Escape the heat
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 (locally Bukit Bendera)—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.
Three options will get you to the top: Hardy walkers can follow the original jungle horse track created by Francis Light, which starts in the Botanical Gardens and climbs steadily—and at times, steeply—to the summit of the hill. 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, or better still take one of the alternative routes up and walk this way down. If you plan to walk, take plenty of water, dress appropriately for the jungle and beware of snakes.
A jeep service operates from the entrance of the Botanical Gardens for 160 ringgit for up to four passengers. Don’t try calling a regular taxi as we did, as it’s a private road and they simply can’t make it up the steep slopes anyway. 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. 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. For foreign tourists, single fare is 15 ringgit, and return 30 ringgit for adults; 15 ringgit for students with a valid card (return only—no one way rate) and five ringgit for kids aged four to six. Disabled passengers are free.
Waiting time can be horrendously long, and if you are short on time, a fast lane ticket will get you to the front of the queue for 45 ringgit one way or 60 ringgit return. Malaysian residents pay considerably less. The funicular operates daily 06:30 to 23:00, with last ticket sales at 22:30. The final train leaves from the top station. Note that the train is occasionally closed for maintenance.
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. 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 spot with both local and foreign tourists, and the tacky museums and attractions, 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. A number of smaller trails ramble around the hill leading to lower stations and you could easily fill a few hours exploring and looking out for the local flora and fauna.
If you don’t feel like walking, hire an electric buggy from the junction complete with driver for 30 ringgit for a 20 minute tour. On the other hand, if the natural environment is more to your fancy, continue straight at the junction to visit the excellent attraction, The Habitat with guided nature trails, a treetop viewing platform and soon to open canopy walks. Entry fee is pricey at 50 ringgit for adults and 30 ringgit for kids and seniors, but we were very impressed by the knowledgeable guides and the facility in general, and you might be lucky to spot some of the resident dusky leaf monkeys.
The Habitat’s trial meanders for 1.6 kilometres, and from the exit a further 900 metres along the road will lead you to Monkey Cup, which is also worth checking out. This small garden is dedicated to the famous carnivorous pitcher plants (Nepenthes) that are found throughout Malaysia’s jungles, as well as other insect-guzzling plant species, including Venus fly traps. We had no idea there is such variety—fat ones, skinny ones, long ones and tiny ones, more than 100 species! Informative guides add to the experience. Stop for a break in their garden cafe before you take advantage of the free shuttle service back to the funicular station. Monkey Cup entrance is 12 ringgit per person.
Back towards the funicular railway a mosque, Hindu temple and a British cannon share a small park with views over the jungle to the other side of the island, and the food court below offers a good selection of Malay and Chinese dishes, as well as drinks and ice creams. If you would rather continue your tour in a colonial manner, David Brown’s restaurant offers a tranquil escape from the crowds set in an old colonial bungalow, with beautiful gardens and unparalleled views over Georgetown. Prices are not cheap, with a Devonshire tea at 24 ringgit (plus tax) or go the full high tea for 96 ringgit (plus tax) for two, but the ambience and the view make it worth the splurge.
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. If you haven’t filled up on tea and cakes, stop by Air Itam market between the two, for a bowl of the famous laksa.
Rapid Buses 204, will take you to near the funicular station or a Grab car costs around 10-15 ringgit and takes about 30 minutes. Both Bukit Bendara station and Kek Lok Si are stops on Penang’s Hop-on Hop-off tourist bus route.
Bukit Bendera Funicular: Jalan Stesen Bukit Bendera, Air Itam; T: (0482) 88 880; http://www.penanghill.gov.my/; Mo–Su: 06:30–23:00
David Brown’s Restaurant and Tea Terraces: Strawberry Hill, Bukit Bendera; T: (0482) 88 337; http://www.penanghillco.com.my; Mo–Su: 11:00–22:00
Monkey Cup: Jalan Tuanku Yahya Petra, Bukit Bendera; T: (0124) 28 9585; https://www.facebook.com/monkeycup.pghill/; Mo–Su: 09:00–18:00
The Habitat: Bukit Bendera; T: (0482) 67 677; http://thehabitat.my/home/; Th–Tu: 09:30–18:00
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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