Paradise Lost – Paradise Restored?

Penang, tropical island – the Pearl of the Orient (as it has been called).  One of my favorite places in the world.  I had my honeymoon there.  As a child, I had two memorable holidays there. Sun, sea, lush tropical forest, hills, historically rich,  culturally diverse and a foodies heaven; Penang has it all.

But over the years, it became a victim of its own popularity.  First came the tourist hordes, then came the developers.  The island underwent a development boom and it was not well-managed.  Idyllic, tranquil beaches became crowded with sun tanning bodies and  adventure water sport operators hawked their noisy water scooters while tacky souvenir stalls became the backdrop.  The famous Gurney Drive promenade transformed from a walker’s paradise into a perpetual gridlock of honking traffic especially on weekends.

When I was a child, a visit to Penang Hill was like making a trip to a magical kingdom.  Access was by a quaint historical funicular railway which went up the hill at a slow and sedate pace, giving ample opportunity to see the fascinating change of vegetation as the carriage ascended the Hill.  There were also lots of carnivorous pitcher plants and some orchids along the way to enchant you.  The top of the Hill was a mist shrouded adventure land of lush vegetation and colonial style houses with well maintained and beautiful gardens.  There is a small hotel, Hotel Bellevue, which was a great place to have a spot of afternoon tea.  It also has a couple of geodesic domes on the property in honor the link between Penang and Buckminster Fuller, an American systems theorist, architect, engineer, author, designer, inventor, futurist and the creator of the geodesic dome.  Today, things are so different.  An upgraded and modernised funicular railway has lost its historical charm while still being overwhelmed by the sheer number of tourists and visitors.  The sedate, leisurely trip up the Hill has been transformed to a stressful, over-crowded experience.  Over development on the top of the hill has caused both the lush vegetation and the thick mists that used to enshroud the top to become merely stories of bygone eras told by some old timers.  I fully understand a recent comment by a tourist on the Tripadvisor forum who said, “Long wait to get up there but there isn’t much to see or do.”

Things were not better in the historic town of Georgetown either.  Tall unsightly skyscrapers were built that ruined the skyline.  Well loved trees which were as old as a hundred years were loss in road widening efforts to cope with increased traffic.  Old and historical buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair.  Cleanliness became an issue especially in the areas which were famous for food hawker stalls.  And then development was allowed on the hills and the once green hills that were visible throughout the island became marked with red, ugly scars and condominiums.

However, the Penang people have rallied and are trying now to right the wrongs.  In a trip to the island last week, I was impressed by the changes and the progress in the right direction.  Various citizen groups took up the issue of preserving Penang’s natural, cultural and historical heritage seriously.  Working with the state government, Penang has cleaned up its roads and beaches and has Malaysia’s most successful recycling program.  Hawker stalls were re-organised, given better facilities and the cleanliness has improved accordingly.   There is a group looking out for the trees along the roads of Penang.  Bus and public transport has also improved to try to  cut down vehicular congestion.  This includes the introduction of free shuttle buses within the Georgetown core area.  Heritage walks have been drawn up and promoted by the Penang Heritage Trust.  Restoration of old buildings has been carried out by citizen groups, local government and even by businesses.  Georgetown was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008.

My recent trip to Penang last week has rekindled my love for the island as it goes through its rejuvenation and I will share photos of the trip in the next couple of posts.

14 thoughts on “Paradise Lost – Paradise Restored?”

  1. Another place killed by its own success. I live in a place like that. It’s called America. Maybe I should have said Earth. There’s just too dang many of us.

  2. It must be heartbreaking for you to have seen the degradation of your childhood paradise – the efforts of the people trying to put things right is commendable but alas, I feel it is too late for all of us.

  3. I look forward to seeing the pictures. I wonder if there are an unspoiled areas left in the world?

  4. So weird. I just watched an HGTV episode of “House Hunters International” and it was in Penang. It was very beautiful. The couple bought a condo on Shamrock Beach. You called it a “foodies heaven’ and the lady on the show called it a “food mecca.” Since the show is an entertainment show, they showed very little of the grimey parts of Penang. Just a few quick glimpses.

  5. It is a dilemma when greed takes over. A popular destination for locals becomes overrun with foreign tourists and then it is ruined for everyone. I am always disappointed when visiting a tourist site, usually because it has become too touristy and no longer authentic.

  6. Riot Kitty,
    Thankfully, there are still some unspoiled areas in the world; even in Malaysia but those who know don’t like talking too much about it as the moment it gets to well known, it gets badly degraded.

  7. VioletSky,
    Doesn’t have to be that way. I think Barcelona, which you just visited, has kept the attractions primarily for their own people which makes it less touristy and more authentic.

  8. Sounds like a great place to visit—-Very good to see people realizing they need to take better care of the environment and then doing it!

  9. hmmm, interesting point you make about Barcelona. I wasn’t there long enough and I managed to completely avoid Las Ramblas, which I understand was very tacky & touristy. but from the commentary on the tour bus, it seems a lot of the changes in the city were done for the local population and not to attract tourists.

  10. VioletSky,
    I actually liked La Rambla. True there were some touristy traps especially when it came to food but it was still not difficult to find the authentic cafe that the locals frequented. For example, the market is totally local in flavor. La Rambla is a lively street.

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