Another side of Penang

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.DSCF6038

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.

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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 or by calling them on +60 16 452 2100

Categories: Asia, Balik Pulau cycling, Malaysia, Penang | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre

Reasons why orangutans are amazing

  • They’re ginger monkeys
  • They share 96.4% of their DNA with humans, the highest percentage of any animal species
  • They’re the only one of the great apes to live outside of Africa
  • They are the wild men of Borneo
  • Baby orangutans look like this….Baby orangutan
  • Big daddy alpha male orangutans look like this…..

For all these reasons, and ginger solidarity, orangutans have always been one of my favourite animals. On our recent trip to Sabah, one of the two states that comprise the Malaysian part of Borneo, I had the opportunity to see these magnificent beasts for the first time.

As it’s getting more and more difficult to see orangutans in the wild, the best bet for primate enthusiasts in Sabah is to visit the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre, one of only three such facilities in the world. Situated just 45 minutes away from Sabah’s second largest city, Sandakan, the sanctuary welcomes thousands of visitors every year. The highlights of the day are the two feeding sessions, held at 10am and 2:30pm. On the morning of our visit, we arrived just in time for the 10am session, as the first orangutans were making their entrance. The orangutans swing along the ropes to the platform where they are fed bananas. The diet is deliberately monotonous, so as to encourage natural foraging behaviour, which is essential if they are ever to return to the wild. The feeding lasts for approximately twenty minutes before the orangutans decide they’ve had their fill and swing back into the forest. Watching it was a fantastic experience.

After feeding time there are a couple of options. There is a jungle trail, about 5 kilometres in length, which leads to a waterfall. As there was a high prospect of being leeched we decided to pass and visit the neighbouring Borneo Sun bear conservation centre instead. Sun bears are the world’s smallest bear species. Similarly to orangutans, they are endangered due to habitat destruction and Chinese traditional medicine. At the BSCC you can view the tiny bears from an elevated platform. These beautiful bears were so playful and docile that I was seriously worried that Janey might ask if she could take one home.


After leaving the sun bears we headed to the café for lunch. This was made extremely entertaining when one bold orang-utan, named Sisi attempted a daring, but ultimately unsuccessful, smash and grab raid on the kitchen supplies. Natural foraging behaviour I guess. Finally, it was time for the afternoon feeding session. Although we saw less orangutans this time, it was more amusing as a squad of macaques attempted their own smash and grab raid on the platform. Unfortunately, the afternoon session showed some negative aspects of the sanctuary. Many tourists seem unable to resist acting like complete imbeciles around the animals. When two inquisitive orangutans came down into our midst, they were surrounded by throngs of people flashing away and no doubt causing immense distress for the poor animals. Not cool at all.

Despite the unfortunate reasons for its formation and the stupid behaviour of some visitors, a trip to Sepilok is a superb experience and one that I’d highly recommend. After all, how many chances do you get to see the great apes in their natural habitat?



  • Entrance to the sanctuary costs 30 ringgit and covers you for both feeding sessions.
  • There are many lodges near the sanctuary. I’d recommend staying in one of these, rather than central Sandakan.
Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Orangutan centre, Sabah | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia. Standing at an impressive height of 4,095 metres it towers over the rest of Borneo. Ever since I arrived in Malaysia last September, I’d wanted to climb it. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s there I guess. I’m not really much of a mountaineer. Prior to climbing Kinabalu the highest mountain that I had climbed was Ben Nevis which is a molehill in comparison, at just 1,344 metres. There was something about Kinabalu that really made me want to take on the challenge though. Therefore, in May this year, Janey and I headed to Sabah, with the intention of ascending the great peak.


On the first morning of our two day trek, we departed from the Timpohon gate, at 9:30am. Part of what makes Kinabalu unique is that for the first day of the climb you can’t actually see the peak of the mountain, as you’re trekking through fairly dense jungle. We’d been warned to expect sweltering heat and to sweat profusely. This didn’t really transpire as the temperatures were pleasantly mild. Nor did the steep steps seem too sapping. I naively congratulated myself for the many hours spent on the cross trainer and stairmaster in preparation for the trek. This wasn’t going to be that difficult after all! However, at about the 2.5km mark we started encountering people who were gingerly making their way down the mountain. One girl told me that she was so exhausted that her legs were shaking. Maybe that confidence was slightly misplaced.

Rain has a habit of following Janey and I around. Maybe it’s because I’m from Manchester. Just after we’d stopped for lunch, it decided to make its customary appearance. This wasn’t the warm tropical rain that we’re used to in Penang. This was ice cold, torrential and it meant business. We tried to take shelter for a while but as it showed no signs of abating we ventured out for what would be the toughest part of the trek. Between 4.5 and 6 km the trail maintains its steep upward gradient. Just to make it more difficult though the steps disappear and the walkers have to navigate their way over or around some very larger boulders. The added challenge of the torrential rain made it akin to walking up a waterfall. Finally though, the tree line cleared and Laban Rata, our home for the night, appeared like a beautiful beacon of light. Soaked and miserable, we staggered into the hostel. There was only another 2.5km to go in the morning, with the prospect of more rain to come.

At first you can’t believe it. Is my alarm clock really going off at 1:30am? Then it dawns on you, it’s time to get up and attempt to summit. After trying to force down some beans on toast (seriously difficult at 2:00am) we departed Laban Rata and started our ascent to the summit. The most difficult aspect of this part of the climb is not the darkness, but the volume of climbers. Around 150 people all leave at the same time, which makes progress painstakingly slow. Eventually though, the stronger hikers get to the front and the line starts to spread out, and you can relax a little bit. Until you reach the rope. This is definitely the most dangerous point of the trek. We had to tightly grip onto a rope to enable us to inch along a very narrow ledge, with a sheer drop to the right. This torturous ordeal lasts for about fifteen minutes until you reach the final checkpoint. After that the rope continues but only as a marker to guide you across a long ridge. Strangely, for me, this was one of the easiest parts of the climb. Gone were the steps and boulders. We were just walking across smooth granite at a slight gradient. The challenge though is mental. In the approaching light, the summit is visible for a very long time before you get there, cruelly playing tricks on tired minds.

After what seemed like an eternity the ridge levelled out and we only had to scramble up a rocky crag to reach the ironically named Low’s Peak, the highest point in South East Asia. The sense of elation was overwhelming. I had done the Inca Trail some years earlier, but Kinabalu was easily the toughest physical challenge I’d ever undertaken. For that reason it’s also one of my proudest achievements.


Once you have finished revelling in the magnificent views, it’s time to go down. And believe me, this is just as tough as the ascent, even with a stop for second breakfast (definitely the best meal of the day) at Laban Rata. Janey, who had performed heroically up to this point given the fact that she had twisted her ankle a month beforehand, started to suffer from exhaustion. This made the descent very slow. Throughout this section, we were indebted to our wonderful guide Doina for her seemingly endless patience and indefatigability. Finally, we dragged our battered bodies back through the Timpohon gate at around 4:45pm. The whole trek had taken about 16 hours from start to finish. Was it worth the agony and several subsequent days of muscle pain? Of course it was. Every single bit of it.





We booked our 2 day, 1 night package through a company called Sutera, who seem to have a monopoly on climbing packages and accommodation. Expect to pay about 1000RM. This seems pricey, but it includes 7 meals, 2 nights accommodation and all climbing insurance etc. Ss the official Mount Kinabalu website for details.



Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Penang: Hawker heaven

As this is my very first blog I thought I should start with some background information. Janey (my girlfriend) and I moved to Penang, to take up EFL teaching positions, a little under two months ago. For those that don’t know Penang is an island located off the north-west coast of peninsular Malaysia. Despite it’s relatively small size the island has established itself as an essential destination on the itinerary of many a tourist to Malaysia. The reasons for this are many and varied. The capital Georgetown is a UNESCO world heritage site, mostly down to it’s incredible architecture. At Batu Ferringhi, one can enjoy the kind of beautiful beach that is more associated with neighbouring Thailand. However, for many people the real highlight of a visit to Penang is the food which is reputed to be amongst the very best in Asia. When we first told friends that we had been offered jobs in Penang, the initial response of anybody who had previously visited here was to wax lyrically about how amazing the food is. After spending the last eight weeks sampling as much of it as is physically possible I certainly wouldn’t disagree.


The principal reason for Penang’s gastronomic excellence lies in the incredible ethnic diversity of the island. Large Chinese and Indian communities have lived on the island since the days of British colonial rule, allowing their cuisines to supplement ethnic Malay favourites such as Nasi Goreng. The proximity to the Thai border also ensures that some truly spectacularly hot dishes can be consumed. My first encounter with a Thai noodle soup, named Laksa, left me feeling like I could see through time. Furthermore, when you consider that it’s also possible to find Japanese, Korean, Moroccan and even Bulgarian restaurants here, you get some idea of the culinary diversity of the place.Image

Despite the undoubted excellence of many of these restaurants, they are most definitely not the best place to eat in Penang. As with any Asian city the best flavours, and value for money, can be found by trying the street food. In Penang this is condensed into large hawker centres. These are basically big outdoor market places where it’s possible to try pretty much all of the aforementioned cuisines. Image

If these places existed in England, over-officious health and safety muppets would have them closed down within a day. But this is the Orient, and such concerns don’t exist over here. And thank heavens for that. Not only is the food of a superb quality it’s also ridiculously cheap. A standard dish at a hawker centre will usually set you back about 5 Malaysian ringgits. That’s about £1 or less than 2 USD!

It’s difficult to recommend any dish in particular, such is the choice. However, some perennial favourites are worthy of consideration. Claypot chicken rice does what it says on the tin. It’s chicken and rice cooked and served in a clay pot, topped off with egg and Chinese sausage. Definitely one to be consumed when you’ve worked up an appetite. Bee Hoon is a type of noodle dish which can be enjoyed with fish, seafood and  / or mixed vegetables. Some great steamed vegetable dishes exist for those of a vegetarian persuasion. Be careful to explicitly ask if they contain any meat or fish though.Image

As the title suggests, and as all those friends rightly stated, this truly is a food heaven. It’s going to be difficult to ever pay restaurant prices again!


Hawker centres are scattered across the island and are all pretty good. However,our personal favourite is the Viva local food haven in Tanjung Tokong. From Georgetown take the 101 bus and get off two stops after the big Tesco. Bon appetit!

Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Penang, Penang hawker food | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

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