For a change of pace, we signed up for someone else’s tour today. The tour was titled,”Private Penang Tour and Culinary Experience.” The ship’s captain had announced in his daily morning address that Malaysia was supposed to be the top culinary places in the world. High praise, indeed!
We met at 8:15 in the Atrium for our 9:00 am start. The tour organizer had the same problem I had experienced with my tours; two couples did not show up. However, she had collected funds ahead of time so it was not an issue. I had considered doing this for my tours as well, but it would have been an organizational nightmare. We collectively left the ship together and started the extremely long walk through the port building to where we were supposed to meet up with the tour company. There were four vans of 8. Unfortunately, only 3 vans showed up so the people in my van got to wait in the hot sun for another van to be called (it took around 10 minutes). Also, due to a scheduling conflict with one of the parts of the itinerary, we would have to change around the components of the tour.
Penang (or Pinang as it is spelled locally) is a much different port than Langkawi where we were docked yesterday. It is a large city of 1.5 million, 70% of whom are Chinese. This is a different ethnic composition than the majority of Malaysia which is 65% Malay Muslim, 25% Chinese Buddhist or Christian and 10% Indian Hindu. Jack, our driver and guide, drove us through the old city pointing out landmarks. Penang was originally known as Prince of Wales Island. It was renamed Pinang after the Pinang tree which is seen all over the island (you may know it as the Betelnut tree). Give the ethnic diversity on the island, there are a variety of places of worship including Hindu temples (yellow in color), Chinese temples (red in color), Indian temples (colorful and with statues as decorations) and Muslim temples (half-moon and star are always shown). There are also a variety of denominations of Christian churches (mainly protestant). Like most of the countries we have visited recently, Malaysia was under British rule until about 60 years ago.
Our first stop today was Kek Lok Si Temple, which is split into three levels. Tour buses are not allowed to drive to the top level; they drop passengers at the lowest level, but there is an elevator to the top. Since we were in a van, our driver was able to take us all the way to the top. We passed a group of monks on their way to the temple. Apparently, they start their walk at 7 am, so had been walking for nearly 3 hours.
We were given a half an hour to explore the top and middle sections. In order to get to the middle level, you have to pay 3 Malaysian Ringgits per person to ride the funicular. There are about 4 RM (Ringitts) per dollar, so about 75 cents each for the ride.
At the top level, the main attraction is the statue of the Goddess of Mercy. The cost to build the statue was 13,000,000 RM (divide by 4 to convert to US dollars). The sixteen pillars around her cost 2,000,000 RM each and the roof cost 40 million RM.
We took some pictures on the top level and got in line for the funicular. It was a quick ride to the middle level where multiple temples (and a large gift shop) were located. Somehow, a couple of people got lost, so we left the area 15 minutes late. The tour guide was not pleased. Rather than allowing the four vans to operate independently, for some reason we had to stay together, so all 4 vans had to wait.
Our next stop was a set of three shops – coffee/chocolate, tea/honey and batik. On the way there Jack pointed out that many of the roads were still named using English names – Scotland Jalam (road), Brown Jalam, Lancaster Jalam, etc. Malay does not easily translate to English so many of the words are basically phonetic spellings. For example, bus is written bas (pronounced slightly differently than we would), restaurant is restoran.
We went into the batik store first. A lady out front volunteered to show us how batik is made, but it is a familiar process to me, so we skipped the demo and headed directly to the free, western-style toilets before anyone else discovered their location. We looked around the shop but found the prices to be quite high. A plain piece of batik (sarong-sized) cost nearly $30. This may not sound like much but the same exact thing could be purchased from a street vendor for around $5.
We moved on to the coffee store. Jack had told us that white coffee is something unique to the area. Instead of fully roasting the beans, they are very lightly roasted and then brewed. The coffee shop had probably twenty varieties of coffee and was happy to give samples. All were quite sweet; kind of like brewed coffee with flavored creamer added. And, they were pricey; $10 per bag. The bags were large and heavy; not an ideal souvenir. It turns out that they did not contain coffee beans (whole or ground); they contained instant coffee with flavorings added. There were many varieties of chocolate for sale as well but they were also overpriced. The tea store next door had some amazing teas, but it was the same as the coffee – instant tea in packets with flavorings added. So, I did not buy anything at any of the stores.
We loaded up the vans to head for the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion; we had an appointment for a tour there which is why our schedule had to be rearranged. On the drive there we passed some condominiums that had a unique feature – each had a balcony with a swimming pool on it. These are 4000 square foot ocean-view condos that will set you back 3,000,000 RM. Pinang has an interesting mix of old and new buildings; these condos are right next to much older buildings which are now protected by the government and cannot be torn down.
We arrived at the blue mansion (Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion) and paid our 17 RM admission. Our tour guide was Clements; he had a real passion for his job. He told us that this particular mansion is rated by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 mansions in the world. Only a small part of it is available for public viewing; he did his best to make that small part as interesting as possible. The mansion is 120 years old and was built by a Chinese millionaire.
Cheong Fatt Tze grew up very poor in China so left for Jakarta at age 16. He worked in a paper factory and found a way to strike it rich – he married the owner’s daughter. He borrowed money from his father-in-law to set up spice and coffee plantations in Indonesia. These were very successful. He moved to Penang because it was a free port (no taxes). He became the first Chinese consul general and wanted to build a grand home to show off. His mansion had 38 rooms which had 220 windows. Every morning the staff had to open all of the windows for ventilation; each evening the windows had to be closed. He had so many servants that he built 5 houses across the street for them to live in. He traveled extensively and was noticed by the Emperor of China. The Emperor hired him and quickly promoted him to become minister of trade in China. He built the first modern railroad there, started modern banking and also built the first modern winery. He died in 1916 at the age of 76. He had eight wives (most lived in different cities) and many, many children. His six sons inherited the mansion but his will stated that they were not allowed to sell it. When WWII started the Japanese occupied Penang. Immediately, the banks were closed and everyone lost all of their money overnight. The rooms in the mansion were rented out to bring in money and the people that stayed there destroyed the property. It fell into decay and stayed that way for 50 to 60 years. In 1989 the last son died and the property was sold for $3,000,000 US. An architect purchased the property and refurbished it. A small part of it is open to the public as a museum; there is a restaurant on the property and the rest is used as a hotel.
Clements explained the symbolism in the partition that separates the entry area from the rest of the mansion. At the very center are 3 gods that apparently are at the center of any Chinese home.
We moved to the courtyard which is open (no roof) to allow the sun in. This has to do with feng shui (a feng shui master was brought when the home was originally built). There is a “dragon’s tunnel” underground the house (this is a very good thing) and a dragon eye in the center of the courtyard, which means it has great energy. When it rains, water comes into the courtyard area. The Chinese believe that the water element is a source of money, so rain entering brings wealth. When water fills the courtyard, a valve opens and allows the rainwater to slowly drain away. There are 8 cast iron pillars in the courtyard which were brought in from Scotland. The home contains a blend of English and Chinese architecture. The reason there are 8 pillars rather than 4 is that 4 is a bad luck number for the Chinese. The number four sounds like the word death in Chinese.
We moved upstairs where word quickly spread among the women on the tour that there were excellent, clean bathrooms! Screw the tour – these were the nicest potties I had seen in weeks! Clement talked about how the mansion had been restored. In 2008 it was made into a UNESCO Heritage Site and must now be protected. He showed us the ceramic bowls from China that were used to restore the decorations on the exterior of the building. Due to the firing techniques used, the colors won’t fade, so fragments from the bowls were used to recreate the exterior artwork. We were lead into a room showing some clothing from the final wife of the “Rockefeller of the East”. He married her when he was 70; she was 17. Cheong Fatt Tze was also a double-agent; he contributed money to Dr. Sun Yat Sen to overthrow the emperor. By now, I was hot and had heard enough info, so went downstairs to take a few pictures of the exterior. Our van was waiting for us, so Clayton and I waited in AC comfort until the rest of the group was done.
The “culinary” part of our tour was eating lunch together at a Malaysian Restaurant. There seemed to be some confusion around where we were supposed to eat. We were given the choice of a food court of a sit-down restaurant. There was no consensus, so the group leader decided on the restaurant. There was an ala carte menu and a fixed price menu. On the fixed price menu you could choose from an Asian meal or a “western” meal. The Asian meal didn’t look too appetizing to me (and I like Asian food), so I chose the western lunch which had black pepper chicken, salad, and fries. It also came with a chrysanthemum drink. Boy, did I make the right choice! The Asian meal had a small nasty looking whole fish (according to those that ordered it, it was full of tiny bones), a small scoop of rice, steamed broccoli, stir-fried bok choy, and a bowl of soup that had a fish head and a chunk taken from a duck along with a bit of tofu. Oh yes, there was also a single chicken wing on the plate. I am pretty sure there is better food to be had in Malaysia than what was served at this restaurant! The black pepper chicken was pretty tasty. It was not western-style at all but was very good.
Next on the agenda was supposed to be a walk around the Georgetown area of town, but it was so incredibly hot that no one wanted to walk. On the original schedule, this was what we were supposed to do first thing in the morning, which would have made more sense. So, our driver drove us around and pointed out the street art that Penang is famous for. The art is pretty cool. The first mural we saw was an actual chair with a painting above it of a little boy reaching for something. Each mural used an actual object and the picture was painted to incorporate it.
A couple of the women in the group wanted to shop so we decided to finish the tour and then have the driver take them back for shopping. We had one final stop at Chew Jetty which is a narrow boardwalk with wooden shops on both sides. Only a few of us got out of the van to walk down the boardwalk. The area is lovely to walk through; very picturesque.
We were very happy to get back to the ship today. We heard later that those that had taken the HOHO bus had a fabulous day. It was dirt cheap and took you to all of the sites we had visited. If you are going to visit Penang, I would recommend using the HOHO rather than spending money on a tour.