Balik Pulau is synonymous with durians but there is much more to the district, which is literally translated as ”back of the island”.
The peace of the quiet rural district was disrupted during the 2004 tsunami when many fishing village households were shattered and lives were lost at the now serene Pantai Pasir Panjang in Pulau Betong.
Walking along the long white sandy beach now, it is hard to imagine the chaos that happened there that fateful Sunday afternoon, but traces of the disaster are still evident in the broken walls of Kem Bina Negara above the beach.
The beach is still a haunt for local picnickers and anglers especially like the rocky Batu Hampar stretch a short distance away as both spots are away from the throngs that one would find on the better-known beaches of Batu Feringghi.
A drive past the village and paddy fields of Pulau Betong is similarly soothing to the soul.
The best way to enjoy the overall sights of Balik Pulau is by car, unless, of course, one is game for a challenging mountain bike ride up and down one of the three hilly roads that lead into the district.
Public transport is available, even in the outlying areas, but it would be more time-consuming to cover the district that way. Off Jalan Sungai Pinang that leads towards Teluk Bahang are several more fishing villages whose entrances are somewhat difficult to spot.
Just look out for the small signboards that say “Kuala Sungai Burung“, “Kuala Jalan Baru“ and “Kuala Sungai Pinang“ and you will know you have reached the life lungs of Balik Pulau.
Any outsider manoeuvring the narrow roads into the area will immediately be noticed by the small local community, but put on a big smile and the locals will willingly tell you some anecdotes.
Apart from Kuala Pulau Betong, there is Kuala Sungai Burung, where the river mouth meets the open sea. Locals familiar with the hours of fishermen who go out to sea will congregate here when they return to purchase fresh seafood.
Founded in the late 1770s, the Balik Pulau town thrived because of nutmeg, clove and rubber plantations in the vicinity. In fact, locals still refer to the quaint one-street town as Pekan Kongsi, after the long kongsi houses that once housed plantation workers.
The heart of the town is undoubtedly the dark, dank single-storey 1914 market whose role will soon be taken over by a new RM17mil complex. Locals congregate here every morning for their supply of fresh vegetables, fish, flowers and kuih before settling down in one of the surrounding coffee shops for a chit-chat over a bowl of Hokkien mee or a plate of roti telur. If you believe what outsiders swear by, go for the laksa.
The landmark roundabout with a tall white column and lion figure heads in the town centre (known as Pekan Kongsi to locals) has an interesting history. A rich Hakka merchant, Koh Sean Tatt, had built the roundabout in the 1880s and it was originally used as a water trough for horses and cows.
For historical architecture, check out the Holy Name of Jesus church down the road next to SRJK (C) Sacred Heart that was a simple wooden building when it was started by a French priest who could speak Hakka.
The Sri Sri Thendayuthapani Muthumariamman Nagarathar Temple (better known as Chettiar's Temple) in Jalan Sungai Pinang is also a remnant of the past. The temple was built by the Chettiars (Indian money lenders) whose businesses prospered, mainly because of the presence of the many Indian labourers. .
And, of course, what is Balik Pulau without its durians? Now orchards are aplenty, but you would need connections or recommendations to know how and where you can get yourself invited for a walk-and-glut feast during fruiting season.
Those who do not favour the pungent smell of the King of Fruits may consider taking a walk when the more aromatic flowers are blooming. Experienced hikers will be able to show you many trails through the hills of Penang that pass durian orchards.
So for a taste of Penang that has retained its slow pace, head for Balik Pulau.
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