazing condition. Most sites are at least 100 if not 200 years old. The streets are lined with original shophouses with very interesting facades. In contrast to our visit to the seedier part of town the day before, the streets are clean and fresh and filled with tourists and locals, enjoying the sites and tastes of this very interesting city.

A beautiful Mosque

Too many amazing buildings to remember all of the details to pass on. Just enjoy the images!

Since we do not have Al and Anja preplanning our every move anymore, part of our daily routine anywhere we land is to start planning the next town/country, mode of transportation, roof over our heads and sightseeing activities. Which means reading through our guidebook (thanks Brett for the PDF of Frommer’s Malaysia!!) and hitting the tourist information or travel agents in every town we arrive in. This has proven to be more of a challenge than we had expected. But also has often been a source of entertainment!

An example of Art Deco with a Chinese twist in Georgetown.

Our next stop is Langkawi, an island just north of Penang on the West Coast of Malaysia. It requires a ferry ride from Penang as well as trying to figure out which part of the Island we actually want to reside in for a few days. There are beaches all around the coastline as well as over 100 small islands surrounding the larger island, so the task is quite overwhelming for first time visitors. We tried in vain to find some information about packages that would deal with all of the many aspects of creating the perfect Langkawi experience. Mostly we found travel agents we couldn’t understand (they were speaking English but their accents were very hard to decipher) or ones that couldn’t understand us. Mostly, they had no information at all, even though their windows were plastered with posters about packaged deals. Finally, we found a very nice woman who directed us to a travel agency called Lucky travel. And our experience there was lucky indeed!

When we walked in the door, there was a woman sitting in the waiting area looking very uninterested in us or anything else for that matter. The rest of the large office was deserted. When we entered the office, the woman called to the back of the office and in seconds a mature man came running to the front yelling as he ran “What do you want, what do you want — Hello, hello, Where are you from?” His arms were flailing in the air as he was coming towards us. “Canada” we said in unison. “Ahhh, welcome. Toronto? Ottawa?” He said as he motioned for us to sit (there was only one chair and two of us, but we made an effort to comply). “Vancouver” we again said in unison. “Ahhh, the Island or the mainland?” Then he went straight into telling us about his successful son in Australia. “He is architect in Sydney, all flooded there now. Daughter finishing university — what you want? Each short sentence was punctuated with a short cough, just to make the conversation more surrealistic! I wasn’t sure whether it was due to a life of smoking, or he actually had rushed in from lunch and had some fish bones caught in his throat!

We tried to explain what we wanted and before we could finish he stopped us with hand motions and said, “Once there were packages (cough), no more (cough). Too easy to plan yourself (cough). Just take ferry. When you arrive, find wan (it took a few times for us to understand “wan” to be van but we got it eventually). No (hands waving furiously) cabs (cough). They will rush you at the dock. Too expensive. Go behind, look for wan. They tell you about hotels with pictures and drive you there. Simple (cough).”  And then he added with a big smile “Any more questions just ask (cough). Advice is free!”  

We chatted with this adorable man for a few minutes longer, bid him and the uninterested woman (she finally smiled when she saw we were finally leaving) still sitting in the reception area farewell feeling satisfied we had all the information we needed!

After an unsuccessful attempt at finding a restaurant recommended by our guide book, we settled on buying a cold beer to share in our room and set off in the direction of our hotel. Even though we could have left all plans to the man in the wan at the ferry dock, we decided to take some time to book a hotel online in Langkawi. It took a fair bit of research, but we think we have a good hotel in a good location. Ferry tickets were easily booked at our hotel so we were set.

Night market stalls.

Close to our hotel was a night market (food and entertainment) and we headed out at 10:00 pm to catch some of the action. The place was packed with locals and some tourists who were eating and drinking and being entertained by a revolving set of karaoke singers. The scene was amazing. You order food from any of the dozens of vendors, give them your table number and miraculously your food appears. Another set of waiters runs around filling drink orders of all descriptions, beer, soft drinks, fresh fruit juices (most of the fruit was not familiar to us but every table was filled with glasses of coloured liquid glistening with ice cubes) and iced coffees. We ordered food and drinks and sat back to enjoy the entertainment and the amazing people watching opportunities.


We walked back to our hotel satiated and dead tired and were in bed by midnight with an early ferry to catch in the morning. Two days in Georgetown worked out perfectly and we have three nights booked at the Fave Hotel in Langkawi. Wish us good weather for our beach/snorkeling adventure!

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