Roadtrip Diaries: Things to See and Do on Penang Hill

Rising 833 metres above sea level, Penang Hill – or Bukit Bendera as it is fondly known in Malay – is one of Penang island’s most popular attractions, and a must-visit if you’re in town. The hill, which houses large swathes of tropical rainforest, was first developed in the 1700s as a retreat for the British, as its cool weather was much more pleasant than the scorching heat of the lowlands below. Today, the hilltop resort offers plenty to see and do – from nature trails and beautiful gardens, to luxurious homestays housed in colonial-era heritage buildings.

Back then, the only way to go up the hill was on foot, on horseback; or in a dooly (a sedan chair carried by servants). In the 1920s, the Straits government built a funicular railway system – the first of its kind in the region – which made it much easier to access the hilltop. This led to a boom in development, establishing Penang Hill as the popular tourist destination it is today.

The railway has also undergone many changes and improvements. Old carriages used before 1977 were open-air and made of wood, taking about 30 minutes to crawl up the 2,000m track. Passengers were also required to switch to another train halfway. The version I remember from childhood trips to Penang Hill was red and white with automatic sliding doors and fans to keep passenger’s cool. These were discontinued in 2010. Today, the modern train boasts spacious and air-conditioned coaches that can take you up the hill in just 5 minutes.

You can buy your tickets at the lower station, or online. A return ticket costs RM12 for Malaysian citizens. N got to avail this rate after showing his long-term social visit pass for foreign spouses.

The lower base station has a couple of restaurants if you’d like to grab a bite (although there are also food options atop the hill), souvenir shops, and washrooms. I suggest popping into one before heading up. Even though the trains are fast, the queues can be long, as it took us 20 minutes to finally get on one.

The track is surrounded by lush greenery on both sides. At certain sections, you’ll see walkways and staircases for those hiking up the hill. You’ll also pass through a 268-foot tunnel, which is one of the steepest in the world.

The train stopped halfway up the hill to allow several elderly ladies to disembark at the middle station. These are residents of the hill, as their bags were full of market produce, and they chatted in a familiar manner with the driver.

Alighting at the upper station, visitors are greeted by the Cliff Cafe or Astaka Bukit Bendera, a three-storey food court built into the slope. The lower level houses souvenir stalls and a Teddyville toy museum.

Exiting The Cliff, you’ll come to a spacious square, with a canopy providing shade. Here, you can find one of the old funicular wooden carriages on display. Just a few steps away are stalls selling souvenirs and snacks, as well as foot massage services.

The path from the square branches into two. The right leads to a lookout point with a row of binoculars, affording visitors gorgeous views of the city below and the sea beyond. There is also a beautiful (albeit a little tacky) “Little Village”, and a garden restaurant / tea terrace called David Brown, where you can munch on savoury canapes, scones slathered with strawberry jam, and sip on a cup of English tea.

Entrance to Little Village.

We did not go in as there was an entrance fee, but if you like taking photos, this could be one of your stops on Penang Hill. Aside from a giant heart-shaped arch where you can declare your undying love to your significant other by hooking a padlock onto the structure, there’s also a tunnel hung with hundreds of tiny paper hearts, a ‘dwarf village’ with Snow-White inspired miniature houses and deco, a small petting zoo with rabbits, and an apiary.

If you head back to the main square and turn left, up a set of staircases, you’ll come to another area that houses Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan, the oldest Hindu temple on the island. Founded in the 19th century as a simple makeshift structure, its current form is an impressive display of craftsmanship, with elaborate carvings, sculptures, and statues depicting Hindu deities and mythical figures. The temple is dedicated to Murugan, the Hindu God of War (the same as Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur), who is often depicted with a long spear.

A short distance from the temple sits Masjid Bukit Bendera, its golden domes that glow in the sunlight a stark contrast to the other heritage buildings within the vicinity.

Also nearby is the Gate House of Bel Retiro, the latter a government bungalow that was built in 1789 for the British Governor of Penang. The bungalow is still used by the state government today and is out of bounds for the public, but you can snap photos of the brick gate house, which boasts traditional European architecture, with arched windows and pearly white balustrades.

All of the attractions listed above (with the exception of Little Village) are free – so if you’re on a budget, there’s still quite a lot you can see on Penang Hill without breaking the bank.

If you have a bit extra to spend, however, I highly recommend paying a visit to The Habitat, a five-minute walk from the main square. This world-class eco-tourism attraction allows visitors to discover the many layers of a rainforest and appreciate its wild flora and fauna up close, through a series of elevated walkways and well-laid out paths. Perfect for families and people who like nature but have no stamina to go trekking up hills or wade through mud and battle leeches. Will be detailing our visit in another post, as I think it warrants its own entry!

Getting to Penang Hill

Getting around Penang island is fairly easy, with loads of taxis and Grab available for hire. If driving, there is a multi-storey car park at the lower station of the funicular railway. The 204 Rapid KL Bus services Penang Hill as its last stop, and makes pick-ups along various tourist attractions and major roads such as Fort Cornwallis, Burma Road, Penang Road, Lebuh Farquhar, and Pengkalan Weld.

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