Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Day two Penang

We got a taxi to Batu Ferringhi (beach) last night; to see Penang's famous tourist beach resort and to have a look at the development along the way on the North and NNW coastline of this small island state.

Once again we had a very talkative Indian driver who took his tour guide duties very seriously for the full length of the 45min drive. We were so relieved this time though that his car was in very good condition with mufflers and AC fully operational and Cyril's English was very clear.

Batu Ferringhi was very crowded (Chinese New Year (CNY) holiday week) and full of foreigners, although as Cyril explained, a lot of the foreigners we see tonight are from Bangladesh and Burma, immigrant workers in Penang's huge electronics manufacturing sector out to enjoy a rare holiday due to CNY.

We arrive just in time to see the sunset on the beach. It always blows me away to see young girls in face veils on the beach and, in tonight's case, two girls walking along the sand with their brother(?) in full black burqas with black niqabs covering their faces too.

The young men were out on jet skies, churning up the waves.

We weren't very impressed with what we saw of Batu Ferringhi. Cyril says that the tourists like the Hard Rock Hotel and the Holiday Inn and all the bars and clubs along the beachfront. It wasn't to our our taste at all. The night markets are supposed to be very popular but tonight all we could see were stalls and stalls of cheap Chinese rip offs. It made us extra pleased we had chosen to stay in George Town this visit.

We were so turned off by the tourist scene that we purposely chose to eat at the Long Beach Cafe on the beachfront where we could choose our dishes from the range of hawker stalls.

Although lots of foreigners were there too. Rob took this picture so we could get a shot of the well upholstered Dutch couple next to us who spent the whole time feeding their faces and guzzling their beers (just like we did) without saying one single word to each other, in over an hour!

It was hard to find a taxi back so we braved taking a 101 bus back to Chulia St. It worked out to be a very easy option and very comfortable with the modern bus fully air conditioned - not bad for our AUS 75cent fare.

After another beautiful Yeng Keng Hotel breakfast this morning we went walking up busy Jalan Penang and into Lebuh Leith to catch the 11.00am tour of the magnificent Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. This mansion was declared number 3 of the top ten mansions and great houses of the world by Lonely Planet last year. The house was fully restored by the current owners in the nineties, winning many architect and heritage awards in the process. The house is now a boutique heritage hotel. Scenes from the French film Indochine (starring Catherine Deneuve) were filmed here in the nineties.

Like most of the architecture in old George Town it is a photographer's dream especially with its deep blue Indigo paint treatment, but we weren't allowed to take any photographs inside - only outside.

We loved our 1 and a half hour tour with Hokkein Chinese guide Joann. She was a born story teller and actor and really brought the life and times of the remarkable Cheong Fatt Tze to life, a self made man who became an international capitalist, with 7 wives and 8 sons and 6 daughters. His last son was born when Cheong Fatt Tze was 75 years old. According to the terms of his will the house could not be sold until that youngest son had died (which didn't happen until the eighties). By then this magnificent house had fallen into very bad disrepair having been tenanted out to 26 different families.

Joann explained all the careful attention to Feng Shui in the house, making it very entertaining and easy to understand, and pointed out the layers of architectural features Cheong Fatt Tze added to his house as he became an international traveller and a very rich man.

It wasn't too far from here to walk to the seafront Eastern and Oriental Hotel - founded by the Armenian Sarkies brothers in 1885 and a favourite of the elite in Penang in colonial times. Based on their success with the E & O the Sarkies built Raffles in Singapore two years later!

Apparently the hotel was closed down in 1996 after a few decades of decline, but luckily a full restoration was completed by new owners and it was reopened in all its glory in 2001.

We thought its bar area was rather beautiful, overlooking the hotel swimming pool and the sea beyond. High tea at the E & O is rather nice they say. However they stress that dress for that must be "elegant casual" and I don't think we have anything with us that fits this category. We will have to make do with drinks at this lovely bar!

We strung this experience out as much as possible before making our way back to the afternoon heat of the George Town streets and laneways. We walked down rapidly gentrifying Lebuh Muntri where Rob continued his fascinated study of all the different heritage floor tile patterns.

While noticing the enormous challenges of the restoration work still needing to be done in this precinct.

At the end of trendy Larong Stewart on Jalan Masjid Kapital Keling we found ourselves at the Goddess of Mercy Temple, the oldest and most popular Chinese temple on Penang, founded in 1801. It seemed to be where it was all happening this afternoon: smoke, heat, hundreds of people, incense, bird sellers, monks begging and blessing, beggars and bystanders.....all together.

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