Ever since I had taken the funicular train up Penang Hill, I had harboured the ambition to hike my way to the top. On a recent visit, that’s what I did.
The location of pre-independance Malaya’s first hill resort, Penang Hill is not one hill but a collection of peaks, of which the off-limits Western Hill is, at 833 meters the island’s highest point.
At 783 meters, Bukit Bendera or Flagstaff Hill is 50 meters lower than that, and as one of Penang’s most popular tourist attractions, you’d think getting there would be a nothing more than a leisure hike. But you’d be wrong.
Despite good intentions, that Saturday morning I was running late. By the time I had bagged a taxi, which were hard to come by, and arrived at Moon Gate near the Botanical Gardens, I was 30 minutes behind schedule and RM18 poorer.
Moon Gate, once the grand entrance to the home of Penang millionaire Cheah Chen Eok, is where the trail starts, innocuously enough, along a pleasant forest track with the sounds of a burbling sound emanating nearby.
Then the initiation begins – a half an hour of stairs. Although my calves and thighs burned, it was my heart and lungs protesting the most. It was also pretty hot. This part of the track is exposed and the sea air made it humid. Within minutes I was drenched.
A short, flat but wide section offered respite and then … the trail’s first rest stop, Point 5. A large open area with a viewing point (but not much view) there were stalls (closed), an outdoor gym used by local fitness enthusiasts, and toilets. Past this, the stairs melted away and the hike returned to a more natural trail of red earth.
It had become patently obvious now that there are a staggering number of ways to get up Penang Hill. Countless trails appeared to meet up and even intersect with my own trail before continuing uphill. Nor was Bukit Bendera the only destination or turning point for hikers, there’s Youth Park and Bukit Cendana. (Penang Hikes lists all of them here.)
To be safe, I stuck to the main trail and followed the laminated paper signs for Penang Hill Heritage Forest Challenge 2016. The event was recent enough that the writing was still legible so I imagined would end up somewhere useful. Judging by the narrow tyre tracks that intermittently appeared along the trail, the path was popular with mountain bikers too.
Mostly flat with the gentlest of uphills, the only downhill section came around 10 minutes after a series of ginormous granite boulders. Briefly exposed to the elements, I just managed to catch a view of two colonial bungalows perched on the hill opposite before the dirt trench I was in curled back down into the jungle.
After 20 minutes, the path ended at an abandoned building. Unsure of where to go, I simply followed the tarmac road up. The presence of other ramblers assured me I wasn’t headed in the wrong direction. Occasionally a 4×4 or motorbike would whip past at breakneck speed.
The 3 1/2 km jeep track felt tougher than the forest trail. Had I ducked in at Moniot turn off, the hill’s original bridal path turned Heritage Trail, the route would have been longer but more scenic.
Fortunately within half an hour (although it seemed longer) the first few colonial bungalows came into view: the eerie outline of an abandoned building; Grace Dieu previously Uplands Kindergarten; and Richmond, a government bungalow that’s available for rent. It was only when I saw the metal archway of The Habitat that I knew I had arrived at the top of Penang Hill – just in time for lunch. Yay!
9.35am Enter trail through Moongate
10.10am Arrive at rest area 5
10.15am Leave rest area 5
10.25am Reach boulders
10.35am Downhill stretch
10.55 Exit onto jeep track
11.20 Pass first bungalow
11.30 Pass entrance to Richmond
11.35 Arrive at Penang Hill’s The Habitat and other attractions
Getting there I took a taxi from Georgetown to Moon Gate on Waterfall Road / Jalan Kebun Bunga just outside the Botanical Gardens and got fleeced for RM18. To save your holiday money, download Uber or use GrabTaxi or hitch a ride from the jetty or Komtar area on the U102 Rapid Penang bus for between RM2 to RM4 .
Getting back Penang Hill Railway costs RM5 one way for Malaysians and RM15 for non-Malaysians. If you’re headed down, just line up and pay for your ticket after you alight. Taxis from Ayer Itam back to the city (Komtar) are RM30; I hopped on the 204 Rapid Penang bus for RM2 from opposite the Lower Station.
Tip Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Hindu temple is situated on Gun Hill, the highest point on this part of Penang Hill, so be sure to go and stake your claim.
Post-hike reward Treat yourself at David Brown’s. The restaurant serves up traditional British pub fare like Beef Wellington, Chicken and Mushroom Pie, and tea and scones. Located on Strawberry Hill and surrounded by a beautiful floral garden and (on a clear day) amazing views, this former colonial bungalow was destroyed during WW2 but rebuilt and then restored. It’s a bit on the pricey side – my Fish and Chips was RM50 before tax – but that’s not uncommon for hill retreats with limited accessibility.
Alternately try Kopi Hutan. I never made it there but had planned to. Serving up tea, coffee, hot chocolate and cakes, it’s located at Monkey Cup Garden and takes another 20-30 minutes walk from the Upper Station. Otherwise just call +60 124289 585 for the free shuttle service.