by MIN HANI
It is one of Penang's most popular tourist destinations, and has been for more than 200 years.
But Penang Hill has recently found itself in the international spotlight, not so much for its history, but for apparently being one of the world's most famous tourist traps.
Tourist traps are defined as overly crowded places that attract many visitors, but with often overpriced drinks and entertainment.
And as far as a recent article by American daily USA Today is concerned, Penang Hill, which is sometimes referred to as Bukit Bendera, ticks all the boxes.
Needless to say, Malaysians and especially Penangites have been up in arms over the label.
Yet all the debate on whether Penang Hill is or isn't a tourist trap is perhaps missing the main point — why the hill is significant to the state of Penang and Malaysia as a whole in the first place.
Culture and heritage
"When I first came upon the USA Today article, I wasn't surprised because (that opinion) represents (the perception of) the general public - people who generally don't know about the history of Penang Hill before they go there," remarked history and international politics researcher Enzo Sim.
This is also, he explains, why one is likely to see most visitors to Penang Hill converge around the summit and take pictures at the lookout points, with few exploring the paths and trails.
"If I were a tourist, I'd feel it's an overrated place as well, especially considering things like Love Lock (which mimics Rome's Ponte Milvio and Germany's Hohenzollern Bridge, where lovers seal their love by purchasing and clipping padlocks onto a gate).
"But if one went there equipped with the knowledge of history and an interest to experience the nostalgic days of the hill station, I'm sure they wouldn't perceive Penang Hill as a tourist trap," said Sim, who recently published a book on Penang Hill.
Granted, it is impossible to expect every visitor to the hill to learn everything about its past beforehand.
Nevertheless, for a start, the researcher says people ought to be aware that beyond the Instagrammable cafes, canopy walk, adventure rides and love locks, Penang Hill holds the distinction of being the first hill station established in the entire British Empire.
Past and present
The term "hill station" is intrinsically tied to colonial history and denotes towns or locations at a higher elevation, which the colonialists used as refuges from the heat of their colonised territories. But what is also important to remember is that without the presence of the British, Penang Hill as we know it might never have existed.
"The British sought highlands that offered a small-town feel, cool and crisp air, and greenery reminiscent of their homeland. The establishment of Penang Hill as a hill station was a testament to their colonial ambitions and a testament to the unique environment they discovered," explains Sim.
"(Visitors should also know that) the hill boasts rich biodiversity that has thrived for millions of years. And to truly appreciate the exotic nature and wildlife of the area, one must explore the various trails and habitats."
Penang Hill is, in fact, recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) as Malaysia's third biosphere reserve.
It is also known among hikers from Penang and all over Malaysian for its numerous hiking tracks; from Moniot Trail — named after Jules M. Moniot, one-time surveyor-general of the Straits Settlements and which was built by convict labourers of Indian descent — to the popular Moongate Trail.
"You get the best of both worlds in Penang," said Kuala Lumpur-based Ahmad Afiq Hazim, who makes it a point to check out the trails when he travels to the island with his fiancée.
"You get to enjoy the arts and culture of the island without having to go to a museum, and at the same time, you get to explore nature (by hiking) Penang Hill's trails. It's great."
And then, there are the hill's buildings and structures that do not get enough attention.
Still standing after all these years
Due to its former status as a hill station, colonial buildings dot Penang Hill in the same way they do the likes of Cameron Highlands and Fraser's Hill.
Sim highlighted, however, that the structures on Penang Hill are unique in that most showcase a distinct architectural profile that reflects the colonial influence on old Malaya's buildings.
The researcher explained that part of the reason for this is that they were designed by noted British architects of the time, among them Joseph Charles Miller, who played a pivotal role in shaping the architectural history of the region.
And, of course, there is the funicular railway, which celebrated its centenary on 21 October 2023.
Sim explained that passengers on the train, which travels uphill over a distance of 1,996m, get to naturally take in the gorgeous scenery. But what they also get to marvel at are the ingenious viaducts that traverse steep ridges and massive boulders.
"The viaducts were part of the innovative design of Arnold Robert Johnson, the original railway engineer. And they continue to stand as a testament to his engineering prowess," added Sim.
"Also, the fact that the railway has survived precisely 100 years is pretty impressive, you know."
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