Penang Hill

Feb 15, 2013

Winter break: Penang Hill

Our local attraction

The view from Penang Hill
Up the funicularOn the HillPeter enjoys the viewEmily enjoys a sandwichInside the Owl MuseumMore views of the city from Penang HillA snack at David Brown'sLet's toast to the city

The one thing tourism-wise our hostel had going for it was that it was super close to Penang Hill. Now, it’s called a hill, but the mini-mountain’s peak is more than 800 meters above sea level. It may not be Everest, but it’s not an insignificant height. At that elevation, the air is even a little cooler than it is on the ground.

On a sunny afternoon, we cabbed over to the base (just five minutes, take that Georgetown!) and ascended via funicular.

Just off the upper station, there’s an asphalt pathway that leads towards the small commercial area on the hill, as well as some dirt pathways that take you off into the greenery. We hiked our picnic lunch — cheese sandwiches with hot English mustard on German sourdough with mini gherkins, how international! — a short ways down the dirt and found a perfect little gazebo. The terrible pop cover tunes wafted down from the pub above, but the view and the relative privacy made for a nice atmosphere. There were signs warning not to feed the monkeys, but none approached, so confrontation was duly avoided.

After lunch, we returned to the pavement to see what was to see. There was stuff like: Get your picture taken with a snake; or Eat more at the small hawker center. We chose: See some owly stuff at the Owl Museum. Why not?

The man at the entry only addressed Peter throughout the whole transaction, which was especially irritating given that I was the one handling the money. That happens to us all the time — people assuming Peter’s the boss because he’s the man — but it was way more noticeable in Penang because it was happening in English. (Though, it’s even more absurd in China, because out of the two of us, I have way more Chinese.) My strategy in the face of this is to quietly but firmly continue to assert my presence. It may or may not blow any minds, but it does keep me from feeling completely erased.

Anyway, inside the Owl Museum was delightfully weird. It was basically was two large rooms displaying a collection of internationally made arts and crafts that all depicted owls in some way. Paintings and illustrations of owls, ceramic owl statues, owls carved out of wood. The gift shop featured even more owls, if you wanted to take some owlness home. And we did.

After the owls, we set to wandering down a path that promised monkey cups at the end. Golf carts ferried lazier guests this way and that, but we were having a nice time walking. As we got further away from the commercial area, we started to see some very nice bungalows and houses. Tucked into the hillside, surrounded by trees with a gorgeous view of the island below, they were too perfectly peaceful. Though in the end, we decided that it would be impractical to live there — where would you buy groceries? — so we made no offers.

Before our descent, we stopped at David Brown’s, the aforementioned music-playing pub. It was a small open-air terrace, that was positioned to look right out over the north shore of Penang. The drinks were pretty watery, but with a view like that, who cares? We watched the tourists wander by as we talked and solved all the world’s problems (from the music industry to sexism) over bloody Marys and margaritas. It was a perfect tropical afternoon.

Feb 15, 2013

Winter break: What was that about monkey cups?

Carnivorous plants!

Monkey cup gardens
Monkey cupsMonkey cupsMonkey cupsKabir, our guideKabir wanted us to hold this bug

I mentioned in my last post that our excursion to Penang Hill included a search for something called “monkey cup.” As is our wont, we had set off down the path to Monkey Cup Garden without knowing quite what we would find. The exciting story:

There aren’t any monkeys, a returning tourist told us in response to a joke we had made, just carnivorous plants. He tipped us off that the entry fee included a golf cart ride back to the main commercial area, and then went on his way on foot. We continued the final meters to our destination.

In the garden, we were met by our own private tour guide, Kabir. He pointed out the various species of monkey cup — aka pitcher plants, aka nepenthes — and how they worked and where each were from; most are native to southeast Asia, but there were a few from South America. The plants are pretty, but freaky. They attract bugs to a pool of water in their bulbous base where the prey gets knocked out and drowned; the lid comes down and the plant starts eating. Signs everywhere warn guests not to stick their fingers into the pitchers; I think that’s more to protect the plants than the humans, but it’s still creepy to think of the small flower slowly digesting your knocked-out body.

Kabir was very friendly. He told us proudly about his daughter — she does very well in school — and laughed when we said that we don’t have kids — “But you’re so old!” — so that we can come to Malaysia. We also talked a bit of Chinese real estate.

At the end of the tour, he brought us to the interactive space! He fed a bug to a Venus fly trap — it takes 3 days to digest! — and offered to let us hold a millipede or a scorpion. We declined to hold them on the grounds that they were mammoth and frightening. Kabir worked hard to convince us, even wearing the scorpion as a hat, but, just say no to creepy crawlies remains a motto for both of us.

We got out unscathed, and luxuriated in the golf cart ride back to civilization.

This moss eats stuff

Jan 24, 2013

Winter break: Fastbook Hostel

Settling in before tucking in

The Desa Permata neighborhood
The Desa Permata neighborhoodHere's the Fastbook
Our home away from home in lovely Desa Permata, Penang.
We're welcomed to the FastbookOur room
We were among an international crowd at the Fastbook.
Kek Lok SiKek Lok Si
Though it was one of the two attractions that we were actually close to, we never made it to Kek Lok Si.
Checking in, in the lobbyThe common area
The lobby, right, and shared kitchen, left.
Going swimmingGoing swimming with mountains in the background
I’m good until June, now, swim-wise.

Our base of operations was the Fastbook Hostel off Jalan Paya Terubong in Desa Permata on Pulau Penang. Does that not mean anything to you? It didn’t mean all that much to me when I booked it over the internet.

We found out, though. Paya Terubong is a major road in Penang, and Desa Permata is a small residential neighborhood bisected by it. And it’s about a 20 minute cab ride outside of Georgetown.

Georgetown is the main urban center of Penang, where most of the cultural attractions are located. Municipal buses go between the two areas, but then the trip is more like 40 minutes. Over the course of our two weeks, we got really familiar with Penang’s public transportation.

(Oh, and Pulau Penang is just “the island part of Penang.”)

So the location was not ideal, but the hostel was really cozy and the owner, TK, was incredibly friendly and helpful. He picked us up from the airport — His car had seat belts! And we were encouraged to use them! — pointing out durian fields, coffee shops and other interesting sights on our trip to our new home. I could practice my Mandarin with some of the Chinese noodle vendors, he suggested when he learned that we were coming from China.

The hostel was very close to two Penang sights, he told us, the Kek Lok Si temple and Penang Hill. We told him that our plan was mostly to eat. He thoroughly approved, and pointed out several hawker centers near the hostel as we pulled into our destination.

Our room was big enough, with a TV/DVD player and a shower stall. Toilets were a shared situation, but the hostel was small enough that it wasn’t a bother. Our mattress was soft and comfortable, a real contrast to our hard Chinese bed. The room had no windows, but it was a nice, air-conditioned place to stage our lazy mornings before hitting the hot Penang streets.

Materials online seemed to indicate that there was a pool — which, when we arrived at our fifth-floor walk-up, it was obvious that there was not. What there was, was a gym around the corner, with an athletic pool for doing laps. We were a little disappointed, as we’d already fallen in love with the idea of cocktail hour by the water every night. But we persevered. Instead, I went for a pre-dinner dip one evening, which fulfills my swim-every-six-months quota.