Afloat in South Asia

Afloat in South Asia
Reclining Buddha; Rangoon

Friday, February 11, 2011

Penang - Sat. Jan.23rd

Malacca has a few tall buildings, but has a very sleepy feel to it. Penang, on the other hand, is bustling. As we approached it from the sea, we felt as though we were coming along the south side of Hong Kong island. Tall residential towers clustered gracefully along the curving shore. Unlike on the approach to Hong Kong, though, we enjoyed clear skies and several kinds of dolphins frisking with the boat.

The observation about the prior wealth of this region holds true in spades in Penang. Along with the art deco shophouses, there are dozens of beautiful, crumbling western-style mansions from the early years of the last century. Although Penang is becoming very built up (with Singaporean money investing heavily), the homes of “Millionaires Row” along the praya are supposedly protected. As you can see from this photo, though, it looks as though the doctrine of “constructive demolition” is a problem here, as it is in many historic districts.
I was sorry to miss getting a photo of a beautiful yellow stucco mansion with dozens of windows and a lovely garden. It bore the date “1924” over its front door and it looked as if it were just holding on, braced as it was by two highrise apartment towers.

No longer a rubber baron’s paradise, Penang today has a very large high tech assembly and semiconductor fab industry. Even so, there are still villas with stained glass dating back to the 1880’s and the Sarkies’ hotel, the Eastern & Oriental, looks every bit as restored as its Singapore cousin, Raffles. Here is a stucco confection from the 1920's

We had a fine tour of the “Blue Mansion”, former home of Cheong Fatt Tze. It is a remarkable house – with multiple courtyards and many staircases. Surprisingly, part of “Indochine” was filmed there and they are still proud of having hosted Catherine Deneuve! Now a 16-room boutique hotel, it was built by a Hakka millionaire who loaned Sun Yat Sen and Charlie Soong $3 million in 1914 to finance the “new” China (no..he did not get the money back).

While we waited to go into the house for our tour, Bryan spotted this rare beast, which he assured me is a “Straits Coon Cat”… >

In the afternoon, Bryan and I went on an excursion to a spice farm. At the end of a fascinating walk through a spice forest, we had the chance to cook local food under a tarp set up in the open air. To my surprise, Bryan stepped right up when the instructor asked for volunteers. He was joined by Kevin Clement, one of the naturalists travelling with our group. Wow! What a dynamic duo! Here they are, hard at work, Bryan on his sambal and Kevin on his curry.

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