Penang Island - Outside George Town

The making of the Kueh Kapek  - traditional craft in preparing one of Penang's most liked festive snacks.

The winding and narrow road past the beaches did not seem to be so potentially treacherous now.  However, I could still smell, in my mind, the diesel belching form the Hin Bus Company coach of old, with the driver turning his steering wheel non-chalantly as scenery whizzed by of forested slopes and solid rocks half submerged in the calm sea side below.   That was many years gone by.  Today, in a more stable automobile, we could see residential houses on the deforested hills, although the seaside looked quiet as usual.   

We were outside the metropolitan limits of George Town on Penang Island.  I know of more mates moving out here on the island's north-eastern corner from its southern suburbs.   The beach resorts at Foreigner's Rock or Portuguese Rock look dated, the significant impact of unforgiving tropical weather showing as mould on its outer walls.   Several generations of Europeans, Japanese and Aussies - to name a few - had taken the ritual of lying on the sand and deck chairs in such surrounds.   I recall young blue eyed and blonde haired couples walking in a romanticised sunset below the casuarina trees.

Striking wall mural, one that emphasises village livelihood in the regional hub of Balik Pulau, on the western side of Penang Island.

So now there are some new sea water activities -  Escape - to feed the abilties and daring of newer generations, apart from all those tired and tried parasailing and rafting recreational options.   I wondered as to what the quality of those waters are these days.  Cruise ships can be seen on the horizon, but the local fishermen's boats do still hang around and are being used, albeit less and less.     The Penang Channel between Butterworth and Weld Quay ports on the island is surely and gradually silting up  - and the Government is helping accelerate this by making more land reclamations accordingly.

We stopped at a durian stall round a bend on the round island road and I did not regret this.

   Having eaten mostly frozen durians from Thailand for the past 20 years, it was a rare treat to dive into the fresh custard like flesh of the opened fruit.   A boisterous and engaging lady  said this was an off season harvest.   The durian is a tricky option - you either love it or not, there is no assurance of the contents of this football sized King of Fruits and there are so many breed varieties these days.   They say Malaysian grown durians are much more rewarding in taste and texture than those form Thailand, but they are also priced more.

The hills of central island grace the edge of the Kek Lok Si Temple complex in Air Itam.

People from George Town may still view Balik Pulau (literally the "Back of the Island") as a remote hideaway, but when I am used to Australian distances in travel, this town is much of a pleasure to me, retaining some of the rustic lifestyle and much of its charm.   

There is a central area in this former village, where the main road towards Air Itam Village (in the centre of Penang Island) and  another heading south-east going towards the Airport, merge.    Here you find the markets, huge wall murals, the unique Penang laksa ( available in both tamarind juice and creamy coconut milk versions) and more.    I had omitted to call a friend from Queensland who hailed from here and she found out from Facebook that I had visited her home base.

Going down the start of the world's steepest funicular railway at Penang Hill.    Doppelmayr-Garaventa of Switzerland built these cabins,as it did for the Rapid Transit of San Francisco Bay and the Liner Transit of Las Vegas.

Penang Hill is, and has been always, close to my heart.   I put it on par with my experiences on my first really exotic tropical island, Phuket, in southern Thailand.  As we sat on an electric buggy driven by an Indian guy,  my memories rose up and all those adolescent days spent up this hill station filled my inner joy.   The gangling class mates  and I all growing up, with misty evenings on the patio of a bungalow, or walking amongst the monkey cups and cool shade of hill top flora.   There were moments of discovery, bonding, laughter, self managed cooking and chatting late into the night.  Guitar strumming filled the air whilst we looked at the city below which began to show their man made lights.....something akin to what I can do these days on top of Mount Keira looking out over the Wollongong coast.

I recalled how we dragged food and other supplies from down town up to various Penang Hill bungalows.    In those days, the slower speed funicular train (still Swiss made)  did stop for passengers, by prior arrangement, at footpaths and lanes leading nearest to your bungalow of stay.   There were those cooks and staff resident in those houses, mostly of Hainan descent.  I can still see those pantry shelves, wardrobe doors and bed frames, always made of wood, suggesting of ghost infested stories and cool temperature evenings.  

Detail for tall pillar supporting roof of the pavilion honouring the Goddess of Mercy.

There was a group of wide eyed and eager young men, hailing from Europe and Brazil, who were with us on same carriage of the funicular train.   One of them said visiting Penang Hill was on the bucket travel list for them.  We saw them again at the nearby significant and huge temple complex built on the foothills  - Kek Lok Si, or the Temple of Supreme Bliss.   This complex is smaller than Angkor Wat in Cambodia but is a unique institution and place to visit in south-east Asia.  It was developed over forty years from 1890.

Visitors are left behind with impressions of unique archways, pagodas, ambient halls, shrines and gardens.    A ninety-nine foot bronze representation of the Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Im) was completed in 2002 and is located just above the main temple area.   A pavilion was built as well supported by sixteen columns.  The Goddess therefore overlooks George Town and Penang island, looking towards the peninsular mainland.

The other captivating feature of the Kek Lok Si is a seven storey pagoda - the Ban Po Thar or Ten Thousand Buddhas.   If you study this pagoda carefully, you can see that the octagonal base has Chinese features, the middle portion is Thai and the spiral dome has Burmese architectural characteristics.  The foundations for this pagoda was laid by the Thai King Rama VI.     I recall a movie or two  had location shooting in this complex when I was growing up in Penang.   George Town itself had streets transformed for the shooting of movies such as "Beyond Rangoon" and "Anna and the King".    Penang Hill was selected to represent Simla in northern India in the mid 20th century for the UK television series "Indian Summers".

To me, one of the best moments was looking over the ramparts near the Pavilion of the Goddess of Mercy, taking in the sea breeze and soaking in the views from the hills to the Penang Channel.

Lemak Laksa, Thai influenced and with more coconut milk than tamarind juice.Can be a healthy dish as it contains shredded fish, herbs and spices.

So there you have it, it was a wonderful experience for me re-visiting some of the highlighted places outside the city centre.   It takes about a day and you are transported from suburbs to seaside, hills and forests, before you return to a hill station and a cultural icon to wind up the day.   We did not stop at the Spice Plantations, useful for viewing in person a collection of the main spice and tropical herb plants in the world.  Nor did we take the bush walking trail past forest, swamps and lagoon to have a taste of an equatorial island landscape.   

During the durian harvesting season (June and early July in Penang), many visitors participate in the durian trail, stopping by at plantations and eating a variety of durian types and hybrids.    The role of nutmegs has not always been emphasised in the development of Penang commerce  - and you need not go to the Caribbean to view such trees.    The name of the island itself is based on the betel nut, though christened by the British colonists as the Prince of Wales Island.

Durian fruit off season at a roadside stall on the way to Balik Pulau.