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.