Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Day 2 in Penang: Head for the Hills

My second day in Penang was to be my chill day.  There would be no temples, no museums, no fighting with maps in busy cities.  I just wanted to go out to Penang Hill, 6 kilometers outside of town and enjoy some fresh air, a nice view and maybe a hike or two.

I grabbed my camera and knitting supplies and boarded the bus that dropped me off at the bottom of the hill.  There is a funicular that takes you the rest of the way but since it was a weekend, the line for tickets was long.  No problem, though, a Pitbull-loving dj (as in Dale!, not as in Heel, boy!) was there to keep us entertained.  The crowd was mainly families out to enjoy the day.

We moved quickly and soon were whisked to the top of the hill.

The view from up there was fantastic, encompassing the entire island of Penang.

Set apart from the commotion of the children's play area, there was a British restaurant with plenty of seating and good wifi.  This was exactly what I had been hoping for.

There were also monkeys, of course.  Adorable, curious monkeys frolicking all around us.

Working on his best Blue Steel

There were also signs pointing out the different walking trails and indicating the time each path took, ranging from 20 minutes one way to about an hour.  I had nowhere to be so I opted for the longest one and figured I'd stop along the way to take in the views.

One thing I noticed after the first ten minutes or so was that I was pretty much the only one out there on foot. In a park, jammed with people, the only ones who were making it out this way were doing so in the comfort of chauffeured golf carts. Most of them had small children in tow so I guess it was understandable.

What was less understandable was why, this one cart that passed me by and saw a family of monkeys hanging out on the side of the road, thought it was a good idea to throw a cookie at them.  It was not like they stopped to watch the monkeys enjoy the cookie, they just chucked it in their general direction and kept on going.  Had they stopped, they would have seen one medium-sized monkey grab the tossed treat and jam it whole into his mouth, an act which really pissed off the larger monkey.  This bigger- and now hungrier- monkey did not really stand a chance at catching the cookie from where he was and now he sought vengeance but not  against the greedy bastard with a mouth full of chocolate chips.  No, his issue was with the stingy humans who only flung one measly cookie their way...and guess who comes bounding along, minding her own business, in the role of human representative. All I heard was a screech before he ran onto the path, intent to either grab my bag or slap me in the face, I'm not sure which. I knew enough not to run but once again, had those fuckers in the cart stopped, they would have witnessed another sight.  That of a grown woman power walking, while screaming "I don't have anything!  Get away from me, monkey!!" with an angry cookie-less simian hot on her heels.  This went on for about twenty feet which was enough for to me to decide that I did not want to walk back past this bunch of bullies.

Throughout the trail, there were signs advertising the Monkeycup Garden and offering free return rides with the purchase of an entrance fee.  I did not have any idea what a Monkeycup was but if it got me past those little cookie crack addicts, I was in.

I soon learned that Monkeycups were carniverous plants, also known as Nepenthes, many species of which are native to Malaysia. Even without the included ride, that was something that sounded pretty cool. I paid the entrance fee and was handed off to a guide, who instead of taking me towards the assorted variety of plants led me straight to an aquarium full of scorpions.  To this day, I have no clue what they have to do with pitcher plants but this man was insistent that I hold a scorpion.  I declined, told him I was not having a lucky day and explained the run-in I had just had with a monkey, which he found hilarious.  He just continued to tell me how the larger the scorpion, the less venom they have and how sweet and tame they are. Eager to get on with the tour, I gave in.  He placed the scorpion on my hand and took a couple of photos. All good. And then he (the scorpion, not the guide) clamped on.  With his pincers, he grabbed hold of my hand for dear life as I yelled (at the guide) "Why is he doing this?!  You said he was nice!!" He pried the scorpion off my hand and explained that I must be sweaty and the scorpion was worried about falling off. Well, of course, I'm sweaty.  It's 90 degrees, humid and I just got chased by a fricking monkey. Who wouldn't be sweaty?

As the guide put the scorpion back in the tank, here I was on my chill day, with a scratched up hand and spotty wifi, trying to google a phrase I'd never thought I'd have to type "Do scorpions have venom in their pincers?" 

Apparently, since I did not even get a mild rash, they don't.  The tour continued without incident and I learned that the larger species of these plants can even eat small mammals who get trapped inside the sacs by dissolving the bodies with their strong digestive fluids.  

On the ride back, I saw my assailant and only wished that I too had a cookie to toss directly at one of his monkey mates.

I know I said that the plan was to relax and take a respite from temples and museums, but that was before I spotted something in the countryside.  That something was a seven story Buddhist pagoda sitting atop a hillside alongside a 99 foot statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy.  I saw this on my way to Penang Hill and now that I was heading back to Georgetown, I made it my mission to get myself to this temple.

You would think with something of this proportion, it would be pretty easy to locate, and you wouldn't exactly be wrong. The driver was able to point out the stop for me and send me in the right general direction.  This led me through a long vertical maze of souvenir vendors, an overcrowded turtle pond and a lot of misdirecting signs pointing me to my second funicular of the day.

Eventually, I did find it but not before circling the same buddha at least four times.

The Kek Lok Si temple is a Buddhist pilgrimage site, originally built in 1905 which has been updated throughout the decades.  Additions to the complex include the pagoda I'd seen from the bus (1930) and Guanyin (2002).

Its location, with a magnificent view of Georgetown, made it an ideal place to just sit and contemplate...or you know, just chill.

A less laid-back temple was to be found further south on the island.  The following day, I took a ferry to Pulau Langawi (more on that later) and returned via a flight with a layover back in Penang.  I had heard of a temple near the airport where poisonous pit vipers just happened to congregate.  Since I had a couple of hours to spare, I called an Uber, threw my bags in the trunk and convinced the driver to come check out some snakes with me. I did this because I did not know how many snakes there would be and was worried about accidentally running one over with my roller bag, which would have probably pissed off both the snakes and the congregants, so best to leave the bags in the car.

Turns out that I worried for nothing.  There were maybe a couple dozen snakes but all of them were just lounging on specially-made snake racks or in dark corners of the altar.  The monks believe that the sacred smoke from the burning incense renders the snakes harmless but in an admirable show of pragmatism, the monks also had them de-venomised.

Yes, it is probably best for everyone involved that you not prod the snakes.
The whole set-up seemed pretty great with the snakes free to interact with people if they wanted to (note: they showed zero interest while I was there) or retreat to their perches undisturbed.

There were a couple of other types of snakes on hand for photo ops and the snake handler proudly showed me a photo he had taken of Anthony Bourdain covered in reptiles. I don't think he actually ever watched the show since he seemed confused when I asked him how many of the snakes Bourdain had tried to eat during his brief visit.

Later that evening, as I recounted my tale of monkeys, scorpions and snakes to a friend, he wondered whether I was on vacation or auditioning for an episode of Fear Factor. 

Nope, it was all good, even the more stressful moments.  I'd really enjoyed Penang for its mix of art, culture, food and wildlife.  It was easy to get around, the people were friendly and there was plenty to do.  I give it two thumbs up and one angry monkey.

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