Running Penang Hill, Penang Island, Malaysia

Trail running at Penang Hill in Malaysia.
Penang Hill is an awesome and steep trail run that requires pushing hard if you want to get up to the summit in a couple of hours.

I was lucky enough to get to spend some time in Penang, Malaysia over the past week. I was excited to go because there is a nice mountain peak trail run called, “Penang Hill” or “Beterak Medera” to Malaysians. I didn’t leave disappointed. I got to climb the mountain twice in addition to about 25 kilometers of walking around town checking things out in Georgetown.

Penang Hill is located beside the Botanical Gardens on the northeast side of Penang Island. I got there using the #10 Bus from Komtar Tower. The bus was clean, on time, and very cheap. I paid 2RM which is the equivalent of about 66 cents USD. To go from Little India where I stayed in Georgetown, to the climb, was about 6 miles. I started late at around 10:00 am on Saturday and arrived before 11:00 AM. Tell the driver you want to stop at the Moongate near the botanical gardens.

As you get close to the botanical gardens you will see the Moongate (pictured below) on the left side of the bus. You can ring the bell, but you’re already ‘there’ and the bus driver will stop wherever he wants anyway. Walk back to the Moongate and get ready for an insanely fun run up the mountain.

The peak of Penang Hill is 735 meters high in elevation (2,411 feet). According to my GPS using “MyTracks” Android app on my Samsung Galaxy SIII the trail is 6.41 kilometers long from bottom to top. That’s 3.9 miles each way. The perfect distance for me at this point in time. The opportunity to add another 4 km of flat running is there because there is a great 2km road leading in toward the mountain that could be run too.

The Penang Hill running trail consists of just about everything fun a person could want on a run through the rainforest.

  • single-track dirt path
  • single-track sand path
  • rocks, roots, fallen trees
  • monkeys
  • snakes (saw a king cobra and a red-necked keelback, both deadly!)
  • birds of all sorts
  • slippery mud
  • 810 steps to start things off on the right foot (at the bottom)
  • 90+F degrees at noon, with matching humidity
  • motocross bicyclists and motorcyclists
  • giant boulders
  • welded metal slat bridges over gullies
  • short steep (vertical on 2 occasions) hills
  • long drawn out flats where you can open it up and get running fast
  • water around the 4km point (fresh spring water from a spigot) to fill up your bottles
  • wet mud and water spots

Penang Hill is nothing short of paradise for mountain runners. No wonder there are dozens of people that climb the path through the forest up to the top of the mountain each day. It’s the most fun I’ve had on a running trail ever in my life.

Unfortunately, the first time I climbed, I had my notebook computer, DSLR camera and lens, phone, clothes, paperwork for my visa, and a bunch of other things in my bag. I guess the heaviest things were the three ISO 100+ drinks. My bag weighed about 4 kg. Around 9 lbs. So, while I wanted to go up fast, I also figured I’d need to pace myself because I didn’t know what my legs and feet would be like on the climb. I’d done so much walking the day before and wasn’t sure I was ready for an all-out effort.

Nike’s Terra Kiger shoe has some nice traction. Actually the best I’ve used on trails in Southeast Asia.

As it turns out, I was! I hit the 810 steps and by the end of them, I was feeling warm and ready to crank it up into high gear. I had a sip of water and shot a quick 30-sec video and started hammering up the trail. I was blissed out the entire run. This running trail is just like my local climb that I do a couple of times per week, but with an added 250m of elevation and a number of different elements mentioned above that my home trail doesn’t have at all.

As you get up around the 4.5 km point on the trail it crosses over the road that also goes up the mountain. The less adventurous can stick to the road from the bottom to the top and it climbs 5.1 km. One guy I saw mentioned he did it in 58 minutes on “MapMyRun” (.com).

At the intersection with the road I chose to keep running on the trail (of course) despite a couple of guys pleading with me to take the road because it’s “shorter.” The trail is nice and flat for a while before a final steep effort to get to the top. The final incline is on a concrete path, some of which can be avoided by using the dirt on the side of it. The last kilometer will deplete you of whatever energy you had left.

I made the top in 68 minutes. That included a couple of breaks to pee, filling up water at 4.5 km, getting off the trail, and waiting for a guy behind me to point me which way to go a couple of times, oh, and shooting some video – which you can see at the end of this article. Not bad with 9 extra pounds (4 kg). I was so looking forward to doing it again without the weight. I’d have to trust one of the hotels with a couple of thousand dollars worth of my things, but I did get to run up again on Tuesday. Story coming.

The top of the hill is literally a circus with a couple of hundred people milling about. It is the oddest thing to see and hear a fake dinosaur show under a tent at the top. It was much better on the trail when I had cicadas, birds, and flowing streams to listen to!

And, I had the hardest time finding some drinks to consume before I went back down the trail. There is a sky-tram that takes people from the bottom to top of the mountain, and you can catch that down if you feel like waiting for it. The line was 100-200 people long both times I checked it out.

Options for ascending and descending the mountain to the peak:

  • trail through the forest
  • 5.1 km paved road up the hill (residents of hill and couple Jeep taxis can use this road)
  • Sky Tram
  • pay a guy to drive you up in his jeep (70 RM – about $21, each way)

I walked around for about 10 minutes, drank some water, and headed back down the trail. Running down was much easier, but not all that much faster. I wasn’t trying to break any records, but I made it down in 65 minutes. I was going quite slow on the steep sections so as not to blow out my knees. The extra 9 lbs. at that point was really noticed and I was more cautious than ever.

I ran down and had a blast. Almost at the bottom, maybe around 100 meters elevation, I saw a king cobra gliding down among the branches. It was my third king cobra sighting in Asia in 9 years, and a beautiful (though brief) experience. There is nothing like seeing one of the most elusive snakes on the planet, on his terms, totally disregarding you… A lucid and amazing moment.

At the bottom at the Moongate I walked left down the sidewalk for 150 meters, and on the left side of the very large parking lot were two women selling iced down beverages of all sorts. I had a couple of apple juices and a lychee drink that really hit the spot. Then I felt good so I walked the 6 km back to my hotel and rested and ate great pizza at “Il Bacaro” Venetian Restaurant (106 Lebuh Campbell, close to Chulia Street – the main backpacker drag in Georgetown). The sign on the restaurant is “Campbell House”. Their website is: campbellhousepenang.com. The pizza was excellent. The service, VERY friendly and I felt right at home. My pizza was only $8. Drinks are rather expensive, so I didn’t have any.

By the way, if you need a taxi guy that speaks English, is polite, is knowledgeable about Penang (grew up there), call “Didan Limo” at 016-4332311. The guy is an incredible resource for anyone visiting Penang. Super nice guy.

Ok, back to the trail.

I had to do my visa paperwork on Monday, so I just did a 15-kilometer walk that day. It was really hot, and yet I love to walk around a new city. I wondered if I’d have the energy and if my legs would be ready for another trail run the next day.

YEP! I was ready when I woke up. Feet felt great. Everything felt great. I asked my hotel manager to lock my back up in their office. I got them to swear they’d watch my stuff closely. I headed out the door and found a peddle-bike cab for $3 to take me to the bus station. This guy was about 75 years old and all of 85 pounds. How he cranked me over a kilometer on that contraption, I can’t guess.

At the bus station, I again grabbed the number 10 bus and relaxed for a bit in the ultra-cold air. Not appreciated, but what are you going to do?

Arriving at the Moongate my plan was to climb the hill rail TWICE that day. It was cool, lightly raining at times, and the perfect time to really have a good go at it. I figured I’d go up as fast as I could the first time, take the tram or some other ride down to the bottom, and then climb again just to do it – not for speed, but just to finish.

I attacked the 810 stairs and was feeling good. I didn’t stop for anything, no video, pee breaks or anything. Oh wait, I did stop for a minute to see a red-necked keelback snake, a small snake with wicked strong venom that can destroy the kidneys and kill a person with long or repeated bites. I have a dozen of them in Thailand and this one was a fine specimen. Brilliant red neck and a yellow spot close to the neck.

Hmm, what else? I did fill up my bottles with the fresh spring water at the 4.5 km point but that didn’t take more than a minute. I reached the last section of a steep climb before the peak and was pretty exhausted, but I didn’t go slow by any means. Total time up the second time? Same as the first, minus 3 minutes. 65 minutes. I still don’t know what really went wrong. I was a little more cautious due to the muddy and very slippery conditions, and my legs weren’t full of power like they were the first time, but I still thought I’d cut off 10 minutes from my first climb’s time. Oh well, right?

As I reached the top I found the Sky Tram was jammed with people waiting in line. The golf carts I thought went down to the bottom were only for the top area. This is when I found the price for the Jeep ride down was $21. This was FAR more than I thought fair, and on second thought I should have just taken it and climbed twice. As it is, I ran down to the bottom of the trail and then grabbed a bus back to the hotel. I was exhausted and smelly. I’m not sure a second climb would have been the smart thing to do anyway. Tough call.

Anyway, I’m back in my hometown, Krabi, Thailand and looking forward to climbing our ‘little’ 500-meter high mountain over 3.7 kilometers on Saturday.

If you get the chance, you MUST climb Penang Hill on the forest trail at the Moongate starting point. It is challenging, and if you really enjoy varied trail terrain, it has a little bit of everything for you. Let me know how fast you make it up. If you go faster than I did, I might have to plan another trip down there! It will give me an excuse to do so.

Don’t miss the photos, video, and map of Bukit Bendera, below. 

Cheers!

Vern

Photo of Penang Hill Trail Section:

Penang Hill Running Trail, Penang Island, Malaysia

Video Showing How to Find Moongate and Trail Clips:

CLICK for Map of area of Penang near Botanic Gardens.

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