While most of Penang’s attractions are concentrated in the narrow, built-up strip of coastal belt on the eastern and northern coasts, there is a whole other side of the island to explore. Those who dare to venture off the beaten tourist track will be rewarded with an altogether more relaxed experience of Penang, and the chance to see what is arguably one of its very best views, from the top of Bukit Genting.
Follow the coast round from Batu Ferringhi, through Teluk Bahang in the northwest and then up over the winding pass to the west coast, and you will see rural Penang in all its glory. The concrete highrise quickly makes way to thick jungles, picturesque paddy and bountiful coconut and durian plantations, as you approach the laidback market town of Balik Pulau.
However, for the best views, you need to head further south on the P16 road, turn inland to the village of Genting and then take the P6 pass up into the hills. As you approach the highest point of the road, look out for a sign on the right, which directs you even higher up a steep concrete track to the top of Bukit Genting, a deeply weird – yet unexpectedly rewarding — attraction.
Built with the local tourist market in mind, you need to look past the bizarre array of sculptures – including fibreglass Bambi-like antelope, slightly disturbing snake and scorpion carvings, topiary, wirework elephants, giant chickens, larger-than-life wire bird cages containing monstrous wire budgies — and gaze out instead at the views. From the restaurant deck, perched perilously over the edge of the hill, you will see a sweeping panorama of the island’s central rainforest-clad hills, as well as its lowland plains on the west coast, and far out to sea.
To be fair, the gardens surrounding the restaurant are pretty and the sculptures are definitely interesting, perhaps even amusing, so you could do much worse than take some time to look around. Check out the viewing platforms further down the hill, built — somewhat incongruously — to resemble boats. The place feels a little rundown, but it is obvious that an enormous amount of love, care and imagination went into its construction.
Other than the views, this is also a great place to come and experience a Penang sunset, and you can sit with a beer in hand, listen to the melodic calls to prayer coming from the mosques on the plains below and have an uninterrupted view of the sun going down over the sea.
The restaurant serves some very passable Thai and Malay food, including snacks such as fishcakes, spring rolls, balacan chicken (battered and deep fried) and pandan chicken (marinated, wrapped in a pandan leaf and grilled) from 1.80 ringgit per serving. If you want to extend to a full dinner, you can pick up green and red chicken curries, prawn tom yam soup and claypot-cooked seafood, plus a whole load of other Thai staples, from 12 ringgit for a small, one-person serving (medium servings will feed two and start at 18 ringgit, while large servings are priced from 24 ringgit and feed four). Bottled beers cost 9 ringgit and soft drinks are a reasonable 2.50 ringgit a can. This is not gourmet dining, by any stretch of the imagination, and you can find better food in Georgetown, but the views are unbeatable.
Bukit Genting is a bit out of the way and it’s not possible to get there on public transport, which means hiring either a car or moped in Georgetown. For mopeds, head to HS Sam Book Store (473 Lebuh Chulia; T: 04 262 2705) for the best daily rates, and for cars, check out SD Easy Rent-a-Car. This really is the best way to experience all Penang has to offer, and you could also take advantage of your own transport to see other attractions en route, including the Butterfly Farm, Tropical Spice Garden, Escape theme park or the National Park.