George Town (Penang), Malaysia

January 29, 2019

(I am way behind on this blog.  The problem lies with the internet on the ship, which is supremely unreliable. Even when we do have an internet connect is often too weak for me to upload pictures.  However, I intend to post every single stop I’ve made on this wonderful four-month journey, even if I have to finish it after I get home.  Thanks for reading…. EC)

Earlier in this blog I’d written I’d had my fill of tramping through temples and mosques but I wouldn’t have missed the pair of Buddhist temples we visited in George Town (the city was named after then reigning King George III), capital of the state of Penang, Malaysia.

We began our excursion of George Town with another one of those “panoramic” coach tours of the city. (I don’t really get that much out of these drive-by trips.  Yes, the guides stand at the front of the buses and feed us all kinds of history and interesting factoids but I don’t retain much of the information.) I learn when I take my time in a museum or other site than the fifteen or twenty minutes alloted to us on an organized excursion. There’s something to be said for talking to the locals, too.  Still, the bus rides do provide a general sense of a place.

In Penang we drove along the “Road of Harmony,” a cultural pastiche of Christian churches, Chinese temples and Islamic mosques.  But since our visit lasted only half a day, we  visited only two temples, both Buddhists, which stood across the street from each other:  one Thai, the other Burmese—both truly stunning.

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
The Queen Victoria Memorial clock town,  commissioned in 1897 by local millionaire, Cheah Chen Eok, stands 60 feet tall, each foot representing a year of the Queen’s reign.

 

The Thai temple (Wat Chayamangkalaram) holds a reclining Buddha that’s 108 feet long and 32 feet high, and covered in gold leaf.  It is said to be the largest in Malaysia and the third largest in the world. Impressive.

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This reclining Buddha in George Town’s Thai temple is  said to be the third  longest in the world

But I nearly fell over when I learned that a series of gold-covered statues of old men sitting in meditation in front of the reclining Buddha were not statues at all but embalmed holy men. The gold that covered them was put there by worshippers, one small sheet of gold leaf paper at time (which you could buy on site), on whichever part of the holy man’s body the worshipper himself felt pain.

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This golden figure may look like a statue but in reality it’s the dessicated corpse of a holy man 

 

The temple across the street (Dhammikarma Burmese Temple), the oldest on the island, had a vivid red and gold façade and beautiful grounds.

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Dhammikarma Buddhist Burmese Temple is the oldest in Penang 

We had time to visit the Chew Jetty, a village on stilts is one of six remaining Chinese heritage clan jetties in Penang.  Chew Jetty, which stands in the Weld Quay area of George Town,  takes the surname of the name of the clan living in the water village with wooden houses perched above the sea. Their Chews whose forefathers came from Fujian Province in China started building the village in 1918 and added to it over the decades. Today some of the houses are said to have as many as five bedrooms.  The long jetty’s wooden planks are lined not only with the entrances to the houses but with shops (yes, I bought a couple of little things…) and fast food places. It has a small temple, too.

A century later the village on stilts remains (they were hooked up to water and electricity in 1954), untouched by the development that has taken place around it. People have lived in the same house for generations now and sundry shops flourish along the jetty.

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Chew Jetty, in downtown George Town, Penang, one of six heritage clan jetties

 

We also spent a little time in the Waterfall Botanical Gardens, created by the British in 1884. The garden, home to cheeky monkeys that roam freely, came as a respite from the heavy heat.

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The island of Penang, a UNESCO world heritage site, appeared in Chinese trading documents in the 15th century. The first English ship stumbled across it in 1592 but two centuries went by before another Englishman, Francis Light, persuaded the island’s sultan to cede the island to the East India Company. Light established George Town as a free port to lure local traders away from the Dutch, and used the port’s location to try to curb French expansion in Indochina. Penang remained a British possession until Malayan independence in 1957.

Next stop: a second visit to Phuket, as we headed back west toward Africa

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