The 60s Meets the Future; Penang Hill, Penang, Malaysia
My trip up Penang Hill took place towards the end of my great adventure on the Malaysian Peninsula just as my funds were beginning to run low. Loath to withdraw any more cash in Malaysian Ringgit before I returned to Thailand, I was trying to live within what I already had and as such came to the frugal decision that I would buy my train ticket up the hill to replicate my grandparent’s photographs, but I would walk back. Four miles exclusively downhill seemed a fairly reasonable stroll and I figured I could get some nice pictures en route.
The journey up was very beautiful, although the route seems very changed from my grandparent’s day. For instance, in the photographs from 1960 the track is elevated up on stilts whereas now it lies flat on the ground and despite keeping my eyes peeled I failed to spot certain natural landmarks which should have been obvious. I suspect that the new tracks may have been laid along a slightly different course. In place of the orange train cars of the 60s (one of which is now housed outside as a historical artefact) you now ascend Penang Hill in smooth style in a shiny white pod.
One of the most wonderful things about the journey was playing spot-the-difference with the landscape in the background. Being a small yet populous island, Penang is forever in need of housing and the biggest difference is the arrival of block after block of apartment towers.
The views from the top of the hill were stunning (see top) and I wandered about a bit before I set out on my descent. The Malaysian people stared at me with astonishment when I said I was walking down but I strode out purposefully down the road, which wound down the opposite side of the hill to the train tracks.
It was a simple, single-lane road through the densely packed trees, affording me only a narrow strip of sky between the tree-tops. My idea of taking lots of nice pictures on the way down was shot down almost immediately when my camera battery sputtered and died. After just a few hundred yards of gentle slope the road nose-dived steeply and the only way to walk was to shuffle slowly, leaning back and taking quick, short steps. I assumed the road would level out and dip and level out and dip but it didn’t; twisting around corners it shot straight down alarmingly and consistently steeply. After having geisha-shuffled 2 miles down my calves were killing me and the baby steps meant that it had taken me considerably longer than I’d anticipated; the strip of sky above had turned a granite grey. The cyclists flying past were getting fewer and fewer and the trees were becoming black silhouettes. Apparently I’d spent longer on the top of the hill than I thought I had and the sun was setting fast. I was uncomfortably aware that there wasn’t a single street-light on my forest road, nor any civilisation to be found until I hit the bottom.
A moped pulled up and the driver called “hey girl! Hey girl, you wanna move faster yeah! Dark soon – faster faster!” I thought he might offer me a lift but he shot off into the quickening gloom leaving me with a rising anxious feeling and I shuffled quicker down the hill. In another half mile it was full dark and I was leaping with fright over every snake-like stick on the road and stumbling in the inky blackness. Occasionally the trees would thin out and the lights of the distant city could be seen glimmering in the distance and giving me hope. The last of the people on the hillside had disappeared with the sun but I was by no means alone; troops of monkeys screeched and howled invisibly from the trees and all manner of alien-sounding birds, bugs and frogs started up a weird and cacophonous choir. An apparition, pale as a ghost swooped low over my head, the breeze from its wingtips making my hair flutter before it alighted on a branch, blinking at me with its huge owl eyes. It occurred to me that I probably would have found that magical had I not been stuck in the middle of a Malaysian wood alone in the night.
Horrible fancies started to occur to me; what if I’d wandered off the right road in the dark and I was lost? I became utterly convinced that I was going to end up spending the night on the hill and that my body would be found a few days later dismembered by territorial monkeys and bitten by every kind of poisonous thing that slithers or buzzes.
I jogged the last ¾ mile; I’d jogged for short stretches the whole way since with such a steep slope it’s pretty much that or the baby geisha steps. I’m not a jogger by any stretch of the imagination though so I could never keep it up for long – plus jogging felt like free-falling with no brakes and that gave me vertigo. By the last stretch I’d worked myself into such a panic that I just wanted off and any observers would have been very amused to see me half-jogging/half-stumbling down the hill, swearing profusely to myself the entire way; “fucking-hill- fucking-hill-don’t stop-come-on-don’t-stop-keep-going-fucking-hill-ouch-fuck-you-road!” Then, like an angel of mercy, I saw a figure in white coming up the hill toward me who, upon closer inspection, transpired to be a jogger (a proper one), I stopped him and asked how to get off the hill. “You’re there,” he said. “Just round that corner.” He looked concerned; “its far too late to be walking on the hill” he admonished. I agreed. Then I rounded that last corner and huzzah! Lights! Car Park! People! A bus! I got on the bus without even knowing where it was going because I so wanted to sit down, the constant violently downward direction had wreaked havoc on my knees which had taken to trembling. I got off as soon as we entered a more built up area and caught a taxi home to sleep like the dead. Penang Hill is going in the same category as Mt Sinai for the fear/exhaustion combo. Still, I got to see a big owl up close in the wild so swings and roundabouts.