Besides its Unesco World Heritage attractions in George Town and beautiful beaches, Penang is also famous for its hawker street food, in particular, its Peranakan cuisine. These attractions often form the "must-see", "must-experience" part of the tour itinerary of this city.
What is less known and often overlooked by visitors is the western part of the island, where a lush expanse of greenery, paddy fields, fruit and durian farms with its surrounding villages, provide an interesting peek into the countryside and "kampung" lifestyle of the locals.
For fruit and nature lovers, Penang's western region has much to offer. In particular, there is an abundant supply of tropical fruit such as cempedak, mangosteen, rambutan, papaya, langsat and, of course, durians.
King of fruits
"Penang's durians are the best, especially those from Balik Pulau" say Richard and Lilian, our gracious hosts.
Situated in the south-western region of Penang island, Balik Pulau is about 35 minutes drive from George Town. Perhaps with its fertile soil along hilly terrain and temperate weather, the durian farms nestled around this rustic and laidback town are often credited with producing the finest of durian varieties in Malaysia.
Among its more famous varieties are the "Musang King" or Mao Shan Wang, "Ang Heh" (Red Prawn), "Ang Bak", D700, D24, D2, D16, melon-shaped Hor Lor, among others.
For good measure, we even tasted one variety of durian named after "Lin Feng-Jiao", the wife of Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan.
Eating durian, like most "exotic delicacies" around the world, is an acquired taste. As evident in the wide selection of durian varieties, their taste, texture and aroma can be wide-ranging and yet unique to each variety.
For example, the "Musang King" is light yellow in colour and very aromatic. It has a bittersweet taste, creamy texture with generous flesh and small seeds. "Ang Heh" with its distinctive strong yellow colour is more creamy, less fibrous and sweet with just a hint of bitterness and the "Lin Feng Jiao" lends towards bittersweet.
We were treated to scenic views of Penang Island driving along Jalan Tun Sardon (Penang State Road P14), a hill road which winds its way steeply across the central hill linking Balik Pulau on the western side to Paya Terubong and Relau in the eastern suburbs.
At the crest, the highest point along Jalan Tun Sardon, there is a convenient viewpoint called Anjung Indah. The name means "beautiful porch" in Malay.
And there was a beautiful porch with outdoor park benches and tables fashioned in the shape of tree stumps to blend nicely with the wooded and leafy surroundings.
From here, looking westward is the panoramic view of Balik Pulau and facing south-east reveals another viewpoint of Bayan Lepas with the Malacca Straits visible in the distance.
Well shaded by mature trees, the mild morning sun and hillside cool breeze against a backdrop of panoramic views make this stopover an idyllic picnic and rest area.
The nearby public toilet, washing facilities and ample car park added to the convenience.
Not surprisingly, the annual Penang Durian Festival is held at this Anjung Indah location.
Organised by the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia, Penang Durian Festival, which runs from June 1 to July 31, is a major annual event on the Penang tourism cultural calendar. During the festival, major durian suppliers and growers from famous plantations and farms set up stalls to sell their produce. Different varieties of durian and their prices are displayed at each stall.
Visitors get to sample and buy the best of the durian varieties at the start of the durian season.
There are durian farms all around the Balik Pulau vicinity. While several of the more popular ones, notably Bao Sheng Durian Farm and Penang Tropical Fruit Farm, offer organised tours and even farm stay, many others are open to "walk-in" visitors for a short visit, durian tasting and buying durians off the farm.
Driving along Jalan Balik Pulau, we stopped over at Air Itam Dam durian farm. Though "unscheduled", the farm staff was very friendly and welcoming.
Within minutes of stepping into the durian orchard, our initial "bewilderment" must have "telegraphed" our city folks' origin. Sensing our "nature-deprived" vibes, the farm staff graciously encouraged us to explore freely and to take photos. They even volunteered to pose for me.
To see durians in their most natural state and to walk in the orchard of towering durian trees, some well over 24m in height and with prolific cluster of durians hanging on each tree, was certainly an eye-opening and interesting experience and the highlight of the trip.
Most regional airlines including SilkAir, Jetstar and Air Asia fly direct from Singapore to Penang.
- The most convenient way to visit the durian farms is by car or taxi. Taxi and car hire (with driver) arrangement can be made through some hotels, do check with hotel concierge.
- Public buses are also available. Visit http://www.rapidpg.com.my/ for details.
- For abundant tropical fruit, the best time to visit is from May to August.
- Some popular durian growers (eg. Bao Sheng & Penang Tropical Fruit) offer organised tours and farm stay packages. For details, visit websites of Bao Sheng Durian Farm (www.durian.com.my) and Penang Tropical Fruit Farm (www.tropicalfruits.com.my).
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