Friday, August 18, 2006

Penang: Hi Tech Island of Temples

When it comes to high density temple towns, Haridwar – a holy place and Kurukshetra –a battleground of Mahabharata, come to my mind. But with the exception of BHEL factory in Haridwar, neither of these two places have anything to do with industries. Penang, probably is the only place in the world that can have Hi Tech silicon industries such as Dell, Siemens, B Braun , Bosch, Panasonic ,Blaupunkt, Osram alongwith host of religious places like Snake temple, Tamil Mariammam temple, Thai and Burmese Buddha temples, Chinese Taoism, Confucianism temples , Anglican Church and scores of Muslim mosques.

High technology silicon industry with tourist inflow has transformed this small turtle shaped sleepy, quiet verdant island into business and leisure town. A town with almost 700K residents swells to a million with influx of 600K workers from mainland. Plentiful of rain with equatorial warm, sunny weather with long coastline and economical lifestyle bring tourists. Foreign nationals can buy property in Penang as long as it is more than 250K Ringits. This brings retired foreign nationals who choose Penang as their destination in their twilight years.

Penang airport is not as big as Kuala Lumpur but more organized than another tourist city like Cape Town. As my plane descended, I could make out Penang’s turtle shape island joining the main land by 4 km long bridge.The Hotel Equatorial was spacious like any tourist resort. Lobby was amidst green environs and adjacent to a sprawling swimming pool with a waterfall. From the balcony, I could see picturesque view of Penang Bridge and golf course. But elevators and lobby does get stuffy without ac and proper ventilation. This hotel may be close to the airport but far away from most places.

It’s difficult to understand direction in Penang but being an island one is never away from a shoreline. Going to a Sea food restaurant at Ocean beach took me through some wonderful palm tree lined neat roads. Behind that palm tress, were some exquisitely decorated villas and colonial buildings. From Georgetown to Batu Feringghi Beach – lay Gurney drive - an evening place that gets filled up with delcacies of Penang laksa, hokkien mee and char koay teow.

Khoo Kongsi clan house is another interesting place. Chinese families have their own temple that symbolizes patronage of family lineage. This is similar to many ‘community halls’ that Mumbai has for the benefit of their community migrants. They support in terms of arranging marriages, setting up a book library or social gatherings. But Khoo family is unique in making their family tradition grow and succeed. It all started when first Khoo came to Penang in 16th century from China. By 18th century they build their own clan house. Only a person born with Khoo surname father gets support and this support is generous enough to pursue higher education abroad to study Law, Medicine and Business. These people, once successful, provide handsome donations to the temple and their effort gets rewarded by having their name plaque. The outside of the building is Chinese influenced architecture in dragon form adorned with intricate carvings that cover the roof line. Outside the temple are two stone dragon statues that have stone balls inside their mouths .These stone balls were carved in place from the cavity of the dragon's mouth and are thus larger than the mouth opening. Most interesting is the statue of Sikh Sardar who symbolizes the fierce loyalty in guarding the temple (what a blot to this legendary tradition by Sikh bodyguards who killed Indira Gandhi). Inside is even more intricately decorated that feature tapestries, wooden carvings laced with gold and other artifacts.

Eating dinner at Mumbai House restaurant managed by a Tamilian was a welcome change. Food quality was nothing great but once you are deprived of indian food, anything that comes along is relishing and so was the Papad and Bhaji. A chance meeting with Malaysian born and raised Indian Tamil origin couple was a pleasant surprise. They were owners of Chettinad restaurant in Bansar at Kaula Lampur and I had even dined at their place on previous two occasions. Little did I realize that I would meet them in Penang and discuss about their new Chettinad in Penang. I do feel his restaurant- famously known as banana leaf restaurant – has a great chance of success in Dubai- that house more Indian immigrants.

My association with Buddhism that began with Ayuthaya, Yangoon, and Nara continued in Penang with Wat Chaiyamangkalaram, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, and the Dharmikarma Burmese temple which is across the street. The Temple of the Reclining Buddha is the fourth largest reclining Buddha's, which is over 100ft long. I have been to 1st one inYangoon, 2nd one in Bangkok and now 4th one in Penang. The gold plated Buddha is placed in the middle of the room and is surrounded by statues and paintings depicting various tales. Behind and underneath the pedestal holding the Buddha are thousands of urns containing the remains of devotees. The outside of the temple was equally impressive, with two large statues standing guard outside the temple. Two long dragons lie at their side and in the middle is an incense burner where worshippers can add their offering to the burner. Across the street was the Dharmikarma Burmese temple, which housed an approximately 20 ft tall Buddha.

The Snake Temple built around 1850 in memory of Buddhist priest and healer, Chor Soo Kong is next to B Braun factory along the highway to Penang International Airport. According to the legend, lots of snakes appeared when the temple was built and they have been there ever since. When we entered the temple altar, we were wondering about Snake’s presence. Only when our guide goaded two wiry parrot green yellow pigmented coiled creatures, we realized that they were snakes- similar to Russel Viper. They were fast asleep, It seems strong aromatic fragrance of incense make them sleep. On the altar table was chicken egg tray. Soon it became apparent that these coiled creatures were everywhere on altars, vases, tables and even tree outside. In an adjacent room photographers, would take photos with snakes around visitors head, neck or arms. Those snakes have no poison fang. Exhibition center with entrance fee of RM 5.00 didn’t interest having seen Snake Park in Chennai.

I could see from the bus Sri Mariammam Temple - ornate with statues of deities- like the one on Serangun road in Singapore. Our guide was quick to point to a corner house that filmed ‘Anna and the King ’staring Jodie Foster.

By the time we reached Pagoda of the Kek Lok Si (Temple of Paradise), heat and humidity took its toll. We had to walk through the stairs to reach pagoda. Walk is through small alley lined up on both sides by shops reminded me of going to Mahalaxmi temple in Mumbai. On way, we stopped at little pond that had literally hundred of baby turtles. Behind the Kek Lok Si rises a bronze statue of this Goddess. The temple itself is amazing, but with energy levels quickly draining, I galloped as fast I could to reach on top and get a view of Penang city only to run down and hop into ac bus.

Penang - The Pearl of the Orient has enjoyed a colorful past replete with merchants and traders. Since post 9/11, it is getting packed with Arab tourists. At buffet breakfast, I was amused to see an Arab woman, passing buttered bread through her hanging scarf that covered her nose, much the same manner elephant would swallow under his trunk. Every time she did that, she had to take tissue paper to clean bread crumbs that would gather on her expensive black silken veil. Even in Middle East, I have never been witness to this spectacle. In Saudi, woman are covered from top to toe, but you don’t see them eating. Their section is away from curious prying eyes of souls like me. In Dubai, if one sees a fully clad woman, one is lucky!
Four nights and three day stay in Penang let me see Georgetown but missed out on Penang Hill, Botanical Garden and traveling along the Hyundai built bridge that links Penang with mainland.


Blogger Bishwanath Ghosh said...

You have a cool blog!

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Plohf said...

That Sikh sardar's gurdwara was never invaded by a Chinese, only an Indian wretch. The Chinese in Malaysia have always recognised that while a Sikh's loyalty can always be depended upon, a Sikh's rage at desecration of his/her religion will attract a firm response. I find it strange that you missed 90% of the Hindus (Harijans brought in from Madras by the British). Their lives are hard and their temples are being slowly demolished by the Govt. No Gurdwara has ever been touched.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Shyam Nambiar said...

enjoyed reading your matter-of-fact review. was quite useful. looks like you had a great time at penang.
one suggestion: maybe you could recommend cheapest fares, stay and going around as additional add-ons, so that people who read you get that added advantage.
thanx for the info.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous Praveena said...

so you visited malaysia?? how was malaysia? where else did you visit, besides penang?? how was the food?? and the people?

Anyway, that was an *excellent* review, perfect guide to anyone thinking of visiting penang..

praveena ;-D

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Jaideep said...

gud informative review... i might be visiting this place shortly... thnx a ton for the timely information...


7:37 PM  
Anonymous sadia zarrin said...

"Milind your description is clearly perceptible and makes one feel like a part it"

10:01 AM  

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