Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

Jan 27, 2013

Winter break: Georgetown

The city

The Georgetown Heritage Area
Looking down on Georgetown, from the top floor of Komtar
Penang Road
Action on Penang Road
Khoo Kongsi
The ornate exterior of Khoo Kongsi
A drawing at Khoo Kongsi
A close-up of “Hundred Sons and Thousand Grandsons”
The Blue MansionOn the tour of the Blue Mansion
The tour of the Blue Mansion is very thorough.

Georgetown is where most Penang visitors stay if they’re not at the beach. It’s the state’s capital, and is situated on a little nose of land on the northeast corner of the island. The city was founded by Captain Francis Light in 1786 for the British East India Company, and is home to many fine examples of British colonial architecture.

Penang’s other cultures have left their architectural mark, as well, and there are beautiful Chinese temples and clan houses, Islamic mosques, etc. The city is just lousy with gorgeous buildings with a mix of styles and cultures not seen anywhere else in Southeast Asia. In honor of that fact it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

We felt we would be remiss if we didn’t at least check out some of the sights.

Khoo Kongsi and the Blue Mansion

Khoo Kongsi is a Chinese clanhouse that serves the family Khoo. It’s basically a big, ornately decorated temple with a small museum on the ground floor. There are some beautiful illustrations throughout the temple; my favorite is the one titled “Hundred Sons and Thousand Grandsons,” that being the wish for all Chinese families.

The Blue Mansion is exactly what it says, a big blue mansion built by a Chinese immigrant to Georgetown, Cheong Fatt Tze, in the 1880s. You have to join one of the three daily tours to see it, and I have to warn you, the tour is BRUTAL. We spent about 45 minutes of our 1 hour tour in the front vestibule while our guide summarized Cheong Fatt Tze’s life in excruciating detail. Her focus was largely on his money-making and saving, with a few details thrown in about the man himself and the construction of the house. Oh, and I’m forgetting, she also gave a pretty hard sell on staying in the mansion in its capacity as a hotel.

The interesting take away from these two attractions: They’ve both been stand ins for other countries in Hollywood movies. Khoo Kongsi was a makeshift Thailand in “Anna and the King” and the Blue Mansion stood for Vietnam in “Indochine,” when each production was barred from filming in their respective countries.

Somewhere in GeorgetownKomtar
Can you spot the Komtar?
At the Clan JettiesAt the Clan JettiesCity Hall

Komtar

Komtar isn’t a Heritage building, it’s a big mall and the tallest building in Georgetown. We took an elevator up to the top for some great views of the island. We also bought some jewelry at the bead store that, for whatever reason, was up in the viewing area.

The Clan Jetties

The waterfront on the south side of the city was settled mostly by Chinese families, and is still a Chinese neighborhood today. It’s a little weird to walk through people’s homes as a tourist attraction, but it makes for some nice photographs.

There are also some seafood restaurants out at the end of the piers, which would be pretty wonderful if you liked seafood. We don’t like seafood, but that’s on us, no fault of the jetties.

City Hall

We enjoyed looking at this colonial building without trying to tour it, mercifully. It’s very good looking.

Pretty much all of our efforts at cultural tourism were failures. The architecture in Georgetown is gorgeous, but the ways in which we tried for deeper engagement with it were just not that fulfilling. It was also way too hot to go tromping around the city just to look at things.

It took us a couple days to realize that we were just doing it wrong. The culture in Penang is not in institutions and museums (most of which were founded or renovated within the last 30-40 years, anyway). It’s the people, the natural beauty, and, not least importantly, the food. Eventually we calmed down and started having a lot more fun.

Don’t get all New York about it. The way to do Penang is to sit back and enjoy a good meal in the marvelous scenery.

Georgetown city Georgetown city

Jan 24, 2013

Winter break: Fastbook Hostel

Settling in before tucking in

The Desa Permata neighborhood
The Desa Permata neighborhoodHere's the Fastbook
Our home away from home in lovely Desa Permata, Penang.
We're welcomed to the FastbookOur room
We were among an international crowd at the Fastbook.
Kek Lok SiKek Lok Si
Though it was one of the two attractions that we were actually close to, we never made it to Kek Lok Si.
Checking in, in the lobbyThe common area
The lobby, right, and shared kitchen, left.
Going swimmingGoing swimming with mountains in the background
I’m good until June, now, swim-wise.

Our base of operations was the Fastbook Hostel off Jalan Paya Terubong in Desa Permata on Pulau Penang. Does that not mean anything to you? It didn’t mean all that much to me when I booked it over the internet.

We found out, though. Paya Terubong is a major road in Penang, and Desa Permata is a small residential neighborhood bisected by it. And it’s about a 20 minute cab ride outside of Georgetown.

Georgetown is the main urban center of Penang, where most of the cultural attractions are located. Municipal buses go between the two areas, but then the trip is more like 40 minutes. Over the course of our two weeks, we got really familiar with Penang’s public transportation.

(Oh, and Pulau Penang is just “the island part of Penang.”)

So the location was not ideal, but the hostel was really cozy and the owner, TK, was incredibly friendly and helpful. He picked us up from the airport — His car had seat belts! And we were encouraged to use them! — pointing out durian fields, coffee shops and other interesting sights on our trip to our new home. I could practice my Mandarin with some of the Chinese noodle vendors, he suggested when he learned that we were coming from China.

The hostel was very close to two Penang sights, he told us, the Kek Lok Si temple and Penang Hill. We told him that our plan was mostly to eat. He thoroughly approved, and pointed out several hawker centers near the hostel as we pulled into our destination.

Our room was big enough, with a TV/DVD player and a shower stall. Toilets were a shared situation, but the hostel was small enough that it wasn’t a bother. Our mattress was soft and comfortable, a real contrast to our hard Chinese bed. The room had no windows, but it was a nice, air-conditioned place to stage our lazy mornings before hitting the hot Penang streets.

Materials online seemed to indicate that there was a pool — which, when we arrived at our fifth-floor walk-up, it was obvious that there was not. What there was, was a gym around the corner, with an athletic pool for doing laps. We were a little disappointed, as we’d already fallen in love with the idea of cocktail hour by the water every night. But we persevered. Instead, I went for a pre-dinner dip one evening, which fulfills my swim-every-six-months quota.

Jan 23, 2013

Winter break: Introducing Penang

In which we make a plan to eat

We're off to Penang

This time last year, we were taken by surprise by the fact that the famously hot Sichuan province actually had a winter, and we spent our January break shivering around Chengdu. We had fun, but we could have had more fun. Fun that didn’t involve wearing coats indoors.

So this year we knew we wanted to go some place warm. And, over the summer, while watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s foodie travel show “No Reservations,” we knew it should be Penang. The food looked delicious and everyone was in shorts in the wintertime. This was enough for us to book a flight.

And then we set about finding out what a Penang was.

This balmy food paradise is a state in the country of Malaysia, a peninsula that dongles down from Vietnam/Laos and ends at Singapore. The country’s famed for its (these days) peaceful coexistence between its Indian, Chinese and Malay peoples. It has a subtropical climate, meaning 80s+ degrees in January!

Bundled for the Luzhou cold

Most of Penang is on a small island off Malaysia’s west coast, and 50% of Penangites are of Chinese decent. The British colonized the island in the 1800s, leaving behind a legacy that includes architecture and language; Most people can speak English. Among people who know, Penang is renowned for its cuisine, and there is no shame in planning a vacation around eating there.

Which is good, because that’s what we did. We spent the last few days before our departure — when China was experiencing record cold temperatures — bundled up in as many layers as possible trying to decide what to eat first.

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: The bus station

Going home on the biggest travel day of the year

The bus station in Chongqing

Because our trip was kind of a last-minute whim, we didn’t really realize what it meant to be travelling during the last weekend of National Day — which is one of the biggest travel times of the year. Think day-after-Thanksgiving, only in China, where there’s about a bajillion more people.

Our bus was delayed, but everyone waited pretty patiently, and eventually we found ourselves on the long road home.

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: Cici Park

Seriously, go for the warmed plum wine

The cool crowd hangs at Cici Park
Plum wineCici Park

Cici Park came highly recommended in every piece of travel writing we read about the bar. And, in fact, we liked it so much that we went there both nights of our Chongqing stay.

Tucked away amongst closed-for-the-night shops on the second-floor rooftop of a large, old-looking building, we might have missed the bar were it not for the precise instructions that we got from the hostel staff. Cici Park is quiet, understated and chill as hell.

The weather was mild enough that there was competition for the outdoor tables and benches, but the inside was lovely as well. The walls were decked out with neon, Spirograph art pieces, and smooth, loungey jazz played softly over the PA.

This was yet another no-vomit-on-the-floor crowd (who would think that would be so special?), and we noticed that many merrymakers were drinking tea and soda in lieu of something alcoholic. Not us, though.

There was a small, handwritten sign advertising “The Naoke: Draft beer by handmade.” it came in two flavors — light and dark — there was just enough crisp in the air to make dark the right choice. And it was lovely: rich with a hint of coffee. Another highlight was the plum wine — nice flavor without being too sweet. After a consultation with the bartender, I chose to go for the warm over the cold, again, with reference to the crisp in the air.

We had to try the martini as well, which was OK. Served with ice in the glass, but you take what you can get.

Dec 4, 2012

Chongqing: Cactus Tex-Mex

Running for a border

Tex-Mex-ish

Our quarry at the Hongya Dong Center? Tacos! The ninth-floor Cactus Tex-Mex Bar & Grill was touted (by some online randos) as the best Mexican food in Chongqing, and we just can’t turn down an opportunity for Mexican.

On the hunt for Mexican food in China

Stepping into Cactus felt just like walking into an American sports bar, down to NFL on FOX on all the big screen TVs. Their menu was a little all over the place (and somewhat pricey, but that’s just a fact of western food in China). It offered all your classic Tex-Mex faves, but also pizza, fried mozzarella, hamburgers, etc., and also French and German specialties. It was kind of like Chili’s married Applebee’s and they went on an around-the world-honeymoon.

The drink menu was equally hefty, but we had to go for your basic margaritas to compliment our basic tacos. It was nothing fancy, but they did their job. There was a sort of Old El Paso-canned taste to the meal, but what do you want? You’re in China.

I hate sports bars in America, and — surprise! — it turns out I don’t love them in China, either. But the bar wasn’t very crowded, which to me is appealing. The best tacos in China so far, they are not. (That honor is still held by the Pug in Chengdu.) But, if you find yourself needing Mexican food in Chongqing, as we did, Cactus will fit the bill.

Dec 4, 2012

Chongqing: Let’s go to the mall!

Shopping with Chinese characteristics

What a fancy mallInside the mall

The hilly landscape of Chongqing creates spectacular views out of some rather mundane entities — like the Hongya Dong Center.

Hongya Dong is just a multistory mall, but it’s carved into a cliff face that overlooks the Jialing River. The traditional-ish architecture in its not-quite Vegas lighting is a sight to see. And it was cool to realize — as our cab zoomed up the riverside highway — that that glowing beacon was our destination.

The mall is filled with touristy shops, and expensive western restaurants. And tons and tons of people looking at the touristy shops and expensive western restaurants. (We were actually there for one of the expensive western restaurants, but we did a fair bit of looking as well.) It’s an interesting place for people-watching, and it was quite the happening scene on a Saturday night.

Dec 3, 2012

Chongqing: Arhat Temple

History in the middle of the present

Arhat Temple
Arhat TempleArhat TempleArhat TempleArhat Temple

Arhat Temple is a 1,000-year-old Buddhist temple which is now smack in the center of Chongqing’s commercial district. Much like Central Park in New York, you can see the surrounding city from inside, but you feel immersed in a separate environment.

Though that separate environment doesn’t cast off all commercialism; At the entrance and throughout the temple, there are plenty of opportunities to purchase tributes to the gods and souvenirs for yourself. (In the absence of government or other funding, this is how the monks support their operation.)

The long passageway from the entrance to the inner temple was lined with ceramic gods who had received some gifts of apples, baijiu, incense and other small tokens. Many visitors bowed to these gods in prayer.

The main room of the temple is given over to a hall containing more than 500 life-sized Arhat statues. A sign instructed, “Don’t take photograph of carven statles in this temple!” so we didn’t, although we really wished that we could. The statues were amazing — all arranged in action poses, with distinct features and personalities. Men of every complexion are represented. Some hold animals or tools, and some are a little more otherworldly and have extra eyes or another little man inside their chest. Some Arhats occupied clouds, some rode sea creatures. Some interacted with their neighbor, while others stared intently down at the viewers, and still others stared off into space. There was clearly a commitment to giving each and every statue a life of its own.

The room itself was a fit setting for these guys. The ceiling was gilded in gold with images of dragons all over, and colorful banners hung from the rafters. The Arhats were accompanied by some tremendous gold Buddha figures, and there were small altars at relevant locations. We espied a monk giving a young girl a consultation at one of these.

Everything is still in really good shape … although we learned later that the present statues were molded in 1986, so its no great preserved treasure, but it’s still impressive to see.

Dec 3, 2012

Chongqing: Indian Restaurant

A surprise find!

Indian food in ChongqingWe just looked up, and there it was

Our first night in, we decided to wander for dinner. Chongqing rivals Sichuan as home of the hot pot, and we were pretty sure that we could find a good one just by flinging ourselves at the city.

But, instead, we found this Indian Restaurant.

We were led upstairs by a cute young woman in her 20s. She wore hipster black rimmed glasses and a chic short haircut, and she was kind of sheepish about her English, although she spoke well enough. “不客气 is ‘Not at all’, in English?” she verified with us, and then proudly and carefully used it throughout the meal to answer our 谢谢s [thank yous].

Peter and I split some hearty vegetable samosas and a perfect garlic naan. My chicken with cashew sauce was sweet and creamy with white chunks of breast meat, while Peter’s potato and cauliflower curry was just the right amount of spicy. The sauces tasted premade — it kind of reminded me of Progresso soup — but as far as Chinese Indian food goes, it was a pretty good meal.

Dec 2, 2012

Chongqing: Day and Night

And up and down

Chongqing city center
Baskets, in a museum
Above: We saw this stick-and-basket display in the museum in Chengdu’s River Viewing Pavilion Park, but as you can see … right: The bang bang man is still very much alive in modern day.
Baskets, getting some present-day use

Central Chongqing has a similar set-up to Luzhou, with a peninsula tapering west to east between the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. Our hostel was towards the tip, and pretty much right on top of all the river-import/export activity.

Chongqing is one of China’s steepest cities. Like, think San Francisco ups and downs. And, thanks to the rivers, it’s also one of China’s busiest commercial ports. These two facts combined to create the bang bang men. “Bang bang” is the Chinese word for stick — which refers to the thick bamboo poles these supremely muscular guys sling over their shoulders to carry goods up the hills from the piers to wherever it needs to go. It is impressive to see them in action. It also makes me thankful that Luzhou’s peaks are somewhat less treacherous.

A ten minute cab ride west of all that industry, you find all the restaurant-shopping-tourism action. The downtown area retains that up-and-down steepness, but it’s still far more walkable than that of other Chinese cities we’ve visited. Our visit was short, but we managed a lot of wandering — from the requisite big-city-Carrefour-stop to historical sites to delicious nibbles. More on that to come …