Trekking, wildlife and beaches
Penang 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, Penang 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 some of the island’s best beaches.
The secondary rainforest has been protected since 1956 and is home to towering, buttressed hardwoods, Malaysia’s fabled pitcher plants—though you will have to look quite hard to find them—and numerous varieties of orchids, as well as dusky leaf monkeys, longtailed macaques, flying squirrels, monitor lizards, 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. The main attraction here is hiking with two main trails through the park, each of which emerges at a picturesque sandy beach.
After leaving the park headquarters, a well-maintained concrete path takes you a few hundred metres to a short wooden suspension bridge, after which the route splits and the terrain becomes a lot more rugged and natural. Note the quality of the trails can be variable in places—a Travelfish regular was very badly injured and hospitalised after a fall here—watch your step!
To the right is the trail to Monkey Beach (Teluk Duyung), the more popular route where there are... monkeys (although the local name translates to Mermaid Bay, so you never know what you may find), and to the left a somewhat more arduous trail to Turtle Beach (Pantai Kerachut) where there are... turtles.
If you’re feeling the effects of too much Penang food and want to take it easy, Monkey Beach is a good option. The 3.4 kilometre trail follows the coast with a few short climbs and offers glimpses of the sea through the dense jungle before emerging about one hour later (less if you are a fast walker) onto the shore itself. The relative ease of access (most folk skip the trek and go by boat) means that the beach can be quite busy, especially at weekends.
As the name suggests, the crowds are often augmented by troupes of mean and aggressive macaques who won’t think twice about swiping food, so be alert. Scores of makeshift stalls along the beach sell overpriced snacks, water, banana boat rides, “camping sites” (a tent on the beach among the crowds), ATV “experiences” and boat trips. The water here is a little cloudy but relatively clean and often jellyfish-free—unlike other beaches in Penang—and makes 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 (pop a small bottle of vinegar in your bag just in case, or don’t swim).
If you feel that your walk to the beach was a bit too easy, you could always challenge yourself with a trek up the steep path to the Muka Head lighthouse on the hill above the beach, a three kilometre round trip from Monkey Beach.
The trail to Turtle Beach is about the same length as the trail to Monkey Beach, but more demanding so allow one-and-a-half hours each way at an average pace. 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 a small handful 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 attractive, accessed via a short wooden suspension bridge, its golden 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. Signs along the beach warn that swimming is prohibited due to high waves, a steep sloping seabed and jellyfish (and you may disturb the turtles anyway). Wander to the far end of the beach where you’ll find a turtle conservation project with a small and slightly dreary educational display, but worth checking out just in case there are any recently hatched babies or rescued adults in the tanks (no touching the turtles!), open daily 10:00—16:30 and entry is free.
From Turtle Beach the trail continues a further one-and-a-half kilometres to Teluk Kampi, the national park’s longest stretch of sand, although this trail was closed at the time of research. Maps of the area mark a trek to a canopy walk, but it is also closed indefinitely.
If you’re not up to trekking, it’s 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 50 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 up to ten people. There are many operators waiting for your business on Monkey Beach, but if you plan on visiting Turtle Beach it’s best to prearrange a pickup. 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. If you’d prefer to walk with a guide, they can also be hired at the same area as the boats. Expect to pay around 250 ringgit for four hours. Camping is possible at designated campsites, but you must be preregister with the park and be accompanied by a registered park guide (one guide per ten campers).
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 Escape theme park for outward bound challenges and assault courses and if you missed out on seeing any wildlife, make a stop at Entopia (formally Penang Butterfly Farm), although most of the critters are from the insect world. If you’d like to discover a little more about some of the plants you may have seen, take a tour at Tropical Spice Garden on the road back to Georgetown.
Address: Jalan Hassan Abbas, Teluk Bahang
T: (0488) 13 530; (0488) 13 500;
Coordinates (for GPS): 100º11'33.24" E, 5º27'5.98" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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