Bukit Mertajam

A forgotten confluence of culture, nature and history

Bukit Mertajam

Not many realise that the seat of one of the largest local government bodies in the world, in terms of land area, is at Bukit Mertajam. Indeed, the town’s geographical position at the centre of mainland Penang may be the reason the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) has its towering headquarters in the Bandar Perda surburb.

Bukit Mertajam is at the heart of several other confluences. Sited along the meandering Sungai Juru river near the base of the conspicuous and solitary Bukit To’ Kun hill (popularly known as Bukit Mertajam hill), it is conveniently linked to the town of Kulim in Kedah to the east, Butterworth to the north and Penang island to the west.

It is no wonder that the town was chosen by the British colonial administration to house one of the earliest railway stations in Malaya a century ago. It also became the site of four historic dams around the verdant forested hill and continues to boast a number of the country’s most illustrious schools since the colonial days.

Till today the area also bears a number of historic 19th century religious buildings which stand as testaments to people of diverse faiths and cultures who settled here and contributed to its rich little-told history. Of these, the renowned Church of St Anne annually hosts one of the largest Catholic festivals in the world.

Bukit Mertajam’s legacy however goes much further, to some 1,500 years back. A remarkable remnant of the ancient Bujang Valley civilisation in the form of an inscription on a rock continues to exist in close proximity to the marketplaces, factories, residential neighbourhoods and bustling modern malls.

As an ever-expanding settlement, the area is endowed with a charming mix of culture, heritage and natural ecology. Most of these are quite accessible but have been surprisingly overlooked or left forgotten for decades, as though waiting patiently and sturdily to be rediscovered and put to life again.

Church of St Anne: monument to faith and enduring legacy

The humble legacy of 19th century French missionaries that has become among the greatest pilgrimage centres of the region.

Church of St Anne

One of the most alluring landmarks of Bukit Mertajam is a little white church perched conspicuously on the side of a small hill, above a flight of stone steps seen afar from the road.

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The mysterious relic of Cherok To’kun

Where a strange communique from a distant era in history lives on silently in the present through the remnant of an ancient writing on a rock.

Cherok To'kun

It is among the most ancient – if not the absolute oldest – written message from the past to still exist in Malaysia. 

Lying unassumingly on the grounds of the St Anne’s Church in Bukit Mertajam, and screened from one’s sight along the main road by the grand new church building, is a boulder the  size of a small lorry that bears the remnant of a mysterious inscription from centuries ago.

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Cherok To’ Kun’s healing village air

The ancient village with forgotten intrigues of the past today embodies the rural and natural charm of Bukit Mertajam.

Cherok To’ Kun

More than a century ago, there lived at the end of a rural path south of Bukit Mertajam town a highly respected elderly Siamese healer named Kun. Known for his medicinal and shamanistic abilities, Dato’ Kun or To’ Kun as he was called, was sought by many who made their way to his quiet alcove near a foothill for treatment of various ailments.

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Sungai Lembu: a ‘new village’ from the Malayan Emergency

A Chinese settlement teeming with history, intrigue and unspoilt natural charm

Sungai Lembu ©

At the height of the Malayan Emergency following the conclusion of World War II, the British colonial administration created special settlements where various rural Chinese communities were relocated so that they could be monitored and prevented from interacting with the dreaded communist insurgents.

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The ‘Notre Dame’ of Pagar Tras

A haunting edifice of a forgotten French-Hakka story from the past

Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, BM © Adrian Cheah

It is among the oldest and most remarkable buildings in Malaysia. Yet one can easily drive past the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus along the meandering Jalan Sungai Lembu near Bukit Mertajam without even noticing it. Built by French Catholic missionaries in 1882, its design was inspired by that of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Like the 800-year-old church in Paris acclaimed for its classical Gothic architecture, it had two bell towers and three decorated portals on its façade. 

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The enduring Hock Teck Cheng Sin Temple

A Taoist institution that drove significant initiatives to uplift Bukit Mertajam’s Chinese society

Hock Teck Cheng Sin Temple © butterworthguide.com

Few temples in Malaysia have exerted as much socio-cultural influence over a town’s community like the Hock Teck Cheng Sin has over the religious, economic and educational affairs of the Chinese in Bukit Mertajam. Despite its fairly small size, the Taoist temple has since its construction in 1886 commanded enormous respect among locals and was responsible for much development in the inner parts of the town. It owned significant parcels of land where it ventured to build infrastructure for the benefit of society. These included the Bukit Mertajam market which continues to this day, large tracts of cemeteries and the Jit Sin Chinese school which remains one of the foremost educational institutions in the country.

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Tides of candlelight adoration at St. Anne's Feast 

One of the largest and most extraordinary religious mass gatherings in Southeast Asia is the St Anne Novena and Feast in the town of Bukit Mertajam in Penang.

St. Anne, Bukit Mertajam

What makes it remarkable is not just that it is among the biggest Catholic festivals in Southeast Asia, perhaps second only to the famous Santo Nino and Black Nazarene festivals celebrated in the Philippines. The event is unique for its brilliant cosmopolitanism and charming inclusivity.

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‘Forest bathing’ at wild Bukit To’ Kun

The pristine hill close to town is cherished by Bukit Mertajam folks like a secret haven of nature and adventure untainted by ravages of modernity and time

Bukit To’ Kun

The hugest, most commanding physical site in Bukit Mertajam is surely the very hill after which the town is named. Rising bulbously above an otherwise almost flat landscape, Bukit To’ Kun is easily seen from great distances away - even on Penang island and various remote corners of Seberang Perai.

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Jungles that hide Penang’s forgotten colonial dams

The dams of Cherok To’ Kun and Bukit Seraya continue to stand amid encroaching forests in secret testimony to the dedication of their builders and operators from a bygone era.

Soon after starting a hike up Bukit To’ Kun from its base at the Bukit Mertajam recreation park, one treads through a narrow earthen path surrounded by the hill’s dense forest.  Newcomers along this trail who think that they have left any remnant of civilisation behind are then in for a surprise. The woodland suddenly opens up to the sight of an enormous concrete wall of an abandoned dam.

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Wat Rajaphohong - one of Malaysia’s oldest Siamese enclaves

Where traditions and festivals of a minority community of Penang are preserved

Wat Rajaphohong © Adrian Cheah

Northern Malaysia has a small but culturally rich Siamese community whose enduring legacy includes a string  of historic Buddhist temples that are today vibrant landmarks in Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Penang.

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The idyllic countryside district of Penanti

Traditional bonds, friendly faces and joy de vivre in a rural setting

Penanti © Adrian Cheah

Penang and Perlis are the only states in Peninsular Malaysia where there are no known populations of the Orang Asli - as the region’s indigenous natives are collectively named - living today. However, it is said that until the 1920s there were Orang Asli people existing in Penanti and Juru in Seberang Perai. The tribe in Penanti belonged to the Semang ethnic group. 

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