Penang Hill or Bukit Bendera is the earliest colonial hill station in South-East Asia. It was discovered by British explorer Captain Francis Light, who founded the British colony in Penang in 1786.
The place was formerly called Flagstaff Hill, as the British flag used to be hoisted there to signal the presence of incoming visitors. Standing at a height of 833m, the hill was ideal as a lookout point.
The Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca can be seen from the lofty perch.
While on a media tour, we met with local guide Ong Kok Peng, a founding member of NatureWalks At Penang Hill, a group that does nature and heritage walks at the location. The walk offers tourists a glimpse of the hill’s rich history.
Ong said that while the former hill station was once used as a hiding place and shelter mainly for the British, today the hill has transformed into a tourist hotspot. It is home to one of the world’s ancient rainforests and a treasure trove of heritage charm.
“It has the region’s steepest tunnel with the Funicular Railway running through it, as well as a vast collection of flora and fauna,” said Ong.
Based on data found on the Unesco website, Penang Hill has been greeting over 1.6 million visitors every year since opening its doors as a tourist attraction to the public many years ago.
Before the trams were constructed, people had to scale the hill on foot or ride a Sumatran pony. Rich and influential folks, meanwhile, used to pay labourers to carry them up on a sedan chair. “The chair was reserved for the British governors as well as affluent members, and required at least four to eight porters carrying the bamboo poles attached to the chair,” Ong said.
Although the hill has over two centuries of history, the first funicular railway only started running in 1923. The trains have passed through three generations since then. Even the late Queen Elizabeth II rode the tram during one of her visits to Penang.
Today, there are two trams ferrying visitors up and down the hill: Mutiara and Pinang, the third generation trams. They have been in operation since 2011, after the second generation trams – which were brought in from Switzerland – were retired.
According to Ong, the upgrading of trams was to cater to the growing number of tourists visiting the hill. “The trams run at a much greater speed now, taking only five minutes to get from one point to another.”
But anyone who has visited Penang Hill knows that the wait to board the tram is longer than the journey itself. This has something to do with the way the trams work. Mutiara and Pinang are connected to a single cable, which pull each other through the funicular system, so the trams cannot be loaded at the same time from the same point.
Exploring the wonders
Penang Hill received the status as Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2021. This magnificent hill is every nature lovers’ dream as it is surrounded by the dense foliage of the tropical rainforest.
Ong said that if visitors arrive early enough, they may be rewarded with a beautiful view of the morning sky when the sun rises. “On a good day, you can even see wispy clouds floating in the sky at the lookout points, SkyWalk and SkyDeck.”
He added: “You will spot rare wildlife like the Dusky Leaf monkey, Black Giant squirrel and the Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (bird) here.”
Besides that, visitors can learn about the evolution of the 130-million-year old hill at the bungalow-turned-gallery, Edgecliff, located within the forest.
Another newly-opened attraction is The Habitat, an ecotourism discovery centre, which offers nature enthusiasts an immersive experience in the wild. These places are accessible on foot from the Upper Station at Penang Hill.
Ong said the hill was once full of strawberries, thanks to its cool weather. However, the strawberries eventually stopped growing because of changes in the weather. But it wasn’t just the rising temperature that became a problem, as the monkeys inhabiting the area were also attracted to the juicy fruits, and started eating them.
Visitors may have also noticed that the hill is teeming with Angsana trees. Ong said, “The deciduous trees are not native to Penang Hill. In fact, they originated from the Andaman.”
“The Angsana trees were planted as a landmark for the British, as well as to act as shelter from the blistering sun,” Ong added. “Captain Francis Light brought back the seeds after discovering its ‘cooling’ benefits during a visit to the Andaman.”
As you stroll on the Angsana tree-lined path, you will come across some old bungalows, which carry the influences of Asian and British architecture, nestled within the biodiverse forest.
“There are 52 bungalows here and one of the few that still stands today is the Bel Retiro. It is regarded as the most prestigious property on the hill.
“The bungalow was built in 1789 and served as an exclusive resort by the British government and prominent figures,” said the local expert.
Today, the building remains out-of-bounds to the public, but visitors can check out the Gate House, a historical entrance-way with a beautiful brick facade. The state government has plans to turn the space into a gallery.
Further into the trail, an impressive remnant of a cannon will come into view. This piece of artillery, however, wasn’t used for warfare, but served as an alarm signal.
The cannon is outside the Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Hindu temple and Masjid Bukit Bendera. The former is one of the oldest Hindu temples on Penang Island. “The Sri Aruloli temple is restored or redecorated every 12 years. It’s part of the Hindu culture,” Ong said.
The British also left behind their impressive architecture which is visible on the slanting walls.
“They were built slanted on slopes to prevent water from directly hitting the ground as the high water impact may cause soil erosion over time. The ‘skirting’, or uneven design of the walls, is meant to break the momentum of water flowing down from the slope,” he explained.
“This proved to be a remarkable architectural feat, especially after the area was hit by over 300 landslides – caused by a torrential rainfall in 2017. This was when I learned that whatever the British built was built to last as the tunnel and buildings were still intact after the disaster,” he concluded.
To find out more about the heritage walking trail, visit the NatureWalks At Penang Hill’s Facebook page (@NatureWalksPgHill).