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Archive for the ‘Georgetown’ Category

Snake temple

Moving-on days are normally a bit of a drag. All that packing, checking out, hanging around at the airport; it’s a waste of a day when the flight itself only takes a couple of hours. To avoid losing a day in this way, there seem to be two options: either you get an early flight (necessitating a ridiculously early wake-up call) so you can enjoy some bleary-eyed time at your destination, or else you do what we did today.

And what’s that? Get up at the usual time, have an unhurried breakfast, finish packing, check out by the late morning. Then hire a driver for the day to show you the local sights, all your luggage safely stowed in the boot, and get dropped off at the airport in time to check in for your evening flight. It works very well, offering the triple benefit of getting us from hotel to airport, occupying an otherwise boring day and getting a tour of the area with local insight thrown in.

So we phoned Jimmy Chu (yes, really), our driver from Friday – “Don’t tell the hotel; this is just between you and me” (because the hotel would take a 10% cut otherwise). He collected us – surreptitiously – and we began by visiting a pair of temples situated opposite each other; the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and a Burmese Temple.

The first houses the third-longest reclining Buddha in Asia (I told you they like keeping score) at 33 metres long; Jimmy explained that you know it’s a Thai Buddhist temple from the elephants or dragons outside the front. (Chinese temples always have a pair of lions.) The temple also housed hundreds upon hundreds of cremation urns in extensive arrays of niches covering entire walls. Depending on your birth year, you were guaranteed fame, prosperity, etc., in return for praying to the appropriate mini-Buddha.
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The Burmese Temple was decorated in a more subdued style and exuded a calmer karma. A series of captioned paintings illustrated the life of Prince Siddhattha [sic] and his path to enlightenment and Buddhahood. However, it was somewhat incongruous to see a big display relating to planning permission for a proposed four-storey pagoda – you somehow don’t think of temples here as having to go through the mundane processes of building consent.
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Next, Jimmy took us back into Georgetown via Fort Cornwallis (quick photo of a cannon – too hot to walk round) to visit the Clan Jetties. These are wooden shacks built on piles along the waterfront, originally to house poor Chinese migrant workers, but nowadays used as homestays, shops, etc. All very picturesque as a tourist site, but really a bit of a slum; people only lived there because they couldn’t afford to live on dry land.
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For lunch we stopped at Chee Meng Cafe for some delicious Wan Tan Mee (noodles) with shredded chicken and pork – it’s been a long time since we had pork. Even Hannah, who is not usually a noodly person, asked for more… Each bowl cost three Ringgits (about 60 pence). We agreed with our guide that the best (and cheapest) food is to be found in little tucked-away establishments such as this, not in the posh restaurants.
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In the car on the way to the next stop, I asked whether it is really the case that all the different faiths and cultures in Malaysia get along without too much friction, and Jimmy said yes, bar a few minor squabbles. However, he then made an off-the-record (and highly inaccurate) remark that appeared to contradict this entirely…

Soon we were approaching the vast hillside complex of Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in South-east Asia. We expected it to be ‘just another temple’, so we were taken aback when Jimmy warned us it would take a good two hours to look round it. Indeed, it’s more of a cross between an underground station and a shopping mall than a temple – huge areas of concrete and stalls everywhere with profits going towards running and repairing the temple.

We first visited the turtle pond (they had one at Ipoh, too); they separate the small turtles from the big ones to stop the little ones attacking their elders, not vice versa! Then it was a steep staircase climb to catch ‘Malaysia’s first inclined lift’ up to the bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy (the biggest in the world). The threatening sky soon delivered rain and we sheltered under Jimmy’s umbrella (ella, ella) while searching for our ‘Year of the’ animal; Ellen and I are goats, Hannah is a snake and Kirsten a rooster.

Goddess of Mercy.
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Year of the Goat.
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Past the gift stalls, down the Great Glass Elevator, past more shops and brightly-coloured temple rooftops and then back down the steps to the on-site covered car park. We didn’t feel up to climbing the famous Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas, so we headed south towards the airport, passing Penang’s Silicon Valley area (semiconductor plants as well as a lot of German white goods manufacturers).
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Our final stop was the anticlimactic Snake Temple. As Lonely Planet says, you’re expecting “pythons coiled around lithesome sacrificial virgins”, but all you get is a couple of oversized mug trees either side of the altar draped in the odd sleeping pit viper or two. There used to be snakes all over the place a couple of decades ago, apparently, but development has seen them off. In a room off to the side, did we want our photo taken holding a python? No thanks – been there, done that.
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Five minutes later (at 3pm) we were at Penang International Airport. Sadly we couldn’t check in for our Air Asia flight for another 90 minutes so we sat and ate our pastries (which would have been our lunch had we not noodled instead). Then we waited for nearly 20 minutes while the group ahead of us in the check-in queue resolved some unknown issue with their luggage (involving frantic phone calls and extra money). Fortunately, our pre-booked allocations were fine; our three bags came to only 32kg out of the permitted 45kg allowance.

We sat down for an extortionate cappuccino (Rm 10.50; that’s European in price) and then went through to the departure lounge. The usual rows of expensive shops selling electronics, bags, jewellery. The usual bored shop staff, one using the time to trim her own hair with a pair of scissors. The usual T-shirt slogans sported by the non-Muslim passengers, but I simply don’t understand them here. “Come on, let’s kick CAS, girls” or “Nobody seems to understand the nature of the PROJECT SHINY”.

We dutifully queued at the appointed boarding time, 17.55. Nothing happened. Airport staff shuttled through the sliding glass doors while we waited in the dark (metaphorically). After twenty minutes they bothered to tell us that our flight would be delayed. Why?

The answer came in the form of our plane arriving a few minutes later. I must say they do quick turnarounds here; maybe half an hour from the first passengers disembarking to our heading off to the runway. We boarded, found our seats, stowed our bags. Quite a full plane, but somehow there was no-one in either of the two seats to my right – so the four of us had six seats between us.

No frills. The pre-booked meals were doled out and some passengers bought drinks for RM5 a time. Only they got our meal order wrong twice. Hannah was given a cheese sandwich instead of the requested chicken one, and we received a hot dog instead of a chicken focaccia (“fok-asia” is their perilous pronunciation). All rectified in the end, but they only had to read our boarding passes to get it right.

We made up time during the flight, landing only five or ten minutes later than scheduled. It was dark as we came in over Kuching, and the illuminated urban sprawl dashed all one’s preconceptions about the wilds of Borneo. Another big city with a surprisingly large airport, but we were off the plane and into our waiting shuttle van within a quarter of an hour. We checked into the 360 Hotel and were in our apartment by 9.30.

Wow! A nice place we’ve got here. We’re on the 17th floor and there is space for the girls to have their own room, along with a well-equipped kitchen (haven’t had that since Australia). The girls are delighted to have Disney Channel again, there is wired internet access, free DIY laundry and a swimming pool on the fourth floor.

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Poh Piah

My first solid night’s sleep since arriving last Tuesday, and it feels really great.

The breakfast room was absolutely packed and the busiest we had ever seen it. We just managed to claim the last table for four and had our usual of cereal or toast, fruit juice and coffee.

We decided to have one last longer walk around Georgetown before flying across to Kuching tomorrow. As it was still fairly early in the day, the air was relatively cool and streets were half shaded, which made our walk a lot more comfortable.

We walked down to the colourful and busy Chowrasta Market just off Jalan Penang. It reminded me a little of the big weekend markets in Antwerp, except I couldn’t quite understand what the vendors were shouting about.

We stopped to watch a “Poh Piah” skin maker making paper thin pancakes for spring rolls. It was quite fascinating. The man stood in front of two very hot plates/stoves and rubbed a ball of white elastic dough on each plate in turn, only leaving a small amount of dough behind on the plates. From a distance it looked like he actually touched the hot plates, but in fact it was only the dough touching it. A girl stood on the other side of the hot plates and within seconds would scrape the paper thin pancake off the stove. We didn’t see them fill and wrap the pancakes, they just seemed to sell stacks of them.

On we went taking in the chatter, colours and scents of the market until we left it behind us and carried on via Kimberley and Carnarvon Street.

Bless you.
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We reached the beautiful, wide Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling. It is possibly the only cobble-stoned street in Georgetown. Here we took in the monumental Kapitan Keling Mosque (for photo see our entry on 15th April – “Penang temples”), which is the largest historic mosque in town.

At the end of the street we turned left into Farquhar Street where we stopped at the Penang State Museum. This was the start of our walk a few days ago, and ever since we felt we missed out on actually visiting the museum.

I’m glad we did return as we were treated to beautiful displays of clothes, crockery and jewellery and well designed information boards and photos of Malaysia’s different cultures (European, Eurasian, Jewish, Chinese, Burmese, Javanese, and so many more) and history.

As we heard coach loads of tourists enter the museum we decided to head out in the warmth again in search of a nice, cooling fresh fruit juice.

We strolled back towards Little India and found our favourite juice place. While we were enjoying our orange and pineapple juices, one of the Indian men (the owner?) approached the girls and offered them a typical Indian sweet that looked like bright red worms all tangled up. It tasted quite sweet and sugary and went down well with both girls.

Once we had downed our drinks we headed back to the main road and caught a taxi to take us to the New World food court. None of us were feeling particularly hungry, so we settled for two banana pancakes and one order of poh piah.

I really love the vegetable spring rolls here, but the poh piah are different. These spring rolls don’t have many vegetables in and are not deep fried. The poh piah were paper thin pancakes (see above) wrapped around very soft chopped beansprouts, which were topped with chilli sauce. They tasted alright, but weren’t quite what I expected and I felt a little disappointed.

The girls shared a fresh orange juice and Tim and I tried a coconut drink. The fresh coconut milk was not at all refreshing and tasted quite bitter and salty. Again slightly disappointing.

Not as great as it looks.
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By now we were ready to have a siesta so we returned to the hotel, only to be disturbed by the kind cleaner who made our beds and cleaned the bathroom.

We spent the afternoon reading, playing games, watching “Brides at War” on tv and yet again looking into accommodation for Kota Kinabalu and Bali. I reckon our laptop (Happy Lappy) is getting pretty tired as the email is playing up. Sending emails needs to be done via Webmail, which can be quite lengthy, and now receiving emails seems tricky as well. I just hope that the laptop will hold out for a few more weeks…

Tim and I couldn’t decide which food court to return to for our last supper here, so we consulted the girls. They chose the restaurant opposite our hotel! (and wasn’t part of the original choice) So that was where we ended up for the third time this week.

We did quite like it there, the staff are friendly and helpful and the food is pretty good. This time the girls each chose a chicken cheese burger with chips (far too much for them) and Tim and I opted yet again for a set menu, which is really good value. We both loved the mushroom soup and had pasta dishes for mains (seafood for Tim and pesto & mushroom for me). For some unexplained reason the ice cream portions were smaller than last time, only one scoop instead of two! We were all feeling pretty full anyway…

Earlier in the day Tim phoned up Jimmy (our driver from a couple of days ago) to confirm our tour for tomorrow. He will pick us up again at 11am and after visiting some temples will drive us down to the airport for our early evening flight.

We’ll have a slightly slower start tomorrow and leave the packing for then…

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Bali and Briyani

A quiet day today. (Quiet? There’s a thunderstorm raging outside as I type…) We got up, hung around in our room, went out for lunch, came back, went out for tea, came back, etc. – you get the idea.

Not a do-nothing day, though. There was time for more numeracy with the girls and some online educational games; Ellen is now a member of the Roald Dahl website as well.

And hours and hours of fruitless quests for Bali accommodation. I had no idea that it would prove so tricky to find somewhere to stay in low season, nearly a month ahead of our arrival. Indonesia should be an inexpensive country for travel, and yet the hotel and villa prices are surely printing errors; it’s easy to spend over $1,000 (US), and that’s per night.

At the other extreme, you can get a basic bungalow for a few quid (say £3), but you’ll never find these on the Internet; the income would never pay for the website. We don’t want to arrive at 10pm without somewhere booked, so it’s a real challenge finding somewhere with good reviews and online booking that hasn’t been snapped up already – oh, and that welcomes families. So many places have doubles or maybe triples, but then expect extra children to share a bed.

So the final three weeks of our trip may prove to be the hardest to arrange, and possibly the most expensive. [If anyone has any tips or suggestions for Bali, do tell us!] At least once that’s sorted out we can relax and look forward to heading home.

Look forward to heading home? Yes; maybe it’s just me, but there comes a point when you’re taking a shower when you know you’re ready to turn off the water and come out, and it’s the same with extended travel. Seven weeks from today we should be back in England, and while there’s still plenty left to enjoy during the trip (Borneo and Bali), we won’t return feeling short-changed – except in the literal, financial sense… We’ll have an absolute wealth of memories, sights, impressions, new perspectives, and they’ll take a good amount of time to digest.

For example, what it is with Malaysia and pastel pink? When I saw the pink plates in restaurants in the Cameron Highlands I thought it was to do with the strawberries and cream thing there. But then we’ve had a pale pink bathroom door, those pink taxis on Pangkor Island…

And how long will it take us to readjust culturally once we return (like the travelling Firths continuing to speak Spanish when they arrived in New Zealand from Ecuador)? Pointing with the thumb is becoming automatic for us now – they also do this in Bali – so will we be taken for a bunch of deranged hitch-hikers back in the UK?

I do like the Food Court system where you simply choose your numbered table, order whatever bits and pieces you like from any of the dozens of stands around the perimeter (Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Czech, Allah Cart), and then sit down and pay as the dishes or drinks arrive. And all for under a pound, you know… (didn’t we have a luverly time?)

New World Park.
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We visited the New World Park food court for lunch – Fried Rice and Mee Goreng (fried noodles) to share, followed by a platter of fresh fruit – and then retuned to Red Garden for supper, where Hannah enjoyed another helping of salmon and I was taken aback at just how good my Chicken Briyani (that’s how they spell it here) tasted.

Fried lunch.
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My Briyani.
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On the way to supper we called in at the Penang Chocolate Mansion. Not the local equivalent of a gingerbread house, but still plenty of goodies inside. The girl who showed us round and gave us free tasting samples seemed to think that we had been there before. Sadly, she didn’t come out with “You must have a double” to which I could have replied “Don’t mind if I do.”

The chocolate samples came at such a speed – tiramisu, blueberry, coconut, strawberry, coffee, mint – that we couldn’t properly savour the various flavours; it was more of a stuff-it-in-as-quick-as-you-can. Kirsten was, like, bring it on (to use the popular vernacular) and didn’t feel the need to curb her tasting (whereas yesterday three sips of coffee were enough).
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We did our dutiful thing and bought some of the brown stuff at the end of the tour, but not too much as we need to finish it all before our long day’s journey into Borneo this Monday (where they have plenty of Borneoville chocolate anyway…)

One Bali-booking breakthrough; we have had an email confirming availability for a week near Ubud – it’s a rural retreat but near plenty of arty-crafty places, and the hotel even runs courses on batik and playing the gamelan (should keep everyone happy). Just waiting for three more replies, now.

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Both Tim and I had slightly broken nights. Me because of the air conditioning machine being noisy between 3 & 4 am and Tim despite the machine being quiet later on in the morning!

We decided to take our own instant coffee, apples and left over cake upstairs to the breakfast room. Coffee here is either very strong or very sweet or a combination of both – not quite how we like it.

On our way back to our room we stopped at reception to look into package tours on offer. One in particular seemed really interesting but at RM80/adult and RM50/child was a little pricey. The very helpful and kind receptionist suggested we hire a private guide and put our own itinerary together for only RM35/hour with a minimum of four hours. It didn’t take us long to work out the maths and booked the guide there and then.

He would be ready to collect us at 11am, so this gave us a good hour to get ready and read up on what we might want to visit. The girls used this time to make up a new game called “funny travellers” in which they would travel around the world with a big fat pillow tied on their back. If only our bags were that light!

Our driver, Jimmy, arrived shortly before 11am and we all immediately clicked. He was very helpful and a gentle driver.

We had chosen to start our tour with a visit to the batik factory on the north of the island. The road there was quite windy and littered with posh accommodations called “Moonlight Bay” and “Miami Beach”. He also pointed out some holiday homes which are for sale at RM 2 million (or £400,000) – they looked a little on the small side, really.

At one point we drove past one part of the coast that was hit by the tsunami a few years ago. There had been lots of damage to the fishing villages and 52 people lost their lives. Apparently this was mainly because people ran towards the receding sea when they saw lots and lots of fish…

A good 45 minutes after we left the hotel we finally arrived at the batik factory. Factory is probably not the right word, it was more a shop with a few tables outside on which pieces of fabric were handpainted. A very smiley guide showed us around, but unfortunately her accent made it very difficult for me to understand her. I believe the pattern is printed on the fabric using wax, then 3 or 4 different layers of paint is put on to make the colours darker. Eventually the wax is washed off in a bath of hot water. The wax keeps the colours separate when painting the fabric.
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Our visit ended with a walk around the shop. The kind lady guided us towards the girls’ clothes and made Ellen and Hannah try on some sarongs. They didn’t need much encouragement. They each chose a really beautiful piece of fabric and the lady wrapped and tied it around them. The girls looked so sweet, but unfortunately the price didn’t. Needless to say that the girls were disappointed when we told them it was just too expensive, but they did understand.

We managed to distract them with the promise of lunch and Jimmy guided us a little up the road where we stopped for chicken and rice. I really fancied some fried rice or naan bread, but this was one of those places where you get a plate of plain rice thrusted in your hands and then you help yourself to any vegetables, meat or fish dishes that look appetising.

We also ordered two ice lemon teas, but they were milky instead of lemony – not particularly nice.

Our next stop, the Tropical Fruit Farm, would offer our dessert. We paid for entrance tickets and then hung around for what seemed like ages. Eventually the mini van collected us and drove us 2 minutes up the hill where our tour started.

Our guide started by explaining that none of the fruits grown here were used for export, it was mainly for their own and tourists’ consumption.

Here follows a list of some of the fruits and nuts we were shown:

macadamia nut: sometimes also called the Hawaiian or Australian nut. It can take up to 10 or 11 years to grow the first nut and these nuts are very expensive.

tropical avocado: round in shape unlike the European version.

carunda or blood fruit: it is olive shaped and turns from pink to black. When ripe the juice inside is the colour of blood, it has a sour taste.
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acerola: they resemble small apples, have a sour taste and are high in vitamin C.

dragonfruit: We learned that the dragonfruit grows on a cactus and is called “pitaya” in South America. In Asia they are mainly grown in Vietnam.
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pineapple: 9 months after planting the fruit will be ripe. Each plant only grows one fruit, then they plant the top of the pineapple which grows into a new plant that will produce one more fruit.

star apple: the inside is star shaped, white and milky and has a sweet taste. There is also a purple variety which has a different taste.

small bananas and large plantains: there are 30 different types of banana in Malaysia. The plantains are mainly used in cooking as they are much bigger and thicker. We have to look out for pisang goreng or banana fritters as they are absolutely yummy.

water apple: very crunchy and juicy and come in pink, white, green and yellow variety.

mulberry: is mainly grown in Indonesia and Thailand, not for the fruit, but for the silkworms that like to feed on these leaves.

coconut: the young coconuts are used for their juice and the fresh flesh whereas the older brown coconuts are used in cooking and for making coconut oil.

Other fruits we saw were the chirimoya (custard apple), figs, guava, jack-fruit, mangosteen, papaya and rambutan (or hairy fruit which tastes like lychees).

Custard apple.
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Our tour ended by a visit to the fruit bar. Our tickets included an all-you-can-eat fruit buffet and one freshly-prepared fruit juice.
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Between us we tried juicy pineapple, refreshing and thirst quenching water apple, melon, watermelon, yellow watermelon, jack fruit, some juicy and sweet orange, starfruit, sweet banana and disappointingly dry pomelo. Our juices were pineapple (Hannah), pineapple & watermelon (Ellen), pineapple & honeydew melon (Kirsten) and a disappointing lime & starfruit for Tim.
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With full stomachs we drove back downhill towards the botanical gardens near Penang Hill. On the way there Jimmy suggested a visit to the Coffee Tree, where we could taste different coffees free of charge.

Tim and I were handed little plastic cups in which this lady poured white coffee. It tasted extremely sweet and when Tim asked if coffee in Malaysia was always drunk with sugar, we were poured the same coffee but without sugar. It tasted completely different and so much better. We had barely finished our second sample when she held up a third thermos, this time filled with coconut coffee. I was hinting to Tim that I had had my coffee fix by now and really couldn’t manage any more without feeling sick. She then offered me some ginger tea, but again I had to decline. I’m not too keen on ginger, and I wouldn’t have done it any justice.

The girls were getting a little fidgety as there wasn’t really anything for them. So we thanked the lady and walked over to the chocolates. She followed us and offered us little pieces of tiramisu chocolate which went down very well with everyone.

Just like at the batik factory, everything seemed pricey so we made our retreat and decided to visit the Chocolate House (near our hotel) instead in the next couple of days.

By now the sky had turned a threatening grey, but we decided to carry on towards the botanic gardens. Once there we hopped on one of those little trams that lead us all around the area, normally we would have walked but we didn’t really trust that dark sky.

Before we entered the gardens, our guide had warned us not to hold any food in our hands as the monkeys would jump on us and demand food. The girls took this on board and even refused to take their water bottles with them!

On our trip on the tram we saw some cannonball trees, a collection of palm trees and the odd monkey. We were somewhat disappointed by the small number of cheeky animals, but once back at the entrance we spotted a large number of them climbing these cannonball trees.
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Cannonball tree.
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As we were taking a few photos it started to spit with rain, and we only got back to the car just in time to avoid a deluge.

Tim suggested calling it a day as it would be too wet to visit the Kek Lok Si temple. Jimmy agreed and dropped us off at our hotel, but not before we asked him to drive us on another tour on Monday afternoon before taking us to the airport for our flight to Kuching.

Back at the hotel we had some biscuits before tackling diaries and blog.

We had supper across the road again. This time I shared fish & chips with Hannah and Tim & Ellen shared grilled Holland fish with ham, pineapple and cheese. We also ordered an extra portion of chips to go round. For dessert we had two vanilla & chocolate ice creams.

Then back to our hotel, baths for the girls and blog and photos for the grown-ups.

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Penang temples

We were all awake before eight o’clock so we made a prompt start to the day, downing breakfast and taking a taxi to the historical sector of Georgetown before 9 am.

Breakfast on the roof.
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There we briefly debated whether to wait five minutes for Penang Museum to open or whether to walk around and see the sights before it got too hot. Since the day was still relatively cool and the low sun gave welcome shade, it didn’t take us too long to go for the second option – cool museums could provide relief in the blazing middle of the day.

We followed a route suggested in the Lonely Planet (what a misnomer) and early on by the waterfront we found ourselves seated next to a UK/Australian couple who are also improvising their way around Malaysia. They asked for a peek inside our guidebook to decide whether to do a certain hike on the island, but the sentence stating that trails are “not well marked and not recommended” soon put them off.

A Chinese man approached Hannah and asked “Why do you like coming to the seaside?” He then started to babble on incoherently at great length while we all nodded politely, not understanding a word he said. I don’t think it was purely a language issue; I suspect he was a few bricks short of a Great Wall. [Or is that too Prince Philip?]

We soon agreed that it was time to move on, so we continued our route past the City Hall and then the Town Hall (why do they have both?), these grand and sedate old buildings a complete contrast to the ramshackle shops, vivid colours and blaring music of Little India. Here we paused for a drink at a corner cafe – orange, watermelon and starfruit juices to rehydrate us.

City Hall.
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A bit further on it all went Chinese again, and we looked round two temples; Hock Teik Cheng Sin and Khoo Kongsi. The first was a space-share as opposed to a time-share; four different clans used designated parts of the temple complex, complete with secret passageways through to neighbouring shophouses. We were shown an intricately-carved wooden thingumajig which they carry through the streets during annual processions; “It’s the only one in the whole world. Men from China came over here and offered us 6 million Ringgit for it but we wouldn’t sell it.”
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Six Million Ringgit thingumajig.
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The second was the Khoo clanhouse (no ‘klux’); members of this family emigrated from China and settled all over South-East Asia, establishing successful business empires (rice trading, etc.). The basement houses a museum outlining the Khoo history and genealogy as well as a recreation of a kitchen, and then you go upstairs to soak up the usual black, red and gold eye candy.

Khoo Kongsi.
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Khoo cook’s pan.
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We now returned to our Indian place for a snack lunch; Kirsten and I tried Roti, a sort of pancake with a wide range of possible fillings including the bizarre chocolate and egg (together). We opted for cheese and banana (separately), and we’ll have to try these again; they’re delicious! Indeed, the girls preferred them to their own orders of Naan bread (which were a little dry).

Mosque.
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The mid-day sun now drove us indoors, but to the Komtar shopping centre (by taxi again) rather than the museum. I had established the name of the phantom bookshop that we failed to find yesterday, and this time when we asked for directions a security chap led us through hundreds of yards of labyrinthine alleyways between empty shop units until we emerged into a cavernous temple of consumerism, a multi-storey pagoda of commerce. We had totally missed this section of the shopping centre on our first visit, and sure enough, there was the Popular Bookshop occupying a quarter of Level 4.

The girls scooted across to the Junior Fiction section, Kirsten found herself a new notebook and I searched for travel guides to Bali (I couldn’t improve on the one that Ellen spotted within seconds). Prices are marginally lower than the UK rrp, but we still found ourselves spending a hefty 30 quid on four books.

After a quick supermarket visit to get some biscuits, we faced the problem of how to find our way back to our entry point. No signs, no landmarks and we had forgotten our ball of string (or trail of rice) on the way here. Fortunately Kirsten remembered the name of the big department store we visited yesterday, so another security chap pointed us up to Level 2, across the bridge and into the back of this store. From here we walked back to our hotel, stopping at Sam’s Batik House where Kirsten added to her wardrobe with a nice cool silk sarong.

Time to cool off with the air conditioning on full blast. The girls delved straight into their new books; Ellen almost finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before bedtime while Hannah paced herself with the lengthier Little Women.

Ellen with Roald.
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Meanwhile I carried on sorting out our Kuching accommodation; it doesn’t help when hotels don’t answer the questions you ask by email, so I phoned two of them to sort things out (via an echoey and poor-quality Skype connection). We should have three nights in a well-reviewed rainforest tree house over Hannah’s birthday, with stays at different (and also well-reviewed) hotels either side of that. Everywhere is getting booked up rapidly; I’m surprised it’s so busy.

The final weeks of our trip are now crystallising; we have all five AirAsia flights in place, no thanks to my Smile credit card which was declined for the final booking. So we fly from Penang to Kuching to Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur (connection) to Denpasar (Bali) to Singapore. And then home the following day to Heathrow on June 5th.

We returned to the Red Garden food court for supper, sharing spring rolls and slices of sausages along with two plates of fried rice. All very flavoursome, and just the right amount to fill us up. When I bought two slices of freshly-baked cake (coconut and banana) for dessert, the chunks were so huge that we took the uneaten majority back with us to enjoy tomorrow.

Talking of majorities, and just to let you know how out of touch we are, we were taken by surprise to learn today (via CNN) that there is a General Election in the offing; you sort of lose track of the years. Probably a bit tricky to get a postal vote from here, though…

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We all had a pretty solid night, only occasionally waking up due to the ticking sound of the air conditioning unit.

We had a slow start and it had already gone 9am by the time we made our way upstairs to the rooftop restaurant for breakfast.

Breakfast was a self-service bar with a choice of muesli, cornflakes, bread/toast, butter, jam, peanut butter, marmite or honey, four different cordials and fairly strong coffee. Eggs or sausages can be ordered at an extra cost, but there were no rice or noodle dishes though! It was a welcome change, but I do wonder how long it would be before we might crave fried rice for breakfast… Why is it we always want the things we can’t have?

Shortly after 10am we dropped off our two bags of washing and headed down to Jalan Penang, the main shopping street, in search of the Komtar Shopping Centre.

We were running low on some toiletries and Tim was hoping to purchase another memory card to store some of our photos on. We were surprised to find most shops still closed at nearly 11am. When I asked the girl in the chemist she informed us that the other shops would open around mid-day. Also they don’t hand out plastic shopping bags on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays. A good thing that both Tim and I had a bag/rucksack with us.

At the back of the ground floor was a huge, well stocked supermarket, called Pacific. So we decided to do some window shopping there to kill time. Ellen asked how could we window shop when the shop doesn’t have any windows! The lay-out resembled a “western” supermarket and it was a lot brighter and more organised than the big Tesco supermarket in Melaka, where none of the aisles were labelled and we spent ages looking for the things we needed.

We travelled up the escalator and ended up in a large department store. The girls enjoyed choosing some hair accessories, like alice bands, scrunchies and a big butterfly shaped hairgrip. I asked the lady where I could pay and she led me to one side and wrote out a receipt. I was ready to hand over the cash, but was surprised when she directed me to a cash counter where I could finally part with the RM11 it all came to. Why couldn’t I pay her direct, or could the cashier write out my receipt? Is this the Malaysian way of keeping unemployment numbers down?

It was slowly coming up to lunchtime so we visited the downstairs bakery where Hannah chose a tuna sandwich, Ellen had a ham & cheese roll, Tim had a slightly spicy pizza slice and I tried the blueberry bun.

Looking at the floor plan we noticed there were a lot more shops at the other side. We crossed over and entered a different shopping centre, again with quite a lot of shops closed or empty. After walking around for a while we returned to the Komtar shopping centre and found a computer shop. He found out that a memory card would cost more than twice the price back in England. When he mentioned this to the shop assistant, the price came down from RM399 to RM250 (in England it would RM100!). Needless to say we didn’t buy that one.

Before returning to our hotel we paid one last visit to the supermarket to buy some fruit, juice, shampoo and chocolates (to have straight after paying).

On our way back we passed Sam’s Batik House, apparently *the* place to buy sarongs and fabrics. Traffic made it difficult to cross the road and Hannah was feeling too hot. We’ll visit it at a different time of day.

Back at the hotel, the girls and I cooled off while Tim dashed out again in search of a computer shop that was pointed out to him by a kind Chinese couple. We had a lovely chat with them about the girls, apparently they had four(!) daughters and no sons. Often we are asked if we only have the two girls and no boys, seems like having sons is still important here.

By the time he returned the girls had finished writing yesterday’s diary entry and they managed to fool him when he asked them to catch up with their diary.

Tim wrote yesterday’s blog entry and I managed to catch up on a couple of emails (still a few to type and send) and the girls put on a “magic” show for us.

For supper we chose the restaurant opposite our hotel. It’s called “Louis Cafe” and is probably the poshest restaurant we have been to in South East Asia. (What soup would you like, Ma’am?) Tim and I settled for a three course set menu with mushroom soup and chicken cordon blue for Tim and carrot soup and fettucini carbonara for me. The set menu also included a drink (no fresh juice, though) and dessert of the day (vanilla & chocolate ice cream). The girls chose fresh watermelon and orange juices and fish & chips to share. They also rounded off their meal with vanilla/mint ice cream.

Although the service was really good, helpful and kind waitresses, and the food was delicious (apart from Tim’s undercooked chicken), I think we will remember this restaurant for their choice of music. We heard about four or five different Abba songs, but they were not the original or film versions and were rather cheesily funny. The girls cracked up several times, especially when it was a girly sort of song sung by a man.

Before the girls could embarrass us even more we retreated back across the road to the safety of our room.

We’ll try and have an earlier night so that we could be out and about tomorrow morning before the weather gets too hot…

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A long and leisurely travel day. More downpours during the night, but Kirsten’s sixth sense saved us from a soggy pile of clothes when she brought all our washing inside at some early hour. Well, maybe not a sixth sense – she heard a distant rumble of thunder.

Meanwhile, the only memorable feature of my night was a dream in which it was exceedingly important that I learn Morse Code. Don’t know why; there was just this burning necessity for the future. Anyone care to interpret that one?

In the morning we breakfasted on cereal again, in between doing all our packing – no rush to do it last night. There was even time left for doing diaries in the hotel cafe area – lots of table space there.

The owner came over to do his usual chatty thing, though it was obvious from the number of attempts it took him to switch on the correct fans that he doesn’t usually do that himself. (The place is so empty that perhaps he and his wife have given all the staff the day off.)

He noted approvingly that the girls were busy working, and then proceeded to distract them by talking about his expertise in ‘simplification maths’ – “Can you multiply two-digit numbers in your head? What’s 42×48? 2016. What’s 23×27? 621. Do you know simplification maths? You’ll find books about it here. The Rule of 10. Do you know the Rule of 11? The Rule of 9?” Er… maybe (this was directed to me as a Maths teacher rather than to the girls).

Further probing revealed that his amazing mental arithmetic only works if the tens are the same and the units add up to 10; in other words, for about 1% of all possible cases.

He said he used to be a QBA lecturer (I think that’s Quantitative Business Analysis rather than Quite Bloody Annoying) before using the family trust fund to set up this resort “for the children”. “You know what our tag line is? Arrive as a stranger, leave as a friend.” And he hinted that if you didn’t want to be his friend then he had no time for you whatsoever.

We signed the proffered Guest Book. Now is it just an English thing to moan in private but make no public fuss, or is it pure self-interest? For instance, if you complain in a restaurant what unhygienic act of revenge will they perform on your next dish? And here, they are in possession of your credit card details so they have you by the financial genitals, so to speak. Spoil the guest book with negative observations and you might get billed for a phantom breakage… So we just said nice things about the swimming pool and left it at that.

We dropped our bags at reception and went in search of lunch at our favourite street cafe. Closed. Okay, change of plan. Let’s get out of here, take a pink minibus to the jetty, get the ferry to Lumut and walk to the bus terminal.

So that’s what we did. Full credit to the wily taxi driver who responded to my “How much is it?” with “How much did you pay when you arrived?”

We just missed the 11.30 boat but could wait on board the next one in full air-conditioned comfort. In Lumut the walk to the bus station was longer and less obvious than we had expected; we barely made it with our eight bags weighing us down.

Our coach would depart from bay 3 at 2 pm so we had time to sit down and grab a snack. Kirsten bought three bags of fruit pieces for 1 Ringgit each; wonderfully refreshing pineapple and watermelon, and a medley of what we expected to be apple and melon but turned out to be a selection of mystery fruits – all new to us bar two bits of pineapple – which we didn’t like too much. Also a pathetically empty bag of crisps (90% air) and some rather good cashew nuts.

At last it was time to board the coach. We occupied our allocated seats and hoped that there would be space to put our bags somewhere (once again the overhead storage was inadequate for our bulgy rucksacks). Only seven passengers? Great – let’s dump our stuff on the seats in front of us.

A couple of hours later we drew into our half-way stop, Kuala Kangsar. Here the coach really filled up, but we managed to keep two seats for bags. We now zoomed north up the highway towards our destination.

I think it’s remarkably thoughtful of Malaysia to name not just one but two towns after an oft-overlooked English composer who was killed during the First World War at the early age of 31. Thus we disembarked at Butterworth and took our second ferry of the day across to Georgetown on the island of Penang.

We were bamboozled by the ferry ticket system; I walked up to the booth, asked for two adults and two children and received a stack of coins in return for my 10 Ringgit note. Are there any tickets? No.

So we started to go through the barrier gates, only to be stopped by another man telling us to insert the correct fare into the machines; one for children (anak-anak or sometimes kanak-kanak – don’t know why it varies) and one for adults (dewasa). So we had to dig those coins out again, sort them into two lots of 60 sen and two lots of RM1.20, send the girls through their channel and then heave our 15kg rucksacks over the top as we went through ourselves (my poor ribs…)

We could then board the ferry and relax for a bit. Views behind us of ugly, industrial Butterworth and ahead to Georgetown’s skyscrapers rising through the evening haze. (No, there’s no musical connection really, and no banks of green willow.)
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To our left, the 13 kilometre long road bridge connecting Penang to the mainland; it’s one of the longest in Asia.
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On the other side, another arm-achingly long trek with our luggage to get to the taxi rank, then a short drive to bring us to the Hotel Mingood. We checked in with no fuss and found our family room on the first floor; it’s huge!

By now we were in need of a good meal, but the recommended restaurant directly opposite our hotel is closed on Tuesdays. So we were directed to the Red Garden Food Court off Penang Road where we tried a Japanese eatery; Salmon Kani for the girls to share and Salmon/Beef Teriyaki for Kirsten and me. As we sat at our plastic table, an arrangement of Monti’s Czardas blared out from overhead speakers (the violinist chickened out of the harmonics section, though).

As we walked back to the hotel, we noticed that all the taxis here have registration plates beginning ‘HP’. Standing for Hannah Price, obviously – so she was delighted to have her photo taken next to HP 2404, her birth date.

Kirsten’s Birkenstocks bought two weeks ago are starting to fall apart. Perhaps we should take them back to Germany and complain…

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