If you drop anchor in George Town, you can almost forget the rest of the island exists. But you shouldn’t.
George Town is where everybody goes when they visit Penang. I try to spend as little time there as possible. Because if you drop anchor in George Town, you can almost forget the rest of the island exists. And it’s gorgeous. It’s a hiker’s paradise, criss-crossed by slim concrete motorbike roads and springy jungle trails, haunted by two species of monkeys, millions of colorful birds, scary black scorpions, enormous monitor lizards and fat centipedes as thick as your big toe. It’s back-to-nature at its finest, because you can also count on an awesome meal when you hit civilization 15 minutes after your hike.
But first, a note about safety: Hikers have been known to get lost in Penang’s jungle interior. Not every hillside has cell reception. Trees here are thorny. Please always carry water, please always have a buddy, and please don’t step on a cobra (not kidding, I did it). If you are concerned about getting lost, consider hiring a Trekking Guide, like my friend Peter. If you want an insane jungle-whacking group adventure, join the Penang Hash Harriers.
To sleep in nature, try an eco-lodge like Penang Green Acres, Bao Sheng Durian Farm, Malihom, or Nature Fruit Farm.
The Easy Way: Taman Negara Teluk Bahang
Locals say this beach-lined peninsula and National Park on the northern coast sticks out like a sea turtle flipper. It’s a well-known beach destination for day hikers and beach-goers with trails to six different beaches. If you’re feeling lazy, you can also just take a boat.
The trail starts at the park headquarters (entry is free, but you need to register) with an easy jaunt along a monkey-populated sidewalk to a swinging bridge, where you make your first decision. Right is the most popular choice, and the busy and well-marked trail rolls along the turquoise coastline. After 30 minutes, you’ll come to Pantai Ailing, a very nice beach where almost nobody stops. Push onwards, and in another 30 minutes you’ll arrive at Monkey Beach like everybody else.
Left takes you inland across the forested peninsula, on a slightly more difficult trek, but with a well-marked trail that begins with a steep climb and then levels out for about an hour until you glimpse the white sands of Turtle Beach. The trees are big here, the hum of the cicadas intense, and you’re unlikely to meet with more than another lone soul. There is no cell reception at this beach, so if you want to do a one-way hike make sure to pre-arrange your boat at the park headquarters.
A Quick View Before Lunch: Pondok Upeh 3-Mile Loop
This lollipop-shaped loop will have you huffing and puffing as you ascend nearly 500 feet to what are some of the best views over Balik Pulau. The road is paved and wide enough to drive a car, although you better have some hill skillz because this trek goes straight up for nearly a mile before leveling out to let you meander around the durian orchards.
The loop is well-marked by a round blue sign with a bicycle, implying that someone besides Lance Armstrong could tackle the hill. It starts in a Malay village just outside of Balik Pulau Town. To get there, turn at the road opposite the Pasar Balik Pulau. There’s no street sign, but Google Maps knows it’s Jalan Pondok Upeh. Go straight for five minutes until you see the blue sign on your left at GPS 5.337788, 100.230723. After your hike, head back to the Balik Pulau market for some well-deserved nutmeg juice.
Intense: Penang Hill Via Bats Cave Temple
Penang Hill has the best view over the whole island, but it’s serious work to climb the 2,300 feet to the Upper Station of the Funicular Railway. Few people make it all the way.
Before you start this hike, plan carefully. There are a lot of trailheads that lead up Penang Hill, but the trails are poorly marked, so it’s easy to get confused and end up wandering with goats in a Chinese cemetery, like I did on one poorly planned day. The most popular start is the Moongate near the Botanic Garden, although my preference is to start at the Bats Cave Temple near the train station in Air Itam. It’s the most straight forward path, and I’m all about the gorgeous views.
To start, park at the Bats Cave Temple and head up the stairs along the funicular railway. You’ll have views the whole way, until the stairs end in a tunnel of flora. Eventually, you’ll come out at a bald patch carpeted with chili pepper fields and okra. Take in the views here; they’re the best on the island. Then continue your merry way up into the jungle. The path gets a bit technical here, with ropes tied to trees to help you. Eventually, you’ll see the Middle Station, a covered cement pagoda where you can have a rest and wait to watch the train go by. At Claremont Station, you cross under the train tracks and continue up until you get to Viaduct Road West. The trail becomes well-marked here, because you’re almost to the top! Good job.
Of course, the lazy way is to take the train to the top and hike down, but you didn’t hear that from me.