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SPECIAL REPORT

The other side of the island awakens

Penang is undoubtedly hip and chic, crowded and touristy, but in reality the buzz is confined to George Town on the island's east coast. Its west coast remains blissfully tranquil.

Still, in recent years, the Balik Pulau area, or literally the "back of the island", has begun to wake up to the potential of tourism. New attractions that have sprung up include the Hakka Village and its museum.

Balik Pulau, the biggest town here, now has its own nostalgic street murals as well. Even its durian orchards have gone upscale, offering a gourmet experience where visitors can enjoy the choicest fruits, eaten in the right order to truly savour the flavours.

STILL QUIET DESPITE CHANGES

Development is spreading here but the town is still quiet with an air of the past.

GLASS ARTIST FUAN WONG, on Balik Pulau, where he set up a fantasy glass garden

The area benefits from lower land costs and lots of space.

Glass artist Fuan Wong found the luxury of space quite liberating when his city house grew overcrowded with his collection of plants and art installations.

He built his intriguing Art and Garden here, taking up nearly 3ha of a former orchid farm. Opened in the middle of last year, it is the quintessential secret garden, with every turn revealing fresh paths and art pieces, including striking glass artworks by Wong that catch the sunlight. The artist is in favour of rejuvenating Balik Pulau, which he remembers as a wilderness when he was a boy.

"Development is spreading here but the town is still quiet with an air of the past," he said.

He does not think development will overwhelm this area because Balik Pulau is still considered out of the way. Development will thus be slow, and the area is likely to remain tranquil for some time yet.

Its seclusion was what attracted a prominent Penang family to build a private retreat on its steep hills in 2001. Opened to the public in 2009, the Malihom estate features 10 chalets converted from rice barns that were brought over from Thailand and reassembled in Penang.

"My parents wanted a getaway spot, and Balik Pulau is remote," said Ms Daryl Yeap, who now runs Malihom.

Visitors who want to escape the city are drawn by this very remoteness, and Ms Yeap hopes the area will stay quiet, with the focus being on eco-tourism.

"We have to be mindful that the town doesn't overdevelop as it could lose its charm," she said.

Carolyn Hong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'The other side of the island awakens'. Print Edition | Subscribe