Discover Stunning Hidden Gems in Bukit Mertajam


Aerial view of Bukit Mertajam. Credit: YONG’s Photography.


As the name implies, Bukit Mertajam refers to the hill that rises to a height of 1,800 feet in Seberang Perai. The town at the foothill, also named Bukit Mertajam, is home to some interesting attractions, including the Taman Rimba Bukit Mertajam, Mengkuang Dam, Minor Basilica of St Anne and the adjacent Batu Bersurat Cherok Tokun, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. Throw in a charming old town and picturesque rice fields — what more could you want in a quick trip?


Taman Rimba Bukit Mertajam

The famed giant Mengkundur tree in Taman Rimba Bukit Mertajam.


Taman Rimba Bukit Mertajam (also known as Cherok Tokun Nature Park) is famed for a giant Mengkundur tree estimated to be over 80 years old. The tree is so big at its buttress roots it needs about 20 people joining hands to encircle around it. [1] Most people trek for just a short 20-minute hike from the park's poolside trail to take photos with the tree's massive buttress roots. "The giant tree was most likely a young tree when it weathered through the country's early struggles, from the Japanese occupation in the 40s to the Communist insurgency in the 50s. It has also lived through eight prime ministers. All these put into perspective how old the tree is, and it makes visitors appreciate it more," says Tiger Tatt, a licensed tour guide.


If you're up for more challenges, continue on the trail, and you'll pass through lush forests and a small but serene waterfall along the way. It takes just over two hours to reach the top and you'll be greeted with some of the most beautiful views overlooking Bukit Mertajam.


Hikers typically spend some time at the hilltop before heading back down to enjoy the park's facilities on the ground. "The park has a very relaxing area for hikers to rest. There is a small stream running down the hill and a Chinese tea house for hikers to enjoy a cup of tea after a strenuous hike," says avid hiker Sharifah Noor Idora.


Mengkuang Dam


Built in 1985, Mengkuang Dam is the biggest dam in Penang, located in Seberang Perai. The Mengkuang Dam is 10 times the size of the Air Itam Dam, with a capacity of 23.5 million cubic meters. With its well-paved trail along the dam’s crest backdropped by Penang’s verdant hills, it is an ideal recreational spot for a gentle stroll or a jog, and a photogenic location for shutterbugs.


Minor Basilica of St. Anne


The Shrine of St. Anne is also known as the "Old Church".


Many would agree that the stately Minor Basilica of St. Anne – Malaysia's first basilica – is a breathtaking church. Its compound consists of two churches, fondly called the "old church" and "new church". The Shrine of St. Anne (also known as the "old church") was built in the mid-1800s and has been a major landmark in Bukit Mertajam for more than a century before the completion of a newer church (the "new church") in 2002. Today, an increasing number of pilgrims make their way to the minor basilica during the feast day of Saint Anne. Throughout the year, people from different nationalities visit the church as tourists. Visitors can find a Gothic-style flat-roof bell tower featuring three bronze bells and biblical sculptures that dot the entire landscaped gardens. [2],[3]


"Most of the time, history buffs who had visited St. Anne head back armed with historical findings within its vicinity that enrich the mind. The foundation and cornerstone of its first chapel can still be seen at its original site at St. Anne's Hill. There's also the burial site of Reverend Father Sorin, who built the iconic church. He passed away in 1907 and was buried in the main aisle of the church that he built," says Tiger.


St. Anne’s newer church (fondly called the “new church”) was completed in 2002.


Batu Bersurat Cherok Tokun

Closeup shot of Batu Bersurat Cherok Tokun.


While St Anne Church is definitely worth checking out, there is a historical relic within its compound that you must not miss, too. Hiding in plain sight across the new St. Anne Church's driveway, Batu Bersurat Cherok Tokun is a boulder that bears the now-defunct Pallava alphabet and was first discovered by Colonel James Low in 1845. It is the only ancient megalith in Penang and the southernmost relic of the ancient civilisation of Bujang Valley. According to Dato' V. Nadarajan, in his book Bujang Valley, the Wonder that was Ancient Kedah, the inscription of the Cherok Tokun relic reads in part, I acknowledge the enemies of the contented king Ramaunibha and the wicked are ever afflicted. [4]


Although the relic is less frequented by visitors and locals, that doesn't make it any less important – the relic holds a great testament that the great Bujang Valley civilisation in Kedah, which existed between 600 BCE and the 13th century CE, had most certainly extended to this corner of the peninsula. [5]


Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Pagar Tras


Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Pagar Tras.


Few people know that just 7 kilometers away from Taman Rimba Bukit Mertajam lies the ruins of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Pagar Tras. The French Gothic-style church was constructed by a French Catholic missionary in 1882 and was built to replicate the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.


In its heyday, the church had a regular congregation of largely Chinese-Hakka immigrant farmers and was alive with songs. [6] Then sometime in the 50s, the Communist insurgency forced the British government to evacuate the villagers, causing the abandonment of the church and its slow decline into ruin. [7]


Today, the church remains a hidden treasure and a romantic testimony to the little-known French heritage in Penang and is certainly worth a visit.


Bukit Mertajam Town


The Sin Weng Heng traditional clayware shop. The shop still displays the original signboard in Tamil, Jawi and Mandarin, a testament to Penang's multiculturalism. Photo credit: Peter Yeoh


Thankfully there are still ways to travel back in time in Bukit Mertajam. Here, you'll find a good repository of shophouses to appreciate Bukit Mertajam's heritage. Don't miss the old family home of Penang's first Chief Minister, Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee, on Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng. The house, which dates back to 1907, has overgrown plants on its roof and vines covering the walls but is filled with historical value. Then, wander through the five-foot way of the town's pre-war shophouses and admire the nostalgic views around you as not much has changed in the town – you'll even find a shop still selling compact discs! Before you leave, make sure to make a quick stop at the Sin Weng Heng traditional clayware shop. The shop sells various cookware made of clay as the owner, nonagenarian Teoh Teik Seng, believes using earthenware for cooking would bring goodness. Interestingly, the shop, which dates back to 1907, still uses the same signboard from bygone days, bearing the old name of the street and old phone number.


Rice fields of Permatang Rawa

Credit: @zulhusni.abm (Instagram)


Taking a trip to Bukit Mertajam also means seeing a different side of the town, one filled with picturesque rice fields and traditional villages. While many paddy fields have made way for modern developments, some rice fields in Bukit Mertajam remain the economic source for farmers and a visual gem for shutterbugs and Instagrammers. For photographer Goh Yong Hooi of YONG’s photography, Bukit Mertajam is one of the best spots to take photographs of paddy fields as the iconic hill makes a good backdrop, “Nevertheless, the rice fields are not always green or golden. Sometimes, all you get is burnt patches of land and pools of water. So, make sure you observe the harvesting seasons to get the best picture you want,” he says.


References:

[1] “Mengkundur tree in Bukit Mertajam probably country’s tallest”, The Star

[2] “Church of St Anne: monument to faith and enduring legacy”, Butterworth Guide

[3] “History of Minor Basilica of St. Anne from 1833”, Minor Basilica of St. Anne Bukit Mertajam website

[4] “Cherok Tokun Relics”, Penang Travel Tips website

[5] “The mysterious relic of Cherok To’kun”,Butterworth Guide

[6] “Malaysia’s Notre Dame, abandoned to vagrants and ghosts”, Free Malaysia Today

[7] Move to preserve church, The Star

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