There may not be a theme park on top of Penang's popular hill resort, Penang Hill, but visitors can still get their fill of adventure by hiking its many jungle trails. There are over 24 different entry points to the many trails going up the hill and one is Moniot Road, which is among the oldest tracks up the hill — nearly 200 years' old!
Though some portions of the road are now inaccessible, Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) has cleared up a 3.5km stretch near the top of the hill for hikers and visitors. PHC general manager Cheok Lay Leng said the track, first constructed back in 1825, was almost inaccessible previously due to neglect.
When PHC planned its Penang Hill Festival last year, he ordered for the track to be cleared and it became one of the heritage trails walks during the festival. There will be another walk-and-explore event along Moniot Road during this year's Penang Hill Festival scheduled for next month.
"There is no need for Disneyland or thrill rides in Penang Hill when nature trails on the hill are equally exciting and an adventure within the hill's tropical rainforest," Cheok said. PHC arranged a preview visit of the track for the media recently, with experienced guides M.Arunasalam and KP Ong leading the walk.
A walk down Moniot Road is similar to a walk into history as Arunasalam, popularly known as Raja of The Hill, recounted stories of horse-drawn carriages frequenting the very track back when it was constructed by the British in 1825. He pointed out indigenous flora and fauna along the track and explained how, over the years, the track became popular among botanists who would collect samples of rare plant specimens there.
"This was where the maingaya malayana was found in 1873 by Charles Curtis," he said.
Over time, all but one of the maingaya malayana, a species of witch hazel, had died out and efforts were launched to repopulate the area with more of these.
"Now we have a few on the start of the trail and a few at the end of the trail," he said.
Along the first part of the track — a dirt trail — Raja and Ong took turns pointing out the various types of mushrooms, moss, trees, plants and butterflies.
They said there were a lot of endemic trees on the hill and many of these were found along the trail.
"We believe a full record of the flora found along this track and on this hill are kept at the Kew Gardens," Raja said.
Moniot Road was constructed by Major McNair in 1825 for horse carriages to ascend the hill.
The track started from a bungalow, Halfway House, at the foot of the hill and wound its way up to pass by two other bungalows on the slope, Mon Sejour and The Retreat.
The road was named after Jules M Moniot, who was the government surveyor based in Penang in 1846 and the first surveyor general of the Straits Settlements in 1855.
Today, the road borders forest reserve land but some sections still show clear remnants of its past, such as small concrete slabs etched with numbers to mark the path and the ruins of a concrete bridge that crossed a ravine.
Moniot Road was only one of the few paths created by the British for visitors to make their way up the hill towards what was then the site of a luxurious resort.
The earliest buildings constructed on the hill were a government bungalow, Bel Retiro, and the Convalescent Bungalow.
Construction on Bel Retiro started in 1789 for the Governor of Penang of the time and it was only completed in the 1800s.
Bel Retiro was used as a government bungalow throughout until today, which earned the small hill it was on the name "Government Hill".
There are now 36 heritage bungalows and villas on Penang Hill, each was built during different periods in the 18th century and early 19th century.
Moniot Road Walk will be held on July 20 during Penang Hill Festival. Find out more about the event at penanghill.gov.my.