George Town (Penang), Malaysia

January 29, 2019

We began our excursion of George Town with another one of those “panoramic” coach tours of the city. (I don’t really get that much out of these drive-by trips.  Yes, the guides stand at the front of the buses and feed us all kinds of history and interesting factoids but I don’t retain much of the information. I take in and remember much more wandering around and have time to stop and take things in, talk to shopkeepers or women holding  babies, who are always delighted when you complement their children.  I admit the bus rides do provide a general sense of a place.King George III), capital of the state of Penang, Malaysia.

This day we drove along George Town’s “Road of Harmony,” a cultural pastiche of Christian churches, Chinese temples and Islamic mosques.  But since our visit lasted only half a day, we stopped at only two temples, both Buddhists, which stood directly  across the street from each other:  one Thai, the other Burmese—both truly stunning.

Earlier in this blog I’d written that I’d had my fill of temples and mosques but I wouldn’t have missed the pair of Buddhist temples we visited in George Town (named after then reigning

The Thai temple (Wat Chayamangkalaram) holds a reclining Buddha that’s 108 feet long and 32 feet high, and covered in gold leaf.  It is said to be the largest in Malaysia and the third largest in the world.

The third largest Buddha in the world at 108 feet long found in Wat Chayamangkalaram, Penang

But I nearly fell over when I learned that a series of gold-covered statues of old men sitting in meditation in front of the long reclining Buddha were not statues at all but embalmed holy men. And the gold that covered them was put there by worshippers, one small sheet of gold leaf paper at time (which you could buy on site), on whichever part of the holy man’s body where the worshipper himself felt pain.   (It’s like praying to a saint, I suppose.)

This  “statute”  sitting in meditation pose in front of the reclining Buddha is  the embalmed body of a holy man.  He is covered in gold leaf placed there by worshippers.

The temple across the street (Dhammikarma Burmese Temple), the oldest on the island, had a vivid red and gold façade and beautiful grounds.

The Burmese Buddhist temple is the oldest in Penang .
The Dhammikarma Burmese Temple has lovely grounds

We had time to visit the Chew Jetty, a village built on stilts, in the Weld Quay area built by Chinese immigrants starting in 1918. A century later the village remains (they were hooked up to water and electricity in 1954), untouched by the development that has taken place around it. People have lived in the same house for generations, the guide told us, building additional rooms out into the water as they needed more rooms. Some of the houses have as many as five bedrooms.  The jetty is lined with shops cheek by jowl with entrances to the houses.

The Chew Jetty in Penang where generations of Chinese have made their homes

We also spent a little time in the Waterfall Botanical Gardens, created by the British in 1884, home to mischievous wild monkeys that roam freely.  The garden came as a respite from the heavy heat.

IMG_0010 (1)
Wild monkeys have the run of the Waterfall Botanical Gardens in Penang.

The island of Penang (a UNESCO world heritage site) appeared in Chinese trading documents in the 15th century. The first English ship stumbled across it in 1592 but two centuries went by before another Englishman, Francis Light, persuaded the island’s sultan to cede the island to the East India Company. Light established George Town as a free port to lure local traders away from the Dutch, and used the port’s location to try to curb French expansion in Indochina. Penang remained a British possession until Malayan independence in 1957.

Next stop: Back to Phuket as the ship heads westward towards Africa

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