Adventures in Asia: Penang, Malaysia

On what looked to be a sunny day, we arrived at our next port of call: Penang. We arrived after having spent three full days at sea on the cruise – something that was not in the original itinerary. Our second port of call after Bali should have been Kuala Lumpur; Penang was scheduled to be the third stop. But then came the unexpected: a thunderstorm at sea.

On the second day at sea after having left the port of Benoa on the island of Bali, there was a huge thunderstorm at sea. I remember sitting indoors, on the ship’s 18th floor, watching it all unfold outside before me. The skies started to turn a darker shade of grey with each hour and then slowly, the rain came and all the people outside tanning and swimming retreated indoors. Then, with each passing interval of time, the storm picked up and the thunder started to sound. At one point, I remember hearing a huge rumble of thunder – one so loud I felt the whole floor shake – and suddenly, the lights flickered on and off in the room we were in. I later learned a few hours later that a bolt of lightning had struck the mast of the ship and as a result, one of the boat’s radars wasn’t working. At the same time, we were close to entering the Singapore Strait (one of the busiest waterways in the world) and so, entering without a radar especially as the sun was going down was very risky. The captain decided to stop the ship where we were and until we got the radar back up and running, we wouldn’t be able to move. We all went to bed, unsure of what was going to happen and unsure if the boat was going to move. Early the next morning (on the day we were supposed to be in Kuala Lumpur), we saw that we were moving again but unfortunately, the captain announced that even though they had gotten the radars working since it was too late at night, we were far behind schedule and wouldn’t be able to make it to Kuala Lumpur in time. He decided to change the itinerary. We were going to head straight to Penang (and therefore spend another full day at sea) and he, unfortunately, would be canceling the port of call in Phuket, Thailand. Instead, we’d stop at Langkawi, Malaysia after Penang and the day before disembarkation, we’d still be able to stop in Kuala Lumpur for a day. Again, that whole experience reminded me that nothing is set in stone, especially when it comes to the unpredictability of travel and of Nature.  I think it really taught me to be welcoming of whatever is thrown in my path, and to still find a way to be grateful for it all.

So, now Penang. We already had a tour booked so we followed our tour group off the ship early in the morning. Today was going to be a day filled with temples and “religious exploration.” Penang had some of the best temples in Malaysia and so, of course, that could not be missed. I’ve always been fascinated by the religion of Buddhism. I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it has to do with my grandma in China who is an intense believer of Buddhism; in the 3 times that I have been back to China, I remember her waking up at 6 am to do her daily morning prayer in front of the shrine that she built. I think it may also have to do with the fact that I took a World Religious course in Grade 11 and thought that both Buddhism and Islam were fascinating, mostly because they really praised peace and were both so different from the Christianity and Catholicism that is so predominant in North America.

Our first stop was the Reclining Buddha temple on the Thailand Buddha side, also called Wat Chayamangkalaram, which is 33 meters long. It was built in the year 1845. I’d later see on exchange that reclining buddhas were made to be very popular temples in Asia and were often frequented by those who wanted to pray and worship the Buddha (I ended up going to the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok a few weeks later and am even more blown away by its size). The Reclining Buddha actually represents the historical Buddha at the time of his death, preparing to enter Nirvana. We were told by our tour guide that the one in Penang was the 3rd biggest reclining buddha in the world, with the two biggest ones being in Thailand. However, after doing a quick Google search, I’m not sure if that’s the case.

At the Reclining Buddha, we got to walk around and see some of the other smaller buddhas and murals they had on display. Some of them represented the Chinese Zodiacs and many of them represented other events in the Buddha’s life.

After visiting the Thailand side, we crossed the street and entered the Burmese Buddha Temple. Our tour guide had said that the two sides were competing with each other and instead of making an even larger reclining Buddha, the Burmese people had decided to stand out and make a giant standing Buddha with the mudras. It was in that moment – in my second port of call in Asia – standing underneath the Buddha and craning my neck to look up at it that I realized that everything in Asia – all the temple and the shrines and the monuments – were humongous. It’s as if all the temples and the monuments want to make a statement and loudly shout their culture and their message. It’s as if each and every one of them want to communicate their power and their importance. They want to feel big and they want to help you feel even bigger, not smaller. It’s why you walk away from each one feeling so in awe and feeling so transformed, even if you’re not practicing the religion.

Our final temple of the tour was Kek Lok Si, which is deemed to be the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. It’s so big that the entire complex is divided into three different zones, each housing different things such as a pagoda or a turtle pond. Our tour guide led us on a short hike to climb to the top of the Kek Lok Si Pagoda, which is formally called Ban Po Thar. Although there are 7 levels in total for the Pagoda, the whole walk only took about 10-15 minutes, even factoring the time we’d take to stop for photos and wander around the whole level. On the bottom, there are a few different things to see as well. I really liked wandering into smaller shrines and temples around the complex and hearing the sound of Om Mani Padme and other chants by the locals.

What we also did at Kek Lok Si was take a cable car up to the top to see the famous Kuan Yin statue, which is known as the Goddess of Mercy. Other than this statue, there was not much to see on the hilltop but just this statue alone was enough to satisfy us. It was so big, similar to all the other religious monuments we had seen so far in Penang, and it’s power and strength were astounding.

Our tour wrapped up at around 2:30 pm but our ship wasn’t scheduled to leave until 6 pm and so, we decided to do our own little self-guided tour in the actual city of Georgetown, as it was all relatively close to where we were docked. We first walked along the road Pengkalan Weld to see the Clan Jetties, which were the first houses in the city of Penang established by the different clans when they left China and were now over a century old. Each Jetty is named after a clan and there used to be seven jetties until one was demolished by fire; now 6 remain. It was very interesting to see the jetties, as they were essentially houses built on stilts directly into the water. At the time, I remember being so astounded by the fact that they were able to build this huge community right on the water, and that back then, with their limited tools and technology, they were able to do all of what they did. Chew Jetty was the most popular one as it had the most stilt-houses and has now been transformed into a huge storefront along the water, with locals selling souvenirs, clothing, and a lot of snacks. The whole area of Chew Jetty was very overwhelming – it was full of commotion and it felt like an assault on all your senses. The pathway was very narrow, there were strange smells coming from a variety of places, and everything felt very messy. And yet, it was an experience you could really immerse yourself in. It felt like you were sent back in time to when the Clan Jetties were actively in use and were first being built. It really felt like something completely different from the rest of Penang and the rest of Georgetown.

Afterward, we left the flurry of activity behind and walked toward Lebuh Armenian, which is the road where you will find the best-preserved heritage buildings, modern public art, and famous wall murals. Perhaps the only thing I knew about Penang before arriving is that the city of Georgetown is incredibly well-known for its wall murals. They look incredibly realistic and are usually paired with a physical object on that street, like a chair. The ones we got to see were the Kids on a Bicycle, the Boy on a Chair, and Skippy.

I really liked getting to see the more distant temples AND the busier city of Georgetown. What I also liked was how well-preserved the history and culture was. It didn’t feel like you were just entering tourist territory, like you can feel sometimes with Bali or with certain tourist attractions in big cities. Rather, it felt like you really got a glimpse into a different time and a very different place. Afterward, we gladly headed back to the ship, sad to have only spent a day in such a beautiful place but also grateful for a chance to rest after a day of intense walking.

Next up: Langkawi!  

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