Although much of Georgetown is predominantly Chinese in character, the settlement was actually founded by the British, back in 1786. Remnants of Penang’s colonial heritage are still to be found all over town, from the Palladian splendour of St. George’s Church to the archetypically English Eastern & Oriental Hotel, but nowhere is the British influence stronger than on Penang Hill.
If the narrow streets of Georgetown and the stifling tropical heat are simply getting too much, then you can follow in the footsteps of the nineteenth-century colonial Brits and seek sanctuary in the cooler climes of Penang’s very own hill station.
The centre of the island is dominated by jungle-clad hills, and at 821 metres above sea level, the atmosphere is pleasantly temperate. Penang Hill – which actually refers to a collection of peaks – also offers excellent panoramas of Georgetown and the surrounding hills, as well as views of Penang Bridge and the mainland. Take some time to walk to all the viewpoints, and you will realise that Penang’s concrete conurbation really only occupies a fraction of what is otherwise a very beautiful, green island.
There are two options to get to the top. Hardy walkers can follow the jungle trail, which starts in the Botanical Gardens (Waterfall Road). It climbs steadily – and at times, steeply – to the summit of the hill and the walk can get pretty steamy, especially in the middle of the day, so it is probably best to start early to avoid the worst of the heat.
Alternatively, you can travel in the relative luxury of an air-conditioned funicular railway carriage, which sets out from the base station at Air Itam (Jalan Stesen Bukit Bendera; T: (04) 828 8861). Originally built in 1924, the tracks and rolling stock were completely replaced in 2011. The modern, hi-tech train lacks some of the character of the traditional red-and-white carriages, but the ride to the top, which cuts an astonishingly steep path through the surrounding jungle, is good fun all the same.
The best views are from the ‘bottom’ of the train, although don’t worry if you can’t get a seat there – you will have as much time as you need to take in the more impressive views from the top. Tickets for foreign tourists are 30/15 ringgit (adults/children) return, although locals and foreign residents pay 8/4 ringgit (adults/children) return, and trains run regularly between 06:30 and 22:00.
To be able to fully appreciate Penang Hill, you need to see past – and in some cases, battle your way through – the mass-tourist facilities. This is a popular attraction with both local and foreign tourists, and the gleaming chrome handrails, outdoor auditorium, touristy shops and food court may not strike you as either particularly atmospheric or colonial. It is also sad that the original stone-constructed station is now pretty much obscured by unsympathetic modern additions.
However, if you persevere and follow the road up past the junction and round to the left, you will soon leave the crowds behind and find yourself in what is, to all intents and purposes, an English village. The road winds past stone cottages and colonial bungalows, which sit behind trellised arches and well manicured gardens. There is even an original Victorian red-pillar postbox to complete the ‘olde-worlde’ picture.
If you don’t feel like walking, you can hire an electric buggy, complete with driver, for 30 ringgit. These leave from the junction just next to the outdoor auditorium and tours take around fifteen to twenty minutes. Whether you walk or take a buggy, you can go as far as the Air Force base, where the road starts to descend towards the Botanical Gardens.
Near the Air Force base, it is worth checking out the Monkey Cup, a small garden dedicated to the famous pitcher plants that are found throughout Malaysia’s jungles, as well as other carnivorous plant species, including Venus fly traps. Entrance is 10 ringgit per person, and there is a small shop as well as some display and information boards. Before you are tempted to buy one of these insect-guzzlers, however, note that there are heavy fines for trying to take plants out of the country.
Back towards the funicular railway, up the hill from the road junction, is an attractive Hindu temple with views over the jungle to the other side of the island. Just nearby is a small ‘bird park’, although the aviaries are cruelly small and the whole place is quite upsetting, so you may prefer to avoid it. The next-door Bellevue Hotel has definitely seen better days but has a pleasant enough terrace cafe with great views over Georgetown.
The outdoor auditorium at the road junction hosts performers and entertainers at weekends and on public holidays. In the same complex, you can also check out the slightly incongruous Owl Museum, which is home to a collection of owl crafts and ornaments – though there are no real birds here. The food court below offers a good selection of Malay and Chinese dishes, as well as drinks and ice creams.
If you would rather skip the tourist trap and continue your tour of colonial Penang, David Brown’s restaurant (Strawberry Hill; T: (04) 828 8337) offers a tranquil escape from the crowds. Set in an old colonial bungalow, with beautiful gardens and unparalleled views over Georgetown, this recreates colonial living at its best. A tea set with scones, jam and cream, is not cheap at 24 ringgit per person, but the ambience and the view make it worth the splurge.
The restaurant also serves a good selection of sandwiches and soups, as well as traditional English fare, including roasts with Yorkshire pudding and Beef Wellington. It is one of Penang’s more expensive restaurants, with main courses from 40 ringgit, so this is definitely a treat rather than a quick snack-stop. Alternatively, you could try the cafe-bar on the decking below the main bungalow, for more affordable cakes, coffees and beers.
If you have time when you get back to the base station, it makes sense to combine your trip up Penang Hill with a visit to the nearby Kek Lok Si temple. This is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and the complex is an impressive riot of colour, overlooked by a huge statue of the Goddess of Mercy, which sits on the hillside above.