Old Penang: Penang Hill Railway

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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
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24 Comments on "Old Penang: Penang Hill Railway"

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ong ong
ong ong

Lets complain to the state government for a slow ride option.

tunglang
tunglang
You mean to tear down the Speedy Gonzales fridge train, unsightly track & cable? Just like the Botanic Garden 2 arches? The problem with Fed’s Satu Lagi Projek is build first without public approval; $pend, $pend, $pend; then let the complaint/outcry take its (anticipated) course. You and I will then see who is the natural target for dirt throwing though it is beyond his jurisdiction (over Fed’s problematic projects). And the Feds will wryly say why give Penang any more development fund or Satu Lagi Projek when they always complain? In fact this Satu Lagi Projek came with an unspoken,… Read more »
tunglang
tunglang
Looking at the new hill railway track pics by Ric Francis, it makes one (foreign tourist) wonders why are there 2 ‘usable’ tracks overlapping and laying side by side but only one in use. Why not have 2 choices: a slow ride & a Speedy Gonzales ride? (I would prefer a cable car option for the impatient ones and leave the magical slow ride untouched). As it is, it smacks of wasteful use of resources, which also makes for an ugly, unimaginative presentation of a world record hill railway with a history & reputation of tourists’ unforgettable experience. And don’t… Read more »
Ong Ong
Ong Ong

Slow ride, hmmm, you can take a slow hike up Penang Hill, it’s even more fun! =D

sunnyooi
sunnyooi

One should not jump to conclusions. There are many progressive thinking penangites that does not agree to keeping everything heritage. It’s time to move on.

tunglang
tunglang
Ever since they (Feds) upgraded the Penang Hill Railway, I have not sinked a foot at the base station. I’d rather leisurely walk/hike up the hill road from Botanic Garden and get to smell and touch Nature first hand without the frenzy dizzy feel of Speedy Gonzales in fridge train prone to stray dog’s barking. BTW, are there sinister plans to install incongruous, ugly & plastic Darth Vader design? Why has it to be ‘perishable’ trendy plastic designs without cultural significance (some overtly slippery cleanliness obsessed but dangerous and expensive/costly to Penang’s famed affordable standard of living) replacing Penang’s heritage… Read more »
No Hock None
No Hock None

Last trip of old train up the hill

Adik Dubi
Adik Dubi

tunglang
finally you wrote a good article so i dedicate this video to you :
Long Train Running

keep writing (prefer you eat less to stay healthy) and write more (to keep the brains alert for next rally)

cheers

Norhayati
Norhayati

tunglang should buy the latest CD-box set of Sweet Charity, although it is basically a Singapore band with Abang Ramli Sarip as lead vocal.

http://www.hmetro.com.my/articles/Cerita42tahunSweetCharity/Article

tunglang
tunglang
TQ for the suggestion, Sweet Charity heavy metal songs bring me back to the crazy early 90’s days and nights at WingsBBDO where I and my crazy horse colleagues sweated it out on late night assignments. Heavy metals Malay songs from the radio were like narcotics that kept our spirit high, our blood shot eyes open while we doodled with marker pens (no computers then) churning out visuals and scams like nobody’s business. My tribute song to the late Bernie, the best one-line punch copywriter I ever worked with who like to karaoke with us to keep us ‘high’ and… Read more »
Doreen
Doreen

I still cannot understand why ‘Classic Rock’ radio channel by Astro was stopped from the airwaves.
What a waste as we could indulge in those classic tunes not necessarily evil.

tunglang
tunglang

‘Rock’ is a 4-letter word. Bad for the soul.
But many out there still miss it terribly! Count me soul among them.

Let’s gila: Search – Fenomena (1989)

Han Chiang Rockers
Han Chiang Rockers

tunglang,
Go and check out latest Mat Rockers called Khalifah with Ni Hao Ma (in hokkien Loo Ho Boh).
These rockers can tell Ibrahim Katak what unity among Msians is about !

Enjoy this video :

Hall & Oates
Hall & Oates

if only we have internet during 80’s – 90’s era when Penang was booming so that we have people power to ensure proper spending of state revenues.
if only tunglang can share his tales during 80’s & 90’s to give people nolstagic feels and get to truly “gerak” the administrator not to waste/leak and preserve the heritage and upgrade their values for future generations to witness.
We have lost some shining moments of the past due to negligence or simply bo chap attitudes of past administrators.
We can just hope there are less Maneaters otherwise I Can’t Go For That !

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood
probably my wishful thinking that we can travel back in time if we can have movie screening under moonlight on top of penang hill during weekends. Show claasics like p ramlee (& saloma) movies, john wayne’s classic western (eg El Dorado, True Grit etc) and so on. tunglang can relive past memories playing cowboy this time with his sons or grandsons. in reality i do expect Starbuck, Kim Garry, KFC etc will park their outlets there unless penang gomen can find alternate sources of revenues. As in Clint Eatwood’s movies, we have The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in… Read more »
Thomas the Train
Thomas the Train

We prefer slow train (I do not mean KTM, though)
The journey is as important as the destination.

Enjoy this clip:

Ong Eu Soon

A mind boggling leader thought that development means fast and speed. Modern people have no time for any thing.

kingkong
kingkong

More than 20 years ago, I made my first and last trip up to Penang hill. To go up there is no problem but to come back, it was really a nightmare. From evening, we have to wait until night because of the slow tram. There were long long queue with everyone waiting to go back at 5pm with a thousand at the hill top waiting to go home for dinner, bath and sleep. How to solve it?

Sean
Sean

Perhaps Penang should have followed Trondheim’s lead: you could have gently freewheeled down:

tunglang
tunglang

Sean,
How about similar practical and inexpensive devices / inventions that can speedily (like the Pg Hill Speedy Gonzales coach) send/ship out/extradite those Barang Naik goons out of Penang ASAP?
Hello, many talented Penang engineers comrades at FTZ. Think about it.

tunglang
tunglang
To build more or speedy transport facilities just to cater for the occasional (not everyday affair) 5pm crowds is not a viable nor financially prudent solution. Already there is an alternative jeep transportation up the hill via Botanic Garden. And why not eat at the hill top restaurants and tea terraces and food court. And there’s a hill hotel to stay and enjoy the sunrise and sunset. If you know how and when to avoid the occasional crowd – to enjoy exotic Penang Hill. BTW, the experience of Penang Hill resort is entirely different from that of the Genting Highlands,… Read more »
Ivan
Ivan

Penangites should treasure the idyllic lifestyle and not to be consumed by fast-paced lifestyle to chase the $$$. Need to be patient and productive but not rushing for results as it will cause you immerse stress and anxiety.

Remember to ‘smell the flower’ as you walk along the road.

ramli
ramli

The federal government should have consulted the people first before installing the ‘high-speed’ one to Bkt Bendera. What a waste.

Ric Francis
Ric Francis

Well noted article, I have a book soon to be released on the full History of the first two railways, book will be published in Penang by ARECA BOOKS. At present my book on Penang Trams Trolleybuses & Railways is available from bookshops in Penang or from ARECA
Ric Francis

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