The International Steam Pages
Penang Hills and Trails - Introduction
For convenience I have now grouped lifestyle illustrated features by topic:
for the full list of Penang Walks.
For a potted history and introduction to historic Penang Hill (the first hill station in the British Empire), please read http://www.penangstory.net.my/docs/Abs-RobertAiken.doc.
There are some good websites (and not a few poor ones) on Penang Walks, especially recommended are:
IMPORTANT! Some of the routes described here are in state-controlled areas which are officially closed to the public, particularly 'water catchment areas'. For as long as anyone can remember, enforcement has been non-existent, but you walk past the warning signs entirely at your own risk. The book mentioned above has some basic common sense rules and advice for hikers. Perhaps the most important is the need to carry sufficient water for the trip (minimum 2.5 litres per person) and to know where further (safe) drinking water is available; always assume that streams below cultivated areas will be contaminated with agrochemicals and should only be used as an emergency source if you are seriously dehydrated. However, public health advice these days is that almost all streams in Penang are unfit for drinking owing to bacterial contamination...
MARKING TRAILS I have often heard it said that Malaysians are extremely polite. There are, however, two occasions when some of them completely forget their manners. The first is when they are out on their motorbike or in their cars. The other is when they are out in the hills and decide that it would be a good idea to 'decorate' them. These days there are an astonishing number of people out and about especially at weekends and on public holidays. This public group has over 20,000 members, https://www.facebook.com/groups/HikingTrailsinPenang, I am not among them, I don't do Facebook and in any case, the group has a 'no name and shame' policy which I would find impossible to support.
For many years, some of the 'jungle trails' have been discreetly and modestly marked especially where their use is marginal and they have become indistinct. When we started hiking here 10 years ago, we soon noticed small marks on trees (typically three small notches) and small pieces of blue string attached to visible tree roots. Sometimes there were small metal signs at key junctions, but the latter have now largely disappeared. For our part, we have never added any markers to a trail, we consider them unnecessary, there are excellent topographical maps on the web and GPS applications offer (not always completely) accurate information. We built our knowledge in stages and would advise others starting out to do the same.
For some this is not enough, these days it's not unusual to find trees and rocks daubed in paint, often such that you can find your way continuously without having to think. Even worse, the availability of cheap glossy plastic tape has led some hikers to line trails with the stuff, which is unsightly and long lasting. It's a cliché but 'Take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints' is as true now as when it was first coined. The National Park is becoming polluted with this rubbish; now they charge for admission, it would be good to think that they will use some of the revenue to remove it, but from my experience that is unlikely. Elsewhere, if we have time, we surgically remove the plastic and I hope that others will do so too. Recently (January 2023) we revisited Bukit Pulau Betong, the only area in the south-west of the island with significant virgin jungle. It was not a pretty sight as we approached the summit from one of the less used ascents and at Yuehong's insistence, we gathered as much as we could on our way down the west side. A few days later we returned and cleaned up the east side (second picture)
On a further hike from the Air Itam Dam, we found the path that runs from the private road to the Sitavana Vihara to the trail known as Chili covered in red and white tape. It's a contour path and it's not easy to get lost on it...
I would like to think that this website has done much to encourage hikers to look beyond Penang's 'famous paths' and I am horrified that an irresponsible minority has abused the information I have provided. Complaining appropriately does work, for a case study please read my interaction with the Penang Rainforest Hash in 2018. Unfortunately, the miscreants who created the mess above were not readily identifiable. Where I have evidence, I shall have no hesitation in identifying them here.
MAPS Increasingly I have added sketch maps of routes we have followed especially in cultivated areas. These are 'indicative' rather than 'definitive' and subject to change and I modify them as we make new discoveries. In these areas, you are normally walking on private land with assumed permissive access to hikers. With few exceptions there is no 'right of way' for four wheeled vehicles on the concrete roads although where these are 'common user' there is normally no problem. Many fruit orchard roads have gates and your discretion will be needed as a hiker as to whether to pass round them. A 'Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted' sign is both meaningless and almost unenforceable which is why you will encounter barking dogs, most but not all of which will keep their distance especially it you are seen to be carrying a big stick. Connecting with the roads are paths, unless otherwise indicated they will be concreted or well made earth / sand routes, you can expect a variable amount of motorbike traffic on most of them. There are more than I have indicated and their use will be seasonal or to a particular house. In this respect the maps alone are not a sufficient guide, they need to be used in conjunction with the text and pictures. If the route is complex, consider making and carrying a summary. In fact, by January 2016, I consider the maps so complex as to most likely be confusing to anyone following a trail for the first time in most areas. There is no substitute for a little common sense in interpreting what you see in front of you.
I have indicated two kinds of 'Off Piste' routes. The 'Easy Off Piste' ones will be through fruit orchards, rubber plantation or near open areas where there is no designated path as such or where the path is rarely used. The 'Seriously Off Piste' ones will have sections which are overgrown, maybe they follow a long lost path, in some cases they pass through forest reserves and jungle. Do not use these routes unless you are comfortable traversing such areas.
The one thing you will not find here is GPS data... If you don't have a brain and need to rely on technology like this, then best stay at home where you can't get lost.
I confess I am an exercise junkie, if not quite a fitness freak, just like my son and daughter and now Yuehong is getting the bug. By her own confession she's probably the most unlikely appreciative hiker. And after putting on the pounds with the best food in the world where better to sweat them off than while enjoying the green hills of the island?
Back in the 1970s, I had a guaranteed weekly 'fix' with the Penang Hash House Harriers, but these days that's a bit hectic for my taste, like so many pleasures in life, I now prefer to take things at a less frenetic pace. Of course, on the island 'Hash' has become a growth industry, searching the internet or simply examining paper trails suggests there are at least 8 groups active. You must be able to 'hash' almost every day of the week if you so desire to the extent that some of the trails are a mass of competing paper - on a single early walk I collected paper from no less than 6 of them.
In any case, the time limited nature of the Hash means that apart from a few special events it touches only the more accessible parts of the island. More rewarding is to go 'that extra mile' especially when Rapid Penang's usually reliable service allows you to start and finish at different points. Now if only the new Penang Hill Railway were to offer non-Malaysians a single fare at a sensible price, a hiker's life would be (nearly) ideal.
This page gives links to a number of walks which we have done on Penang since our first visit in 2009, usually but not exclusively in the hills. Many of the routes I followed in the 1970s are still available, but others, especially the water catchment ridge paths outside the north of the island, have become overgrown as local walkers tend to be unadventurous - you will see more people at the '84' tea stall half way up Penang Hill from the Kebun Bunga in 10 minutes on a Sunday than you will elsewhere in a week's walking. Of course, rural Penang too has its own share of environmentally undesirable developments, top of my list would be the jeep track from the Kebun Bunga and the ugly Teluk Bahang Dam. Living in a 'condo' myself it is dangerous to criticise other high rise developments, but the density and insensitivity of such buildings along parts of the north coast in particular must seriously detract from the pleasure of looking out to sea from them.
When you read these accounts you will soon realise that parts of different walks can readily be combined. For instance you can walk from Balik Pulau to Paya Terubong starting on 'The Fruit Orchard Trail' and transferring to the 'Cheng Kon Sze Revisited' Trail. However, as we have developed these pages, increasingly you will find several reports using the same paths and with a little research you should be able to find one to suit your particular needs, check the map at the bottom.
Most trails can easily be done in either direction, for some it can be tricky as the correct route may not be intuitive in reverse. In particular it is far easier to find the way descending than ascending where there are multiple concrete motorbike trails leading to fruit orchards, vegetable gardens and rubber estates. Equally, you are less likely to go badly wrong when climbing up through areas without paths than going down them. We would suggest you avoid trying to follow stream beds, not only are they often muddy and cloaked in 'nasties', but they can also lead to steep areas with large boulders which are dangerous to go through.
Happy exploring, maybe one day we will meet you out in the hills but so far this is something that has rarely happened.
Rob and Yuehong Dickinson