On my second last day in Penang, I was determined to go up the hill – that is, the Penang Hill, 823 meters above sea level.
A few days earlier on Sunday 30th December, my partner and I went to the base of Penang Hill located 6km from George Town in the old Chinese village of Air Itam. It was in the early afternoon. The base entrance area was packed with tourists trying to buy the tickets – MR$30 per adult return fare or MR$8 for Malaysians. There was an even longer queues to catch the fairly new Swiss made funicular air-conditioned train. It was a hot day and we were not prepared to wait in the queue to buy the ticket and wait in another queue to catch the train. It was a wrong time to head up to Penang Hill – especially on a weekend, holiday season and school holiday at the same time. Everywhere in Penang was busy, and the traffic was the worse I have ever seen in my many visits back to Penang each year. This was the first time I went back to Penang during the Christmas and New Year holiday season. This is the first of a number of posts on my recent trip to Penang to wrap up the year 2012, and welcome the new year 2013.
The last time I went up to Penang Hill, also known to the local Hokkiens as “Seng Kee Sua” or Bukit Bendera in Bahasa Malaysia was more than 2 decades ago. I remember fondly it was operated by a wooden open-air coach with a midway station – the Viaduct Station – halfway up the hill, which the passengers had to disembark and embark on another coach to the top of the station. It was slow and could take almost 30 minutes to reach the top of the station. The old colonial wooden train was replaced by new coaches around the late seventies. In 2010 – 2011, the funicular railway system was upgraded with the purchased of new Swiss air conditioned coaches which became operational in April 2011. Unfortunately, the old charm and fun of riding the funicular train up the hill has disappeared with the efficiency of the modern coach which takes slightly over 5 minutes to reach the top of the hill in a single ride. The old wooden coach may be slow, but it gave the passengers ample time to experience the slow and layback feeling of a time gone by, taking in the view and experience the sights and sounds of the surrounding flora and fauna and native wildlife – with occasional sighting of snakes, butterflies, birds and monkeys. The modern coach has removed all the experiences of the past, which I think is a great shame.
To make this journey up the hill, I caught a RapidPenang bus 204 from the city main bus terminal Komtar. The fare cost MR$2. Depending on the traffic, in off peak, it takes 20 minutes from Komtar to Air Itam. I left in the late afternoon. My reason to leave this late is to experience the city lights from the top of hill at nightfall.
The ride up the funicular railway was rapid. The view spectacular. The climate nice and cool. The pace slow and peaceful. It was cloudy and overcast with fog and rainy clouds rolling in. During the colonial period when Penang was ruled by the British empire, several bungalows were built on top of the hill and on the hillside. Once I had a very close friend whose family lived in and house minded one of the bungalow. I remember as a teenager visited her family’s home and stayed there one weekend. At the time, it meant nothing to me to stay overnight at Penang Hill except it was cold and foggy. Now that I have lived in a few cities and the country rural setting of Tasmania, I can understand why the English escaped to the top of the hill and seek the cool climate and quiet life. On my recent trip up the hill, I found the place peaceful and charming. I was alone and not in a rush and waited for the nightfall and enjoyed a lovely western style dinner at a garden restaurant. By that time, it had rained for 15 minutes and cold with temperature dropping to below twenties degree Celsius with the wind chill. A fine way to wrap up my visit to Penang Hil was to treat myself to a dinner at the hilltop garden restaurant. It is expensive but expected as this is the only restaurant on the hill top. There is a food court centre but none of the stalls were opened. I suppose they are only open in the day time.
Roast lamb with redcurrant sauce and mint sauce and vegetables for MR$72 and a glass of mojito for MY$28 plus 10% service charge and 6% government tax was the most expensive dinner I had in Penang so far.