Penang See: Penang Hill from Tranquil to Touristy
Penang Hill, also known as Bukit Bendera, has an altitude of about 830 metres and used to be a British hill station. Today, it is one of the popular tourist attractions on Penang Island. Most visitors arrive at Penang Hill for two things: the funicular train and the city view from the hilltop. In 2014, Penang Hill saw more than 1.3 million visitors (source: Wikipedia).
However, is Penang Hill worth a visit for travellers? Read on and find out.
Penang Hill in 2006
The previous time I was on Penang Hill was in 2006. The only transport up the hill was the Penang Hill Railway, which was a two-section funicular railway system. The carriages in operation at that time were the third-generation, Swiss-made and painted in red-and-white. The first-generation carriages started operation in 1906 and were retired in 1923. The second generations were wooden and were retired in 1977 after being in used for 54 years.
At the Lower Station, the "lower" carriage — with up to 80 passengers — would be pulled up to a platform halfway up the hill. Passengers would get off the "lower" carriage and cross the platform to board the "upper" carriage to the Upper Station at the top of the hill. The uphill ride would take 30 minutes and passengers could check out the hillside and surrounding scenery from inside the slow-moving carriage as it was pulled up the hill by cable. The fare was RM4.00 including the return trip.
The top of Penang Hill allows a wide view of the city below, including Georgetown and also Butterworth across the Strait of Malacca on very clear days. Basically, that was the primary objective of going up Penang Hill. Apart from the Upper Station, there was a post office, a police post, a couple of small hotels, a Hindu temple and a mosque. All within walking distances on the small hilltop. A number of private houses littered the hillside.
The main commercial activities were several mobile stalls selling souvenirs and simple food stuffs. I remembered having a cup of hot butter-baked sweet corns while strolling around the tranquil hilltop and enjoying the surrounding views. The temperature was cooling too with occasional mists.
Penang Hill in 2017
With good impressions of Penang Hill in 2006, I did not mind revisiting the hilltop again and was back in July 2017. Much have changed since I was last there 11 years ago — in fact, way too much changes.
In 2010, Penang Hill Railway undergone a major overhaul and the two-section railway system was retired. The new system is still of the funicular type but does not require changing of trains midway. The new blue-and-white Swiss-made carriages are longer and can accommodate 100 passengers — i.e when they are packed like sardines. The system is also faster, taking just 10 minutes to reach the top. But it took us more than an hour to board the carriage at the Lower Station, there were so many people even on a weekday.
However, instead of being a sight-seeing carriage that it once was, the new system is now so fast that no one can hope to see anything out of the side windows. It is now purely a form of transportation to bring as many people up the hill as possible and faster. The top of Penang Hill is not a plateau — imagine filling the small hilltop with loads of people. Also, the fare had been raised to RM30.00 two-ways for non-Malaysians — 650% increased as compared to 2006!
A new viewing platform was also constructed on the hilltop for more visitors to get wider views of the city below. I took some photos from the platform too. Even on a sunny day, the views were not that great due to pollution in the air. Personally, I feel that Penang hilltop is too far from the city. To get wider views of the city, it is a great place, but to get good views, nope. Sometimes, I really wonder what is so great about city views to city dwellers.
Next, the historical sites. The familiar old Hindu temple, standing since the 1800's, is the next best place to see. The colourful sculptures on its roof have faded quite drastically in the last 10 years but still as elegant as before. In the past, the hilltop was a cool place to get away from the heat below, but due to global climatic changes, it is now a place closer to the sun. Stronger sun-rays are bleaching the sculptures day after day.
And Masjid Penang Hill Mosque is right beside the temple. It looks bigger than before due to the extended roof tops.
There is also this old British guard house that is still standing today. While the guard house is a historical monument, the premise beyond the gate is private property. That means the old guard house is also private property. Do not wander in without being invited.
Other than the historical structures and the buildings that were already here in 2006, there are more additions to the little hilltop. While some are great additions, most are after the tourism dollars.
Let's see what are the better additions. First, a 2nd-gen wooden carriage is put up as public exhibit. And it is free for taking photos with it — read further to find out why I am stressing this point.
If you want to look for the red-and-white 3rd-gen carriage, it was parked on the railway track, in the middle of the hill, during my last visit. You need to be standing at either end of the 4th-gen carriage to see it when going up or down the hill. The side windows are useless in the high-speed carriages as everything flashes by. Why was it parked there of all places?
Second, setting up a cafe on the hill was the best thing to have. It provides a place for visitors to relax, have coffees and enjoy the "tranquility" and city views (see photo below). This little hill terrace was set up by David Brown's Restaurant & Tea Terrace. However, looking over the railing, you will see a river of people and "ugly" exhibits just 2 metres down — the boundary of the small tranquil space.
That's the two good things — only.
So, what's bad?
1. "No Photographs without Paying" or similar signs are everywhere. Many irrelevant exhibits are set up to get visitors to pay and have their photos taken with them. And the exhibits are series of items — like a long love lane, love-locks railings, etc — occupying every available space on the hill except the walkway. Now you know why the wooden carriage exhibit is good? And why there is no space to allocate the red-and-white carriage?
2. New buildings on the hilltop obstructed the city views below. These are mini-museums and entertainment theatres — none are free and some are rip-offs (better do your homework before buying any tickets). And because of these structures that obstruct the views, a new viewing platform was built, adding more concrete to nature.
3. A paying nature walk. While I like the idea of a nature trail and canopy walk, a steep entrance ticket of RM50.00 is not something I call "value for money". Why pay so much to see nature? And, instead of setting up an eco-friendly canopy walk to reduce damages to the natural habitat, a concrete one was erected. Will wild animals stay in man-made environments with lots of human activities? Coming from Singapore where nature trails and tree-top walk are free, the steep fee is absolutely no-go.
I was rather disappointed with all the touristy activities that I did not bother to take more photos. The hilltop is not even worth staying for more than an hour — if not for the time spent in the cafe. The tranquil Penang Hill that I once knew is gone. It is now a pay-to-pay-more touristy spot that are so common in Malaysia.
So, is Penang Hill worth a visit? For the city views, historical structures and hilltop cafe, it probably worth only one visit on a weekday. Other than that... you decide for yourself.