So very few people come to Penang state and decide to give Bukit Mertajam (known by locals as “BM”) a try. Set right across the first Penang bridge, on the contrary, there are so many great things to eat and do in Bukit Mertajam you can’t just ignore it.
Truth be told, most of Penang Island’s “real living heritage” — which has by now upholstered to Penang boutique hotels, old-china-themed restaurants, and aseptic cafés for hipsters — is conversely very much alive in Bukit Mertajam.
Well, let me tell you — it’s not just because my wife is from Bukit Mertajam that I love this little (well, not so much anymore) town. If you are looking to experience Malaysia as it was, or have a look at what Penang state looks like without Penang engrossing nightlife, then taking a stroll in Bukit Mertajam’s Old Town is a must. It makes George Town in Penang look like a fake. And did I say that the food in Bukit Mertajam is great, too?
Great Things to Do in Bukit Mertajam
The following is a complete list of great things to do in and around Bukit Mertajam. From gorging on great local food that’s been dished up on these streets for decades, to strike out on hiking trails and natural sights, Bukit Mertajam has the whole lot — and nobody knows about it, by the way.
Best Food in Bukit Mertajam Old Town you Must Try
We have already written a list of the best Penang food, but Bukit Mertajam really deserves its own spot. BM Old Town has some very good and traditional foods, all in walking distance along main thoroughfares Jalan Pasar and Jalan Danby
1BM Best Cendol
We didn’t say it, they do in their name — but the cendol here is quite convincingly delicious.
BM Best Cendol is a simple street stall set on a street corner with some wooden tables tucked under an archway. The cendol (available in different versions, the biasa is only RM2.5 while pulut sells for RM3) is still made out of an ice-crushing box that looks like it’s been pumping since the 1970s.
The cendol portion is big enough, with fine gula melaka and big, pouty beans that perfectly marry with the ice and green spaghetti. A perfect thirst-quencher and a hydration-recoverer on any given day.
2BM Cup Rice
This historical stall at N.74 Jalan Danby has been working and pumping heavenly rice bowls garnished with black soy sauce and fresh duck meat for the past 60-odd years. They sell like hotcakes. The owner took over from her father in law 33 years ago: she told us that “BM will never be Penang’s spare wheel, because people are attracted by our different food. Believe me, Indonesian and Singaporean tourists buy my rice, freeze the packages, and mail it back to their countries. Some foreigners come here with their local friends, too. Many young people read about me online and come to try my speciality on weekends. Truth be told, I am always busy.”
True enough, be prepared to queue up to get your fix of BM Cup Rice. A normal serving costs RM5 and adding extra meat is RM7 total. You can choose between duck meat and char siew (the delicious Chinese Malaysian grilled pork).
3Get Refreshed at Soo Low Chung
Mr. Cheong’s herbal tea stall has been here on this little corner of Jalan Pasar for the past 50-odd years, where this smiling Chinese uncle pours excellent sugar cane and chrysanthemum drinks. The uncle is very chatty and always has a story or two to tell his customers. When we went last, he said that “Penang’s tourism has left BM behind”. Mr. Cheong, who has manned this stall since the beginning, knows better. “Problem is, on the contrary of the island, there’s no hotel or guesthouse for foreigners here. BM town’s never been properly developed, and I think it’s a waste because this is a very old and historical place. The Pek Kong Cheng temple (see below) itself is over 100 years old”.
4Duck and Pork at Kha Zee Roaster
Continuing down the road from Soo Low Chung you’ll find Khaa Zee chicken rice shop on the left. On a good day, you can’t miss the rows of perfectly roasted ducks hanging from the ceiling of their five foot way, dripping fat and sauce over a layer of aluminium foil cautiously slung on the floor to protect the pavement. This is Bukit Mertajam’s best chicken rice and duck shop and has been running for several decades, too.
5Noodles and Assam Laksa at Cheok Sah, Bukit Mertajam’s abandoned cinema
Cheok Sah is an amazing — and empty — art-deco styled cinema — the same where my wife used to come as a young girl to watch her first films. Question: Penang Heritage Trust, why don’t you do anything about it?
The reason why people remember Cheok Sah is the little food court tucked in the alley immediately behind and to the right-hand side of the old cinema. You’ll see a sign saying “BM Kopitiam” and several stalls set under an awning in a back alley parallel to Jalan Pasar.
This is where Bukit Mertajam food lovers come for hearty portions of Jawa Mee, Curry Mee, the famous Cheok Sah Hokkien Mee — they have the best business —, wan tan mee, and the famous laksa and ais kacang.
6Lau Pheng Yu Food Court
Lau Pheng Yu Food Court may be the most famous in Bukit Mertajam Old Town, and has been around for the best part of 80 years in a corner of Jalan Asmara.
The specialities here are the famous hor fun noodles with crab meat, and the original Bukit Mertajam rojak: Orang Hock Rojak (黑人罗惹 in Chinese) or “Or Lang Lojak” in Hokkien (meaning “black man rojak”).
This is what Malaysians in other parts of the country call “fruit rojak”, as it uses plenty of fresh fruits such as pineapple, star fruit, guava, etcetera.
7BM Famous Yam Rice
BM Yam Rice (大山脚芋饭 in Chinese) at 6 Jalan Murthy is another yummy treat in the Old Town. Run for at least 30-odd years by a local family, the yam-flavoured rice (which turns brown in colour) here is served along with bowls of pork meat and spare parts. You’ll get pork blood, intestine, pork meatballs, kidney and pork slices.
They still use charcoal to cook here, which makes everything taste more “old school”, if you get what I mean.
It’s become popular with both locals and foreign visitors who come to Bukit Mertajam for the food, so please factor at least 30 minutes to get your order.
8Try the White Black Man’s Rojak… and more
We have already mentioned Orang Hock Rojak, but don’t miss a chance to try Rojak Orang Hitam Putih (meaning “Black White Man’s Rojak”) right across the road.
The origins of the name are disputed: nobody in BM Old Town could tell us whether the first Rojak seller was a “black man” (a local Tamil Indian, maybe?), and one of the owners at Rojak Orang Hitam Putih seemed to suggest that it’s just a name — each stall wanted to sound both similar and different to attract more out of town customers.
Regardless, rojak is one weird plate among all the choices of Penang Food — a black sweet-sour sauce garnished with sesame that’s doused over little chunks of fresh fruits or vegetables — and in Bukit Mertajam you can get rojak of very good quality.
To be precise, the rojak here is what southern Malaysians would call “fruit rojak” — made mostly with fruits like pineapple, star fruit, guava etcetera.
More Great Things to Do in Bukit Mertajam
9Enjoy Bukit Mertajam Old Town’s Way Back When Atmosphere
In Bukit Mertajam there’s no George Town pretension of being “boutique chic” and trendy. Market floors are still slippery and dirty, and the heritage shop-houses that line the streets — some really old and beautiful — are still covered in vines instead of brand new paint. They are slowly dying under the strokes of the unforgiving tropical sun.
Jalan Pasar, the pulsating earth of BM, is a slice of that tatty Asia which elsewhere is sadly being upgraded to fit with Southeast Asia’s mad rush towards aseptic, globalized Western-looking “modernity”. Come visit Bukit Mertajam Old Town before it all changes, too.
Among our favorite places is Kim Foong Hair Salon, with equipment coming straight from the 1970s. They remind me of what Jane Fonda may have used doing her make-up for the movie Barbarella.
On the other side of Jalan Pasar is Joo Song rattan weaver, where an uncle makes his own wooden chairs and furniture. Not too cheap, but definitely worth a browse.
10Visit the Remains of the Pek Kong Cheng Temple
In July 2019, one of Bukit Mertajam’s biggest tragedies changed the heart of the old town. Sadly, a fire destroyed the best part of the interiors and cultural relics of 134 years old Pek Kong Cheng temple, one of the oldest Chinese shrines in Malaysia.
In the past, we have been to this temple a number of times to gaze at its small but sumptuous altar where Teochew, Hakka, Hokkien and Cantonese people all coexist in worship. There used to be a very appetizing cluster of food stalls set all around this temple, and patrons would eat just in front of its gates. The unique atmosphere that’s sadly gone. Today, you can still see the old structure behind fencing of corrugated iron and pray at the new impromptu altar which has been set up in front of them. But it’s not nearly the same thing — also the surrounding night food market has shrunk given the new space limitations.
We really hope that someone will manage to rebuild what’s been lost — but of course, the original relics and worship objects are forever lost, turned into cold and gray ash.
11See Malaysia’s Biggest King of Hell Burn
Speaking of fires, this is Bukit Mertajam’s best and grandest — and safe, no worries. One of the best times to visit Penang is between August and September when, according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, the Hungry Ghost Festival (Yu Lan) is in full swing. This is when local Chinese believe that the doors of hell open, and all the ghosts come back to earth to enjoy some of the worldly delights they miss in the netherworld.
In Bukit Mertajam, the bamboo and paper-made effigy of the King of Hell Tai Su Yeah which will burn as the climax of the festival is HUGE. It measures 8.5 meters of height and is 5 meters wide — certainly the biggest such effigy in Malaysia.
In Bukit Mertajam, the Yu Lan BM Festival Organisation has run this festival for more than 130 years. We really recommend you come to see this celebration in Bukit Mertajam over that held on Penang island.
12Shop and Dine at Juru Auto-City
If foreigners are nowhere to be found, don’t think that Penang’s islanders are in excess in Bukit Mertajam. To them, BM’s means principally Auto-City, Juru’s bustling artery of dance clubs, fancy diners and car showrooms.
It’s a happening place to go in the evenings, when their Shop-In D’ Park (whose entrance is presided by two iron statues of Predator) fills up with people who come here to enjoy an evening stroll and the dining options — from Vietnamese to Thai and local BBQ and fish — and the flea-market tucked at the back.
Outside, restaurant and bistro galore still abound, with Starbucks, the long-standing Golden Triangle (Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian restaurant) and many more options that can certainly grant a few hours of shopping and dining while you hop between places in Bukit Mertajam.
13Cafe Hop and Eat at Icon City
Icon City is a commercial development of two-storeys shophouses in the Bukit Tengah area of Bukit Mertajam. It seriously competes with nearby Auto City — just about 5 minutes drive away — in terms of dining and entertainment.
Beyond the ubiquitous Taiwan bubble tea shop — a very unhealthy yet super popular drink in Bukit Mertajam — Icon City boasts tons of dining options, from Chinese steamboat restaurants to the western food galore of James Foo and Green Island, with a touch of Japanese at Ittan Izakaya and Kaze, Korean BBQ at Daorae, and other dessert shops and beer bars.
The choice is large as Icon City packs quite a number of establishments, and if you want to see what Bukit Mertajam’s youth are up to, Icon City is the perfect place to hunt them down.
14Hike to the Top of Cherok Tokun
Also called Bukit Mertajam Recreational Forest, Cherok Tokun is a very nice jungle hiking trail.
You will first go through the Malay town of Cherok Tokun, where you can find food and refreshments, and then across a country road that leads to the beginning of the park.
There are two ways up Bukit Tokun, one on a tarred road, and one along a much more fun jungle path — which may not be suitable for non-active types. Keep your eyes peeled for the multitude of insects and giant millipedes which are quite abundant here.
The hike ends at the top of the hill where there are communication towers, and where you have to turn around and descend — use the tar road, as it’s more gentle on your knees going down. There are a few refreshment shops, including a Chinese Tea House, set along a quiet stream at the bottom of the hill.
15See Bukit Mertajam town from the top of Bukit D.O.
This recreational park is pretty close to Bukit Mertajam Old Town and offers an easy one hour hike to the top, from where you’ll have panoramic views all over the town and the surrounding countryside.
It’s a jungle hike, so come prepared with proper footwear and hiking gear as you will definitely sweat as you scramble up, but the views are worth.
16Praise the Lord at St. Anne’s Church
Founded in 1846, St. Anne’s Church earned the status of minor basilica in 2019 and is one of Penang, and Malaysia’s, most important Roman Catholic churches. The first original church was built on top of the hill in 1846. What people visit today is the second church, opened in 1888, and still used up to these days as St. Anne’s main shrine.
The monument — all whitewashed and set against the backdrop of a tropical hill — is beautiful in itself, but the best time to visit is during the annual fest of St. Anne, held for 10 days around the main date of 26 July, when 100,000-odd pilgrims come here to worship from as far as Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and even Australia.
Within the church’s compound you’ll also be able to see the Cherok Tokun Relics (Batu Bersurat Cherok Tokun), the only ancient megalith found in Penang state.
This is a beautiful dam set within landscaped gardens and a very popular place for local joggers and outdoorsy families.
At the time of writing, we were waiting for Mengkuang Dam reopening in 2020, but closures and delay because of COVID–19 have pushed dates further.
Anyhow, the place is set to return soon to its glory days of natural oasis in close proximity to Bukit Mertajam town.
18Take a Trip to Frog Hill
Also called “Bukit Katak”, Frog Hill was an offbeat place in Seberang Perai that got some momentum as of late thanks to the usual work of Instagram hype. Also called Lombong Kampung Guar Petai, Frog Hill Tasek Gelugor, or Guar Perahu, Frog Hill is an old tin mining site where water collected into a series of pools criss-crossed by red earth ridges. It’s an otherworldly scenery of jagged red rocks emerging from viridian pools. Some people said that Frog Hill is like the “Jiuzhaigou of Penang” — quite an overstatement, but let the locals be proud of their backwoods.
Frog Hill is absolutely stunning at sunrise, but you gotta get up pretty early to catch it. Indeed Frog Hill is roughly 30 minutes north of Bukit Mertajam, set at the end of a road that goes through a small village called Kampung Jarak Atas. Remember that the road to Frog Hill is not paved and gets often muddy, so don’t come here unprepared in the rainy season — good footwear and sandals you can quickly wash up are essential.
19Hike at Berapit Hill
If you are still up for more hiking, don’t miss Berapit Hill, a 4,7km loop located not far away from Bukit Mertajam. The elevation gain is about 292 meters, so be prepared to sweat the calories you gained in Bukit Mertajam’s Old Town off.
As an interesting trivia, Berapit is where Malaysia’s badminton champion Lee Chong Wei was born and raised.
Back to hiking, there are also two Thai Temples on top of the hill, belonging to the Vivekavana Buddhist Society of Penang. One is called Vivekavana Solitude Grove. It’s a nice place to wait for sunset, relax, and maybe do some meditation.
How to Get to Bukit Mertajam
There are several ways to get in and around Bukit Mertajam, the best of which, of course, is by your own wheels. Or you can always get a Grab Car from Penang
Getting to Bukit Mertajam by Bus
If you are coming from George Town, first of all take the iconic Penang Ferry and get to Penang Sentral. The bus station with departures to Bukit Mertajam is at the ground floor. Rapid Penang Bus 702 travels from Penang Sentral to the terminal Bas Bukit Mertajam on Jalan Aston — 500 meters from Bukit Mertajam’s old town.
Getting to Bukit Mertajam by Train
Bukit Mertajam is also an important station on the ETS route between Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur and the Thai Border at Padang Besar.
READ MORE— How to Do a Visa Run from Penang to Thailand
Check our guide to catching trains from Penang to know more about routes. Once in Bukit Mertajam KTM station, Jalan Pasar is 2km away. Catch a Grab Car, as the heat can be unforgiving.
Best Hotels in Bukit Mertajam
If you want to stay in Bukit Mertajam, you should check out one of these hotels:
Treat Yourself in a Bukit Mertajam 5 Star Hotel
Iconic Hotel may be the best choice. A part of Icon City, it has an outdoor pool and dozens of nearby options for dining and entertainment.
Vangohh Eminent Hotel & Spa looks and feels great, and offers extremely good facilities at a fraction of Western prices.
Budget Hotels in Bukit Mertajam
Summit Hotel is BM’s stalwart, in walking distance from the Old Town. In need of a bit of a brush-up, but that’s one of the glorious oldies.
U Plus Budget Hotel is simple, clean and comfortable, with very adequate rooms for this price range.