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The joss stick maker
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Ice shaving machines, for delicious slushies

It was just after nine when we left our hotel this morning and it was already baking hot, a state of play that only changed briefly during the day when we happened to be somewhere where a cooling breeze came in off the sea. 

We started our tour of the old centre with a stop at Fort Cornwallis, the original landing place of Francis Light, the Brit who founded the Penang settlement. Most of the buildings in the fort are long gone. Those remaining are the chapel, the first in Penang, some of the cell blocks and a gunpowder store. The original fort was built of wood in 1786 but was replaced with a stone fort in 1793. A malaria epidemic a century ago resulted in the surrounding moat being filled in.

The cells have now been turned into a small museum documenting the development of Penang in the time of Francis Light and outlining some of the treaties made with the local people and the East India Company. It makes for an interesting read to see how much authority these early pioneers felt they had, only to have others in the company not fulfil the commitments they had made. In the middle of the fort some of the archaeological excavations of the original buildings have still been left on show.

An amphitheatre has been built in the fort and is used for concerts and plays. To the side of this a couple of bell tents and mock fireplaces have been set up to show what the living conditions would have been like in the early days after arrival. The perimeter walls are still home to many canons, one of which is believed by local people to have the powers to help childless women to get pregnant.

A quick stop at tourist information furnished us with copies of their Heritage Walking trails for the old town which made for a more interesting amble around than we would have had relying only on  Lonely Plant. We started off in Little India, making our way around the sari shops and shops selling offerings for the local temples. We passed the sign board maker, the goldsmiths and the joss stick maker before heading for the coffee maker.

The coffee maker set up shop in his house in 1988. He roasts green coffee beans for forty five minutes until they are cooked, adds sesame seeds, margarine, salt and sugar and boils it until the sugar has liquefied and the beans are sticky. The resulting mix is cooled and then ground into coffee powder. We tasted a small piece of the coffee mix and it was a pure caffeine hit, even too strong for Stef to enjoy.

From here we worked our way back down onto Lebuh Chulia in search of the Songkok maker. A Songkok is the hat worn by Muslim men. It takes about ninety minutes to make one hat and Stef decided to buy one to add to his hat collection. The only problem was that his head was too big so he ended up having one made to order!

Leaving India behind for a while we made our way back to China with a visit to the Cheah Kongsi Temple. An elderly man led us around pointing at different bits and pieces and uttering   a few words of explanation in English. He was very proud of their picture of Queen Elizabeth II and of the old furniture still set up like an administration office. Intricate wooden panels yielded another room with painted panels telling old tales that no one can now remember.

The temple itself was very ornate but seemed simple next to the grander Khoo Kongsi temple on the next block. This one belongs to one of the wealthiest clan families who trace their roots back to the Fujian province of China. They were a wealthy family of seventeenth century traders in Malacca and Penang. As with the Cheah Kongsi clan, the temple served as a miniature village providing food, shelter and employment to new immigrants until they had found their feet.

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Ancestor shrine in Chinatown
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Delicious roti canai

In the centre of the temple compound stands a raised theatre used for puppet displays and Chinese opera performances on festival days. At ground level below the temple is a small museum charting the Khoo Kongsi family’s migration to Penang and its development on the island. The temple itself is a riot of colours and a testament to the wealth of the clan. Across from the Khoo Kongsi stands the Malay Mosque, a bare and soulless place compared to the Chinese temples. Here no one was on hand to invite you in or to give you information and explanations about the mosque. For us it was simply a building to walk around.

We made our way back towards the main Jalan Penang wiggling our way through China Town. We stopped off at Bee Chin Heong, a huge Chinese shop, in search of a tea set we have been after since we had tea overlooking Lijiang in southern China. Whilst they had them they were not to our taste so we left empty handed. It was a strange shop, not just because of its wares, it was full of religious statues and brightly coloured stuff for house and temple, but also because we were given the evil eye all the time we were in there. Either they do not want money from Western tourists or they do not trust us to wander around without pinching something.

By the time we reached the Chowrasta pretty much all the stalls were shut and everyone had gone home. We had a quick look around but with nothing much to see headed on ourselves. By this stage walking for six hours in the Malaysian heat had well and truly got to me and I left Stef to carry on wandering while I headed for the cool of our hotel. The pool provided a welcome opportunity to rehydrate and cool down and we splashed around for a while.

In the evening we went back to the hat maker to pick up Stef’s Songkok. Helpfully it comes in a box but no doubt we will both soon be cursing it as it is definitely not something that can be squidged into the bottom of our backpacks. The corner of Penang and Cina was a great restaurant called Sri Ananda Bahwan where we had tasty but spicy southern Indian food, served up on a banana leaf and eaten in true style with the fingers of our right hand. For some reason food always tastes better when cutlery and chopsticks are not involved!