After Brandy left, it was officially spring break at USM. Our family had high hopes of a visit to Kuala Lumpur, where we had some administrative work to do at the U.S. Consulate. But Joel and I made a realization early in the week:
We were exhausted. Something about a newborn baby, I guess?
So we stuck around town all week instead. We took it easy, had more doctor’s visits, and tried to get caught up on some work. By the weekend, though, Simon and I were itching for another adventure. We decided to take a weekend trip up to Penang Hill. Being some 2500 ft above sea level, the weather at Penang Hill can be quite moderate compared to the low-lying areas of Georgetown and the rest of Penang Island. It first became a popular destination with the British, who would venture up the hill to beat the heat (and the malaria).
Penang Hill is visible from our apartment window, but it’s taken us this long to get up there. You can walk from the Botanic Garden. A reasonably fit person can make it in about two hours, or so I am told. You have to start early in the day, before the sun gets too high and the heat too intense. And remember, it’s uphill the whole way. Frankly, I’m glad to have two little kids as my excuse to not make that climb!
The other option is to ride the funicular railway. I’d heard all about it but had to turn to Wikipedia for an explanation.
A funicular (/fᵿˈnɪkjᵿlər/), also known as an inclined plane or cliff railway, is a cable railway in which a cable attached to a pair of tram-like vehicles on rails moves them up and down a steep slope, the ascending and descending vehicles counterbalancing each other.
Simon was super impressed with the “train.” We didn’t board until after dark, and so we missed out on a lot of scenery on the ride up. This mattered not at all to the 3-year-old.
We disembarked at the top of Penang Hill. It was late, and most of the tourists had gone home already, lending a bit of eerie feel to the place. It felt like we were walking around a theme park after hours.
There’s only one place to stay, if you want to sleep at the top of Penang. The Bellevue Hotel. The building was an old bungalow which later was renovated and expanded to form a small hotel. It can’t have more than a dozen rooms and the whole place felt like its prime was past–a bit dusty and grimy in the corners, but certainly an OK place to crash for some sleep. The grounds were quite lovely to walk around and the views were fantastic.
In the morning, we toured the aviary adjacent to the hotel grounds. Simon enjoyed looking at the caged birds–he had been startled by the peacocks calling the night before, so it was good for him to get a visual of what made all that noise. Our admission was free because we were guests at the hotel. It was good for a 10-minute walk, but I couldn’t imagine actually paying an admission for the site.
After the aviary, we found ourselves at the entrance to The Habitat. The Habitat on Penang Hill is a new ecotourism site that is still under development. For now, the main attraction is a paved nature walk, about a mile long, along the slope of the hill. As you walk along, you can peer down the hill and get a sense of the rainforest. We happened to arrive just in time for a guided nature walk, and so we joined just two other guests for that. Because the path is paved, and the rest of the park is under active construction, and maybe also because of the cultivated gardens, it feels less like a nature reserve and more like a garden. All the same, it was a peaceful place full of exotic (to us) plants and there was just enough shade that I didn’t feel bad taking a baby on the walk.
The park has big plans to bring more “exciting” features, and I’m of mixed opinions on that. The finished park will have a canopy walk and a tree top walk; our guide said there may someday be a zip line as well. On the one hand, the tree top walk would be a great way to expose people to the biodiversity at the top of a rainforest. I’ve climbed up to the top of the rainforest canopy in Ecuador and it does give you a whole new appreciation. And it would be incredible for birdwatching, if done right. But as with elsewhere in Asia, I wish that tourists would come to visit nature for its intrinsic value, rather than for some adrenaline-pumping overlook and the chance to pull out the selfie stick.
There was one other feature that was already installed and functional, and it was certainly the highlight for Simon. The park had a series of huge swings. Giant Swings I & II were built onto platforms on the side of the hill, granting you a breathtaking view of the island as you swung back and forth.
In addition, there were these little pod swings along the walking trail. They are made by a Dutch company. If I had a proper shade tree in my yard in Minnesota, I would definitely buy one!
By this point, the heat of the afternoon had caught up to us, no matter the elevation. We weren’t quite sure what to do next. There are these little golf carts that roam all over the top of the hill, offering rides to tourists who can’t be bothered to walk the short distance between attractions.
For the record, we are those tourists. We hopped in our eco-friendly cart and away we went! Our driver stopped at each scenic overlook and offered to take some family photos.
By this point, the heat of the afternoon had caught up to us, no matter the elevation. We weren’t quite sure what to do next…wait. I said that already, didn’t I? Well, in truth, it was time for some of us–any of us–preferably ALL of us–to take a nap. But the 3-year-old was highly resistant to the idea of anyone resting. So instead we sat in our hotel room and begged/bribed/threatened the boy to sleep, so that we might have the same luxury. No such luck. Sometimes traveling with a little kid is fun. Sometimes you want to throw him off the scenic overlook. All in a day’s vacation, right?
For dinner we wandered up to the “fancy restaurant,” David Brown’s at Strawberry Hill. The restaurant is in an old British colonial house, but the real attraction is the garden dining area, with a big lily pond in the middle. It turns out that the place is quite popular. We managed to score the last available table of the evening, as everything else was reserved on a Saturday night. Dumb luck wins again! The menu is quintessentially British; Joel ordered the shepherd pie; I ordered a vegetarian pot pie. Both were good, and we paid American dinner prices, which is quite expensive by Malaysian standards.
Later, we wandered down to the Sky Bar, where Simon had a slice of chocolate cake and Joel and I had piña coladas as we watched the sun set. There was a live cover band. Have you ever wondered, “What would Madonna sound like with a thick Chinese accent?”
In the morning, I woke up and went for a walk while the rest of the family slept in. I was hoping to get some pictures of the sunrise, but it was too hazy. Smoke from the Indonesian forest fires has been blowing over Penang for months now. But I was in for another treat: cool air. When I walked out of the hotel, I actually felt a bit chilled. I bet the temp was only 65*F or so. After months of unending heat, it felt luxurious. That alone was totally worth the overnight stay on top of the hill.
When the rest of the family woke up, we took Simon to the playground, which is sandwiches between the mosque and a Hindu temple. Simon played on the equipment while Joel and I visited the temple.
From there, it was time to go home. We boarded the funicular train and managed to get into the front car. Even better yet, the passengers let Simon sit by the big window. There’s always a bit of shuffling and jockeying for the good seats, so this was really special. We rode down–it was every bit as exciting as a roller coaster–and caught an Uber home from a very busy weekend.