penang (again) - Where's Byrne?

penang (again)

12.03.2012 – 19.03.2012 Sunny/Showers 24°C – 34°C

We got to Butterworth Bus Station after six-hours from the Cameron Highlands including a stop at Ipoh where we were supposed to get the next bus up to Kuala Kedah to catch the ferry to Langkawi. Problem was the bus didn’t leave until 7pm that evening, five-hours time and then we still had to get the ferry across. Sod that.

We hopped on the passenger ferry to Georgetown for 1.20RM each, heading back to Banana Guesthouse where we stayed when we first arrived last year, figuring that we could catch the morning ferry to Langkawi direct from Penang. That morning never came. After reading up online about what was actually in Langkawi in among the burglary and mugging stories, there didn’t seem to be an awful lot. The ferry costing 110RM each return was the greatest cause for us deciding to fuck off Langkawi.

We had a few days doing nothing except enjoying Penang for Penang. The food, drink, locals, buildings and the slow way of life sucked us in and three days zipped by. Penang’s food is among the best in the world. Wherever you go in Malaysia stalls sell ‘Penang this’ or ‘Penang that’. It’s easy to see why. Beef noodles, pork wonton noodles, char kway teow, chicken rice, barbecue pork. It’s all amazing.

War Museum. I happened to see this advertised on a brochure cover and it sounded good. Penang was a fantastic trading port for the British for years and became part of the straits of Malacca along with Singapore and, you guessed it, Malacca. In 1931 Winston Churchill guessed correctly that war was going to kick off again and had a fort built on the north of Penang Island to ward off would be intruders. Unfortunately, when the war did start our guns were constructed to face out to sea as this was seen as the entry point most likely for attack but the Japanese came south through Thailand and took the fort in 2 hours without losing a single life. Some people call it Britain’s greatest ever military disaster.

After the Japanese surrendered, Penang became under British rule once more until Malaya was given independence in the 1957. The fort was lost to the jungle for more than fifty years and in that time was subject to looters who took all removable metal objects for scrap and vandals who destroyed things. However this was resurrected and the War Museum opened in 2002 and is run on a not for profit basis by a single family with no help from the government. This is important to remember when going.

A number 302 bus got us there under an hour and after a twenty minute slog up a hill in the blistering heat we arrived. Not knowing the above I was pretty shocked to read it was 35RM each to get in (£7, this is Malaysia) and nearly turned round and walked out again. The bird behind the counter with funny contact lenses making her eyes not focus on your face when talking made a very good job of explaining the history of the place to another family who because they were Malaysian had MyKad cards and got in for half price (we should start charging foreigners double the price of the British and see how they like it) made me reconsider and enter. B couldn’t have displayed more disgust on her face over the price if she tried. The place is fairly big and the map and numbering system is confusing but you can get round it all in an hour. There are various garrisons with explanations of who slept where, the British being split from the Indians, Malaysians and other nationalities who camped there, an armoury, the cannon areas, offices, underground escape tunnels complete with live bats which you can walk though (the PC brigade would love this place), up a vertical escape ladder and out through a gift shop. Verdict: It was good and for me, I would recommend it despite it being an hours bus ride away. B thought it was pretty average. Double it up with the Snake Temple to justify the bus ride.

Snake Temple. A 302 bus back the way you came and a 401/401E gets you right outside the Snake Temple, famed for the pit vipers and pythons that supposedly turned up one day and never left. Personally, I think it’s a gimmick and a tourist trap. The temple, was a temple, the same as all the others. It had incense burning away and statues that people were shaking sticks at and bowing down to. Walking into the main building there were a few guys with pythons in small glass cases and pit vipers curled up around an old tree type stick and on top of some picture frames. Only one moved the whole time I was there. Were they real? I don’t know. They’re said to be stoned from the incense and that’s why they’re so ‘relaxed’ but they could have been plastic. No one’s going to touch them even if they could get past the snake men watching over them. Out the back there is a pit with a tree in it and a few black and yellow snakes sitting on branches. We counted 11, but again, we didn’t see any move. There’s a veranda where you can sit and soak up the atmosphere of being in an ancient place of worship, very relaxing if you can ignore the noise of the shopping mall being built right outside the back gate. Verdict: Bit crap really but if you are going to the War Museum, you may as well have a butchers. Great fresh fruit outside.

Batu Ferrenghi. Encouraged by our bus trip to the War Museum and The Snake Temple, we thought we’d head up to the beach at Batu Ferrenghi one afternoon. A bus numbered 101 and 3RM will do the job. The beach wasn’t great, it was OK but after you’ve been to Borocay nothing seems to compare. It had grey sand and the water similar. We took a stroll along for ten minutes or so, got bored and took a shortcut through the Park Regency Hotel, a very plush establishment. We got some odd looks like ‘who’s the riff raff’ but we could have been guests there I suppose. I guess that’s what stopped them asking us what we were doing walking around their hotel? Verdict: If you’re not going to get to any Thai beaches further up go and have a nose, otherwise don’t bother.

Penang was fantastic and after the intense month we had in China, going around KL, Malacca, Singapore and the Cameron Highlands, was just what we needed. It’s a great place to kill time with plenty of places to watch the Premiership about in the evenings. I’d go back for a holiday. That’s what holidays are all about aren’t they, relaxing? Up next, Bali.

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