Penang, Malaysia, 2008

Penang Island, North West Malaysia

Penang Island, often referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, lies just off the north east coast of peninsular Malaysia. It’s about a 3-hour drive north of Kuala Lumpur and actually connected to the mainland by a signature road bridge.

It has a complicated history (as pretty much everywhere in this part of the world) but was one of the original British settlements in the Malay Peninsula and is distinguished from the rest of Malaysia by having a predominately Chinese Malaysian population with minority Malay- and Indian- Malaysian communities. In the recent elections, it was one of the 5 states to vote out the ruling party and elect the opposition coalition (the ruling party has been in government for 50 years!) – it immediately announced that it would repeal the centrepiece of Malaysian society/politics – a type of affirmative action law that favours the Malay ethnic group over all others.

This temple was recently renovated – interestingly they brought in materials and craftsmen from China to do some of the more intricate carving work and had some of the cast bronze as well as ceramic tiles shipped over from China.

This carving was actually outside one of the guild temples. Most of the ancient guilds, carpenters, metalworkers, etc. have their own guild house which doubles as temple and guild hall – most of them still seem to be in use!. I especially liked the relief on this carving, and the fact that some local bird had nested there!

Hawkers, little one-man street stalls that sell mostly food, are one of the delights of Malaysia. They are everywhere, offering a range of staples and delicacies from the three main ethnic groups. People simply stop at a stall, order some (in most cases) freshly cooked nasi lemak, curry puffs, noodle soup, sugarcane juice, etc. and sit or stand around eating and chatting. Amazingly cheap and tasty! On the downside, they have a cheerful disregard for zoning, traffic and free-flow of the populous and will setup anywhere they think they can make a buck:-)

Colonial architecture – Georgetown’s town hall

If you’ve been wondering what the secret to success is – now you know!

This was the sign over the main entrance to a private school in Georgetown, the capital of Penang.

We visited a butterfly farm on the west coast of the island. There was an astounding number (4000) and variety (120 species)of the most beautiful and largest butterflys we’ve ever seen.

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A local kid who was pestering me to have her photo taken… …and some of the local orchids.

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Swiss engineering: the funicular up to Penang Hill, Peninsular Malaysia’s oldest hill station.

The iron legged god or yoga for the leg-impaired, at the Hindu temple on Penang Hill

Jade flowers (that is their natural colour!) at the Bellevue Hotel on Penang Hill – a great place to have tea on the view terrace and feel like a colonial tea or rubber baron

Kek Lok See Buddhist temple complex on a hilltop above Air Itam, is Malaysia’s biggest and was largely founded by the Penang Straits Chinese and built from 1890-1910 (and still being added to). The rather garish complex has yellow-tiled roofs, a maze of buildings, the 7-storey ‘Million Buddhas Precious’ pagoda (Burmese, Chines and Thai, in the background)and a 36.5-m bronze Buddha statue of Kuan Yin (scaffolded to the eyebrows at the time of our visit). In contrast with the mind-boggling array of trinket stalls that line the tunnel-entrance to the complex, the main hall had some great Buddha statues and was quiet and serene, with lots of incense and a canopy of yellow and red paper lanterns.

Buddha having a blissful moment with an ear candle, or maybe just scratching the inside of his ear while contemplating the universe? One of the many bronze half-reliefs decorating the inside walls of the pagoda.

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