As one of the Malaysia’s most popular tourist destinations, Penang lays claim to a number of ‘best-in-the-country’ accolades, including tastiest food, most beautiful clan houses and largest Buddhist temple. It also boasts Malaysia’s smallest national park, and although that may not sound like anything to brag about, a trek through this beautiful rainforest reserve is, for many travellers, an unexpected highlight of Penang.
Occupying more than 2,500 hectares of the island’s northwest corner, the national park is a great place to experience Malaysia’s rainforest — especially if you don’t have time to go to Sarawak or Sabah, or to the jungles on the east coast of the peninsula — and it also encompasses the island’s best beaches. The secondary rainforest has been protected since 1956 and is home to towering, buttressed hardwoods, Malaysia’s fabled picher plants — though you will have to look quite hard to find them — and numerous varieties of orchid, as well as dusky leaf monkeys, longtailed macaques, flying squirrels, white bellied sea eagles and Brahminy kites.
While there is not a huge amount of wildlife to spot, the park is undeniably photogenic. Lush green forested hills plunge into the shallow turquoise waters of the Malacca Straits, and all of a sudden you see a completely different side to Penang: a beautiful tropical idyll.
The main attraction here is hiking and there are two main trails through the park, each of which emerges onto a picturesque white sandy beach. After leaving the park headquarters, a well-maintained concrete path takes you a few hundred metres to a short rope bridge, after which the route splits and the terrain becomes a little more rugged and natural.
To the right is the trail to Monkey Beach, the more popular route. There are a few short climbs, but if you’re feeling the effects of too much Penang food and want to take it easy, this is a good option. The trail follows the coast and offers glimpses of the sea through the dense jungle before emerging onto the shore itself, about 40 minutes later (less if you are a fast walker). The relative ease of access means that the beach can be quite busy, especially at weekends.
As the name of the beach suggests, the crowds are often augmented by troupes of mean macaques — they are basically harmless but won’t think twice about swiping food, so be alert. A few makeshift stalls along the beach sell overpriced snacks and water, and since the water here is relatively clean and often jellyfish-free – unlike other beaches in Penang – this is a great place to cool off in the sea after your trek. Do check the water, however, because the jellyfish stings can be very painful. If you feel that your walk to the beach was a bit too easy, you could always challenge yourself with a trek up to the lighthouse on the hill above the beach.
Back at the rope bridge, you also have the choice of turning left, towards Turtle Beach. This trail is more demanding, and almost from the very start there are steep climbs which cut over the hills to the beach on the far side. The path gets very muddy after rain and the jungle is steamy, so expect a sweaty slog and make sure you bring plenty of drinking water.
As you near the end of the trail, you will hear the waves lapping on the beach below and to your left you will see a rare meromictic lake, which contains separate layers of saltwater and freshwater. It is one of only three in Asia and another one to add to Penang’s proud list of claims although to be honest, most of the year round it looks a little underwhelming unless your visit happens to coincide with the monsoon.
The beach, however, is very attractive. Accessed via a short rope bridge, its white sands are set against a backdrop of boulders and green jungle, and it is much less crowded than Monkey Beach. There is nowhere to buy food or drink here, so bring some snacks or a picnic with you, find yourself a secluded spot, and relax. A small and slightly dreary turtle museum is at the far end of the beach, but this is worth checking out just in case there are any recently-hatched babies in the tanks.
There are two other main things to do at the national park. In January 2013, the canopy walkway was re-opened after a major overhaul, and although there are no doubt higher and longer ones in Malaysia – sadly, Penang can’t claim either of these accolades – it is still worth the effort. Suspended 15 metres above the forest floor, without the use of nails, screws or bolts, this rope and wood walkway offers a new perspective of the jungle. The entrance to the walkway is on a clearly marked path which joins the two main trails, so is only a short detour off whichever route you choose. Tickets must be bought at the park headquarters and cost 5/3 ringgit for adults/children, and note that it is closed on Fridays.
Finally, it is also possible to bypass the jungle and take a boat between the park headquarters and either of the two beaches. It seems a bit of a shame to miss out entirely on the trek, so many people opt to walk one way and then get the boat to bring them back, which is a suitable reward for all that hard walking. It also means you can appreciate the beauty of the national park from a different vantage point, and is also the best way of seeing the park’s white bellied sea eagles surfing the air currents above and retiring to their huge treetop nests.
The cost of hiring a whole boat back from Monkey Beach is 70 ringgit one way, and from Turtle Beach you should expect to pay 100 ringgit. If business is slow you can often bargain, however, and you can bring your own costs down by sharing with other people, as passenger capacity is between ten and twelve people. You can book boats from the friendly operators just outside the gates to the park, but remember to take their names and phone numbers, as well as a description of the boat, so that you can make contact when you are ready to come back from the beach.
Entrance to the national park is entirely free and the only requirement is that you register your names and passport numbers at the park headquarters before you enter. Bus routes 101 and 102 take you to the terminus at Teluk Bahang, from which you can walk to the park gates.
There are a number of cafes in Teluk Bahang if you need refreshments after your jungle adventure, and if you haven’t yet exerted enough energy you could always go to the nearby eco-friendly Escape theme park for outward bound challenges and assault courses.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 29th August, 2014.