After either trekking your way up or (more likely) taking the funicular train, the stunning views on top of Penang Hill are enough to be an attraction in its own right. However, The Habitat should be another reason for your trip there.
The Habitat is a newly-opened (since 2016) ecotourist site within a jungle reserve area on Penang Hill. It has an extensive (1.6km) trail within the rainforest (which is soon to be even longer, for another part of the trail is set to open later this month), from which you can spy a variety of flora and fauna. You might see, for instance, the black giant squirrel, the many-lined sun skink, the very cute dusky leaf langur – to name just a few residents of the jungle. Not just a trail, but The Habitat also boasts a 15m tall canopy bridge which allows you to walk amongst the trees and witness the rainforest’s stratification firsthand. There is also a 360 degree viewing platform, which at 800m above sea level is the tallest structure on Penang, allowing a stunningly unobstructed view of the entire island.
The scheduled tours around the park are led by The Habitat’s guides who are are engaging and have an awe-worthy amount of knowledge about Penang Hill and its environment. I admit that my interest in nature is not huge, but these tours cover not just the botanical but the historical facts of the site: I found both incredibly inspiring and came away with a whole host of new knowledge. Education — whether through tourist tours, through their children education schemes, or their partnership with ecological research groups — is a top priority of The Habitat, for as one ranger told me: we cannot protect something we know nothing about.
I’d particularly recommend the ‘Sunset Package’ — as well as a daytime tour around the trail, you get exclusive access to the 360 degree viewing platform during golden hour (which is beautiful, clouds or not), before setting off on a night tour of the jungle, lantern in hand. The night tour itself is about 30 minutes long, which is actually a great length: you witness the jungle transition from dusk to complete darkness. With this transition, you experience the insect sounds change, animals like monkeys settling down for the night, and nocturnal ones like tarantulas emerging. On the nighttime tour I went on, we didn’t see any tarantulas, but I can’t say I was terribly upset about it… While of course, The Habitat can’t make promises about what you will and won’t come across, the small tour sizes mean that whatever the guides point out, you will be able to see without any pushing through people.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, there’s also a package available that allows you to swing through the jungle on their 5 zip wires, as well as do an abseil and rope walk. I would argue, though, that just being in the reserve site is worth admission. There are many relaxing spaces to sit along the trail: perfect spots from which to meditate, read a book, or just take in the environment and atmosphere of the place. I could happily spend a day here – it is a welcome change from the centre of George Town.
True to its status as ‘ecotourism’, The Habitat is all about preservation. Most of what you find there was built before The Habitat: this is true for the paths and drainage system that were both already forged by the British in the days of Francis Light, certain walkways which are made of wooden planks from old funicular carriages, and so on. And what is new has been created to be as non-invasive as possible. For instance, the concrete canopy walk is a feat of engineering, having only 3 points of contact with the ground along its 230m length, and not having any steel cables rigged directly into nearby trees. Not only this, but its construction was done without the employment of any destructive and cumbersome machinery.
It is true that the ticket prices, compared with those for other attractions in Penang, can seem a little steep on the face of it. But The Habitat is vitally a not-for-profit organisation, meaning that the money from tourist visits gets pumped back into the environment. Chatting to the rangers, it becomes clear how much effort and money is needed to care for the place. Infrastructure needs updating constantly, and as one ranger told me, anything can happen in the rainforest: lightning might destroy a tree, or there might even be catastrophic flooding like that in 2017, the damage from which is still being repaired today. There is a lot of invisible work involved in protecting the ecosystem.
The Habitat goes wonderfully hand-in-hand with George Town, its preserved rainforest complementing the preserved heritage city. To go up to Penang Hill and not go to Habitat is to miss out on a great experience.
Where? – Penang Hill
How much? – Up-to-date ticket prices can be found here.
For whom? – Everyone