Why rush to the top of Penang Hill, when the ride up in the slow ol’ wooden train was itself a priceless multi-sensational experience.

Penang Hill Railway Lower Station circa 1930s - Photograph courtesy of Ric Francis, from his book 'Penang Hill'

Penang Hill Railway

Penang Hill Railway - Photograph courtesy of Ric Francis, from his book 'Penang Hill&#039

Postcard of Penang Hill Railway in the 1960s - Image credit: www.myphilately.com

A ride up Penang in the 1960s
by tunglang

The old, steady and trusty way up to the top of the mist-covered hill haven in Penang – riding up in a slope-hugging wooden train – was something of great anticipation in my childhood. I can still visualise the unforgettable moments of ‘touching the clouds’ with visibility of not more than 10 feet, the misty chills at the top station – breathing in the super-refreshing cool mist that was like the draught from an open fridge, and exhaling the heavy vapour, as I imitated John Wayne smoking Rough Rider cigarettes. And to see and touch the abundant ‘queen-sized’ flowers half as large as my face was truly amazing. With so much fresh oxygen, things floral grew real big!

My yearly ‘pilgrimage’ to Penang Hill on the first day of Chinese New Year with my wonderful dad has been etched in my mind – a priceless experience no other hill trips, not even the superficial, over-commercialised and crowded Genting Highlands could ever match. Taking the Municipal bus at 6.15am and reaching the Ayer Itam roundabout to sip Kopi-O kau kau at a kopitiam, we still had spare time to walk some distance to the base station for the early train ride up the hill.

In fact, we were among the few early visitors/commuters to greet the train attendants, who methodically carried out their daily duties of checking and making sure the trips were without delay or technical problems. The smell of grease, cables, granite brick wall, coagulated rubber sheets (from farms) and the surrounding jungle greens, still ringing with sleepless crickets and toads, were enough to jump-start my adrenalin for the much-anticipated morning ride. And the train tickets smelled real good too!

When the inside grille gate was finally opened, I was let in like a gleeful dog, running around the train porch before the memorable moment of touching the brass door handle of the train and boarding the all wooden but steady-as-a-rock slanted train. My choice of seating or (mostly) standing on seat was in the front row just behind the train driver. Sitting would have rendered me a dwarf, what more with the sloping, hard wooden seats.

The moment of truth came when we were locked safely inside the cabin. Soon the bell rang and the grand ol’ train started to climb at the first tug of the over-greased thick cable. I could feel my heart displace a few centimetres at the first jerk before the train moved. It was a thrilling mechanical feat … the feel of the vibrating rolling wheels in torque on cast iron rails… you just became part of the ol’ train gently climbing at leisure up the steep hill amidst nature’s tranquility, transported to another world of old colonial charm. Almost half a century old, yet the wooden train was steady and strong like ‘Or Kau’ Guinness Stout.

The seat in the front row, whether going uphill or downhill, provided the perfect vantage point for soaking in the panorama. Time slowed down, affording one the luxury of absorbing in great sensual detail the splendour of the rainforest – ferns, monkey cups, the flora, mushrooms, giant ants, monkeys, spiders, birds and hundred-year-old trees crowned by tall bluish-green canopies.

The occasional brief stops for local hill residents provided extra precious time to draw closer to Nature and to breathe in the pristine oxygen-rich air creeping into the cabin through huge open windows. That was the natural air-con without the need for an artificial air-con.

And of course, to gaze at the heritage ambience of wooden electric cable poles and to wonder in nostalgia at the antiquated pre-war lamps with warm tungsten light bulbs, ‘decorated’ with spider webs for the half-slumbering queen spiders.

If one was dreaming of travelling to faraway lands to see picturesque cottage homes, there was (and still is) no better alternative place to see the real thing in Malaysia than in Penang Hill. Nestled among embracing trees and occasional guardian spirit boulders, the idyllic bungalows stirred the happy spirits of the already fascinated tourists, as they gazed from the windows of the slow-moving trains, their minds transfixed by the mental images of relaxation, serenity, and sanctuary during this recuperative getaway-from-the-boss sojourn. The smoking chimneys, miniature attic windows, stone bricks, Victorian architecture, pine trees and wind-direction roosters added a surreal charm and holiday sensation of European countryside in the midst of the tropical rainforest of Penang Hill.

Though it was just a halfway trip up the hill for both of us, the 20 minutes or so ride seemed to me a lifetime of innocent happiness – time in fact stood still. Looking forward to this journey, I would wait for dad and me to take that once-a year-trip up the hill to visit my grandparents’ homestead, nestled among embracing trees, ferns and the ever-sprouting vegetable gardens.

As dad and I alighted from the ol’ train at mid-station into the cool breezy air outside, I walked reluctantly away in envy of those tourists who could still continue the second half of the journey in the slow train up to the summit, where the cotton-like mist came floating in the air every sleepy afternoon in the 1960s.

As the Chinese proverb goes: “The journey is the reward”. So it was with the Penang Hill Railway. Why rush to the top, when the climb up in the ol’ train itself was truly a priceless multi-sensational experience.

The new hill railway track by-passing the old Middle Station with an old train parked inside - Photograph: Ric Francis

Mothballed: Another old train parked on the old upper loop - Photograph: Ric Francis