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Pettigrew, Penang, Skippy

How befitting that I’ve been reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, a novel set in the English countryside, in a quiet Malaysian city named after Britain’s King George III, Georgetown in Penang. It’s a place so unparallel to Asian city: trishaws can still be seen plying the streets flanked by Chinese-style clan houses and At the lounge of the colonial Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which had hosted prominent guests like Hesse, Kipling, and Maugham, I’m sipping Lady Grey and having finger sandwiches, mulling over proper things an Englishman like Major Pettigrew values: honor, duty, decorum, and a proper cup of tea. Chamomile is not real tea, says the Major.

A visit to the local English-language bookstore of course has given my homeward bound luggage more weight. But how can you resist these beautiful UK paperback editions? (Almost all bookstores in Asia rely on and are stocked by distributors in the British Commonwealth.)











I started reading Skippy Dies. I know I’m supposed to read the shortlist of Independent Literary Awards since I’m one of the judges. This book is just intriguing as soon as I flip open the first page. Set in a boarding school in the British Isles, reverent children huddle in a gloomy chamber, watching as one of their fellow students, hands aflutter, assays a devilishly difficult trick that results in a jet of fire, some “cold and beautiful purple-blue enchantment.” It’s almost like Hogwarts but not quite. No magic wand to bring back the dead.  No Voldemort to rid of Muggle. The Booker Prize shortlisted book chronicles a single catastrophic autumn at Seabrook from many perspectives: students, teachers, administrators, priests, girlfriends, doughnut shop managers. At the center of it all is Daniel Juster, known as Skippy, whose death—on the floor of a donut shop, just after writing his beloved’s name on the floor in raspberry filling, opens the novel. It’s great read so far, and justifies my placing a heavy bet on its winning, despite its loss to The Finkler Question.


Penang | Bukit Bendera

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The trip to Bukit Bendera, or Penang Hill, takes up the entire last day of my stay in Penang. The bus ride to the funicular station at the foothill in Air Itam takes about 45 minutes from Georgetown, then the real fun is to queue up for tickets, which are soldout for the next two hours when I get there at 9 in the morning. The Swiss funicular cable car was completed in 1923 as an attempt to provide means of transportation to the foreign elites who live on the hill. Crawling time is about 30 minutes, with a change of carriages hafway up at the mid-level. I am more than happy to be stuck with just a standing room as I can capture a better view during the ascent to 820 meters (2500 feet). The top of Bukit Bundera is probably the best spot to enjoy a panoramic views of Penang. Has it not been the haze, the 13-km Penang Bridge linking the mainland will be visible.

Perching on top are also a mosque and an Hindu temple, as well as a post office. Usually the crowd will make a way around and hop back on the funicular for the descent because it does get congested and the wait can be dreadful. I take my time knowing this will be my last view of Penang and the roundabout trail is such tranquil and memorable way to conclude the trip in Malaysia. I find a shaded spot overlooking the bay and sit down with my book. I lounge away the rest of the afternoon on the hill undtil sunset.

Off to Bangkok today for a friend’s art opening tomorrow. I just finished Mrs Craddock by W. Somerset Maugham, stay tuned for the reviews and I’m officially done with the Outmoded Author Challenge, with the completion of 6 books. But I’ll continue on as I’ll be scouring the wonderful bookstores in Bangkok.

Penang | Ecstacy Temple!

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Often time tourist makes the mistake of taking too many pictures too soon at the site of attraction. Before he even gets to the heart of it the camera battery is dead. Refraining one’s impulsive whim is exactly what one has to exercise at Kek Lok Si Temple, for the view only gets better as one climbs up the steps to higher terraces. Kek Lok means extreme happiness or ecstacy. This temple of “ecstacy” is a buddhist one that sits on a hilltop at Air Itam, about 3 kilometers southwest of Penang city. It’s the largest of its kind in Malaysia. Founded in 1890 by a Chinese Buddhist immigrant, it took 20 years to complete and it is still being added to.

I was forewarned that tourists and locals alike (December is school holiday in Malaysia) will jam pack this place so I headed up early. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes to the town of Air Itam, which is already in it’s full bustle for the morning market. Locals sit under tarps that are setup for meals at the food stalls. Old ladies clutch bags full of incenses and fruits and set out for a moderate hike up to the temple. To reach the entrance, which is a bit hidden, one has to walk through a poorly ventilated, packed maze of souvenir shops, past a filthy turtle pond and murky fish pond, until one treads on the base courtyard. Ascends from here is chamber upon chamber, all lined with images of buddhas, bronze and porcelain, that eventually opens to a three-storey shrine that houses a large Thai Buddha image.

Before reaching the main hall where monks pray, chant and perform ceremonies, the four awe-inspiring heavenly kings, symbolic guardians of Buddhist practitioners, sit staidly on both sides of an ante-chamber. The heart of the complex is a 30m-high (100 feet) Ban Po Thar (Ten Thousand Buddhas Pagoda). You can climb to the top of this 7-tier tower to take an the airy view of Penang. The design is said to be Burmese at the top (the round chedi), Chinese at the bottom (the moderately pitched eaves), and Thai in between. The imposing temple complex is a perfect place for a tranquil stroll, if you know how to evade the families and kids.

I saunter for about three hours, with many kind offerings from other travelers to take picture. I have this notion about the divinity and sacredness of buddha and buddha images that I would never be in the same picture with them. But I cherish them, appreciate them, make wishes to them, and capture their tranquilty. The dress code and picture policy at temples, as you can see through my pictures, are way more relaxing than Thailand and Burma. In Thailand, it’s an outright offence if you step into the shrine with shoes on or pointing your feet at the buddha.

With one more day in Penang my trip in Malaysia will conclude. Then I’ll be off to Bangkok via Phuket.

Penang | Colonial Town

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It’s a quiet day around Penang. That most of the shops are closed makes me wonder if everyone is going to the mosque and the church. For the Muslims daily prayers are steadfast rituals that they perform 5 times a day, facing west, to the direction of Mecca. The first page of the newspaper will provide the exact times. A stroll in the colonial district does afford sightings of different religious activities.

St. George Church  is holding the Sunday service while I lurk around outisde, appreciating its marbled floor and the towering spire. The oldest Anglican church in Southeast Asia has an elegant pavilion that would make a great spot for reading. The tranquility and modesty of the church lends an air of countryside England. A few doors down is the double-spired Cathedral of the Assumption in which a mass is in progress.

Across the street, facing a padang, an open area surrounded by public buildings, are two beautiful, elegant mansions that make me for a moment forget that I’m in Malaysia. The yellow Town Hall, completed in 1880, is Penang’s oldest municipal building. The more imposing but without the fine porticos of its neighbor, is City Hall, which was built later in 1903 as the British government had to accommodate for the growing affairs in the colony. The City Hall testifies Penang’s affluence and significance during the turn of the 20th century.

Arrivals by sea will be greeted by the Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, a gleaming white tower topped by a Moorish dome. It was erected in 1897 to honor Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Each meter of the 60-meter tower signifies a year of her throne.

*   *   *

My paunchy stomach (from the unbridled intake of the delicious treats of local bites) is a warning sign that I need to hit the gym in no time. So I have been on the treadmill for 30 minutes since I arrived in Penang. I am picking back up my weight-lifting routine after a 10-day suspension. As far as my reading goes, I finished The Gentleman in the Parlour and will post the review soon. To gratify my whim for more of Maugham, I start Mrs. Craddock this morning over coffee, with also the anticipation to On the Chinese Screen, yet another Maugham that I find in a second-hand bookstore. Do I mention that they shelf the books according to the first names of the authors? It’s rather queer.

Penang | Chinatown Walk

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From top: Islamic Museum, Hainan Temple, Kuan Yin Temple, Chor Kuay Tiew (panfried thick rice-noodle with tamarind, eggs, shrimp and sprout)

Today I snap into my tourist self who glues to his camera and clutches a map. I saunter down Chinatown, the oldest Chinese settlement in Malaysia. This rabbit warren (gosh I just love this phrase) is dotted with temples, mosques, and traditional businesses like casket maker, incense shops, rattan weaver, and cheongsam tailor. Pockets of Indian and Malay areas also remain within it despite the distinctively Chinese noises that I hear all around me. An old lady’s radio is blaring out Pekingnese Chinese opera while setting up her stall for the day’s business.

Hainan Temple, which dedicates to Mar Chor the patron saint of seafarers, is tugged into a narrow lane. The 1866-founded building has bas-reliefs of dragons that grace the walls at the entrance. Predominantly red decor–pillars, lanterns and altar, signify good luck. Not too far away, in a completely different climate of worship is the Sri Mariamman Temple, Georgetown’s oldest Hindu temple. The largely ostensible painted superstructure representing the cosmic mountain that supports heavens cannot be missed. It is a testimony to the strong Indian influence in the otherwise most Chinese of towns. Across the street is the popular Kuan Yin Temple that is forever swathed in the smoke from burning incenses. Hordes of devout worshippers come seeking for merits, mumbling their wishes, burning paper money, and waving around bundles of gigantic flaring incenses that I from time to time dodge.

Other temples and sites, among them some of the very resplendent and glorious, outlined in the guidebook I have without regret skipped. While I believe there is no compulsion as to what people wish to do with premises deemed heritage, I find it unethical to charge outrageous admission to see an old Chinese clan house or bunch of ancestor linage as though one is going to amusement park.

You might be struck by the fact that I haven’t breathed a word on food. The claim that variety is the spice of life rings so true in Malaysia. The cooking reflects the rich multicultural heritage and I’ll have to defer this subject to later posts. But to gratify readers’ whim, I’ll share an interesting encounter with a local food stall.

Piqued by a throng of locals, I walk into this hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is really made up of various stalls cooking up different staples of local bites. Of course I am not savvy of this at the beginning and after quite a wait in my single-person booth, a shriveled old lady points to direction of the stalls where I have to order. They serve some of the most delicious nasi lemak (a rice plate with hard boiled egg, fried anchovies, cucumber slices and redang, a thick meat curry), chor kuay tiew (pan fried thick rice noodles with tamarind, eggs, sprout, and pork), and laksa (a noddle soup with coconut milk, curry, tamarind, sprouts, a choice of meat and lime). Portions are small so you can try all of them for a penny.

Penang | Georgetown Relic

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The 6-hour bus ride from Cameron Highlands put me to Georgetown, the main city of Palau Pinang (Penang Island, 3 km off the coast of mainland) at 3 in the afternoon. Thanks to the VIP coach with arm-rest seat and extra leg room that I’m not too exhausted from the commute. The bus is on low speed due to rain on the first part of the journey descending the highland. After checking in the room, which affords a panoramic view of the Penang Bridge, I insouciantly walk around the streets nearby the hotel.

Like Melaka, Georgetown is steeped in history but with a slightly more ragged, old-fashioned character that is now disappearing under the onslaught of highrise and construction. The tumbledown shophouses with beautiful shutters still bustle with family-run businesses. But others are being renovated to neon-lit bars and chic restaurants. Locals and backpackers trammel the serpertine streets that still bear the same appearance for a century. I find these colorful houses mesmerizing, beholding stories that trickle way back in generations.

As I negotiate through the unleveled cloistered sidewalk, trishaws stippled with flowers and garlands ferry tourists and locals alike through the rabbit warren of streets and narrow lanes. Displayed everywhere is street name that doesn’t match the scene. A resplendent mosque with a huge Egyptian-style minaret on Lebuh Buckingham (Buckingham Road), a Chinese clan house swathed by burning incense situates on Love Lane. Many of the thoroughfares here still retain the names from the British colonial period. Sometimes I entertain the thought that maybe the oldest artifact that serves as testimony to history is not the temples or monument, but rather the people and their tradtions that probably haven’t changed in a century.

Following Maugham’s Footsteps–Malaysia


“If you haven’t seen this place, you haven’t seen the world.” –W. Somerset Maugham

The Gentleman in the Parlour is a travelogue of Maugham’s 1923 trip through Burma, Siam, and Indochina (the peninsula that nowadays consist of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia). The title, taken from Hazlitt, refers to a precious anonymity, which Maugham associates with travel. His trip included a trek through the Shan States, now a rather uncomfortable part of Burma. Maugham passed through Mandalay, Ayutthaya, Bangkok, Saigon, Hue, and Phnom Penh.

What grabs me attention is his encounter in Malaysia, my upcoming destination.

Published in 1949, the English novelist Somerset Maugham’s Borneo Stories series contains a short story entitled The Yellow Streak. In it Maugham relates his near-death experience when he encountered the Benak on the Batang Lupar.

The writer was paying a visit to the Third White Rajah, Rajah Brooke, in 1924. At the Rajah’s invitation, Maugham was traveling by boat along the Batang Lupar, rowed by prisoners of the Rajah, to the town of Simanggang (now known as Sri Aman).

During his voyage, Maugham unexpectedly encountered the mighty tidal bore, was thrown from the boat, and narrowly avoided drowning. The account in The Yellow Streak illustrates Maugham’s opinion of the benak, and that it clearly upset him nearly bringing his eminent writing career to an abrupt and untimely end.

Widely known as the Pearl of the Orient, Penang is one of Asia’s most famous islands. Its natural beauty and exotic heritage have been attracting curious visitors for hundreds of years. Travel guides have referred to it as “a place of mysterious temples and palm-shrouded beaches”, while W. Somerset Maugham is known to have stayed on the island and spun tales about the romance of the white planter in Southeast Asia.