Thursday, January 26, 2012

Day four Penang

We waited until around 4.00pm yesterday to make our way (by taxi) to Air Itam, about 30 minutes SW of Georgetown, the site of the Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in all of SE Asia.

The temple complex is built into the East face of Penang Hill and is quite a drawcard on the island for Buddhists and tourists alike. During Chinese New Year the temple is lit up with over 200,000 festive lights from sundown, which is a truly remarkable sight.

Even at this time of the afternoon, only an hour or so off closing time, the whole temple complex was a madhouse: thousands of people, floors and floors of exuberantly coloured and decorated Buddhist religious objects for sale and set up shopping mall style. In the actual prayer spaces there was more smoke than you could poke a joss stick at. No surface has been left uncoloured or undecorated. We found it absolutely OTT.

But being so high it gave us a wonderful view NE towards George Town and the sea beyond.

This 7 storey pagoda of ten thousand Buddhas was completed in 1930 (forty years after the main temple was started).

...... And I did see a great idea for growing pumpkin vines!

The temple was a wonderful showcase for religious commercialism. One of the most popular items for sale were the roof tiles(?) hand painted with meaningful symbols by the Buddhist monks (this painter was a female monk).

At the highest point of the temple was the 30.2m bronze Kuan Yin statue completed in 2002. The current project is the construction of an octagonal based dome for it. The temple does not appear to be short of cash!

But this (below) would have to be my shot of the day/trip I think. The young girl was dropping a coin into every pot around the base of the Kuan Yin statue. Her younger brother and her mother were following just behind her. I was able to get her mother's permission (just by gesture) in time to get this magic shot! I didn't even need to crop it or anything!

It was all so mad at Kek Lok Si Temple that we couldn't stand to wait around another 2 hours in the Air Itam township for the temple lights to come on so we cut our losses and caught a 201 Rapid bus back to George Town at temple closing time (6.00pm). We are so lucky that this modern efficient bus service has so many runs that are close to our hotel.

This morning we caught up with the wonderful Joann Khaw (our guide from the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion tour the other day). She had agreed to take Rob and I for a private walking tour around the local area, focussing on food and markets and local culture. Two other lovely Australian women staying at the hotel also joined us (by our invitation).

First food related stop was at the Chowrasta Morning Market, off Penang Road where Joann showed us freshly picked nutmeg. The red outer part of the nutmeg seed is what mace is made from (I didn't know that).

The outer husk of the nutmeg seed is dried and preserved with a dusting of sugar(?) and sold as a snack food. We found it delicious; tasted just like preserved ginger.

It was very exciting to try "century eggs" for the first time (eggs preserved by soaking in brine for 100 days).

They're eaten in Penang with ginger pickles, which we found a delicious combination. It would be a great addition to an antipasti platter!

Further down the laneway Joann found us a spring roll wrapper maker. That's a springy ball of dough in that girl's right hand. She wipes it lightly over the hot griddle creating the finest disc of dough which the other girl lifts off as it cooks. They're making two at a time over two griddles, very fast. Other market sellers buy their spring roll wrappers from this shop, fresh every day. They would fill them with their own fillings and (usually) deep fry them.

The people in this shop make up a sweet rolled biscuit flavoured with ground peanuts (and more sugar no doubt) out of their wrappers. They were delicious too.

Fancy some jellyfish or some pork tendons (bowl on the right) anyone?

Joann bought us some local dishes to sample at a little food market off Chowrasta Lane: curry mee (what we think of as laksa), dim sum and fish balls and a variation on char kway teoh. We also loved the local favourite: kopi ping (iced coffee).

Joann spent over four and a half hours with us (cost us AUS$20 each with all the food and tastings included!!). We learnt so much more than just about the food - local politics, sociology, architecture, heritage area development challenges, professional challenges and much more about her own passion for the Chinese principles of Yin and Yang and the benefits of a daily dose of coconut oil!

Rob took this shot of another building on Campbell Street that he loved the colour of. It turned out to be George Town's best textiles (fabric) shop!

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