Connecting with Nature in Penang

Author: Hugo Bennetts

Penang’s cultural heritage is as rich as its world-famous street food. Yet you would be wrong to think that this is all it has to offer; virgin rainforests, palm-fringed beaches and the world’s smallest national park all wait patiently to be explored.

Looking out from the Butterworth ferry to Penang Island, with its bustling capital Georgetown in the foreground and its forest-covered slopes looming in the background.

For those who don’t know, Penang is one of Malaysia’s 13 states, located on the northwest of Peninsular Malaysia. It contains a strip of the mainland, but most visitors are drawn to Pulau Pinang (Penang Island), a 293 km2 landmass floating proudly in Selat Melaka (the Strait of Malacca).

Before visiting Penang, you will probably end up as I did, hunched over a computer screen trawling through seemingly endless travel articles and blogs on all the culture that must be absorbed and food that must be eaten. Let me help you take a step back from this claustrophobic cocktail of temples and hawkers by instead pointing you towards some of the natural areas of Penang which offer a welcomed respite from the hectic Georgetown atmosphere.

Penang Hill
The Georgetown air is stifling; there is little ventilation within the trappings of the city, the fumes of passing vehicles are constant and the forgiving breezes few-and-far-between. Why not escape the intense afternoon heat by taking a trip up to Penang Hill? The air up here is on average 5°C cooler than in the lowlands and trust me, you’ll appreciate a break from the intense tropical heat.

The Penang Hill Cable Car running from Air Itam.
Image source: https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2019/10/12/penang-hill-cable-car-plan-gets-rm100mil

Copyright: Star Media Group

A funicular from Air Itam, which itself is just 9 km from the centre of Georgetown , takes you up to the hill’s summit, where panoramic views of the island await you. From here, we suggest you dodge the inevitable crowds of souvenir shops and hawker stalls and seek out the hill’s gentle nature trails and treetop walks.

When you’ve finished your adventures atop Penang Hill, we recommend you descend via one of the various walking trails. The most popular one is 5 km and takes you down to the Botanical Gardens. As you walk, keep your eye out for the rare flora and fauna the island has to offer, from monkey cups and slipper orchids to dusky leaf monkeys and flying lemurs.

Penang National Park
Located on the northwest of the island and covering just 23 km2, the Penang National Park may be the world’s smallest, but it is packed with natural sites that will drop your jaw and raise your camera. Jungle walks, peaceful sandy beaches and unique lakes are just a few of the park’s attractions that all combine to make urban life seem very distant indeed.

Teluk Bahang Forest Reserve
At this 873-hectare nature reserve also in the north of the island, lies a portion of Penang’s virgin rainforests. Leaflets by the site’s entrance include hiking trails and some information on plant identification for you to consider as you explore. Among this precious ecosystem you will spot some of Malaysia’s famous carnivorous pitcher plants, juxtaposed by the towering canopy of the ancient dipterocarp forest.

There is something undeniably magical about the virgin forests of Penang. It is of no surprise to me that some of the island’s most spectacular temples are perched along its forest-covered slopes. Ancestors clearly found something spiritual in these forests too, and you can still feel that age-old mysticism as you immerse yourself in the nature of Penang.

Kek Lok Si Temple, Penang.
Image source: https://www.trover.com/d/14YNS-kek-lok-si-chinese-temple-air-itam-malaysia

Copyright: Expedia Group

Sitting boldly on the slopes overlooking Air Itam is the Kek Lok Si Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in all of Malaysia and surely one of the most impressive. Here, when the mist blows through the ancient valleys, you truly feel the connection between people and nature.

If you are ever lucky enough to visit Penang, make sure you see some of its natural divinity. It is easy to get lost in culture and food whilst you are in Georgetown, but you would be doing well not to ignore the vast swathes of beautiful nature that surround you.

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