Tuesday, 26 May 2015

THE WAITING GAME- Penang, Malaysia

With Rich fighting fit again, we enjoyed our stay (as usual) in KL, and were lucky enough to pick up a couple of jobs as film extras.

The first was a Chinese movie with a futuristic feel, and a bizarre sounding plot line- something to do with a plane crash, followed by an encounter with an island full of mutated cats! It was a long 24 hour shoot, and not quite as professional as we experienced last year, but it was great to do something so different and we met a lot of lovely people from different backgrounds and nationalities working as extras and living in KL. Apparently there are some people trying to make a living within this industry!

The second job was for Rich, and involved him dubbing the lines of an actor playing an army captain with an extremely strong Scottish brogue in a local movie set in Sarawak in the 1960's. It was quite difficult for Rich, as he had to be loud and angry in the scene, not something that comes naturally to him, but after a few takes he really nailed it, and sounded very professional! It was extremely interesting to see how the dubbing process works, and will be even more interesting to see how it turns out when it reaches the cinema here!

Rich dubbing his own voice in, KL

We were also very fortunate to time our KL visit with that of a lovely couple we had met in Iran, and although we didn't have a of of time together, spending the evening with them was the little touch of Iran we'd been missing so much.

Enjoying dinner with Fatima and Masoud from Tehran

Penang was calling (or rather, the casting people from Indian Summers!), so we made the 4.5 bus trip up to the island. As far as places to linger, Penang is not a bad option. Numerous visits to the city had shown us it had an unhurried pace, but also plenty of activities to occupy our time. We know the Georgetown heritage area quite well, but we now had time and the opportunity to explore further, into other parts of Penang island. The majority of our days were spent in a leisurely manner, checking out previously unseen (by us!) sights and areas around the island.

The Snake Temple at Bayan Lepas was something different and unexpected. Back in the day when the place was surrounded by jungle, snakes began to enter the temple, and were accepted as something special and holy. Now the concrete jungle has taken over, but the snakes are still  welcomed, and have become something of a tourist attraction. Mostly the pit vipers just hung around looking bored, but apparently they are still capable of poisoning, so we kept our fingers clear!

Sleeping Buddhist nun, Snake Temple, Bayan Lepas, Penang

Snake Temple, Bayan Lepas, Penang

Pit vipers, Snake Temple, Bayan Lepas, Penang

Clan houses and jetties are particular to Penang, and have an compelling history (which we found out at Penang Museum!). When Chinese migrants first began moving onto the island, centers were set up for the new comers by their fellow countrymen to help them feel welcome and make connections with their kin folk from back home. Many settled on the waterfront jetties (where, interestingly, the residents don't pay any tax as they are not officially on Penang land), and large numbers of their splendid clan houses are dotted around town, some open to visitors.

Clan deity, Penang

Clan jetty, Penang

Interesting window, Clan jetty, Penang

Clan jetty, Penang

Offerings of Guinness- no wonder he has a black tongue!! Penang
Candles burning in a clan house, Georgetown

A fire walking festival at a Hindu temple was another excursion one evening, the first time we have actually seen people in a trance walking and running over hot coals. It was something to do with the Tamil New Year (Pathandu), and the turn out was rather large (hence the terrible photos- it was very difficult to see, and a lot of pushing going on for the best vantage points!) After some time, and dozens of runners, the loud music started and a group of rather drunken and rowdy young men turned up with an enormous statue, and we took our leave.

Preparing to run the coals with a baby, Penang

Running on the coals in a trance, Penang

Cooling the feet at the end, Penang

Keeping with the multicultural feel of Penang, another evening was spent at Vaiskhi, a Sikh celebration. Apparently as well as promoting their culture, it was also the celebration of the day the caste system was abolished for the Sikhs and the name Singh (Lion) instated in their religion. As there are not a huge number of Sikhs here on Penang, a few token Tamils were roped in to help with the numbers, and provided some fantastic and colourful entertainment. We unfortunately ate before we arrived and couldn't partake in the very typically Sikh free food on offer.

Boys with beards, Sikh festival, Penang

Lights and glamour, Sikh festival, Penang

Lights and glamour, Sikh festival, Penang

Beautifully made up, Sikh festival, Penang

Next on the cultural agenda was a festival celebrating the end of the rice harvest for the dayak people from Malaysian Borneo (obviously symbolic in Penang!). This evening contrasted the other events we had attended in that it seemed to be mostly for the very vocal members of the Borneo community living here, with almost no foreign tourists present. But of course, everyone was welcome, and this time we were pleased to have empty stomachs to enjoy the free food and drinks that were provided. The costumes from Sarawak and Sabah were beautiful, and we recalled some similarities in design and patterns to the attire we saw in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). We enjoyed some dancing, a blowpipe competition, and a bizarre "Mr and Miss Borneo" type parade, before the local politician arrived, and we left to avoid the boring, long speeches.

Beautiful costumes, Penang Borneo Festival

Dancers from a different region, Penang Borneo Festival

Waiting to perform, Penang Borneo Festival

The dancers in action, Penang Borneo Festival

We always love the National Park at Teluk Bahang on the far western tip of Penang island, and another day was spent in a sweat walking through the park's jungle to a mostly undisturbed beach that was home to a turtle sanctuary and, surprisingly, a community of long term travelers in it's basic camping ground. After a look at the sweet little baby turtles awaiting release back into the ocean, we had a cup of tea and chat with a lovely Polish couple traveling the world by camping and hitchhiking.

Turtle Sanctuary, Teluk Bahang National Park, Penang

Babies awaiting release, Teluk Bahang National Park, Penang

Teluk Bahang National Park, Penang

Teluk Bahang National Park, Penang

The low point of the Penang day trips would have to Batu Ferringhi. We have passed this area many times on the bus going elsewhere, but never stopped  before. We assumed it must have something going for it because of the huge numbers of holidays makers who come here for the beach, but were bitterly disappointed. Not only is the beach dirty and water murky and unappealing for sitting on and swimming, the jet skis racing around at high speed making a huge amount of noise really spoilt the place. Also, the fact that it was mostly locals and Middle Eastern honeymoon types here, we didn't feel comfortable to strip off to our bathers to swim and relax. Add to that an unattractive strip along the road with over priced restaurants, posh hotels, high rises and no shade, and we didn't even stay for the approaching sunset.

Other times were spent in Georgetown, with plenty of activities to keep us busy, including museums, temples, markets, a free jazz afternoon, wandering around some of the traditional craftsmen in the area (including incense, rattan, sign makers), catching up on recent movies at the cinemas, trying the MANY different eateries (tried durian coffee for the first, and definitely the last time!), and checking out some of the arty shops in the heritage buildings.

Colourful mural, Georgetown, Penang

Nice old sign, Georgetown, Penang

Hand made incense, Georgetown, Penang
Colourful flowers for offerings, Georgetown, Penang

Temple shop, Georgetown, Penang

Time appeared to be running away from us, and we decided it would be a good time to do a visa run to Thailand and come back to Malaysia with a new visa before we got busy here. We passed the time on the train to Hat Yai, Thailand, chatting with an eccentric trainspotter from the UK (aren't they always?!), and after a night near Hat Yai station, had a couple of days in Satun, very near the south western border with Malaysia. It's an extremely low key town, with most tourists moving on immediately to one of the stunning islands off the coast. We were disappointed to see the old morning market and rickety walkways along the river in the town had been bulldozed, but the villages on the edge of town were still very simple and rustic, and our day strolling around the back waters here was pleasant.

Riverside, Satun, Thailand

From here, we joined all the Chinese package tourists in their bad fashions for a ferry ride to Pulau Langkawi. Langkawi Island is one of those places we'd heard bad stories about for years, and had always presumed to be a nightmare, but had never actually been to see for ourselves, so this was our chance. We were expecting the busy streets, expensive prices, jet skis on the beach (and 4WDs to tow them), package tourists, and tacky shops at Pantai Cenang (the main accommodation hub), but we were also surprised to find it a beautiful beach, with fine white sand and warm blue water- there was even one part of the beach that was free of vehicles and much quieter.We also hunted around a bit and found some cheap places to sleep and eat, although they were few and far between. There was a distinct multinational vibe, mainly from the Middle Eastern expats, and Turkish,Yemeni and Iranian restaurants were mixed with Thai and Malay places along "the strip". We met an intriguing retired Iranian colonel owner of some bungalows, and spent an afternoon listening to his fascinating stories. Of course, for many, the main attraction of Langkawi is the duty free prices, with beers at 1.80 RM/AU0.63, compared to 5RM/AU$1.75 on the mainland, and we did partake in a few sun downers to be sociable. It seems there are many stunning, natural, wild places left in Langkawi, as we saw on the ferry coming in, and on our flight back out to Penang ( at AU$10 each, we gave up our usual "only fly if we have to" mentality!), but as there is no public transport on the island, and the taxis are fixed at a high rate, we mostly hung out around Pantai Cenang and the surrounding area. So, in conclusion, Langkawi was better than we'd expected, and was a nice change of scene and a dose of beach time before heading back to Penang.

Shops galore on Langkawi

Arab tourists on Langkawi Beach

The quiet end of Pantai Cenai beach by day.......
.....and  at sunset, Langkawi

A hairy man outside our room, Langkawi

Minions, Langkawi airport