Set among green rice paddies and fruit plantations in a peaceful valley on Penang Island, Balik Pulau is a great place to escape the maddening traffic of Georgetown for an afternoon or longer. Georgetown and its famous food may steal much of the spotlight, but Balik Pulau rarely fails to charm visitors who are willing to seek out a little local culture in Penang.
Balik Pulau literally translates to "the back of the island." While Georgetown's sprawl dominates the northeast of Penang, Balik Pulau rests peacefully in the interior of the island. Putting a finger on any one thing that gives Balik Pulau such an enjoyable vibe is difficult. Balik Pulau's attraction could be the scattering of colonial-era buildings mingled with traditional houses on stilts or perhaps the smell of spices growing in clean air. Regardless, tourism meshes flawlessly with daily life in this sleepy agriculture district.
Unique Balik Pulau Foods
Anyone arriving from Georgetown will surely have one thing in mind: food. Freshly grown fruits and spices make for interesting twists on traditional dishes. Locally-fermented belacan - a pungent shrimp paste - lends a fishy taste to otherwise dull offerings.
- Durian: Balik Pulau is famous for its durian fruit. If you have any desire to try this foul-smelling yet addictive fruit, Balik Pulau is the place to do so. There are many species of durians grown in Balik Pulau, ranging from sweet to disgustingly bitter - do not sample just one! Read more about the amazing durian fruit.
- Laksa: Different from typical laksa, Balik Pulau laksa is a rice noodle dish prepared in a savory, fish-based broth. For a different taste, try laksa lemak which is prepared with a sweet coconut cream. Read more about laksa.
- Laksa Janggus: Made from cashew nuts, this dish is found in a restaurant of the same name on Jalan Bharu. Visitors are welcome to eat the cashew nuts growing from trees around this open-air restaurant.
- Other Food: When you grow tired of odd-smelling foods, go for one of the ubiquitous Malaysian Indian food restaurants found in town. Most restaurants have delicious Malaysian noodle dishes as well.
Things to Do in Balik Pulau
Aside from eating, there are enough interesting sites scattered around Balik Pulau to occupy you for at least an afternoon. Most sites are spread over a six-mile area and are best visited by renting a bicycle. Plan at least two hours to stroll the main streets if you forgo the bicycle. Some sites to see around Balik Pulau:
- Belacan Factory: Visitors are welcome to see how belacan shrimp paste is made. Look for the small factory on the eastern end of Jalan Pulau Betong; be prepared to hold your nose!
- Sustainable Organic Farm: Mr. Lui is a former engineer who gave up the office to run his own eco-friendly fruit and vegetable farm. He is willing to share his sustainable farming methods; make an appointment by calling 019-4714168.
- Fishing Village: Just one kilometer east of Balik Pulau is the tiny fishing village of Pulau Betong. Seeing the colorful boats and local men tending their nets is well worth the walk.
- Rice Paddies: The green rice fields west of town are picturesque and well worth a visit. Go west on Jalan Sungai Nipah for access to the rice paddies.
- Xuan Wu Chinese Temple: Constructed in the 1800s, this bright-red, Chinese temple is home to traditional Chinese operas in March and July.
Shopping in Balik Pulau
The Stepping Stone Centre on Jalan Bharu is run by an NGO which supports local villagers with special needs. Handicrafts, bags, and textiles are all produced locally by villagers with various handicaps. Buying your souvenirs here ensures that money goes back into the community rather than reinforcing child labor.
Homestay in Balik Pulau
The best way to spend an overnight in Balik Pulau is to take advantage of one of the homestays in Kampung Sungai Korok. Tourists spend the night with families in traditional longhouses along a river, perhaps even learning a cooking trick or two. Call 04-250-5500 to make arrangements.
Getting to Balik Pulau
The Rapid Penang buses that circulate around Penang are an excellent, low-cost way to reach sites outside of Georgetown such as Balik Pulau and Penang National Park. Bus fares typically cost under two dollars. Take bus #401 or #401E from the Jetty terminal in Georgetown to Balik Pulau.
A day trip to Balik Pulau could be added to a visit to Kek Lok Si Temple and the Snake Temple in Banyan Lepas - some of the popular attractions outside of Georgetown. Take bus #502 to Balik Pulau from Air Itam near the temple. Adventurous travelers with enough time and energy can actually walk into Balik Pulau from the Air Itam reservoir. The hike takes around two hours - mostly up and down hills - and the trails are clearly marked.
When to Visit
The most popular months in Balik Pulau coincide with the fruit harvests during November, January, and the peak durian harvest from May to July. Sunday is a special market day.