Once again, we have stumbled into a place where we were planning to stay for two days and it now looks like we will stay for up to two weeks. Penang is full of surprises for us.
When we departed the United States in 2013, we painstakingly researched every harbor on every island that lay in our path across the Pacific. Two years later, we are in more of a “wing it” mode, where we aren’t as knowledgeable about the different places we visit before we get there. That’s clearly not the case when it comes to navigation; we still try to have as much information as possible about every rock, reef, and anchorage in our path. But from a cultural perspective, we are learning more as we travel.
Our plan after Singapore was to travel 450 miles up the west coast of the Malay peninsula to Langkawi, an island just below the Thai border. Langkawi is a cruising destination with a marine service industry, plenty of anchorages, and duty-free booze. Our initial plan was to hang out there for a month and then continue on to Phuket, Thailand. To us the Malaysian coast was going to be a highway to Langkawi with overnight rest stops every 80 miles or so at places like Behar, Port Dickson, Klang, Pangkor, and Penang.
Penang has turned out to be a surprise for us. We love it here. It has the sophistication (meaning money) and food culture of Singapore, but on a much smaller scale and at half the cost. It has great culture and swimmable beaches. It has a modern, inexpensive marina where we have met other cruisers, including a boat with kids! Sophie played host to an impromptu hide-and-go-seek party with six kids tromping around the trampolines while the parents watched from the relative safety of an Irish bar on a terrace above.
Leo and Hazel are very happy here.
Our current home is the Straits Quay Marina, a mixed-use development on the northeast corner of Penang. We are about four miles north of the main city of Georgetown. The marina has 20 boats in it, and half of them are catamarans. There is a bit of a silting problem here, and even Sophie can only enter and exit the marina at high tide despite our 4′ 7″ draft.
Before we got here, we knew Penang had a rich cultural heritage. We were expecting some old colonial buildings and some fishing villages. Instead we found an island with three times the number of skyscrapers compared to Seattle. That surprised us. Our marina is located on the right side of the photo above.
Most of the skyscrapers here are condominiums, and one of our cabdrivers said that 70% of the units are empty, held by foreigners for investment purposes. He was very proud of the fact that Jackie Chan owns three condominiums in Penang. I’ve also read that “young retirees” from Hong Kong and Shanghai move here to educate their children, because Malaysia’s private schools are excellent and relatively inexpensive. The marina’s other cruising boat with kids has been here for a year, and their two boys are attending a local private school.
In addition to having lots of skyscrapers, Penang is home to one of the best life raft servicing facilities in Southeast Asia. It took me a while, but I was finally able to wrestle our life raft out of Sophie’s transom cradle and into the dinghy, and then from the dinghy onto the dock.
Once the life raft was removed, I had the opportunity to give Sophie’s entire transom area a thorough cleaning. This included removal of the two empty beer cans that somehow found their way to a spot behind the life raft.
It can be a little nerve wracking for a cruiser to hand over their life raft to a stranger for servicing. Your life raft is arguably the most important piece of equipment on your boat. But as soon as I walked into the life raft servicing center at Ocean Success here in Penang, I was relieved. Their shop was spotless, their tools were well-organized (always a good sign), and the two guys there seemed to know what they were doing.
I was there while Ibrahim and Zabbir unpacked and inflated our life raft. They both gave it a thumbs up. I then left it in their capable hands as they tested it for leaks over the next couple of hours. They also tested the gas tank. They used their phone on the next day to video themselves repacking the raft, including their attaching the painter to the gas bottle pin. The entire bill for the inspection and service was US$238, which is about a quarter of what a similar service would cost in the US.
Have I mentioned lately about how much we love Penang?
After two days of chores and Sophie School at the marina, we finally hopped into a cab and began exploring Penang and its culture. Penang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a source of pride for the locals. Downtown Georgetown is a warren of little streets filled with Chinese, Indian, Tamil, and Malay shops and restaurants. Along the waterfront are six Clan Jettys, a series of houses and shops extending out into the strait. Each one is organized around a single Chinese family, and some date back over a hundred years.
Farther up the shore we visited Fort Cornwallis, an installation the British built in order to defend their local investments from raiding Thai pirates. While we were doing the tour, I asked Leo if he could name the famous figure from the US Revolutionary War that Fort Cornwallis was named after. It took him a few seconds, but he finally came up with the correct answer.
By doing so, Leo freed himself from history jail.
The rest of the afternoon was uneventful and involved a siting of sea otters on the sea wall, lunch at a hawker center, visits to two luxury malls, and a siting of the oldest MacDonald in the world (based on the date of the building.)
A few days later, we got up early and headed over to the Thai consulate to apply for visas.
We then bought tickets for the Hop-On Hop-Off tour bus to explore the northern part of Penang. These double decker buses have an outdoor flybridge that make them a great platform for taking pictures.
Our first destination was Monkey Beach. We hadn’t been to a decent beach or seen a decent monkey for over a month, so we were due. It was a lovely day for a beach excursion. This whole northeast-monsoon-rainy season remains a myth for us, at least for now.
To get to Monkey Beach we had to hire a boat. While waiting for the boat we spotted a five foot long monitor lizard hanging out on the dock. He didn’t seem to bother a rooster that was in the vicinity, but I am still not quite used to seeing small dinosaurs lazing about.
It does make me happy that after 12+ years of marriage, Jenna still enjoys herself a good boat ride.
Once we arrived at the beach, Jenna and the kiddies went off to check out some rope swings, while I stayed back to look for monkeys. I soon found a pack of them raiding a garbage can. One of them was a big male. He looked up at me, bared his fangs, and charged.
I didn’t a have a stick on me, and he kept charging. When he was 5 feet away I kicked sand at him. He stopped and said to himself “My charging teeth kung fu is no match for his sand kick kung fu! I must find his weakness and pursue another plan.” He quickly scampered away.
The beach was rich with monkey sign. I should have kept my guard up, but I didn’t.
We continued up Monkey Beach to a shack that sold beer and grilled fish. There were monkeys here as well, but these monkeys were different. They were all mommies with tiny babies clinging to them. They were so cute! Hazel climbed up a tree so she could be like a monkey, Jenna went to take pictures, and Leo and I sat and relaxed in the shade.
I went to check on how lunch was progressing. Didn’t it look delicious? While I was at the grill, a monkey sprinted from the trees, grabbed my beer (which I had inadvertently left on the table right next to Leo), raced back into the trees, and chugged it. I never saw a thing. I just heard Leo sputterlaughing, saying “Dad, Dad, Dad, a monkey just ran over here and stole your beer! Seriously!”
Oh well, beaten again. By a monkey. I have no power against their baby-beer-fish kung fu trickery.
The day was too nice me to remain sad for long, however, so we took the boat back to the dock, hopped on the bus, and returned to Penang.
Our next destination was the Kek Lok Si temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. It was a sprawling complex of pagodas and shrines situated on a hillside overlooking Penang. Jenna takes much better photographs than I do, so I’ll leave it to her to share with you the sense of beauty and peace we encountered there.
I’ll simply say it provided a wonderful vista of the city, and we got to ride a cool articulated railway to reach the summit.
We hurried back to the Hop On Hop Off bus stop and caught the last bus of the day to get back to Sophie. The service was shutting down early due to the start of Ramadahn.
Fortunately for us, we got stuck in evening rush hour traffic. The city was bathed in golden light, and the bus flybridge was a great photography platform. Jenna was in her happy place.
Leo was happy to be reading. Can anyone guess what his favorite Microsoft program is these days?
Hazel was simply happy.
Me? The monkey beer theft incident makes for a funny story. But having the opportunity to spend time in a peaceful, culturally rich city with loved ones is way better.
Given the horrible news coming out of the United States today, I want to emphasize the peaceful part. Here’s the sign posted outside of the central police station here.
We’ve been in Penang for a week and haven’t seen a gun. We have seen some police on motorcycles writing speeding tickets. We see security guards outside of hotels, banks and malls, but they are armed with billy clubs and wear cool-looking berets and are uniformly polite and helpful. Throughout the city we see mosques, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, and various flavors of Christian churches side-by-side on the same block. Chinese and Halal stalls stand next to each other in the hawker centers. Our Italian restaurant had a Ramadahn special last night, where everyone got a complimentary bowl of chicken mushroom soup along with some cinnamon date spread at sundown.
Our brief glimpse of Penang so far reinforces for me and for Jenna and the kids that people from different cultures and religions can live together in harmony without sacrificing the things that make them unique. Who knew?
Now if we could only do something about the darn monkeys.