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October 13, 2016, Malaysia

Charming backwater in Balik Pulau

Carolyn Hong ventures off the beaten track on Penang island

Carolyn Hong

IF WE hadn’t kept a sharp eye out, we might have missed the discreet entrance to Art and Garden, tucked away in a bend along the winding road.

After all, it is a “secret garden”, isn’t it? Art and Garden is located in the rural part of Penang island, on the quieter west coast called Balik Pulau, or literally “back of the island” in Malay.

Not many visitors venture to this rustic side. But we decided to explore it again, after a lapse of a few years, because we were told that Balik Pulau is also changing.

It even has its own street murals now — four of them!

A place of one’s own

It takes about an hour on the coastal road to get from the state’s capital, George Town, to Art and Garden. Not long after leaving behind the beach resorts of Batu Ferringhi, it was just jungles and mountains around us.

It felt as far away from the city as you can get.

From the gate of Art and Garden, we climbed a stairway to a grassy space filled with colourful plants and glass sculptures casting pretty light on a mosaic path that led to a glass house. It was quirkily charming.

Here, we found out why glass plays such a big part in the garden.

The place is owned by glass artist Fuan Wong, who landscaped the site with his personal collection of art — both his own works and those of other artists — and plants.

The site used to be his late father’s orchid orchard. Now, it is a whimsical garden on terraced slopes with magnificent mountain views.

We set off down its paths, turning this way and that as quirky and thought-provoking art caught our attention.

First, a glass sculpture intrigued us by how it framed the mountain landscape. And then, our attention was switched to metal birds perched on a rock, looking like an invitation to reflect on social norms.

The garden is not huge, but with so many twists and turns, it felt like we were in a different world.

Food for thought

Leaving this sanctuary, we continued on a winding road that took us past various tourist attractions, such as fruit orchards with all-you-can eat durian buffets.

We were told that some orchards now offer gourmet durian feasts, with the choicest durians served in sequence — from the good to the very best — to enhance the experience. That would have been great, if only we liked durians.

But we were on a quest to find the laksa noodle dish that has made Balik Pulau a must-visit destination for foodies.

It turned out that there are two famous Chinese-run laksa stalls and a Malay one. We picked one at random, mostly because the coffeeshop was next to a parking lot where we could leave our car.

It was already crowded at noon. The stall’s female proprietors didn’t stop smiling, though, as their hands moved swiftly to ladle piping hot spicy soup into bowl after bowl of rice noodles laid out in front of them.

Barely a few minutes passed before our bowls reached us. We could choose between assam laksa, which comes with a spicy sour fish broth; or Siam laksa, which has a richer creamier soup; or both.

I decided on Siam laksa or laksa lemak, along with a refreshing nutmeg drink. I could have easily done with a second bowl but I refrained, not without some regrets.

It was superb laksa with smooth noodles dunked in rich broth, flavourful and comforting.

An enriching life

After lunch, we wandered around the quaint town, which retained its old-world charm.

Where else can you still find a weathervane at the crossroads? It was like going back in time, with hawkers selling rojak and other fare on pushcarts parked under trees, fish drying on woven trays outside shophouses, and a general air of sleepiness.

We wanted to see the street murals, which were painted just two years ago. Though now ubiquitous in George Town, they are still a novelty in Balik Pulau. The town’s four murals are so huge that each takes up the side of a building.

There is a demure girl, a fisherman, a silversmith, and Malay martial arts exponents.

My favourite was the silversmith, made not with paint but with a water jet scrubbing away the dirt encrusted on the wall. The delicate array of clean lines make up the old man’s features.

Our short day out in Balik Pulau didn’t give us enough time to discover all its charms. There are still its fishing villages with lively fish markets, padi fields and farms, to be visited.

The good thing is that we can easily return as Balik Pulau is not that far from George Town. With its rustic charms, a visit here feels like a holiday within a holiday.

TravelBites

Getting there
I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Penang on AirAsia.

Traveller’s tips

■ Although there is a bus service, it is best to hire a car for getting around Balik Pulau as its sights are spread out. If you don’t want to drive, travel agents in George Town can arrange car hire with a driver, at an hourly rate.

■ Balik Pulau town can be approached from either the south or north. We started from the north, via Batu Ferringhi, to get to Art and Garden on Jalan Teluk Bahang before proceeding to Balik Pulau town and looping back to George Town.

■ For accommodations, a good choice could be the plush Malihom resort on top of a steep hill. Its chalets are converted Thai rice barns and make for an interesting getaway.

■ For those short on time, you can visit Balik Pulau on the way to the airport.

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