Gunung Jerai (Gunung means Mount in Malay) is a 1217 m high mountain on the mainland of Peninsular Malaysia, just to the north of Penang Island, and can be clearly seen from most parts of Penang and the surrounding region in Kedah. It was formerly called Kedah Peak due to it being the tallest peak in Kedah, and a prominent landmark in that part of Malaysia. The mountain is an isolated sandstone peak in a relatively flat landscape.
A road leads to the top from the foot, with its starting point easily accessible from the nearest town, Gurun (just follow the signboards). At the end of the road, sited at the peak, stand some fenced-up telecommunication towers. There are nice, panoramic views of the flat coastal plain of Kedah from the top of the mountain, where you can glimpse the “rice bowl” of Malaysia.
The mountain and its surroundings such as the Bujang Valley have a long history of human settlement, evidenced by many archeological remains, and formed part of a thriving Hindu-Buddhist kingdom, thousands of years ago. There are also many legends and folklore surrounding Gunung Jerai, making this mountain all the more interesting to explore for the intrepid visitor, along with that other mountain peak in Malacca, Gunung Ledang (or Mt. Orphir), also another area steeped in legend and history. The summit of Gunung Jerai is also said to be the site of some ancient Hindu stupa ruins.
The forest of Gunung Jerai (at the base and lower foothills) appears to be mostly cloaked in old growth dipterocarp forest, although with such a long history of human presence and activities in the general area, you can expect a mosaic of secondary and primary forest at the fringes. Several waterfalls that tumble down the mountain can be visited at the recreational forest parks around the foot.
The following photos below are all scans taken from my photos from the late 1990s.
It is the upper part that draws the most interest though, for Gunung Jerai contains perhaps the most accessible upper montane forest in all of Peninsular Malaysia, which is normally only found at elevations exceeding 1600 m above sea level. This is a short stature forest (canopy height averaging 3-15 meters), and dominated by trees of Dacrydium, Podocarpus, and Leptospermum spp. As you drive up the mountain, you will notice this upper montane ericaceous forest start to appear quite abruptly around 800-1000 meters, appearing above the hill dipterocarp forest.
Myths and attractions
A good way to appreciate the natural environment of Gunung Jerai (if you are fit), is to use the Tangga Kenari (Kenari Stairway), which starts at the foot, and leads all the way up to the resort. This is a series of concrete steps that consist of 1300 steps in total.
There are several attractions on Gunung Jerai, such as a forestry museum sited at a recreational spot (Sungai Teroi Recreational Forest) halfway up the mountain, an old well called Telaga Tok Sheikh (Tok Sheikh Well), and an open, lightly wooded area called Padang Tok Sheikh (Tok Sheikh Field) – both named after a prominent Muslim missionary during the Middle Ages.
A famous rock formation near the resort area is the Batu Kapal (Ship Rock), which resembles the outline of a ship, and is said to be formerly a ship that was cursed to be turned into stone by a Sang Kelembai, a mythical demon that turns things into stone, and is said to inhabit some dense forest areas in Malaysia. This huge rock formation has water flowing out from its base as well, and trees growing on its flat top.
Walking on it, some spots sound like they are hollow, and there are some striations on the rock surface that resemble wooden planks on a ship. Nearby the Batu Kapal is a waterfall, Alur Naga Waterfall, that has a legend of a dragon that lives in the cave behind the waterfall.
There is a new resort built near the top of the peak, The Regency Jerai Hill Resort (opened in May 2010), for those who would like to stay at the top and experience the temperate climate, although it never gets too cold or wet to permit mosses to grow in abundance. The new resort replaced the much older resort that was originally there (I stayed there during my visits in the late 1990s).
One of the main differences between the upper montane forest here and elsewhere, on much higher peaks – is it is much drier here, permitting lots of sedges and grasses to grow on the ground, and creating a more open forest. Also, the branches and roots of the trees, and the ground, are not thickly festooned with mosses like what you would see in Cameron Highlands, for example. The soil is also very thin, often leading to exposed areas of flat sandstone where nothing grows.
From the lowlands all the way to the upper montane zone on Gunung Jerai, the Malayan kauri tree, Agathis borneensis grows. This conifer is easily the biggest tree in the montane forest here, capable of reaching heights of anywhere between 30-50 meters tall. It is related to the more famous New Zealand kauri (Agathis australis).
The montane forest around the peak is also home to a species of pitcher plant, Nepenthes albomarginata, which grows quite abundantly in the more exposed, open areas. Pitcher plants are well known for having great variation even within the same species, and here, the N. albomarginata are colored red; elsewhere they are frequently of a different color.