What is the real feeling of being “a world away”? I discovered that when I followed Eddie on an adventurous morning out to the agricultural district of Balik Pulau. I had been on the island of Penang, in Malaysia, for over a week, hovering between the Komtar area, the Clan Jetties and the Unesco heritage area of Georgetown, walking amongst people, driving along traffic, breathing smog and hearing voices and noises. I needed a break.
Even at 7am, when Eddie picked me up from my hotel, Penang was business as usual: traffic jams, high rise buildings, people running towards somewhere… But then, after a scenic drive along a winding road, we crossed the hills, and what awaited me on Penang‘s west side was a different island to the one I had previously known. A ‘new’ dimension made of nature, peace, slow motion, one indeed that immediately felt more suitable, more humane.
Once we finally arrived at the Audi Dream Farm, the Explore Balik Pulau docking station, I got to chose my bicycle. Do not expect a Merida or a Trek; their bikes have seen better times, but a weekly visit by a local mechanic ensures all essential features work: the brakes and the gears. Mind you, you mainly cycle along flat routes, so gears are not really needed.
At 8am, Balik Pulau was still very much asleep, as the sun had not yet appeared from behind the hills. We started our cycling along a canal; we met a few cows – whose meat is used to cook Malaysia popular dish Rendang – farmers on foot and no-one else, before reaching a jetty where two villages, one Chinese one Malay, border each other, their villagers living side by side in respect for each other’s different traditions and beliefs.
A couple of kilometers further, we visited a very neat and well-run goat farm that produces dairy products, its grounds filled with a number of fruit trees that include durian – the most famous produce of the area – jackfruit, starfruit, papaya and more. Behind, the towering hills are covered by fruit orchards all the way to their top. What an amazing area.
I was really enjoying Eddie, this young laid-back chap of Hokkien Chinese origins who 5 years ago ditched a career as a chef and a job in the IT industry to live in close contact with local people, with animals and with nature. He is such a knowledgeable guy with a hearty laugh and he fed me with tons of information on several subjects.
We stopped in the centre of the Chinese village to look at their traditional way of life, entered the local temple that hosts the Goddess of Sea and other deities, and browsed the local grocery store and a few local stalls. We then moved along a labyrinth of minor roads, pathways and alleys to discover traditional Malay houses with their well-manicured gardens in local Kampongs – villages in Malay language – where we were literally treated like pedestrians, before arriving at the nutmeg farm. There, the affable owner of third generation of nutmeg farmers gave me a full lecture on this spice that at some point was so precious it served as a currency.
Next was a quaint little fishing village surrounded by the fish market where one can buy the catch of the day and by the mangrove forest, where we enjoyed looking at mudskippers doing their things, at the local small boats coming and going, at fishermen sorting out their catch and their nets or simply dozing off on their hammocks. We even sighted a couple of medium-sized monitor lizards! Marvellous.
The 12 kilometre loop was closed when we finally reached back the starting point.
We were lucky to pick a day that was cloudy, hence not so hot and not rainy either, the perfect day for cycling. The last thing left to do was to try their coffee and a delicious, home-made durian cake. Eddie was also so kind to take me on a guided visit of his Audi Dream Farm. What they are creating on a 2.5 hectares of land is simply amazing: they breed several of the world’s species of pigeons, they have huge aviaries full of what they call ‘love birds’, they keep ducks, chicken, deers (yes – all the way from India) and rabbits, they have huge ponds full of Tilapia fish, and they grow fully organic vegetables in a garden so neat it feels like paradise.
Could I have asked for more? Surely not, but Eddie was not done yet. While driving back to Georgetown, he took the time to stop at a south-west area by the sea where I could see the whole west of the island, including the complete hill range; he then drove to rice paddy fields, and even stopped on the top of the hill for a panoramic view of the charming area of Balik Pulau, before sinking back to the Penang eastern world made of cars and cement.
Balik Pulau literally means ‘the back of the island’. Well, after this tour with Eddie, to me it felt more like the front of the island. With the island experiencing a development boom, locals say this part of Penang is disappearing quickly. Visit it now before it changes.
Balik Pulau Countryside Cycling Tour
The cycling tour at Balik Pulau departs every afternoon, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and it is the best way to see the countryside of Penang up close and to be touched by the charm of country life at personal level. This tour is suitable to all, from 8 to 80 years old, with or without cycling experience, fit or unfit.
Penang can be mercilessly hot, so bring a hat, sunglasses sunblock, a small towel and a set of spare clothes (at least a spare t-shirt) in case the day is hot and sweaty. Eddie brings along raincoats and lots of information. Water can be bought in small grocery stores along the way, but bring a small bottle for the start.
Helmet is not compulsory and it is your choice whether you wear it or not. The ride is along dirt paths and minor roads where hardly any car of bike circulate, so you can bicycle without it, but if you prefer to wear it, it is available for you at the centre.
Tours can be done either in the afternoon or in the early morning – if you opt for the early morning tour, make sure you have your breakfast before pick up. The tour is priced at RM30 per person for the guided cycling tour if you make your way to Balik Pulau, or RM60 per person if you prefer to be picked up from and sent back to your hotel. You can contact Eddie on firstname.lastname@example.org and visit their website on www.explorebalikpulau.com.my/tour for further information, contact and tour reservations.