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A drive along the other side of Penang Island

tunglang writes about a recent drive around the western half of Penang Island and finds out how things have changed…

Our more cultured songket and home timber carvings are artistic inspirations from the rainforest, besides animist beliefs expressed in raw art wood carvings by the Orang Asli. Before the advent of electricity and piped water, the rainforest was (and still is) the source of every conceivable living need, taking care of us humanoids, who were supposed to take care of the rainforest as chosen masters of earth, for millenia.

Penang as an island is still covered in some parts with almost pristine million-year-old jungle, mostly in the north-western corners and parts of the hill ridges running behind Penang Hill. Just a trek up from Teluk Bahang Forest Reserve to Tiger Hill will offer one a unique experience of living jungle and breath-taking views of the other side of Penang Island.

As I drove along Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi till Teluk Bahang this afternoon, I was taken aback by the sheer rapid development going on busily in the once quiet, serene coastal belt of tourism charm. Even the bicycle signs didn’t offer me any consolation beyond prompting me to reminisce about my good old days of the 1970s, riding solo on my Raleigh racer on cool Saturday mornings. In my heart, I could sense the desperate cries of the forest fringe bleeding from the Caterpillar unrelenting digging and pushing at the edge.

Chin Farm, was nowhere to be seen. The once red earth entrance was transformed into an abode of bungalows for the rich and famous. One thing that still remained as it was – the width of the narrow winding coastal road. As I drove, alert to sharp cornering, I tried my best to savour the sea views mindful of impatient Speedy Gonzales of Myvis and a Rapid bus following closely behind. Driving was no more leisurely for the mind, body and spirit along this coastal road.

The beach of once Scout Jubilee Camp was fenced up (for what?) with only two small lanes, each on either sides for public access to the beach. This beach land privatisation was unforeseeable 30 years ago, when anyone could just walk in, camp or just barbeque here under coconut trees in the cool breezy evenings with surreal turning beams of light from the Muka Head lighthouse streaming far into the starry sky.

With the Rapid bus still following closely behind, I reached the “End of the World” famed for its fresh seafood. But alas, the place was now a Taman Negara fenced-up entrance. I wondered if one had to pay to just go in for a hike to Pantai Keracut. (For almost 10 years, I was into 4WD in mainland Peninsular jungles, so my almost absence from this nature’s haven.)

Funny though, when I enquired about a coming theme park from the locals, nobody seemed aware of this new development in their vicinity.

As I drove along the now quiet road to Balik Pulau, I wondered how long this serenity would last. From here to Sungai Pinang, driving at 40mph, I was only overtaken by two cars and one bike and no other cars visibly following behind me, not even a hurrying Rapid bus. Vehicles from the other direction were less than a score. It was like driving 30 years ago at leisurely speed. The iconic pre-Merdeka stone bridge fencing could still be seen. Just keep them stone-alive.

As I drove past the several new housing developments towards Balik Pulau town, my instinct told me this was irreversible. The Malay kampung ambience was slowly morphing into suburbs of stone, marbles and green glass facades with designer gates. Only a few authentic Malay houses stood the test of time, change of minds, and encroaching modernisation. The once lazy daisy Beverly Hills with running chickens of Penang was no more, as I was once again closely followed from behind by an impatient Speedy Gonzales driven by a pak cik!

As I exited from Balik Pulau turning into Tun Sardon hill road, my mind turned to the rainforest, streamed with beautiful late afternoon sunlight. This stretch of road cuts through what was once a thick jungle of wood-peckers, wild boars and bats. I had the good fortune of hiking up the hills as a young boy on my way to my godfather’s homestead of now 200-year-old Hakka heritage, which still stands the test of time, weather and eventual sale of Chor Kong’s land.