It’s believed that nothing is more effective than a bus ride through a city to get to know it better. The zig-zagging route a bus takes introduces hidden streets and quietly nestling neighbourhoods most efficiently. Besides, it’s a fraction of the price a group tour costs and with almost the same amenities – air conditioning and, if you sit right in front, the bus driver is more often than not willing to point out interesting landmarks along the way.
The start point, George Town
In George Town, if you begin at the main bus station on Pengkalan Weld jetty, there are several Rapid Penang busses that will take you to the other side of the island to Balik Pulau. This neighbourhood offers a different sort of rustic with Malay wooden houses and plenty of hills. There’s an even more laidback feel to it compared to Batu Ferringhi or Teluk Bahang, almost as if time waits for its residents instead of them racing against it.
Now, there are two Rapid busses that will take you to Balik Pulau’s main bus station but beginning at the jetty, hop onto number 401. It takes a slightly longer route to Balik Pulau as compared to number 502 but it ambles through the heritage streets of George Town, hence giving an unofficial tour of them. In fact, the 401 makes two times more stops than the 502, taking almost two hours to reach Balik Pulau bus station.
Enjoy the scenery
Along the heritage streets the 401 goes through will bring into view the likes of Masjid Kapitan Keling, Little India, Yap temple, KOMTAR and countless shops housed in century-old shop houses selling, among others, lanterns, woven bamboo furniture and hawker food of all sorts. Once it hits the broad Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu expressway (formerly the Jelutong expressway), this is where the concrete jungle morphs into rolling hills.
After 45 minutes or so, it passes by the sprawling premises of Universiti Sains Malaysia and the Penang Snake Temple before going through the industrial Bayan Lepas area and onto the renovated Penang International Airport. Then it proceeds to what is considered as one of the loveliest routes of the number 401 – the uphill trek on a windy road between the quaint town of Teluk Kumbar and Balik Pulau. There’s nothing here but a view of sparkling sea from afar playing hide and seek between lush greens.
We're almost there!
Once the road straightens again, you’ll know that Balik Pulau is merely minutes away. If you’re riding around lunch time in this area, the 401 is a popular mode of transport for school children released from their morning classes. It passes by two to three schools and numerous neighbourhoods where these chattering, curious kids clad in blue and white get off. The distraction shortens the journey into Balik Pulau town with its old market and famous laksa stall on the left before the 401 turns right towards the main bus station which is back dropped by majestic hills and blue sky.
Once in Balik Pulau
Balik Pulau town consists of one main road. It’s easy to move around on foot, poke around little shops and have delicious creamy Thai laksa. If you’re lucky enough to be there during the durian season, the fruit's pungent aroma will lure you to the nearest vendor of this meaty king of fruits.
The journey back
For the return journey back into George Town, the 502 bus offers a shorter ride back to Pengkalan Weld jetty bus station since it doesn’t go through as many neighbourhoods, sticking to the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu expressway after the scenic windy road. It cuts across some main roads in George Town such as Jalan Penang and Jalan Burmah, and it passes by the clan jetties on Pengkalan Weld too.
The alternative route back is to hop onto number 501 from Balik Pulau to Teluk Bahang where there are really good nasi Melayu places offering excellent Malay dishes accompanying white rice. After the feast, get onto number 101 which will pass by the award-winning Tropical Spice Garden and the sea view neighbourhoods of Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong where there are little paths leading to the beach. You can ask the bus driver to drop you off at one. After that the bus hits Jalan Burma (Pulau Tikus), Jalan Penang, Jalan Magazine and back to Pengkalan Weld jetty bus station.
While on the 101, hop off the bus halfway through Jalan Burma for Dhammikarama and Wat Chayamangkalaram temples on Lorong Burma. If your trip back to the jetty is around 5pm or 6pm, stop off either on Batu Ferringhi’s main stretch or on Jalan Burma and walk across to Jalan Kelawai then on to Gurney Drive, where you’d be able to enjoy the evening’s buzzing activities in these touristy areas.
With this route back, you've gone through the whole island within a day. And the best part is, you would be paying no more than RM12 for it. These busses run between 5am and 12midnight and the maximum fare is RM4 one-way. Yes, cheap as chips, indeed!
George Town to Balik Pulau
1. From Pengkalan Weld jetty bus station, take the 401 bus (longer route, around 2 hours' journey).
2. Or hop onto the 502 which will take around 1.5 hours.
Balik Pulau to George Town
1. Either 402 or 502 will take you right back to Pengkalan Weld jetty bus station.
2. Or hop onto 501 to Teluk Bahang and then on the 101 which passes through Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bunga, Jalan Bruma (parallel to Gurney Drive) and back to the jetty bus station.
For more info on Rapid Penang, visit www.rapidpg.com.my.