Air Itam, a western suburb of George Town, is home to two of Penang Island's famous tourist destinations, the Kek Lok Si temple and Penang Hill. Some of the best Penang food can be found in Air Itam as well, including Penang asam laksa and curry mee.
The once agricultural area near the middle of Penang Island is located in the valleys between Penang Hill, Batu Lanchang Hill and Penara Hill, separating it from Balik Pulau to the southwest and the suburb of Green Lane to its southeast. To this day, the vegetable farms on Air Itam's hills still produce vegetables, which are carried downhill to the market or transported to other parts of George Town.
Air Itam has seen considerable urbanisation since the 1970s and is now among the most densely populated suburbs of George Town. The first low-cost flats in Malaysia were built in Air Itam in the 70s. Since the 1980s, Farlim, George Town's newest suburb located within Air Itam, has been developed out of Air Itam.
Air Itam, also written as Ayer Itam, was believed to be named after the murky waters of the Air Itam River. Air Itam in Malay means black water.
Having founded Penang Island in 1786, Captain Francis Light commissioned the construction of the original Suffolk House on his pepper estate. The house, which stood four miles west of the George Town city centre at what is now Air Itam Road, was a simple attap-thatched Anglo-Indian wooden bungalow and was named after the English county where he was born. Light stayed in the house with his wife until his death in 1794. In 1805, Mr. William Edward Phillips bought the estate from Light's business partner, James Scott, and began replacing the original Suffolk House with the Georgian-style mansion that you see today. By the turn of the 21st. century, the house was in a derelict state, prompting detailed restoration works. As a result, the stately Georgian mansion was awarded the 2008 Award of Distinction in the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation.
In addition, Light had ordered the Penang Hill to be cleared for strawberry plantations; the hill was then called 'Strawberry Hill'. Pepper was also first cultivated in the Air Itam valley and an abundance of nutmeg can be found here.
The agricultural village of Air Itam was established sometime in the 19th. century, populated mostly by farmers who tended the vegetable and fruit farms on the surrounding hills. To this day, fresh produce are carried downhill, either to the Air Itam market or to other markets in George Town, although the quantities have dropped due to urbanisation. Over the years, the village has also evolved to become the heart of Air Itam.
In 1890, construction of a Mahayana Buddhist temple on the slopes above the Air Itam village commenced. In the past, this particular hill, known as the Crane Hill, was considered geomantically important and became a favourite retreat for Taoist priests. A piece of the hill was bought in 1893 for the construction of the temple, which had been approved by the Qing Emperor Guangxu and funded by local Chinese. The temple, opened in 1905, was named Kek Lok Si. For the next 110 years, several additions were made to the the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, including its iconic Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas which fuses Chinese, Thai and Burmese architecture, and the newer Kuan Yin statue above the pagoda.
Meanwhile, further north, the Penang Hill, or the Flagstaff Hill as it was known then, was where the British flag used to be hoisted to signal the arrival of mail deliveries. A path from the Botanical Gardens waterfall to the top of Penang Hill was opened, but it was only accessible by packhorse, sedan chair or on foot. The first attempt to build a mountain railway on Penang Hill in 1897 ended in failure, but in 1923, a Swiss-made funicular from Air Itam to the top of Penang Hill was successfully completed. To this day, the funicular railway is the only one of its kind in Malaysia. The old Swiss-made trains were replaced by newer ones in 2011.
A Malay village named Kampung Melayu was established sometime in the 19th. century, drawing its populace from other areas on Penang Island. Refugees from George Town fleeing the 1867 Penang Riots may also have settled temporarily in the village.
There used to be a number of entertainment venues in Air Itam. Malaysia's first zoo, the Penang Zoological Gardens along Zoo Road, was built in the 1920s, supposedly by a flamboyant monk named Fa Kong ('Empty Dharma' in Chinese). The zoo was designed with decorative Chinese bridges spanning over lily ponds filled with fish and had more than 10 types of animals kept in separate man-made caves. However, the zoo was shut down for good before the Japanese occupation due to its high maintenance costs. An amusement park was also opened in Air Itam in the 1950s, but it was closed after several drowning cases resulted in the park losing its lustre.
In 1935, the Great Ayer Itam Fire, which was ignited by flying incense papers, destroyed over 100 houses. At the time, all houses in the Air Itam village were wooden ones, and were therefore vulnerable to fire. Losses were estimated at $200,000 (Straits dollars). Efforts to raise funds for the homeless proved disappointing, while the huge fire also exposed the inadequate fire brigades on Penang Island. From the ashes, The Air Itam village was eventually rebuilt, this time with brick houses and buildings.
During World War 2, ethnic Chinese in George Town fled to the interior areas of Penang Island, including Air Itam, fearing Japanese brutality. Nonetheless, during the Japanese Occupation of Penang Island, Imperial Japanese Army soldiers scoured the whole Penang Island, rounding up Chinese men to be executed under the Sook Ching policy. The infamous Sook Ching policy was implemented all over Malaya (including Singapore), targeting the local Chinese population who were perceived to be hostile towards the Japanese. After the war, the Air Itam War Memorial Park was erected, where some 800 incomplete skeletons from various sites on Penang Island were buried under the obelisk.
The first low-cost flats in Malaysia were built at the Rifle Range area. Nine blocks of 17-storey flats were built at the former shooting range next to the Bukit Gantung Cemetery in the 1970s after the Malaysian People's Movement Party (Gerakan) under Dr. Lim Chong Eu took over the Penang state government. Today, this working-class suburban area is among the most densely populated areas on Penang Island and has an unpleasant reputation as a slum. The current Penang state government, under the opposition alliance of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the People's Justice Party (PKR), has taken steps in recent years to spruce up this neighbourhood.
The Rifle Range flats marked the start of the spread of urbanisation from the George Town city centre towards Air Itam. Since the 1980s, Air Itam has witnessed rapid urban development. Densely populated Air Itam attracts considerable commercial development, as well as businesses and banks which subsequently open suburban branches within Air Itam. Most residential developments within the suburb of Air Itam have been geared towards the lower-middle and middle income classes.
Under the Penang Transport Master Plan, the Air Itam Monorail Line has been planned, running parallel to Air Itam Road, and passing through Han Chiang Schools, Penang State Mosque, Rifle Range, Hye Keat Estate and Air Itam village before terminating within the neighbouring suburb of Paya Terubong.
*All prices are quoted in Malaysian Ringgit (RM).
Penang Hill has the highest point on Penang Island. The peak of Penang Hill offers an unrivalled view of the entire Penang Island. The top of Penang Hill can be accessed via the historical funicular train service from Air Itam. To this day, the funicular rail is the only one of its kind in Malaysia. Recent developments include the replacement of the old train coaches with newer ones and the installation of retractable roofs over the railway station in Air Itam. As of 2016, the revised ticket prices are as follows.
|Normal||Fast Lane||Normal||Fast Lane|
|Senior Citizen (60 years above)||RM5.00||RM5.00||RM30.00||RM60.00|
|Child (Ages 4 - 6 years)||RM3.00||RM3.00||RM5.00||RM5.00|
|Student (School / College / University)||RM5.00||RM15.00||RM15.00||RM45.00|
|One Way - Adult||RM5.00||RM15.00||RM15.00||RM45.00|
|One Way - Child||RM3.00||RM3.00||RM10.00||RM30.00|
*Promotion is only for Malaysians, and is valid between 0630-0900 hours and 1900-2230 hours, except school holidays.
The Suffolk House at Air Itam Road between Air Itam and the George Town city centre is a recommended place to catch a glimpse of how life was like for the early British governors of the Straits Settlements. Besides the daily guided tours of the house which must be reserved in advance, there is an indoor restaurant offering delectable Western cuisine.
German-speaking tourists might also be interested in the nearby Malaysian German Society. The society was established in 1962 to promote cultural exchanges between local Penangites and the German expatriate community. The handsome house that hosts the society is also the venue of the annual Oktoberfest.
At the Air Itam roundabout between the Penang Hill railway station and the Air Itam village, stands the Air Itam War Memorial Park. Underneath the whitewashed obelisk lies the remains of over 800 victims of the Sook Ching massacres from all over Penang Island. Each side of the obelisk base has seven steps, a reminder of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident on 7 July 1937 which sparked the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). In addition, there are three adjacent memorials - the World Peace Memorial, the Penang Chinese Relief Memorial and the Memorial Park Mural, all of which symbolises the sacrifices of the Penang Chinese community during the war against the Japanese.
The Kek Lok Si temple above the Air Itam village is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, as well as perhaps the most famous of all temples on Penang Island. The temple, which was built from 1890 to 1904, was authorised by the Qing Emperor Guangxu, who bestowed a tablet and 70,000 volumes of the Imperial Edition of the Buddhist Sutras. The adjoining Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas was actually completed later in 1927, also with another royal blessings from the then King of Thailand, King Rama VI, who placed the foundation stone. A giant statue of Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, was completed above the temple in 2002. Every Chinese New Year, the entire Kek Lok Si temple would be lit up in festive lights. Other attractions within the temple include the Tortoise Liberation Pond and the Zodiac Garden.
Other than that, several Buddhist and Taoist temples are scattered across Air Itam, reflecting the mainly Chinese populace of the Air Itam suburb. Among the more famous ones are the Tien Kong Then temple, which was featured as a Detour in the Amazing Race season 16 (episode 8), and the Mahindarama Buddhist temple, which, unlike the rest, adheres to Theravada Buddhism. Other temples in Air Itam are as listed below.
- Tua Pek Kong temple
- Bat Cave temple
- Heong Giam Si temple
- Fanyin Meditation Centre
- Poh Tua Tong temple
- Nanyang Thong Hong Siang T'ng, Penang chapter
- Kwan Yin San Pow Yin Tsian Tsi temple
- Huat Huah Liam temple
The multi-religious society in Air Itam is reflected in that the Penang State Mosque is located at Air Itam Road. As the biggest mosque in Penang, it can accommodate about 5,000 worshippers at any one time. The mosque was constructed in the 1970s and took four years to build. Its architecture combined elements of Western Modernist and Malay designs.
Other mosques and Muslim buildings in Air Itam are as follows.
- Masjid Kampung Baru
- Masjid Jamek al-Qadrie
- Masjid Jamek Shaik Eusoff
- Wisma Yatim Laki-laki Islam
Hinduism is also well represented in Air Itam. Hindu temples in Air Itam are as follows.
- Air Itam Mahamariamman temple
- Dhoby Ghaut temple
- Shree Dharma Muniswarar temple
- Sri Sivasakhti temple
- Sri Ambakarathur temple
Christian churches in Air Itam are listed below.
- Christ Church
- True Jesus Church
- Risen Christ Catholic Church
- Little Sisters of the Poor
The two most popular hawker stalls in Air Itam are the Air Itam Market Laksa Stall and the Sisters' Curry Mee Stall.
The Air Itam Market Laksa Stall sells arguably the best and the most famous asam laksa in the world. Tucked in a corner of the Air Itam market at the junction between Air Itam Road and Market Road, this business has been running for decades, serving up the spicy sour Penang dish for local Penangites and tourists alike. The stall opens between 1130 to 2000 hours daily and a bowl of asam laksa costs RM4.50.
The nearby Sisters' Curry mee Stall has been around even longer. It is still run by sisters Lim Kooi Heang, 82 and Lim Kooi Lye, 80, who have been selling their own-made curry mee for over 60 years. The curry paste is self-made and the spicy gravy is cooked on the spot over charcoal fire, with the ingredients spread out around the giant pot. The ingredients include coagulated pork blood, tofu and curry squid. Due to the lack of chairs around this stall, customers would have to use the stools provided or sit inside an opposite stall, provided that you buy some drinks from that stall first. The sisters sell their famous curry mee every morning while the Air Itam market is at its busiest, between 0730 and 1300 hours. A bowl of curry mee costs RM3, with an additional RM1 for those who prefer extra cuttlefish.
Opposite the Air Itam market is the Air Itam Market food court, where you can find various Penang street food including ais kacang, a famous icy local dessert. To the south of the Air Itam market along Air Itam Road and Paya Terubong Road, other delicious Penang food are available as well, such as Penang Hokkien mee and wan tan mee.
There is no shortage of options in Air Itam when it comes to food. Below are some of the other hawker centres, coffee shops and restaurants within Air Itam.
- Bee San
- Excellent Cafe
- Kampar Fish Jelly Restaurant
- Kedai Makanan Sin Nam Huat
- Kee San Seafood Corner
- Lye Lye Cafe
- New Top Taste Restaurant
- Pin Pin Cafe
- Cheong Heong Restaurant
- Enrich Restaurant
- Golden City Restaurant
- Tong Hai Aun Restaurant
A few hotels and budget hostels are available within Air Itam, such as :
- Bellevue Hotel on Penang Hill
- Good Luck Inn
- Fastbook Hotel
- Vstay Guesthouse
- Check Inn
Other than that, there is an Econsave hypermarket at the southern edge of Air Itam and an old Suiwah supermarket opposite the Air Itam market.
The top Chinese school on Penang Island, Chung Ling High School, is located at Air Itam Road. Established by supporters of Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1917, there are actually two Chung Ling schools adjacent to each other. The actual Chung Ling High School follows the curriculum set by the Malaysian Education Ministry, whereas Chung Ling (Private) High School just next to its public counterpart adheres to an independent and entirely-Chinese curriculum. Students from both Chung Ling High Schools are highly sought after in Malaysia and Singapore. Their alumni include Singapore's current Minister for Transport, Khaw Boon Wan, and Chew Kok Wei, Malaysia's first Gold Medalist in the International Physics Olympiad.
Another Chinese school, the Han Chiang Schools, is also located at Air Itam Road - between Air Itam proper and the George Town city centre. Han Chiang Schools actually consists of Han Chiang Primary School, Han Chiang High School and Han Chiang College. The Han Chiang High School was the first private Chinese school to be established within Malaysia. It also follows an independent, entirely-Chinese curriculum. Like Chung Ling (Private) High School, Han Chiang High School holds the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) tests, which is recognised by universities abroad such as in SIngapore, China and Taiwan, but not among Malaysian public universities.
There is also a missionary school at Air Itam Road to the east of Han Chiang High School. Methodist Boys' School was established in 1891 when a Methodist missionary, Reverend B.H. Balderstone, arrived in Penang from Canada. Initially named the Anglo-Chinese School, Penang, the school had been located at Carnavon Street, before relocating to Maxwell Road and finally to its present site at Air Itam Road in 1955. In the past, the English school was highly regarded amongst the Chinese community, who contributed funds for its expansion. Upon relocating to Air Itam Road, the nearby Suffolk House was turned into the school's canteen until it was vacated in 1975 due to safety concerns. The mansion was then left to rot until restoration works commenced in 2006.
The Air Itam Dam, located between Penang Hill and Paya Terubong, was the first dam on Penang Island. Built between 1958 and 1962, its construction was the first major engineering project undertaken by the George Town City Council since independence. It serves as one of the main sources of water for Penang Island. Whether by cycling, jogging or walking around the picturesque dam, one can easily obtain a scenic view of George Town and Penang Island.
Getting to Air Itam
From George Town, all Rapid Penang buses with the number 2xx (except 206) pass through the suburb of Air Itam. Rapid Penang bus 502, which runs between George Town and Balik Pulau at the southwestern part of Penang Island, also passes through Air Itam.
204 : Weld Quay - Chulia Street Ghaut - Fort Cornwallis - Esplanade - Light Street - Farquhar Street - KOMTAR - Air Itam Road - Penang State Mosque - Rifle Range, Air Itam - Kampung Melayu, Air Itam - Kampung Pisang, Air Itam - Paya Terubong Road - Air Itam Road - Air Itam village - Kek Lok Si temple - Air Itam Road - Penang Hill railway station
Those from the Penang International Airport, Bayan Baru, Bukit Jambul Complex, Queensbay Mall and Relau can board Rapid Penang bus 306 to Air Itam.
306 : Penang International Airport - Sunshine Square Bayan Baru - Queensbay Mall - Bukit Jambul Complex - SPICE Arena - Relau - Paya Terubong - Lebuhraya Thean Teik, Farlim - Farlim - Sunshine Farlim - Thean Teik Road, Air Itam - Air Itam Road - Scotland Road - Macalister Road - Residency Road - Penang General Hospital
In addition, tourists can board a Hop-On Hop-Off bus to either the Penang Hill or the Kek Lok Si temple.
Penang State Government
N.23 Air Puteh State Assemblyman : Lim Guan Eng (Democratic Action Party)
N.24 Kebun Bunga State Assemblyman : Cheah Kah Peng (People's Justice Party)
N.33 Air Itam State Assemblyman : Wong Hon Wai (Democratic Action Party)
N.34 Paya Terubong State Assemblyman : Yeoh Soon Hin (Democratic Action Party)
Malaysian Federal Parliament
P.048 Bukit Bendera Member of Parliament : Zairil Khir Johari (Democratic Action Party)
P.051 Bukit Gelugor Member of Parliament : Ramkarpal Singh a/l Karpal Singh (Democratic Action Party)