They say that if ever you are on holiday in Penang Island, one of the things that you have to tick off that ‘Things to Do’ list in your hand is to make a trip up Bukit Bendera.
‘Bukit Bendera?’, you might ask. Well, it’s a perfectly honest and innocent question, especially for us out-of-towners, for Bukit Bendera is more commonly known as Penang Hill, and Penang Hill, that we know.
As a matter of curiosity, for those who are well versed in the Malay language, Penang Hill may sound a bit odd as the name ‘Bukit Bendera’ is literally translated as Flag Hill : Bendera is Malay for Flag and likewise, Bukit is translated as Hill, and hence Flag Hill. But since its more commonly known as Penang Hill, then we leave it at that.
The word is that Penang Hill is a ‘must go’ place and after having gone up there, we would give it an unequivocal and resounding ‘Yes’.
But with one small reservation.
Now, we did say it’s a trip UP Penang Hill right!? But if you think that you have to trek all the 833 metres up Penang Hill, fret not.
There is a better way to get to the top of Penang Hill and its by train, courtesy of Penang Hill Railways.
The train service up Penang Hill has been in place since 1923, and since then the train services have been upgraded to what is now called a ‘funicular train service’ powered by ‘rolling load technology’.
Since we were on holiday, please excuse us if we did not delved further into what is ‘rolling load technology’ but just to know that ‘funicular train services’ essentially means that there are two trains, one goes uphill and one goes downhill. Simultaneously, with each train’s movement powering the other.
I may be wrong in my understanding and if so, I would gladly stand corrected.
In the good old days before the train services were put in place, one would be transported up the hill using the good ole sedan chair.
Now, imagine the trip up the hill. You would pray that the trip goes well all-round cos otherwise, that’s a lot of tumbling to look forward to. Or rather, not look forward to. For all concerned.
But back to the present, the train journey up the hill is about 10 minutes. Seems a pretty short journey. No hassle, no biggie.
And that would be true until you are actually on the train and experience the rush of speed as the train makes it way up the hill. Fast, I might add.
The sensation of increasing and powerful acceleration would make FI proud and suddenly, all those lessons during your Physics and Applied Mathematics classes from way back made sense.
You now, the one about acceleration, deceleration, velocity, speed, relative velocity, relative speed, momentum, F=ma, the G-force etc etc
Well, back to the train ride. Before you could get any more light-headed and start falling off your axis, the train slows down and you heave a big sigh of relief, thinking that the train would make its first stop. Time to catch a breath or two, you would have thought.
But alas, no! The train almost immediately continues on its journey up the hill and you suddenly hear a rush of air as the train ‘next door’ makes it way down.
But fret not. The journey does not last more than 10 minutes, and soon the train slows to a dead stop. Yes, it does feel like a lifetime but as you step out onto the platform and take a breath of the fresh air, you suddenly feel exhilarated and refreshed.
Once at the top, as you step out from the station, you be greeted with a carnival-like atmosphere as visitors to Penang Hill mingle and move from one interesting spot to another.
At the viewing deck, the view is pretty amazing as you can see as far as the Penang Bridge. The view would have been far better if it were clear skies as far as the eye can see. But alas, it was not and so we had to do with the view that was on offer.
As we make our way around, we notice a row of street artists. some of whom were busy sketching portraits of interested clients. Looking at how these artists go about their business, you cannot but admire their God-given skills and the way their nimble fingers float over the canvas, with the finished sketch slowly but surely filling out the canvas.
Further up, there was a pit-stop where henna artists ply their businesses and show off their skills. These henna artists are as good, if not better, than most tattoo artists, with their intricate and flowery designs. The one drawback may be that their designs are limited to the hands of their clients, but the plus side is clear and simple : no needles used and therefore no blood spilled.
As we make our way around, we notice a buggy station with several buggies on the move with passengers. Apparently, these buggies are for available for hire, should you feel like having a personal tour of the hilltop.
You may wonder what is in it with these buggy tours. So did we and to satisfy our curiosity, we took a tour with an ex-government employee at the wheel.
Apparently, his previous base of work was at Penang Hill itself, and so we had the priviledge of a running commentary of the different sights that greeted us : the flora, the fauna, as well as, most impressively, the different homes that dotted the hilltop itself and the identity of their owners.
The fact that there were actually people living up the hill was already amazing by itself. Famous people, I am not so sure but wealthy, they would most probably be. And judging from the quality of air at the hilltop, they should be healthy as well.
There’s even a pit stop specializing in coffee up there. It may not be Starbucks or Coffee Bean but the sweet aroma of coffee is so overpowering and yes, so inviting! Must be the fresh air that makes it especially so.
Our guide even showed us a letter box, all bedecked in red. Now, you may ask what is so significant about a letter box, especially in today’s age of Whatsapp, Telegramm, Facebook, Hotmail, Gmail and whatever mail that is available, as well as other forms of social media, and wonder whether people still actually use the relatively ‘snail’ mail.
Well, whether that letter box is gainfully employed or otherwise, it pales into comparison when you note that the letter box is 200 years old or thereabouts. That’s a bit of history and by virtue of that little trivia, the letter box stays put.
Soon we were on the way back to the buggy station, to rejoin the carnival. We were building up a bit of an appetite and we proceeded to get food and drinks at the food court. The food court is so easy to find : just follow the crowd and you won’t go wrong.
Problem is, seating is limited and so, after getting our orders, we make do with snacking on the move. Well, we are on holiday and the carnival atmosphere does lend an air of gaiety to the proceedings. It feels so much, as is the case for us, like a family holiday.
It was interesting for us to discover that there is also a Penang Hill version of the Lovers Lock, where couples would get a heart-shaped padlock and lock it in place at the ‘wall’.
These heart-shaped padlocks are readily available for sale at the counter nearby. It may smack a bit like blatant commercialization, but judging from the number of ‘hearts’ locked in place, who are we to judge.
We had planned to catch a view of the sun setting, as was recommended by many, but since the haziness did not let up, we had no choice but to call it a day and proceeded to make our way back down to the station at the foot of the hill.
However, please be forewarned that the queue to take the ride down may require you to queue up for a bit. How long is ‘a bit’ depends so much on many factors e.g. the time of day, and whether it’s the weekend or a weekday, and the most important of all, is it the school holidays.
Whilst queueing, we got to know the people queueing ahead of us and behind us, all being out-of-towners like us. Soon, it was our turn to get on the train for our ride down, and as was the ride up, the ride down is as ‘exciting’ and as ‘exhilarating’ as it was on the ride up.
Upon reaching the safety of solid ground at the base station, we can now tick off Penang Hill from our ‘Things to Do’ list.
But despite it all, we are thinking of making a return trip up Penang Hill, so as to catch that sight of the sun setting over the horizon and in the process, maybe get our ‘fix’, going up and down Penang Hill.
After all, we did say, it’s a very ‘exhilarating’ experience.