Balik Pulau means "the other side of the island". The Chinese
call it "the island behind the hills". It is bordered by a long
coastline on the western side and protected by high hills
on three other sides. It is a self-sufficient agricultural district in
the Southwest of Penang Island and famous for its durians, nutmegs,
cloves, coconuts and fruit orchards. The more populated part of the
district is nestled snugly in the cocoon-like embrace of a deep valley
in the Southwest surrounded by lush green hills on the inner side, and
tiny hemlocks and fishing hubs on the outer coastal borders. The
perimeters of occupied Balik Pulau spreads outwards like a giant
umbrella from the village centre.
Oral stories tell of how early
political refugees from Thailand, the northern Malay states and
Indonesia emigrated to Balik Pulau in the 1800s and settled down
in scattered villages on the hillsides and river mouths.
They fished, farmed the land and planted paddy, fruit, sugarcane
The earliest settlers in Balik Pulau are thought to be refugees
escaping from of the protracted wars involving Siam (1786 and
1821). Refugees including Hakka Chinese from Phuket.
Malays from the southern Thai provinces and Kedah are said to
have fled southwards to Penang Island, some of them landing on
the shores of Balik Pulau.
In the early 1800s, Chinese and Tamil labour was brought in to
work on the rubber and coconut plantations set up by experienced
Chinese plantation owners. Many of these early workers stayed
behind and took up residency in Balik Pulau.
A later wave of migration to Balik Pulau occurred
when the Japanese advanced into George Town in 1941 where
Chinese residents from George Town fled to Balik Pulau town in
fear of the impending war and in fear of being branded communist
by the Japanese.
The Balik Pulau town grew from a row of simple long houses (kongsi
houses) built to accommodate migrant labours brought in
to work on the rubber and coconut plantations. Kongsi remains the
traditional name of Balik Pulau town.
Outside the fringes of Kongsi lie the various hamlets that make up the
rest of Balik Pulau district. The original Kongsi buildings were built
from timber and attap (woven palm frond roofs), but destructive fires
prompted the rebuilding of the shophouses in brick, clay and lime stone.
In the 1900s the one-street town, made up of sundry shops, tailor,
barber, butcher and coffee shop, underwent a growth spurt which saw the
development of elegant Chinese-style brick shophouses built by wealthy
The town continued to prosper after World War II to accommodate schools,
religious, public and commercial buildings. Today, Balik Pulau bustles
with more life than ever and yet, manages to retain its old charm.
The roundabout at the end of the town's Main
Road is the controlling landmark in Balik Pulau. Three roads
from different parts of the island come together at this point.
In the 18th century, the roundabout marked the location of the
town's public pump and served as a water trough for elephants
In1882, a rich farmer, Koh Seang Tatt, built a monument at the
roundabout to commemorate the visit of Sir Frederick Weld (Governor
of Melaka)to Balik Pulau. Villagers believe that as long as
water spouts from the two lion-head faucets in the fountain, the
village will prosper. As the pump was once serviced by a spring
from the hills, its flow probably indicated the level of ground
The Wet Market and Sunday Market
is located within the newly built government complex on Jalan
Tun Sardon just before you reach the town. (The original market
built in 1904 is located in the centre of the town). Inside the
market complex one can find a variety of fresh produce from this
agricultural district. Among the more sought after local
products in the dry goods section of the market are nutmeg
fruit, juice and oil, cloves, fish crackers, shrimp paste,
preserved and fresh fruits.
Fronting the market are food stalls that will sell local
breakfast delicacies, freh fruit and knick knacks. On Sunday
mornings the car park at the back of the main bus station next
to the market is
transformed into an agricultural market or "Pasar Tani", where
farmers bring down their fresh produce and fishermen bring their
fresh catch. (Sunday Open 6 am - 10 am).
The Xuan Wu Chinese temple is located behind the St. George's
School. It was built`in 1800 using
planks and wood. It has since that time undergone several renovations
with help from several prominent donors, including the Indonesian
Kapitan in the old days. Worshippers from various Chinese groups are
visiting the temple frequently: Hakka,Teochew, Hanan and Guang Dong. The
temple architecture projects the semblance of a dragon: the roof being
the head, the temple proper being the body, two smaller "side houses"
being the hands and the floor, the legs. At the main entrance into the
temple stands a large bell erected in 1895 and a stone platform flanked
by two "Qi Lin" (legendary lion) protecting and guarding the
temple. In the months of March and July, Chinese opera is performed
within the temple grounds.
Balik Pulau is famous for its Balik Pulau Laksa.
You can eat that at best at Shophouse No. 67. Laksa is rice noodles
served with savoury fish-based gravy, cooked with herbs and spices.
The stall serves the original sour ässam laksa" (tamarind flavour) and
laksa lemak (a sweeter variety with a coconut cream base). Another laksa
stall is located at Shophouse No. 118.
When you're going to Pulau Betong Fishing
Village you will pass paddy fields along Jalan Pulau Betong. Just before
Pulau Betong you see a "belacan" cottage industry at the right (1
kilometre before the village). The Lo family makes fermented shrimp
paste known locally as "belacan". They purchase salted shrimp pulp made
from a tiny shrimp, called "minute shrimp". The pulp is dried in the sun
on perforated metal sheets raised above the ground then pressed through
a grinder and dried again. The brownish paste is compacted and sold in
blocks. "Belacan" is an important ingredient in Malay, Chinese and
Nonya cooking, where small portions are are roasted, pounded and blended
with other ingredients.
Pulau Betong is a scenic fishing hamlet. Decades ago the thriving river
was used to transport incoming goods such as flower pots and cooking
utensils and outgoing agricultural produce such as cloves, nutmegs and
dried coconuts via the Oh jetty (at the river mouth) and the Toji jetty
(where the school is currently located). Today rivertransportation has
disappeared but boats are used instead to support a lively fishing
business. Close to Pulau Betong is a beautiful stretch of shady
beach, called "Pantai Pasir Panjang".
Balik Pulau is also the home of
the most fantastic reflexologies of Penang: Foo and family. If you want a
message of them, you must go to the beach of Batu Ferringhi. They have a
massage at the watchtower on the beach. Their website: