The International Steam Pages

Penang Hills and Trails - The Carpet
Sungai Ara to Balik Pulau

This is part of a series of pages on walking the hills of Penang. Click here for the index. This is a Grade 2 walk, although it is quite long. There is a sketch map at the bottom showing the route followed.

As of 2015, there are significant changes in the route which are recorded below in red, overall these probably make life a little easier (27th January 2015).

Please visit my Penang buses page for information on accessing the starting point.

This walk owes everything to an excellent trail account I found on the web - (Link broken by 1st November 2018) - written by a local mountain biker who included first class directions and pictures to back them up. This was written up in 2013, and in 2014 we did a similar walk in this area.

Sungai Ara has changed out of all recognition since I used it as the venue of my last two runs for the Penang Hash House Harriers in 1979 and 1987. Both were memorable for the front runners completely cocking up the final check and returning somewhat chastened long after the main pack who ran with their brains in the right place. Where there was once a choice of just one or two small eating places at a small junction, there are now shops lining each side and the small track into the rubber estate has become Jalan Kenari leading past suburban houses up to some tower blocks on the hillside. I confess that I did not do sufficient research on the buses to get here, if I had done I would have found that the 302 (whose ultimate destination is confusingly Batu Maung) offers a direct service from Komtar; I already knew that the 'rural' 308 service from Sungai Nibong to Gertak Sanggul also passes it. So it was 13.00 by the time we strolled up to the temple, just beyond which was a turning on the right where we were to start the hike.

The valley below was being rapidly concreted over but very soon that was left behind, the first junction on the left would be familiar to the misguided 1987 PH3 front runners who would have been here, some 3 kilometres from the beer wagon while the rest of the pack were drinking their share. We made a fair pace up the gentle climb as we were 'running' rather later than planned on a hike of indeterminate length. Normally we would have done a detour to the two Chinese temples near the road but they would have to wait for another day.

When we got to the rest area used by bikers most evenings, Yuehong strode in, it was rather warm and we needed topping up with water. We always take 5L with us, these days the streams in Penang are reckoned to be badly contaminated with microbes as well as agrochemicals (this was the subject of the red notice at the original turn off), but this wasn't putting off the young boys who were fishing in the stream. The road to the left I have read heads towards the Teluk Kumbar to Genting road, we turned right.

This whole area is a maze of tracks, without proper instructions we would never have completed the walk in daylight. Just after one of many rock pools which seemed to have been set up for swimming in, we took a smaller concrete path on the right.

The turn off shown above looks completely different in 2015 owing to the installation of a new concrete road, the path can be seen disappearing off in the bottom right hand corner on the second picture.

So by now we were heading back along the opposite side of the valley we had come up but rather higher up, I could see my 'hash hill' opposite beyond which would have been the south end of the old Sungai Ara and the edge of Bayan Lepas 'village'. It's absolutely delightfully graded, it hardly felt like climbing at all. Rubber gave way to durian and we were into a hidden area of rolling hills, which I had certainly never been to in my earlier existence in Penang..

The next recorded junction was of the 'go straight ahead' variety and was barely recognisable as such. Next we had to turn left by a large tree, but this one didn't look right for what I could remember from the web picture but I did check just in case and it led to a small hut. (I don't carry a mobile internet device as most readers will be well aware, but given the complexity of the route to be followed I had made some old fashioned pen and paper notes, a very good precaution as it turned out even though I managed to temporarily leave them behind at one photo stop.)

Once again we were on a 4 wheel vehicle road and almost immediately we found our left turn. It ran up the side of a very well presented durian estate:

On the other side there were signs of construction and road building going on and the gentleman on the motor bike informed Yuehong that it would be a guest house 'retreat' - a wonderful base for hill walking. He seemed to have a fair idea of the tracks west from here and made some suggestions for further explorations. However, for now we headed onwards and when we came to a T junction we turned right past this house (one of the few major junctions for which we had no instructions).

We were now into more open country with vegetable gardens and soon came to the next recognisable junction, where we had to turn left under the twin electrical wires. Normally I'm pretty good on local produce but these pinkish items defeated me.

But first I had to scramble up to take in the view which also confirmed our location. On the right is what was once 'Relau Village' and just to the left of centre is the Relau Pass, with the 'new road' to Balik Pulau somewhere on the upper left of the picture. The concrete road down from where we were presumably would have gone to Relau, one for anther day.

Above us we could see a transmission mast which we would have to climb past and we headed straight up ignoring tracks left and right. We were passed by a friendly biker as we swung left just before a house (another recognisable location):

We paused to let one of Penang's slower walkers cross the road and were rewarded with a view over the end of the airport runway.

Shortly after we again met the cyclist who was rather concerned that we intended to go all the way to Balik Pulau - it seemed he had never gone there by this route. One of the local residents confirmed it was indeed feasible but estimated up to 3 hours (wrong by a factor of two even given our slow speed). Round the corner, we again had evidence that Malaysians are no longer interested in rubber tapping as a profession and in front of us was the last key junction. The trail on the right goes to a small house and we needed to take the right fork just ahead.

The left fork leads 200 metres to the bikers' gathering place known as 'The Carpet', a flat area where they can meet at the end of their climb and enjoy a snack, a drink and, no doubt, a gossip. At one stage there must have been good views from here but the trees allowed only a hint, this is Penang's second crossing under construction near the airport. Since most of those who frequent this place will have jobs, in mid-afternoon there was no-one here.

Back on the climb, Yuehong was entertaining a local lady who was worried she might get lost without me. Unlikely these days. Having had a 5 minute rest while I checked out 'The Carpet', we roared up to the summit.

Opposite the birds' nest farm now take the (new) concrete trail that heads up into the rubber (the path described above had been abandoned by 2015).

We emerged onto another significant concrete trail which we could have followed even higher than our slight col but we had a bus to catch... We were back in open country and the path led rather more steeply downwards. 

This house next to the path appeared to be seasonally occupied but had the most splendid view down to Pulau Betong. Looking up a little below we could see the durians, bananas and rubber successively covering the hillside.

Since this account was written, the concrete path has been 'upgraded' to a full size concrete road, not a great improvement aesthetically.

The rest of the descent was unremarkable, the path zagged and zigged as it descended eventually becoming useable by 4 wheeled vehicles again. The report we were following suggested a left turn at a major T junction to enjoy the full descent but that would left us mid-way between Balik Pulau and Genting. So we turned right and wound around the hillside until we came out on the Balik Pulau - Relau road, just above a convenient layby where we waited for the next 502 bus down. It's unmistakable (there's an electrical sub-station by the turn) but there's no way an ascending bus could safely stop in the area. If you've a thought to do this walk in reverse, the turn off is shown below and the other picture shows where to start the main climb up. Yuehong is thus about to turn right on our trip. (Again the scene on the right below looks rather different in 2015.)

I knew I had a 'Tiger moment' coming but then Yuehong sensibly suggested we have an early dinner to go with it instead of trekking to Tanjung Tokong later. An absolutely delicious and more authentic than normal Char Hor Fun was served up at a ridiculous price. Afterwards, I was pleased to see my favourite Higer PHH 4498 had been restored to health after a week in the workshop although it still desperately needs a more powerful engine:

We had already decided to give up on coming home from the south of the island via George Town, the traffic in the early evening being unbearable and the buses overcrowded. On this occasion it paid off handsomely, when we got to Teluk Bahang there was a noticeable shortage of buses. Apparently, the city centre was in chaos as Chulia Street had been closed for some celebration and the bus service was badly affected as a result. We were alright though, we had a short wait but were still home before it got dark.

Another great hike for the archive and once again I would like to thank the biker involved for taking the trouble to write his report. Considering he then went on from Balik Pulau to the top of Penang Hill on the same trip, I'm amazed he had the energy to take the photographs.

Sungai Ara Valley


 ____ = Concrete Road

 ____ = Path

 ____ = Easy 'Off piste'

(Not all paths are shown, there are many more
which are seasonal or just go to houses.)

Click here for information on the maps.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson