It was meant clear to us that we could not leave Penang without visiting Penang Hill. We were not sure what to expect but decided to take that opportunity to get out of the city for a little hike.
General Information about Penang Hill
What is Penang Hill?
Penang Hill is located on the (wild wild) west side of Georgetown. Penang Hill is actually a network of hills, the highest “culminating” at around 800 m. The easiest to access and therefore the most popular hill is the Flagstaff Hill. Nobody really uses that name in English (just keep Penang Hill); the Malaysian name is Bukit Bendera.
Thanks to its view over the city and its proximity to Georgetown, Penang Hill became famous among the colonialists looking for a fresher retreat and built there their holidays residence. They even developed a strawberry culture there that gave it the nickname of Strawberry Hill.
In the 18th century, access to the hill was only possible by foot or horseback (basically the colonialists would use porters). At the end of the 19th century, the decision was made to build a funicular railway but apparently it is not that easy to build! The first funicular was therefore put in service only in 1924… and opened the way to more wealthy residences!
It also started attracting tourism but they really started to get the touristic potential in the beginning of the 2000s. Walking alleys, viewing decks and some facilities were therefore built… but to be honest there is still some room for improvement on that side!
Also, the current funicular was inaugurated in 2010: instead of a 30 minute ride, this latest version rolls up the 2 km steep climb in… 5 minutes! Pretty impressive!
If I understood correctly only the residents are allow to to drive up the hill so I believe no taxi can drive you there.
However, you can take a taxi that will bring you to the funicular station or you can catch the bus Rapid Penang number 204 (from Jetty or Komtar might be the easiest) that will take about half and hour for only 2 RM (50 cents). Look out for the Malaysian name Bukit Bendera as the final destination.
For foreigners the one-way ticket costs 15 RM (there is no discount for buying a return ticket so return costs… 30 RM!). There is a departure every 10-15 minutes I think and as said previously you should get uphill in 5 minutes. Unless you got the funicular that stops in mid-stations, then count 15 minutes.
Of course you can also climb up by foot! It seems to be a way from around the Funicular station but the most common way would be to start from the Botanical Garden. However, unless you want to really have a full day of hiking, we would recommend to take the funicular up and take your time to wander around before hiking down.
What is there to see?
Let’s be honest, on top of the hill (where you exit from the funicular) there is nothing really exciting, apart maybe the view if it is not cloudy/foggy like it was for us. In our opinion at least.
To be more precise you will find: viewing decks, a fancy panoramic restaurant, a less fancy bar/restaurant (we haven’t tested as it was closed that day because it was a voting day for the elections), a canon (one of the historical landmark), the oldest Hindu temple of Penang (it was under renovation), a mosque, a “love alley” (there are hearts and photographers to take your pictures) and some of the old abandoned residence. Further away you also have one of the oldest mailbox of Penang… yep…
We then followed one of the “Nature Trail” suggested only to find out that it followed one of the road passing between the half hidden residences; road that most tourists make with a golf cart (with driver!)…
Let’s not lie: up to that point we were not super excited and overwhelmed by our visit. Luckily it gets better once you leave the touristic area!
Looking for Nature
The actual nature trails
So from our walk on the road, we understood that our definition of “Nature Trail” differed from the Malaysian one. However once we managed to get out of that road we got to a much closer definition. The path is still completely paved but the surrounding nature starts prevailing!
Surrounding by huge trees and rainforest kind of environment, we start liking that place. The best of it is that we are almost alone on that trail, and it will lasts up the end! As we said, it was an election day in Malaysia so definitely a quiet day to visit the place.
So our advise is: do not hesitate to wander in the by-paths and smaller alleys and get away from the top.
Keep an eye open for the local fauna and flora!
We are very bad at identifying species but we did see many beautiful butterflies and birds, including an eagle.
But my favorite part is that I spotted both a Dusky Leaf Monkey and a Black Giant Squirrel (Silviu even saw another one!). Yes I was super excited!!!
Don’t expect any good picture from us though, we tried with the squirrel but you can see that the quality is pretty lame…
Beware of the landslides!
We discovered than end of last year (Nov 2017), there were some violent storms over the region and the heavy rains led to several landslides.
Penang Hill was not spared and several of the walking trails have been closed. We took some of them by mistake: on the side we came the signboard was in Malaysian only and there were no skulls and crossbones so we thought it was OK to go through… on the other side we saw the signboard in English… Well, too late…
It was crazy to see all those giant trees swept away. Also some of the houses were overhanging and devastated. They were sitting under fragile land. Not really reassuring…
We passed by some workers that were trying to break some big rocks in order to be able to clear the way.
The road to the Botanical Garden
From the Viaduc Road to the Jeep Road
The advertised way to hike towards the Botanical Garden is actually using the Jeep Road. But this is the actual road for residents to come by car so definitely not the most interesting to hike!
Instead we went a bit downhill and followed the Viaduc Road which was a pleasant trail (apart from the landslide parts). It’s mainly going through the forest even though you pass there and there in front of some residences. But those are actually relatively hidden in the forest so you barely see more than en entrance gate.
Unfortunately at one point this road does join the Jeep Road and it seems inevitable to walk on it for part of the hike. Luckily the traffic is pretty light. The road itself is a good concrete road going steeply downhill with some tight curves.
Further down, you can follow another trail in the forest that will go parallel to the main road for a little bit. We would recommend to use the maps from the application Maps.Me* to be able to localize this next trail.
*Note: in general we acknowledge than Maps.Me is a good complement to Google Maps and we would recommend you to download it before your next travel!
From the invisible waterfall to the Botanical Garden
Eventually on the side of the Jeep Road you will get to a rest area next to a dirt road. This is the way to a waterfall… that we never saw! The trail was actually closed and at that point we were not super willing to take our chance further. We got a glimpse through the leaves but it seemed to be more of a mountain stream than an actual waterfall…
However from there you get to the trail that goes down to the Botanical Garden and consists of a series of stairs, with more stairs and some more stairs… 🙂 Although the trail itself was nice we cannot say that this was the most enjoyable part of our hike!
We actually saw quite a few people going up on that last part of the trail (the Jeep Road and the stairs from the Botanical Garden), many in running/trekking gear. We also met a group of tourists that were planning to hike up Penang Hill; there were not even half way but already exhausted! This is just to confirm to you that we never regretted our choice to go up with the funicular and better enjoy our hike down!
The Botanical Garden
The trail arrives right in the middle of the Botanical Garden and you actually get out in the middle of a beautiful park!
After a little rest on a bench we decide to have a walk around the park, to realize that it is actually closed (election day…), which means we could not visit any of the greenhouses.
We still wandered around but to be honest we were not amazed. As a Botanical Garden we were not particularly impressed by what we saw… But the park itself is beautiful and very pleasant to wander around.