Renovations work on the Penang Hill funicular was finally complete and the weather was super nice, so we managed (after only three weeks here!) to make it to one of the main tourist attractions on the Island. Hiking up was an option, but 90 degrees is not ideal outdoor exertion weather, and the tram has tempting a/c. After a steep and slightly bouncy ride to the top, the cable car dumped us right at the viewing deck. A jutting platform gives near 180 degree views of the east side of Penang Island – all the way from the airport to the mainland north of Georgetown. Views are breathtaking – Georgetown below, blue ocean, and mainland stretching to distant hills as the view fades. Highrises nestle right up to jungle-covered hills and then the forest takes over without visible interruption.
I made the mistake of not looking both ways for monkeys and, while admiring the view, one came up on the railing and made a convincing show of batting my face out of the way. The first I knew of it was its paw coming at me. I jumped back, as did the girl next to me, screaming in fright. I mean, they are small and fuzzy and cute, but they also tear apart metal pop cans with a single paw and then stick their faces right past the jagged metal edges to lap up the remaining residue. Clearly the monkeys have cushy lives – they have no problem flipping open trash cans for leftovers and harassing passers-by for a snack.
Penang Hill was built as a Hill Station where Georgetown elite escaped the worst of the heat – some individuals are lucky enough to still live there. Since it was a neighborhood, places of worship were built at the top. A Buddhist temple and mosque stand right next to each other; nearby is the more recent tourist-trap addition of an Owl Museum and food court with a fence full of love locks atop it. This tribute to affection might hold up better than the famous one in Paris – the locking loop is metal, but the pink hearts are lightweight plastic. We sprung for fried rice and laksa but no lock.
The Friday afternoon curse of the unavailable Uber struck right as we got back to the base of the hill and were trying to get to the Kek Lok Si temple. It was only a couple kilometers away, so we braved the heat and walked. Thankfully juice and water are sold in stands around the temple, and the neighborhood below it has the usual assortment of small convenience stores and drink stalls. In some areas Penang has great sidewalks, in others, like the way to the temple, we dodge moving traffic while weaving around cars parked along the edge of the road. Fortunately Chiang Mai taught us well.
The temple is not just a single building, but a sprawling complex that takes over a large portion of the hillside. Supposed to be the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, it is still being added to. Temple buildings form something of a maze, and I could have wandered around for hours. While we are going to miss Chinese New Year – it is February 8th and we fly out the 2nd – the temple was already heavily decorated with lanterns.
The first temple’s interior walls were covered floor to ceiling with thousands Buddha statuettes, and the frescoed ceiling showed a pantheon of deities. A wishing tree near the back was heavy with colored ribbons; we added one of our own. Just outside the main doors, dozens of candles and incense sticks were lit and more were for sale.
Wandering around the buildings, we saw smaller side temples containing offerings of incense,flowers, fruit, and even fish to be freed in the temple’s ponds – we hope. Monks chanted afternoon prayers. We took the second funicular of the day – a new record! – to the statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy. The 99-foot tall statue and her pagoda tower over the rest of the site. We were there just as everything was closing for the day, so the crowds had already dispersed and it was very peaceful.
As I post this, we only have about two days left on the ground in Malaysia. I’ll be sad to be leaving the vibrant culture and delectable food, not to mention the cheap cost of living, but it will be exciting to move on to our third stop. Even with more than three weeks under our belts here, Penang continues to tempt us with new things!