3 Ways to Escape Penang without Leaving the Island

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There’s no getting away from it – Penang is an island and it can be a little claustrophobic at times. In such a hothouse atmosphere, emotions tend to become intensified. Small squabbles develop into thermo-nuclear war. Mountains erupt out of molehills. Minor irritations become major sources of discontent. You can find yourself complaining about the shops, or the heat, or the traffic. In other words, you’re getting island fever. But, on the other hand, pleasures can also be heightened and most of us living here enjoy the vibrancy of Penang. Many people speak of the sudden delight of coming across some great hawker’s stall, some deliciously idiosyncratic person, or some intensely colourful festival.

In his dystopian novel “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley used islands to banish people who didn’t fit into the ordered nightmare of the mainstream society. They were havens for dissidents and misfits. Thirty years later when Huxley came to write his last his last book which was called “Island”, he describes a utopian paradise island, Pala, where people behave in empathetic, kind, and reasonable ways towards each other. In a way, hell and heaven. Penang is sometimes one and sometimes the other and when the pendulum swings too far one way, one just has to escape. Of course, taking one of the fine bridges to the mainland, or the by now virtually heritage ferry, is an option. Or maybe getting a passage on a passing yacht or, easiest of all, taking a flight from the airport. But what if one wants to stay in Penang and yet get away from it all? How can you escape Penang without even leaving it?

1. Penang Hill

Amazingly for such a small island, there are quite a few options. My favourite is a trip up Penang Hill, or Bukit Bendera, as it’s known locally.

Images of Penang Hill

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About Penang Hill

As soon as the train leaves the station, you feel you are entering a different world. Because it’s a funicular railway, the ascent is almost vertical which gives you a real feeling of rising above the landscape. This literal change of perspective usually banishes my island fever. Quite soon, the temperature becomes rapidly drops and, best of all, you can see majestic trees, and hear the call of birds. At the top of the hill, I walk quickly past the more obvious tourist attractions and seek the deep peace of jungle trails. It’s usually best to take a picnic so that you can really saunter at leisure and feel the pressures and the stresses of the island fade away. If time is limited, you might consider Penang Hill lite. The Ayer Itam Dam is just the place for a gentle, undemanding walk. You take the road to Kek Lok Se Temple, and then continue on a little further until you reach the dam where there’s a car park. Although not as high as Penang Hill, the altitude is nevertheless refreshingly cool and there are pleasing vistas.

2. Teluk Bahang and the Penang National Park

At the other end of the spectrum of escape is the village of Teluk Bahang, which literally means hot bay.

Images of Teluk Bahang

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Images of Penang National Park

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About Teluk Bahang and Penang National Park

In truth it’s not actually any hotter than the rest of the island. The places to head for are the Penang National Park and ESCAPE. The National Park has a wonderful boardwalk just at the margin of the rainforest and sea coast. Beyond that, there are some quite tough jungle paths to Monkey Beach, Muka Head, and Pantai Kerachut with its meromictic lake. You really do need to be as agile as a monkey to cope with the ups and downs of some of the trails. So I just like to sit and read by the sea, enjoying the gentle swell of the ocean while my book takes me into another world. If I’m feeling particularly active, I might head for the canopy walkway which is a fragile ropewalk, stretched out like a spider’s web between the forest’s great trees. It really gives you a monkey’s perspective on life without the need to be as fit as one.

3. ESCAPE Theme Park

If you really want to meet trees face-toface, however, you have to go to ESCAPE. It’s a theme park, but not as we know it.

Images of ESCAPE Theme Park

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About ESCAPE Theme Park

The theme is nature and the natural world is given full reign. Instead of mechanical rides, there are opportunities to exercise, play and have fun while in the open air. In a Penang which massacres trees mercilessly, it’s amazing to see to see a place which has actually been designed around trees. This natural gym reminds me that our human attitudes of control and dominance are really fantasies when confronted with the true power of nature. I also particularly enjoy the quirky little notices that are sprinkled all over the park, such as “No Smoking by order of your Mother — Earth.” The sudden twist from the domestic to the planetary focus gives delight. These notices act like the mynah birds of Huxley’s fictional island who fly around with little messages like “Attention!” and “Here and now boys!” – reminders of necessity to attend to things in the present, and not dwell upon past melancholy or future fears.

These are my ways of escaping Penang without leaving the island – do write to me and tell me yours.

Penang Hill
Penang National Park

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Source: The Expat Magazine November 2014

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