Walking in George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Leaving the precincts of Kuala Lumpur and its haze, high-rises, malls and traffic seemed like a release of sorts from the quagmires of urban life. Now don’t get me wrong. I liked KL and its veritable array of cultural and gastronomical experiences but I prefer a small town to a big city any given day. And I wasn’t going to exclude Penang, the northwestern coast of Malaysia, from my plans. So I boarded a bus and rode on it for six hours.

The pleasures of arriving in Penang is only multiplied by the beautiful visual scenery enroute – the gargantuan mountains, vistas of the ocean, greenery and the tree rich landscape that is a relief from the landscape dominated by palm trees in KL. I arrived in the charming seaside town and its unhurried people to be welcomed by my host Mr. Henry. After a tiny tour of the neighborhood, Henry left me to my devices. Help was at hand, however. An architect friend Sanjay, took over from Henry but by then I had found a hawker stall, ordered the best Tomyom soup I had in my entire life and finished slurping it. I felt welcomed.

The World Heritage Site title was awarded to the George Town area in Penang Island in 2008 by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The architecture of buildings in George Town infuse elements from the architecture of Europe, China and India. George Town was once a British trade post and hence colonial architecture is predominant. The rich cultural influences brought in by immigrants from India and China have also contributed to the city’s landscape and food.

The Street Art of George Town

The streets of Penang depict a curious array of art – iron rod sculptures on the theme ‘voices from the people’ and mural paintings on the walls by renowned artist Ernest Zacharevic. There are a total of 52 such iron rod sculptures present in almost every street of George Town. While there are about 18 street murals by Zacharevic. There are maps available if you want to take a walking tour of these. A few pictures:

a wall art

                                                                              a wall art

street murals of George Town

street murals of George Town

a street mural, up close

Temples of George Town

George Town hosts numerous ancient temples / churches – the oldest Anglican Church in all of South East Asia, the Maha Mariamman Temple from the 1790s, Chinese temples, Kapitan Keling mosque from the 1803 to name a few.

The Khoo Kongsi temple

The Khoo Kongsi temple

a chinese mazu idol

a chinese mazu idol

Kapitan Keling mosque

Kapitan Keling mosque

a smug buddha

a smug buddha

prayer lamps at the thai buddhist temple

a burmese buddhist temple

a burmese buddhist temple

Culture of George Town

Walk the streets of George Town and you are likely to find more than a handful of art galleries, art studios, puppet theatres and workshops, gold and blacksmiths who use ancient methods, Chinese coffin makers, book binders, perfumers and other quirks.

a chinese doll collection in a store

a chinese doll collection in a store

a chinese puppet in a souvenir store

a chinese puppet in a souvenir store

a souvenir

a souvenir

a chinese coffin design

a chinese coffin design

Architecture of George Town

The architectural treasures including the shop houses, colonial era buildings, chinese clan houses are bunched together as a cultural enclave in the town. These buildings define the rich history of George Town and its cultural past.

the famed blue mansion

the famed blue mansion

an ornate chinese door

an ornate chinese door

streets of penang at night

streets of penang at night

penang skyline

penang skyline

Food of George Town

The coming together of various cultures has ensured a delicious variety of street food sold in the hawker markets of George Town, Penang. Taste the super pungent Assam Laksa, Mee Robus, Mee Rojak, Char Kway Teow and Fried Oyster and get introduced to flavors that you didn’t know existed. night time food scene

assam laksa

assam laksa

a funny sign board

a funny sign board

5 initial impressions about KL – Malaysia

If you were blind folded and taken around in the cities of KL and Singapore, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. Granted the food is much diverse in the former and the attractions are much better in the latter. However, these two cities have much more than weather in common. Be that as it may. These are my 5 initial impressions about the city of KL – Malaysia.

1) The Street Food is Phenomenal

Pardon my cliche but Malaysia is indeed a melting pot of cuisines. The Indian and Chinese influences found in the food in Malaysia has made eating out fun and much more economical. Every street and every mall is brimming with street food from different regions. And Malaysians seem to love their fat. So much so that they have dishes named after fat – Nasi Lemak (rice with fat).

street food in Malaysia

street food in Malaysia

street food in Malaysia

street food in Malaysia

2) Roads are great but traffic is a nightmare. So is parking.

KL has huge, broad roads and the infrastructure is in place. However, the growing number of vehicles seems to constrict the roads and peak hour traffics are legendary and nightmarish.

friday night traffic in Malacca

friday night traffic in Malacca

3) Selfie poles are quite the rage now

No tourist attraction in the city is complete without selfie pole wielding youngsters and even families taking pictures of themselves in front of monuments. Like this couple in front of a graffiti wall in Malacca.

selfie pole

selfie pole

4) The city has an impossible number of high-rises

And twin towers is one of them. Like any other south east asian / middle eastern developed countries, Malaysia has its share of high rises too. The central business district is filled with them and the hop-on / hop-off tour covers a mighty lot.

The twin towers of KL

The twin towers of KL

The high rises of KL

The high rises of KL

5) There is a dearth of dairy but fresh soya milk is sold on the streets

Malaysia is not a dairy producing country but fresh soya milk is available for consumption, sold by hawkers. The powdery, earthy taste of soya milk can be off-putting at first but it is much better than condensed milk (which has no dairy and is used even in coffee as well).

soya milk in the background

soya milk in the background

Have you been to KL? What are your impressions? Leave a comment.

Contest alert: Win a souvenir from Myanmar!

Have you been enjoying the blog? If only you guys talked (or left a comment, as it were), but it’s okay. I might have something to start the conversation. Or at least show some activity on these pages. I am travelling to Malaysia and Myanmar starting Oct 15th and I thought I would bring a souvenir for you. You like?

Myanmar countryside - pic: backroads.com

Myanmar countryside – pic: backroads.com

Here is what you need to do:

All you have to do to win this souvenir is very simple. Go and ‘like’ The Sunlit Window’s page on Facebook. Leave a comment here saying so. I will randomly select one winner and announce it on these pages.

You’re nice and you already like my page. Now what? Share it on your wall and let me know in the comment section here.

I will bring you the souvenir when I get back from my travels in the last week of November. Sounds good?

Ancient temple ruins in Myanmar - Pic: backroads.com

Ancient temple ruins in Myanmar – Pic: backroads.com

Watch out for the updates about Malaysia and Myanmar until then.

Why freelance? A personal essay.

As days drew nearer to my month-long trip to a village called Kalap in the Himalayas, my feelings about quitting my desk job grew stronger. I had been contemplating it for a while but did not yet take any serious steps towards leaving the job. Liberal work-from-home policies at my workplace ensured freedom but on the days I had to go to the office, I could not but feel being constricted inside the cubicle. If I did leave my job, I would have no backup plan on the monthly mortgage payment for the house that would tie me down for ten years. I had only finished one year of the mortgage and nine remained.

Just one day short of my trip, my brother called me with news that my father had fallen sick. He had had a surgery to remove his infected kidney a year ago and now he was experiencing pain in his abdomen. Pain so aggressive that he could not walk straight. He was to be taken to the doctor. And I’d be high in the Himalayas with no access to phone nor internet for a month.

Those were the circumstances in which I boarded the bus to Kalap – a tiny settlement in Garhwal Himalayas. Anand Sankar, who has a responsible tourism initiative in Kalap, agreed to host me for a month. Having my basic cold protection gear covered, I still had to buy a sleeping bag which I did at a store called Cliffhangers located in the narrow side streets of Dehradun. I explored the streets of the town that was known as the boarding school capital of India and home to hundreds of schools. The Doon valley, Dehradun, surrounded by hills, was experiencing unseasonal rains in March.

Uneasy Contemplation.

Uneasy Contemplation.

The rain delayed my trip from Dehradun to Kalap but when I eventually left in a rickety bus early in the morning, for a five hour journey, there were no signs of rain. The bus crawled through the windy mountain roads flirting dangerously close with the gorges. I met Guddu, my minder in the village for the duration of my stay, at a dusty mountain town called Netwar. With his incandescent smile and hair curls bleached golden by the mountain sun, the amiable Guddu immediately inspired confidence in me about the trip. I was practically a stranger, but that evening, over home-cooked meals and the drone of his children studying, we got to know each other slightly better. Guddu’s children, like children in other mountain villages in the vicinity, went to school in Netwar – the only school available for miles in any direction.

The next day, we began a 5-hour trek to reach his village high up in the mountains. The trek, through an unpaved, boulder strewn, steep mountain path made me thirsty while the sun beat down heavily. The weight of my backpack pressed me down and threatened to crush me but I persevered and arrived at the village to the curious glances of village kids who, upon sighting me, a stranger, joined their hands in respect and said ‘namaste’ as a welcome gesture.

After reaching Guddu’s house and getting acquainted with it, I quickly fell into a routine. I spent my days reading and writing on the sun deck of Guddu’s wooden house overlooking the valley. I accompanied him to his field along with his horse to spread manure before the onset of the sowing season. I took long walks and tried to identify the plants and bird life around the village. On these trips, I mostly stood glued to the grand vista of the mountains, its terrace fields, while the deafening roar of the Supin River way down in the valley played backdrop to this setting.

I met strangers in the village and accepted invitations to visit their homes. Sometimes, I was taken to their kitchens, dining rooms, or halls and fed sweet, milky tea and whatever else happened to be on their menus.

I became the official photographer for the village’s Holi festival and, by the end of it, although I survived without being doused in color powder, my camera bore the brunt. I helped make Gujjia – a Holi special that’s like a sweet calzone. Its deep fried packets of dough are filled with a roasted mixture of semolina, desiccated coconut, jaggery (a traditional sugar) and raisins. By the end of it, Guddu’s wife, Pathuli – meaning butterfly in the local language – had thawed towards me after witnessing my able handedness at rolling and sealing the Gujjias. I asked extensive questions about what grew in Kalap and what didn’t, what kind of fruits could be cultivated, and compared their food with that from the plains. I also became accustomed to Guddu, Pathuli, and the other villagers switching to the local language in the middle of a conversation, unmindful or uncaring of my presence.

Lead by the master.

Lead by the master.

In all this, I forgot that I had an alternate existence – an existence that is punctuated by staring at different screens for ego-inflating status updates in social media outlets, a liberal dosage of pop culture consumption, and I also forgot about my sick father.

I watched myself in the mirror, the magnificent hills framed behind the reflection of my overgrown facial hair, gaunt face, sunken eyes, tanning skin, and cracked lips that needed moisturizing. In the cold, I rationed my shower to once in two days. My toiletries bag sat untouched, unused. I went to bed and woke up based on the sheer diktats of my body clock. The hand-drawn calendar I brought from the plains to keep tab of time, like all gadgets up here, also sat next to my bed, abandoned.

Most of the time the loud conversation of the villagers – which sounded like yelling at each other to my untrained ears – interrupted my silence. Even so, the rhyming dialect of Uttranchali was oddly comforting to my senses. It characterized the mountain to me – its cadence like the deep blue expanse of its skies, the whooshing of wind through its cedar trees and the chirp of the birds.

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

I tried to make Rotis, the Indian flatbread, without a rolling pin in Guddu’s kitchen, learning the tricks of it from Pathuli.  She said, by way of instruction: take a bit of dough, roll it by hand and flatten it, pinch it round with the thumb and slap with both the palms to stretch the dough into a perfect round shaped roti. At best, I could only make ragged edged Rotis.

At night when the sky was clear, I sometimes stepped out. The gazillion stars in the sky resembled a crowded Indian railway station with numerous tiny stars and constellations jostling for space with each other.

Sometimes I saw raging forest fires in the night – bright orange and red flames spreading across the forest at a distance. But the icy cold night extinguished the fire, no matter how widespread, and normality returned in the morning.

The unpredictable weather in the mountains ensured drastically different days. One day the sky was clear blue with sunshine, while on the other, streaks of dark clouds obstruct the sun throwing out only weak sunlight. Some days thick grey clouds billowed past and a blanket of cold rain came down with occasional hail or snow falls.

All this notwithstanding, the predictability of my life remained the same. My dad’s illness did not vanish as I did momentarily from their lives. He was now prescribed to undergo two surgeries – one to fix the hernia and the other to remove his stone-infested gall bladder. Both keyhole, albeit. The world has been just as I left it. But I have changed a bit – adapting a bit of the matter of fact, yet laid-back, attitude of the hill people.

I knew this couldn’t last forever. Oases do not a desert make. While Guddu and Pathuli secretly longed for a life in the plains, I longed for more time in the mountains.

When I rejoined work, a month later, I felt something inside me was bottled up. Where before I negotiated craggy, bridled, forest path, I now climbed concrete stairs. Where I’d lifted my eyes for tumbling vistas against the backdrop of deep blue sky, I now lifted my eyes to see cubicles and torsos hunched over laptops. I sent my resignation in less than a week of my return. I traded a reasonable paycheck for wide open spaces, fresh air, opportunities, and a financially dicey, extremely uncertain career of freelance writing. Wherever I go in this new phase, at least I will be certain that I wanted this.

A version of this appeared in the last edition of the Outside In Literary Travel Magazine and can be accessed here.

Myanmar visa for Indians – online, in three simple steps!

With the end of military rule, Myanmar is opening up for tourists. Myanmar visa for Indians has become simplified (unless you are using the Stillwell Road located in India’s Northeast to travel into the country). I was offered different opinions about obtaining a visa for Myanmar and predominant of them was to approach a travel agent. However, a friend suggested that starting September, Myanmar has introduced an evisa system. I googled up and landed in the Myanmar ministry of immigration and population page and applied online. In less than a week, I received an email with the pre-approval letter. That’s how simple it is to obtain Myanmar visa for Indians (although I am sure this applies to all nationalities too).

Here’s how I did it.

Step 1) Go to http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/ and click the ‘Apply for EVISA NOW’ link.

Login page

Login page

Step 2): Fill in the form. There is a fee of USD50 for tourist visa. Right now the only port of entry is Yangon. You cannot fly directly to Yangon from Indian cities. You will have to fly via KL or Bangkok.

Step 2: Fill in the details

Step 2: Fill in the details

As soon as your application process is over, you will be sent the confirmation and reference number. You can track your status online.

Step 3): Wait for the visa pre-approval letter.

Myanmar visa pre-approval letter

Myanmar visa pre-approval letter

Ta-da.

Bagan, Central Myanmar - Pic: musatc.org

Bagan, Central Myanmar – Pic: musatc.org

Are you travelling to Myanmar anytime soon? I am. Tell me what shouldn’t I miss in Myanmar. It’d be nice to hear from you, oh elusive reader :)

 

7 books for the road!

I never travel without books. And I don’t consider travelling time as catching up on my reading. To me reading and travelling go hand in hand. Reading occupies my space everyday in intervals as fillers – that little time in the morning before I get up get up, that little time waiting for my travel partner to get ready before we step out, that little time after we order food in a restaurant and waiting for it to arrive, and wherever there is a scope for waiting there is scope for reading. Usually, my Kindle is stocked with books that I want to read during my travels. Sometimes, I also travel with paperbacks. My reading is a good mix of both electronic and print versions of books.

Here are the Seven books I travelled with and enjoyed reading (or sometimes left me with a deep sense of longing). I associate these books with the trips I made.

1. Footloose in the Himalayas – Bill Aitken

Part memoir, part travelogue, Footloose in the Himalayas chronicles Bill Aitken’s  eternal love affair with the mountains. A British citizen, Aitken travelled to India after his studies in the 60s and the book is a record of his time living and working in the ashrams of Kausani and Mirtola. The book provides rich, insightful anecdotes on life in the Himalayas and is also an often humurous account on daily life in the hills.

Footloose in the Himalayas

Footloose in the Himalayas – picture from amazon.in

2. Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Murakami’s classic college love story ages quite well. No matter how many times you read it, you never tire of its characters set in the middle of 1960s Toru Watanabe, Naoko and Midori. This book is also considered to be Murakami’s ticket to superstardom. To me though, the book is often reminiscent of rides in city buses.

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood – picture by beckybedbug.com

3. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed lost her mother, drifted away from her family and went through a divorce fueled by her drug abuse. While going through a terrible phase in her life, Cheryl decides to hike the 1,100 mile long Pacific Crest Trail. She subjects herself to the physically gruelling trail and provides glimpses from her life that led her to the hike, capturing many beautiful moments in a beautifully felt narrative.

Wild - picture by grownorthwest.com

Wild – picture by grownorthwest.com

4. Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World – Pico Iyer

Travel writing legend Pico Iyer’s essay collection is about his travels, as the title suggests, in some of the lonely places of the world. Richly insightful and extremely entertaining, Iyer’s travels take him to far off corners of the world – North Korea, Iceland, Paraguay and Cuba.

Falling off the map - picture by thehindu.com

Falling off the map – picture by thehindu.com

5. The Road

If you are into reading apocalyptic novels, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is quite your type of book. This novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world and follows the struggles of two survivors – a father and a son. McCarthy dedicates the book to his son John Francis McCarthy and the novel derives its roots from a road trip he took with his son.

The road - picture by amazon.com

The road – picture by amazon.com

6. Beautiful Ruins

The title for Jeff Walter’s Beautiful Ruins sits quite well with the book’s narrative and setting. Set in 1962 Italy and present day Hollywood, the narrative switches places and characters following the life of Pasquale and the mystery Hollywood actor Dee Moray who arrives at his doorsteps on a boat, seemingly to die. Walter’s writing evokes visually rich imagery and the book is quite, ahem, unputdownable.

beautiful ruins - picture by goodreads.com

beautiful ruins – picture by goodreads.com

5. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller memoir gets trashed a lot but it is quite amazing what she did with this book. With a cynical eye and never letting an opportunity slip up to laugh at herself, Gilbert’s entertaining account of her travels in Europe (Italy) and Asia (India, Indonesia) is quite a travel companion. And I read it when I was in Bali just so I could get a feel of the place through Gilbert’s voice.

Eat, Pray, Love - picture by gatheringbooks.org

Eat, Pray, Love – picture by gatheringbooks.org

Do you read during your travels? Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Chasing the Northern Lights – Part I – Guestpost

There is a benefit of having a bunch of well travelled friends. You can badger them with requests for guest posts. This post is a result of my badgering a well-travelled, well-so-on-and-so-forth friend who is currently based in the cold corners of London. Sownak (whose travel journal can be accessed here http://doesnotxsist.blogspot.in/) When you can’t be everywhere, you have friends who can write a guest post for you. This is a two-part post about Sownak’s experiences visiting the Northern Lights. Do read and leave a comment.

The day I landed in Oslo, I made a promise to myself, that I will see the Aurora Borealis popularly known as the Northern Lights, whatever it might cost to me. And when I boarded the early morning flight to Tromsø, I was happy that I was about to fulfill my promise.

Tromsø is situated in northern Norway, very much inside the Arctic Circle, which makes it a popular destination to catch the Lights. Due to its location near the sea as well as the presence of the Gulf Stream, it is warmer than other places on the same latitude, and is hence more popular. The best time to catch the Lights is between October and March, as during these times, the nights are completely dark. December to February is more suited due to clearer skies.

The flight from Oslo landed in Tromsø at about 10 am. It was like twilight outside and it was going to stay so till about 3 pm, and then it would get darker. I was booked via airbnb and my host was kind enough to pick me up from the airport. After a quick freshening up, I was dressed in 5 layers again, and was ready to brave the nearing zero temperatures.

The aurora forecast was good (check http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/ ), but the weather seemed to be a little gloomy. I was booked for the Aurora tour at about 6 pm, and I had a lot of time to kill till then. There are a few interesting places to visit in the town.

The temperature was nearing zero which means there was lot of ice on the roads, and since this is no city, no one bothered to clear the road of the ice. Even with my big snow boots lined with 200g thinsulate insulation, I was feeling the chill and I had to take care not to step on the ice. It was almost like walking in a mud-ridden street in India, where the only difference was that I was trying to avoid the ice patches instead of the muddy patches. It was time for some hot Gløgg – a warm, spicy drink similar to German Glühwein.

The architecture in Tromsø is quite interesting, from the Arctic Cathedral, to the Public Library, it was evident that the architects tried to break the gloominess of the winter through their creations. And in my opinion, they did not fail.

Tromso City at night

Tromso City at night

Soon it was time for chasing the Aurora. We boarded the mini-van, and our guide took us to a really dark part of the Island. The only light was the light from our cameras and the moon. The best location to view the Lights was from some place which is really dark, so as to reduce the possible light pollution. We waited at the location, partly illuminated by passing cars, but the Aurora was playing hide and seek. The skies were not clear either, and as soon as we got a faint view of the Lights, the sky was covered by clouds.

Star Gazing

Star Gazing

Waiting at the Beach

Waiting at the Beach

Road less travelled

Road less travelled

We moved around to a different place, on some kind of beach. We had to be careful about the slippery ice, and our second phase of wait started there. It wasn’t too bad to wait in a place far from civilization, sitting under the skies, on a beach illuminated by the moon, and sipping a cup of hot chocolate. The faint Lights were visible again, and some of us caught it on camera, but it was not very satisfying.

Moonlight

Moonlight

Sownak in front of the Arctic cathedral

Sownak in front of the Arctic cathedral

Faint View of the Aurora

Faint View of the Aurora

Arctic Cathedral at night

Arctic Cathedral at night

By 12 am we all were cold enough and accepted that catching the Aurora needs a lot of luck. By then the sky was overcast and light snow started. We packed all our camera gear and wrapped up for the night. By the time we reached Tromsø, an inch of snow has covered the roads, and hoping that tomorrow will be a better day (or night), I wrapped myself under the double quilt.

Looking at the pictures, it wasn’t a bad day after all.

Is Northern Lights on your bucket list? Or have you struck it off recently? Do leave a comment.