Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera)


Early adventures


huge dipterocarps like this one at the botanic garden, used cover most of penang island

There’s a quiet charm about this hill station. Certain romanticism persists despite recent developments on the island. Gone are the days when the vistas below was nothing but an endless green swath of rainforest trees, gigantic specimens of which until the 1930’s blanketed the island and the rest of the mainland. Gone are the days when the only way up and down the hill in 1890s was by pony or sedan. Visitors to Penang Hill would trek all the way to the botanical gardens, where upon they would take in the sights at the waterfall for a moment or two before embarking on the uphill trek.

From the garden, a narrow road led up onto the crest of the ridge. There were two local companies run by Chinese who provided pony and sedan services plus extra labour to carry supplies up the hill. The charge for pony up or down the hill was $1½ and 35cents for a chair coolie. Five to eight coolies were required for each chair and the services of this sedan were normally required by the women, children, the sick and the older genteel. Men and officers would walk the distance. The walk up took roughly 2 – 3hrs but with jungle canopy shading sojourners below along the trail, and the gradual drop in temperature as they ascended towards the 821m peaks, this slow climb was probably bearable.

Lying stretched out at the edge of Bellevue Hotel’s lawn, looking down on a land lip below where Crag Hotel used to sit and the sea beyond, with a cool evening breeze rising up from the open water and purple silhouettes of the mainland mountain range behind, it was a wonder ~ was this what Sir Francis Light saw over a hundred years ago? Standing on this spot? The serenity, the vastness, the unmatched beauty – a divine creation unadulterated?

Penang Hill was possibly the first hill station built in the British colonies and pre-dated the larger hill stations in India such as Simla which were developed in the 1820’s. In 1805, Penang saw a short-lived 2nd revival when she was made the fourth presidency of India (other presidencies were Bombay, Madras and Bengal). The reason for its prestigious status was based on several exaggerations including its strategic position as a potential naval base and its economic potential.

Penang Island was known as the Prince of Wales Island then and Penang Hill was called Government Hill, Great Hill or just The Hill. But this hill station actually straddles several peaks, sitting on the upper ridge between Fern Hill and Strawberry Hill with the governor’s bungalow located on Flagstaff Hill (so named because a flagstaff was hoisted up to alert the community living below in Georgetown of any pending dangers and more importantly - to signal the arrival of the mail boat from Britain, probably the most important cargo for the small colonial society living in these far flung outposts). The hill station was first developed as a convalescence station and saw some busy times from 1800 to 1820 when more military officers and civil servants were posted to Penang in 1805.

Despite its newfound interest, total population of Europeans was probably no more than 300 and the hill station remained small and personal. Unfamiliar with the temperate conditions and the harshness of the Malayan jungles, there was certainly a demand for quiet, tranquil resorts to convalesce above the level of disease and mental stress that several suffered in the lowlands. Although temperature on Penang Hill was not high enough to create a cool environ for the colonists, (at only about 5°C cooler than that in the lowlands but that, was when the world was a lot cooler), it was reported that there were improvements in some patients, having been transferred from the lowlands.

There really wasn’t much for the early visitors to do except nature trekking, a stroll around the beautiful gardens that was later landscaped to look just like gardens back in Britain, a game of croquet, reading, painting and just to take in the wonderful view from the peak.

Bungalows on Penang Hill

The previous tram had a trolley hooked to the tram for luggage transfer and also transfer of goods to the hill residents.When it wasn't loaded with goods, it was the monkey class - free seating for our furry passengers.

A bungalow in the 1800’s referred to temporary hill dwellings used by Europeans. Dwellings of more permanence in the lowlands were called houses or residences. The bungalow was described as one-storeyed, low ceiling buildings that were square or oblong shaped mostly. The structure sat on slightly raised platforms, plinths or low brick pillars. The walls were made of mud or covered with woven mats and roofed with attap. A generously spacious verandah ran round the house where guests could sit, enjoying the evening vistas from any angle of choice. Shaded in the early afternoons from the sun by bamboo chicks, sipping English tea or Whisky stengahs was a ritual with these sojourners. The interior was structured with an open area where the living and dining area was located and from this, doors led to bedrooms on both sides of the central area. The architecture and layout of these bungalows were very similar to houses in Madras. There were a few that were infused with Malay architecture.

The early bungalows were later replaced or reconstructed into brick structures. Most of the mainland hill station bungalows were erected by the PWD (Public Waterworks Department) and there are many similarities architecture and structures at Penang Hill, Fraser’s Hill and Cameron Highlands. Many are still standing today.

The Bel Retiro bungalow, located on Flagstaff Hill, was commissioned in 1789 for the Governor of Penang and still remains the holiday residence of the Governor today. Another early bungalow was the Convalescent Bungalow, which required official permission to overnight. There was also the Medical Officer’s residence on Fern Hill, which had a dispensary to help and treat patients convalescing at the hill station.

Thomas Halyburton, a British Merchant and part time sheriff of Prince of Wales Island built his bungalow on Haliburton Hill. This bungalow was also known as Belle Vue and the hotel that sits on this site has retained its name Bellevue Hotel. Within the grounds of this hotel today is an aviary with a variety of exotic birds on display including macaws, cockatiels amongst others. Entrance fee is RM4 for adults and RM2 for children, and operating hours are 9am to 6pm, seven days a week. Bellevue Hotel also serves steamboat dinners for those who stay overnight on Penang Hill.

crag hotel on the peak. the derelict hotel was used as a location shoot for the film 'Indochine' starring Catherine Deneuve and released in 1992. Then in 2014 - 2015, it became the main location shoot for Indian Summers, a period drama series aired over Channel Four, UK in 2015.

Starring Julie Walters and a host of household names, Indian Summers lasted 2 seasons but the set transformed Crag Hotel into a beautiful piece of heritage worth a second chance

This is how it looked like after years of neglect . Video taken in 2012

And this is how it looks like now. The transformation, although not complete - clears a path for imagination to go to its limits on how Crag Hotel can once again shine like a beacon atop a hill

The other bungalow worth a mention is the Crag owned by a Scotsman by the name of Captain Kerr. The famous Sarkies Brothers who also owned Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Georgetown, The Raffles in Singapore and The Strand Hotel in Rangoon Burma ; acquired the Crag, converted it into a hotel and opened for business in 1895. The hotel comprised of a ‘village of bungalows’ grouped around or close to the central building where the dining and sitting rooms were located. The hotel saw numerous days of social events and maintained a hotel until it was taken over by the Uplands Preparatory School and now is under the TNB or The National Electricity . There were plans to build the Xylarium (Wood Museum) at the Crag hotel site and was scheduled to be completed in mid 2007. The museum was supposed to host a collection of wood samples from around the world including the type of wood that most likely was used to build Noah’s Ark. Not too sure about the Crag Hotel's fate though. Our council leaders are not particularly concerned with preservation or conservation when it comes to colonial architecture or historical influences although they say they are.... politicians will be politicians..

The Funicular Railway

With the funicular railway built and functioning after 1923, it provided a less strenuous travel up the hill and eventually brought more people to the hill station. In the later 1900’s, mid level lands were acquired by wealthy local residents where they built holiday bungalows.

old trams on display on Penang Hill

The first attempt on building a railway up to the peak was made in 1890’s by 3 English engineers. However, the equipment they installed failed during its launch and the project was abandoned until 1923 when a Swiss technology was adopted to operate the funicular train system. Passenger had to alight at the middle station to change trains. This was due to the different gradients as it ascends to the hilltop. The upper and lower sections each had a passing loop in the middle and intermediate stops. The cars were pulled by steel cable electrically driven with 500 volts power. Being the longest tunnel which measures 258 feet long at the time and also the steepest tunnel in the world, it took 30 minutes to get to the top. But it is a time well spent, admiring the jungle paths and the wildlife seen along the way. Also, being open air meant that people got to feel the environment. Being encased in an air conditioned bubble, isolates people from their natural habitat..making us so distant and indifferent to our surroundings.

The original wooden carriages were later replaced which inadvertantly lost its charm but presumably this upgrade meant that it could transport more passengers up and down the hill. The railway system is in 2 sections. At the half waypoint, passengers have to alight and board another carriage on the parallel track to the end destination. The entire ride takes 1/2hr.This trip can be a little uncomfortable as often, passengers are packed into the carriages like sardines in a tin and the discomfort on a hot day can rise with the temperature. Ventilation is limited to small air vents and a rotating mini fan. Open windows doesn’t help much either as the train travels at approximately 1.5m per second.

IN 2010, the government decided to replace the then existing tram with an entirely new system which cost us taxpayers to a sum of RM63million and looking a lot more futuristic which definitely loses the entire ambience.

For more on the ticketing and pricing for the train. Go to http://www.penanghill.gov.my/index.php/ticket-serv...

Open Daily: 6.30a.m - 11.00p.m (Last train from top station)

The Ticketing counter will be closed at:

Daily: 10.30p.m

(The management reserves the rights to revise the schedule without prior notice)

Ok,you may be wondering why there's a difference in pricing as in "Normal" and "FastLane" . Well, fast lane just lets you cut the long queues especially during school holidays, public holidays and peak hours. It's strangely deceptive. As you arrive at the entrance, normally it looks pretty deserted. Then...as you turn the corner to the ticketing counter .. you may run smack into the longest snacking queue ever.

The other way to do it is to perhaps buy your ticket online. https://sales.penanghill.gov.my/

During holiday seasons, the wait for this ride can take as long as 1hr

Trails to Penang Hill

For the reasonably fit, the alternative is to hike up. If you wish to hike up, DO NOT GET YOURSELF TO THE FUNICULAR STATION. THE TRAIL UP THE HILL IS FROM THE PENANG BOTANICAL GARDENS. COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LOCATIONS.

There are a number of trail leading to different peaks as follows:

Moon Gate at Waterfall Road ~ 3hrs approx.

About five minutes away from the Botanic Garden entrance. This 5.5km trail takes you to Bukit Bendana and 84. The moon gate was once the main gate into the grounds of a colonial mansion aptly named "Yu Yi Yuan" (Yu Yi Garden). The mansion is now in ruins and lies just 15minutes walk from the gates, but its history is significant in the chronicles of the migrant Chinese in Penang. As wealth poured in during the late 19th century, holiday mansions were well in demand and many rich Chinese towkays or mandarins commissioned building of weekend homes in the outskirts especially in the hills or in the countryside. These mansions came with large gardens and lawns, some replicating European landscaping. To retain a little of the Chinese culture and arts, several homes incorporated Chinese structures to their seemingly ostentatious European influenced architecture.

Jeep track just by Botanic Gardens entrance ~ 45min approx.

Trekkers will pass the '48' (a playground) and '84' (a rest stop). The rest stop at 84 serves free cups of hot coffee and Chinese tea and biscuits and is open from late afternoon until 7pm. After a cup of coffee, don’t forget to drop some change into the box to help maintain the coffee and biscuit services for others.

Hye Keat Estate, Air Itam

This path takes trekkers through a connection of fruit and vegetable farms and forks off to 84 whilst the other veers off to the Middle Station. From the Middle Station, trekkers can opt to trek all the way up to the top of Penang Hill or hop onto to the funicular train all the way up or down.

The Tiger Hill trail ~ 5hrs approx

This 8km uphill climb starts from Air Itam, not far from the Kek Lok Si Temple. The trail heads up to the Air Itam Dam and then to Tiger Hill, ending at Summit Road. From the exit point at Summit Road, it’s another 30min to Strawberry Hill. According to trekkers, this trail is worth the hard work trudging into valleys, passing by a farm, streams, jungle shrubbery and trees. Not much left of this on the island…it certainly is a must do before it completely disappears…

Other Activities

Bicycles for hire : there are bikes for hire at the tea kiosk area . just check on the brakes before taking it out on the steep roads. This is a great way to get around. Most visitors hang around the main viewing point area but if you have the energy, time and enthusiasm to explore a bit more - go for it! It's worth your time. There are gazebos along the way where you can catch up on a bit of personal time if you like

Canopy walk : according to recent reports, the canopy walk is undergoing repairs as areas have been affected by termites.

Apparently, there is a green initiative being put in place on Penang Hill by a conglomerate group and its called The Habitat which also incorporates a canopy walk. A lot of teething problems at the moment and most of the trails have not been given time to mature as yet. Perhaps in a year or 2 (2017 - 2018), it may be worth paying your hard earned money to see. If you would like to know more, it's at http://thehabitat.my/about.html

Stroll around – there are many viewpoints scattered around Penang Hill. It’s nice to sit a bit, just to take time off worries and strain and the best viewpoint gazebos are ones further away from the hill centre. The viewing gallery on the way to the canopy is a good spot. There are some beautifully maintained bungalows on Penang Hill and several have residents living there so be a little considerate and refrain from poking around in their gardens etc. these are private homes.

Personally, I prefer to visit in the late evenings - sometime around 5pm-ish. It's when the temperature drops a little as the sun begins to melt into the sea and the cool air picks up into gentle breeze. Sitting at David Brown's Sky Terrace enjoying the view and the company with a cocktail of your choice. As the sun sets, adjourn to the dining room at David Brown's restaurant for some traditional English food, a variety of hors d'oeuvers, steaks and chops, fresh puddings and pies and traditional roasts in the menu

Just make sure you're ready to leave by 10pm to catch the last train down.