[Penang Walk Zones Project: Phase Two] Ecotourism: A Bright Future Awaits Seberang Perai Utara

By Lim Sok Swan

June 2022 COVER STORY
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HAVE YOU EVER noticed how different Seberang Perai and Penang Island are even though they are nestled within the same state? The omnipresent rice fields and coconut trees, particularly as you go north, are a stark contrast to what Penang is typically known for – charming old buildings, narrow congested roads and further away from the city centre, shiny shopping complexes.

Given that most tourists come to Penang to prowl the streets of its world heritage site, it is no surprise that tourist attractions in Seberang Perai, just like other lesser-known sites such as Balik Pulau and Teluk Bahang, are often marketed as “hidden gems”.[1]

The phrase is a bit of a misnomer: Seberang Perai is not at all isolated or hidden. On the contrary, it experiences traffic from the North-South Highway, and is well connected southwards to Ipoh, KL and Singapore and northwards to the full diversity of Thailand.

While past Walk Zone articles explored the unique histories of Penang Island's many townships and settlements (see Penang Monthly September 2021), this one focuses on northern Seberang Perai (SPU) on the mainland.[2] Following consultations with MBSP's Director of Tourism, Arts and Heritage Department, TPr Mohd Ridzal bin Abdul, we decided to shift the focus away from Butterworth, the largest town in SPU whose development is unique in its history, and concentrate instead on other locations in SPU that are generally less discussed.

History and Heritage Sites in Seberang Perai Utara

Unlike Penang Island, there is no comprehensive history written about Seberang Perai to date. The sole book which offers some history of Seberang Perai, Province Wellesley: A Pictorial History, was published in 2016 by Khoo Salma Nasution, a local writer and publisher. Given the substantially different experiences of various ethnic groups in Malaysia prior to independence, this book is by no means exhaustive.

This lack of a historical narrative is perhaps compounded by the fact that there was no historical record of Seberang Perai until after it became a British colony in the 18th century. Findings from the Guar Kepah Archaeological Site though, suggest that its history can be traced back to prehistoric times with evidence of human settlement in Guar Kepah from the Neolithic age. To preserve the historically significant site which houses a 5,710-year-old Neolithic skeleton named Penang Woman as well as a treasure trove of other artefacts, the government plans to build a proper archaeological gallery in the future.

Before the arrival of the British, like Penang Island, Seberang Perai was under part of the kingdom of Kedah.[3] Its former ties to Kedah are the reason why until today, disagreements between the two states, such as the Muda River water dispute which made waves last year, persist. [4] In olden days, Kota Aur Village in Penaga was an important administrative centre. Now, it is a village homestay that promotes Malay culture and lifestyle, as well as traditional foods like nipah juice.[5]

Even after they came under British colony, the northern and western parts of Province Wellesley (as Seberang Perai was known as back then) suffered from the numerous invasions that  Siam launched against Kedah during most of the 19th century.[6] The British-Siamese Boundary Stone, located north of Pinang Tunggal, was crucial in determining the power balance between the British and the Siamese (see Penang Monthly, October 2021). It has been included in the MBSP’s list of heritage structures, and a budget for its care and protection is in the works.[7]

The Pinang Tunggal Railway Bridge.

The Muda River which serves as a natural border between Penang and Kedah is steeped in history. Straddling the river, the Pinang Tunggal Railway Bridge is the most well-known pre-war relic in SPU, having appeared in a scene of the local Chinese language comedy film “The Journey” (2014). The bridge is said to have been erected from between 1912 and 1915, when the Federated Malay States Railways built the railway line between Alor Setar and Bukit Mertajam. This 200-meter-long bridge was decommissioned in 2008 and is no longer in service.[8] The Merdeka Bridge, which also spans the Muda River, was formally opened in 1957, the year Malaya gained independence.

The Merdeka Bridge.

Pak Man Nipah Garden in the same region sells tasty nipah juice, which guests enjoy while sitting in the nipah garden. Fifteen minutes away is the Kuala Muda Whispering Market. Customers and fishermen at the market have developed a unique way of bidding for fresh catch by whispering into each other's ears. However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, they have developed sign language instead to maintain social distancing.[9]

Kepala Batas: Meeting Point of the New and Old

Kepala Batas is the present capital and the heart of SPU. Its development in the early days depended on a variety of factors. First, the rich farmland that allowed early settlers to settle down and establish fully functional cities. Later, the surge of migrants, the ease of transportation and the development of Bertam Estate's rubber plantations[10] during the colonial period also contributed to the area’s subsequent urbanisation, commercialisation and industrialisation.

The history and development of Kepala Batas is also intricately related to three generations in the family of Tun Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia's fifth Prime Minister. Abdullah Fahim (1869-1961), his grandfather, was a noted Islamic scholar (ulama) in Kepala Batas who dedicated his life to religious instruction, while his father Ahmad Badawi Abdullah (1907-1977) and mother Datuk Kailan Hassan (1924-2004) were political activists.

Bertam House, Kepala Batas.
Abdullah Fahim Mosque, Kepala Batas.

Today, signs of Tun Abdullah’s family’s influence can be seen all over Kepala Batas. Al-Jamiul Badawi Mosque, which is over 200 years old and bears testament to the area’s early cultures, is heavily linked to the family. The minbar, where the imam stands to deliver sermons, was built by Abdullah Fahim and is still in use today.[11] Not far from Al-Jamiul Badawi Mosque, the Madrasah Daeratul Maarif Al-Wataniah is a religious secondary school that was established by Abdullah Fahim in 1926.

When Tun Abdullah became deputy prime minister in January 1999 and prime minister from 2003 to April 2009, development in Kepala Batas was accelerated by the construction of large-scale projects such as houses, schools, commercial centres and numerous public facilities.[12] This progression continues to this day.

The Kepala Batas Industrial Park is slated to commence in the second half of 2023 with investors from the U.S. and Germany showing interest.[13]

Capal Jago Gemilang

Badril Shahidan Hassan is a famous second-generation capal sandal maker in Kepala Batas Old Town. Said to be patronised by Tun Abdullah himself, Badril’s shop and shop name, Capal Jago, were inherited from his father, but the word Gemilang (glorious) was later added to it.

Capal is a comfy, sturdy and attractive men's sandal made of cowhide. It is a traditional Malay footwear that was said to have been brought over by Indian merchants hundreds of years ago.[14]

Badril is now the sole heir of a capal business that is going out of date. His older brother, who inherited the business before he did, had a workshop in the neighbouring town of Tasek Gelugor, but was forced to close down after a major robbery.

Badril Shahidan Hassan, capal sandal-maker and owner of Capal Jago Gemilang.

Manning the business alone, Badril has no ambitions for expansion, but sees it as a way to feed his family. He claims that merely the manufacturing process and completing orders are exhausting enough. Badril not only sells his capal sandals at his store in Kepala Batas, but also supplies to Kedah shoe retailers and online retailers. Customers, particularly the disabled who have unique requests, can personalise their shoe size or style that best matches their needs. “Old customers still bring their children and friends to my store, saying that they used to come to my father to make them shoes when I was a child."

Read also: Kuala Muda: A Border Village Full of Hope and History

Haji Hashim, Badril's father, had been a cobbler even before he started Capal Jago in 1958. Badril cannot remember when specifically, but he recalls his father working as an apprentice to a capal maker in an old shophouse near Komtar.

As a teenager, Badril was well-acquainted with old George Town. In fact, it was where they sourced for the leather needed to make capal. However, Badril says that the industrial structure of George Town has changed dramatically since it became a tourist attraction a decade ago. Leather goods suppliers were impacted, and one by one, they shuttered their doors. Nowadays, Badril has to go on the internet to order goods from vendors in KL.

Notable Development in Ecotourism

Amid the increasingly bustling Kepala Batas are recreational parks such as Vision Park. This is located close to Abdullah Fahim Mosque and Heritage Park at Setia Fontaines, which are cherished by local residents. The Setia Fontaines park even features a large kingfisher statue, beautiful landscape and the largest musical fountains in Malaysia.

Vision Park and Abdullah Fahim Mosque.

Other than neighbourhood parks, SPU has a lot to offer in terms of nature. Teluk Air Tawar and Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest are both popular for bird-watching, attracting bird enthusiasts from all over in the hope of spotting uncommon species up close. Among a few of the countless bird species that call SPU home are the Ruddy Turnstone, Asian Dowitcher, Brown-headed Gull, Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Chinese Egret, Black Kite and Barn Swallow.

Pantai Robina Eco Park, a relaxing beach in Teluk Air Tawar near the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Butterworth Air Base is also a popular site – so popular, in fact, that it was forced to temporarily close last year when the thousands of visitors failed to adhere to the Covid-19 SOPs.[15] According to TPr Mohd Ridzal, MBSP's Tourism, Arts and Heritage Department finished the second phase of upgrading works this year, equipping the eco-park with a stage, leisure space, parking lots, a dining complex and space for food trucks and other businesses.

The Kampung Agong Agro Theme Park attracts between 500 and 1,000 visitors a day. Khairul Anwar, the draughtsman in charge of the theme park firm, reveals that the park was originally just a guesthouse on a land plot with coconut palms near the rice fields. Aside from accommodating guests, the guesthouse is also used by couples for their wedding photography. It became so successful so quickly that they decided to turn it into a theme park. Instead of the usual rides, the theme park at Kampung Agong features traditional games as well as blue skies, coconut trees and paddy fields. There is also lodging and camping available.

Kampung Agong Theme Park.
Khairul Anwar, the draughtsman in charge of the Kampung Agong Theme Park company.

Last year, they won the Malaysia Tourism Quality Assurance (MyTQA) from the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, which is valid until 2024. As they have only developed less than half of the landlord's property, there is still a lot of room for growth in the future.

Kampung Setol in Pinang Tunggal also recently established the SPU Ecotourism Centre to highlight local agricultural products, promote its cultural heritage and boost local economy. According to Lay Hock Peng, the Chief Minister's Special Coordinating Officer, more than 70 vegetable and fruit farmers in the area have already expressed interest in working with the Ecotourism Centre. Pending construction, it will not be fully opened until the end of the year.

Footnotes:

[1] Penang Launches New Tourism Campaign, Focusing On ‘Hidden Gems’, The Vibes, 26th December 2021. https://www.thevibes.com/articles/news/50560/penang-launches-new-tourism-campaign-focusing-on-hidden-gems

[2] Ooi Kee Beng. Introducing the Penang Walk Zones Project, Penang Monthly, September 2021. https://penangmonthly.com/article/20440/introducing-the-penang-walk-zones-project

[3] Treaty with the King of Queda, in November 1802. A Collection of Treaties and Engagements with Native Princes and States of Asia, Hon. United East-India Company, 1812, pg. 245.

[4] Adie Zulkifli. Provide Proof that Penang not Obliged to Pay for Raw Water, says Sanusi, New Straits Times, 20 January 2022. https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2022/01/764593/provide-proof-penang-not-obliged-pay-raw-water-says-sanusi

[5] Welcome to Kota Aur Village North Seberang Perai, Urban SDG Knowledge Platform, 21 August 2017. http://www.urbansdgplatform.org/profile/profile_caseView_detail.msc?no_case=541

[6] Sharom Ahmat, “Kedah-Siam Relations, 1821 -1905”, Journal of Southeast Asian History, I, No.2, September 1970.

[7] Johnson Lee Chong Fatt and Tan Lii Inn. The British-Siamese Boundary Stone: A Momentous Relic in Seberang Perai, Penang Monthly, October 2021. https://penangmonthly.com/article/20464/the-british-siamese-boundary-stone-a-momentous-relic-in-seberang-perai

[8] Lo Tern Chern. Makeover Awaits “Iron Lady”, The Star, 28 September 2020. https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/metro-news/2020/09/28/makeover-awaits-iron-lady#:~:text=THE%20old%20railway%20bridge%20in,iron%20bridge%20is%20still%20intact.

[9] Arulldas Sinnappan. Kuala Muda Whispering Fish Market Breaks Age-Old Tradition Due to Pandemic, The Vibes, 4 November 2020. https://www.thevibes.com/articles/news/4868/kuala-muda-whispering-fish-market-breaks-age-old-tradition-due-to-pandemic

[10] Bertam House, a historic property located between Kepala Batas Old Town and the North-South Highway's flyover, is a sign of the economic boom during the British colonial period.

[11] Nur Izzati Mohamad. Kekal Utuh 267 Tahun, Metro, 17 April 2021. https://www.hmetro.com.my/utama/2021/04/695712/kekal-utuh-267-tahun

[12] Oh Chin Eng. Kepala Batas- from Sleepy Hollow to Thriving Township, The Star, 30 March 2013. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/community/2013/03/30/kepala-batas--from-sleepy-hollow-to-thriving-township

[13] David Tan. Industrial Land Demand on Uptrend, The Star, 21 March 2022. https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2022/03/21/industrial-land-demand-on-uptrend

[14] https://web.archive.org/web/20160623235958/http://ww1.utusan.com.my/utusan/info.asp?y=2010&dt=0220&pub=Utusan_Malaysia&sec=Selatan&pg=ws_01.htm#ixzz499azIXtR

[15] Mohd Iskandar Othman. Taman Rekreasi Pantai Robina Ditutup Lima Hari, Sinar Harian, 17 September 2021. https://www.sinarharian.com.my/article/161996/EDISI/Taman-Rekreasi-Pantai-Robina-ditutup-lima-hari

Lim Sok Swan

is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.


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