George Town & Penang Hill

I left Thailand via a series of mini-van rides, and arrived in George Town, the main city on the island of Penang, on the west coast of Malaysia. First impression of Malaysia: Wow what a wild mix of Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Western cultures! I was surprised when I arrived in George Town, I knew this was an Islamic country, but I had no idea how many Chinese and Indians were living here. My first night, I was sitting in a food court about two blocks from the Little India district, eating Chinese food, listening to the call to prayer ring out across the city from at least three mosques in the vicinity. It’s like I fell into China, India, and Turkey all at once (Turkey being the only other Islamic country I’ve traveled to). Mosques stand right next to Hindu temples, which stand next to Chinese temples and clan houses. It’s pretty amazing actually. In addition, there are old British colonial buildings and a fort in the city. George Town, was established in 1786 as a base for the East India Company. In 2008 the entire inner city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every where you turn there’s some historical site to see, if you’re into that kind of thing. I can only take that kind of stuff for so long, but it was interesting to take a day walking around the city, seeking out the sights.

One day I decided to get out of the city and hike in the Telok Bahang Forest Park. This turned out to be much more difficult than I’d expected, and in hindsight wasn’t a very bright move on my part. I took a bus to the west side of the island and hiked a few kilometers to the park. Once I got there I saw the sign “Penang Hill Forest Challenge — The longest forest trail in Penang”. How could I pass that up? The map shows it as about 11.3 kilometers, no big deal right? After all, I’ve hiked the Himalaya, how hard could it be? Oh my God, it was hard. I left too late in the day — I didn’t check my watch when I took off, it was 3pm. I took only 2 liters of water, not taking into account how hot and humid it really was. Finally, I didn’t really think how high 821 meters really is, especially when hiking up from sea level.

The trail started off easy enough, but quickly became steep. I made it to the first station in about 45 minutes, but I was completely drenched in sweat — my shirt and pants were totally soaked — and I was down to one liter of water. According to the signs, I was 1/3 of the way to the final station, and the jeep road that leads to the top. I figured that as long as I made it to the jeep road before dark, I could walk the rest of the way to the top, and then take the Sky Train down to town. Of course I didn’t know if it would be running, but I decided to go for it anyway. About 2/3 of the way into it, I was totally beat, moving very slowly up the steep muddy trail, and it’s starting to get dark. I had passed the point of no return — I couldn’t make it back to the bottom before dark, so my only option was to keep going to the jeep road. The thought was coming to mind that I might be spending the night in this jungle. I had about half a liter of water, but at least I had a full bottle of mosquito repellent with me….

just as it was getting to the point of almost not being able to see the trail anymore, I dragged my sorry butt up and out to the jeep road. I’ve never been so happy to see pavement in the forest in my life. I was completely spent — out of water, and hardly able to walk anymore. I laid down spread eagle on the road for about 5 minutes. When I got up, I’d left a nice sweat angel on the pavement. Of course now I’ve got a 3.5 kilometer walk to the peak area, though it was not much of an elevation gain, so it was pretty much a flat walk on the road. I reached the top at 8pm, in total darkness, and it was deserted. The visitor center was closed, and the train down was not running. That meant another 5 kilometers down the mountain to town, but at least it was on pavement. On the bright side, the view from the top was amazing. The whole city was lit up. It reminded me of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.

After a while of shooting pictures from the top, it was time to start the death march down. There was no moon and it was completely black. At times I was walking blindly down the road because I couldn’t see the ground. I made it to the bottom around 9pm, totally sore, tired, and dehydrated. Luckily the buses were still running, so I hopped a bus back to George Town. I slept well that night. In all, I think it was worth it, but a clear lesson in bad planning.