As evocative nicknames go, Penang’s claim to be the “Pearl of the Orient” takes some beating. But is it accurate? That name conjures up images of pristine beaches and wild untamed jungles. There’s a lot to love about Penang, mainly the outstanding food and a wealth of cultural attractions, but unspoilt it most certainly is not. The entire East side of the island has been massively overdeveloped. This has led to subsequent environmental problems, including landslides, traffic congestion and air pollution. Not what one would imagine the Pearl of the Orient to be like! The West side of the island is an entirely different proposition though. There, high rise condos are replaced by traditional fishing villages. Glitzy shopping malls are nowhere to seen. Instead, paddy fields and mangrove forests dominate the landscape. It’s like travelling back to a time when Penang’s claim to be the Pearl of the Orient was justified.
Prior to this January, I’d lived in Penang for a year and a half but hadn’t yet visited the less explored side of the island. This was until a colleague recommended a company called Explore Balik Pulau who conduct guided cycling tours around that area. As my brother, also a cycling enthusiast, was coming to visit, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. To get to Balik Pulau we first had to drive to Teluk Bahang at the northwest tip of the island and then turn inland. The road from there to Balik Pulau is high and winding and not for the faint of stomach! I felt rather queezy by the time we arrived. The Explore Balik Pulau office is located on the main road, between the village of Sungai Pinang and the town of Balik Pulau. We began our tour from there and first cycled to a traditional Malay stilt village. Our guide, Eddie Chew, explained that in days gone by that if one of the villagers had wanted to move house, they would do exactly that! They would uproot the house from where it stood and the entire community would lend a helping hand to move it.
From the stilt village we cycled along the banks of a small river, where beef cattle were grazing, until we reached a Chinese fishing village. There wasn’t a lot to see here apart from a charming little Taoist temple. However, the main point of interest was just how different life is from the other side of the island. It’s highly unlikely that the residents of Georgetown could leave their front doors wide open when they go out! The fishermen also seemed to use very basic boats and tools. This was subsistence living, not big industry fishing.
After a short time in the village we got back on the bikes and continued cycling. Penang can sometimes seem like quite a large island. Our next destination showed us that this certainly isn’t the case. Eddie led us to a point on the coast where we could see the northern tip of the island in one direction, and the southern tip in another. The sea seemed quite choppy so we didn’t stray too close to the edge. You wouldn’t want to get swept out to sea here. The closest landmass is Sumatra, two hundred kilometres away to the west.
For the next leg of the journey we cycled back inland to a mangrove forest, where we got off the bikes and took a short walk. Then it was onwards to the best part of the trip; the paddy fields. It was absolutely surreal to think that this was the same island as the concrete jungle to the East. Along the road we stopped for refreshment. A local Malay woman had set up stall under a tree in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There she sold fresh coconut and sugar cane juice for 1 ringgit a cup. Not only was this ridiculously cheap but it was also wonderfully refreshing and sustained us for the final leg of the journey. As we left her stall, the sun was beginning to set over the paddy fields making for some spectacular views. Some local kids seemed beguiled by our presence. In Tanjung Bungah or Batu Ferringhi a white face wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. This was another reminder of just how different the west side of the island is.
It was a short ride from the paddy fields back to the office. In total we had cycled fourteen kilometres and seen a great variety of different places. What I enjoyed the most about the tour was the sense that this was a side of Penang that very few tourists, or even locals, actually see. To be honest, I hope it stays that way.
The tour was extremely cheap at just 30 RM per person. You can contact Explore Balik Pulau via their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/explorebalikpulau?fref=ts or by calling them on +60 16 452 2100