Balik Pulau

Balik Pulau

Like the other side of the moon, Penang’s Balik Pulau may offer more than what you expect from this beautiful island. For one it represents a more natural facet of the place. If the urban eastern precinct is always bustling with activities, life on the other side is more laid back and sedate. Most visitors would invariably cover the well-trodden trails as recommended by the popular guidebooks and previous travellers, giving Balik Pulau a miss – unless there is time to kill before heading to other destinations. Even if a trip were included to this rural enclave, it would be nothing more than a zip through in the confines of the tourist coach with little chance to really soak-up the atmosphere.

Actually, Balik Pulau is an attraction in its own right. Making the effort to read-up on the place and eventually to make your way there for a day or so is worth the trouble as it is here that you can immerse yourself into real rural lifestyle that is fast being devoured by development on its other half - Georgetown. There's also something attractive in the quiet pace of life and the friendliness of the locals worthy of first hand experience.

When people in Penang say Balik Pulau it could mean either of two places - one being the whole western side of the island, and the other, the quaint town of Balik Pulau itself. It makes no difference which one you opt for as the route via Batu Maung in the south or through Teluk Bahang in the north will initially take you through an exhilarating belt of tropical greenery punctuated with fruit orchards and even a waterfall.

The ascending route offers the occasional vista of the flat-forested plain, which stretches toward the sea. A couple of kilometres from the turning point for Sungai Pinang are the Titi Kerawang waterfalls, which often dry up outside the rainy season. I suppose, they should change the name to befit the conditions regardless of the season. Although quite waterless most of the time, this place is still worth a stopover for a sampling of fresh tropical fruits at the stalls and to enjoy the serenity of the isolation (if you go during the weekdays).

Balik Pulau is a one-street town lined by pre-war buildings that house traditional 'kedai barang' (sundry shops), restaurants, Chinese medical stores, small workshops and other establishments very much expected of a small township like this. At one end stands a Roman Catholic Church and three schools, which were previously run by Christian missionaries. The layout of the town very much reflects the desires of the British colonial administrators to have the place resemble a small English country town complete with a square. If not for the humid tropical climate and the rich mix of races and culture they might have succeeded.

However, their dismal attempt has given the place a stronger character - one that has relegated the locality into a slot where the relentless push for modernisation as starkly evident on the island's metropolis has so far failed to penetrate. Not far from the schools are the old government quarters comprising 12 linked wooden houses - another nostalgic reminder of the pre-independence period. At the other end of the road is an old building, which once was a cinema hall. Watch out for the town's landmark - the Koh Seang Tatt monument. It's actually a roundabout used to regulate traffic entering the main road. Immediately beyond this roundabout, you'll see the police station, hospital, magistrate court and the District Office. The sponsor of the monument, Koh Seang Tatt, was a rich Hokkien Chinese man who migrated to Penang in the early settlement days.

Koh was the person who built the Edinburgh House in Georgetown. This mansion had been named after the Duke of Edinburgh who stayed in it when he visited Penang in 1869. Koh's family owned massive estates within the District of Balik Pulau. The Koh Seang Tatt monument, it is believed, is not supposed to be moved or destroyed. There are two faucets carved in the shape of a lion's head. The locals, especially the Chinese still believe that as long as water flows from these faucets, the whole Balik Pulau area will remain prosperous. The superstition does prove its credibility. Sometime long ago, water supply to the monument was disrupted and the whole of Balik Pulau went through a recession of sorts. However, when the water supply was brought back, the place returned to normalcy and prosperity - believe it? Located practically in the centre of the town is the market. Built in 1904, the building was recently renovated.

Take a break and stroll around the stalls. It's an opportunity to witness how good the housewives of Balik Pulau are at haggling to get their money's worth. On most days, despite the renovation and makeover, traders still spill onto the main road - causing congestion in this one-street town. Balik Pulau in Malay literally means &quotbehind the island." This makes sense, as the town is located on the other side of Penang Island with the hills separating them. Hence, to the Chinese, Balik Pulau is &quotthe island behind the hills." Perhaps, the Chinese have taken it so because the area is so secluded that it is like an island hidden behind the hills. Just a 40-minute journey by road from Georgetown either via Telok Bahang on the north-west or Telok Kumbar on the south, the trip to Balik Pulau offers scenic view of Penang's lowland area and the sea.

Nature lovers will find this irresistible. The area is also great for its many photo opportunities. Well, if you're not adjourning to other parts of Malaysia besides Penang island, Balik Pulau can provide you an exciting preview of the rest of the country. For those with passion for jungle trekking, take the trail from Air Itam Dam across the hills. The two-hour walk is quite challenging. Every weekend Balik Pulau sees many visitors, mostly local tourists, making the best of its attractions. Your visit to this tranquil area of Penang will not be complete without trying the excellent local coffee.

Very much unlike the gourmet concoction of the trendy coffee joints with their so-called brew almost worth their weight in gold, your introduction to Balik Pulau's own coffee mix may just get you craving for more. To partake of this unique brew, just walk into any of the coffee shops (they won't ask for your name when you make the order like most 'international' coffee outlets do). Just ask for 'Kopi O' (black coffee) or 'Kopi Susu' (white coffee). In Malaysian coffee shops you don't get to add sugar or milk yourself.

As for food, Balik Pulau is still Penang - where the palate is king! Why not give the famous laksa Balik Pulau a try? Many have been hooked by its exquisite taste. But then if you are a non-Asian, it is most likely that you may not like it on the first instance. The best place to savour this popular dish is the stall located at the Jalan Tun Sardon intersection into the main road. Just in case you can't find the place, ask a local. Like anywhere else, in a small town like this everyone knows everyone and everything. The town of Balik Pulau is passionately known among the locals as kongsi (town). Surrounding this kongsi are Malay villages: Pondok Upeh, Titi Serong, Titi Teras (titi is the Malay word for crossing), Genting, Sungai Pinang and Sungai Burong. These names, colourful though they are, bear interesting historical or mythical beginnings. The Titi Teras village, according to the story told by old folks, is thus named because four pieces of hard wood (teras) were used to block the river, Sungai Mati, which was then infested with crocodiles. If the river was dug or drained, legend has it that these pieces of wood would surface and bring forth calamities to the village.

There is another story for Titi Teras village. A long long time ago there was a notorious man by the name Panglima Mei who often travelled between Pasir Panjang and Sungai Pinang. Perceived as mythical and demonic, this man was high on the police wanted list. However, they could not apprehend this very slippery character, giving credence to claims that he had supernatural powers. People also believed that with such powers, even if he was killed he would come back to life within three days. So, after lots of deliberation and consultation with shamans and such, a solution was recommended - that he could be killed using a golden bullet and buried along with the skin of the betel nut. Also joining the plot was Panglima Mei's wife who corroborated the solution with another method to ensure that her husband would not come bouncing back! She suggested that after killing him, the head should be buried far apart from the body. Panglima Mei was eventually killed by Jemedak Ali, a Malay officer in the British Police Force.

The body and the head were buried in Sungai Mati and Taiping (a town in Perak) respectively. A very grisly tale. But some older folks are still around to testify to its truth. A kampung (village) in Malaysia is generally synonymous with the Malays. This is because most of the kampungs are Malay-dominated areas. But this isn't exactly so with Titi Teras. A sizable section of the populace are Indians who historically settled in the village somewhere in the 1880s when they came to work in the plantations or the local council as labourers. You'll find an old Indian temple in Titi Teras: the Thendayabani Muthumariamman Temple, which is the focal point for Hindus. The temple is dedicated to Lord Subramaniam and Mariamman, a female deity. Its significance lies in the Vaigasi, a grand feast celebrated for three days during May each year. Visit the temple at about this time and reflect on the importance of rituals among the faithful. Balik Pulau is surely among the target areas for development undertaken by the State Government. However, this is going to be accomplished at a rather slow pace so that the existing ecological quality is maintained…or perhaps enhanced.

If you ever visit Penang and find that the hustle and bustle of Georgetown negates your intention to have a laid-back holiday, Balik Pulau is the alternative.