George Town is great, but when you want to get away from the city and explore the paths less travelled – the forested reaches of rural Penang where both concrete and people make infrequently appearances – Travel photojournalist David Bowden has the inside scoop on where to go and how to make the most of your journey.
While Penang is a densely populated island, the main concentration of people is around the coast with the northern and eastern parts being the most urbanised. Despite urban encroachment, forests cover much of the hilly land and the lowlands along the southern and western coasts are only minimally settled.
On my most recent visit to Penang, I decided to head off to discover these sparsely settled parts, especially Penang National Park on Penang’s northwestern coastline. Known as Balik Pulau, or the back of the island, it’s an area not commonly visited by tourists, but after a few days exploring here, I can highly recommend hiring a car and circumnavigating the island. There is no accommodation of merit here, however, so visitors have to stay in either George Town or Batu Ferringhi.
Penang National Park
Penang National Park on the island’s northwestern tip makes a wonderful nature escape. In the park’s 12 sq km area, you’ll find trails, beaches, forests, good facilities, and a turtle hatchery on Pantai Kerachut beach operated by the Department of Fisheries. They retrieve turtle eggs and place them in the safety of the hatchery until they hatch and are released to the sea.
Camping is permitted in designated areas within very close proximity to sandy beaches. Basic facilities are available and camping equipment can be hired for a small fee.Visitors can walk into the park or, alternately, catch a fishing boat to arrive on the beach.
Well-formed trails provide access to various locations and habitats supported in the park. Seeking the assistance of a professional guide is recommended, as much of the forest detail is camouflaged and at a macro level, and is not seen by most. I sought assistance from Joseph Teoh from Freedom Getaway Adventures and can highly recommend him as an insightful nature guide.
We departed by boat from Kuala Sungai Pinang and travelled through mangroves lining Pinang River into the Straits of Malacca to arrive in the park via the beach. Kuala Sungai Pinang is a small fishing village that opens to the sea via a long stretch of mangrove and muddy foreshore. Depending on the season, the wetlands attract many species of wading birds.
Mangroves have adapted to surviving in saline and brackish water and many species have pneumatophores which enable the plant to obtain oxygen. Mangroves serve many valuable functions, from being a source of timber to acting as a habitat for waterbirds, fish, and crustaceans. They also protect the coastline from regular wave damage, storm surges, and even tsunamis. The extensive root system of mangroves consolidates the mud and also provides a valuable habitat for organisms such as oysters, crabs, and mudskippers, as well as reptiles, birds, and monkeys.
Birdlife along the west coast is prolific, especially in the mangroves and on mudflats. White-breasted Sea Eagles are often sighted soaring high on thermals or close to the water’s edge catching fish in their strong talons. The Little Egret is a small white heron which feeds in the shallows of wetlands using its pointed bill to spear its prey. The Little Heron is a wader usually seen along mudflats, shallow waters and mangroves. Another wader that inhabits similar locations is the Grey Heron
which feeds on fish, frogs, and insects which are speared by their long, slender bill.
Lowland dipterocarp forest is the most common habitat in the park. In undisturbed forests, it’s difficult for sunlight to penentrate the upper layers, and consequently, the understorey and forest floor are usually not very dense. Creepers, vines, and epiphytes are commonly found here with many growing on larger plants. I soon discovered, with Joseph’s assistance, to not just look for big things, as it’s often the small, discreet, and semi-hidden life forms that make this environment so fascinating. For example, carnivorous pitcher plants survive in nutrient-poor soils and fungus thrives on decaying timber. Peat swamp forests are typically low in nutrients and plants like pitcher plants survive by obtaining nutrients not from the soil, but mostly from insects or fallen leaf litter.
The sandy beaches of Penang National Park are mostly untouched with Pantai Kerachut and Pantai Ketapang being two very picturesque beaches. Soft sands here are ideal for Green, Hawksbill and Olive-Ridley Turtles to lay their eggs just beyond the foreshore.
Penang National Park is also home to a rather unusual habitat called a seasonal meromictic lake located at the back of Pantai Kerachut. This type of lake has layers of water that intermix just once a year. Apart from being a picturesque lake that has a narrow opening to the sea, it is of great scientific interest, as it is just one of three such lakes found in Asia.The lake’s stratification creates conditions allowing different organisms to survive in different strata. It forms during the monsoon seasons, but at other times, it may not be evident.
South By Southwest
The road heads southwards through villages, farmland, forested areas, and a mangrove-lined coastline.Within a short distance from the busy Batu Ferringhi strip, the mountainous landscape is dominated by forests and farms. Many people on the west coast still live in villages like Kampung Sungai Pinang, and while the houses here are mostly made from modern building materials, it’s not unusual to see traditional timber houses built on stilts.These stilts, overhanging eaves, and shuttered windows helped villagers keep cool before the advent of air conditioning.The few people still employed in Penang’s agricultural sector work in farms and plantations located on the west coast. Crops grown include rubber, rice, fruits, oil palm, vegetables, and spices.
Two of the west coast’s most popular educational attractions are the Penang Butterfly Farm and Tropical Fruit Farm located within a few kilometres of Teluk Bahang.
Penang Butterfly Farm is a colourful butterfly and insect exhibition with thousands of butterflies thriving in the nectar-rich gardens.Visitors can walk through these gardens to admire over 50 Malaysian butterfly species.
Drive a little further south to the Tropical Fruit Farm Further which opened in 1993 to grow and sell rare and exotic fruits. Some 250 species of tropical and subtropical fruits are grown on this organic farm. Tours are conducted and, at the end, all visitors get to sample many of the delicious seasonal fruits.
Spice Of Life
Penang was settled by the British in the 19th century to serve the regional trade and to tap into the lucrative spice trade. Pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and mace were eagerly sought by European nations. Nutmeg was planted in Penang and, while it had mixed degrees of success, it is still grown on the island and various farms along the west coast can be visited.
Penang is a fascinating island, and though the heritage-rich city of George Town, and scenic, touristy Batu Ferringhi are certainly worthwhile places to stay and visit, there are also great rewards to be found for those who venture out into the lesser-known reaches of hidden Penang.
Freedom Getaway Adventures: www.freedomgetaway.org
Parkroyal Penang Resort: www.parkroyalhotels.com
Penang Butterfly Farm: www.butterfly-insect.com
Penang Global Tourism: www.mypenang.gov.my
Tropical Fruit Farm: www.tropicalfruitfarm.com.my
Source: Senses of Malaysia July/August 2014
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