The “Short Getaway to Balik Pulau”, held on the Sunday of the last weekend of the month, at 9am, is an ideal introduction to the history and culture of this laid-back part of Penang Island, on the other side of the ridge of hills that divides Penang from top to bottom.
The tour, which last about an hour, begins from the Bank Simpanan Nasional, at 42, Jalan Balik Pulau. The easiest way to get there is to take a Grab or Uber. In Grab you need to put the destination as BSN Balik Pulau. From the centre of George Town the pleasant trip through the hills will take 40-45 minutes, and cost around RM 25.
When you arrive at the Bank you will be greeted by knowledgeable tour guide Mr Toh, who will intersperse the tour with his personal reminiscences about the town. We recommend you ask your Grab or Uber to stay so that you can re-book it for the return journey, or for further exploration of the surrounding countryside following the tour, as it is hard to book one from there otherwise.
The walking tour is not long, and primarily follows Jalan Balik Pulau, or Jalan Besar (Main Road) as it is called within the town centre. It begins with the town’s most famous monument, the municipal fountain, which marks the location of the 18th century water pump for the townsfolk, and the water trough for elephants and horses. The fountain itself was constructed in 1882.
Next, Mr Toh leads the group to a location of more recent history, the striking and atmospheric murals of traditional Balik Pulau people painted by Russian street artist Julia Volchkova. He also explains a little about the traditional trades of the town, and points out the former shop of the last silversmith, a business now closed, but a trade immortalized by a mural seen later on the tour.
A visit to a carpark ensues, not just any carpark, but the site of the former Balik Pulau Market, constructed in 1904 and demolished in 2014. Directly opposite this is house number 100, the tallest shophouse in the street, built for Baba Kapitan Cina Mr Chee, and still inhabited by one of his descendants. Behind the market is what used to be the theatre, a place Mr Toh visited often as a child when he stayed in Balik Pulau in order to improve his Malay language skills. It is now the location of hawker stalls selling famous local dishes such as Ais Kacang and Cendol, and his favourite dumpling place.
Mr Toh then points out the Catholic Church, which was founded in 1854, and which is unusual in Penang for singing hymns in Hakka, the language of many of the Malaysian-Chinese who live in and around Balik Pulau. Nearby are the former Catholic Mission Schools of St George and Sacred Heart, which began educating the children of Hakka farmers and orphans within the church in the late 19th century, and moved into these purpose built schools in the 1930s.
The tour is almost over at this point, but Mr Toh will not let you depart without indicating the most famous laksa shop in the town, and explaining the differences between the two kinds of laksa they sell; he will introduce Balik Pulau’s most famous products, the durian fruit and the nutmeg, and he will hand out a leaflet to you (also available at the Tourist Office on Beach Street in George Town) called Discover Balik Pulau, which shows you where to find the durian plantations, nutmeg factories, organic farms, goat farms and much more. You can read more about the farms here: https://penangfreesheet.my/ongoing-in-penang/visit-the-farms-of-balik-pulau/
So call back your Grab car and go and discover Balik Pulau!
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