Penang – clashing and cuddling cultures

I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth repeating – the way this melting pot of a city comes together is quite beautiful. So many cultural backgrounds, so many religions, so many different people on the streets.

For me, in a city this small, one of the easiest places to see this is in how they pray.

The official religion is Islam (I think – don’t sue me if I get this wrong!) but interestingly there are only a few mosques inner city – we saw more as we whizzed past suburbs in taxi’s, on the search for my personal temple; H&M…

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What you mostly see in George Town are Buddhist temples. Grand scale, small scale, hidden behind gates, the heart of a community, ornate or simple… They’re found on most corners, welcoming any and all in. The smell of incense, the step over the wooden step into the concrete floored holy place – bare feet on cold ground.

To go off point for a moment, my favourite Buddhist temple is one with an open courtyard in the middle. I love the feel of cold concrete underfoot which suddenly changes to painfully hot sun drenched stone. I like that there’s more air, that there’s some sense of inside and outside – because if you’re going to believe in a god, wouldn’t it be one that exists in both places? But that’s just me…

Anyway, there were so many different temples to be a tourist inside of;

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From there you see a wonderful and smaller mix of number Christian churches and Hindu temples. I read somewhere along the way this week that there used to even be a Jewish enclave, now diminished or gone.

Penang. So much mixed up goodness.

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On the streets of Penang…

One of the more surprising highlights of Penang, and George Town in particular, has been the prolific amounts of quality street art to be found.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t come close to finding the best stuff. And I know that some of the better known street art doesn’t exist anymore – such is the transience of the art form.

From what I can work out, a lot of it has been commissioned tourism attraction artwork, as part of Penang’s bid to win and maintain their UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The earlier work originated from around 2009 (they get UNESCO status in 2008) and reflects the culture and history of the streets in which the work can be found.

Most of it is well maintained, and there’s more and more every year from what the locals told us. I sort of wish I’d made more of an effort to find it all, but the street art was also difficult to photograph, being a huge tourism draw.

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Penang and a bit of real life…

Holidays -for me – are about escaping reality and going on adventures. Usually. But sometimes you can’t avoid real life, and that’s part of my reality as a traveller with ulcerative colitis.

Sometimes it’s fine. Sometimes very much not. Sometimes a holiday is an amazing experience, but wears my body down so much it’ll take weeks post holiday to recover.

I’m pretty practical and pragmatic about having colitis. I prepare, I self manage diet and drugs when needs be, I have no interest in pity or allowing myself to be a victim of my particular brand of defect. And I’m certainly not going to let it stop me from seeing as much of the world as possible.

BUT. Some days all I can cope with is a pool, a mocktail, and a book. Et Voila!

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While this holiday has been a little harder than most, health-wise, I’ve been extremely lucky that I’ve had a gorgeous hotel to go back to every afternoon, filled with the smiliest and most welcoming staff.

I don’t usually write about non travel related stuff in this blog, but I guess not talking about traveling with colitis was beginning to look like an omission, since so much thought and planning goes into trying to mitigate it. And so much adapting happens day to day to allow for how I’m feeling. It’s simply a fact of (my) traveling life.

So some days are quieter than others. That’s ok – it’s all part of the journey.

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Another day in Penang, another mode of transport!

With humidity at almost 100% the desire to walk anywhere was, umm, nil. It’s a lazy girl in Penang day for Day Four!

First up, a ferry ride to Butterworth. Admittedly there wasn’t much to see on the other side (although we did have the best iced white coffee to date at s truck stop near the station) but the ride itself was lovely. The ferry is also a car and scooter transporter, so you’re really sharing a boat with everything and everyone Penang has to offer. This is also the closest we’ve got to the longest bridge in the world. 27kms of engineering… That’s half a bloody Marathon if you’re so inclined. Which I’m definitely not in this heat!

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Then it was time to lie back and be a lady of leisure as some poor trishaw driver cycles my big westerner butt around the island. Did I mention it was hot?! I didn’t envy that poor guy. But he did it with much humour.

One of the fascinating things about Penang has been how sweet everyone is. Traveling through China a number of times has made me wary of anyone who offers above and beyond. I always expect the hidden cost at the end of a transaction. Or the quote to double once the tide has been taken, because the quote was per person, but they didn’t mention that at the beginning. But on this trip my trust in humanity has been restored. Penangites are so proud of their city they clamor to share and show with you, at no extra cost. And our trishaw guide was no different. We ended up back at done sights we’d already seen, but his additional comments made them so much more interesting. This remains one of the friendliest places I’ve ever travelled to.

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Penang from the back of a taxi!

Day three in Penang and unusually for us, we decide it’s worthwhile getting a taxi. Whilst the island is small, public transport leaves a lot to be desired, and some of the sights are a little too far to easily get to. Also, it’s so ridiculously cheap it seemed silly not to!

First up, the Penang Hill. 700 meters above sea level, climbed via a ridiculously persistent funicular. Like a mountain goat it steadily climbs the hill almost perpendicular to the ground. Filled with tourists who, like me, have obviously been enjoying the many amazing taste sensations in Malaysia, I can’t deny being a little concerned about whether we’d make it. But reach the apex, we did! Amongst our many rewards when we got there – monkeys in the trees and a lovely, if slightly hazy, view of Penang Island.

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Then on to one of the largest temples I’ve ever seen, the Kek Lok Si Temple. We went up another mountain, this time in an inclined lift, and used our own two legs to get to the top of a 5 story pagoda.

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And finally, just because we were in the hood – a butterfly farm. Ooh – pretty!!!

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Penang – day of meandering

An odd day. A wonderful day. A hot day.

Ok, those of you who know me well have already seen the warning sign… A hot day. And my, umm, temperament? I stayed civil, but admittedly I didn’t splurge on standing in the sun and taking photos.

Having said that it was still a nice historical day. And then a crazy short hanging out in a bar with Serbians and skulls. Penang, it really is a melting pot.

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Penang – A History lesson!

There’s something about old colonial towns that always appeals to me. The photos of the past always seem that little bit more romantic. The mix of architecture a little more intriguing. The contrasting religions a little more curious.

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George Town is perhaps where the differences are the most obvious. You can be walking past a large colonial style porch-bedecked building on one street;

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And then you turn a corner and you’re suddenly in the middle of Little India…

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Once you’ve woven your way through the spicy samosa smells, Bollywood blaring from the streets, and shops upon shops of sari merchants, you’ve then stumbled into China Town…

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The beauty of this city is how the move from conclave to conclave never seems jarring, but a beautifully made quilt of cultural co-habitation.