One Heck of a Hill

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A bright future awaits Penang Hill, and keeping the balance between old-world charm and new innovations is the key.

Visitors to Flagstaff Hill – the traditional name for Penang Hill – have more than doubled in the last five years. There may have been some complaints about the price hike on transport up the Hill following the upgrading of the Penang Hill Railway in 2010, but according to statistics from Penang Hill Corporation (PHC), an impressive 1.36 million people went up the Hill last year compared to 693,590 visitors in 2011 (May-December).

One obvious reason for this phenomenal increase is the shorter time it now takes to get up the Hill. The new Swiss coaches also have added capacity and, furthermore, Penang’s reputation as an attractive global tourist destination has been growing by leaps and bounds.

The upper deck of the Skywalk is a favourite spot for photographers.

Although the rate of increase, judging by the weaker tourism trends throughout the world, is expected to slow down, the numbers visiting are expected to continue to rise. Consequently, PHC is adding to and upgrading its existing facilities with the intention of encouraging activities that attract crowds away from the main stations. A bright future awaits Penang Hill, and keeping the balance between old-world charm and new innovations is the key. In 2013 PHC initiated a three-phase project to spruce up the place. Phase 1, explains the COO of PHC, Datuk Ng Wee Kok, encompassed the muchneeded refurbishment of the lower and upper stations. Taking into consideration the heritage value of the lower station, the landscaping and extension works were designed as much as possible to incorporate the key vistas and axis of the existing structures. The installation of the state-of-the-art retractable roof additionally provides the public with refuge from the sweltering heat or occasional rain. At the upper end of the Hill, the upper station’s newly designed walkway directs the flow of visitors towards the new food court, now coined Cliff Cafe, where a breathtaking view of the Hill’s slopes and a few heritage bungalows is on offer.

Following the completion of Phase 2 earlier this May, passengers fresh off the funicular train are now treated to the panoramic views of picturesque George Town and Butterworth from the recently opened observation deck, dubbed the “Skywalk”. Located adjacent to the upper station exit at the apex of the Hill, approximately 750m above sea level, the circumference of the Skywalk allows for 360-degree views which include Komtar, Kek Lok Si Temple, the Penang Bridge, the second bridge and even Gunung Jerai on a clear day. This three-tier deck comprises floral gardens at each level together with a lift for easy access to the lower level viewing platform. There stands the old Railway Bungalow which is to be converted into a cafe.

Besides creating new space for visitors, Phase 2 had a dual purpose when it came to erecting the Skywalk, the viewing decks and the extended holding area. A team of geo-technical engineers took the opportunity to reinforce the slopes of the site.

Phase 3, which is currently underway, is scheduled to be completed by early 2017. This latest phase focuses on improving the lower station. Among the proposed amenities are better toilets, a space for a money changer and an ATM machine, as well as a science-tech cafe. The total cost of the entire project, Penang Monthly was told, is estimated at slightly under RM20mil; with Phase 1 valued at RM3.62mil, Phase 2 at RM9.05mil and Phase 3 at RM6.5mil.

Spots promising romance and quirkiness

Love Lock.

Besides the new and improved infrastructure, another notable upgrade made to the top of the Hill are the small businesses. These add a splash of colourful diversity.

Apart from David Brown’s Restaurant and Tea Terraces, which began life as a small cafe known as the “Tea Kiosk”, and Bellevue Hotel, which has been there since time immemorial, there is also now a quirky Owl Museum and the Love Lock, no doubt inspired by famous “love lock” locations around the world such as in Seoul and Paris. Along with Cliff Cafe, these profitable establishments are managed by Footprint Tourism, and according to business partner Adrian Soh, it has been running the businesses for four years. (The Owl Museum was opened in 2011, while Love Lock was launched in February 2014.)

It all began with a business opportunity. Footprint Tourism was looking to rent food courts in other locations, and when they approached MBPP, they were advised to try Penang Hill. “There was an open tender for it. After some discussion, we decided to give it a try,” says Soh. When asked about the inspiration behind the Owl Museum, Soh answers, “The wife of one of our partners is a collector of owl-shaped products. The owl is very cute,” he admits, “so we decided to start the pilot project with the Owl Museum.

“And since we were up on Penang Hill, we decided to get MBPP’s approval to implement the love lock project,” says Soh. The idea, which began at least 100 years ago during World War I1, is for couples to write their names on a metal padlock, lock it to a bridge, fence, gate or other such public fixtures, then throw the key away to symbolise eternal love – and their joy at being locked in love forever, in other words.

On top of that, he is also appreciative of the efforts PHC has taken to liven up the Hill: “PHC is taking good care of Penang Hill, implementing good practices such as cleaning up the Hill and extending train times, as well as organising events especially in the central courtyard. They have held a lot of activities following our cultural calendar such as Hari Raya, the Lantern Festival and Deepavali.”

The little things that matter

Datuk Ng Wee Kok

Apart from the main three-phase project, PHC has also conducted side projects aimed at housekeeping and increasing accessibility, the most prominent being the 300-lot multi-storey car park and the allocation of 20 bus parking spaces at the base of the Hill. Less noticeable but of equal importance are the bypaths along Jalan Sultan Yahya Petra, or Summit Road. The main drainage systems have also been cleared and broken segments replaced, mitigating the negative impact of heavy rainfall and reducing the chances of landslides.

Additionally, PHC has introduced systemic changes. The new post ticketing system, for example, allows visitors to purchase their tickets online via e-payment from the comfort of their homes and to pick them up at one of the kiosks upon arrival. For those who are short on time, the express lane now offers the opportunity for people willing to pay an added surcharge to skip the queues on a busy day.

Speaking on the controversial topic of the rumoured opening of a casino on Penang Hill, Ng says not to bet on it. Since PHC was established in 2010, he says that “there was never a casino plan. People come to Penang Hill to experience the tranquil greenery and fresh air, so we have no intention of turning it into another Genting Highlands with theme parks and casinos.”

Ng, a graduate in Biology, makes it explicitly clear that PHC is aware that the structural improvements and vistas are only a part the appeal of Penang Hill. He stresses the importance of the natural ecosystem, especially the flora and fauna that are unique to it, as another of the Hill’s attractions. PHC has set up a heritage and conservation unit to see to the sustainability and preservation of the natural habitat and heritage. As an example, he cites a plan for replanting more fruit trees that will once again attract wild birds and butterflies back to the Hill during the month of June.

A Habitat for learning

Allen Tan and Frederique Walker.

PHC is not alone in promoting the wildlife and natural beauty of Penang Hill. The Habitat, a privately-run educational nature walk through a long forgotten colonial trail aims to contribute towards that effort. It is due to open January next year. “Generally, Penang people love nature and we want to give them a good reason to come up!” says Allen Tan, director of the initiative.

The 2.5m-wide, 1.6km-long route has been revived to its former glory, albeit with the inclusion of a few modern twists. Chiefly these include giant swings, colour-themed floral gardens and not one, but two canopy walk ribbon bridges, each 115m in length. Tan is quick to point out that the highest standards in green building have been adhered to. “In the construction of the bridges we chose specific locations where we didn’t need to uproot any trees,” he assures us. “We had to spend more money to alter our designs and fit (the bridges) into these specific locations; ultimately we are about nature and conservation.

“Furthermore, our directors and principal investors are nature lovers who have a very long and affectionate relationship with Penang Hill. The Habitat is our attempt at helping to encourage responsible and ecologically sustainable development on the Hill by demonstrating that ‘development’ and ‘progress’ do not have to involve damaging the environment.”

The Habitat is due to open in January next year.

Wherever feasible, the creator of the Habitat trail, landscaping company Walker & Jansen, has gone to great lengths to avoid disturbing the environment. One way of doing that is by incorporating organic materials into the design. Frederique Walker, one half of the husband and wife team who previously also worked on the landscaping of the Tropical Spice Garden at Teluk Bahang, mentions the soil erosion netting made from natural fibres as an example; once they have served their function, the netting will eventually turn into compost for the surrounding plants. Another prime instance is the extensive use of bakau piles in lieu of conventional metal ones; an added benefit, apart from being more ecofriendly, is the fact that this traditional form of foundation is actually better suited to moist conditions and hence will last longer, says Tan. The wood is after all derived from mangrove branches. Other measures involve the use of pervious concrete. By allowing water to seep through, the original flow of rainwater is not altered.

When fully operational, the Habitat will offer complimentary nature guides departing from the ticketing office every 30 minutes. Alternatively, people will be free to wander around and soak up the “forgotten” views from Penang Hill of the Andaman Sea and Langkawi Island. These have not been seen by the public since the British left; the area had been cordoned off since then.

A journey not for the fainthearted

For more serious hikers or just those who are adventurous at heart, a hike from one end of Penang Island to the other may soon be possible. To realise this, PHC has teamed up with veteran British hiker Neil Hamilton, who in addition to possessing expert knowledge of hiking routes around the island also has vast experience hiking overseas.

Buggy services are available at the summit.

The concept of the “Penang Trail” proposed by Hamilton depends on having rest stops available for hikers so that they can take breaks along their journey. These rest stops – or lodges similar to those found in Nepal and all over the Alps –also allow hikers greater range to test themselves on longer trails that would have otherwise been difficult for them. As Hamilton adduces, “One can spend a day hiking up to the top, spend the night there, and then head off for another day's hike either to another lodge or back down to sea level.” Following this path, one can potentially hike from the national park on the northernmost tip of the island down to Batu Maung on the southern end.

A hidden fortress? Nay, just the Skywalk.

This ambitious project is still in its infancy though. “Currently we have the rough makings of these lodges at the camp sites in the National Park, but key will be two or three high up on the Hill itself, as all the trails end up on the Hill. Once we have those, we can link over 20 other trails,” says Hamilton. When asked about the long-term sustainability of the Penang Trail, he replies that although the target audience is niche, if the lodging is done properly, i.e. good food served and clean showers provided, then people will surely come. He adds that destinations like Nepal and Sapa Valley in Vietnam prove that such ventures can be financially rewarding and sustainable.

In the short term though, the goal is to pilot the Moniot Through Trail as a first step to establishing the Penang Trail. This 7km trail through virgin forests starts at “84” (so named because it is 84 times 100ft) and snakes around the contours of the Hill and under the arches of the funicular railway before climbing up the Hill till it reaches Summit Road. The proposed trail is ready for use, and has already been cleared by PHC. With some simple inexpensive remedial work, proper signposting and a short published historical and nature guide up the trail, it would be ideal for families, couples, groups or individuals who are just as interested in nature and tranquillity as they are in exercise.

View from the Skywalk.

Indian summers on the Hill

Penang Hill’s distinct combination of stunning natural sights and heritage sites has not only attracted millions of visitors; it has also caught the attention of international filmmakers. The British period drama Indian Summers is just the latest of a long line of productions shot on the Hill, which notably includes the winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, Indochine.

Indian Summers is played out amid the supposed backdrop of the Himalayan foothills in Simla, India, and tells the tale of two men – one British, one Indian – during the decline of the British Raj in the 1930s. Given that India is worlds away, why then did the filmmakers choose Penang Hill for shooting the production? The answer, as the adage goes, is location, location, location… Since Simla is now urbanised and the monsoon often posed a challenge for filming, the producers of the show scouted around for an alternative location. One of the people they contacted for the job was Razaq Sahibjahn, the location manager for Biscuit Films Sdn Bhd, a film production support service provider based in Malaysia. The initial search for potential colonial buildings led Razaq and his team to Penang Hill, but getting to the locations was certainly not a walk in the park. He recounted the ordeal of trudging “through undergrowth just to snap pictures of the sites, many of which were depleted and derelict.”

South View bungalow.

However, the turning point as Razaq puts it was Crag Hotel. “That was what sold it over the other locations. Having done our research, the architecture was a good match as it had all the original features. Even the geography was very similar to Simla’s. One thing led to another and all in all we found five other sites on the Hill: Woodside bungalow, Nature Lodge, South View bungalow, Ahmad Cik’s bungalow and Claremont bungalow.”

Speaking to Dan Winch, the producer of the second season, one gets a better sense of the advantages of shooting on the Hill. When describing the location, he says it gives “an isolated world for us to make our own; there’s no noise of the city to contend with and the hilly terrain easily enabled us to use CGI to recreate the backdrop of the Himalayas.”

The furry trapeze artist of the Hill.

For Penang, the benefit of acting as the Indian Summers site includes that very site becoming a tourist attraction in its own right. The authenticity of the colonial heritage buildings is overwhelming. As a matter of fact, PHC is coming up with a package plan allowing fans to visit these sites, similar to those offered at other film destinations such as Hobbiton in New Zealand or Highclere Castle in the UK.

Moreover, the production has been a massive boon for some of the more derelict and neglected bungalows, which have now been restored to their former glory by the Indian Summers team for filming.

In retrospect, despite modernity and the advancements technology has brought to the development of Penang Hill, it looks as though its centuries-old role as a place of retreat for Penangites will continue for generations to come.



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