Monday, October 13, 2008

Fort Cornwallis Lighhouse - Penang's Hidden Historical Gem

The 19th century Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse is one of the best hidden colonial gems in Penang’s UNESCO heritage enclave.

Many visitors often give it a miss although it is just a stone throw away from the iconic British fortress of the same name. Penang tourism players fare no better and they too overlook the lighthouse potential and its historical importance to Penang’s maritime role.

The British built the lighthouse in 1882 when harbour traffic began to grow for a prosperous Penang. Now in its advance age, the historic lighthouse no longer served to warn ships approaching the Penang cape.

The lighthouse is now manned by Jabatan Laut, Malaysia’s Maritime Authority, and offers fascinating opportunity to acquaint oneself with a bygone maritime era. Admission is free and it is accessible from a small northern entrance of the historical complex.

Walk inside the lighthouse, and you will learn why it is structurally one of its kinds in this country. Most lighthouses in the Malay archipelagos consist traditionally of a lone silo structure i.e. Tanjung Tuan(1880), fitted with warning beacons on the top.

Not Fort Cornwallis Lighthouse.

It has a white coated light tower which sits on a huge steel frame and next to it, a 21-meter T-shaped mast. Together, they fill the entire landscape and probe the curious about the fate of this ex-guardian of the narrow Penang Strait.

For most visitors, the slow climb, about 15 minutes, to the top of the claustrophobic watch tower and the warning beacon is undoubtedly the highlight of the visit.

Walking up on the steel staircase might prove daunting for the vertical challenged. A wrong step could spell disaster to anyone’s holiday and when the steps are particularly slippery after a drizzle. Parents with small children are best cautioned against taking the challenge.

However the panoramic view at the tower is worth the effort. Visitors will be rewarded with an all-round perspective of the city, strait and the mainland.

In the distance, the full views of multi-coloured Penang ferries come unfold. Catch also cargo laden vessels berthing to take Penang goods to the world. Stretch your viewing canvas and the iconic Penang Bridge fills the background.

On the ground level, a small chamber houses a delightful mini museum and showcases lighthouse artefacts like communication equipments and giant bulbs used before GPS and satellite controlled gadgetries made them obsolete.

Penang State should work on this oversight and promote the lighthouse as a full fledge tourist attraction but more urgently, accord and preserve it with a heritage status.

Imjingak The Fascinating Korean War Heritage Site

Imjingak Tourist Resort with its 4-storey metallic pavilion and the semi arch observation platform is perfectly located to view the iconic Bridge of Freedom. About 13,000 Allied prisoners-of-war made their final desperate dash for freedom across this wooden bridge at the closing stage of the brutal Korean War in 1953.

Since the new millennium, South Korean authority keen on reunification with its communist North brethrens has embarked on making Imjingak a heritage site. The venue makes an ideal living museum to prepare the uninitiated on the issues confronting the Korean dilemma.

Imjingak is even adeptly lauded by tourist brochures as the must-see venue to witness the only divided country in the world!

Getting to Imjingak is easy and travelers have a choice of car, bus or rail, and it is merely an hour drive away from Seoul.

Tourists will be greeted by its impressive Visitor Center which overlooks the heavily fortified banks of Imjin River and beyond the reclusive North Korea.

Unfortunately, most tour guides would want you to believe that Imjingak sits on the world’s most volatile border in modern history but soldiers guarding on the banks of the Imjin River are mainly South Korean.

Nevertheless, the much feared and trigger-happy North Koreans are in fact positioned a further seven km north from Imjingak.
Needless to say, South Korean military fearing a potential large scale strike from its Red neighbors, has designated defence lines in by placing barbed wires and army lookout posts on the edges of the Civilian Passage Restricted Line (CPRL).

Thus, visitors often get the false impression that South Korea ends at Imjingak, and the Imjin River the natural border between these two hostile neighbors.

A quick check on the maps will reveal that the fences at Imjingak are actually the Southern CPRL, with a heavily guarded buffer zone lining parallel to the Northern CPRL inside North Korea territory.
There is also the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) central to the buffer zone and together they cut the Peninsula into halves.

During my visit to see first-hand the cold war frontier in late September 2008, it got off to an unexpected start when we were stopped in our car by heavily armed South Korean personnel and our guide informed us that the army is conducting a drill to detonate two nearby road tunnels leading to the north border. (Naturally no photos were taken for fear of antagonizing the M-16 guys)

The Military Demarcation Line is the de facto border agreed by these two warring factions, amid reluctantly, and explains why Korea is also home to 30,000 plus American infantrymen.

The entire stretch of land within the CPRL is a no-man territory, but is more popularly known as Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. Interestingly, only foreigners holding valid passports are allowed near the epic center of DMZ or Panmunjum.

Here, one is only a breath away from North Korean guards smacking in their customary military attire from the Soviet era.
Their Southern counterparts have their peculiarity too. Dark sunglasses and arms folded in karate pose are their choice of instilling fear and awe.
Panmunjum is however, a no-go for Korean nationals. The furthermost point Koreans are allowed to go near their Northern neighbors is the border town of Dorasan.

Today, tourists take the scheduled Korail trains on the reconstructed 4 kilometer long Gyeongui Line to Dorasan Station from Imjingak Station (Train fare - KW2,000 / US$2 return).

For many years, the railway line was the main steel artery for intra Korea travel but the war cut it short at Imjingak.

At Dorasan, one can spy with the coin operated binoculars (KW700) on the North Korean industrial city of Gaeseong. Not to be missed is the guided tour inside the 3rd Tunnel, a must for those who doubt North Korean aggressive ambition.

A rusty steam locomotive outside the Imjingak mini museum casts a vivid reminder of the once extensive railway networks connecting all corners of the Korean Peninsula prior to the devastating war.

Take a few steps towards the outdoor exhibition behind the museum, more war relics and the scales of battles fought greet you – The Sherman that pounded on the North Korean tanks or perhaps you may intrigued by the Sabres that triumphed over the MiGs in the Korean skies.
Even the most bewildered visitor is unlikely to escape the highly charged atmosphere between both sides at the border.
A sense of heightened tension prevails here although on the surface everyone goes on with his routine.
However, you can feel and understand the fragility of tranquility in these areas. You can then appreciate why no one in his right mind is willing to gamble away the peaceful existence or risk provoking enemies who have no qualms to unleash the perils of Cold War on all.
My visit to Imjingak has left me with an overwhelming realization of this long lasting border conflict and how all aspects of border life are teeming with military alertness.

While border areas may have the notion that human life is cheap, Imjingak also provides the venue for the most enduring emotional expressions.
Imjingak is where Korean families torn by the war come on an annual pilgrimage to celebrate Chuseok - Korean's Thanksgiving.
It is here they express their longing for their last remaining relatives living across the barbed wires.
Interestingly, besides the ruined railway bridge and antiqued military displays, the visit to Imjingak offers visitors an everlasting view on the terrible human cost brought by ideological conflicts.