Take a Gentle Walk on the Back Side of the Island

loading Paddy fields of Balik Pulau.

Balik Pulau may be better known for its pastoral charms, but exploring it by footis equally a delight!

When people think of hiking, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a strenuous uphill climb. While this may be the case for most of Penang as half the island is hilly, there are many flat areas around the state where one can sweat it out by walking for miles to experience a very different kind of ambience and atmosphere.

Part of the trail which passes a belukar.

One such walk is through the vast agricultural hinterland of Balik Pulau, and onwards to its coast. Often times, when people come to Balik Pulau, it is usually a trip to its famous laksa and durians. But there are many hidden gems on “the back of the island”, like the vast Balik Pulau paddy fields or the thick belt of mangroves at its coast.

Generously watered by the Burong, Nipah and Kongsi rivers that snake their way through the countryside, the Balik Pulau plains have been home to vast paddy fields for generations. Most of the fields are concentrated around Jalan Bharu and extend from Kampung Jalan Baru in the north down to Kampung Pulau Betong in the south.

I started my hike along a small village road that branches off from Jalan Bharu, at the point where a small bridge crosses Sungai Nipah. Parking my vehicle was the tricky bit as there are no parking lots along Jalan Bharu, but after some searching I finally found a good spot to leave my car.

As I began the walk, an eclectic mix of rustic Malay houses and modern dwellings greeted me – a pleasant sight of how both worlds coexist here. Merely five minutes after starting, I reached the first fork. While I knew that going straight would bring me to the coast – which was where I was headed – I decided to be curious and took the turn right.

Curiosity did not disappoint me! This right turn passed a couple of happy buffaloes wallowing in the mud and opened up into lush green paddy fields. The paddy was still young and fresh, probably planted just a month before. With a perfect backdrop of Penang's hills and several coconut trees in the distance, I couldn’t resist the temptation to just spend some time taking in the views –and not forgetting a few snaps too!

I backtracked to the first fork and continued straight in the direction of the coast. The road passed a few more houses and then crossed some scrubland, or belukar, which are a common feature in rural Penang where parcels of land cleared for agriculture have become abandoned and are retaken by the jungle.

Unlike mature forests, a belukar is usually thick and impenetrable, so I decided to stick to the road and not make any curious detours to the left or right. There were occasional farms along the way and a lot of interesting wild flowers to see along this stretch. The beautiful wild gingers and sea hibiscus trees were in bloom and were added bonuses as I passed on through.

The path soon led me to a T-junction right in front of a bigger river, Sungai Burong. At this point, to my right was the Countryside Stables Penang, a stud farm which is home to about 35 horses and various other animals, and is open to the public. Here, for a minimal fee, you are able to see and feel the atmosphere of a real animal farm in a countryside setting.

Sungai Nipah.

Tidal gates of Sungai Burong.

The Balik Pulau mangrove arboretum plot.

Boardwalk leading into the swamp.

Stilt roots of mangrove trees.

Morning Glory spotted along the trail.

Breadfruit.

Neatly parked boats at the Pantai Malindo fisherman’s jetty.

Keeping left, I continued along the riverside and came out at the large blue tidal gates of Sungai Burong. Built and maintained by the Department of Irrigation and Drainage, these tidal gates are found along many streams and rivers throughout the country and function to control water flow by acting as a valve.

Behind the tidal gate, at the mouth of the river, is the Pantai Malindo fisherman’s jetty, where rows of brightly coloured fishing boats were parked neatly along both sides of the river. With the coast in sight, I marched straight on, passing a group of friendly fishermen and an even more excited clowder of cats!

The path continued beside thick mangroves and finally came out at the rocky seafront of Pantai Malindo, facing the Straits of Malacca. A breathtaking view welcomed me as I walked up to the very edge of the seafront. In front of me was open sea as far as one could see, while to my far left, the outline of Penang’s southern hills formed the backdrop. With almost nothing standing between me and the coast of Sumatra, it almost felt like I was standing at the very edge!

Fishing at Pantai Malindo.

While Pantai Malindo is supposed to mean “Malindo Beach”, the seafront is anything but a sandy beach; it is mainly mud, rocks and sprouting mangrove trees. And the brackish water here was definitely not inviting for a dip! Nevertheless, the views, the sea breeze and the sight of small waves pounding the rocks at high tide made it a worthwhile choice to come here.

I backtracked and headed to my next destination: Balik Pulau Forest Reserve’s mangrove arboretum. Located a stone’s throw away from Pantai Malindo, it was on my to-do list for this hike. The whole seafront along the Balik Pulau coast is covered in thick mangroves, only interrupted by occasional breaks where the river flows out to the sea. About 166 hectares of swampland are protected by the Balik Pulau Forest Reserve, and the State Forestry Department has established an arboretum plot inside the reserve near Pantai Malindo where the public can view the mangrove forest from a raised boardwalk without getting their feet wet or muddy.

The Forestry Department has also meticulously replanted many plots within the arboretum with different species of mangroves – apart from the ones that are already naturally there – and marked them for visitors to see. It was almost surreal to see trees perched on roots, like stilts. As I made my way farther in, a troop of cheeky crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) that were running around on the boardwalk sensed my presence and retreated into the mangrove trees, watching my every move from a safe distance.

The boardwalk came to an abrupt end at a patch of newly planted mangroves. I followed the path back to Pantai Malindo and on my return decided to use the path beside Sungai Burong instead. I passed through more paddy fields and villages before arriving back at my car at about noon, and ended my hike with a bowl of laksa – a quintessentially Balik Pulau experience!

Rexy Prakash Chacko is an electronic engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. While he spends his weekdays earning a living at the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.



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