Surveying the Lower Slopes of Penang Hill

loading Stunning view of the Air Itam valley from the Middle Station.

AFTER THREE MONTHS of the many MCO phases, Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow finally announced that recreational parks and hiking spots were to be reopened on June 6. This was delightful news indeed and I wasted no time getting my hiking shoes ready to explore the great outdoors again.

But there is just one – albeit a big – problem. Months of staying indoors has taken a toll on fitness; I needed to retrain before embarking on anything strenuous.

Back in July last year, I did an interesting 10km summit circular hike (see Don’t Forget to Circle the Summit of Penang Hill, Penang Monthly July 2019) which started at the top station of the Penang Hill Funicular Railway, making my way through Moniot Road and the bypaths before treating myself to a delicious bowl of ice kacang at the Cliff Café.

This time, however, I’m tempted to do the exact opposite. I wanted to explore the “bottom circular” instead. The plan is to start at the bottom station of the Penang Hill Railway and go slightly above the mid-way point of the hill before coming back down again. Though there will be no tantalising ice kacang waiting for me at the end, the walk, I believe, would make for a good warm up to condition my legs for hiking again.

Impressive doors of the Thni Kong Tnuah Temple.

After a hearty lunch, I head to the bottom station of Penang Hill. Beside the building’s entrance is a nondescript road which snakes behind and up the slope to a carpark. I take this path and walk upward, past the carpark. Right in front of me is the entrance to an elegant Chinese temple, the Thni Kong Tnuah Temple. This historic temple, with humble beginnings as a modest shrine built in the 1860s, is one of the few around that pays homage to the Jade Emperor God.1

Read more: Breathtaking Views into the Distance and the Past, Courtesy of The Habitat Penang Hill

I walk up the 110 granite steps to the front of the temple and marvel at the intricate paintings on the huge wooden doors. After taking some photos, I continue my hike along the cement road beside the temple. It leads me under the impressive viaducts of the Penang Hill Railway and to the entrance of the Penang Hill Heritage trail. The arch of the entrance proudly proclaims the trail’s establishment in 1890, making it a stately 130 years old! The relatively new cement steps leading up from the arch gives it a more contemporary feel though.

Viaducts of the Penang Hill Railway

From this point on, an ascent begins which runs parallel to the funicular railway line and ends at the Middle Station. The exposed surroundings at the start of my walk soon give way to a shady secondary forest, providing a much-needed relief. As I continue on my hike, I catch a glimpse of the funicular train zooming past on the railway line several metres to my left. The steps become steeper as the slope gradient becomes more inclined near the Middle Station.

Stopping for a breather, I notice an old rusty iron bar jutting out from the ground next to the steps. Curious, I take a closer look; it is an old rail bar. The Heritage Trail, I would learn, follows part of the alignment of the long forgotten first Penang Hill railway line. Now it makes sense why the Heritage Trail is so named! While this first railway line, completed in the early 1900s, is a quintessential part of the Hill’s history, it suffered public embarrassment when on its “momentous” first day, it failed to move.2 It took almost two decades before a second “functioning” funicular railway line was completed; this alignment is currently the Penang Hill Funicular Railway line.

Forty minutes and 1,400 steps from the start of the Heritage Trail, I reach the Middle Station, where I am greeted by several other hikers stopping for a brief respite. Near us is the preserved red and white 80-FUL train coach which used to ply the funicular railway line between the years 1977 and 2010.

The sight reminds me of my childhood, of how my family used to squeeze into one of these old coaches on our way down after hiking up Penang Hill. Middle Station was the point where we would hurriedly switch trains to get on the coach going down to the Bottom Station. Back then, I used to fear the train switching, what if I was not fast enough? I would not be able to hop onto the bottom leg coach; but fortunately, that never happened. Today, with the 100-FUL air-conditioned coaches, visitors are whisked from bottom to top or vice versa in barely 10 minutes, without a worry about switching trains at the Middle Station. How times have changed!

The red and white 80-FUL train coach parked as a permanent display at the Middle Station. These coaches were in operation for 33 years.

I walk across the Middle Station to a cement track on the other side leading southward. This path gently winds its way upward, through a large maze of farms and orchards. The air is heavy with the smell of fertiliser. Everything from fruits and vegetables to flowers are planted here, with Air Itam as its backdrop. One crop that immediately catches my attention is the egg-shaped passion fruit (Passiflora edulis). Originally from South America, this plant has made its way to the slopes of Penang Hill, riding on the ever-rising popularity of its use in smoothies and desserts. While the sight of all these crops excites me, I am filled with a tinge of sadness knowing that these farms stand on what was once the lush Hill Dipterocarp forest.

The path winds its way higher still, connecting to a compartment of the Bukit Kerajaan Permanent Forest Reserve. Here, I am glad to see a small, relatively intact patch of forest with stands of Meranti Seraya (Shorea curtisii) and Gegatal (Schima wallichii) growing, though this is sandwiched between the farms.

The ornate triple arched portico of Mon Sejour before the start of restoration works. Photo: Mike Gibby

After 45 minutes of walking from the Middle Station, I arrive at the Viaduct Road junction. Taking a left, I continue to Mon Sejour, a beautiful 19th century bungalow which once belonged to Loke Chow Kit, a famous philanthropist and millionaire. Built with a unique blend of eastern and western styles, the key feature of this bungalow is its ornate triple arched portico.3 I was able to catch a glimpse of the bungalow from a distance while descending along Moniot Road on my earlier hike as described in Don’t Forget to Circle the Summit of Penang Hill. This time around, I had the opportunity to see the bungalow up close in all its grandeur!

But restoration works are ongoing. With permission from its current owner, I step inside to get an exclusive look of the bungalow’s interior. It is absolutely beautiful, with richly decorated columns and colourful tiles. After taking in the sights, I return to the Viaduct Road junction. From here, the summit of Penang Hill is barely an hour away but sticking to my plan to keep it a “bottom circular” hike, I continue along Viaduct Road and arrive at the Viaduct Station, where a series of descending steps leads to a jungle trail headed directly to the Middle Station.

I later retrace my steps down through the Heritage Trail to finish my hike. Happily, I make my way back just before the sun sets. This “bottom circular” around the lower slopes of Penang Hill may not offer the gastronomic experience of a Penang Hill summit circular, but it, nevertheless, reveals a different side of the Hill’s charm, history and unique environment.

Special Note: Do not enter the Mon Sejour Bungalow without permission. It is a private residence. Entry requires the permission of its owner.

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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