Pulau Penang, Malaysia, April 05
Malaysia (Part 2)
Two days was enough for us in KL, so today we left the heat of the city and headed to the mountains. The Cameron Highlands area of central Malaysia rises several hundred feet above sea level and supports a thriving agricultural community. The hills and valleys are home to a large number of vegetable and strawberry farms, lush jungle, and sprawling tea plantations. The area is known for it's jungle hikes, with several trails accessing the most scenic points.
During the bus ride, Sue was reading a book about Muslims and Christianity. Across the aisle from her a Malayan man took notice and struck up a conversation. His name was Nizam and he was a Muslim preacher on his way to a retreat in the Cameron Highlands. Sue asked to see the Koran that he was reading, which he gave to her, but said we could not touch the pages. We gave him and his friend our copy of the New Testament, assuring them it was OK to touch the pages. The road leading up to the main town, Tanah Rata, is a very windy road with plenty of sharp curves. Unfortunately, as Nizam seemed to be very curious about our beliefs, Sue began to feel sick from the motion of the bus. I wasn't feeling so good myself. Sue ended up losing her lunch, but I was able to hang on (for a change). When we reached Tanah Rata, we got Nizam's mobile phone number and agreed to meet for lunch in a couple of days.
Our accomodation in Tanah Rata, a place called Father's Guest House, was fantastic. The room was clean and comfortable and the family running the place was really friendly and helpful. The temperature was mild and extra blankets were provided. The thought of possibly needing extra blankets (or even one blanket!) made us really happy.
That night we walked down to the main street of Tanah Rata and had a "steamboat' dinner at the Mayflower Restaurant. The steamboat involves an urn of boiling soup stock set on a burner on your table along with a heaping plate of vegetables and noodles and another of meat and seafood. A bit at a time we cooked our own meal by adding ingredients to the soup. The result was surprisingly good. Definitely something we will try at home.
The morning hours today were taken up with a tour of the Cameron Highlands arranged through the guest house. We visited an ornate Hindu temple, a strawberry farm, the Boh tea plantation and factory, an extensive botanic garden, a butterfly and insect farm, and a honey farm and market.
The tea plantation was quite interesting, especially walking through the factory to see how tea is actually processed from the raw plants to the stuff inside the teabags. First the tea plants are harvested by hand by an army of workers who live on the plantation. After the leaves have been dried, they pass through rolling machines which twist and rupture the internal cells, liberating the leave's juices. Next the fermentation (or, more technically correct, oxidation) process occurs in which the broken leaves are spread onto trays allowing their enzymes to be exposed to oxygen. During this process, in which the characteristic flavor and aroma of the tea develops, the leaves turn from their natural green to a coppery color. The fermenting leaves are then passed through machines which blow hot air (near 100 degrees Celsius) over them, halting the fermentation process, reducing the moisture content, and crystalling the juices whereby the leaves are converted into the familiar crispy black form. The hot air used in this process is produced by burning rubber wood branches in a large furnace. After it is dry, the tea can be separated and graded according to particle size by using a series of vibrating sieves.
In the afternoon we did some shopping in Tanah Rata and bought a really groovy Malaysian tea set handmade in Selangkor (outside of Kuala Lumpur). (As of this writing we are still hoping that it makes the postal journey by sea back home intact!)
We rose early to spend the morning hiking through the cool jungle. Our plan was to hike down into a valley via Trail 9, then return to Tanah Rata via a steep climb up Trail 9A. Using the guidebook map of area trails, we promptly proceeded to make a wrong turn and spend the first hour searching for the trailhead. Eventually we found it, but had lost much time. We were supposed to meet up with Nizam for lunch at noon, so we had to double-time it down the trail. The trail finished by walking through a tea plantation, but we were again unable to find the trailhead for 9A to lead us back. We ended up walking along a road and hitchhiking a ride back to Tanah Rata from a passing pickup truck.
We tried to get in touch with Nizam, but his mobile phone was apparently out of range so we had lunch at the Excellent Food Stall and sent him an email instead. (We have since heard back from him and are keeping in touch.)
Today we celebrated Easter Sunday at the Gereja Gospel House in Tanah Rata. The service was jointly attended by local Mandarin Chinese and Tamil Indian Malaysians. Along with Suzanne and I (the only Westerners in the place) and a few other local English speakers, it was interesting to hear all three languages combining together to sing the hymns. Good thing the Lord can understand us all! After service the congregation gathered in another church building for lunch where we were treated to some local home-cooked food.
In the evening we went down to Tanah Rata and walked through the Sunday market which had been set up in a normally empty lot. We picked out some food from various stalls and made a meal consisting of amazing fried chicken, curry puffs, fried tapioca balls, chicken kebab, and some tasty pancakes made with batter, sugar, ground peanuts, and creamed corn.
Early in the morning we caught a bus out of the Cameron Highlands towards Pulau Penang, a large island off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia. After changing buses at Ipoh, we continued on to the city of Georgetown on the east coast of Penang. From the bus terminal we split a taxi with Jessica from Canada to the Olive Spring Hotel. We were pleasantly surprised to learn upon arrival that the hotel was run by a Christian Chinese family, the Tan's. The hotel was old, but clean and airy with lots of atmosphere. The walls of the rooms did not reach all the way up to the ceiling, making it a bit noisy sometimes, but otherwise the place was great (and cheap at RM 25 ($7 USD)).
After exploring the city a bit in the afternoon, we stopped at the Green Planet restaurant for dinner. (Another guidebook recommendation, so we were a bit wary after the Big Bird experience, but the food turned out to be really good.) There we met the owner, Caroline, who turned out to be the ex-wife of the owner of the Olive Spring Hotel. Since the divorce she and the Tan family had all become Christians, developed a great relationship, and were actually in business together. Amazing story. She gave us directions to a local church that we could attend.
We spent the day doing some sightseeing just outside of Georgetown. First we took a bus to the edge of town to visit the impressive Kok Lek Si Buddhist temple. The walkway leading up to the temple passed by many street vendor stalls (of course) and a pool filled with hundreds of big turtles. Inside is the eight-story Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas. I did not realize until after we had left that it's possible to climb the pagoda from the inside to get a view of a giant Buddha statue farther up on the hill. From there, we took another bus to Penang Hill where we rode a cable train 740 meters up the hill for a great view overlooking the city. We walked back down the other side of the hill along a very steep road (which resulted in some shin splints the next day). Along the way we spotted several rhesus monkeys playing in the trees alongside the road. Against our better judgement, we fed them some granola bars. At the bottom of the hill the road lead us to the Botanical Gardens, which we would have liked to walk through, but our legs would not let us. We caught a bus back into the city instead.
Back at the hotel Mr. Tan helped us get a taxi and explain to the driver how to get to the Assembly of God church that Caroline had told us about. It was located in an area called Hunza and, judging from the looks of the locals on the street, does not get many Western visitors. We found our way to the church for their weekly Bible study meeting after which we met John and Betty. It turned out that Betty was the niece of Mr. Tan, owner of the Olive Spring Hotel, so they gave us a ride back to the hotel and we all had a light meal in the hotel's restaurant.
Near midnight, I was feeling hungry and decided to head out to the street to find something to eat and was surprised to find it bustling with activity. Many street vendors had set up their carts across the street from the hotel, serving all types of Asian cuisine. I asked George, a nice guy who worked at the hotel, which cart to go to and he directed me to "noodles from the old man". I approached the cart in question and pointed to the noodles, at which the old man gruffly nodded and indicated that I should sit down at one of the little tables set up behind the cart. He began talking loud and fast in Malaysian to the old woman next to him as he started throwing ingredients around with lightning quickness. I started to think that maybe I had insulted him by pointing and might not get what I wanted, but two seconds later the old woman brought over a steaming bowl of spicy noodle soup with fishballs, clams, and some other unrecognizable but tasty morsels. As I ate I watched in amazement at the speed and skill of the various street cooks. The tables behind other carts were all full of groups of locals, presumably eating a very late dinner. I paid the old woman, and headed back to the hotel, flushed and sweating from the hot chillis, but completely satisfied.
In the morning we took a bus out of Georgetown to the small town of Teluk Bahang along the northwest coast of the island. At the end of the road leading through the town is a 'kampung nelayan', or fishing village. We walked through the village to a trail which lead into the Pantai Aceh Forest Preserve. We hiked through the forest for a couple of hours, spotting several lizards and monkeys along the way.
Eventually we arrived at Keracut Beach on the west coast of Penang. We originally planned on spending the day at this beach but the water was infested with large, mean-looking jellyfish. There was a large pier in the middle of the beach which we walked out on and found Chris and Jane from Jersey in the UK. They were on their honeymoon and had also made the hike that we had just done. Chris was trying to flag down a local fisherman for a ride back to the fishing village. We thought that sounded like a good idea, but we were unable to find a fisherman willing to take us for a reasonable price. We all ended up hiking all the way back to the village, but it was worthwhile as a wrong turn lead us back by a different route so that we had a change of scenery. We sat down in the 'End of the World Restoran' in Teluk Bahang for a while to recover and Chris and Jane treated us to some drinks.
We parted with our new friends who were staying at a hotel nearby and found a bus, but the driver was on a break. While waiting for the driver, we sampled several deep fried treats at a stall on the side of the road.
Later in the evening we walked over to an area with several Muslim restaurants and street vendors for dinner. We chose one that was mostly outdoors with a woman who looked like she knew a thing or two about cooking presiding over the kitchen area. After I had ordered, Sue pointed out a poster of sorts on the wall depicting Osama bin Laden and (presumably) several other Islamic leaders. This made us a bit uncomfortable at first, but the staff was very courteous and the food (roti canai - kind of like a pancake stuffed with vegetables) was fantastic. I would have liked to go back again for another meal, but we ended up not having a chance.
Today was just an update-the-website-while-Sue-goes-shopping day.
Sue was feeling some stomach distress, so I continued to update the website while she rested in the hotel. In the afternoon, she came by the Internet place with new friend Johnny whom she had met in the hotel. Being a retired chef and well-travelled throughout Southeast Asia, Johnny is an authority on all things relating to the stomach. He introduced us to a product called Chloro-Praise, which is basically concentrated liquid chlorophyll (yes, the green stuff in plants). Johnny swears by a capful mixed in cold water every day for digestive health on the road. (Within a day, Sue began to feel better, but we thought maybe it was just the natural course of things. However, as I write this now some weeks later, I have to say that I am a devoted consumer of Chloro-Praise. Since we started taking it, Sue and I have not had any major digestive issues - and I for one have been eating some really ridiculous and questionable stuff.)
Johnny took us to a little restaurant near the hotel for a snack of wonton mee (noodles with pork dumplings) in the afternoon and later in the evening to one of his favorite hawker markets - the New Golden Phoenix food center - for dinner. There we sampled a drink called keat beoy (sour plum juice and tamarind), loh bak (fried yams and chicken sausage), Hokkien prawn mee (noodles with shrimp), char kway teow (broad rice noodles in thick sauce), sweet and sour pork, and for dessert something called ice kachung which I cannot possibly describe.
Eating the "steamboat", Cameron Highlands
Hindu ceremonial procession, Cameron Highlands
Hindu temple (1), Cameron Highlands
Hindu temple (2), Cameron Higlands
Hindu temple (3), Cameron Highlands
Hindu temple (4), Cameron Highlands
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and the One Dork, Rose Center, Cameron Highlands
A rose, Rose Center, Cameron Highlands
Farming in the valley, Cameron Highlands
Strawberry farm, Cameron Highlands
Boh tea plantation (1), Cameron Highlands
Boh tea plantation (2), Cameron Highlands
Boh tea plantation (3), Cameron Highlands
Boh tea plantation (4), Cameron Highlands
Boh tea plantation (5), Cameron Highlands
The delectable longhorned beetle, Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
The face says it all..., Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
Butterfly on an orchid, Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
The Batman butterfly, Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
Leaf insect, Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
Scorpion, Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
Don't try this at home..., Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
Leaf frog! This place has everything! Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
Walking stick (Walking branch?), Butterfly and Insect Farm, Cameron Highlands
Box full of bees, Honey Farm, Cameron Highlands
And these little pigs went to market..., Georgetown, Pulau Penang
You won't see this in Shop-Rite! Georgetown, Pulau Penang
Kok Lek Si Buddhist temple (1), Pulau Penang
Kok Lek Si Buddhist temple (2), Pulau Penang
Kok Lek Si Buddhist temple (3), Pulau Penang
Kok Lek Si Buddhist temple (4), Pulau Penang
Kok Lek Si Buddhist temple (5), Pulau Penang
Kok Lek Si Buddhist temple (6), Pulau Penang
Kok Lek Si Buddhist temple (7), Pulau Penang
Heading up Penang Hill, Pulau Penang
Penang Hill cable train, Pulau Penang
Pier at Teluk Bahang, Pulau Penang
Fishing boats at Teluk Bahang, Pulau Penang
A street in Georgetown, Pulau Penang
"Prayer for Tourists", Olive Spring Hotel, Georgetown, Pulau Penang