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George Town, Malaysia – Impressions

George Town is a city at the north-eastern corner of the Malaysian island of Penang. Named after the British King George III, the island was leased to a British trade boat captain in exchange for protection from the Burmese and Siamese armies. The captain, however, had no intention of fulfilling the lease and instead set up George Town as a trading port.


While the island is commonly reached by ferry from the mainland for less than a dollar, it is reachable by road via a pair of bridges. Penang bridge is 13.5km long while the newer Penang 2 bridge is 23.5km. George Town has several long waterfronts adorned with hotels and shipping yards.


Street Art
Like most other major cities in Malaysia, George Town’s streets are littered with art. In 2012 the city announced a street art project for the annual George Town Festival. Now there are more than 100 pieces on walls across Old City. Some pieces were created by Ernest Zacharevic, the famous Lithuanian artist responsible for other works across Malaysia.


While some of the art is in the form of murals, often with a cat theme, other pieces use props. One of the more famous pieces includes a bicycle set against a plastered wall with a pair of children painted to look like they’re riding it.


Since the festival, wrought iron comic designs have also begun appearing around Old City.


Penang Hill
Penang Hill is the tallest hill on the island and is one of the most popular tourist locations. At 883 metres, it gives amazing views over George Town, the coastline and mainland Malaysia.


The easiest way to get to the top is by funicular train, a train operated from top and bottom by cable. Near the top the train passes through a brief tunnel, noted as being the steepest train tunnel in the world. While the ascent is fairly sedate with the training chugging up the hill, the descent can be quite exhilarating as it races towards the bottom.


At the top there is a double story food court, several private restaurants, an owl museum, a mosque and a hindu temple.


Penang National Park
The smallest national park in Malaysia, Tama Negara Pulau Pínang, is in the very north-west of the island, about 13km by road from George Town. There are several ways to get to the national park, by tour bus, local bus, car or as we did, by scooter. We couldn’t help ourselves, we enjoy riding them.


While the park is small, it does have several longer trails, the longest being 6km. There are many species of animals in the park, including two different species of monkeys. This cute but cautious girl is a Spectacled Leaf Monkey.


With rain imminent when we arrived, we decided to only take a short walk to the Canopy Walk, about 20 minutes along the trail. The Canopy Walk stretches for 250m through the tree tops. Unfortunately, when we arrived it was closed. So we walked back through the forest and along the waterfront to the scooters before heading back across the island.


Fort Cornwallis
As part of the lease for Penang Island, the fort was built to protect the island from pirates, the Siamese and the Burmese, but it never actually saw battle. The grounds of are now used as concert venue.


The cannon barrels that remain on the walls are sometimes used by locals as a fertility charm. If flowers are left by barrels it’s supposed to help an infertile woman get pregnant. I guess size does matter when it comes to cannons…

Kek Lok Si Temple
On our way to Penang Hill we spied a very large temple at its base. On our final morning in George Town and with a few hours left of our scooter hire, we headed inland to check it out.


Ken Lok Si, meaning Temple of Supreme Bliss, is said to be the largest buddhist temple in South East Asia. At the temple entrance there are lines of shops, restaurants and a turtle pond, a buddhist tradition. The main Pagoda is built in three distinct architectural styles, the lower third is Chinese, the midsection Thai and the top Burmese.


On the hill above the temple, up a 100m skylift, is a 30m tall bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.


Overall, George Town has a modern feel about it and is set up both for locals and tourists alike. The Old Town does have a more closed-in feeling, with thin streets and many hostels and guesthouses.

Next we catch a ferry to Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah.

The Trail Wanderers

Ipoh, Malaysia – Impressions

The third largest city in Malaysia, Ipoh was founded as a tin mining town by the British. The city is generally forgotten by tourists, who head straight from the capital along the major highway to Georgetown on the island of Penang.


When we were talking about stopping to Ipoh for a few days, people began asking why. Even the hostel owner in Kuala Lumpur questioned our reasoning with a, ‘but there’s nothing there…’ statement. If anything, this was part of the reason we were going.

Limestone Hills
About fifty kilometres outside Ipoh we began to see the limestone hills that are so prominent in the region. Lumps of limestone sticking out of the ground in small groups, scattered at first then more common. Ipoh is surrounded by these limestone hills and they give beauty to a city both in daylight…


and in the rainy gloom of the monsoon season which, we are told should have ended more than a month ago.


A Studio Hostel
With Ipoh not being on the tourist circuit, the offerings on popular hostel sites were minimal. But I was able to find a brand new hostel on a site used mainly for booking hotels. I’ve stayed at more than 50 hostels on my travels, but never in a studio hostel. The hostel has only 3 rooms, two of which are bathrooms. There are 8 beds at one end of the main room and several couches, a TV, stereo, fridge, microwave at the other. As we were only the second group to ever stay at the hostel, we had the place to ourselves.

The hostel is in a new building, in an area still under construction. Nearby there are only three supermarkets, three petrol stations and a couple of restaurants, but that was more than enough to make do. Within a year and when more people move to the area, it should thrive.


City Tours
The lack of tourists means a lack of organised tours, or perhaps the lack of tours means there’s a lack of organised tourists. Either way, the owner of the studio hostel is hoping to establish a market in Ipoh. So to help with the research, he borrowed a car and for a small fee drove us to some of the more prominent features of the town, some even he hadn’t been to.

The Art of Old Town
Malaysia has a famous Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, who has created murals in most of the major cities across the country. Ipoh is no exception and has 8 of his murals scattered around old town. The murals can sometimes be difficult to find but offer tourists the opportunity to explore Old Town while trying to find these works.


Some of the works take up the entire side of a building, while others are only 2 metres square and are hidden down side alleyways.


The rest of the tour took us to four prominent Cave Temples in the region…

Perak Tong Cave Temple
Perhaps the most famous of the 30 cave temples in the Ipoh region, Perak Tong is the most accessible because of its closeness to the central city. Its initial cavern is large with many statues and shrines tucked into corners.


Of all the temples built into limestone hills, Perak is the only one that allows visitors to climb to the very top, where there are several pagodas. While it’s a hot and humid climb up the 450 steps, the most precarious pagoda gives an amazing view out over western Ipoh.


Sam Poh Tong Temple
After Perak Tong, Sam Poh Tong is the next most popular cave temple in the region. While the cave is fairly small, it boasts an amazing ornamental garden out front.


But the true secret of Sam Poh Tong is the small tunnel that leads to the temple, hidden in an open-topped central area of the hill.


In the same central area as the temple there’s a tortoise enclosure containing five different species.


Gua Kek Look Tong Temple
This is the largest and most spectacular of the Ipoh cave temples. Created from an old tin mine, the entrance is more sedate that then other temples.


The true magnificence are the massive inner chambers split over two levels, with great stalactites and flowstone.


On the far side of the double cavern, the cave emerges out onto a peaceful gardens surrounding a pond.


Dong Hua Dong Temple

This temple is the smallest of the temples we visited. While the caves aren’t large, the climbing design was interesting. Lurking around the temple there are numerous families of monkeys. They have obviously caused strife to the temple, as each of the three cave shrines has mesh covered doors to stop them from terrorising the area.


With few tourists visiting the area due mainly to the lack of infrastructure, Ipoh is perhaps one of the hidden gems of Malaysia. With its growing popularity, it’s likely not to stay hidden long.

Next, we head north to Georgetown.

The Trail Wanderers