Live! explores Balik Pulau in Penang to discover its secret allure. There's much to do in the seemingly slow-paced farming town. Visiting this place is mandatory for foodies aiming to complete their discovery of Penang's culinary treasures.
Mention Penang and most tourists (or even locals, for that matter) would conjure up a memory of George Town — the lau juak (full of life), urbane, cultural hub of the state where clamorous and crowded kopitiams serve up cheap and delicious hawker grub in the sweltering heat and sit cheek-by-jowl with trendy cafes serving lattes and pastries. All housed in restored decades-old shophouses worth millions. The city where the kiam siap (stingy) locals tut-tut rising living costs constantly and have become so increasingly familiar with snarling traffic that a 30-minute drive anywhere doesn’t seem so long anymore.
But turn your sights away from the capital, past the peaks of Bukit Bendera and the Kek Lok Si temple of Air Itam and you may just catch a glimpse of old Penang, where time appears to have stood still.
Towards the southwest, ensconced in the hilly ridges at the heart of it all lies Balik Pulau. The hinterlands of the island were once home to sprawling estates of nutmeg and clove plants, introduced by the East India Company in the 19th century from other far-flung corners of the vast British Empire, to meet the huge demand for these spices. One of the first settlers of Balik Pulau were primarily comprised of the robust Hakkas, who toiled on the hillside estates dotting the area. The tightly-knit and spirited community thrived on the rich, fertile soils of the region and is now the main Chinese dialect group in the area.
Even today, vestiges of its agricultural legacy remain, in the orchards filled with durian, mangosteen, rambutan and other local fruit trees that remain the backbone of its tourism industry. Free of traffic and relatively laid-back, its scaled-down and laissez-faire environs are the perfect panacea to the hustle and bustle of the rest of Penang island.
Its relaxed charm is what draws in the retirees and weary professionals, yet these very same people then turn into entrepreneurs, operating plush resorts, organic farms and restaurants, among others, on the very land they seek to unwind on. Perhaps it’s the fresh air, pure mineral-rich water from the hills, or perfect barometric pressure that reinvigorates them…giving them a sense of renewed purpose and hope.
So how does one get to Balik Pulau? If you want to bypass the snarling traffic in George Town, take the scenic Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge that links Batu Kawan on the state’s mainland to Bayan Lepas on the island. (Pro-tip: If you are arriving at midday, when the sun is blazing hot, you might just catch the elusive illusion of cars floating on the Straits of Malacca, thanks to the heat radiating off the tarmac.)
From then on, glide through the industrial parks of Bayan Lepas, then through the increasingly rural neighbourhoods of Teluk Bahang up to Jalan Tun Sardon, maneuvering an exhilarating series of loops up and down Penang’s hills. It’s a route that requires a powerful yet graceful vehicle, a role our Renault Captur fulfils beautifully. The quiet, yet powerful crossover Live! drove up to Penang with its turbocharged engine was a good choice to tackle what was a prelude to the peaks and valleys of Balik Pulau.
At this point, you might have been on the road for hours, depending on where you began your journey. While the Captur needs no refueling — the Kuala Lumpur-Penang drive left us with slightly over half a tank of petrol, thanks to its highly efficient downsized turbo engine — your stomach certainly does. What better way to cap off the long, scenic drive than with a steaming, savoury bowl of laksa?
This story first appeared in Live! 2019 magazine. Download your copy of the magazine here.