A Week Long Affair with Malaysia

Singapore, which is my new home, is just off the southern most tip of continental Malaysia. Historically and culturally, Singapore was a part of the Malay culture and kingdom. On account of friendly relations between the two countries today, a lot of people cross the road border between Johor Bahru and Singapore on a daily basis. Johor Bahru is Malaysia’s second largest city, whose growth can be directly accredited to Singapore’s rise as an economic powerhouse.

My family and I decided to undertake a road journey into Malaysia, heading south to north by road and sticking to the western coast (which is where most of major cities and historical places in Malaysia are located). A few paragraphs on Malaysia before we begin our journey.

Malaysia has its origins in the Malay Kingdoms present in the area which, from the 18th century, became subject to the British Empire. The first British territories were known as the Straits Settlements, whose establishment was followed by the Malay kingdoms becoming British protectorates. The territories on Peninsular Malaysia were first unified as the Malayan Union in 1946. Malaya was restructured as the Federation of Malaya in 1948, and achieved independence on 31 August 1957. Malaya united with North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore on 16 September 1963, with si being added to give the new country the name Malaysia. Less than two years later in 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation.

The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion while making Islam the state religion. However, all native Malaysians are by default Muslim. According to the Population and Housing Census 2010 figures, ethnicity and religious beliefs correlate highly. Approximately 61.3% of the population practice Islam, 19.8% practice Buddhism, 9.2% Christianity, 6.3% Hinduism and 1.3% practice Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions. 0.7% declared no religion and the remaining 1.4% practiced other religions or did not provide any information. Sunnis form the majority with non-denominational Muslims being the second largest group of Muslims at 18%.

The history of the Malay language can be divided into five periods: Old Malay, the Transitional Period, the Malacca Period (Classical Malay), Late Modern Malay, and modern Malay. It is not clear whether Old Malay was actually the ancestor of Classical Malay, but this is thought to be quite possible. Old Malay was influenced by Sanskrit, the lingua franca of Hinduism and Buddhism. Sanskrit loanwords can be found in abundance in present Malay vocabulary as well.

Malaysia has a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multilingual society. The original culture of the area stemmed from indigenous tribes that inhabited it, along with the Malays who later moved there. Substantial influence exists from Chinese and Indian culture, dating back to when foreign trade began. Other cultural influences include the Persian, Arabic, and British cultures. Due to the structure of the government, coupled with the social contract theory, there has been minimal cultural assimilation of ethnic minorities.

Malaysia is a relatively open state-oriented and newly industrialized market economy. The state plays a significant but declining role in guiding economic activity through macroeconomic plans. Malaysia has had one of the best economic records in Asia, with GDP growing an average 6.5 per cent annually from 1957 to 2005. In 2011, the GDP (PPP) was about $450 billion, the third largest economy in ASEAN and the 29th largest in the world.

In the 1970s, the predominantly mining and agricultural-based economy began a transition towards a more multi-sector economy. Since the 1980s, the industrial sector, with a high level of investment, has led the country’s growth. The economy recovered from the 1997 Asian financial crisis earlier than neighbouring countries did, and has since recovered to the levels of the pre-crisis era with a GDP per capita of $14,800. Economic inequalities exist between different ethnic groups. The Chinese make up about one-third of the population, but accounts for 70 per cent of the country’s market capitalization. Chinese businesses in Malaysia are part of the larger bamboo network, a network of overseas Chinese businesses in the Southeast Asian market sharing common family and cultural ties.

International trade, facilitated by the shipping route in adjacent Strait of Malacca, and manufacturing are the key sectors. Malaysia is an exporter of natural and agricultural resources, and petroleum is a major export. Malaysia has once been the largest producer of tin, rubber and palm oil in the world. Manufacturing has a large influence in the country’s economy, although Malaysia’s economic structure has been moving away from it.

In an effort to diversify the economy and make it less dependent on export goods, the government has pushed to increase tourism to Malaysia. As a result, tourism has become Malaysia’s third largest source of foreign exchange, although it is threatened by the negative effects of the growing industrial economy, with large amounts of air and water pollution along with deforestation affecting tourism. Between 2013-2014, Malaysia has been listed as one of the best place to retire in the world with the country stand at the third position on the Global Retirement Index. This as one of the result of the Malaysia My Second Home program to allow foreigners to live in the country on a long-stay visa for up to 10 years.

December 27: We boarded a bus from Paya Lebar in Singapore, which was to take us directly to Malacca. The bus operator’s name was Delima and the fare was $21. The journey started bang on time and in less than an hour, we were at the Malaysian border. What followed was not very pleasant. On account of the new year, there were hundreds and thousands of people entering Malaysia that morning. The land border crossing, though quite large, is not equipped, to deal with such large number of passengers. It took us nearly 3 hours to leave Singapore and then enter Malaysia through immigration.

After the frustrating delay, the real journey commenced. The roads were excellent and we were cruising at 100 kmp/h along the country’s north-south expressway. The scenery was beautiful, dominated by palm and durian plantations and equatorial rain forests. Though there was so much plantation all throughout, there were hardly any people visible. This is something quite unique because most plantations were on hilly terrain, so they must be labour intensive, and Malaysia is quite a densely populated country. In about 2 hrs, we exited the expressway towards the west.

One could immediately smell the charm of Malacca with typical Malay and colonial-influenced architecture starting to show up as we closed in on the port city. We reached the main bus terminal, which has been moved to a large, reasonably well organized complex, a little outside the main city. This is to minimize the number of heavy vehicles entering the old city, which now has UNESCO World Heritage status. From the bus terminal, we took a taxi (RM25 ..should have been around 20) to our hotel, which is right in the heart of Malacca. I also bought a local sim card (Hotlink) for RM 38 with 1 month 3GB worth of internet. I would advise you to get the simpler one for a mere RM 8 with some 100 mb of internet as the connections are mostly GPRS or HSPA at best.

Malacca, or Melaka as it is spelt locally, has a very hold and interesting history. Before the arrival of the first Sultan, Malacca was a fishing village inhabited by local Malays. Malacca was founded by Parameswara, also known as Iskandar Shah (after he was converted to Islam as a pre-condition to cooperation in helping him defend his kingdom) or Sri Majara, the last Raja of Singapura (present day Singapore) following a Majapahit attack in 1377. He found his way to Malacca around 1400 where he found a good port—it was accessible in all seasons and on the strategically located narrowest point of the Malacca Straits. In collaboration with allies from the sea-people (orang laut), the wandering proto-Malay privateers of the Straits, he established Malacca as an international port by compelling passing ships to call there, and establishing fair and reliable facilities for warehousing and trade.

Because of its strategic location, Malacca was an important stopping point for Zheng He‘s fleet. To enhance relations, Hang Li Po, according to local folklore a daughter of the Ming Emperor of China, arrived in Malacca, accompanied by 500 attendants, to marry Sultan Manshur Shah who reigned from 1456 until 1477. Her attendants married locals and settled mostly in Bukit China.

In April 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque set sail from Goa to Malacca with a force of some 1200 men and seventeen or eighteen ships. They conquered the city on 24 August 1511. After seizing the city Afonso de Albuquerque spared the Hindu, Chinese and Burmese inhabitants but had the Muslim inhabitants massacred or sold into slavery, mostly as a retaliatation to MiIt soon became clear that Portuguese control of Malacca did not also mean they controlled Asian trade centered there. Their Malaccan rule was severely hampered by administrative and economic difficulties. Rather than achieving their ambition of dominating Asian trade, the Portuguese had disrupted the organisation of the network. The centralized port of exchange of Asian wealth had now gone, as was a Malay state to police the Straits of Malacca that made it safe for commercial traffic. Trade was now scattered over a number of ports among bitter warfare in the Straits.

The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier spent several months in Malacca in 1545, 1546, and 1549. In 1641, the Dutch defeated the Portuguese in an effort to capture Malacca, with the help of the Sultan of Johor. The Dutch ruled Malacca from 1641 to 1798 but they were not interested in developing it as a trading centre, placing greater importance to Batavia (Jakarta) on Java as their administrative centre. However they still built their landmark, better known as the Stadthuys or Red Building.

Malacca was ceded to the British in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 in exchange for Bencoolen on Sumatra. From 1826 to 1946 Malacca was under the rule of the British, first by the British East India Company and then as a Crown Colony. It formed part of the Straits Settlements, together with Singapore and Penang. After the dissolution of this crown colony, Malacca and Penang became part of the Malayan Union, which later became the Federation of Malaya and eventually Malaysia.

We arrived at Fenix Inn,

Fenix Inn reception
Fenix Inn reception
a place popular with tourists, and checked in to our rooms. The rooms were neat and clean with the only downside being that one had to climb two floors to get to them and there was no elevator in the hotel. After lunch, we set out to explore the nearby road side market. Being from India, a road side market isn’t much of an attraction to us, but a lot of tourists from western countries throng these markets in Asia. The distinguishing characteristic of the market was the amount of street food available, something which Malaysia is known for. We also passed by very upmarket malls and complexes, most notably the Mahakota Center (Mahakoota is an ancient Chalukyan temple complex in Karnataka, India).
Mahakota Center
Mahakota Center

We made our way by the maritime museum, where a huge reconstructed Portuguese galleon

Portuguese Galleon
Portuguese Galleon
greeted visitors. A little ahead was the famous Malacca river, on which we queued to cruise (RM 15 per person). While in the queue, I set off the capture the vibrant market place and activity in the region, dominated by colorfully lit cyclce rickshaws
Cycle rickshaws
Cycle rickshaws
that played loud music. The river side promenade was lively with a number of cafes and hotels occupying Malacca’s most premium real estate. The cruise started up stream and took as around the old city of Malacca. A recorded audio guide provided us with anecdotes of the days gone by as the boat completed a circular pattern. The cruise is a good 45 minutes long and definitely worth the money…especially in the evening.

One our way back, we walked past the Menara Taming Sari, which is a tall observation deck, but decided to give it a skip. We had some local food (Nasi Lemak) at a restaurant and retired to our rooms bracing for an action packed day ahead.

December 28: We started our day with some sumptuous breakfast at Starbucks that included fresh muffins, patties, coffee and juices (RM 50 for 4 people). We walked by some old colonial structures (now converted into a school and a hospital) to reach the Independence Monument museum. The beautifully restored, once very exclusive British Colonial Melaka Club now houses the Independence Monument Museum

Independence monument
Independence monument
. The building, located in Jalan Bandar Hilir, behind St Paul’s Hill and just to the East of A’Famosa and the Sultanate Palace, is arguably one of the best British Colonial buildings left in Melaka.

It now contains the museum which tells the story of Malaysian independence, including the period of the communist insurgency, from an understandably strongly nationalist point of view. Entry is free. For the history buffs it contains a good deal of interesting materials, including the little known fact that Freedom was first announced in Melaka, before the announcement from Kuala Lumpur. There are several well constructed dioramas, one for example recreating a country road block during the Communist insurgency. Several old , colonial era schools still teaching students, are a little further down Jalan Bandar Hilir.

Next up was the superbly restored Malacca Sultanate Palace (RM 2 per person)

Sultanate palace
Sultanate palace
. This landmark palace has been carefully restored using ancient nail-free construction and included a well-displayed cultural museum. The museum was very well maintained and included sections on Malaysian architecture, trade, governance, clothing, weaponry, and overall culture over the last 500 years. Outside the museum is the extremely beautiful ‘Forbidden Gardens’, which was supposedly used by the royal women to enjoy nature’s company without leaving the safety of the palace compound.

On a hill adjacent to the palace are the remains of A Famosa Fort. This 16th century Portuguese fort has been mostly destroyed; in its heyday it occupied a massive area and contained numerous government buildings, churches and hospitals. The popular St. Paul’s Church is also inside the forts now ruined enclosure.

The path from there to the central area of Malacca was a walking plaza, with many smaller museums and colonial buildings charming visitors. A 15 minute walk took us to Stadthuys/Red Square area of Malacca. The Stadthuys is a 17th-century building, which was the seat of the Dutch administration and now houses a history museum. The center of town is referred to as Red Square because of the Dutch-inspired red buildings. It includes the picturesque Melaka Church and Clock Tower.

Dutch square
Dutch square

A 10 minute walk across the river lead us to the junction of the famous Jonker street and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. We headed to see the Straits Chinese Jewelry Museum, which many people had highly recommended. We bought tickets at an antiques shop before the museum, who sold them for RM 10 pp instead of RM 15 at the museum. The private museum was originally a Baba Nyonyan house, which was converted into a museum by its current owner. Peranakan Chinese and Baba-Nyonya are terms used for the descendants of late 15th and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago and British Malaya. There are two other Peranakan museums in Kuala Lumpur and Penang (we visited the one in Penang).

The museum was a beautiful wooden structure, 2 floors high, of Chinese and Malay architecture. We had the privilege of having a very nice tour guide lady who took us through the museum and explained the intricacies of the jewelry including the very interesting cultural and folk traditions behind them. Much to our delight, photography was allowed

Jewelry museum
Jewelry museum
and there was minimal to no security related fuss. Its hard to describe the museum but I would definitely rate is as a must do in Malacca.

After the museum, we walked a short distance backwards to reach The Baboon House, a very popular western restaurant in Malacca. Known for its rustic interiors and home made burgers, we couldn’t have asked for a better place after walking for 4-5 hours. Though a little expensive, the food was excellent (RM 80 for 4) and so was the service. On our way back, we walked through a crowded Jonker street, which was buzzing with activity, hawkers, merchants, and tourists. We managed to take a taxi back to our hotel (RM 12) from Red Square and rested till about 6 pm.

In the evening, Farnaz and I went out for a night photography excursion. This includes capturing the Portuguese Galleon, Malacca river, Red Square, and Jonker street at night. I’ll let some pictures do the talking here.

Malacca river
Malacca river
Jonker st junction
Jonker st junction

December 29: After having breakfast in our hotel room, we headed to the bus terminal to look for a bus to take us to Kuala Lumpur. The journey was comfortable…roads were excellent, and the greenery was inviting. KL is a huge city so I was expecting us to reach suburban KL an hour before our actual destination, but to my surprise, the highway connectivity is so good that we virtually stayed on the highway right up to the bus terminal at Puduraya. Puduraya bus terminal was very nicely organized with buses parked underground and three levels of a modern terminal connecting the passenger area to the actual boarding/alighting points. We had a quick bite that consisted of some local Malaysian food and hailed a taxi of the street to take us to our hotel (RM 12).

Hotel Crossroads was our home for the next three days. It was located very close to the Chowkit monorail station, pretty much in central KL. The check in was very smooth and the staff was attentive and courteous. We rested for some time and decided to do a walking tour of the Bukit Bintang area of KL. Bukit Bintang is the name of the shopping and entertainment district of Kuala Lumpur. It encompasses Jalan Bukit Bintang and its immediate surrounding areas. The area has long been Kuala Lumpur’s most prominent retail belt that is home to many landmark shopping centres, al-fresco cafés, swanky bars, night markets, as well as hawker-type eateries. This area is popular among tourists and locals, especially among the youths. A part of Bintang Walk is designated as an Arab Street, which really is more of a middle-eastern street.

We took the monorail to reach Bukit Bintang. The journey was fast and cheap…while the quality was obviously not comparable to Singapore, we were still happy to have traveled for a mere RM 1.3 per head. One can get a pass (RM 5) and recharge it according to one’s needs and use it across all monorail lines in KL. Pretty convenient for tourists. The area was buzzing with activity…lots of shoppers and tourists thronging the glitzy malls on both sides. We walked through a few of the malls (prices were pretty steep….KL isn’t so much a shopping destination anymore) but the highlight was the foodcourt in one of the malls. The food court had at least 30 types of cuisines available. One is almost satisfied with the medley of aromas that you get when you walk through it.

The walk along Bintang street was very pleasant, and on our way back, we stopped to have dinner at an Iranian restaurant called Zafran. We had Humus, Shawarma (both Arabic…Egyptian style) and Bakhtiari Kabab (Iranian). Food was excellent and costed us RM 80 for three people. The section of the street where the restaurant was located was dotted with many other middle-eastern restaurants and stores. One could see a lot of Iranians and Syrian tourists flood the area. Iranians can visit Malaysia without a visa, so there a lot of tourists who head from Iran to Malaysia these days. There was also a street artist who had made a sketch of Hasan Rouhani (Iranian President) with Angelina Jolie.

Rouhani and Jolie
Rouhani and Jolie

On our way back, we decided to alight at a station close to Petronas Towers (KLCC) to get a night view of the fantastic structures. Unfortunately, as we got down from the train, it started pouring. We had to seek shelter for a good thirty minutes or so in the facade of a bank building, where we were greeted by a friendly Nepali security guard. Before going to our hotel, we had some street food called Ayam Goreng…which was an ultra tasty and ultra unhealthy burger.

December 30: Today was going to be a long day. We headed to view KL’s most famous modern landmark, the Petronas Twin Towers. The Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004 until surpassed by Taipei 101, but they remain the tallest twin buildings in the world. After spending around 45 minutes taking photographs of the iconic structure, we entered the main complex, which consists of a upmarket retail mall. After exploring the world’s top brand stores, we had some really awesome breakfast at the food court inside KLCC. This was a really great point because three of us had a nice breakfast in one of the most expensive real estate spaces of the world for only RM 50.

We could not get tickets to the observation deck in the twin towers as there is a daily limit of 2000 tickets, and due to the festive season, tickets were sold out for the next week. I guess we might not have gone there anyway, because the prices are pretty steep. But if you are keen to visit, ensure that you book your tickets online beforehand.

From KLCC, we took a metered taxi (what a luxury that is in KL) to the National Mosque or Masjid Negara. The mosque was conceived in 1957, when Malaysia gained independence, and underwent several renovations on the late eighties. The mosque was built in 1965 on the site of a church, the Venning Road Brethren Gospel Hall which had stood there since 1922 but appropriated by the Malaysian government. The mosque is a bold and modern approach in reinforced concrete, symbolic of the aspirations of a then newly independent Malaysia.

Its key features are a 73-metre-high minaret and an 16-pointed star concrete main roof. The umbrella, synonymous with the tropics, is featured conspicuously – the main roof is reminiscent of an open umbrella, the minaret’s cap a folded one. The folded plates of the concrete main roof is a creative solution to achieving the larger spans required in the main gathering hall. Reflecting pools and fountains spread throughout the compound. It was one of the first major mosques that we saw which did not have a typical Arab/Persian architectural feel to it.

National mosque
National mosque

Tourists can visit the mosque except during prayer halls. At the entrance, all tourists (men and women) who are deemed as inappropriately dressed (women are always considered inappropriately dressed unless in a Hijaab…men in shorts etc. are deemed inappropriately dressed) must wear a lose Hijaab that covers the body from head to toe. The activity is reasonably well managed and is the source of much fascination for western tourists. The color of the Hijaab depends on whether you are a Muslim or not (which in turn determines which areas of the mosques you can visit). We spent an hour exploring the beautifully maintained complex. The main prayer hall was out of bound for non-Muslims, but we managed to sneak inside to get some photographs.

Near the entrance to the prayer hall was a conversion section…rather a section which provided free literature about Islam and why one should be a Muslim. I must point out that they had taken special efforts to clarify some of Islam’s misrepresented facets, such as it clarified that polygamy is not encouraged in Islam, that Islam is race blind (so Arabs or Arabic isn’t supreme), and that religion is a matter of choice. One can always debate the sincerity of the effort, but the fact is that there were a lot of things in the literature available there that one would never see in an Arab country.

From the museum, we walked to the nearby Islamic Arts Museum. The entrance and the facade of the main building was amazing and the tickets were reasonably priced (RM 12 per person). The Islamic Arts Museum has 12 main galleries, which are classified according to the types of artifacts spread over level 3 and 4. Level 3 of the museum hosts the Quran and Manuscripts Gallery, the Islamic Architecture Gallery, the India Gallery, the Chinese Gallery, the Ancient Malay World Gallery as well as the amazing reconstructed Ottoman Syrian Room dating back to the 19th Century. Level 4 hosts an amazing display of jewelry, textile, arms and armor, ceramics as well as ancient Islamic glass ware.

We were lucky to have the Nun Wa Al Qalam exhibition on Islamic calligraphy one the floor level, which is where we started. Contemporary Muslim Calligraphy or the art of beautiful writing inspires the world today as it did for 1400 years. Calligraphy unified the Arts of Islam from around the world, and contributed to the splendour of its cultural heritage. The Qur’an was the main inspiration for the beautification of ‘God’s words’ and thus played a major role in the evolution and development of the Arabic script and its adaptation to other languages. Yet in the contemporary world, Muslim calligraphy went beyond the traditional approaches, venturing with new approaches in media, form, content and design. The letters and words start to attain new dimensions and inspirations. The exhibition presented the enigmatic and mystical artworks of 36 artists from 8 different countries, where every artwork stands to become a dialogue of ideas, reflecting a changing world.

I have no words to describe the quality of work on display. I’ll post some pictures to give you an idea. One painting that I must talk about (you can see the picture) was by the first Chinese Muslim calligrapher, where the painting appears to be Chinese calligraphy, but when you look closely, it is Arabic script styled beautifully as Chinese.

Chinese looking calligraphy
Chinese looking calligraphy
Another important observation was that almost none of the artists were from the traditional Arab countries…most were from Iran, Egypt, and Syria.
Iranian artist
Iranian artist

I won’t talk about each gallery that we visited, but all of them had excellent artifacts sourced from all over the world. 60% of the museum consisted of artifacts from Iran and India. It is such a shame that we don’t even have one world class museum in India (there is at least some decent ones in Iran but again nothing like this) despite having enough supply of archeological and historical wealth to feed museums overseas. The section on old manuscripts was another highlight, apart from the India and Chinese galleries. Lastly, there was a gallery which had excellent scaled down replicas of the most famous mosques across the world with detailed descriptions about their history and architecture. We couldn’t have enough of it, but we exited the museum and headed to our hotel after spending nearly four hours there.

In the evening, Farnaz and I went to the Petronas towers to capture it’s beauty at night. It really is quite a spectacle after the massive white lights that lit them up come into play. A lot of shutterbugs vie for space to get the perfect shot of the towers. At the venue, I was offered an extremely original looking iPhone 5s for $500, which is part of very common fake mobiles racket in Malaysia. Be extremely aware, there is hardly anyway to visually distinguish them…the difference is only clear if you perform benchmark testing on them, which is generally not possible when purchasing it off the street!

Later we walked a little farther from the towers and that spot, which was on the divider of the opposite road, offered the best vantage point.

Petronas
Petronas
I also used the position to teach some low light long exposure photography to Farnaz.
Playing with exposure
Playing with exposure
We had dinner and rested after a long day.

December 31: Being the new year’s eve, we decided to relax for most of the day. We started the day with some south Indian breakfast at a restaurant opposite our hotel. One peculiar thing about south Indian restaurants in Malaysia and Singapore is that they are not like the Indian ‘Udupi’ restaurants, but are some sort of a cusp that serve Udupi, Hyderabadi, Tamil/Malabari and Malaysian cuisine, all with lots of oil and spices. Nevertheless, they are very popular. Our only major agenda was to visit the famous Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. The park is located close to the national mosque and the Islamic Arts museum.

The park is the largest free flight walk through aviary of the world…to put it briefly, one of the world’s largest if not the largest. The ticket prices are very steep (RM 48 pp), but don’t even think twice about it…go for it. The aviary was just amazing…with birds all over the place, some willing to come and sit on your shoulder and some shying away as you approached them. Of course, there were many many sections and enclosure that you can walk through including large birds, flightless birds, birds of prey, water birds, geographically classified birds, and rare birds.

The park is very large and it took us nearly 4 hours to explore all of it…even at a brisk pace. There was a section where one could feed the birds while they mob the feeder. Here are some pictures of Farnaz trying it along with some of the other great captures.

Farnaz feeding the birds
Farnaz feeding the birds
Another couple
Another couple

In the evening, we just walked around the town, ate many types of tropical fruits including a variant of lychee, and then rested for some time. At night, there was a small party hosted on our hotel’s rooftop by the Indian owner, with whom I had a long conversation. The night wound up with the fireworks around Petronas Towers, of which we had a good view from the roof.

January 1: It was 2014 in Kuala Lumpur alright! After discussing our new year resolutions over breakfast, we headed to Puduraya terminal and boarded an extremely comfortable double-decker bus (RM 45 pp) for Penang. Now we were headed towards the north of Malaysia, and during the 300 km odd journey, we passed through extremely beautiful scenery and greenery.

The bus driver was a Tamil and as if corruption encompasses Indians everywhere, he struck a deal with some passengers (including us) to divert the bus to Georgetown instead of the Penang bus stand which is south of the island. Penang is a state in Malaysia and the name of its constituent island, located on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia by the Strait of Malacca. It is composed of two parts – Penang Island, where the seat of government is, and Seberang Perai (formerly Province Wellesley in English) on the Malay Peninsula. Highly urbanized and industrialized, Penang is one of the most developed and economically important states in the country, as well as a thriving tourist destination.

For tourists, going to Penang is often confusing, so I’ll clarify a few things here. The city on the Malaysian mainland is called Butterworth, where as the island in the ocean is called Penang. Within the island, tourists are generally interested in the town of Georgetown, which is located to the north east. Buses from KL don’t generally go to Georgetown, they go to the southern part of the island where the terminal is located, which is around 20 km Georgetown. So to get to Georgetown, you must either alight at Butterworth, take a taxi or walk to the ferry terminal and take a ferry to Georgetown, or get down almost immediately after the bus reaches Penang island, or strike a deal with the bus driver to drop you in Georgetown for a few extra bucks.

Georgetown was founded on 11 August 1786 by Captain Francis Light, a trader for the British East India Company, as base for the company in the Malay States. The town was built on swampy land that had to be cleared of vegetation, leveled and filled. The original commercial town was laid out between Light Street, Beach Street (then running close to the seashore), Malabar Street (subsequently called Chulia Street) and Pitt Street (now called Masjid Kapitan Keling Street). The historic commercial center was segmented into the banking and trading areas related to port activities which included shipping companies, the import and export trade, and the wholesalers who dominate the southern section of Beach Street until now. It has been listed as a World Heritage site since July 2008.

We checked in at the superb Armenian Heritage Hotel, located right in the heart of town. After having Thai food at the restaurant attached to the hotel, we rested for a bit and then embarked on a walking tour. We started by exploring a nearby flea market, post which we walked through the historical Cannon street, which is named so because the police once fired a cannon shell in the vicinity to quell Chinese clan-based riots. It was overcast so walking through the area and marveling at the mixed architecture (colonial and Chinese) was fun. We passed through a number of important places including the Acheen Street mosque, Khoo Kongsi Temple (which we would visit the next day), Leong San Tong temple, and Kapitan Keling Mosque (a south Indian Muslim mosque…of which I got some great shots).

Kapitan Keling Mosque
Kepitan Keling Mosque
Around dusk we reached the beautiful court complex opposite the St. George’s Church.
High court
High court
We then followed the route all the way by the city hall, the assembly building, the clock tower, and the docks, where we were rewarded with an up-and-close encounter with the 709 ft long Superstar Libra.

On our way back, we took a taxi to take us to the restaurant where we planned to have our dinner, and the taxi guy thought that we had just alighted from the cruiser and tried very hard to overcharge us. After dinner, we retired to our inviting rooms at the Armenian Street Heritage hotel.

January 2: We started our day with some excellent breakfast at the same restaurant attached to the hotel (Kopitan Classic) and headed to the famous Khoo Kongsi temple. So, Penang attracted a lot of Chinese immigrants (referred to as Nyonyas) in the 18th and 19th century. Chinese, being almost polytheists, had their own clans and clan temples, which depended on the region in China that they were from. So, the Khoo Kongsi temple is one such important clan temple in Georgetown. Located on Cannon street, we entered and bought tickets (RM 10 pp) and entered the beautifully preserved complex. For a minute, you forget that you are in Malaysia.

Khoo Kongsi for short

Facade of Khoo Kongsi
Facade of Khoo Kongsi
, is one of the most distinctive Chinese clan associations in Malaysia. It is well known worldwide for its extensive lineage that can be traced back 650 years, as well as its closely-knit and defensive congregation of buildings and a magnificent clanhouse. Khoo Kongsi, together with Cheah, Yeoh, Lim and Tan Kongsi, were known as the Five Big Clans (Goh Tai Seh) that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in early Penang. Since mid-19th century, having identified their respective bases, these kongsi rooted themselves in an area stretching from Chulia Street Ghaut in Georgetown to the lower part of Beach Street in the south. With the respective clanhouses as the nuclei, these kongsi demarcated their territories with their own terrace houses on three or four sides of the perimeters. This adjoining, closely-knit and defensive model settlement, like a clan village in the colonial city, is a rare form of congregation practised among migrant communities.

Being essentially a Buddhist temple, my mother could tell us quite a bit about the similarities and inferences that she drew from its architecture and the various portraits and busts. The architecture was stunning and the atmosphere was serene. There was a small museum below the main temple, which provided information the temple, the clan, the history, the people behind the intiative etc. One of the distinctive features about our Malaysian trip had been that no one bothers you…sit where you want, do what you want. So unlike India. We relaxed in the compound for 20 minutes before moving towards our next destination, the Penang Peranakan museum.

The museum is the star attraction of Georgetown, with a TripAdvisor banner rating it as the best place to visit in Georgetown greeting visitors. It is an old mansion (owned by a rich Nyonyan or Chinese immigrant) of the 19th century. Now, it is converted to an amazing museum which really thrills you at every turn. The tickets are quite expensive at RM 25 pp, but it is well worth the price. Groups of 5 and above get a tour guide, which we didn’t get as we were four, but Farnaz tagged along with another group of tourists who had a guide as she was very interested in knowing the details about the things on display. The architecture and artefacts give you a great feel of what the Chinese royalty of Georgetown was like.

Peranakan museum
Peranakan museum
If you remember, the Chinese Jewellery museum in Malacca was also in a house formerly occupied by a wealthy Nyonyan. We spent a good two and half hours in the museum after which we headed for some south Indian lunch that was available just around the corner at Sri Ananda Bhawan. The food was alright, but the highlight was the menu card which featured Vegetarian Chichen Korma, Vegeterian Chicken Kebab and the likes. Upon inquiring, I was told that they are prepared using soya!

In the evening, we spent some time exploring the little India area of town, where we visited the Sri Mariamman Temple (south Indian deity) and also an ashram run by the followers of Shridi Sai Baba. Wound up the day with food at the food court in one of the jazzy shopping complex located at Komtar.

January 3: We were to depart for Singapore today afternoon from Penang airport.

Superstar Libra
Superstar Libra
We had a few hours in the morning which we started with a morning walk along the shore, had breakfast at 9 and then watched “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” at a nearby multiplex. The movie was excellent, though I’ll refrain from posting a review here. We took a taxi operated by a very friendly driver who dropped us at the airport, which is located at the southern tip of Penang island (RM 38). Since we were flying on a low cost carrier to Singapore, we had packed some Subway and McDonald sandwiches for the journey, which we promptly ate during the flight. The hostess told me much to my surprise that outside food is not allowed in the flight, and I countered her with a “Why”…to which responded with “We serve food”, which I countered with “Ok, get me a Subway roast chicken breast 6 inches please!”. She got the point and left us alone. The journey back was hassle free and we truly enjoyed our family (the first one with my wife and parents together) vacation across the western coast of Malaysia.

Useful information:

— Malacca, Hotel Fenix Inn: Approximately, SGD 55 a night. Nice location, decent rooms, no lift. If possible, checkout Quayside Hotel for its excellent location.
— Kuala Lumpur, Hotel Crossroads: Approximately, SGD 55 a night. Super convenient location, friendly staff, small but very clean rooms and bathrooms.
— Georgetown, Hotel Armenian Street Heritage: Approximately SGD 70 a night. Heritage feel hotel, top location, great room and bathroom, friendly staff, restaurant included in the complex apart from a few other shops.
— Ken, Taxi owner in Georgetown: +601120152355

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