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Home What to See Attractions in Penang The Back of the Island - Balik Pulau
The Back of the Island - Balik Pulau PDF Print E-mail
Written by Administrator II   
Friday, 05 April 2013 11:07

Article by HELEN ONG

If you want to see life as it was in Penang, or for that matter Malaysia, say about forty or fifty years ago, then this is the place to head for. Literally translated to “The Back of the Island” from the Malay name (the Chinese call it “the island behind the hills”), Balik Pulau stretches from the north-western tip of the island immediately past the touristy area of Teluk Bahang to the south-western corner of Teluk Kumbar, covering practically half the island, and is made up of some 15 hamlets.

However, it is no longer the boondock town it used to be. In the wake of George Town receiving UNESCO heritage status, more and more tourists who come to visit are discovering that Penang has more than just old buildings and food to offer: we also have “back to nature” eco retreats of which this place is a great example.

The town centre of Kongsi, which means “to share” in Malay – apparently so called because there used to be communal timber longhouses here which were shared by people of all races – is a thriving little community with its own banks, schools and shops. In the middle sits the old empty wet market, built in 1904 and once the centre of the community but now abandoned, replaced by the new market and hawker centre a few hundred metres away in Jalan Tun Sardon on the outskirts of town. The new building is also the site for the weekly Pasar Tani, a farmer’s market which sells local produce and fish on Sunday mornings.

There are a surprising number of things to see and do, much of it agricultural.  From mile after mile of serene padi fields, broken only by the odd group of swaying coconut palms which pierce the neatly-laid out flat, green squares, to durian and nutmeg farms; from clean, deserted beaches with traditional fishing villages to home-stays, and from their famous sour and spicy Assam Laksa to plentiful seafood restaurants, it offers all that you would want from a village holiday destination. 

As you approach – either from George Town or the more scenic route via Teluk Bahang – you will pass small rustic villages with old Malay wooden houses, some on stilts, which date back decades or even longer. It’s a great opportunity to capture life as it was back then. Children still play games like gasing (top spinning) and football on the lawn in front of their house – a rare scene in these days of iPads and Wiis. However, in the words of the iconic Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changing. Local-born businessman Ismail Johar, 48, tells me that as a child, he and his friends would cycle up and down the main streets. “It was perfectly safe to do so,” he reminisced, “as there were hardly any cars around then.” Traffic, like everywhere else, is on the increase here, although it is still relatively quiet except in town.


So why, I asked Ismail, should a tourist come all the way to this backwater? “This is still a wonderful way to experience village life in Malaysia,” he explained. “You can get away from the busy city, and enjoy a leisurely time here learning about our local culture, seeing things done the way they have been for decades.”

A case in point is the Chop Kim Hoa Belacan Factory in Pulau Betong, where Lo and his brother still produce the salted, fermented shrimp paste the way their father used to 50 years ago, albeit with a bit of help from machines nowadays. The “fragrant” dark brown chunks, a vital ingredient in so much of our local cooking, are laid out to dry in the sun every day, and laboriously turned and crumbled by hand several times a day to ensure even drying, a process that can take up to four months. It is then compacted into oblong shapes and sealed into air-tight packs for sale in supermarkets and sundry shops locally and throughout the country. 

Further up the road towards the tiny village of Pulau Betong, you can see fishing boats chug into the jetty, bringing in the day’s catch at about noon, transported in large crates to middlemen who sell it on to housewives and retailers. Much of it is the local mackerel, kembong, which would explain why the area is famous for its Penang Assam Laksa: the two vital ingredients which go towards making this pungent, spicy and sour soup, fish and belacan, are abundantly available here. 

As you head towards the hills on the windy road that eventually take you round the island to Teluk Bahang, watch out for Lim’s Nutmeg Farm, which has been cultivating it for the past 60 or 70 years. He will take you through the various stages of growth, including an interesting little snippet: the fruit has male and female versions! Ask him to demonstrate. You’ll be able to try some sweet nutmeg drinks and also purchase products made in-house from this humble spice.

Of course our ‘aromatic’ durians are a must-try – assuming you are there at the right time of course (between June and August). Balik Pulau durians are much sought after for their variety and delicious flesh.

Other cottage industries which are still being carried out here are the making of Bedak Sejuk (cooling rice powder), a famed traditional local product made from fermented rice and perfumed by dried pandan leaves and jasmine flowers, to a traditional Malay Bomoh (healer). 

Balik Pulau is still urban enough to not have any hotels, although this will probably change before long. However, homestays are popular with visitors who want experience life with a local family, as it is lived in a typical Malaysian village.



  • Rent a Bike: if you really want to do it like the locals, then this is one of the best ways. Contact Eddie Chew (+6016 452 2100) of Explore Balik Pulau; RM10 per hour or RM25 per day. Free daily guided tour at 4.30pm.
  • Visit a durian plantation (during season)
  • Visit the nutmeg farm
  • Visit the belacan factory
  • Visit an organic farm
  • Visit a fishing village
  • Splash on the sandy beaches
  • Chill!


Apart from our famous local fruits, there are some popular local must-trys which have become synonymous with this part of the island.

  1. Assam Laksa: No visit to Balik Pulau is complete without a bowl of Laksa: it is sold from homes with large signs indicating so and various stalls in town, some of which have been going for generations. Try John and Anne Martin’s, who bought over the popular one at No.67 Jalan Besar, or Ah Teong’s whose family has been selling at the Chuan Heong Coffee Shop (opposite the old market) since 1968.
  2. Seafood: Again, there are many, including Ah Seng’s at the 3+1 Kopitiam in Jalan Sungai Pinang which does a famous “Lemongrass Steamed Fish”. Some like Bukit Genting Hill Leisure Park & Resort (+604 6299 801) are located, perversely, on hill tops where you go as much for the view – sunset is superb – as for the food.
  3. Local snacks: Available from sundry shops in town and the market: deep-fried prawn crackers and pickled fruits.


This list is compiled by art-EDS, a Penang-based non-profit arts education organisation which provides non-formal arts and heritage education for young people through collaboration with local and regional arts communities.


Contact: Hashim bin Md Rashid/ Abdul Hamid bin Abd Razak
Tel: +604-8661318
Address: Homestay Pulau Betong, 49, Mk. 1, Jalan Pulau Betong 11020


Contact: Tuan Haji Zainol B. Ahmad
Tel: Tel: +6016-4618553 / Fax: +604-8663155
Address: Homestay Jalan Bharu, 349 Mk. D, Jalan Bharu 11000 


Contact: Mr. Tan Jit Keong 012-4887773/Ms Jenny Law (012-5887773)

Address: Nature Fruit Farm Resort, 311, Mk.7 Kg Genting 11000 



MaliHom Private Estate

Address: Kiri N/t 168, Bukit Penara Mukim 6



Prices start from about RM50 per person.


For more information about Balik Pulau, pick up a copy of their self-guided tour brochure or their informative newsletter “Discover Balik Pulau”, available from Penang Global Tourism office in Whiteaways, Jalan Lebuh Pantai, or PHT (Penang Heritage Trust) in Church Street. 





Photos by Ang Soon Keat

Last Updated on Friday, 05 April 2013 11:23

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