I wanted to end my last day in Penang with something breathtaking and worthwhile. I didn’t get my desired sunset at Kek Lok Si temple so I made sure to wake up early for the sunrise this time at Penang Hill. Hoping the odds for good light would be better. Also known as Bukit Bendera, the distinguishing peaks seen from the city of George Town is easily accessible. With only around 6km from the city center to its jump-off at Air Itam, it’s one of the favorite cool escapes for the locals and tourists alike.
The granitic mass known as Penang Hill reaches its highest elevation at 883m (2,733ft) on the Western Hill. But most of the development is around 735m (2,450ft) at an area known as the Flagstaff Hill. Translated in Malay, it is Bukit Bendera. With its cooler clime, Captain Francis Light cleared an area of the hill to grow strawberries, hence the area was called Strawberry Hill. Captain Light was also the first person to plot a horse track towards Strawberry hill in 1788. Soon after, other establishments were erected in the area. The British community enjoys the nippy air here which is usually 5 degrees centigrade lesser than in George Town. Eventually, Penang Hill was soon set-up as a hill resort for everyone to enjoy.
Penang Hill Railway
While people climb Penang Hill on foot or on a horse way back, it is no longer allowed these days. Even driving up is not allowed unless one is a resident. Right now, the only way up the peaks is through the Penang Hill Railway at Air Itam. A funicular type railway was used due to the steep incline. First opened in 1923 as a two-section railway, it was overhauled in 2010 as part of its modernization. Now it only takes at most 20 minutes to reach the Flagstaff Hill where the top-most railway station is located.
Sunrise at Flagstaff Hill
I made sure to arrive early and catch the first train at 6:30 AM. In Malaysia time, it is still dark and the sun hasn’t risen yet. There were a few early birds at the station. As soon as we were allowed to ride the train, everyone excitedly took their places in the train cars. The higher we go, the view of the slumbering city with a few lit lights unfolded. By the time we reached the Flagstaff Hill, the sky was already starting to show colors.
I could see there was another photographer in a hurry to find a position so I followed him not knowing really where I should go since it’s my first time here. I scanned the area and we were at an overlooking area they call Sky Deck. A section where there are binocular stands where people can drop coins to take a peek. I tried to find an interesting spot with a foreground to capture the unravelling scene. The cold was quite bearable. I actually liked it wasn’t as biting.
I marveled at the panorama of a city slowly waking up while the clouds play over the city skyline. I could the layers of landscape, from the George Town below, Malacca Strait in the middle, the Penang Bridge connecting the island to the mainland, Butterworth and the numerous peaks behind it. I switch to a longer lens to capture the grand play of the light and clouds rolling over the city. Even the dark clouds bringing in a few showers. It was an etherial sight that I spent more than an hour there watching and taking photos.
Around Flagstaff Hill
Satisfied witnessing the sunrise, I decided to explore the other areas. Starting with the Sky Walk where there’s a 360 degree view of the island and mainland. There’s also the Sky Deck where I took photos. There’s an area there that has kitschy lover decors. Continuing along path along Strawberry Hill. There’s an Owl Museum but it and a Cliff View Cafe but both were closed. Above the cafe is a promenade with love locks. Nearby is the moderately sized Masjid on a hill.
I decided to take the Nature Walk Trail 2 leading to the highest peak at the Western Hill. The loop covers around 3km but I just walked half of it up to the Monkey Cup Cafe. It was a pleasant walk with relaxing views. Quiet too with only a few electronic cars passing through. I was quite amused to spot so many birds on a nearby fruit-bearing tree here. Using just a moderate telephoto lens,I think I got a few good shots of a few Thick-billed Green Pigeon, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Oriental Magpie-Robin and a common squirrel.
Walking further I found the bright red Heritage Post Box along the road. One of the oldest put up from 1837 – 1901 during Queen Victoria’s reign. There were many view stops and benches along the way. And again, I envy how neat and organized this park is.
More to Explore
Too bad I was about to leave that afternoon. I would have allotted a whole day for Penang Hill so I have more time to hike up the highest peak. The hill resort also have other interesting areas the Habitat, a unique looking canopy walk in the middle of the hill’s dipterocarp forest. Turning back, I hailed an e-car since I was in a hurry. I didn’t know they were for hire at the Flagstaff section but it was nice for the 2 Malaysian ladies to let me hop in for the ride. They were locals from Johor Bahru. One was working in Penang, and the other one was visiting her friend. I bid my goodbye and headed back to the Railway station. But before leaving Air Itam, I made sure to have a taste of Curry Mee from the Sisters.
Getting to Penang Hill Railway station jump-off is easy:
- Take a Taxi/car (only 6-7km from George Town city center)
- Rapid Bus #204 at KOMTAR
- Hop-on-hop-off bus City Route (Stop number 03). Starts from 9AM to 8PM with departure every 20-30 minutes.
- Schedule: 6:30am to 11:00pm daily with departure time every 30 minutes.
- Ticketing hours: 6:20am to 10:30pm
- Travel time 5 minutes non-stop or up to 15 minutes with substation stops
- Since train fare may change, best to visit www.penanghill.gov.my for updated fares.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.