April 4, 2016, Penang
Breakfast at our (Red Rock) hotel is not catered to western appetites. Lots of rice, noodles, soup, vegetables, etc. There is white bread and scrambled eggs.
At 9 am we are being picked up by Steven, our driver, with a minivan for our half day city tour. The heat and humidity is already oppressive. Fortunately the sun is not shining. We drive through the city and Steven proves to have a wealth of knowledge of Penang. He was born here. He points out a lot of buildings, schools, temples and businesses. Penang has a large population of Chinese (mostly Buddhists), Malay (mostly Hindu) and Muslim communities.
We first go and visit a large Chinese Buddhist temple up the hill. The air is very hazy, yet we have a good view of the city from here. A huge statue of the goddess of mercy (compassion) Kuan Yin stands at the centre of the complex. It is at least 40 metres high and is made of copper. Before we go into the temple Steven tells us that, besides taking off our shoes, it is custom to step over the raised sill - not on it. Stepping on the sill means bad luck. Inside the temple is a statue of a sitting Buddha made of beautiful wood with lots of arms. He is holding different kinds of tools to defend himself according to Steven. In front of the statue is an altar with (fake) flowers. Soft music is playing which gives a peaceful atmosphere. Eke buys a cd with chanting music. We also choose a coloured ribbon (for a donation) with a positive thought or wish for someone and hang it on the "prayer" tree. We did so in memory of Laura.
From there we drive through busy traffic to a Burmese Buddhist temple. Same ritual of taking our shoes off. The interior of this temple is very different from the Chinese temple we just visited. Here there are carpets on the floor; the Buddha statue has distinctly different facial features and is surrounded by statues of worshippers - and of course fake flowers. Three monks are sitting to one side of the room and visitors can kneel in front of them to receive a blessing. Eke decides to receive a blessing and kneels in front of one of the monks. He takes a small branch, dips it in water, recites a prayer and sprays some water on her head. Eke found it a very calming experience listening to his voice and feeling the water drops on her head. After the blessing is finished, the monk ties a yellow string on Eke's wrist. A small donation is appreciated, not asked for.
We look around the rest of the temple complex, hit the bell for prosperity, health and longevity, and then walk across the street to a Thai Buddhist temple. In front of this temple are statues of "guards" and two shining dragons. Inside against the back is a huge statue of a reclining Buddha. Other statues around the room are dedicated to the different days of the week and to the different Chinese calendar years - like Eke was born in the year of the rat and Brian in the year of the monkey. Behind the reclining Buddha is a wall with cubby holes which contain the ashes of ancestors. Ancestors are very revered here and right at this time there is a festival of ancestors happening culminating in a day (April 5th) of people gathering at the cemeteries to light candles and pray.
Steven then brings us to Fort Cornwallis which looks out toward the bay. The British expected (in 1940) the Japanese to come from the water - they came from the land side and so the canons of the fort have never been used! We continue on to one of the four Jetties in the Penang harbour. A Jetty is a pier built up with houses and businesses. Each pier is inhabited by one family clan who only has the right to live and conduct business there. We walk down the "Tan" jetty. Houses and shops are built on stilts on either side of the pier. We see some very nice places. There is the smell of dirty water and garbage though. We do experience a nice breeze - very welcome in the heat! Each clan has their own temple at the beginning of the pier.
By then it is definitely lunch time. Steven brings us to an air-conditioned restaurant and we enjoy the cool air almost as much as the food we eat!
After lunch several group members decide to walk through Chinatown and admire the murals. We are being driven back to the hotel, take it easy for a while and then venture out to get some fruit, some ice cream and a sweet treat.
At about 7 pm the group (minus two) go out for some dinner. We take a local bus and then walk to another Food Court "The Tree Garden". The place is not that busy - not the weekend anymore - and we go around again to order our food. Afterwards we walk back to the hotel - about 20 minutes - and are sweating again even though it is 9:30pm.
Tomorrow morning we need to be ready to leave at 8:30 am for our journey to Kuala Lumpur using a public bus.