Friday, 28 March 2014

George Town Street Art

George Town on the Malaysian island of Penang has a fantastic display of street art which, in a few particular streets, is positively encouraged. Pick your favourite.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

George Town and Penang

After the dizzying modernity of KL we were desperate for something a little quieter so took the train north along the Malaysian peninsula's west coast to the island of Penang and its capital George Town.

Early history of Penang includes Stone and Iron Age settlements and as far back as the 15th century it was known to Chinese seafarers as Betelnut Island but by then appeared to be uninhabited. The island was ruled by the Sultan of Kedah in the 1700s until the British East India Company took control in 1771 in return for providing protection to the Sultan's lands against Siam.

In 1786 Captain Francis Light renamed Penang Prince of Wales Island, as the acquisition was made on the Prince's birthday. So as to not upset the King (George III) he named the settlement George Town in his honour and various locations around the island after the Prime Minister and other notable dignitaries - a very diplomatic and entrepreneurial man.

When the locals he had hired for clearing the land for a fort and settlement began to slow at their task and progress almost halted, he loaded a cannon with silver pieces and fired it into the jungle. The pace of clearing accelerated ahead as every man went searching to claim his treasure.

Light permitted new arrivals to claim as much land as they could clear, and this, with a duty free port and an atmosphere of liberal tolerance, quickly attracted settlers from all over Asia. By the turn of the 18th century Penang was home to over 10,000 people.

Due to the liberal running of the island newcomers soon intermarried with the local Sumatrans, who arrived in the early 18th Century, and with each other. This was a melting pot of Sumatran, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Arabic, Japanese and European heritage, which has left a unique feel and look to the architecture, food and people of Penang.

We stayed a few nights in George Town taking in the street food, museums, beautiful churches, shop-houses and the old Clan Houses. These Clan Houses were established by Chinese settlers who wanted to create a social and spiritual place, where fellow settlers from their own region or family could meet, introduce newcomers, provide lodgings and practice their same traditions.

Over time many of these clans (known as Secret Societies by the British) became prosperous and this was reflected in the grandeur of the house and associated temple, becoming more and more ornate. Due to this rivalry Penang has the greatest concentration of Clan Houses outside of China.

George Town is full of unique Georgian architecture, surrounded by Indian and Chinese influences. Many of these older structures were falling into decay but thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage status these are now being rescued and turned into boutique hotels, restaurants, apartments and shops.

It's a fantastic place to wander the streets, browse the shops, take in some street food, or drink coffee in modern Bistros, as long as you can cope with the 40C heat!

Giant incense sticks smoulder outside the Chinese temple Kaun Yin Teng

The Penang Museum provides 2 floors of fascinating artefacts tracking the history of Penang from Stone Age Man through to the independence of Malaysia. Below a rather fetching opium bed

And a demonstration of how it works

The bridal bed for a Nyonya wedding, richly carved in soft namwood and covered in red leather and gold leaf. The focus of attention for any Baba Nyonya wedding.

Complex rituals filled the life of the Baba Nyonya, none more so than the wedding ceremony. Weddings lasted 12 days, with detailed rites, such as the hair combing ceremony, being strictly observed. The happy couple below in their Manchu inspired, rich clothing.

The tin ingots in the shape of animals have a constant weight and were used for all major transactions in bazaar as a form of currency from the 16th century. Animal weights have been used since the ancient Egyptians and Persians, and the Malays would have been familiar with them through the opium trade with Burma and Siam.

Fort Cornwallis, named after the famous Charles Cornwallis best known for surrendering to George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown effectively ending the American Revolution. I guess the fort was named before that auspicious occasion!

Inside the splendour of Pinang Peranakan Mansion, which belonged to a 19th century Chinese (Baba-Nonya) merchant. Every surface is covered in gold, carvings, paintings, porcelain and rich fabrics.

Chung Keng Kwi Temple and Clanhouse next door to the mansion

Yap Kongsi Temple and Clanhouse

Sampling some of George Town's most famous attraction - its street food. It's a blend of Malay, Indonesian, Indian and Chinese cuisine with the odd bit of Thai and Sri Lankan thrown in for good measure. Fancy Mutton Biryani, Tandoori Chicken, Rotti and Curry Sauce all for about £2?!

The markets are full of flowers first thing in the morning and early evening

More curry? Mmmmm yes please!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Back to Bangkok and beyond

We left our new pals in Chiang Mai and headed to the airport with Tim and Ella from Tasmania and back to Bangkok. We had been warned by Kitty that the violence surrounding the protests in Bangkok had escalated, including shootings and hand grenade attacks, so we were on edge. We fully expected our taxi from the airport to drop us half a mile from Kitty’s flat and we’d have to weave our way through the protest camps. To our surprise and relief the taxi drove through empty streets and pulled up right outside the apartment, the protest camp had gone!

We found out later that due to the escalating violence the protest organisers had closed down all but one of the camps and relocated the protestors to Lumpini Park. This was likely following advice from the police and army that they could probably be protected better there. The camps disbanded in the morning and by the time we rocked up at 11pm there was not even a sign that they had ever been there – nearly two months of occupation was over. The next day we celebrated over a slap up Italian meal with our new Tazzy mates.

We hadn’t really decided where to go next after Thailand other than thoughts of Malaysia and Indonesia. Our friend Kitty was attending a conference in Kuala Lumpur and it was her birthday so we thought we would provide a chaperone. I know, we’re nice like that!

We flew into KL with Kitty and spent the next 6 days exploring KL and getting to grips with the Malaysia culture. KL is a stunning city with towering skyscrapers, colonial quarters, parks, tree-lined boulevards and of course dominating the centre the Petronas Towers.

We gatecrashed a lovely buffet with free drinks at the Intercontinental Hotel passing ourselves off as UN officials monitoring TB and HIV in Burma. Then went out to a fantastic Italian restaurant with some of Kitty’s friends from the conference. We now remember how much we miss red wine – 4 months without is just obscene!!

The Petronas Towers are as impressive from the ground as they are from the 86th floor!! Unfortunately our view was a little hazy but the views were stunning all the same, especially the 385m vertical view back down to the park and fountains below.

KL is a wonderful city, it feels very safe, is very clean and there is plenty to occupy a week. We visited a cool little jazz bar called “No Black Tie” which had fantastic groups playing every night, thanks for the recommendation Rob.

After a week of exploring the urban jungle we were craving a real one, so we bade Kitty farewell and booked a train to the north of the Malaysian peninsular, Penang.

Our new favourite steak restaurant "Victoria Station" included a number of railway carriages and an actual train crashing out through the front windows - awesome!

Remnants of KL's colonial past

The park at the base of the Petronas Towers have a great fountain and light display all set to music, which gets more impressive as the sun sets

Just under half way up the Petronas Towers is the skybridge which links the two

Don't look down!!

Keep going up to the 86th floor to enjoy the panoramic views of KL

The sun sinks past the other twin

Glad to be back on the ground as the sun sets and the moon and towers provide their own light show

View of the towers from the Sky Bar across the park

A farewell drink to Kitty and KL

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Karen Animals

Because we had too many photos for our 10 Journey to Freedom related posts, here's a few that missed the final cut.

Hard work all this piggin' out!

If you haven't finished your dinner this little rascal will

Fancy a peckicure, ticks and flea removal extra!

These guys constantly butt in!

The warmest place after a cold bath is in the ashes of the fire - aaaahhhhhh!

Daisy was thinking of changing her name to Bougainvillea, but it was a bit of a mouthful!

I can fit a few more watermelon in here you know

Friday, 21 March 2014

Journey to Freedom 9 – Elephant Nature Park

Our final night was spent at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Lek's base of operation and a sanctuary for injured elephants who can't be returned to the wild. She also cares for stray dogs and cats here - a real menagerie! We arrived in the evening with enough time for a quick shower, the first for quite a while, before a glorious Thai banquet with a dozen different veggie dishes and dance entertainment provided by the local school children.

That evening we celebrated our week with a few Chang beers culminating in Gary telling us he doesn't like cats and then falling asleep without locking his bedroom windows! Schoolboy error! Tim and I posted as many cats as we could find through Gary's window until he was woken by their meows!

With a heavy heart and fuzzy head we spent our final day touring the park meeting and feeding various elephants all rescued from circuses, trekking or logging companies. Many of their injuries were horrific, blinded by cruel mahouts who couldn't control them, backs and legs broken through over work or forced breeding programmes plus land mine injuries from Myanmar and Cambodia. All were free to roam the luscious park and cared for by their mahouts.

In the afternoon we took 2 of them for a bath in the river which ended up with us being as wet as them, then around 4pm they all arrived at the HQ for feeding time, watermelon, bananas and, for the older ladies with no teeth left, cooked pumpkin sandwiches that Sarah and Ella fed them with Lek.

We had an amazing week on Journey to Freedom meeting some wonderful people and sharing some truly remarkable experiences. We learnt so much too about our comrades and their respective countries over a week where there is little privacy or personal space we all got on so well considering! Thanks to Gary, Tim, Ella, Kat, Mel, Abi, Erin, Chelsey, Theresa and Alice. Also thanks to our guides Kan, Stam and Sek and our Karen hosts for their wonderful hospitality.

The work that Lek has done and continues to do is so courageous and inspirational and deserves the international recognition that it is now receiving. Hopefully we have helped to make a difference too.

The ENP provides plenty of space for injured and rescued elephants to roam with a mahout keeping an eye on them

Many of the elephants enjoy human company especially at feeding time

There are two baby elephants at the park both less than one year old

You just couldn't drag Sarah away from this place

Some of the elephants wander around in pairs, others in micro herds

 This old girl was scratching an itchy leg using a stick held by her trunk

Ahh bath time - our favourite, although I think we ended up just as wet!

The group after bathing (with) the elephants

Some of the elephants had tragically been blinded by their previous mahouts in order to try and control them better. This doesn't seem to affect the confidence of some of them though, they stride around and if they bump into things so what, they're generally bigger than most things anyway.

This can be the result of overwork or forced breeding leading the broken legs and backs. Whilst we can't imagine the pain these girls are in they still manage to wander around the park and eat 100kg of food a day!

With youngsters comes trouble, the two babies and a slightly older cousin are constantly playing, much to the annoyance of the parents

The old girls being fed cooked pumpkin sandwiches by the young girls

The gang - after an amazing week together, many friendships have been forged and unforgettable experiences shared - thank you everyone