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

George Town (Penang), Malaysia

January 29, 2019

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 take in and remember much more wandering around and have time to stop and take things in, talk to shopkeepers or women holding  babies, who are always delighted when you complement their children.  I admit the bus rides do provide a general sense of a place.King George III), capital of the state of Penang, Malaysia.

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

Earlier in this blog I’d written that I’d had my fill of temples and mosques but I wouldn’t have missed the pair of Buddhist temples we visited in George Town (named after then reigning

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.

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The third largest Buddha in the world at 108 feet long found in Wat Chayamangkalaram, Penang

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 long reclining Buddha were not statues at all but embalmed holy men. And 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 where the worshipper himself felt pain.   (It’s like praying to a saint, I suppose.)

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This  “statute”  sitting in meditation pose in front of the reclining Buddha is  the embalmed body of a holy man.  He is covered in gold leaf placed there by worshippers.

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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The Burmese Buddhist temple is the oldest in Penang .
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The Dhammikarma Burmese Temple has lovely grounds

We had time to visit the Chew Jetty, a village built on stilts, in the Weld Quay area built by Chinese immigrants starting in 1918. A century later the village 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, the guide told us, building additional rooms out into the water as they needed more rooms. Some of the houses have as many as five bedrooms.  The jetty is lined with shops cheek by jowl with entrances to the houses.

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The Chew Jetty in Penang where generations of Chinese have made their homes

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

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Wild monkeys have the run of the Waterfall Botanical Gardens in Penang.

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: Back to Phuket as the ship heads westward towards Africa

Malacca, Malaysia

January 27, 2019

By the time we reached Malacca towards the end of January, I’d had enough of escorted excursions, enough of seeing temples and churches and remnants of forts built by conquering Europeans.  My friend, Felicia, and I decided to hop on one of tenders shuttling the ship’s passengers ashore every hour to wander around  the town on our own.

The sun burned hot, so hot it seemed to bore through my flesh right through to my bones. We walked under whatever shade we could find as we ambled through local covered markets, examining foods and spices we didn’t recognize until we stumbled on  a super-modern shopping mall.  We took respite from the heat for a half hour, strolling along the aisles of trendy shops and buying nothing.  For one thing, the clothes are not cut for the bodies of Western women of a certain age with little muffin tops to hide.  The average size for Malacca women seems to be two and under.

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Shopping mall in Malacca prepares show for Chinese New Year 

Eventually, we found our way to the old town and Jonker Street, a lively place full of antique shops and locally made souvenir stores, a place where shopping also entails delightful chats with shopkeepers. Talking to the people you buy from is a much more civilized way to do business than going to a shopping mall where you have to go searching around the stores to find somebody to help you (just like at home).

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Entrance to Jonker street in Malacca Malaysia

At an antique shop on Jonker Street I bought a small jade statue of a big, fat laughing Buddha at an antique shop. I’ve become quite attached to him.  Felicia bought a T-shirt featuring an eye-popping graphic made by a local artist.

I was quite taken with the bicycle rickshaws, which are decorated with flowers and stuffed animals and blare music as they drive past.

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Festooned bicycle rickshaws, music blaring, cover the entire old town in Malacca, Malaysia

Malacca, founded in the 15th C by the Prince of Palembang, is a state in Malaysia situated in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula next to the Straits of Malacca. At the time of its founding, Malacca’s nearness to the spice islands of Indonesia coupled with fact that the state had adopted Islam soon after its establishment and had extensive links with the Muslim trading world, which made it one of the most ports in Malaysia.

Then along came the Portuguese in the early 16th C.  In 1511 after a forty-day siege Malacca fell.  About a century later the Dutch decided they wanted it and launched several attacks during the first four decades of the 17th C.  The port fell into Dutch hands in 1641.

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Remnants of the old Portuguese fort in Malacca

But wait. The British weren’t to be left out and they got their hands on Malacca in 1824 as part of a treaty with the Dutch and remained under British rule until 1946, except between 1942 to 1945 when the Japanese occupied it during World War II.

Malacca’s capital, also named Malacca, is home to some half a million people.

Next stop:  Penang, Malaysia

 

Singapore

January 26, 1019

What can I say about Singapore after a mere “panoramic” half-day bus tour? To all appearances it’s a perfectly cut gemstone with its tall buildings piercing the sky, their facets gleaming and winking in the bright sun. You can smell affluence in the air, you see it in the way the busy people dress, in the shop windows emblazoned with the names of luxury brands.  Singapore is the embodiment of the old American dream, the poster child for business success, for money, and is itself the best example of the power of branding.

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Singapore preparing for the  arrival of the year of the pig, 2019

The Republic of Singapore lies one degree north of the equator, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  Its territory, which consists of the mainland plus sixty-two islets, is almost a quarter reclaimed land.  Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has the distinction of having transitioned from a developing into a fully developed country in a single generation.

Our half-day excursion included a drive through Singapore’s Colonial District, the northern area of the city where Parliament House and the Victoria Theatre lie. We went to Little India, where we had a walking tour of the colourful streets on our way to the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple (the oldest place of Hindu worship on the island,  lavishly decorated with seventy-two deities.  We also went to Chinatown and visited Thian Hock Keng Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore.

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Our last stop was the very best part of our visit.  The coach took us to the Botanical Gardens, home to thousands of lush tropical plants in a natural setting, including two thousand varieties of splendid orchids, the world’s largest collection.

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My friend  and fellow passenger, Felicia, hamming it up in the orchidarium in Singapore
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One of two thousand varieties of orchids in Singapore’s orchidarium.

But half a day on a bus and a bit of a wander along its streets weren’t nearly long enough to discover whether this wealthy city has a soul as well as a beautiful face.

Next stop: Malacca, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

January 25, 2019

One day at sea after Phuket and we landed in Malaysia at Port Kelang, the country’s main gateway, located about 40 km southwest of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

On the morning of January 25, a Friday, we started filing into the coaches at 8:00 a.m. on our way to the capita.  Where excursions are concerned, the ship’s passengers are grouped by colours,  seven groups in total, with a coach for each group.  Because the same people always travel together it’s a good way to get to know the other passengers.  It makes it easier to invite yourself to sit someone’s table during mealtimes when you’ve commiserated over the infernal heat and humidity earlier in the day.

Kuala Lumpur, meaning “muddy estuary,” was established in 1857 as a trading post by Chinese tin miners and traders.  The tin mining rush of the 1860s and 1870s brought rapid growth and after the British took control in the 1880s and construction boomed it became capital of the federated Malay states, the youngest capital in Southeast Asia.

It’s a neat, pretty city. You have a sense of spaciousness, and order as you move through it.

The majority of the Malay people have inhabited the area of Malaysia and Singapore for more than two thousand years. The other two main ethnic groups are the Chinese and Indians who arrived in 19th and 20th centuries, although some of these residents trace their roots back several centuries.

The drive from Port Kelang to the capital took ninety minutes with the National Monument our first stop. It’s a remarkable tribute to their war heroes. In addition to the monument itself, the complex includes fountains, a pavilion, a war memorial all surrounded by gardens and occupies almost fifty thousand square meters.  It commemorates those who died fighting Japanese Occupation during World War II and the “Malayan Emergency” of 1948-1960.

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The National War Memorial in Kuala Lumpur

Next we visited the old colonial Railway Station (the city has a new railway station now) with its Islamic-style exterior located not far from the minarets of the city’s grand mosque; We drove by Independence Square,  where the Union Flag was lowered in 1957 to create an independent Malaysia, and the heart of the city’s colonial district where noteworthy structures, such as the Royal Sengalor Club, a private club built-in mock-Tudor style, still stand.

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The railway station built by the British during the city’s colonial era is now a hotel

The Petronas Towers were eye-popping: two parallel 452-meter towers resembling a pair minarets. img_0027-4

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur rise 452 meters

But my favourite view was the clock tower on Merdeka Square.

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The Sultan Abdul Samad building on Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia It now houses the Supreme court of Malaysia

Then it was back on the bus and the one-and-a-half hour drive back to port.

 

Phuket, Thailand

January 23, 2019

After Port Blair, India, we sailed the Indian Ocean two days before reaching Phuket, Thailand.  During those couple of days at sea I fought the sloth that had overtaken me by going to the ship’s gym for an hour of rousing treadmill work and yoga. My vow to stay away from the desert table, however, met with limited success: I contented myself with one small sweet instead of two regular size slabs of fat and sugar. Thank heavens I have no interest in wine, which is poured with a liberal hand at dinner.

(Yes, in fact, I indulged so much the first couple of months I have put on some weight. But I’ll worry about shedding it once I got home. I’m on vacation, after all, no?)

The ship arrived in Phuket late on Jan 22, and since we would only be there for one day, our land excursion started at 8:30 the following morning.  The island of Phuket (population about 400,000, which swells to more than a million during tourist season) and another 32 smaller islands form the largest province in Thailand.  The area was among those hit when the tsunami struck in 2004, killing more than 5,000 in Thailand and two hundred thousand more throughout the Asian region.

The land excursion I chose took us to Phang Nga National Park area and Pan Yi Island, where we had lunch at a Muslim fishing village built on stilts. Other passengers opted to visit the Phi Phi Islands, another national park, to enjoy beaches, coral reef and three-thousand-year-old rock carvings.

With the ship docked in the southeast side of Phuket Island the coach took us northward to the top of the island and off the mainland to the Phang Nga National Park, famous for its limestone cliffs plunging straight down to the sea.

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Dozens of communications and electrical wires run from pole to pole in Phuket

On the way we stopped to visit the Suwan Khuha Buddhist cave temple, a holy place where monkeys and dogs roam freely. There I witnessed a silent altercation between a small monkey perched stubbornly on a boulder and a dog, ears pricked, tail on alert, staring it down.

The temple houses an immense reclining golden Buddha.  Ancient Buddha images and prehistoric artifacts have been excavated from inside the cave but the existing statuary dates to the mid-nineteenth century.

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A giant reclining golden Buddha takes pride of place in Suwan Khuha Buddhist cave in Phang Nga, Thailand
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The statuary Inside the Suwan Khuha Buddhist cave temple dates to the mid-19th century
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A Buddhist worshipper listens to a recorded prophecy after placing a coin in the box

After a lovely, peaceful wander around the cave (and spending much time admiring the tiny monkeys) we got back on the bus and drove to Phang Nga Bay where, clad in unwieldy orange life jackets, we climbed inside a traditional Thai long-tailed boat.  The boat was deep but we all managed to get into it with varying degrees of inelegance.

It was worth the long drive. Ahead of us lay some of the most glorious scenery on Earth.  As the longboat skimmed the surface of smooth, mossy green water, we saw mangroves and caves. But the sight of sheer limestone karsts thrusting dramatically from the sea took my breath away.  The sea breeze came as a blessed respite after the sweltering 35 degrees Celsius and steamy humidity we’d sweated through on land.

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Enormous granite karsts rise dramatically from the depths of Phang-Nga Bay

The ear-shattering drone of the huge engine attached to the back of the boat (handled by a gorgeous young hunk of a guy) did mar the experience somewhat. So, with fingers stuck in my ears to deaden the noise, I gazed slack-jawed as we circled the island of Koh Tapu, aka James Bond Island, where the climactic scene of Man with the Golden Gun was filmed.

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These karsts, are limestone or chalk formed by erosion. As rainwater seeps into the rock, it slowly erodes the chalk from the top or dissolved from a weak point inside the rock.

It took about an hour to reach Pan Yi Island where the Sea Gypsy Village is situated before we had to haul ourselves out of the longboat. (Somehow climbing up is always harder than falling into something, isn’t it?) At one time the residents of Sea Gypsy Village made their living exclusively from fishing.  Today the bulk of their income comes from tourism.

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Approaching the Sea Gypsy fishing village in Pan Yi Island 

By then it was lunchtime. From the pier we’d walked along a long, covered corridor, lined on either side with stalls selling all manner of goods.

We had a nice meal, buffet-style, (Pad Thai noodles, anyone?) at tables overlooking the bay. I ate fast so I could do a little shopping. However, the shopping was a disappointment. Except for those selling foodstuffs, the goods on offer were all much the same, mostly inexpensive jewelry featuring peals (said to be genuine local pearls), T-shirts and other cheap clothing.  Women wearing the hijab managed every one of the shops, which made me wonder whether the men were out fishing for local pearls to make more jewelry.

In spite of the paucity of quality goods, intrepid shopper that I am, I found a small glass ornament I liked.  The shopkeeper assured me her husband had made it—but I’m not convinced.

At one o’clock we returned to the longboat, returned to the waiting bus and got back to the ship around suppertime.

Next stop: Port Kelang, Malaysia.