Bukit Payong: A Sneak Peek Into Penang’s War-Time History

By Rexy Prakash Chacko

August 2022 PEAKS AND PARKS
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Ruins of a pillbox along the Permatang Damar Laut beach with Bukit Payong in the backdrop.
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THE SOUTHERN COAST of Penang Island is shaped roughly like a crescent, flanked by undulating hills in the background and long sun-kissed beaches at the fore. The hills here form the southern terminus of the Penang Hill range and hence are rather low, covered mostly in a mix of secondary forest and plantations.

Until very recently, these hills were off the “hiking radar”. However, the pandemic-induced hiking boom renewed interest in these forgotten peaks, and new trails have been established recently in the area.

One such location is the 171-metre-tall Bukit Payong, located near Kampung Binjai in Bayan Lepas. It is a mystery why the hill was named Bukit Payong (Umbrella Hill).  Getting up to its summit was once a very unpleasant experience, as the way was literally a scramble through thick vegetation, the most objectionable of which were the prickly vines that could quite easily tear apart your hiking clothes.

Signboard to Bukit Payong.

However, about a year back, some Kampung Binjai villagers established a clear and well-marked trail to the summit, complete with a series of challenges and interestingly named pit stops. It has since started attracting a steady stream of hikers eager to cross this southern peak off their checklists. Located close to the Penang International Airport runway, Bukit Payong is, in fact, one of the first landmarks any traveller by aeroplane to the island would see as the plane lands if they are seated on the left side. Barely eight minutes’ drive from the airport, a diehard hiker arriving in Penang would probably want to make his or her first pit stop at Bukit Payong for a quick trek before exploring the rest of the island.

Bukit Payong trail.

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My fellow hikers and I start our jaunt beside the Caltex petrol station in Kampung Binjai following a wide and dusty unpaved road going uphill. A few minutes in, to our left we see an interesting establishment, Rumah Kucing Gelandangan or Stray Cats’ Shelter, where a few furry friends are lying around on sofas and tables. Being a cat lover myself, I am quick to call out to them, but alas the cats are uninterested in a hiker with no treats to offer. The trail starts to go uphill beyond the cat shelter and in five minutes we spot the first Bukit Payong signboard and follow it into a grove of Acacia trees where the trail to the summit starts.

Rumah Kucing Gelandangan.

Quite immediately, the trail ascends a ridge where ropes have been installed to aid us as we go up. Though surrounded by thick foliage, we can make out the outline of rocks which are arranged as a series of terraces, some of which are still perfectly intact – vestiges of the area’s agricultural past. The faint smell of rubber fills the air, which is no surprise, as all the larger trees around us are rubber trees.

The trail is equipped with ropes in the steeper sections.

As we keep walking, I notice what looks like fiery red stripes with yellow margins on the ground. Can it be a freshly fallen flower? Curious to know what these are, we stop to take a closer look. They turn out to be the flowers of an Earth Ginger (Etlingera littoralis), a species of wild ginger that is common in lowland forests. The flowers of this plant develop separately from the leafy stems, growing directly out of the underground rhizome, poking through the ground to bloom and appearing like fallen flowers on the forest floor.

Earth Ginger (Etlingera littoralis).

In about 25 minutes we reach a pit stop with a “Take 5” signboard nailed to the tree. While not altogether weary from the ascent, we take this as a cue to recharge for what’s ahead. As we take a short rest here, a grey tabby cat greets us with a few loud meows. It must be one of the cats that had wandered away from the Stray Cats’ Shelter at the foothill. It rubs its face against our feet, and we quickly become fond of it. As we prepare to continue our journey uphill, we are surprised to see that it wants to lead the way! In all my hiking adventures, never have I ever had a cat guide!

Our grey tabby cat "guide".

The path beyond this point rises steeply and leads us to one of the challenge points along the trail, aptly named “Gorilla Railing”. This is a 3-metre vertical slope with a wobbly rope ladder fastened to it. While our cat “guide” clambers over the slope with much ease, the rest of us take a bit more time as we balance and pull ourselves up the ladder.

"Gorilla Railling".

The trail continues meandering gently upslope and we reach the summit about 30 minutes later, where we are met with a hazy view of the Penang International Airport and the sight of several aeroplanes landing. As we spend some time exploring the summit, we stumble upon an exciting discovery – a huge star-shaped metal structure bolted to the ground with four chambers placed equidistant to each corner. They look like relics from World War Two and the star-shaped structure is most likely the base on which an anti-aircraft gun was mounted while the chambers nearby would have been used to store munition. For obvious safety reasons, the weapon and the munitions stored here have been long removed, leaving only the empty base behind. 

View of the Penang International Airport runway from the summit of Bukit Payong.
Our grey tabby cat "guide" showing one of the chambers. These were most probably used to store munition.
The star-shaped base which once held an anti-aircraft gun.

We retrace our steps down the same way and just before ending the hike, we make a pit stop at the Permatang Damar Laut beach, barely a 10-minute walk from the Bukit Payong trailhead. Looking through the dense grove of Casuarina trees lining the beach, we spot another WW2-era ruin, the vestiges of what was once a pillbox at the edge of the water. With a panoramic view of the southern sea and Bukit Payong towering as backdrop, it is the perfect spot to wrap up a short hike to one of Penang’s lesser-known hills.

Hike At A Glance

Length: 2 hours 10 minutes (to and fro)

Difficulty: Moderate

Interest Level: Moderate

Signposting: Well signposted all the way

Likelihood of getting lost: Low

Number of hikers: Few but it is becoming more popular.

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 Industrial Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.


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