Never heard of this place? I don't blame you. A search on Google for "balik pulau" as of today (7 APR 2007) would pull you a list of just slightly over 50,000 pages mentioning it -- Note the quotes, or you'd get a result six time bigger which include anything with "balik" and "pulau" on the same page as both of these words that make up the name phrase are common Malay words meaning "back" (or "going back/returning home") and "island" respectively. And 50,000 is in fact an approximate number of residents of the county that bears "11000" as its postcode (of about 300,000 residents in the southwest district of Pulau Pinang). [Yahoo however pulls three times larger result for "balik pulau" compared to Google] -- Comparatively, a search on "Penang" or "Kuala Lumpur" would pull a result of at least 20 times larger each (i.e. seven millions each), in terms of the number of pages mentioning them.
Adding to the plentiful of words that each of those web pages tells of Balik Pulau are the thousands more each of the 786 or so images (found through Google Image Search and literally equating each picture with a thousand words). But is it justified to have the millions of these words summarized into a single paragraph of four sentences into the world most relied (online and publicly maintained) encyclopedia as of 7apr07 - the Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balik_Pulau or its Malay language counterpart http://ms.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balik_Pulau? - How reliable !!
There are obviously more to talk about this favorite town of many, as sporadically mentioned in over a hundred usenet posts, dozens of email-based discussion groups (googlegroups, yahoogroups (re-branded from egroups.com) etc.) and perhaps the thousands more posts in various Internet blogs, forums and travel-related web pages. There are also 100s of individuals claiming Balik Pulau as their home per profiles in Friendster and MySpace. And this blog I thought would serve as a good base to start and continuously talk about this town that I started to call home again just recently -- after over sixteen years deserting it.
I never thought I'd be spending so much time in Balik Pulau again, the town I started to 'forcefully' and briefly made my home for three full years beginning exactly 20 years ago. But as they say it: Deja-Vu! I was entering my thirteen years of age in January 1987 and my all-aces school result for "Penilaian Darjah Lima" (Uniform Examination for Standard Five schoolers) over twelve months earlier rewarded me a full scholarship (with room and board paid as well as entitlement to the minimal RM25 monthly allowance -- a huge amount of money at the time for a small kid from a less able family background like me!) to start my first year of high school at a rather new prestigious science boarding school at Pondok Upeh Road as it was known as, ie. Maktab Rendah Sains MARA Balik Pulau (MRSM-BP) or literally translated to MARA Junior Science College (MJSC) which started its first intakes in just three years earlier in 1984. I'd say that moment was the first time I got myself acquainted with Balik Pulau as I can't recall earlier trips to this town although a number of my fellow older relatives were already residents of this town at the time -- I must be too young to remember anyway if I had indeed been here earlier.
So, what can I recall of (the old, pre-2000) Balik Pulau?
It was a very remote place for my family and I -- far from our homes in (the not so far actually) Padang Tembak (in Ayer Itam town or the larger GEORGETOWN township of the slightly more populous northeast district of Penang -- None of which are surprisingly of "city status" as of this time) and Bukit Gedung (in the Bayan Baru new township of greater BAYAN LEPAS -- another big metro-like town that's still not officially a "city" as amicably accepted/desired by the Penang state government under Tan Sri Dr Koh as its Chief Minister since 1990). I had to go through an adventurous roads back-riding my dad's Vespa scooter passing the durian road nets (above the roads) of Paya Terubong Road towards the steep Tun Sardon Road or the snaky and long Teluk Kumbar Road. The old roads were so dangerous that my dad were forced to employ his scooter's gear to stop once when its brake cable broke loose following an almost collision with another lorry (truck with wooded cargo bucket on its back -- normally green-colored) that were making a pass of another vehicle. I must say that was the nearest to being fall of the cliff for me (another while skiing in Michigan, USA many years later -- right after my friend and I relieved ourselves of the cable car at the top of a hill). I'm not kidding when telling you that I've seen many vehicles stranded down the hills of these roads toward Balik Pulau -- how unfortunate for them to have slided and flown down!
The whole township was very much undisturbed unlike several other Penang townships on the east side of the island, namely Paya Terubong, Gelugor and Bayan Baru that were going rapid urban development. It still is today despite the many recent urbanization activities. I've read postings by several fans of this town praising its serenity as one of its best features. And I'm here to attest to that based on my own experience: the whole town started to be rather quite as early as 10pm (past night market hours), with very few vehicles passing through its main road. In a residential area like mine, opening a gate or grilled door would easily alarm several doors of neighbors at this early evening hours. Nobody plays loud music or turn on their TVs too loud. The only sounds that could be heard on most evenings are the sounds of children in their tuition classes, studying or making school assignments, or the voices of their tutors. And no sounds of loud motorcycles' engines or loud chatters of the typical "Mat Rempits" who lurk in many Malaysian cities.
Balik Pulau especially the areas near Pondok Upeh (heck, even the name of this road reminds you of how underdeveloped the area is -- "pondok" means "hut", mainly a poorly built structure resembling a home, with just an attap and a few poles to hold it!) was still very much a collection of small villages centered around a small town of Kongsi -- the only urban like area with a tiny roundabout at its three-road junction and a tiny bus depot just next to the roundabout that can fit no more than eight buses at night time if I recall correctly - the only major public transportation considering that the town lacks taxis, trishaws or its own local airport (up to this day!).
Much of my time during the years of 1987-1990 were spent inside a well-gated mosquito-infested (typical for less developed areas in Malaysian hot and wet weather; I had to setup "kelambu" nets at bedtime during my first year there) school campus but I managed to peek the surrounding at times especially during weekends when I excused myself to out of the campus and returned only a day later (illegally, because MRSM students were only permitted to go out to town no more than several hours on Saturday, but I had legit excuses like spending a night at my own house and returning with a parent). Other outings simply include just about any afternoon (illegally as usual), the chauffeured trips to town hospital (more frequent than actually required) or during recreational outings on Saturday mornings with uniformed club groups or my virtual family group ("homeroom" as it was fondly called). The most popular trailing route has got to be the one going up north from Kongsi, which I just recently found out first-hand by motobike-riding, that it leads to many nice peaks of the many Penang hills and biking terrains reaching as far as to the scenic Air Itam Dam.
However, post-merdeka Balik Pulau never lacked public amenities desired for a self-sufficient township. It has one of the earliest established police station, fire station, a judiciary court, a full hospital (not just small clinics), a post office (now with public internet access @ Pusat Internet Desa), a bus station (as the final destination in Penang from ferry jetty in Georgetown), a number of public and private schools, a sizable wet market, places of worships (mosques, churches etc.), banks and shops. Food eateries were aplenty in the forms of hawker stops and restaurants.
So, what has changed?
Today, Balik Pulau welcome numerous development activities and increasing population while maintaining its serene environment. The old buildings and shophouses of Kongsi and Simpang Empat towns still maintain their traditional look and the tiny roundabout seems unchanged. However, the old police station next to the roundabout is now a centre for drug enforcement and rehabilitation centre as a new police headquarters for southwest district is now fully operational. Next to the new police headquarters are a rather huge and beautiful mosque and a brand new public library.
The roads are constantly being renovated, although still maintain its wide -- the most recent improvement being a bridge connecting Kongsi to Simpang Empat (4-road junction connecting Pondok Upeh, Kampung Paya, Sungai Burong and Genting). There is even an elevated highway being rapidly constructed along the hillsides of the Genting Plains from Genting to Gertak Sanggol/Teluk Kumbar poised to cut travel time from Bayan Lepas International Airport to the heart of Balik Pulau from about half a hour down to perhaps as little as fiveteen minutes. More brick-built shops, landed houses and flats/apartments surfaced along the major Balik Pulau Road, notably one in Taman Sri Indah (near a new TM telco exchange, and across the street from police HQ), and another in Simpang Empat-Genting. The major banks in Balik Pulau number to four in total, namely Bank Simpanan Nasional, Maybank, CIMB (formerly the acquired Southern Bank) and Ambank - enough to enable healthy commerce in addition to the broadband connectivity provided by TM.
Village houses and sizable paddy fields (the only such fields remaining in the Penang island, and definitely are much smaller compared to the ones in Seberang Prai or throughout the neighboring state of Kedah) still form the unique sceneries along the roadsides of Balik Pulau especially the ones from Permatang in the north, passing Bagan Air Hitam and Sungai Burong and leading to Kampung Perlis and Pulau Betong at the southwest tip of Penang island (a small town in Balik Pulau vicinity situated next to the actual small islands called Pulau Betong). A popular eatery serving Laksa Janggus (next to a "janggus" tree) is located on the road from Balik Pulau town towards Pulau Betong, next to these village wooden houses. This very road which later turn into a small lane ends at a rather nice and virtually undisturbed beach known to very few locals and participants of a government-owned nation-building (training) camp that's located next to the beach. (PSST: The Star used to feature an article about Pantai Acheh beach, but I suppose they mistook it with this very Pulau Betong beach which are two different beaches separated by a distance of about 10 kilometres!).
There are more academic instutitions today including the notably the newer Kolej Kemahiran Tinggi MARA (KKTM - "MARA High Skills College"), Island College of Technology (ICT), a technical high school which also houses a branch of a community college (Kolej Komuniti Bayan Baru). Simpang Empat-Genting also welcome sports a new sports & recreational complex where many public events are held at, and a new college is being built next to it. Most recent news reported a plan to build a RM10-million National Service Training Camp in Bukit Kecil, Balik Pulau. (The Star, 2 APR 2007).
Obviously Balik Pulau is no Kepala Batas in Seberang Perai Utara provice of Penang, the latter being the home of Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, present Prime Minister of Malaysia which had undergone even more rapid transformation for the past five years from a small farmer's village into a potential base for state central administration and commerce hub rivaling Georgetown or Bayan Lepas in the near future, but a local can obviously notice how Balik Pulau is definitely being transformed into an able city as the administrative centre of southwest district of Penang which would include Bayan Lepas (one of the very fast growing industrial MSC-status cybercities) -- one of the only two districts of the Penang island, another being the northeast district covering Georgetown, Jelutong and Paya Terubong. Credits for developments in Balik Pulau could as well go to its own representative, a long-time respected politician, Datuk Dr Hilmi Haji Yahya, formerly Penang Deputy Chief Minister of Penang, who now serves as the Parliamentary Secretary of the Finance Ministry.
All good, huh?
Not really... Besides the landslide problem as mentioned in above news article and to the dismay of many, Balik Pulau was not excluded from an ugly effect of nation urbanization. Recent shocking news show an aerial view of a tortured terrain, where "almost half a hill in Kampung Sungai Pinang, Balik Pulau, has been illegally cleared, leaving an ugly, bald patch and boulders hanging precariously over some edges. " (The Star, 29 MAR 2007).
For more monitorings of Penang, see PenangWatch.net
That's all for today folks! (Took me more than four hours for research and writing this thorough first post). I'll return with more photos once I got my Nokia 6630 phone repaired for snapping some scenes and Balik Pulau entities -- For now, check out linked sites for original photos and maps. If you have anything to add, don't hesitate to add your comments, and request that I add anything in particular. Thanks in advance!
- Ministry of Tourism's Virtual Malaysia
- Yahoo! Travel
- Wikipedia - or http://ms.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balik_Pulau (in Malay)
- Asia Explorers including a comprehensive coverage on Balik Pulau Durian
- Virtual Tourist
- Chew Chun Wei's BalikPulau.com (since 2002) - as hosted at http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Island/2288
- Pusat Internet Desa (PID) Balik Pulau (resource centre - website in Malay)