"Balik Pulau isn't all boondocks though. The town center, or more endearingly known as Kongsi - which means “to share” in Malay, embodies an image of rural charm. Long ago, people of all races mostly worked in surrounding plantations and stayed together in communal timber longhouses, hence the name."
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 and coffee.
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 plantation owners.
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 and horses.
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 water.
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: "assam 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:
Ben van Wijnen