Old sedan chairs which were used to carry guests up the hill before the funicular railway was built on display inside the gatehouse.
A hike up Penang Hill is one that everyone in Penang would want to try at least once in their lives. For many, it almost always ends with a bowl of mouth-watering ice kacang at the Cliff Cafe before a quick train ride back down to reality.
However, there is so much more to explore up on the summit of the hill than meets the eye. The hilltop trails that radiate off the summit ridge offer unparalleled views, the sight of nostalgic bungalows and an opportunity to see a potpourri of rare flora and fauna.
Instead of a sweaty hike from the lowlands up the hill, I decide it would be easier if I “cheated” by taking an early morning ride on the funicular railway to the hilltop, giving me ample time for a relaxing loop walk at the top.
Reaching the summit early in the morning, I am greeted by mist and crisp air. Having a long to-do list on where to visit and what to see on Penang Hill, I march quickly past the amphitheatre-like Dataran and onwards, following the incline up to Bel Retiro’s gatehouse.
Its honeycomb-like stone walls welcome me, and as I step in, the artefacts and numerous old photos on display within almost make it feel like a journey through time.
Behind the gatehouse stands Bel Retiro, perched majestically on the peak of Government Hill. (Penang Hill consists of many such peaks, by the way.) One of the earliest bungalows to be constructed on the hill, Bel Retiro was built as a retreat and official residence of the lieutenant governor, and continues to serve an official purpose till this day.1 I snap a few photos and head back to Dataran before continuing my journey south-westwards along the Penang Hill Summit Road.
Tourists walking along Summit Road.
Bel Retiro gatehouse.
The Penang Hill witch hazel (Maingaya malayana), one of the rarest trees in Penang.
Moniot Road descends into a small valley, fed by crystal clear streams.
The crowd is starting to pour in and Summit Road is abuzz with life. Boisterous school kids and curious tourists with selfie sticks walk nonchalantly along the road, while several dusky leaf monkeys intently observe us from the safety of nearby trees.
The meandering road leads us past several bungalows as it winds its way around the hill. Next on my list is the exotic Convalescent bungalow, another historic site along Summit Road. A steep right turn off Summit Road leads me through stands of century-old Dacrydium trees to this striking, white-coloured, L-shaped bungalow. The original bungalow, built in 1802, is equally as old as Bel Retiro, though the current structure dates from 1890.2
The Convalescent served a very interesting purpose – it was a place where the sick came to “convalesce” or recuperate.3 Back then, people generally believed that sickness was caused by “miasma”, or bad air, and the right remedy would be a “holiday” in the pristine mountain surroundings of Penang Hill. True enough, many who came sick and weary to recuperate left healthy and well, spreading its fame far and wide.
I soak in the ambience of the Convalescent and its recently restored outer corridor before continuing farther westwards along Summit Road. As I keep walking, there is a viewpoint along the way, opening up to a picturesque sight of the lowlands. I decide to break for a short rest here. Looking around me, I notice a grove of very unique trees with cluster-like yellow flowers, unlike any I’d seen. It turns out that they are the indigenous witch hazel trees (Maingaya malayana), one of the rarest trees in Penang, and only about a dozen are found here.
Having had a good rest, I continue, passing more bungalows. The path soon enters deeper into the jungles. The noise of the human crowds ebb away, to be replaced by a cacophony of chirping birds and insects.
More than an hour into the walk, I finally come to the Moniot Road junction, where Moniot Road, an unpaved nature trail, forks off to the left. The trail, one of the earliest bridle walks on Penang Hill, was established in 1825 and named after Michel Jules Moniot who surveyed it. His legacy still remains visible along the trail with several stone markers engraved with a capital “M”, representing his initials.
The trail received a facelift recently with new hand railings, cut steps, a small shed and some interpretive signboards. As it begins, the trail almost immediately descends into the lush jungle where several crystal-clear streams trickle through rocks and roots.
Moniot Road is a botanical paradise in itself, where huge trees watered by clear streams and matted in thick moss grow in the company of begonias, ferns and orchids. It becomes apparent to me why many nineteenth-century botanists, including Charles Curtis himself, founder of the Botanic Gardens, visited this trail to make plant collections. The trail soon opens up near another century-old mansion, Mon Sejour, and connects with Viaduct Road.
Viaduct Road is another historic path on Penang Hill, albeit a cemented one with numerous farms along its flanks. It connects with the Viaduct Station, one of the four smaller stations along the short Funicular Railway route.
Not many visitors know about these smaller stations as they traverse up or down the hill. These smaller stations are not frequently used, and only by residents or the occasional guest who stays in the mid-hill bungalows. I wait patiently for the train to pass the huge granite viaduct and am rewarded with the sight of a brightly painted modern coach passing over the century-old stone arches. Talk about an eclectic mix of old and new!
(Clockwise from top) Pale reed orchid; bamboo orchid; spathoglottis orchid; neuwiedia, a seasonal flower; and wild calanthes, which bloom once a year and are found in abundance on Penang Hill.
The crowd on a busy day at the Dataran.
The path continues under the huge arches and joins up to the eastern portion of Viaduct Road, which passes below huge landslides that befell the hill during the November 2017 storm. While the slopes are slowly being nursed back to health, memories of that rainy night still remain etched on the scarred slopes.
An hour of walking along Viaduct Road finally brings me to the jeep track, where a steep ascend awaits me as I slug my way up. Having walked both up and down the past two and a half hours, this final ascent feels all the more punishing. However, there are a few more rewards awaiting me – the sight of a huge tiger orchid, the largest in the world, perched on a roadside tree; as well as the Grace Dieu bungalow and the derelict Edgecumbe.
The jeep road finally brings me back to the bustling Dataran, ever more crowded by now with midday tourists. Hungry and weary, I reward myself to a tantalising bowl of chickpea masala and the staple ice kacang.
The Penang Hill Loop Walk may not offer you the glory of conquering a hill, but it is a journey filled with sights and natural wonders, unlike any other in Penang.
Mon Sejour, and the city skyline down below.
Penang Hill funicular railway passing above the viaducts along Viaduct Road.
Farm along Viaduct Road.
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.
1Gibby, M. Penang Hill, A Journey Through Time. George Town: Entrepot Publishing, 2017. 2Gibby, M. Penang Hill, A Journey Through Time. George Town: Entrepot Publishing, 2017. 3Ibid.