Once more into the Malacca straits, this time heading north from Pangkor to Penang, 140 miles, a mere day and overnight sail. In this area the straits widen out so there is lots of room for us to sail outside of the shipping lanes. However fishing boats, nets and thunderstorms are still the norm.
As darkness fell we were sailing through a particularly big fishing fleet. Suddenly the wind switched from an 8 knot westerly to a 28 knot easterly. Rain hammered the decks, thunder boomed and lighting flashed around us as we fought to put two reefs in the main and furl away half the genoa. Sailing through the fishing fleet in torrential rain and limited visibility was made even more challenging by the fact our wind instruments had stopped working earlier in the day. Relishing the challenge we both stayed on deck, tacking through the fleet and laughing at the utter chaos unfolding in front of us.
This storm was no different to an earlier night further back down the strait. That previous storm had left us feeling dejected and defeated. The difference here was that we had gone into the night feeling fresh, not having just completed several night watches.
Thousands of miles and countless night watches have instilled in us a deep understanding of how detrimental sleep deprivation can be to our ability, mental state, resilience and perception of a situation. What could otherwise be small, even enjoyable challenges can seem unattainable mountains through the eyes of the exhausted. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, yet one we regularly put ourselves through by sailing around the world with just the two of us on-board.
Like all storms, this one eventually passed, unfortunately leaving a stable wind coming from exactly where we wanted to go. The excitement of the night carried us through a day of tacking back and forth up between Penang Island and the mainland. The tide would not allow for us to enter the marina until later in the day so we were in no rush.
The challenge was not over yet. Approaching the marina, we turned the engine on but could not get any speed up. Matt quickly checked the gear box, which was OK, before diving over the side and clearing a large plastic sack from the prop. It was the first swim in over a month and the quickest ever as the polluted water of the Malacca Straits lacks any appeal to linger.
Problem solved we were able to motor into the Marina. Yet again, we found ourselves very happy to be in a marina, a situation that has become surprisingly frequent up this coast. You cannot access the city from any nearby anchorage and at £12 per night (around 1/4 the cost of a marina berth in Southern England) we reasoned the marina was well worth it. As well as laundry, showers, supermarkets and spares, we were just a short taxi ride from most of the city and access to the Indonesian and Thai consulates for visas.
The second largest city in Malaysia, Penang is the capital for food; a fast track to our hearts. £4 would get us a flavoursome lunch trio of vegetable curries with some chicken and rice to share, served on a banana leaf with an ice cold mango lassie each. 60 pence would get us 5 of the best vegetable samosas we have ever had, served still hot, from a street vendor in the little India section of the city.
A 15min, £3 taxi ride from the marina lies the historic area of Georgetown, the city’s main attraction.
The streets of Georgetown are full of street art, easy to spot by the crowds of other tourists posing for selfies by a random wall. You can download a map of them all but we preferred wandering and finding them at random.
Chinese Clan Houses (Kongsi’s)
A Kongsi (clan house) is a building in which Chinese families of the same surname gather to worship their ancestors and showcase their success. Some of the Konsi’s have been in Penang for over 600 years. Kongsi’s are dotted throughout Georgetown, the most spectacular noted as being the Khoo Kongsi (photos below) which was originally built to showcase the success of the Khoo family . No photo can do justice to the volume of, or intricate details in each of the ornate carvings, paintings and statues that fill this building. Well worth the 10RM pp (£2) entry fee.
The Clan Jetties
The Clan Jetties have been around for over 100 years. Jetties were built in the busy port for landing and unloading goods. Gradually, each jetty became identified and dominated by certain clans who built more and more huts overtime. Families still live there (apparently tax free as they are not on land) and you are welcome to wander along the jetties and their numerous market stalls. After the stilt houses of Indonesia the whole area felt very commercialised and non-descript so we didn’t linger for long.
Walk a few streets over and you will question if you are still in the same city. Sari shops fill the streets, flower garlands sway in the breeze, the smell of samosa’s and the sound of Bollywood music fill the air. Sitting to eat our £1 curry lunch on a banana leaf, not brave enough to eat with our hands like all our neighbours, we felt like we had traveled far without any of the efforts of doing so. Ordering another ice cold mango lassi we sat for a while to drink it all in.
The Kek Lok Si Temple
A big highlight of our time in Penang was spending a morning at the Kek Lok Si Temple; the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. The scale of this place is mind blowing, it is in fact an entire complex of enormous statues, temples, gardens, and the famous 10,000 Buddha pagoda. Kek Lok Si is an important pilgrimage centre for Buddhists from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore and other countries in South East Asia. Building work started in 1890 and is still ongoing, with plans to develop another temple within the complex. Other than the 2RMpp (60p) fee to climb the pagoda, if you walk rather than taking the lift, the complex is free to enter. You can obviously then buy as many incense, candles or souvenirs as your heart desires.
A gigantic 36.5m (120ft) tall bronze statue of The Goddess of Mercy stands at the top of the hill, overlooking the complex.
Both the top of the hill and the top of the Pagoda give great views over the city.
You can enter most of the buildings, many of which are filled with ornate shrines, statues and carvings.
A favourite stop in Malaysia
Not only is the food delicious and cheap, the marina and transport are both good and reasonable. Penang is like several cities in one. You can move from a modern shopping centre to an ancient temple within minutes, visit Buddist or Hindu Temples, Mosques, and even Christian churches, taste Indian, Thai, Chinese and even (not so delicious and much more expensive) Western cuisine all in the same day.
Not only did we manage to get our Thai and Indonesian visas, do a major re-provision, visit a very good dentist, buy spares, get our anchor re-galvanized, and fly out to Vietnam and back, we had a great time exploring this interesting city. Penang has been a definite highlight from our time in Malaysia.