Bukit Cendana: A Hike Through History


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Enthralling pieces of Penang’s colonial past are revealed on a trek up one of its quaint hills.

Bukit Cendana is a popular hiking area – its peak rises just above 520m from sea level, and there are at least a dozen different ways of getting up there.

The simplest route is through the iconic Moongate, a historic gateway just 500m before the entrance to the Penang Botanic Gardens. Being a moderately long hike, I prepared enough water to drink, some snacks and my camera.

It was a Saturday morning, and the trail from Moongate up to the Station 5 rest stop was abuzz with activity, both human and non-human: while hikers stomped their way up and down the trail, a troop of dusky leaf monkeys (Trachypithecus obscurus) were busy foraging in the trees above.

Less than 10 minutes in, I came across the remains of an old bungalow right next to the trail. Yu Yi Yuan was the abode of one of nineteenth-century Penang’s most famous philanthropists, Cheah Chen Eok. The brightly painted Moongate, where the trail started, was supposedly its entrance, and there was a time when this crumbling bungalow was a country retreat with a private swimming pool! Today, most of the mansion lies hidden away in the thick foliage, with only parts of it visible from the trail.

I continued up the trek, which gradually transitioned from a gentle walk to a series of steep uphill steps. To add to the challenge, the trail became a whole lot more exposed, with no large trees and only Gleichenia ferns forming a dense green mat around the trail. Midway through the steps, a gap in the secondary forest opened up to an amazing view of Tanjung Tokong. After a short rest here, I continued marching up the steps and reached a flat and wide track.

Flora and fauna along the trail.

Almost immediately, I noticed what looked like the remains of a pillar in the thicket to the right. It was yet another elusive, old building! These were the ruins of an exotically named mansion, Ravenswood, a two-storey abode built in the 1840s.1 All that remains today are a pillar, several brick walls and beautiful ornamental terracing.

Getting back on the trail, I followed the flat track for a few minutes and reached the first rest stop, Station 5. Established in 1995, Station 5 is the first of two rest stops up to Penang Hill along the Moongate route. Equipped with exercise machines, toilets and a mini gym, Station 5 is very popular especially on weekends when it is usually a hive of activity, with hikers enjoying freshly brewed hot coffee prepared by volunteers. While I had had occasional stops along the way and was in good shape to continue on without a rest, the appeal of Station 5 was too tempting, so I decided to stop for a quick break, soaking in the crisp hilly air while chitchatting with a few fellow hikers.

Detail of Highlands House's cast iron gate post.

I continued up the steps which go through Station 5, and took a right turn up another flight of steps just after the rest shed, in front of the makeshift badminton court. This is the point where the trail to Bukit Cendana diverges from the main Penang Hill trail. The steps led up to a gentle ridge which quickly brought me to another junction where a small signpost showed that a left turn would lead me to “47 and 84” – two stations along the Penang Hill Jeep Road.

Taking this turn, I slowly began to climb up the gentle slopes of Bukit Cendana. The forest was shady at first; however, the path soon led to an area of open scrubland, where much of the tree cover was burnt. These areas were razed in 2014, when massive forest fires ravaged the slopes of Bukit Cendana following a long dry spell that hit Penang that year.

As I moved up further, yellow signboards welcomed me to the Highlands Permanent Forest Reserve, which protects much of the primary forest on the hill. Behind the signboard, I could spot majestic stands of Meranti trees and a thick forest understory – all indications of a healthy rainforest.

In about an hour from Station 5, I finally stood at the peak of Bukit Cendana. At this point, the path came to a junction where the trail diverged in three ways, and taking the path on the left, I soon reached the ruins of Highlands House, which was built in the 1800s when Bukit Cendana was known by its colonial name, “Highlands”. This bungalow was the site of the Straits Sanitarium, a health resort which welcomed the sick, promising a retreat with cool air and a commanding view of the town below.2 However, as with many other old bungalows, Highlands House suffered from neglect, finally succumbing to a fire in the 1970s. All that remains today are a few granite pillars, some steps and shreds of zinc roofing.

Station 5 during busier times in the evening.

View of Tanjung Tokong.

Taking in the sight of this bungalow, I retraced my steps back to the earlier junction and continued to the right instead. In barely 100m, the path opened up to an amazing view of the hills and the sea, with Penang Hill to the left and the seas beyond Tanjung Bungah to the right. It was a breathtaking sight indeed!

The trail went downhill from this point and hit the brightly painted Rain Gauge 10, one of about 35 rain gauges that dot Penang’s hills. While rain gauges are often taken as rest spots by hikers on longer hikes in Penang, they actually serve a more noble purpose, which is to measure rainfall in water catchment areas.

Passing through a pair of cast iron gate posts with interesting nineteenth-century motifs, presumably an entrance to Highlands House, the trail continued steadily downhill and in about 30 minutes, it came to a Keramat shrine. A short walk down brought me out at Station 47 along the Jeep Track. It was already noon by then, and the usual morning crowd had ebbed to a trickle.

I continued on to Station 46, another popular hiking stop, just across the Jeep Track. Station 46 has similar offerings as Station 5, albeit attracting a smaller crowd. Taking a break here, I continued the last stretch down the steep steps of Station 46 accompanied by the thundering sound of the Great Waterfall nearby. Reaching the Botanic Gardens, I ended my hike at a roadside stall with refreshing coconut water to quench my thirst.

The Bukit Cendana hike is indeed one that brings you close to nature while you flip through the pages of Penang’s forgotten history.

1 Gibby, M. Penang Hill: A Journey Through Time. Georgetown: Entreport Publishing Sdn Bhd, 2017.

2 Gibby, M. Penang Hill: A Journey Through Time. Georgetown: Entreport Publishing Sdn Bhd, 2017.

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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