Penang's very own Arcadia in the clouds – Penang Hill
Penang Hill is the state's foremost hill resort. Although it was originally called Flagstaff Hill, the locals have always affectionately referred to it as Penang Hill or Bukit Bendera. At about 830 metres (2,750 feet) from sea level, the temperature on the hilltop is considerably cooler than the nether lands. On regular weekdays, the hill is pretty quiet and can serve as a recuperative getaway, far from the madding crowd and city heat.
The name change from Penang Hill to Bukit Bendera (I don't quite remember when exactly) actually takes it back to the early days of Penang Hill, when a flag fluttering from a flagstaff or flagpole on Bel Retiro, the home of Penang's governor at the time, was used as a beacon, or signal 'transmitter' to Fort Cornwallis.
A quick gallop through history
According to history books, it was Francis Light who first plotted a pack-horse track to Penang Hill from the Botanic Gardens waterfall way back in 1788. During the 19th century, British colonials built bungalows on the hill for private use. Even during the early part of the 20th century, the bungalows on higher ground were home to planters and administrators while the rich Chinese towkays built theirs, which were no less grandiose, on the way up the hill.
Before the completion of the funicular railway, those wanting to travel up Penang Hill had to do so by being seated in a sedan chair (one passenger per chair) held aloft by six bearers. Each bearer was paid 46 cents per trip.
The first attempt at constructing a railway began in 1897, and construction was completed only in 1906. Service was launched in 1923. On 4 December 1979, four modern Swiss-made coaches replaced the slow and rickety old ones. The new coaches travel at an average rate of 1.5 metres per second, and takes about 25 minutes or so to travel along the length of the railway track, which is 2007 metres long. The height at the apex is 701 metres above sea level. In the picture on the right, the new coach is making its maiden journey up while the old one is heading back to the lower station – for the last time.
Although common in Europe and Japan, the funicular railway in Penang is reputedly one-of-a-kind in Southeast Asia.
An actual specimen of the old coach now sits outside the Penang Museum, and serves as a souvenir shop owned by the Penang Heritage Trust. Some of the original houses still stand. These include the Bel Retiro, Convalescent, Grace Dieu and Fairmont.
Getting to Penang Hill
There are several ways you can get up to Penang Hill. The most common is by the over 80 year-old funicular railway. If you are willing to stand in a crowded compartment for about approximately 30 minutes (weekends and public holidays are especially jam packed) RM4 buys you a return ticket (check the railway schedule at the end of the article). You can also hire a car to drive you up but costs can be pretty steep.
But going up Penang Hill by train or car is a little like driving on the highways because you miss the glorious sights and the sense of adventure. To make your trip to Penang Hill truly worthwhile, the way to go is to get on your feet and hike up. There are several ways of doing this and I am highlighting five of them.
Tips for the hiker: Wear comfortable shoes, sandals or go barefoot. Wear polyester (or other non-absorbent material) t-shirts. Bring along at least 500ml of drinking water per person, a torchlight and towel. Depending on the weather, the the best times to hike are either early morning (6am) or late afternoon (from 4pm). If you feel faint, stop and sit down. The jeep track and hiking trails to and from Penang Hill are not lighted, so start your descent before 6.30pm if you are afraid of the dark!
Selected hiking trails to Penang Hill
The jeep track next to the Botanic Gardens (very tiring, takes about 45 minutes or so). Take a break at '48' (a playground) and '84' (a rest stop). The latter is more or less the halfway mark between 'hill and dale', and serves free cups of hot coffee and Chinese tea and biscuits. 84 opens during late afternoon and closes at 7pm. After you've had your coffee, leave a little something in the collection box which will go towards the 'operating costs' of 84.
The stepped walk in the Botanic Gardens will take you to 48. If you're up to it, you can do some chin-ups on the monkey bars at the playground. If not, simply massage your feet on the reflexology path. After resting, you make your way to 84 and then up to Penang Hill. The stepped climb can be exhausting for some people but I've seen young and old attempting it with gusto.
Hye Keat Estate in Air Itam – a rather gentle slope takes you to 84 while walking through fruit and vegetable farms. One path takes you to 84 whilst another which branches off from Hye Keat takes you to the Middle Station. The breathtaking view of Penang's southside from a Chinese temple, just before the Middle Station, is worth all the sweat and muscle cramps. From the Middle Station, hitch a free ride to the top of Penang Hill or down to Air Itam.
Via the Tiger Hill trail – a very punishing 8km uphill hike starting from Air Itam (near the Kek Lok Si) to the Air Itam Dam, from there towards Tiger Hill and then finally exiting at Summit Road. A 30-minute walk from this point takes you to Penang Hill's 'city centre'. If your legs haven't turned to jelly by now, do try the Canopy Walk (it's free). I tried this trail once by myself and it took me about five hours (!) with numerous rests in between. The sights are fabulous – a mist covered valley, giant bamboo trees, crystal cool ponds, a farm, wild dogs, a derelict hut, lots of fishes swimming in the streams and a path with an 'arch' formed by huge wild ginger plants growing on both sides, their tips meeting in the middle. You have to try this hike at least once in your life.
Moon Gate at Waterfall Road, about five minutes away from the Botanic Garden entrance. According to the excellent Selected Nature Trails of Penang*, this 5km trail takes you to Bukit Bendana and 84.
* This 2nd edition of this guide book covers 18 hiking trails on the island. The descriptions are pretty detailed and accompanied by informative maps.
Places to stop by on Penang Hill
Most hill resorts in Malaysia are either overdeveloped or run the risk of future ruination brought on by too much change to the ecosystem and ambience. Bukit Bendera has more or less, and one can breath a sigh of relief, retained its charm and peacefulness after more than two centuries of building and occupation. Be that as it may, Bukit Bendera isn't unique among hill resorts in Malaysia. Bukit Larut (formerly Maxwell's Hill) in Taiping also boasts several antiquated bungalows and rest houses. The air is equally cool and the surroundings unspoilt. Life on Bukit Larut is quiet and peaceful.
But back to Penang. A common complaint among a few Penangites and out-of-towners is that there is nothing much to do on the hill. They say that there is no entertainment or fun things to do up there. But anyone who has spent enough time on Bukit Bendera will tell you that such complaints and opinions are unfounded and even a little misleading. Here's why...
After alighting from the train at the Upper Station, make your way towards the following spots:
ONE: At the apex of the hill near to the train station the focus is on enhancing visitors experience, maximising the stunning views and resolving space needs. Three viewing decks with gardens at varying heights provide changing panoramic vistas while two additional platforms at the lower level allow rest under natural forest shading. The Skyway will allow breathtaking 360° views while fulfilling all accessibility needs.
TWO: The Habitat at Penang Hill is an ecotourism site. It is the first of its kind in Malaysiais and is an interesting place to visit. When you walk through the gates of The Habitat you enter an attraction of nature and natural beauty. Its nature trail allows you to appreciate the rainforests and the wildlife that calls them home. Other attractions within the park include the Canopy Walk, Tree Top Walk, Fern Garden, Butterfly Bank, Yellow and Purple Gardens, Ginger Grove and Fragrant Garden
THREE: The bird sanctuary at the Bellevue Hotel grounds. Take your time, walk slowly and study the habits and plumage of each and every bird.
FOUR: While you are at the Bellevue, grab a seat in the garden and order a cool drink and some light snacks. Sip slowly while you savour the panoramic view of George Town, Tanjung Bungah and the mainland. The Bellevue also serves food and snacks at a reasonable price so you can have your lunch here as well. Try the steamboat served during lunch and dinner. Bring along a good book or good company and spend at least two hours here.
Another interesting option for lunch, tea or dinner is at David Brown's. They offer a wide variety of hors d’oeuvers, steaks, chops, fresh puddings, pies and traditional roasts plus a selection of vegetarian food. Outside, David Brown’s allows a spectacular view of every significant landmark on the Pearl of the Orient. Dine al fresco and enjoy the well-manicured garden with an elegant pond stretching across the garden, sprinkled with lilies overlooking the city below.
FIVE: After lunch, go for a little stroll along Jalan Sultan Yahya Petra. Stop for 15 to 30 minutes at the overlook, breathe in scent of fresh highland air, admire the views and listen to the chirpings of birds and insects. Then continue walking. Note the houses, gardens and landscaping on both sides of the road. Study their shapes, shadows and colours. Note the diversity of elements that create contrasts between extremes – a charming little cottage here, a palatial bungalow over there and a huge rampart surrounding a manor down below. No two houses are quite the same. The several times I have been here gave me the impression that the denizens of Bukit Bendera are a private lot. The gates are often left opened, but you seldom see the occupants up and around or pottering in the garden. You're more likely to see the hired help or the guard dog. I am somewhat reminded of the houses I saw in Geneva, Switzerland, where you seldom, if ever, got a glimpse of the occupants. The walk up and down this road will take you at least two hours minimum. According to the Penang Hill leaflet, Summit Road sight seeing bus and jeep tours are available and tickets are available at the Upper Station booking office.
SIX: It's time for tea and you are spoilt for choice! Where to go? What to eat? How about the Tea Kiosk for some Hakka styled beehoon? Or the food court for some Malay style fried mee? And then some ice kacang afterwards to wash it all down. Beer is available from the Chinese vendors. Take your time and eat slowly because no one will rush you. You will spend around 30 minutes to an hour here just eating. After your meal, check out the touristy souvenirs on sale at the food court.
SEVEN: Monkey Cup Garden is located about 1.5 km from Penang Hill police station along Jalan Tuanku Yahya Petra, towards Tiger Hill and Western Hill. You may take a buggy ride or simply take a walk to enjoy the cool atmosphere. The garden has a collection of various Nephentes (Monkey Cup) species cultivated in a beautifully designed mossy garden at the right environment. There are original as well as hybrid species from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Phillipines, Brazil, America and Madagascar among others.
EIGHT: Some six hours or more have passed and you still haven't seen the Indian Temple and Mosque which is situated on a hillock, and built side by side. Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan, or better known as the Penang Hill Hindu Temple, is one of the oldest Hindu temples in Penang. It started off in the 1800's as a small shrine to the Hindu deity Murugan – the deity associated with Thaipusam – by the Indian sepoys and sedan chair carriers, and is located at a mount within Penang Hill called Gun Hill. Penang Hill Mosque or Masjid Bukit Bendera is the only mosque on Penang Hill. The mosque is located at a short distance from the Penang Hill Hindu Temple. If you have the time, stroll by for a visit. Notice how even on a hilltop, two vastly different religions can co-exist peacefully.
When you come back next time, explore all the little trails and byways found throughout the hilltop. Conduct a little nature survey – quietly observe the wildlife and plants that are found on the hill. Bring along a sketch pad and crayons. A portable telescope could provide hours of fun.
If you want to hold a conference in Penang, why not at the Railway Bungalow on Penang Hill? The building underwent renovation and complete refurbishment in 2001. It is equipped with audio-visual facilities and can accommodate from 30 to 50 participants. Get further details from the Hill Railway Station.
So who said that there is nothing to do on Bukit Bendera? Leave your cares and worries at home and get packing for a hilltop excursion.
Written by Raja Abdul Razak.
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved.
Updated August 2017