Crossing my Malaysian Home on Foot
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan

During a global pandemic, a travel writer realizes the sheer power of digging deeper in his own backyard.

Penang, Malaysian travel story

At the end of it there were no golden medals, no podiums, and not even a complimentary bottle of water waiting for us. Exhausted, I sat on a bench and rested as the low tide made Gertak Sanggul, Penang's southwestern-most beach, look like an unattractive mud pit.

Two giggling teenage girls posed for selfies in front of the remains of a flimsy wooden pier surrounded by fishermen boats that had no water left to save their boughs from that sticky mud. To me, it looked like the end of the world, the clicking of their cameras a bleak return to "civilization"—at a time when every man and government on the planet had demonstrated that the jungles I just left were far more civilized.

Before I grabbed my sweaty backpack and pulled myself towards the bus shelter to wait for my ride home, I glanced again at the sea, and patted myself on the back for having made it. It was not about the short distance I covered on foot, oh no: it was because I managed to have an adventure, even if I didn't leave the island I call home.

Malaysian travel story

Traveling in the Age of the Coronavirus

I have been living in the Malaysian tropical island of Penang for a decade, carving a travel writing career for myself and my Malaysian wife, photographer Kit Yeng Chan. Since I moved to her home turf in 2009, we have used the convenience of Penang island to cover adventurous stories all over South, Central and Southeast Asia. In the pre-coronavirus world, Malaysia was easily connected to places as far flung as China, India and Iran by low cost flights that cost as much as a pizza and beer for two in New York City.

Pretty much every year, we would find ourselves more often in the Himalayas, offbeat Indonesian islands, or the Karakoram range of Pakistan, rather than at home in Penang. But halfway through horrible 2020, the Covid-19 situation was pretty much under control in Malaysia, though its borders were closed.

That's when I had the proverbial epiphany, something that I believe every travel writer out there should consider doing now more than ever before. Stop in their tracks, reflect, and look inward and around ourselves.

Fields in Penang

I realized that the allure of my former way-too-easy international travel life, one that cast me far away from home to exotic corners of the globe to write about it, had also taken my focus completely away from the secrets of our island home. Penang is best known around the world as a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia — one that became popular thanks to the multi-ethnic arts and culture that the coronavirus had now killed for the most part.

But Penang also has many hidden natural corners that very few people—including most locals like myself—ever have the time to explore in detail before rushing to the next place on the bucket list.

"I want to know Penang more," I told my wife, because she was also starting to get itchy after months under partial lockdown.

You never know if your grass is greener than the neighbor's

Since we love nature, hiking, and adventure, our obvious choice was to look for it right in our own backyard. I studied an offline GPS, marked trekking routes around and across the island, collated information from the few blog posts I could find, and started testing out several "unknown trails" over the following weekends. We immediately felt reinvigorated: somehow, even being at home, we felt like we were traveling again.

Soon enough I wanted more and started crafting a bigger plan. Penang is better known for its main city George Town, but has a sizable forested backbone in the former British hill station of Penang Hill. The greenery extends to the northwest, becoming the national park of Teluk Bahang, and stretches south through hilly farmland until it blends with Balik Pulau's flat coastal paddy fields. One last cordon of low hills separate the villages of Pulau Betong and Gertak Sanggul, the island's southwestern-most reaches.

"Why don't we cross the island on foot, north to south, without interruptions?" I suggested. My plan was to complete a 23-mile-long hike, stopping overnight and camping wherever possible. To me this was the perfect antidote to travel restrictions, and pretty safe too, as the hills are always devoid of crowds‐and never patrolled by police on a SOP power trip.

Riverbed in Penang

The Crossing

We recruited two curious local Chinese friends looking for a way out of terminal city boredom and set out on a rainy morning. We only carried minimal gear, such as a water filter, basic food supplies, and smartphones loaded with offline maps. We just had to start walking, and that exotic feeling of "wild foreign adventure" that ruled my pre-Covid life kicked back into gear.

The odd chance of getting lost is a reality even at home. As soon as we scrawled from the northern beach of Batu Ferringhi down the access road to Chin Farm, passing a sloshing waterfall and the way to the old Ferringhi dam, we missed the overgrown path twice, and had to backtrack over slippery stones and a wall of green hell to find our way back.

By the time we had reached the summit of Laksamana Hill, the second highest mountain on the island at 805 meters, it was almost lunch time. I started doubting we'd make it: the guys were exhausted from the almost vertical two-hour climb, we were all drenched in sweat, low on water supplies, and didn't even cover the first five miles.

As they puffed and panted to get their breath back, I turned around to take in the shape of the Teluk Bahang and Batu Ferringhi's bays. They connected like shaking hands before the frothy white kiss of the sea — a scene I had missed before because of cloudy weather on a previous ascent.

Oh the irony of how quickly we "travel professionals" assume we have ticked something off a list, when in truth, we have barely seen any of it! I started walking again, pondering my hope that after the virus, the most consumerist fast-food aspects of the travel industry would go away.

hiking in Penang

Somehow we pushed on to flatter ground where a web of farms extend over beautiful rolling hills that have probably seen no "tourists" since the British left the country in 1957. But before we got there, my wife slipped and rolled downhill as she clambered down a rocky path en route to the main trail to Penang Hill. Thankfully she came out unharmed. Right after her fall, we spent the best part of an hour scouring for and purifying water from a drying river creak — thanks to climate change and irregular monsoons, that's how a tropical RAINforest has turned out to be.

I myself joined the ranks of the fallen by rolling down a slope while trying to clear and find an exit path — obviously, I wasn't on the right one. Holding my phone/GPS between my teeth, I cracked the upper side of the screen with a snap of incisors as I held onto a branch, half cursing and half laughing, as to avoid rolling further down in a pool of thorny bushes.

But it all felt great: a million times greater than the "adventures" most visitors to Penang have by sitting inside any of the cookie-cutter George Town cafes that serve Western-style breakfast and overpriced cappuccinos, taking one more for the Gram.

I had envisioned ending the first day by stopping at the Ngor Hean temple, a place I had never been to before. Overlooking Balik Pulau from the western flank of the hill we were standing upon, the temple was a popular destination for local cyclists who would stop here for a quick rest and a prayer at the end of one of the island's steepest uphill cycling routes.

lizard in penang

When we arrived, a blazing red sunset shed purple light all over Balik Pulau until Pulau Betong. Behind it was our final destination, the beach of Gertak Sanggul. We were right on time to catch the old warden, a stocky and simple-looking man who turned out to be a farmer, as he offered one last evening prayer to the local deities. When my wife candidly asked in Penang Hokkien if we could set up camp on that perfect viewpoint, the main said "of course. There's an open toilet with a hose behind the temple, you can have a shower there." That's what I call the Five Star Treatment of the Trailblazers.

The End of the Line

hiking in malaysianWe walked for the best part of the next day until our knees felt like wobbly guitar strings, and the sun burns on our necks and arms started turning brown. Late in the morning, we found tourists, again, at the end of the paddies that cover the best part of Balik Pulau. Packing whole families in cars, they drove right beneath the edge of one of the five shipping containers that Penang government has set up here to attract visitors.

Painted with colorful pieces of the famous Penang street art for the "Container Art Festival", the installation should have folded in May—but Covid-19 transformed it into another tourist trap with no deadline. The local tourists flocked around the huge metallic walls, snapping selfies next to the giant murals depicting scenes from the local market on one side, a farmer and a durian picker, the king of all smelly fruits, on the other.

We sat a bit far away from the crowd, resting over our backpacks and pulling out the face masks once again, to observe the local holidaymakers pay their homage to those monoliths to mass tourism like moths around a light-bulb. Covid may have blocked the foreigners, but that didn't mean that the locals weren't carrying on with their dull touring habits. Drive. Snap. Get back in the car. Repeat.

Two young men saw us, the scruffy dirty types, sitting away on the grass, and came closer to ask if we had a lighter. My friend who offered one had never really traveled the way me and my wife do before this, and yet, he seemed to enjoy it. And of course, he used the lighter's excuse to satiate his tobacco addiction and flip another rollie. As he put it into his lips and fired it up, he turned to me and asked: "Do those people know that there's plenty of undiscovered jungle and stuff to see out here?"

Penang jungle plants

"I doubt it," I replied. "Let's keep it to ourselves, as I don't think it makes any difference to them." I stood up and extended my hand to help my wife up, as it was time to leave the "hotspot" and get going for our last lonely slog over the last hill of Penang.

Slung against the side of their car parked right next to the container, the two smokers sucked on their filters as they looked at us, puzzled. They had a "where are those fools going on foot" expression written all over their faces.

But what can you expect from humans, really? To most, living through a pandemic would probably change nothing about the way they see the world they travel in. In the same moment we swerved up the main road and rocked uphill on a small paved trail, disappearing under a glut of swinging canopy, I felt much, much better.

Marco Ferrarese is a book author, freelance travel and culture writer, and metalpunk guitar-slinger based in Southeast Asia. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, hung out with Kurt Cobain's alleged murderer, and rode with truck drivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He shares his Penang knowledge at, blogs about overlanding in Asia as a couple on, and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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