Pulau Aman jetty.
The waters around Penang are dotted with tiny islands. Each has its own story to tell, but Pulau Aman, just a stone’s throw away from the coast of Batu Kawan, has nature, culture, food and history.
The 116-ha island sits with its sister islet, Pulau Gedung, on the narrow Penang Strait. Housing a modest population of 250 people, Pulau Aman is a hidden gem; visitors who have been there wax lyrical about its wide variety of cheap seafood and its famous mee udang (prawn noodles).
Breadfruit, or buah sukun.
I am looking for a new adventure, and the charms of Pulau Aman make it attractive to visit. Heading out from Penang Island on the relatively traffic-free second bridge, I can see the lush greenery of Pulau Aman and Pulau Gedung as I near the mainland. It is usually just a passing sight along the journey south, but this time, it fills me with excitement.
I reach Batu Kawan and head to the Batu Musang Jetty, the point from which boats go to Pulau Aman. The jetty that morning is bustling with anglers and a few tourists. Boats to Pulau Aman are relatively infrequent on weekdays but come weekend you can get one every 10 to 15 minutes. While the anglers head down south to fish in the open waters beyond the second bridge, I pay the inexpensive RM7 fee and board the Pulau Aman shuttle boat to begin my island escapade.
Pulau Aman was once called Pulau Kra (Monkey Island), and this rather amusing name meant that islanders where often teased whenever they ventured out to the mainland. Soon, the islanders had had enough and in the 1950s the name was changed to the present “Pulau Aman”, which means “Island of Peace”.
True to its name, Pulau Aman is so peaceful and crime-free that there has never been a need for a police station on the island. However, in pre-modern days, Pulau Aman and its sister islet Pulau Gedung were far from peaceful, as both were home to notorious pirates. Most notable among them was Panglima Garang (The Fierce General), whose very mention struck fear in the hearts of many. Legend has it that pirates used Pulau Aman’s hilly ridge as a lookout point for passing ships, and at the sight of one they would launch an attack, bringing back the loot to Pulau Gedung where it would be stored. Batu Perompak (Pirate’s Rock), Gua Perompak (Pirate’s Cave) and Panglima Garang’s Grave on Pulau Gedung are all testament to this turbulent period.
Reaching the Pulau Aman Jetty, I pass through the welcoming arch and enter the village, where a colourful combination of brightly painted traditional Malay houses, lively little shops and ornamental flowers greet me.
Narrow footpath in Pulau Aman.
The dense jungles of Pulau Aman.
Looking at Pulau Gedung from the rocky beach at Pulau Aman.
Most of the locals were originally fishermen, and it is no surprise that Pulau Aman was famed for its special belacan. However, as fish and shrimp stocks diminished over the years, some started shifting towards tourism, with many of the traditional houses on the island doubling as chalets and homestays, offering a very authentic island experience. Pulau Aman is completely car free and almost everyone walks, except for the occasional bicycle. A single 2.6km footpath goes in a semi-circle along the island's coast, ending at the eastern and western sides, and this was what I was out to explore.
Branching off the walk are a few side paths going off deeper into the village, and surprisingly enough, each one of them, no matter how short they were, is meticulously named after someone well known on the island.
The globular fruit of the nipah palm.
I follow one of these diversions, passing a few houses to reach the “oldest breadfruit tree”. Locally known as buah sukun, this tree with its lush green leaves shows no signs of old age although a board beside it claims it to be the oldest breadfruit tree in Malaysia! Tok Awang Akib, a Quranic teacher, planted the tree almost 130 years ago, and now there are many breadfruit trees on the island, the fruits of which are harvested, sliced, deep fried and served as a tantalising snack.
Exposed sea anemones on rocks along the Pulau Aman coast.
I continue beyond the dense rows of kampung houses, and the path then passes through the greenery along the western coast, with an uninterrupted view of nearby Pulau Gedung. Both islands are so close to each other that at low tide, one should be able to walk over the mudflats between the two, albeit this would mean getting stuck up to the knees in mud!
A closer look shows Pulau Gedung to be an impenetrable natural fortress, with trees and creepers covering every inch of it. The last of the island's inhabitants left more than a century ago, forced out by the pirate menace, and it has never been repopulated since.
My walk soon leads me to a brightly painted well surrounded by a small garden. This is Telaga Mas, yet another heritage spot on the island. The story of Telaga Mas, or the Golden Well, began in the 1780s when a villager spotted a spring beside the seaside. He decided to dig a well and as he was doing so, stumbled upon a vessel that looked like it was made of gold.
A mudskipper. They are a common sight in Pulau Aman each time the tides recede.
News about this coveted find spread like wildfire, reaching the ears of the British who wasted no time in sending a team to investigate. Alas, after much testing, it was found that it was only a gold-coloured rock, bringing an end to what might have been a gold rush.
Continuing on, the path becomes narrower, finally ending at a beach covered with colourful pebbles, the occasional anemone and hundreds of sea roaches. I am now facing the second bridge. I take a good rest here, soaking in the view and the sight of an odd sea cucumber washed ashore, before heading back to the jetty to explore the eastern branch.
Facing the mainland, the eastern path is slightly more exposed. However, what is interesting along it is the small area of mangrove – the only one of its kind on Pulau Aman.
I soon come to several mangrove trees which have their breathing roots exposed. These are Sonneratia mangroves and their roots jut out of the mud like little towers.
The tide is low and the mudflats are exposed, revealing a hidden world. This is the intertidal zone, the strange realm of mudskippers and crabs. Mudskippers are very unique creatures as they are amphibious fish that can survive above water. Both creatures live a very tense existence on the mudflats, with the mudskippers pouncing on each other and even on the crabs over territorial disputes.
I head back along the same path to reach the Pulau Aman Floating Restaurant to treat my tummy to a plate of mee udang goreng. The sumptuous meal sums up a perfect getaway – one where I have come up close to nature, culture, history and a good serving of vitamin sea!
Breathing roots of mangrove trees.
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.