Penang Hill: Train up, walk down.
The funicular rail car fills with tourists, all taking the easy ride up Penang Hill: for the views and tourist attractions at the top. We stand at the front, the steep rails snake up in front of us, thick cables quiver to pull us upward.
The train sets off with a whoosh, the rails become suddenly steeper, the lush green foliage blurs as we ascend. This is, by far, the most efficient way of travelling up Penang Hill.
We opt for a return ticket (US$9), the dark clouds rolling over look ominous: it’s a long walk down and Malaysian rain falls hard and heavy. A single ticket would set you back US$5.20.
Penang Hill rises up above George Town: it is a blissful escape from the heat and humidity below. The British thought this too and established their first Malaysian hill station here in the 18th century.
The current railway was built in the 1920s but the Swiss-made trains (and system) are much newer: you can now travel in air-conditioned comfort.
If you like nerdy statistics then you’ll be thrilled to learn that this railway has the world’s steepest tunnel. You never know when that might turn up in a pub quiz!
We reach the top just as the clouds break, another deluge to match the previous night in George Town, everyone rushes for shelter, not least because it’s not only very wet but also much colder up here.
We came up six years ago and nothing looks particularly familiar. There are restaurants and tourist ‘museums’ (an owl museum!).
The rain clears and reveals the magnificent view down to George Town and across the channel to the mainland.
We decide not to bother with the Owl museum, instead we mooch up to the mosque and Hindu temple a little further up the hill.
The joyfully colourful Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan brightens up the grey afternoon. Situated right next to it is a small mosque, there is harmony up here on Penang Hill.
The hillside of Bukit Bendera (the Malay name for Penang Hill) is dotted with colonial bungalows, a crumbling legacy of the British Empire.
Not all are crumbling though, many have been renovated and restored into beautiful homes.
The dark clouds drifted south and we decided to walk back down the hill, following the paths to begin with, then joining the jeep track down towards the Botanic Gardens.
We pass another lovely, restored, bungalow; I could really picture living up here: great views, good climate and pretty houses.
Further down the paths I spot another bungalow; hidden by foliage and with no obvious access. It intrigues me so I clamber up the bank and fight my way through the vegetation; there, under my feet is the remains of a path that leads up to the front door.
The art deco style bungalow has turned green, nature claiming it as her own. A smart wooden bench remains on the porch and the door is wide open.
I walk in, expecting signs of squatters or the obligatory empty beers cans, instead I find an empty home. There is a clock on the wall and a few sparse pieces of furniture. There are electrical fittings: I wonder how long it has stood empty and, mostly, forgotten?
Venturing into this abandoned bungalow had really fired my imagination, I felt like an explorer, discovering a lost world. Indeed, in many ways it is a lost world– the world of colonial powers and the Raj.
None of the bungalows are truly forgotten, each has a name and all are marked on the Penang Hill trail map.
We spot another: Edgecombe is perched on the hillside, a marvellous location with open views.
This attractive wooden house looked invitingly worth investigating, we hiked up to it along an overgrown steep path. Inside it was very different to the art deco bungalow, this looked grander with wooden shutters on the windows and pastel painted wooden uprights.
It wasn’t hard to see the renovation potential in this house, oh if I had the money!
Exploring these bungalows woke familiar memories, not real but literary. I felt I’d been here before. Bungalows on the edge of the Malay jungle: it was The Consul’s File by Paul Theroux. Even the name (of the small town at the base of the hill) is (almost) the same: Air Itam / Ayer Hitam.
I don’t know if this place was the inspiration but I can certainly picture the story playing out on this hillside, the eclectic collection of expatriates in a newly post-colonial Malaysia, a dying world.
The bungalows peter out and we are following the road through old, verdant forest: tall trees tower either side of the track. The road zigzags steeply down the hill for five kilometres.
We encounter macaques on the road, luckily they seemed chilled out and relaxed – I’m extremely wary of macaques, they have sharp teeth and an aggressive attitude.
The last few kilometres of the road are a killer, on my knees anyway. The road is so steep I have to zigzag from side to side to save my knees which feel like they’re on fire.
The road seems longer than I remember (I’ve walked this before, how could I not remember the distance), every bend seems to lead on to another, and another, oh, my knees!
In all, it took us around an hour and a half, maybe a bit more, to finally reach the botanic gardens at the bottom, oh the relief of flat ground.
An ice lolly and a bench provided much-needed relief, then we set off to try and find Dusky Leaf Monkeys, a type of langur that lives wild in the gardens.
We spot them, high up above the Orchid house; they couldn’t have been in a darker, poorly lit place, we only manage a couple of out-of-focus pictures but it was good to see them.
Another group of macaques guard the path back to the entrance to the gardens. I wait for some locals to pass so I can walk past them in a large group, haha – I’m such a wuss!
On the road leading out from the botanic gardens there is a bus stop; we had just missed one by all accounts.
The Rapid Penang bus number 10 runs every 45 back to George Town between 6.30 and 18.30 (according to the Rapid Penang website). We found the timetable scribbled on the bus shelter with a couple of later buses listed.
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By Rachel A Davis