Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

My original visit to the island-state of Penang, Malaysia, was one of the most culturally rewarding experiences in all of my travels. The architecture in the UNESCO World Heritage capital city of George Town was simply stunning. Even more fascinating were the traditional artisans of George Town, who continue to make beaded shoes, Songkok hats, and sandalwood joss sticks by hand, in accordance with centuries-old methods.

Recently, I decided to return to Penang, as it is one of the easiest places in the world to apply for a Thai visa. I was looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with the narrow alleys and street vendors of George Town, but I also felt a bit of trepidation. Six years is a long time. Would this intriguing corner of Malaysia live up to my previous experience? After attending to business at the Thai Consulate, I headed out to explore George Town on foot, just as I had done in 2010.

Within minutes, I noticed big changes. Huge murals adorned the sides of buildings, concrete bollocks had been painted as cartoon characters, and interactive art installations were scattered liberally throughout the city. Along with the city’s architecture and traditional crafts, the street art in George Town has become one of the most popular reasons for visiting Penang.

Huge mural on Penang Road, titled "Awaiting Trishaw Peddler"

Huge mural on Penang Road, “Awaiting Trishaw Peddler,” is one of the original six created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic

The transformation began in 2009, when the Penang State government put out bids for an art challenge titled, “Marking George Town.” The Kuala Lumpur firm that was awarded the commission created 52 wire rod caricatures that depicted historical events and cultural stories of George Town. The dioramas were affixed to the sides of buildings in prominent locations around the city.

Read More

Front facade of an eclectic Chinese Shophouse in Penang, Malaysia. It exhibits the architectural style preferred by Southern Chinese who were brought to Malaysia to work in George Town and in the tin mines in Perak

Click on title to view photo in large format. Front facade of a Chinese Shophouse in Penang, Malaysia. This is a prime example of the “Southern Chinese Eclectic” architectural style preferred by Southern Chinese who were brought to Malaysia to work in George Town and in the tin mines in Perak. Built between 1840 and 1910, it is constructed of brick with an outer layer of lime plaster that keeps the interior cool, regardless of exterior temperatures. It features classic shophouse design elements, including timber windows with iron bars and an elongated butterfly-shaped vent above the door. This latter provided ventilation from breezes without allowing the sun’s rays to heat up the interior. Read More

Chinese Shophouse Row in George Town, on the island of Penang, Malaysia, built in the

Click on title to view photo in large format. Chinese Shophouse Row in George Town, on the island of Penang, Malaysia. The “Early Straits” eclectic architectural style of this block of buildings signals that they were likely built between 1890 and 1910. Such shophouses began to appear in the Old Town district of George Town in the 1790’s. Initially, they were built of wood by Indian and Chinese artisans who were brought in as laborers. Over time, local residents who became wealthy from trade began to embellish the properties with brick, lime plaster, clay roof tiles, decorative ceramic tiles, and even cast iron. Read More

This past October, I flew to the Philippines, to attend the Travel Blog Exchange Conference, officially known as TBEX in Manila 2016. My association with TBEX began back in 2009, when an email between six travel blogger friends became the impetus for the first get-together in Chicago. There were barely 100 people at that event. We were crammed into a too-small room in the Chicago Cultural Center that had temperamental air conditioning and non-existent wifi. But to this day, it remains the best TBEX I’ve ever attended. Travel blogging was still in its infancy and we all knew one another. We were passionate about what we did and anxious to be accepted as professional travel writers. We oozed enthusiasm and hope.

Since those early days, TBEX has become the world’s largest travel blogging conference, with events held annually in North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific. With more than 600 bloggers and travel industry representatives attending each conference, the intimacy of the inaugural event no longer exists. And though the conference purports to offer sessions for all levels of bloggers, most seminars and workshops are more suitable for newbies than for old-timers like myself.

Filipino beauty queens parade at the Opening Night ceremony at TBEX in Manila 2016

Filipino beauty queens parade at the Opening Night ceremony at TBEX in Manila 2016

There were a couple of notable exceptions in Manila, including a workshop conducted by Linda Aksomitis titled Writing and Publishing Your E-Book. Linda has been an acquisitions editor for an e-publisher and has self-published a dozen books in print and ebook format. Since I’m in the process of writing my first eBook, the full-day session was immensely helpful to me. I also heard glowing reports about the two-day workshop, Building a Better Brand, conducted by Bret Love and Mary Gabbett of Green Global Travel. Unlike other events at TBEX, which are generally included in the price of the ticket, Bret and Mary’s branding workshop cost an additional $200, but several attendees told me it was worth every penny. Read More

Brothers in Arms sculpture at the Pacific War Memorial on the island of Corregidor in Manila, Philippines. The memorial was constructed in 1968 by the United States Government to honor American and Filipino servicemen who participated in the Pacific War.

Click on title to view photo in large format. The very moving Brothers in Arms sculpture on Corregidor Island in Manila, Philippines honors the American and Filipino servicemen who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War Two. The piece stands at the entrance to the Pacific War Memorial, which was built by the U.S. government in 1968 at a cost of three million dollars. The memorial is located on “Topside,” the highest point of the island. A pathway behind the sculpture leads to Read More

Corregidor Island Lighthouse on the island of Corregidor, at the entrance to Manila harbor in the Philippines

Click on title to view photo in large format. Corregidor Island Lighthouse sits on the highest point of the island of Corregidor in the Philippines. The original lighthouse, completed in 1853, guided ships through the narrow Manila Bay passageway to the port of Manila. The lighthouse functioned continuously until World War Two. By that time, Corregidor Island had become a U.S. military installation. By order of the American Navy, its light was extinguished when Japanese invaded Read More