Tuesday, 7 February 2012

YEAR OF THE DRAGON vs THAIPUSAM- Two Weeks in Penang

2012- Year Of The Dragon

Our reasons for coming to Penang were varied- get a couple of visas for the next part of our travels, experience Chinese New Year in a Chinese community, see the Indian Thaipusam Festival, and catch up with a few travel friends. We didn't expect there to be such a varied amount of festivities going on, and to have such a busy and wonderful two weeks!


Georgetown beauty

Our hostel

Street art, Georgetown

Georgetown

Local color

Cheap, but dodgy


We arrived on the 22nd January- the eve of Chinese New Year, and were lucky enough to nab one of the few available rooms in town. The Chinese community is very prevalent in Georgetown (the main town on the island of Penang), and the whole neighborhood comes out in force to celebrate this important time of the year- literally with a bang. They certainly love their fireworks and firecrackers, and aren't afraid to let them off at any time of day or night, often in the middle of the road. Everyday there were activities going on around town, with loud music, traditional dancing, costumes and food. We joined the throng, and enjoyed the color, excitement and carnival atmosphere.


CNY decorations

Sculptured fruit

Little performers

Colorful madness

Very loud drummers

CNY performers
Local cutie

Some spectacular fireworks

CNY crowds

Dressed up local

Helluva big incense

Worshiping, CNY

Tear inducing incense

One particular highlight was the temple Kek Lok Si. Although we have visited Penang before, we had never seen this temple, and decided this would be a good time, as the entire place is lit up at night for CNY. We arrived to find an impressively big, but rather cheesy new-ish temple with lots of bright colors and plastic statues. However, as we stood at the top of the pagoda enjoying the impressive view out over Penang, darkness fell, and the display of lights was breathtaking. We've never seen such a brilliant illumination anywhere to rival this!


Blue haired Buddha?

Kek Lok Si Temple

View of Penang from Kek Lok Si

Tacky by day....

Gorgeous at night!!

Stunning dragon lit up

Padoga lights

Kek Lok Si Temple lights

In quieter moments, we loved simply strolling around town soaking up the character of the most atmospheric Chinatown we have experienced. We can never be bored here!


Georgetown

Georgetown

Georgetown

Georgetown

Georgetown

It was lovely to catch up with various friends here too (Penang is such a popular, cheap, easy and comfortable  place for travelers), including our "newlyweds" from Sulawesi, looking a little different from the last time we saw them!


Jimmy and Rahma looking better with no heavy make up!!


Probably the main reason for our visit here, was the Southern Indian festival of Thaipusam. It has now spread to many of the countries with large Tamil communities, including Malaysia. The festival focuses on sacrifice and offerings for Lord Murga (son of Shiva), who's birthday it is, and participants fast for a month before the special day. You can read more about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/holydays/thaipusam.shtml

The revelries last for 3 days, with the first day involving a lively procession of families and the silver chariot through the town, with many offerings going back forth on the chariot to welcome Lord Murga. The parade is proceeded by hundreds of coconuts that are broken by the pilgrims, and followed by an efficient cleaning team of dozens of men and vehicles to clean it all up (so Malaysian!).


Silver chariot

Chariot in Thaipusam crowd

Thaipusam devotee

Offerings to Lord Murga


Feeding the masses

Cleaning up


Short video of day one:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CKdPMdvVDc&feature=youtu.be

We pulled ourselves out of bed at 5am the morning of the second day (I can't believe we used to get up at this time for work!), and prepared ourselves for what we expected would be an intense second day. The tone changed, with the addition of pieced and mutilated pilgrims. Some devotees choose to believe that the only way to salvation is to endure a penance of pain and hardship, and this became more and more evident throughout the day. The photos are the best explanation really:

Thaupusam priest


The line up to the hilltop temple

Mass of devotees
Woman having something horrible done to her

Each cup is attached by a hook

Very out of it

Big skewers

Penance


A few woman joined the frenzy

Bit of a mad look in his eye

Long way to go still
Limes... different

Extreme coconuts

Buddhist tattoos at a Hindi festival

Looks painful

Looks like a Christmas tree
More penance

That's not blood, but still....



It was such an exhilarating and crazy day full of color and loud music, but we were so exhausted at the end- we could only imagine how the devotees felt, after a full day dragging things about by hooks in their backs, through the streets, then up hundreds of steps in the blazing sun!
An interesting point was the timing of the Muslim celebration of the Prophet Mohammad during the same time frame as both Chinese New Year and Thaipusam, very much accentuating the multi-ethnicity of Malaysia more than ever, as read here:

http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/2/6/nation/10684414&sec=nation



  • One more thing- Penang has so many retro, and older, signs around town, and I love them so much and would like to share them!









Next stop- Thailand, for some more of that R and R beach time we love so much!!

Georgetown heritage

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