Saturday took us up a steep track to check out Penang from the top, at Penang Hill. Seduced by its ad which boasted beautiful panoramic views, unique plants, cute ‘Dusky Leaf Monkeys’ (not evil macaques) and a funicular, we braved two long bus rides to arrive for some higher sights.With tickets, we boarded the funicular, which soon sped up the steep 1,1996 meters long track. We had managed to get near the window in the front car, so were able to watch as the track rose above us through a sea of the greenery. Our ears constantly popped as we zipped up the tracks which boasts the steepest tunnel track in the world, at a 27.9 degree incline. I would have preferred a more leisure ascension but the ad boasts that 1.2 million visitors attended in 2012, so I guess there is no time to dilly-dally when getting that many people to the top.
About six minutes later, we were there and greeted with cooler temperatures. The air felt fresher and our eyes soaked in the gorgeous view of Penang below, picking out our home and noting the bridges into Butterworth. We snapped away and headed past a bar to see what the hill had to offer. With little information available, we relied on an older brochure with a drawn map that more hinted at where places were than gave exact details.
We bypassed the Owl Museum, with no live owls, and continued up the incline following a sign for a Hindu temple, Mosque and guard tower. I’ve seen a few Hindu temples while in Penang but this was the first one I was able to take my time to view and to step inside.
The Sri Aruloli Thirumurugan Hindu Temple, was decorated with many statues of their deities, on the roof, some 3-4 feet tall (I’d guess). They stood in different mini temples, at different levels, and at the corners. The temple and deities were painted in pastel colors, or perhaps it appeared pastel after years in the sun. The temple was last updated in 2002 but a shrine has been at that location since the 1780s.
To enter, we removed our shoes and walked through an entry, with more deities. We arrived to a large main room with larger statues and offerings around them. We walked slowly around the temple, noting symbols drawn on the floor, and I stopped in front of Ganesh, familiar to me. A young holy man, I presume, sat in the room too, but I didn’t speak to him nor him to the visitors. With no additional understanding to what we were seeing, we kept moving.
We walked outside, past the swing set, up a set of stairs, past a food cart, to stand before the Mosque, named Masjid Bukit Bendera. Unlike the temple though, we snapped a picture and headed on. There were shoes in front of it but the door was closed and I would not dare to go in, uninvited, nor without proper clothes. We checked out the Guard House, also off-limits, and were on our way.
With another skip of the Aviary Gardens at the Bellevue Hotel, we backtracked a bit to head towards “Monkey Cup Gardens” with a tagline of “close to nature”. We followed the road, detouring at various hill bungalows, the brochure boasting that there were 44. We peeked at a historical bungalow, Eythrope, a very large manner house with a gorgeous view of the island below, nodding to an older man who sat smoking under a tree. There were no signs to alert it was a private residence and yet the home seemed to be decorated with personal items so I felt uncomfortable to be on someone’s porch checking out the view.
We rejoined the main road and soon heard rustling in the tree. We could make out a large animal in the tree but couldn’t be certain what it was. It had a long tail but didn’t seem to be swinging with its arms, acting more like a squirrel. We tried to get pictures but it was obscured by the branches. I’ve come to believe it was the aptly named “Giant Black Squirrel” (for it was black and at least cat size) and James still hopes it was a monkey.
Our next detour was to follow a trail up to the oldest Bungalow, the Convalescent. The dirt road lead us to the closed bungalow, secured with a pad lock. We peeked in through the windows and saw random items left behind: a chair with only three legs remaining, leaning on its side; a pair of boots; some boxes; etc. I think I was waiting to see a tattered doll because the place gave me the creeps. The brochure provided that the Convalescent was built-in 1803. The circular coverings on the walls and doors were neat and the bathtub that hosted various plants added an interesting touch. With ghosts still in the back of my head, we headed a little further back into the house’s property, only to see clothes out drying. Unsure of the owner, we headed back to the dirt road and walked a little further, passing an open gate lined with barbwire and very old steps set into the hill.
James went on ahead, while I debated my options, wondering exactly what kind of poisonous snakes Malaysia has. But not wishing to be left behind, I finally joined him up the stairs, still keeping my eyes peeled for snakes or other things that could do me harm. The short set of stairs lead to a clearing that was overrun with bushes and in the far right, a tower of some sort, its base locked from entry. James, ever adventurous, eyed it to see if climbing was feasible where I surveyed the ground knowing that it was really a snake pit.
Back safely on the paved road, we continued our walk toward Monkey Cups, passing more bungalow signs, these acknowledging they were private, and a very large gate being constructed that I was certain had been used on the Jurassic Park set. With more photos of flowers, we were finally at our destination.
The entrance had a small shack for collecting the entrance fee of 10 ringgits each. The sign boasted carnivorous plants and we still harbored a delusion that inside we would see the cute Dusky Leaf monkeys, even confirming with the employee. Yes, to monkeys he confirmed, he just left out the ‘cup’ part. So we entered, walking in-between walls of green, me snapping away at each pretty flower.
Soon another attendant, a man from Bangladesh was besides us, chatting us up. He spoke quickly but had a big smile and explained that monkey cups produced a sort of alcohol on their top lid. Insects drink that alcohol, get drunk, and fall into the pool of liquid (in the cup) that absorbs the insect. This was explained, in part, with pantomimes which made it all the more interesting. He seemed to say that the name came from monkeys actually using the cup to drink with.
He guided us down the path and pointed out the different varieties of monkey cups and then began to name other plants. He asked where James was from and then asked if I was Malaysia/Chinese, saying my face looked like it. While we both thought that odd, we said no. Although it is nice to think I could blend here (however unlikely). Soon other guests arrived and he tended to them, soon showing off his knowledge of other languages with the Malay, Chinese and Japanese guests.
With a small crowd in the main section and running out of things to photograph, we encouraged him to show us how a carnivorous plant eats. He said he would get a cockroach and called over the other visitors. It appeared that he sacrificed a cricket to it though, which made me feel a little bad to not have considered the demonstration would involve the ending of a life. We watched as the plant locked on the insect, trapping it inside. We asked, “could it escape?”, “was it still alive?” He said it could not escape and it was probably dead, then we saw a leg move and he was not certain. He joked, “it’s saying help me, help me” and explained it would take 4-5 days to be consumed. Poor cricket, sorry!
The group continued to a set of aquariums and from it he pulled a large millipede. He offered it to the group and James was the first to hold it. While brave, his face still showed that it was the weirdest thing. I steeled my nerves and was up next only to feel all of the tiny little legs crawling up my arm…eek! Our guide laughed it was a tiny massage. Once the millipede was safely on ANOTHER visitor, I was able to appreciate how the legs seemed to undulate as it crawls, very cool from a distance.
Next came the beautiful Leaf Frog. It appeared to be carved from leather with beautiful hard ridges and textured back. I would have held it but gave others a chance to do so (and didn’t want to stress it out with too many hands.) While it sat comfortably in the guides’ hands it seemed a bit more nervous in James’ hands and a Chinese girl’s who held it next. I felt bad for it, but how gorgeous it was!
To end with a bang, out came the scorpions, two to be exact. I took a step back and James was soon decorated with a scorpion on his arm. I snapped away from a safe distance and could not be convinced that I needed to hold one. I don’t recall if any others stepped up to the challenge but many photos were taken of their armored bodies, pinchers, and stinger. As there were no more guests willing to brave the scorpions, the guide put one scorpion on his head, while he put the other away. While amusing, I was very glad it was not my head, although he leaned forward to offer and James reflexively stopped him to protect me. 😀
During this mini petting zoo, all the visitors seemed to bond over the experience, giggling at each other holding the various insects and reptiles. We befriended a Canadian couple who had a very large (expensive) camera lens, that just happened to fit our camera. While James offered to “hold” the lens, they graciously let us take a few photos with it, which was cool and showcased how very little I know about my camera. He spoke of the benefits of the lens and soon we were chatting about what brought us over here, our favorite places visited and life in general. We slowly walked out of the exhibit, taking photos and chatting. Back at the entrance, we decided to ride back down with them, only 1 ringgit each!
At the end of the hill, they showed us some large spiders and we also spotted some medium-sized lizards. We soon parted ways, checked out the food court for a bit of food, and were once again headed back to the funicular. James stopped for one more photo and we endured the karaoke (I hope) coming from the bar, proclaiming she would love us for a ‘tousand years’, the “h” lost in translation. At the funicular, we’d hustled to the front car again but were too far back to see much as we zipped back down the hill.
Penang Hill is definitely a nice place for a bit of fresh air but the 30RM funicular fee probably won’t make us rush back to it. I did enjoy seeing the neat plants up close and the unusual petting zoo though. I could be persuaded to try it again if we were sure to see those adorable monkeys on the brochure.
Suggestions for Penang Hill –
- 204 bus takes you to Penang Hill, about an hour from the terminal (although from the Gurney Plaza area our friends said a taxi was about 10RM.)
- Bring cash for the funicular: 30 Ringgits (RM) per person, cash only
- Sit in the front car, it has the best view, if you can get to the front!
- The Owl Museum, while having no actual owls, is a nice fit for people who like arts and crafts (per our Canadian friend). (10RM)
- The Aviary Gardens at the Bellevue Hotel, offers various birds in cages, but for 10RM, another pass for us.
- Monkey Cups is 1.5km up the road to the Western Hill (or Tiger Hill), but a truck will take you for 1RM (although the driver may ask for a tip). It has a beautiful assortment of Monkey Cups and is worth checking out.
- The food court has surprisingly reasonable prices.