Following the fantastic motorcycle journey through the Vietnamese Highlands, I decided it was time for some relaxation and party time by heading to Koh Phangan – an island off the coast of Thailand – to enjoy the hedonism of the Full Moon Party. After 5 days spent snorkelling, sunbathing, drinking, eating and dancing on the beautiful beaches of Haad Rin, I packed up my bag again to head for the mainland and continue my journey south for my flight to Melbourne in Australia 6 days later.
Massively hung-over from the 5-day festival, I headed to the mainland with Matt (whom I’d met right at the start of my journey) and bid farewell to him as he headed north back to Bangkok for a flight back to Germany. The journey lasted a gruelling 15-hours, combining a choppy boat with 3 minibuses. The most challenging was the 6-hour stint down from Surat Thani to the Malaysian border in a tiny Nissan minibus, squished into the back seat above the back wheel arch. I felt every single bump on the way and the driver had no hesitation in keeping his foot flat to the ground at all times meaning I kept smashing the top of my head against the steel roof. Topped with that my butt had gone to sleep within the first hour and I had to wait patiently in agony until the first stop which ended up being about 3 hours later. Not only that, but the minibus was double capacity, so it was stifling cramped and horrendously hot and sweaty. I somehow hung on through the pain barrier.
After the usual border control routine at Bukat Kaya Hitam, we finally arrived in Penang at around 10pm, and took a short boat journey across to the island from Butterworth. The place was deserted, but I managed to check myself into a small hostel just off the centre of town on the fourth attempt of asking. It was a dank, dark hostel that had nothing more to the room than a well-used mattress on the floor underneath a mosquito net that wouldn’t catch a fish. A bite to eat in the bar downstairs and a shower then saw me off to bed.
Penang is the second smallest state in Malaysia, with its constituent island (also known as Georgetown) home to the government seat. The island itself is an eerily interesting little place that felt like a quick pit-stop before continuing my journey towards Kuala Lumpur in the South. It was deserted of tourists which was surprising and for the most part was like any abandoned sea side town in the UK. It also had a strange British feel to it in parts owing to the country’s occupation by the British back in the late 1700s. In fact, the island was loaned out to Captain Francis Light in 1786 by Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah – this was a simple trade deal which gave the British access to local resources and acted as a hurdle to Dutch and French expansion in the area, in return for military protection against the neighbouring Burmese and Siamese armies.
However, aside from the overall empty feel of the town, it also was a perfect introduction to the diversity of the Malaysian culture. I didn’t have any preconception of the stereotypical Malay and it was easy to see why. The town was split between Chinese, Indian and Malay people who seemed to intertwine seamlessly. Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim religions would border each other in what looked like peaceful sentiment. On one side you’d have a church, the other a mosque, followed by a temple and a pagoda further on. There didn’t really seem to be any division between them – they shared each other’s space freely. The advantage of this diversity was the amazing collection of food you would come across – typical dishes being offered out on street stalls and restaurants alike from Chinese noodles, to Malay Nasi Goreng through to the curries and tandoori of Indian cuisine.
After wandering around the empty streets for a while, I ended up down in the harbour area where I visited Fort Cornwallis – a fort built by the British upon the island’s occupation. This was a picture of the emptiness I’d just experienced in the streets with little to offer in terms of attraction inside. But a piece of history nonetheless.
From there, I then headed south through Georgetown, stopping by a breathtaking Chinese clan house called the Leong Sang Tong Khoo Kongsi. The clan house belonged to the Khoo Kongsi – one of the Five Big Clans of Penang, and dates back around 650 years. The house was sprawled with amazing statues, artefacts and scriptures and the colours that enclosed it were stunning. Inside, families would be sat in prayer – a picture I was prohibited to take as I closed in.
After a short walk further up the street, I then came across the Masjid Kapitan Keling mosque. Afternoon prayer had just finished, so I was sat amass the mobs of mix-raced Muslims that swamped past me.
A stone throw later, I then stumbled upon the impressive Kuan Yin Teng Temple. Luckily, it was the temple’s 210th birthday and there was teems of people in and around it, praying and offering messages to ancestors inside. Outside, there were huge incense sticks that people would put up as an offering to the temple. Next to it, a huge bell sat where people threw messages and gifts into the fire for their ancestors. Inside, hoards of people would sit or stand praying with offerings for Shiva and the various deities and Gods. It was a bustling atmosphere that kept me there for a good hour or so.
Yet another two minutes up the road, the St George’s Church sat solemn in the sunlight, completely in contrast to the noise of the two Chinese temples and Mosque that I’d jumped from nearby. After some more snacks from street stalls, I then wandered past the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion – another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was unfortunately closed, but I could see the striking blue façade that has become known to be Cheong Fatt Tze’s most elaborate and lavish works – the detailing and artisan works are even more refined than even those in his native home in Tai’pu; and is reputedly one of only two such buildings of its size outside China. With most of the town covered off and at the height of the heat of the day, I then headed off to the hostel to grab my bags and head out for a bite to eat. A few hours went by watching the locals come and go amongst the bustling street stalls. As prominent with most of Asia, street food is central to its culture and the best place to catch local life. It’s as almost if the stalls acted as everybody’s kitchen – the streets could be virtually deserted before families fill it to the brim for dinner.
A few mixed juices later, it was then time to catch an 11pm overnight train to Kuala Lumpur.
Further Reading on Malaysia
Georgetown Penang Blog
Leong Sang Tong Khoo Kongsi
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
More Photography :
“The Photography Collection” by Antematters