Are We There Yet?

Foo Wei Meng

“Only one other favourite stopping place for hikers remains to be mentioned. Of the beauty of Penang Hill much has been written, but never too much. For the native it holds such insatiable charm that he visits it again and again. What “casement of enchantment” it must open to the visitors; the panorama of surrounding hills, the green plain below, the blue print of the town, the bird’s eye view of the channel and the mainland beyond.

Yet such serene beauty does not belong alone to Penang Hill and the well-beaten paths, the popular spots. The Hiking Club members will tell you that it is even more soul-satisfying to discover Penang afresh through almost virgin forest. Hiking is certainly a new way of seeing and appreciating the Penang countryside, and one that deserves to be encouraged.”

‘Exploring New Trails on Penang: Hiking for Women in Malaya’, The Straits Times, 6 December 1947, Page 5, by Margaret Khoo

When I joined this programme, my main interest was to investigate the significant value of Penang Hill to the community of frequent hikers, and how they perceive their relationship with the hills—their memorable encounters during their years of hiking over Penang Hill, observation of the changes on the hill/trails over the years and benefits of being a frequent hiker there.

As I developed this story, I realised it was not enough to only talk to hikers and listen to their stories, it was crucial that I went hiking with experienced hikers to better observe and experience the hills myself. Through that process, I started to learn about the many “do’s and don’ts” in the world of hiking, while getting my body into better condition so I could hike and take pictures more frequently and effortlessly.

“Are we there yet?” is a fairly common phrase that everyone—especially for a person like me who is a novice to hiking with no optimum physical condition (lacking stamina and muscle strength)—would mutter to fellow hikers, or one would get asked along the trails by hikers who are catching their breathe going up (more often) or down (less often) the hill.

Upon reflection, I find there is a parallel between the development of this story and the very nature of hiking. The journey of investigation is similar to the on-going exploration of the trails. There are always new things to observe and discover even if one goes on the same trail multiple times. Likewise different hikers have unique personal memories, stories and encounters of Penang Hills, and they continue to hike Penang Hills repeatedly for specific reasons of their own. Talking and hiking together with some of the experienced hikers for the past 3 months has just barely scratched the surface.

In conclusion, what I gained as I progressed through my investigation on the topic is not just cognitively in terms of my understanding of the hiking community, but also socio-emotionally, by meeting and talking to many hikers along the way.

If you were to ask me now the state of my investigation, my answer will be, “I’m not quite there yet”.

Typology Series: “Are you a frequent hiker on Penang Hill?”

This typology series of hikers is a photographic evidence of their existence and also serves as a visual study of the types of frequent hikers on Penang Hill, captured on three different trails between 7.30 am to 10.30 am on a typical weekend.

A majority of the people who consented to be photographed are frequent hikers on Penang Hill or surrounding areas. The intention of taking a portrait of the hikers from the back view is to replicate visually the similar experience of hiking on a trail where one’s vision of another hiker is often of his or her back.

Individual Stories of Hikers: “Can you share more?”

Cheng KK (60) — A retired school teacher who goes on solo or group hikes 3 times per week on the various trails in Penang, he likens Penang Hill to the ancestral home of local hikers where one has to ‘revisit’ every so often. When his friends from outstation or other countries come to Penang, Penang Hill is also their “default” hiking spot, where there are many trail options for him to choose to suit their respective interests.

“We don’t really hike Penang Hill that often compared to the other trails. But then no matter how, among the hikers, once awhile we’ll said, it’s high time we go to Penang Hill already…it’s kind of like although it’s there, but we always do not bother about it, but we know that we need to go there once a while. Just like you have old parents in a kampung, once a while you must go and visit them.”

“A group of friends from outstation they wanted to hike up Penang Hill. I suggested Bat Cave’s Temple trail for them. So, while we were gathering at the entrance of the trail, just before we started to move, suddenly this orchard owner or farmer came down with some durian! When we saw the durian, although we were very keen (to eat), but our intention was to hike…everybody was hesitating, we looked at each other…finally one fellow said OK, la, what the h***, let’s have durian, since it was there, so we ended up enjoying some durian before we hiked up to Penang Hill.”

Choo Siew Eng (60) — Since retiring 5 years ago, whenever she is free, she will walk up, sometimes even prostrating herself at the Golden Stupa on Penang Hill weekly, using the Bat’s Cave Temple trail. To her, hiking along the trail is enjoyable and pleasurable not so much only for good exercise, but she also finds being in the natural surroundings gives her a feeling of peace and tranquility.

“It’s nice if you come during the fruit season, you know, during durian season is the best time, you enjoy looking at the fruits, at the durians, you look at the mangosteens, I really enjoy the air…once you start coming up to the hill, to the jungle, not the jungle, actually is the orchard, you smell the durian smell…Sometimes I hike in the early morning at 5 something, wah, the air is so fresh, so nice, and you can feel the cempadak smell, wah. When you walk along, you hear the durian pop here, pop there! In June and July, during the peak season you can see a lot of motorcycles, the farmers will be so busy picking up the durians, you will see them carrying the durians down to the market there to sell.”

“I enjoy sitting down here reading. Sometimes, I feel like reading I read. Sometimes, I want to do work, I work. I just drink get some snacks here for my lunch, that’s it, it’s so nice, quiet and peaceful, so cooling…enjoy hearing the insect sound, you see, all the music is around, and the birds singing, you see all kinds of birds here, you can watch the birds, sometimes the farmer dogs will come up and play with you, yeah really, it’s nice.”

Hanuar Hussein (52) — He has been hiking casually for 15 years but became a serious hiker about 5 years ago. Being an outdoorsy person, he loves hiking the most out of all the activities even though it could be very physically demanding. The various encounters and unique experience while hiking on Penang Hill made him a frequent hiker and he always comes back for more.

“Lagi stress/penat, lagi seronok…bila kita pergi satu tempat, setiap tempat ada berlainan, macam Penang dia ada citarasa sediri, environment dia sendiri, ada track…atas tu ada tempat makan, macam Bukit Larut kita pergi kan, atas bukit tempat makan tak banyak, tapi nak pergi kita kena hiking atau dengan truck, jadi itu satu perbezaan, antara bukit tempat hutan berbeza.”

“Penang Hill ni tracknya banyak, owner dusun pun ok, kalau kita tanya jalan, mereka pun beritahu sini sini…I jumpa orang kebun tanya la buah kebun tu bila masak…memang enjoy sembang dengan farmers…release tension juga, relaks…saya takde kejar masa hari ni…”

“(Satu keistimewaan) Penang Hill (ialah) atas ada discount untuk hikers…untuk hikers dia bagi dua ringgit discount untuk minum, ais krim, ais kacang. Tak tahu (macam mana mereka tau), mungkin mereka tengok kita punya dressing, dia akan tanya: are you hiker kah?”

Kenny Sin (46), Bowie Ang (42), Eliana Sin (12), Ewa Sin (11) and Ellie Sin (5) — Kenny Sin (the current president of AnakHutan club) and his family love to be close to nature. They really embody the idea of being ‘anak-anak hutan’ (children of the forest) where they prefer to spend their weekends immersing in nature with fellow hiking families instead of being confined within the concrete walls of a shopping mall. The children grew up hiking and camping since they were toddlers so they have had many opportunities to explore and be inquisitive through their close interaction with the natural environment.

“I noticed children tends to explore more, and they like to observe many things. They are able to see tiny things, where we (adults) don’t notice as much when we walk. The most impressive memory that I have is carrying our eldest daughter, who is around eight months old at that time, to camping and hiking on my back. When the children became four or five years old, we started to let them walk slowly because it was too heavy to carry.”

“The children really enjoyed camping, when it’s dark, they would use torchlight to search around for frogs or insects when they heard noises. They are not afraid of the dark, instead they find it interesting to explore using a torchlight.”

“We used to camp on Penang Hill every year 7-8 years ago where campers were still allowed on the hill. We’d place our tent at the spot where there is currently a viewing platform located along the road to Kopi Hutan.“

Rexy Prakash Chacko (30) —Although he is currently well-known as an avid orchid researcher, his initiation into the world of hiking was due to his father’s interest; he took his family to climb Mount Kinabalu in Sabah when he was 12 years old. Penang Hill was the training ground in preparation for the big climb. They used the book “Selected Nature Trails of Penang Island”, published by Malaysian Nature Society (Penang Branch), 1999 as the ‘bible’ to explore the various trails around Penang Hill. He recalled vividly the excitement of crossing over the rail track at the Moniot Halt as a kid.

“Friday night he’ll come back from work, that time I was still schooling…I’ll read the trail, he will read the trail, then we will discuss how to go for Saturday’s hike. Saturday morning, we’ll bring the book, that’s why the book looked like this, all the sweat everything goes in. We discussed, if we want to do something, once we finished, we’ll find something else…let’s say there is a stone marker (which we found along the trail), then we’ll edit or add it there (onto the map in the book).”

“So last time I remember this was like, when I was really young, me and my dad will come up to the Moniot East Halt. So that’s where the railway track cuts the Moniot Road to east and west. So to cross over, there is no bridge, nothing, no underground thing. So you have to step over the rail track. So, you have to come, in a sense, you have to put one leg into the middle of the track, another leg…So there’s a small…how to say, like a small cement step. I think someone created it. So that’s where you put your feet on, put another one on, then you step over to the other side. But as a kid, that was very exciting because you never cross over railway tracks. This was the only one place you can safely cross over during that time. But of course, now it’s out of bounds with the high voltage, so you can’t actually do that anymore.”


This work will not be possible without the kind assistance and generosity from many individuals.

Wan Atikah bt Wan Yusof, Jeffrey Lim, Rexy Prakash Chacko , Cheng KK , Choo Siew Eng , Kenny Sin, Bowie Ang, Eliana Sin, Ewa Sin, Ellie Sin, Jungle Sim Que Lin, and many unnamed hikers who have given me direction and tips while exploring the trails.

Special thanks to these hikers who were willing to let me take their pictures and share their hiking experience.

Typology Series: “Are you a frequent hiker on Penang Hill?” (names appear according to photo-taking sequence):

Hikers on Heritage Trail — Beh CT, Amanda, Alfred,Amabel, Angela, Janice Lee, Ayu, Amurdha, Nalen, Zulhamin Hamzah, E S Yap, Aiman, Nabil, Loong, Obi Onu, Yoke

Hikers at Rest Area Point 84 next to Penang Hill Jeep Track — James Yeah, Ooi Pou Long, Tony Yeoh, Law Wai Min, Okubo Masahiko, Vincent, Raymund Yeoh, Poh Thiam, Lim Kimminisha, Teh Kim Suan, Ren Tan, Dinie, Ruhaya, Kim Lai, TY Kang, CB Lean, Pak Cik Api, MunisHikers on Bat’s Cave Temple Trail — Lee YL, Andrew, Adrian, JH Loke, Nur Zakirah Junid, Mohamed Bunyamin, Matthias Heng, Min Yew, Amalia, Sharif, Lim Bee Ean, Ooi Swee Seng, Lim Guek Ling, Lee Chong Ean, Celia Lee, David Chee, Ah San 亚山, Hanuar Hussein

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