Thursday, April 28, 2011

Another Ordinary Day in Bukit Mertajam

Okay, I'm apologizing for the previous references to "bowel movement", but I couldn't resist the humor behind the acronym. BM - Bukit Mertajam. I'd be hip and start using neologisms like "The Jam" in reference to the city than "BM".

"Hey, Johnny, where you off to?"
"On my way to The Jam, mate."

Sounds rad, right? But anyway, that was just a thought (if a tad silly).

Bukit Mertajam is actually the capital of Central Seberang Perai in Penang Malaysia, some 300+ kilometers north of KL. Its English name is the cosmopolitan-sounding "Wellesley Province", but I doubt if the modern folks of Perai are even aware of this. Seberang Perai is a narrow hinterland opposite the island of Penang. The two constitute the Penang State, home to 815,767 people.

With Bukit Mertajam being the capital, Butterworth is its principal town. The Wellesley province was originally named after Richard Wellesley who was governor of Madras, India and governor general of Bengal. It was part of the State of Kedah but the then-sultan of Kedah ceded it to the British East India Company.

Presently, the province is home to several big malls that I saw while navigating around the place - AEON Seberang Prai City (in Bandar Perda, visible on your way to Bukit Mertajam), Sunway Carnival Mall, Megamall, Carrefour, Tesco, Giant Hypermarket. Public transportation is adequate along main routes but outside the main arterial line, like visiting Towbookong Temple along Jalan Raja Uda, it becomes a challenge.

This short sojourn in Bukit Mertajam gave me an idea of this capital. It can get alienatingly "remote" or desolate sometimes. But this is how people live - after all, we don't always ride on roller coasters and ferris wheels and planes to live our daily lives. The place looks clean enough, but on the whole, it tends to slumber under the sun.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Care for a drink?

A DVD shop... and a lot of titles.

Hock Lee

A temple at the vicinity of a small market.

A bread and pastries shop.

The street leading to Summit Hotel, BM Mall and the bus terminal. I didn't have a map. Summit Hotel was my point of reference.

Brisk business

Chinese shops and rundown houses.

Lee Dispensary

Cheap textiles at 2.20 ringgit a meter.

Taxis await for passengers and there's almost none.

Drainage and back roads.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bus Rides To and From St. Anne's Shrine - Bukit Mertajam, Penang

Imagine carrying 8 kilogram of baggage, arriving at an unfamiliar place and even before settling down to a hotel, you're already on your first itinerary an hour away from Butterworth. Adventure, right?

The long ride from KL to Butterworth was pleasant. The bus was comfortable and half full, thus I had enough liberty to move from one side to the other. It was a delight riding through Ipoh and its karst mountains. Just beautiful. But I didn't envision that we'd have so much commuter stops in between - Taiping, Kamunting, etc.

My transient destination was Butterworth, this mainland coastal town where ferry rides are taken to cross to the touristy Georgetown, the heart of Penang Island (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The bus terminal is conveniently situated just across the jetty. From the stop, I walked towards the local bus stand and inquired at the information counter. My next destination was the township of Bukit Mertajam, located 30 minutes south of Butterworth.


I like the way they use "township" instead of just "town" or "municipality" or "county". I think the terminology is also analogous to "prefecture" in Japan. It delivers a certain sophisticated ring to it, though to be honest about it, the town mostly slumbers.

I could hop into a Rapid 701 or 702 to get to Bukit Mertajam, which the locals prefer to call "BM" the way people use KL, KK, KT... But in my world, when I say "there is BM", we are ecstatic because a patient has exhibited the capacity to move his bowels. Yes, that's "bowel movement".

I found my Rapid Bus 701 and paid 2 ringgit (about PhP28). Bowel movement, please. The ride took 30 minutes until we reached BM. We parked at the back of a commercial building - BM Plaza, near Summit Hotel. They call this the Summit BM Bus Terminal. It took me quite a while to observe, before I finally asked people around for my bus to the Purim Bus Station (where I was supposed to take a taxi or a motor ride to St. Anne's Shrine). Fortunately for me, I was pointed to a craggy non-AC bus that would supposedly drop me off in front of the shrine. So I didn't have to transfer to another bus terminal. The driver was old, didn't seem to speak English, but had a sincere smile. We pulled out of the terminal and thirty minutes later, I was dropped at a deserted road facing the gated compound of St. Anne's Shrine, resplendent in immaculate white, rising from the foot of a lush hill.


After navigating the shrine and offering my intentions, I crossed the street and waited for almost 30 minutes. During this time, I hardly saw a soul walking along this seemingly remote area of town. I had shivers trying to imagine this place when darkness envelopes the land. It would be eerie.

I waited for Bus 15 or 107. Bus 15 has its terminal destination at the Summit BM Terminal. Bus 107 stops at a different terminal (probably the Purim Bus Station that my guide keeps mentioning), which is 3-4 blocks away from the Summit BM Terminal. With such luck, it was Bus 107 that came my way. I didn't want to further wait for Bus 15. Standing there alone crept me out and these huge ants were starting to bite from where I was sitting - by the roadside gutter!

But what could have been a minor misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Sure I had to walk under the sun with my luggage, but it also gave me the chance to see a little more of Bukit Mertajam. I liked that.

Upon finally reaching Summit BM Terminal, I found my Rapid Bus 702 which takes me back to Butterworth. It's slightly more expensive - at 2.70 ringgit - than the 2-ringgit on 701, but I didn't mind. Georgetown awaits.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Seberang Prai City

Summit BM Bus Terminal at the back of BM Plaza

Bus numbers assigned to ply specific roads in BM.

My bus to St. Anne's Shrine

Summit Hotel and BM Plaza, the bus terminal is found at the back of BM Plaza.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Hill at St. Anne's Shrine - Bukit Mertajam, Penang

Who isn't fascinated with a mound of land where people could test their endurance and hurdle obstacles? The idea is symbolic, and the concept is a universal precept. At St. Anne's Shrine, the objective is to see the relic of a church founded 165 years ago. There isn't really much to see but a block of rock fenced in, but that's alright. The view from the spot is nice, and the way up won't challenge your limbs all that much as well. Placing white crosses, as though they are praying stations provides a dramatic backdrop to the climb. A few more steps above that is a walled statue of St. Anne and her young daughter Mary who's carrying baby Jesus.

In biblical history, the Virgin Mary's mother, St. Anne was married to Joachim, although various theologians also mention Anne's three marriages (Joachim, Clopas, and Solomas). Mary was Clopas' daughter. Anne's cult receives little attention in the Eastern Church, but Western iconography gives Anne due recognition, more commonly in a trinitarian image of Anne holding a young Mary who's in turn carrying baby Jesus. Anne was believed to have rejoined the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt. In some representations, she was also believed to have accompanied Christ during His circumcision, but the blessed "grandmother" subsequently died during Christ's youth.

I saw a St. Anne's Church (gereja) somewhere in the slopes leading to Mount Kinabalu Park, and it's a nice thought that blessed grandmothers are given due importance too.

Up next: Getting to and away from St. Anne's Shrine.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The relic of the foundation of the first chapel, built in 1846 in honor of St. Anne, by the Rev. Fr. Adolphe Couellan, M.E.P. (1793-1866) who worked in BM (the almost-silly nickname of Bukit Mertajam) for 13 years. "Bowel movement" anyone?

Trinitarian image of St. Anne, a young Mary and the baby Jesus located just above the relic.

Prayers, intentions, offerings and several melted white candles.

Holy Water

Dataran St. Anne with, once again, the trinitarian statues of Anne, Mary and baby Jesus.

A rendering of the Pieta

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In and Around St. Anne's Shrine & New Church - Bukit Mertajam, Penang

I learned that the original church was built on top of the hill in 1846, so I can imagine the sacrifice people had to endure just to hear mass. As the population of Catholics grew, a new church was constructed at the foot of the hill. In 1888, this new structure was opened to the public, and it is this dramatic white structure that greets all visitors entering the gate of the whole shrine compound. This is officially called St. Anne's Shrine.

Every July 26, a feast day is celebrated by more than 100,000 pilgrims - Catholics from Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and the Philippines, although I have never heard of this shrine from any of the living 95 million Filipinos. Yes, not even a whisper, as much as it is mentioned like a footnote in my Lonely Planet. Miracles are believed to thrive during these pilgrimage, thus the grounds are considered "holy". And rightfully so. The area surrounding the shrine's compound is sparsely populated, and transportation (a public commuter bus) that ply the road is few.

Sometime in the 50's, a Malayan "emergency" - a term coined by the colonial government to describe the guerrilla war fought between the government and the communist's Liberation Army - designated the area as a "no-go". People stopped coming to the church. When this designation was lifted in the 60's, the church was virtually abandoned until 1977 when restoration began. A bell (one of the three) and the stained glass that is presently seen were recovered.

In 2002, a new church was constructed: St. Anne's Church (not "Shrine"). This incorporated Malay architecture, employing Minangkabau roof. This could accommodate 1,500 people, and is now the largest Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia. A park grounds was also constructed just in front of this new church, called Dataran St. Anne (St. Anne's Square) which was undergoing landscape refurbishment during my visit. Since the area is a Pilgrimage Center, two dorms have been built to accommodate pilgrims who wish to stay for a few days.

The Statues of Passion weren't constructed up until 2006, but the whole compound is a bastion of Catholic faith, an "oasis" in Muslimland where it is hard to find a Catholic Church even in its capital, KL. Just across the street is a parish center and a presbytery. Unfortunately, this "new church" (well, its 9 years old now) is mostly closed to public except during mass celebrations. But the better news is, the smaller and simpler, more intimate, and historically-rich St. Anne's Shrine is open most of the time. I like the "Shrine" better as it radiates character, and the atmosphere is pious.

The "statues" of the stations of the cross are scattered throughout the compound, but they are mostly located to the left side area of the shrine. If you head to the back, there is a flight of stairs with intermittent "white crosses" at specific areas. The effect is quite dramatic, and what's even better is the fact that it is a very easy climb up the hill.

As of October 2010, after the transfer of priests, the parish priests are Fr. Henry Rajoo and his assistant is Fr. Simon Ee.

Mass schedule: Daily mass in English from Tuesday to Friday at 7 AM. Sundays offer 4 masses: 8 AM - English, 10 AM - Mandarin, 11 AM - English (every 1st Sunday of the month), and 5 PM Tamil.

The feast day (July 26) stretches on for 10 days and includes a candlelight procession, a 9-day novena, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Now, I have visited so many Roman Catholic Churches all over Asia. It has been part of my itinerary, even in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Laos or India. I've observed that the people I eventually meet inside these churches have been warm and welcoming, which is a nice feeling when you are travel weary and worn out. It's the feeling of "brotherhood" and camaraderie. But St. Anne's Shrine was a different matter.

Since there were very few visitors (the area is too isolated to be frequented), your welcoming committee would be the security guards by the gate. And boy, they might as well mouth it out that "you are nothing but a nuisance". Which is odd! But if Christ endured crucifixion to save His people, what is a few snide facies or a hostile chortle just to offer a pray in a holy place, right? I wasn't there to befriend them, that's for sure. LOL

I liked the compound despite the charming welcoming committee. It's one of the places where you feel "God is present". And that is enough for me to invite you: Come and visit!

Next up: Transport to and from St. Anne's Shrine and the Hill!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

St. Anne's Shrine circa 1888

Recovered stained glass

These colorful garlands are the "hallmark" of Tamil Catholics, you see them in Hindu temples as well. I think it's a sweet gesture.

The 9 year old St. Anne's Church

Holy water from an angel.

St. Anne's Square right in front of St. Anne's Church