View of Balik Pulau.
During a challenging hike, misreading the map leads to a charming trail filled with remarkable greenery and scenic temples.
The easiest circular hike from Air Itam Dam is the obvious one: a circuit of the reservoir service road. It is a mainly shady and flat path about 3km long, taking less than an hour and making it perfect for a little gentle exercise. But there are other more challenging routes that can be navigated by taking one of the trails or roads that lead into the hills off the reservoir circumference path.
And this was what I decided I wanted to do.
Time for a confession: despite my love for hiking and for writing about hiking, I have absolutely no sense of direction and I can’tread maps. I don’t have a GPS route tracker, and I don’t use a hiking app on my phone because it drains the battery. So, having carried out extensive research online to find an interesting-looking route, I printed out the trail map from a website.
I ended up guiding my group of friends on an entirely different hike. (But we loved it all the same!)
Upon leaving the car park, we began circumventing the reservoir, crossing the dam and passing a group of cadets doing their morning drill exercises. We then passed a junction with a trail going up to the right, known to hikers as the Bukit Elvira trail and which leads to a five-way junction. This was the one we should have taken but didn’t, because I misread the map.
We continued walking for another 20 minutes, enjoying the cool shady path around the reservoir, and then turned off at a tarmac road (the road to Balik Pulau in fact) to ascend the hill. Twenty minutes later, we reached the summit and caught our breath for a few minutes at the rest hut. If we were on the trail I had originally planned, we would now be looking for a jungle trail to our left, and sure enough, one was there, so we took it.
The actual route map of Air Itam Circular Walk.
Forest reserve sign.
This path was absolutely charming and easy to follow, although in one place we had to beat ourselves an opening through the branches of a tree that had fallen across the path, and in a couple of other places we had to climb over or under fallen tree trunks. The path wove its way through overgrown fruit plantations around a valley with glimpses of the radio towers at Bukit Penara above the tree tops, and at one point we enjoyed a marvellous view of Balik Pulau and the sea beyond.
After 20 minutes the trail entered the forest and we were just able to make out from an almost illegible signpost that the area was in fact a forest reserve. Indeed, it was a beautiful wood that we walked through, the vegetation reminding us of the much bigger and better known Taman Rimba Forest Park in Teluk Bahang.
At ground level, the forest was equally attractive, with ferns and blooming flowers that I rarely see elsewhere in Penang. We crossed a small stream and a few minutes later, climbed upwards to a spot where a landslide had obliterated the path. It was however still easy enough to walk safely over to a road on the other side. This, I later discovered, was the service road up to Bukit Penara, although we didn’t know that at the time.
On the opposite side of the road was a concrete track signposted to Cheng Yee Chan Temple, and after consulting the directions for the hike we still thought we were doing, we decided this was the correct way to continue along. The concrete path led to a flight of steps that brought us to a small temple with a fine view, with a deity nestled under a large rock colourfully painted in bright yellow. On the other side of this temple, more steps led downwards through a small fruit orchard with banana, jackfruit and mangosteen trees, down to the unassuming back entrance of a building. Having made friends with the guard dogs, we walked in and found ourselves inside a glorious temple complex.
This Taoist temple is variously known as Cheng Kon Sze, Cheng Ji Chan, Cheng Yee Chan or the Temple of a Thousand and Two Steps. Apparently, when the temple was first built in these hills in 1880, more than a thousand granite steps were laid by devotees to enable them to climb up and reach it. We were particularly impressed by a statue of a monk riding a tiger while staring placidly over the temple buildings and the hills beyond. We took advice from some of the aunties who were worshipping there, and continued our walk by exiting from the temple by the road. We followed this quiet shaded road downhill for about 10 minutes, until it opened into another fruit plantation, this one majestically overlooked by an unusual Alpine-style plantation house. Sadly, the caretaker made it clear that we were not welcome to come up to the house to look around; the view from there must be tremendous – it was already quite impressive at road-level.
Forest floor flowers.
Twenty minutes later, we were dismayed to realise that this road was leading us all the way to the bottom of the hill, behind Kek Lok Si. In vain we looked for shortcuts back to the dam. We walked through the temple complex and reached the road that leads back up to Air Itam Reservoir, at the top of which our cars were parked. The only consolation I had during the 30-minute, 2.2km slog – under a fully risen sun (it now being 12.30pm) – was that I was able to take a few close-up photos of the rather glorious PBA bungalow near the top.
There is in fact a much more pleasant “offroad” way to reach the reservoir on foot without using the road. A motorbike trail can be followed, beginning just below Kek Lok Si near the sign that reads “KWARN INN SAHN POW YIN SIAN TSI (P)”. It is apparently shady, easy to follow, and brings you out next to the dam. I wish we had known about this trail earlier.
Despite this less than ideal final climb, we all agreed that the hike had been wonderful, and that we would return one day to have a second try at hiking the trail I had originally planned for the day!
Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.