Penang is a state of Malaysia and the name of its constituent island, situated in the far north west of the country. This was to be our last stop in Malaysia for this trip. We originally had planned to spend two or three days here, but this was soon stretched to six nights in total. However, our reason for staying put was only in part due to sightseeing. Just as everyone needs a weekend after a hard week’s slog at work, a traveller also needs to stop, rest and do nothing once in a while. If you don’t, your life quickly resembles a never ending session of pack, unpack, bus, sightsee, pack, unpack, sightsee etc. This all too soon ends up being tiring, stressful and not at all fun. You hear people say from time to time that they “need a holiday from their holiday”. I believe this is in many cases due to too much go go go and not enough slowwwwwwww.
So after our day with CJ and our karaoke night with the rest of the crew we befriended at the lovely Red Inn Court we downed tools i.e. no thongs for walking, no camera for clicking and no backpack for carrying. I think you need to carefully pick the place to stop and just hang. There is no point stopping somewhere that you can’t at least call home for the time being. But when we find a place like this we are quite comfortable with deciding to opt out of traveller mode and into land of the sloth! Red Inn Court fit the bill for us as it was such a pleasant place to be. I really couldn’t fault it.
After our two day hibernation we remerged invigorated and ready to do some bushwalking. As I have alluded to in a previous post, the area of Georgetown where we were esconsed was a little shabby and I for one was aching for a little bit of nature to erase the concrete. We set off on the local bus service, which we noted had onboard wifi, how cool! Our bus wound it’s way up the coast and we soon realised that there was a big old world outside of the 500m radius we had been frequenting the last few days. That is aside from our brief trip into the “I’m loaded, baby” section of Georgetown, which we drove through on our visa expedition with CJ.
The coastline before you hit the beachside resort area of Batu Ferringhi is quite pretty with little beaches hugging the shore amidst massive skyscrapers. It reminded me a little of Surfers Paradise in QLD but seemed to work much better because the buildings weren’t all jammed in on top of each other and the lush green of the surrounding trees softened the effect, as did the rolling hills of vegetation in the background.
We eventually reached our destination, the relatively young National Park of Penang, gazetted in 2003. Although there were a few tempting options as far as tracks, we decided on the coastal hike that meanders its way to Monkey Beach. It was an enjoyable walk that was not too challenging but just enough to get your heart going in places with some interesting rope climb sections. There was a variety of fungi to admire as well as birds, butterflies, a monitor lizard and of course, monkeys. It was only just under an hour and a half one way. We had packed our cossies so we rested for a spell on the beach and ate the nuts we had packed. Not the best of lunches, but they were tasty none the less!
It’s not a National Park in the fashion I am used to from home, as there were locals riding four wheeled bikes in the bush. This is a bit of a problem when you are trying to hide behind a tree and get into your swimmers. Ahem. Even more so when the girl going past is decked head to foot in a black hijab. I was feeling decidedly inappropriate at that point. Suitably covered up I returned and was then even more amused and impressed with another hijab wearing chickie, who hooned past at a rate of knots on the back of a jet ski. Black cloth billowing in the breeze! You don’t see that everyday, I joked to Damien.
On our return walk we were stopped mid-track by a line of five monkeys blocking our way one behind the other. Not perturbed at this point we continued to move closer, when suddenly monkey number one pulled back his lips and snarled revealing fangs worthy of a vampire and we respectfully stopped in our tracks. Then Fang Boy hopped up close to us and looked kinda cute so I whipped out my trusty Cannon to take a picture, and he evidently didn’t enjoy having his photo taken ’cause in under 3 seconds he had gone from cute to killer. Like Britney taking a swipe at the paparazzi, I was aware in no uncertain terms to cease and desist! Damien to the rescue! Armed with an oversized twig he waved the wand at Fang Boy and friends so we could beat a path to safety. I helped with a few teeth barring snarls and arm waving helicopters, and we made it safely to the other side.
The rest of the return walk was thankfully uneventful except for a sighting of the monitor lizard in the water. The icing on the cake was when we emerged hot and sweaty from the forest and a local bus pulled up literally a minute later. Seems our good luck with transport, like at Future Music festival, continues :-D. The air conditioned ride back to Georgetown was pleasant but very long, so by the time we got back to our accommodation there was not much time left except for dinner where we enjoyed our sumptuous meal at Teksen.
We were keen for another walk the following day so we hitched a ride on the bus again up coast. We wanted to go to the Nature Reserve to walk the Monkey Cup trail; the trail’s name is taken from the carnivorous insect eating plant that can be found there (they are also known as pitcher plants). Our bus did not go as far as the Nature Reserve so we decided to walk the kilometre or so to our destination. Upon arrival we were greeted with a sign advising that the reserve was closed due to a disease outbreak. The sign had been erected in May 2011, so it looks like it may be a while before people will have the pleasure of walking there again.
So we walked back the way we had come and waited outside the Butterfly Park at the bus stop. The heat was searing and I soon retreated to the other side of the road for some shade. A group of men were sitting in a bus shelter nearby, and they asked me what I was waiting for. I explained we wanted to catch a bus to the Tropical Fruit Farm. Damien and I had decided plan B would be a visit there, since we figured we could benefit from learning about different tropical fruit. Three months in Asia would mean we would come across plenty we didn’t recognise.
Plan B was soon also quashed as I was told by the men that the bus comes irregularly. “Maybe every hour, maybe every half, sometimes two hour” I was told. Bummer. I guess this could have been a scam to get us into a taxi but we took it at face value. I have found Malaysian people to be friendly and honest so I wasn’t feeling too sceptical about their motivations. As a quick aside by way of example, when we were in Melaka we received some money back in our laundry bag when one of us had accidently left it in our clothes.
Regardless, we weren’t overly wedded to going to the Tropical Fruit Farm. When the cost in a taxi, along with entry fees would have exceeded the money than we were willing to spend, we let our stomachs do the talking and we decided that a meal by the sea in Batu Ferringhi would be better than a fruit juice for lunch anyway.
After lunch we headed back to Georgetown just in time to join the last English speaking tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Although I had clocked this early in the piece as something I would like to do, it still turned out to be one of the surprising highlights of my time in Penang. I am sure this was not least because our tour guide was fantastic, regaling us with vibrant tales of the owner of the Blue Mansion, Mr Cheong Fatt Tze. He really breathed life into the rooms of this most impressive old building.
According to our guide, Cheong Fatt Tze grew up in the Guandong province in China in a poor family of teachers. Cheong Fatt Tze was a slow learner and it was not until the age of 8 or 9 that he could say his parents’ names. He was however ambitious and determined that he would become rich and successful despite the humble status of his origin. This dream of Cheong Fatt Tze’s was almost universally scoffed at by those who knew the young boy. Notably his uncle said that if he ever became rich and famous, he would hang his own lantern upside down in the entrance of Cheong Fatt Tze’s home. This is a bold statement from a man who obviously felt he had nothing to gamble. In Chinese tradition, we were told, hanging your lantern upside down in the entrance of the home is considered a very bad thing and is usually signifies the death of the owner of the lantern. In other words, Cheong Fatt Tze’s uncle felt he would be successful over his dead body. Charming!
As all good stories must go, the young man proved them all wrong. He set sail at the tender age of 16 to travel the world. His first job was a modest start: he was a water bearer. A water bearer with eyes for the rich bosses’ daughter no less! His character shone through and he won his boss over, who viewed young Cheong Fatt Tze as a worthy suitor of the young woman. Marrying into this wealthier family helped him establish a shop selling goods. He realised he could create great wealth by buying and selling things to people. There his empire had it’s modest birth. With his wealth he also gained great influence around the world, and he was later referred to as the Rockfeller of the East. Apparently the two men did meet in real life as well.
An indication of the massive power and influence of this man beyond his strong hold in Asia is that when he passed away in 1916, both the Dutch and the British ordered that flags be flown at half mast throughout their colonies.
The Mansion we visited was one of several homes he possessed in various different Asian countries but this one was the grandest and also where his 7th and most favoured wife lived. Oh and he had 8 wives in total… and a posse of other women too as our tour guide told us, he was thoroughly enjoying sharing this saucier side to the tale! Yep, just like a sailor, we were told, a woman in every port, and then some.
Construction of this house started in the late 19th century and took several years to complete. A team of Chinese artisans were brought across to Penang specifically to complete the work, which although was overall Chinese also incorporated features of the Colonial era in which it was built. What I found interesting was that he employed the best feng shui masters of the time to design the mansion. Walking around the interior (which we were unfortunately not allowed to photograph) you really got a sense of this, the place really does have a wonderful aura about it. We were informed by our guide that the centre courtyard (there are five in total) has a place where you can stand to feel the chi vibrations. At the time of year we were there, the vibrations are felt most powerfully in the morning. So of course, I was off into fantasy land at this point imaging that when we came back and stayed in one of the guest rooms (which you can, this part is not fantasy) I would be able to get up in the morning and enjoy the sunrise through the open air roof and stand in the centre of this beautiful house and feel the chi! Our guide recommended doing some tai chi over the spot where the chi is most powerfully felt, or any exercise for that matter, so maybe I would bust out some yoga and feel the vibrations! A nice idle daydream indeed.
But fantasy aside, this was a stunning house and I think we are lucky that it has been so expertly restored to its original glory. Until 1990 many local families squatted in the building and it was a shadow of its former self. But years of work, again by a team of Chinese brought in specifically for the job, it looks wonderful and well deserves to be included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
And if you are wondering what happening with uncle and his lantern, well Asia’s Rockerfeller ensured that the doubter’s lantern got upturned out the front of his mansion as promised!