For many travelers—including me—Penang is a place to go to eat. When I visited last spring, the tempting edibles on nearly every corner made it hard to resist spending my time snacking from dawn til dusk. Long considered a culinary paradise by foodies, this small Malaysian island in the Malacca Strait has seen its popularity spike since UNESCO added the historic city of George Town to their World Heritage List in 2008. And yet a short distance from the city and its heavenly food, Penang's green lung and Malaysia's smallest national park beckons to those in search of a bit of calm and quiet.
Occupying the northwestern corner of the island, the adjacent Teluk Bahang Forest Preserve and Penang National Park (Taman Negara Pulau Pinang) offer a number of hiking trails that lead to secluded beaches, mangrove forests, an unusual meromictic lake, and an impressive nineteenth century lighthouse. Along the way, park guests might also be lucky enough to spot Rhesus monkeys, a variety of exotic bird species, and one of the world's largest squirrels. I caught a glimpse of the latter from afar, and it was remarkable. Think cat-sized.
To reach the main entrance, take bus route 101 or 102 on Rapid Penang and exit at the Teluk Bahang roundabout. Entrance to the park is free and a small color brochure with map (in English and Bahasa Malaysia) is available at the interpretation center or from the Wildlife Department's website. You'll cross a small suspension bridge just beyond the gate, and then two trails guide hikers either northwest to the Muka Head light, or southwest across the peninsula to a pair of more remote beaches, one of which is a nesting-ground for green sea turtles. According to the map, this second route is longer and more difficult.
Since I was eager to see Monkey Beach (Teluk Duyung) and the historic lighthouse, I set out along the coastal path. Although narrow and meandering, the jungle trail didn't prove too challenging terrain-wise and at a relatively easy pace, I reached my destination in under two hours. A very sweaty two hours, mind you. From here, after pausing to snap photos of primates and pineapple fruit, I prepared for the toughest stretch of the hike: a final 700-foot ascent to the summit of Muka Head.
Built in 1883 for £37,929, the lighthouse is visible to ships at a distance of 25 nautical miles. My Lonely Planet guidebook declared it "off-limits," but with the door to the tower unlocked and no signs forbidding entry, I decided to climb the winding staircase inside. From the top, the views are stunning, and as the skies cleared after a brief afternoon rain shower, I could see the high-rise hotels in Batu Ferringhi. It's worth the extra effort. Plus, as I reasoned to myself on the way back down, a six-mile trek to the end of the promontory and back definitely earns you a big meal back in George Town.