The International Steam Pages

Penang Hills and Trails - Garden in the Sky Revisited
Paya Terubong to Balik Pulau

This is part of a series of pages on walking the hills of Penang. Click here for the index. This is a Grade 2 walk. There is a sketch map at the bottom showing the route followed.

Please visit my Penang buses page for information on accessing the starting point.

When a bus company changes its timetable it's generally reckoned to be a good idea to tell its customers about it. It's probably an even better idea to tell the bus drivers as well...

The first Rapid Penang had done quietly in February 2013 by putting a slim notice on the window of the kiosk at Teluk Bahang, where the previous day we had fortuitously caught the retimed 11.30 501 at 12.00. Next morning we pitched up at 09.15 with more than enough time to enjoy a Roti Chanai breakfast before boarding the retimed 09.30 service at 09.45. Alas when the 501 arrived from Balik Pulau just before 09.30, it turned around almost immediately and rolled past us in mid-breakfast. So instead of being about a stroll over Bukit Genting in the south of the island, this tale describes another route from Paya Terubong to Balik Pulau as there was no way we were going to wait two and a half hours for the next bus (or even two hours if the driver was still using the old schedule by then). Fortunately, being a public holiday the traffic in town was light and with a sharp connection into a 502 we were on the road by 11.30.

The original Garden in the Sky route runs from the Nanshan eating place in Paya Terubong - 502, 201 or 202 bus, the 502 being by far the best option as it is the most direct service - up to a col and for full details of that investigation you should read that account - we used roughly the first half and it is briefly summarised below.

The concrete path climbs from Jalan Orental 6 through vegetable gardens, the Seven Brothers had gained not Seven Brides but Chinese New Year oranges and there was absolutely no temptation to help myself to the contents of this patch (chilis). 

Tua Pek Kong (Nanshan Da Ba Gong temple) was still in residence and the bougainvillea next to it was in glorious form - this looks up towards where we walked (along the contour path about žs up but not along the road shown lower down). I asked Yuehong about the characters on the other tablet, she pulled aside the obstruction and said "it starts with money" so I didn't ask her to go any further.

If you are repeating this walk, then you need to know that you should follow the road to the right behind the temple. At each of the next three junctions you should take the left fork, which will lead on to a trail that loops around and follows the contours before heading up a small valley with a stream on the right - although only a single concrete track it is wide enough for trucks and the tyre tracks show some had been up here recently. The first view is looking south-west and the second one north-east - the required road is immediately behind the temple.

This will bring you to a six way junction. Reading in a clockwise direction facing in the direction of approach:

  • First path left is now known to go up to more vegetable gardens and connect (with care) with an alternative climb from the top of the Relau Pass.
  • The second path left is the one we followed which got us to Balik Pulau previously although not easily.
  • The third path is the only one going downhill and is suggested by Forest Ang. I went down it to the first house and was told that it was now impossible to go beyond the vegetable gardens as there was too much 'hutan' (=jungle) before the durian orchards (not strictly true as I discovered in 2015.)
  • The fourth path went past a temple shed and small shrine (see below) and along a small valley before crossing the stream and looping back on the other side. After that it started to get overgrown and I went no further, it was heading towards an area I could see was heavily overgrown.
  • The fifth path led uphill to a higher vegetable area, roughly in the direction of Bukit Penara and had most likely been part of the ridge path at some time.

If you see this, then you are on the wrong path, the first view is taken coming back along the fourth path, the correct path goes up the ridge in the background. The second is inside the small shrine. 

It was 14.00, we still had time and energy to spare so we decided to investigate the fifth path (the sixth obviously was back the way we had come). At the top of the first rise was yet another collecting shed where some kindly soul had left a huge pile of bananas for our lunch - being the Chinese New Year holiday our regular suppliers were all closed. Ahead, like a mirage in the desert lay the masts atop Bukit Penara which are served by a road behind and which would maybe offer an alternative way out. Although the trail continued up the hill to the right of this picture (and out of sight) the shed on the ridge ahead made a very attractive intermediate target, but the speckled area was overgrown ginger.

At the next junction we could have continued up or right into further vegetables. Yuehong has learned that often it is the older paths rather than the newer concrete ones which are the most useful to us and I was more than happy to follow her suggestion to turn left as it would most likely bring us to a hut which was barely 100 metres from the open area beyond the ginger. This turned out to be the key junction of the second part of the route and it's impossible to miss as there is a large concrete water tank well stocked with fish just before it. Closer up the gingers looked even less inviting, usually, like here, it has taken over an area covered in large rocks.

We need not have worried as a path good enough for a motorcycle had been cut through them and after that we climbed up towards the ridge. At a small junction we had the opportunity to take a contour path to the right but smelling a rat I decided to go up to the top to get a better view of what lay ahead. It was just as well, the Bukit Penara masts now looked anything but enticing, we weren't even on the same ridge and they appeared to still be surrounded by jungle. Instead from the small shed a good path led north-west and over the trees I could see the familiar shape of Bukit Elvira, the trail from Balik Pulau to Air Itam lies in the valley between.

The trail again became concreted and led downwards with one or two other small trails encouragingly joining in the right sense. There were small bee hives in many of the trees as well and plastic bags were on the ginger flower heads to protect them:

There was just one major junction, Yuehong is indicating the way we came. The other fork led upwards more or less on the boundary between the vegetable gardens and the jungle and one of the masts can be seen behind, we had neither the time nor the energy to check this out, our knees were starting to complain again (in fact this is a great path leading to the col on the Air Itam to Balik Pulau Road as shown in our amended map below).

Before very long we came to a house with more than its fair share of dogs and fortunately, the lady was in attendance and she waved them aside. The family have their own special rock next to the house, no doubt it saves on journeys to the local temple.

From here on down the road was wide enough for 4 wheeled vehicles which meant it was significantly less steep for the most part. Along the way was an extraordinary unfinished house on concrete stilts, it appeared to have been an attempted rebuilding of an earlier structure. This had a small grotto behind, the lady in residence is the 'naughty lady' Xuan Nu whom we had first met above Air Itam.

No self-respecting walk on this part of the island would be complete without a view and this a bog standard one looking down to Balik Pulau and Pulau Betong.

No sooner had I said "This is going to come out by the Areca (Betel) Palms" when I was proved correct; after which it was just a matter of walking down the Air Itam to Balik Pulau Road.

If you're doing the walk in the reverse direction then the gates are unmistakable among the half a dozen or so trails which head off into these hills from the 'main road' and presumably never reach the top as we saw no sign of any other way out on the other side. Going up this way there is just one right fork to take and then when you leave the fruit orchards and hit the vegetables, it's downhill all the way to Paya Terubong and almost impossible to go wrong in the open countryside.

As for us it was Tiger time twice over for me having missed out the previous day, the coffee shops in Balik Pulau now being re-opened despite it only being the second day of Chinese New Year. We decided to come back on the 502 dining out near Komtar, I'm not sure where all the time went but it was 21.00 when we got home. It may not have been at all what I intended when we set out but we had found another great walk without having recourse to jungle bashing.

Nanshan Highlands


 ____ = Concrete Road

 ____ = Path

 ____ = Easy 'Off piste'

 ____ = Seriously 'Off piste'

(Not all paths are shown, there are many more
which are seasonal or just go to houses.)

Click here for information on the maps.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson