Night view from the top of Penang Hill.
|Elevation||735 m (2,411 ft)|
Penang Hill is a hill resort comprising a group of peaks in Penang, Malaysia. It is located in Air Itam, which is 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) from the city centre of George Town. Penang Hill is also known by the Malay name Bukit Bendera, which refers to Flagstaff Hill, the most developed peak. The name Penang Hill covers a number of hills, with the highest point at Western Hill which is 833 metres (2,733 ft) above sea level. The hill stands out prominently from the lowlands as a hilly and forested area. It was used as a retreat during the British colonial period, and is now a popular tourist destination in Penang. The top of the hill is accessible via the Penang Hill Railway from its base station at Air Itam.
Captain Francis Light, founder of the colony in Penang, first plotted a horse track from the Penang Botanic Gardens waterfall up to the top of the hill in 1788. He cleared an area in order to grow strawberry, and it therefore became known as Strawberry Hill. Its official name however was Flagstaff Hill, which is still reflected in its name in Malay, Bukit Bendera (literally "Flag Hill"). The name was a reference to the flagstaff outside "Bel Retiro", which was the residence of the Governor of Penang built by Francis Light c. 1789. The area is however widely known as Penang Hill which is in fact a collective term covering a number of hills, and the other names such as Flagstaff Hill, Strawberry Hill are still used for specific peaks in the area. The hill became a cool retreat for the British colonists from the heat of the lowlands and threat of malaria, and many bungalows were built on the summit of Penang Hill for government servants and army. A Convalescent Bungalow was built in 1803.
One of the earliest buildings was built by David Brown on Strawberry Hill which was given to Brown by Francis Light. The house however burnt down and then rebuilt in the 19th century, and it is currently used as a restaurant. The post office was first opened in 1894, and a hotel, the Crag Hotel, was established in 1895 (closed since World War II). The first police station was built in 1929, and the building is still standing here on the same site.
In the early days the only way to the top of hill was to travel on foot or horseback, or be carried on a dooly (sedan chair). The first attempt at a mountain railway on Penang Hill began in 1897 but it proved unsuccessful; it was built between 1901 and 1905 but had technical faults. The Straits government then organized a new project to construct the Penang Hill Funicular Railway at a cost of 1.5 million Straits dollars. The railway was first opened to the public on 21 October 1923 and officially opened on 1 January 1924. The funicular railway led to a sharp increase in residential development as it become a location for the building of holiday villas and bungalows by Europeans and wealthy local Chinese towkays alike. It also led to its development into a major tourist destination in Penang. A major revamp was initiated in 2010, with the overhaul of the railway that allows for faster access to the hill, as well as construction of facilities for visitors, walkways and viewing decks. It receives well over a million visitors a year by 2012.
Penang Hill is mainly a hilly granitic mass. The hill system is higher towards the northern part with its highest point at Western Hill, at an elevation of 833 m (2,723 ft) above sea level. Other than Western Hill, there are a number of peaks in the region, such as Bukit Laksamana (Malay for Admiral Hill), Tiger Hill, Flagstaff Hill, Haliburton's Hill and Government Hill. Flagstaff Hill is 735 m (2,450 ft) above sea level. A number of small rivers and streams originate from the region. Sungai Pinang (Malay for Penang River) is the largest of the rivers, and it starts from a number of tributaries in the area.
Because Penang Hill has a cooler environment, it has been a popular holiday retreat. A number of bungalows were built around Flagstaff Hill. The northern part of the Hills are not well developed. Government Hill, Bukit Timah (Malay for Tin Hill) and others are designated water catchment areas and no development is permitted.
Some recreational potential exists at the upper reaches of the river where the water is relatively clean. In a number of cases, sudden changes in ground level have resulted in a series of small waterfalls and rapids, where bathing, dipping and picnicking are popular.
The lower terrain of the Hills is used mainly for agricultural and residential purposes.
The most convenient way up to Penang Hill is by means of the Penang Hill Railway, a funicular railway from Air Itam to the top of Flagstaff Hill. The 2,007 m (1 mile 435 yard) journey used to take about half an hour and the train may stop at intermediate stations upon request. However, upgrades to the system now allows non-stop ride to the top in five to ten minutes.
For Malaysians, the fare for a return (round trip) ticket is RM10 per adult and RM4 per child aged between three and 12. For foreign tourists, the return fare would be RM30 for adults and RM15 for children aged seven to 12. Senior citizens and students will enjoy cheaper fares at RM4 per person. The ride continues to remain free of charge for disabled persons holding the OKU (Malay acronym for Orang Kurang Upaya) card. Penang Hill residents, licensed traders and hawkers and workers can purchase monthly season pass at RM24. The blue, air-conditioned Swiss-made coaches, capable of ferrying up to 100 passengers at one go, run from 6.30am to 9pm daily.
Alternatively, there is a 5.1 km (3.2 mi) tarred road known popularly as the "jeep track". It is open only to the vehicles of hill residents. The "jeep track" is also used by off-road motorcycle enthusiasts to traverse up the steep terrain. It is a popular hiking route. It begins at the quarry at the entrance of the Penang Botanic Gardens and it takes a two or three-hour leisurely hike to reach the top. Some of the more famous pit stops at the mountain are 52 and 84. At these pit stops, a view of the island is visible to hikers, who are able to get some water and tea prepared by locals stationed on the hill. Eighty Four is the last pit stop before the top of Penang Hill – approximately forty five more minutes from 84.
Jalan Sultan Yahya Petra, more commonly known as Summit Road, leads from the top station to the western part of the hill right towards Western Hill and Tiger Hill.
The eastern face of Penang Hill is well served by a series of roads and paths, for example, Moniot Road, Viaduct Road, and Tunnel Road. Moniot Road is named after a Frenchman, Michael Jules Moniot who surveyed it between 1846 and 1855. Moniot Road has been declared a Heritage Trail in 1995 by the Governor of Penang.
A system of bridle paths forms a picturesque labyrinth of walks connecting the different bungalows. Indian penal servitude prisoners shipped from Bencoolen, Sumatra to Penang during the second half of the 19th century built these by-paths.
Numerous trekking trails lead from various starting points in the lowlands to Penang Hill. The more popular trails include the Moongate Trail, trail from Air Itam Dam to Tiger Hill, trail from Hye Keat Estate and trail from the Municipal Park (formerly Youth Park). Some of the trails are used by farmers to transport produce to the markets of Balik Pulau and Air Itam.
The most important feature of Penang Hill is the cooler climate. The core summit area has an average temperature ranging from 20° to 27 °C. The mean minimum temperature is consistently below 21 °C. The hottest months are between December and April while the coolest months are between June and October. It is generally 5 degrees cooler than Georgetown.
Plant and animal life
The most common forest type found on Penang Hill is the hill dipterocarp forest. Growing at higher altitudes are some of the submontane oak-laurel as well as coniferous trees. The Tree fern which is normally associated with higher elevations is also found growing here.
Penang Hill is scientifically important as a type site of many Malaysian plant species. In the past, botanists came here to collect plants for herbaria around the world. It is an area rich in biodiversity and has a great number of endemic species, some of which are so rare that their existence is endangered.
The rare and endangered species include the parasitic plant Exorhopalia ruficeps, which grows in the shady and damp undergrowth. The Penang Slipper Orchid (Paphiopedilum barbatum) is fast becoming over-collected and disappearing. The endangered witch hazel Maingaya malayana was rediscovered years ago and has since been propagated.
Large mammals are not found on Penang Hill. Wild boars, small and medium-sized mammals such as the squirrels, monkeys and tree shrews can be seen. A number of species found in these hills are nocturnal. These include the civets, flying lemurs, flying civets and bats.
In the evenings, the characteristic calls of the cicadas and crickets are often heard. If one is discerning enough, the stick insect and leaf mantis may be found well-camouflaged among the vegetation.
Penang Hill has a rich bird fauna. Over 100 species or about 80% of the birds found on Penang Island have been recorded here. They range from the common garden species to rare deep forest inhabitants.
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- Simon Gardner, Pindar Sidisunthorn and Lai Ee May, 2011. Heritage Trees of Penang. Penang: Areca Books. ISBN 978-967-57190-6-6
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