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days 41 to 46 – penang – where do the chinese go at new year?

Our stay in Georgetown, Penang did not begin well. After having trouble booking anywhere to stay because of the Chinese New Year fast approaching, Helen and I managed to reserve a twin room with en-suite and were looking forward to a little luxury after our recent ultra basic living conditions. We spent most of the six hour journey fantasising about the idea of getting to unpack and having a bathroom to ourselves. However, when we arrived 75 Traveller’s Lodge about 10.30pm, we discovered they didn’t have our booking and all their private rooms were full. It being too late and being too tired to go look for anywhere else, we took a bed in their dorm. At 9 ringgits each, it was at least cheap but seeing that every other bunk had a mosquito nets set up over it should have been sufficient warning about what was to come but neither of us could face rooting through our backpacks for our own nets.

As it turned out, I didn’t get bitten at all but Helen spent all of the next day discovering more and more bites all over her body. So the next morning we went on a search for a new place to stay. We had already ruled out 100 Cintra Street after a guy we had met in Tanah Rata had stayed there and gained bites worse than Helen’s from bedbugs. After traipsing round a bunch of guesthouses in Chinatown (meeting several people who we knew from the Cameron Highlands), we bumped into an Italian guy called Daniele* who we had originally met on the bus the night before. He had stayed with two other girls from the bus in a three person room at Banana Guesthouse but was also looking for somewhere else as the two girls were moving on. It didn’t take much discussion for Helen and I to take the vacated space – to the amusement of the staff at Banana, to whom it looked like Daniele had just swapped women.

Once this was finally done, we could set out to look around the area. It was absolutely dead. If we, along with every other traveller who descended on Penang for Chinese New Year, had thought this through, we would have realised that for the first couple of days the Chinese mostly go spend time with family and everywhere in Chinatown – also the main backpackers’ area of Georgetown – was closed. We went out to Little India to find somewhere to eat and discovered that Daniele had never had Indian food before. I have also discovered a theme with the Italians in that they don’t like garlic to ever be served in large pieces in their food. Not a shared trait I ever expected but each one I’ve met on this trip has complained about it.

We discovered where all the Chinese seemed to have gone when we aimed to go up Penang Hill but slightly misled by Lonely Planet about where the funicular railway station was, only got halfway and after stopping at the market where I bought a new pair of flip flops from a man called William. He also gave us directions and suggested we see Kek Lok Si Temple at night. Which we did, despite still aiming for the railway. It was a particularly impressive temple (apparently the largest Buddhist one in Malaysia), mixing Chinese, Burmese and Thai styles. It was also filled with Chinese people visiting the temple – it seemed like everyone who had vacated Chinatown had made their way up here to Air Itam and Helen and I were two of the very few tourists who were there. Stopping off on the way to have some of the local Laksa, we met William again who explained in great detail (but not entirely comprehensible English) the history of Kek Lok Si, as well as pointing out on our map some good sights we could go see while we were in Penang. We went back to Banana and congratulated ourselves on an unexpectedly good time although then discovered that we had apparently narrowly missed Sian and John – a couple we had met at Father’s in Cameron Highlands, who had come round to see if we were about.

Our bad luck in Penang still wasn’t over. The next morning I woke up and did not feel good. I don’t know what it was but it felt like a mild strain of flu (which I was vaccinated against) – mostly just feeling exhausted and achey. It wrote off the day, which I spent sleeping and listening to audiobooks on my iPod. The next morning I still felt bad but we had arranged to meet up with Sian and John at the funicular railway to get tickets to go up Penang Hill for sunset. So in a pathetic way, I dragged myself back out to Air Itam and walked about 20 minutes (not the five suggested by LP) to the station. We were incredibly late so after hanging around, not sure whether Sian and John had come and gone or not, eventually I slumped on a chair in the waiting room while Helen got us tickets. We went back and I slept some more and when I woke up that afternoon, felt much better and ready to head back out to finally make it up the hill.

The funicular railway was packed but it does make for an interesting journey as it effectively moves up a 45 degree slope. There are signs as you go past with how far above sea level you are and by the time you get to the top – 833 metres above sea level – you’re pretty relieved to get out of the cramped carriage. It’s a nice view but due to it being very overcast, the sunset was less than spectacular. It’s fun watching all the lights come on below you though. We kept an eye out for Sian and John but saw no sign of them and eventually headed back down the hill. Late that evening, we had a message from them saying that they had got to the station even later than us that morning and had ended up going up just after the sun had set. We’d just missed them again.

Helen and I had planned to stick around for the Chinese New Year celebrations in Lebuh Campbell – the street behind Banana – then both take our separate journeys up to Thailand, although we both intended to get the sleeper train to Hat Yai, then I would head up to the island of Koh Tao. With this in mind, and knowing that the Thai government had irritatingly changed the visa waiver period from one month to two weeks if entering the country by land, I paid for a 30 day visa.

As it turned out, all the hordes of travellers who had turned up in Penang expecting huge celebrations for the New Year, were all aiming to leave at the same time too. Tickets were all sold out on the train and my other land option was an 18 hour minibus journey, including 6 hours sea crossing. Instead of going to the snake temple like we intended, Helen and I spent our last day in Penang, trying to sort out what we were going to do. With Sam and Karl’s descriptions of vomiting passengers on their crossing on my mind, I let go of my determination to not fly until the end of my journey and booked a flight with Firefly Airlines to Koh Samui, from where I could get a two hour crossing to Koh Tao.

Finally sorted, we went out to enjoy the festivities. They were just finishing setting up as we walked down Lebuh Campbell; a stage was at one end of the road with four comfy armchairs set up in front of it, then behind them rows of plastic chairs. Behind those were several round tables laid for dinner. Once past there, we reached varying stalls. At one a man painted Chinese calligraphy; the next was long and several small groups of people were folding Chinese red envelopes and sticking them together to build something.

Further down the street started to smell citrus-y and when we came across people handing out oranges to raise money for damage caused by a past fire, we realised why. We also received gold chocolate coins for the same cause. At other stalls free food was being handed out, mostly desserts that neither of us recognised but were either of a crispy, fried nature or tasted of tapioca or I didn’t dare try for fear of nuts. We also reached a stand handing out free, espresso-sized cups of Milo** – the patiently waiting queue was the longest I had seen in a long while, including when we went to get tickets for Penang Hill. I can’t imagine what those people taste in Milo to warrant waiting for that long or if people just saw the queue and joined it, expecting something great at the end. They would have been sorely disappointed.

Then we got to the entertainment. After watching a group of kids (who looked about 12 to 14) carefully place large drums and test them thoroughly for how well balanced they were, we saw them do a long and very impressive drumming performance. It involved them standing on their drums and jumping off at points, which explained why they were so careful about the placement. Some smaller children, maybe aged five to seven, did a dragon dance. They weren’t quite so proficient, at one point getting completely tangled up and needing a teacher to come in and untwist them, but they were very cute. A teenage girl played traditional Chinese music on an instrument I can’t name to great applause. There seemed to be a double act stand-up routine going on but as it was all in Chinese, I couldn’t say how funny it was. Further down a pair were singing traditional songs, while a group of four people in very ornate costumes wandered around having their photos taken.

After lining the red carpet for a man who may have been the Chief Minister of Penang… or maybe the Governor, I’m not really sure, we listened (but didn’t understand) a speech from him before he sat down on one of the comfy armchairs for the staged performances – traditional dances from Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures, more musical performances and a terrifying Wu Shu demonstration. By the end of this, Helen and I returned for our last night at Banana and glad that we had finally experienced a little of what we had come for.

The next morning, we went out and Chinatown had come back to life again. All the shops and restaurants were open and we had dim sum on a very quickly cleaned up Lebuh Campbell before I set out for the airport.

Somehow, in a month I had managed to completely forget everything about flying. I had my trainers tied to the outside of my backpack and I completely forgot about the liquids rule so had to abandon a bottle of sunscreen. When I went through security, the scanner didn’t beep and I was so surprised that my knee hadn’t set it off that I actually looked back at it in confusion and almost demanded to be frisked, on principle.

* While typing this up in an internet place on the riverfront in Phnom Penh, there was a tap on my shoulder and I looked up to see Daniele. This sort of thing happens all the time. The traveller’s circuit is ridiculously small.
** A milky hot drink, a bit like Horlicks. If you’re never had Horlicks, I have no other frame of reference for you.

2 meows »

  1. TeeKay said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 19:47

    Not to good a stay then at Penang, remember I did say I’d be able to get you free accommodation!

  2. TeeKay said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 2:44

    as I can’t comment on Phil’s site, I’d comment on yours;
    day 18: “Met some kittens. Had nicest meal of the trip.” Intentional linkage or not?

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