Group photo with train.
Hidden stupas, quaint colonial bungalows and the chance to view the magnificent vista all await on the hike up the hill.
Anak Hutan is a charming and friendly group of people who hike together in Penang every Sunday and also arrange expeditions further afield. I have hiked with them before, and recently, when I had friends visiting, decided to join them again when I saw that they were planning a route up Penang Hill that I was unfamiliar with.
There is a high number of temples in the area.
We met at the bus stop outside Miao Xiang Lin Temple on Jalan Hill Railway, the first of many temples, large and small, that we would pass during this hike. Directly opposite is Persiaran Taman Cantik, part of the Taman Cantik housing estate that was built in the 1960s. Taman Cantik was built within the Hye Keat Estate, named after Khoo Hye Keat, the original owner of the estate. Originally a fruit plantation with groves of rambutan, jackfruit and mangosteen, now it is mainly housing and is also sometimes known in Hokkien as “Land of Deities” because of the high number of temples in the area.
We walked just a couple of minutes along this road before stopping outside Happy Family Seafood House for the first of many group photos. A minute after this we turned left along a narrower road, with the hills now directly ahead of us, and passed another temple on our left. The road began to climb more steeply and, just minutes later, offered us the first of a series of views across Air Itam and the hills beyond.
Fifteen minutes into the walk, the road narrowed further, now turning into one of the concrete motorcycle paths that crisscross the farmland in the hills. At a fork in the path, we turned left. Ten minutes later we reached another small red Chinese temple shrine and stopped to quench our growing thirst. A couple of minutes later, the track forked again. Taking the fork to the right, going uphill, would have led us eventually to Rest Stop 84, at the junction with the tarmac jeep track that leads up Penang Hill from the Botanical Gardens, and Moniot Road.
A remarkable collection of stupas can be found on a detour from the main path.
For this hike however, we took the fork to the left, crossing over a small stream soon afterwards, then walking quite steeply upwards before being rewarded by yet another tremendous view across the valley. A couple of minutes later, we took a detour from the main path. On our right was a narrow path, leading to steps ascending towards the most remarkable collection of golden stupas and a small shrine, which is tended to by a Buddhist monk who arrived shortly after we did – on a motorcycle, of course.
I was told by a fellow hiker that this temple is relatively new, having been constructed only a couple of years ago on donated land. The monk there came from Taiwan to take care of it. Here we were also offered wooden walking sticks with lucky Chinese-language inscriptions. My favourite was the “stick to solve all problems” – who could say no to that? From this new temple, we enjoyed yet another view over the city and beyond to Penang Bridge and the mainland.
Setting off again we walked onwards through the field of stupas and rejoined the main path soon after. Ten minutes later we reached another temple, this one dedicated to Tua Pek Kong, a popular Hokkien deity who is a protector in life and in death. We rested shortly before continuing along the winding path as it climbed upwards. After another 15 minutes the path forked, and here we took the left fork. Another hiker showed me a very faint red arrow on a large stone in the centre of the fork that might have been enough to indicate the route, had I not been with someone who knew it. I suspect I would have missed it if I had been alone, though.
Around the corner the terrain opened up into a large flower farm growing chrysanthemums for Indian temples. We walked through the farm for a few minutes before taking the motorcycle path sharply to our right. We were now climbing up the side of the funicular train tracks and, although we couldn’t see it, we heard the train zoom past us. Within five minutes we reached Claremont Station. Here we rested again and took more group photos, this time with the train thundering over the viaduct above us.
Locked gate to Claremont Estate.
Claremont Station is a request-stop on the funicular railway. It serves the estate of the same name, famous for having been the Penang Hill retreat of Lim Cheng Ean, patriarch of one of Penang’s grandest families, who died there in 1982 after years of living as a recluse. He had named it after Clare, the Cambridge College where he had studied. He had bought the land at an auction of enemy property, as it had been confiscated from its German owner during World War I, and built two bungalows on it – Upper Claremont and Lower Claremont – during the early 1920s. The locked gate between the estate and the station makes it clear that it is private property and you can’t see the houses from the gate. I have seen them, as I accidentally wandered into the estate during a hike, but this is not to be recommended as the only way out again is to walk all the way back up the hill to the entrance of the estate or to climb over the locked gate to Claremont Station.
Returning to the trail, we soon spotted the first of many yellow signs that would signal the remainder of our hike to the top of Penang Hill Top Station. For the next 20 minutes the hiking was steep; in one place ropes were available to help us pull ourselves up; in another, there were absurdly high concrete steps. Then we reached the next request-stop of the funicular train, Viaduct Station, and emerged onto the tarmac Viaduct Road. From here, we took the shallow, mossy steps ahead of us and began the steep 20-minute climb in-between hill bungalows and their shady gardens to reach Tunnel Road East.
At this point, we had a choice to either take the fast route – a set of steps – or the scenic route: Tunnel Road East. We chose the latter and were glad we did. The road led past Upper Tunnel Station, through a wooded area where we saw macaques in the trees and yet more beautiful views. We then took a short cut up some steps through the grounds of an abandoned art deco bungalow. Within 15 minutes we had reached the newly built Sky Walk and, much to my chagrin, took the new lift up the last few metres to the viewpoint at Top Station, our final destination!
Be rewarded with breathtaking views when you hike up the hill.
Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.