Penang

London

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It’s hard to believe we were there just five weeks ago. We’ve gotten behind in our blogging during that time, but since we left London we’ve been to Paris, Versailles, Zurich, Bern, Lauterbrunnen (twice), Lucerne (twice), New York, Quito (twice) and the Galapagos Islands! Despite all that jetsetting, we both agree that our time in London is going to rank as one of the high points of this epic year of travel. It’s a city I could return to in a heartbeat, and I would even consider living there if the opportunity came about…

Some of the reasons why we loved London so much are as obvious as they were enjoyable. I have family living there, and we were able to catch up with my cousin Mark (who grew up in Sydney) several times during our eleven days in and around London. We got to know my uncle’s sister, Sonia, very well while she very kindly hosted us for most of our time there, as well as her children and grandchild. And we got to catch up again with Mike, a Londoner who we first met on that epic day in Penang near the start of our journey. Apart from spending wonderful time with Helga and JP in Graepel, dinner with CJ in Bangkok and a single day’s catchup with Andrew and Kara in Croatia, we have been starved of familiar company most of the year.

A less obvious but very real attraction of London is that English is its first language. We clearly love travelling to different countries – often the more different the better! – and usually make an effort to learn at least a bit of the local language while there. Even knowing just simple courtesies like hello and thank you can greatly enhance the travel experience, and in countries like Laos, Thailand, France and Germany we knew enough to get around fairly comfortably using the local lingo. But in all places we were a very long way from being able to hold a conversation or talk for more than 20 seconds, and it always took considerable thought and effort to remember the right words to use. In short it’s draining (though rewarding) to try and speak in foreign tongues, and after six continuous months of having to do so England shone like an oasis in the language desert. Imagine speaking without translating in your head first, being free to indulge in small talk and able to understand the conversations around you! We didn’t realise how much we would appreciate these simple pleasures until we got to England and started to live them.

London is also a city of endless possibilities, and we simply loved getting in amongst it and tasting what it has to offer. Below is a snapshot of some of the things we got up to:

  • Visiting pubs in Russell Square, Angel and Southbank. What better place to meet up with Mark than at a pub (or three)? London is a city that knows how to drink, and you’re never far from a watering hole to quench your thirst. Our catch up with Mike was also a potted tour of some of the nicer pubs around Southbank, including one that dates back to the 1600s.
  • Walking around Regent St, Carnaby St, Bond St, Oxford St, Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace. Window shopping in New Bond St was a walk down luxury lane, we stumbled across a great coffee shop off Carnaby St that was worthy of a return, and discovered that the deckchairs set up in Hyde Park are not free.
  • Checking out Notting Hill Carnival with Mark, only to find that it’s more crowd than carnival. The whole suburb was a seething mass of people looking for somewhere to go, and it wasn’t long before we ditched it completely and headed off to Jashan’s. Located in a less salubrious part of north London, it’s an excellent Indian restaurant that is several cuts above the usual curry joint.
  • Sonia took us on a very interesting tour of Hamstead Heath and Millionaire’s Row, and then contrasted the mega-rich properties of that area with a quick look at downtown Tottenham.  The local school behind the huge Whitehart Lane football stadium is prison-like in ambiance, with solid bars topped with razor wire and a full-time on-site police officer (Sonia’s daughter, Carla, works there and can tell some hair-raising stories of life there). The point was to show how different in character yet how close in distance these two areas are, and it was a thoroughly illuminating (and at times depressing) experience. The day also included a wonderful visit to Kenwood House for morning tea and a stroll around its gardens.
  • Op-shopping in Muswell Hill, the prosperous neighbourhood where Sonia lives. We also spent a great deal of time at the Sable D’Or café in Mussie, sampling its fine coffee and super-fast internet frequently on our way to or from the city.
  • Visiting Alexandra Palace, or “Ally Pally”, which is also quite close to Sonia’s place and Muswell Hill. This is a monstrous building superbly located on a hill with sweeping views of London, and surrounded by extensive gardens that are open to the public. The views from the top of the hill are wonderful and highly recommended for any visitor, and the Palace was the site of the first television broadcast by the BBC in 1936. It remained London’s primary TV transmitting centre for the Beeb until 1956.
  • Eating at Jashan’s again on one of our last nights in London. It’s a family favourite, and we shared a great meal with nearly all the Assirati clan 🙂
  • Discovering the joys of the Harrods food hall – late! The treats on offer here make the David Jones food hall on Market Street look like a cut-rate corner deli. Needless to say we were in heaven, and we managed to have nearly every meal on our last two days in London catered courtesy of that fine establishment!
  • Visiting the Imperial War Museum and strolling along Southbank. Even though nearly all of them are free, we didn’t do much in the way of museums while in London. However everyone we met said that the Imperial War Museum was a must-see, and we managed to visit it before leaving. It was quite overwhelming, in fact, and it’s a place that you could easily return to time and again to learn about different aspects of Britain’s wartime legacies. We followed it with a slow perambulation of the lengthy Southbank, which was thronged with people enjoying the evening.

The other major event we had planned for our time in London was outside of it: our pilgrimage to The Fat Duck. Kristen has already written extensively about that meal, so I will focus on the other aspects of the four day “holiday within a holiday” we took around our visit to that restaurant. It actually wasn’t meant to be four days, but we were enjoying ourselves so much that we tacked on a couple of days extra and simply relaxed in the wonderful environs of our hotel. The Oakley Court Hotel is a country estate near Windsor, conveniently located close to The Fat Duck and very prettily situated on the banks of the Thames. You can stroll along the water’s edge on manicured lawns, sit in the stately rooms of the main house or enjoy the sun on the outdoor terrace. All these things were fine attractions and we certainly did make use of them, but the clincher for our decision to stay there was that Oakley Court was used as the home of Dr Frank-N-Furter in the cult 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How could we not take up the opportunity to stay in the Rocky Horror house??

Our two days at Oakley Court extended to three, then to four, and on the last day we went to nearby Windsor to visit the Queen. Well, almost: Windsor Castle is the home of the Monarch and open to visitors most of the time. It’s a splendid castle with commanding views of the surrounding countryside, and we also went on an optional “behind the scenes” tour of the Great Kitchen. This short journey to less-visited parts of the castle was more about the fire of 1992, and what the subsequent renovations revealed about the hitherto hidden history of the castle, than it was about the kitchen, but it was very interesting nonetheless and gave an insight into the below-stairs life of the castle. We spent several hours there in total, visiting all the key sights including the State Rooms, the Doll House and St George chapel. Highly recommended, and thanks to Mike for suggesting it.

There was so much more we could have seen and done in London, and we seriously considered or intended to see a West End show, visit the Tower of London, go to The Clink, check out Camden Town and see a live band, amongst other activities. These are things we will have to save for our next visit!

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Categories: family, food, Malaysia, Penang, travel | Leave a comment

Goodbye Penang and hello Trang

We eventually managed to drag ourselves away from the comfortable surrounds of the lovely Red Inn Court in Georgetown, Penang to continue on our travels north into Thailand.

We arranged a small mini van transfer via a counter at the Komtar bus terminal which conveniently picked us up from our accommodation. It was a bit of a hair raising ride across the border to Hat Yai, but our Thai driver did manage to get us there alive though. Or maybe it was Buddha looking after us as we also had a monk on board! Our driver was kind enough to help us at Hat Yai with working out which bus we took onward, as we were under the impression that we were on the one van all the way to Trang. Damien did ask the girl at the Komtar counter this question several times but I guess either there was a communication breakdown or we were just told what we wanted to hear!

Either way, it all worked out and we found ourselves seated in a larger sized and much older vehicle. This fact made us both happier as we knew older = slower! Upon landing in Trang we did a brief walk around the four or so guesthouses in the vicinity and ended up staying at the Sri Trang Hotel. It has a nice and relaxed chill out area with a large pond in the centre filled with fish. The pond, along with the bright green painted walls and large bamboo and green paper umbrella in the centre, combine to make it a great place to sit and eat and do some planning for our next part of the adventure.

Later that night we walked up the road to the local night market that had an abundance of tempting options. We walked the length of the market and then backtracked until we finally came to a decision, and we were not disappointed. I had a selection that consisted of a minced chicken dish which reminded me of chicken larb salads I have had before, a liver (I think!) and mushroom dish, pickled bamboo shoots and the best being an eggplant and minced chicken dish. Yum! I went back for seconds of the eggplant one. It was paltry in size and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

After the night market we retired to the Wunderbar which was attached to out Guesthouse where Damien had a few beers, and later I joined him as they looked very refreshing indeed 😉 After that closed we made our way up the street to a karaoke bar but refrained from joining in this time. During our drunken revelry at the karaoke bar in Georgetown I actually got up and sang. This is a sure sign that I have had too many drinks, as usually I would avoid unleashing my singing voice on unsuspecting patrons in a sober state. But how could I refuse? I discovered I had a friend in Becs  (one of the English girls we met) as she was also a massive fan of Neil Diamond’s Forever In Blue Jeans. It had to be done and it was! Badly I’m sure but at the time it was legendary!

Once the karaoke bar shut in Trang we walked back to our digs and noted that this was not a party town as we were the only people left in the street. A good nights sleep was had and the next day we headed out for breakfast to the day market. We soon realised that we weren’t going to get any grub there as the few shops we could find selling food had nothing in English and we could not see anything we could point at. We did buy a bag of apples though and then headed back to where we came from, or so we thought. We got a little lost but once we did get close to Sri Trang Hotel we found a little shop selling noodle soup. It was very tasty and only a $1 each (30 Baht). The owner also sat and chatted to us and we used the opportunity to learn a few more Thai words.

The rest of the day, aside from going downstairs for food, was devoted purely to sorting out and booking what islands we would visit whilst in Thailand and also what towns we would visit outside of the Andaman Coast. This literally took us all day long as we work shopped what felt like a hundred different ideas. But in the end we came to a plan we were happy with, and it boiled down to us deciding that we wanted to maximise our beach time and downsize the other aspects of Thailand. All in all we were quite pleased with ourselves and felt quite excited about what was to come. This extended island time would not have been possible if we had not had our fortuitous meeting with CJ in Georgetown. CJ came to our aid again that day when Damien queried him about what our accommodation options should be during the Songkran Festival. To which CJ replied, “Dude, this is the biggest Thai holiday in the year, you will need to book something!” So we are now locked into a potential water fight in Ao Nang which is a beach town on the mainland.

I am sitting writing this post from a table by the beach on Koh Kradan and so far I have to say our choices have all come up trumps!

While I have been typing this Damien has been catching up on his news and read that there was a bombing in Hat Yai yesterday. We were both a little shocked by this escalation in the violence in the southern part of Thailand as from our knowledge it has not extended to Hat Yai before. We are glad we are out of there but sorry to hear the loss of life it caused.

Categories: food, friends, Georgetown, Malaysia, Penang, Thailand, Trang, travel | Leave a comment

The Rockerfeller of the East

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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!

Categories: Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Georgetown, Malaysia, Penang, travel | 1 Comment

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