Anand has been in Malaysia for over four years and has travelled quite a bit in the region on work and leisure. He recommended a short stopover in the Cameron Highlands en route to Penang. I was certainly interested to do so, particularly after listening to his description of the place and what one could do there, like picking strawberries and enjoying a stroll in the tea estates, for example. The climate in the Highlands is also different from what one experiences normally in Malaysia, he said. The minimum temperature is almost 10 degrees lower in the Highlands as compared to KL.
I took leave of Anand, Dhanya and Gauri a little later than I had intended to, wanting to finish the blog. Before leaving KL, Anand connected me to Tevin, a good friend of his who lived in Penang. I did lose my way a bit trying to get out to the highway from Anand’s apartment, even though he had given me elaborate instructions. Once on the North-South highway I motored along, mostly at the maximum speed of 110 kph, to Ipoh. Indeed, as Anand had told me, I reached the exit for Cameron Highlands within the first two hours. I had debated the detour from the start in KL and gave it a pass because I need some extra time in Penang to catch up with the backlog of documentation. The tableland, which is one of the oldest tourist spots in Malaysia, will have to wait for another trip.
I remember Penang from my last visit here in 2000 with Beena. At the time there was only one road crossing from the mainland to the Penang Island. The 13 km dual carriageway was considered one of the longest bridges in Asia at the time. Since we had come by train from KL we took the efficient ferry service from Butterworth to Georgetown. The memory that lingered of that visit has been the hotel near the beach and the lovely walkway near Fort Cornwallis. Even though the ferries still operate there is a second, 24 km long, bridge connecting the island to the mainland, which was thrown open to the public only in 2014. I was told that an undersea tunnel is in an advanced stage of planning. Penang is a favourite with tourists from faraway lands as well as neighbouring countries like Singapore and locals. Hence, huge investments in tourist infrastructure are going on adding to the impressive and fast changing skyline of the island.
I took the older bridge and traversed through the busy parts of Georgetown to reach the wonderful Museum Hotel on Jalan Ariffin. As soon as I parked in front of the hotel I knew I had come to an exceptional facility. The courtesy of the staff and the ambience impressed me. The hotel has been named thus because it is a 95 year old heritage building with an antique collection attached to it. The building had been owned by, reportedly, the first Baba Nonya couple of Penang and was only converted to a hotel with modern amenities two years back. I was politely told that I would have to wait some time to occupy the room as the check in time was 2 pm. I settled comfortably into the lobby and started on the blog. However, the exceptionally furnished, quaint hotel kept diverting my attention. I got through very little when Munir and Sham, two youngsters who tended the reception, announced that the room was ready. The room was not too big, but was cozy and comfortable with a large bed. Concern for the environment was evident everywhere in the room, from use of water and towels to bed linen.
Hunger has a loud way of expressing itself and does not believe in being quiet and socially appropriate. The notice board in the hotel had information about the local food and desserts to be tried out in Penang. I made a note of it and got directions from Munir to get to a hawker centre to try out a local dish. However, despite wandering quite a bit in search of the hawker centre I gave it up in a while because of the hot sun. “Roti Benggali” is a tradition of Penang. The famous Mallia Bakery is just round the corner from the hotel. The aroma of freshly baked bread caught my fancy as I was walking past it. I noticed that the bread is baked as two rows of eight mini crusty and crispy loaves, a very unique bread ‘design’. I bought one and had it with sardines in tomato paste in the hotel room. The fresh from the oven bread was every bit as tasty as it was claimed to be.
With the sun starting its customary daily march down the horizon I decided to walk to Fort Cornwallis and enjoy the sights on the way. It was a three km walk right up to the Esplanade. I did not quite feel it because I was busy locating landmarks and admiring the quaint city. Along the walk fell the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Love Lane, Church of the Assumption, Penang State Museum, St George Church, Town Hall and Dewan Sri Pinang, with each of them contributing to the architecture, culture and history of the island. The walk from the Town Hall to Fort Cornwallis made me nostalgic about the previous visit to the lovely island. This time I appreciated the container terminal of Penang Port from a distance. I came to understand later that the terminal enjoys a throughput of 1.2 million TEUs annually, making it the third biggest port in Malaysia. The cruise terminal was also busy with two mid sized vessels docked there. I walked past a car park in the vicinity which prescribed two rates for parking; one, “For trip to Phuket/Krabi (3 days)”, and two, “For trip to No Where”!
The Victoria memorial clock tower is a prominent landmark at the entrance to Beach Street. The 60 foot high tower was built to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign; one foot for each year. I walked through the Beach Street admiring the classical buildings and took a detour to see the Customs House and India House. What caught my attention was the orderly disembarkation from a docked ferry. The meandering walk took me past Little India, Maha Mariamman Temple, Han Jiang ancestral temple and the Kapitan Kellin Mosque that dates back to early 19th century. The 6 km evening walk was terminated at a restaurant for dinner of chappatis and chicken curry.
I had called up Tevin, Anand’s contact, who promised to meet me after he checked up his schedule in the office the next day. I decided to visit Penang Hill in the morning after breakfast. The hotel has a small cafeteria attached to it. Breakfast has to be ordered from the menu, latest by the previous night. As I walked into the hotel after dinner I was asked my choice. I asked to be served at 8 am.