George Town, for all its charms, is a world of concrete. There are very few parks or open spaces.
With that in mind, it's great therapy to spend at least one day a month away from the crowds and surrounded by nature. The locals flock to the Botanic Gardens or go up Penang Hill but it's hard to get away from people, despite the beautiful surroundings.
Here's a little-known alternative that will rejuvenate your spirits and give you a great workout. It's a jungle trail that leads to an abandoned and possibly haunted bungalow, perched high atop one of the northern peaks of Penang's hilly spine.
Bukit Zi Zai ( Zi Zai in Chinese means free, unrestrained, comfortable, at ease - you get the idea ). Depending on your level of fitness, then the 'comfortable, at ease' thing may be something of a misnomer.
You will need hiking shoes ( rubber walking shoes - available at most Campbell St shoe shops for around RM10 - are ideal ), mosquito repellent, water, a sense of humour and maybe a hiking stick.
The hike will take between 3 and 5 hours in total, up and back the same way. That's allowing for brief stops on the way up and about half an hour at the top.
The trail is well defined and would be graded medium difficulty. It all begins at the dead end of Lorong Lembah Permai 3.
If you're coming from town and need to use Public transport, then catch a 104 bus at the Rabid Bus Station under Komtar. Tell the driver that you want to get off at the stop before Tenby School in Tanjong Tokong. Bus ticket will be around RM2.80.
When you get off the bus at the stop on Jalan Lembah Permai, walk a bit further in the same direction that the bus is going and then turn left into Lintang Lembah Permai 1. Walk to the end of the road, heading toward the hills - about a 10 minute walk. Then turn right and go straight until you reach the start of the trail.
The start of the trail is across a reasonably flat stretch of grassland ( see photo at the very top of this post ) before curving around to the left and dipping down to a soggy creek bed. Cross on a couple of fallen logs and then start a long ascent up through the jungle.
The trail is well marked with DAP flags and small trees fruiting DVDs. The going is more a steady grind than a severe climb and there are ropes and dirt/wooden steps in some of the more difficult areas.
The trail itself is a mixture of dirt, tree roots, rocks and rotting undergrowth. The vegetation varies from dense jungle to bracken. The area was once used for tapping rubber.
There are a few rest stops on the way up, including a large rock with faraway views of Penang's condo nightmare below. This rock is obviously used by someone as a place to meditate, with a low concrete platform built at the edge.
Keep you eyes open for Macarque and Dusky Leaf Monkeys. You may catch sight of a Flying Lemur too. There are centipedes, millipedes and trails of ants. You'll also see termite mounds. Some free standing, while others are attached to trees like the orb pictured below. We were also very fortunate to spot what we believe was a Hornbill flying directly overhead.
I'm no botanist, so details of the vegetation species on Penang's hillsides will need to be researched separately, if that's your area of interest. We did however see Wild Ginger and Malaysia's own aphrodisiac, Tongkat Ali.
After steadily climbing for up to an hour, you will reach the ridge where the going becomes less steep. Keep following the flags and arrows and you will eventually reach the Bungalow. There is a water container there but best to carry your own water up. Bring a snack too, because you've used up a lot of energy to reach the summit.
Perhaps the word summit is a bit dramatic. It's not like you've just conquered Kinabalu but to be honest, although it's a much shorter climb than K, it is probably tougher going in situ.
The bungalow is a mystery. No one seems to know who owned it or how it got there. All the materials would have had to have been carried up the hill by labourers. Tough going.
At the time of writing this ( there are plans afoot to do some restoration work ) the wooden floor is a bit suspect in places, so take care walking inside.
Descending is aerobically much easier but it can be tough on the knees. If you do have bad knees, you may want to think twice before doing this hike. The Monkey Beach trail through the National Park, may be an easier option.
Also if it's been raining, the path will be quite slippery. You won't fall over the edge anywhere but any slip can be nasty.
You'll return to earth the same way you went up. Don't stray from the marked trail, it is incredibly easy to get disorientated in the jungle. Make sure you tell somebody where you're going and give them an approximate return time.
In most cases your smart phone will not have any reception or wifi during the trek.
Retrace your steps back to the bus. You'll feel tired and possibly a bit sore for a day or two but the walk is definitely worth it.
By way of encouragement, my partner Veronica managed to complete the trail at the tender age of 70. She did have this to say though:
This climb in the jungle was a stupid idea for an out of condition nearly 70 yr old.
Going up just about killed me. Coming down I almost wished it had !!!
5 hrs wishing that I had let John go without me and that I was curled up safely at home with a book. Thousands of Mosquitos joined us on the trek and feasted on every part of my bare skin. There were more bites on one leg than I've had in all the years we've been in Malaysia.
My right knee ceased to work and my hands were burning from the ropes that were in some of the harder and more slippery areas.
Today I feel like I've been run over by a Rapid bus. Tai Chi was half hearted this morning, as I'm hurting in areas I never knew I had. Didn't feel this bad after climbing Mt Kinabalu. Does 14 yrs make THAT much difference!!
Veronica does have a flair for the dramatic - it was really not that bad.
Many thanks to our good friends, Rudy & Amelliea, for making the trek possible. If you would like a guide for this trek, then we can put you in touch with Rudy to organize a day and time.