PENANG ATTRACTS VISITORS…NATURALLY!
Whenever I mention Malaysia to friends, they merely nod politely and change the subject. They talk instead about Bangkok's sizzling night-club scene, or the buzz of shopping in Hongkong! Well, true enough-Malaysia doesn't have that kind of razzmatazz. Nor does it need to.
It has other riches to offer.
Take, for example, Penang's Tropical Fruit Farm, and its unique Tropical Spice Gardens.
At the Tropical Fruit Farm, I join a group of visitors as they board a battered-looking truck. The vehicle pants its way up a narrow, curling road, and at the crest of a hill, overlooking the sweep of Penang Island and the Straits of Malacca, we dismount and gather around Ali, who is to be our guide throughout the tour. Although we are at a modest elevation of just 244 metres above sea level, the humidity is fierce; perspiration trickles down my neck, and my dark-glasses fog over.
However, this non-commercial orchard is well worth the sweat. Sprawling over twenty-five acres of undulating country, the Farm is also an experimental research centre. Ali is an accomplished raconteur, with a wry sense of humour, and although he doesn't go into horticultural technicalities, he introduces us to a range of curious-looking specimens: bright red dragon fruit-spiky grenades hanging off the parent cactus plant-and rambutans covered in punk-orange "hair". While it's impossible to cover 200 species of fruit in an hour, the group are nonetheless fascinated by rare varieties of betel nut palms, exotic strains of passion fruit, sugar apples-and cute miniature bananas the size of my small toe. Ali plucks pink water apples off a heavily laden tree and offers them to us; they taste slightly acrid and after my first bite, I throw what's left to a hopeful-looking crow hopping along behind us. The Miracle Fruit berry is unusual: the small crimson bead, when chewed, hoodwinks the palate, so that even the sourest lemon is tastes nectar-sweet. Naturally, everyone wants to give that a try.
There's no need to use Miracle Fruit's berries when we return to the reception area-our exertions are rewarded by drinks of sweet ice-cold mango juice and a lavish tropical fruit salad-pineapple slices, interspersed with papaya, bananas and passion fruit wedges. Durians, to my immense relief, are not in season.
On leaving the Fruit Farm, I head towards the Tropical Spice Gardens-a short drive downhill towards the trendy beach and shopping area of Bukit Feringgi. If the sun was direct and fierce at the top of the hill, I am now enveloped in green shade: a soothing world of flowering hibiscus shrubs, mauve jacarandas, lemon-fronded laburnums and scarlet flame-of-the-forest trees. Trails wind along gently sloped terraces, edged by meandering streams and waterfalls. Fan-leaved banana plants grow beside bamboo thickets and towering rubber trees, and a riot of deep blue morning glory and hot-pink bougainvillea creepers shawl the railings of miniature bridges. White and lemon orchids cling to the barks of hardwood trees.
Past the first terrace, with its profusion of crotons, cycads and ferns, (each meticulously tagged with their botanical identity), I walk up a small slope, and sit on a wooden bench. A bird whoops somewhere in the jungle foliage behind me, and I watch a ballet of royal blue-and-gold winged butterflies fluttering around a plant bearing droopy-fingered orange blooms. The afternoon air is drowsy with the hum of bees, and heavy with the scent of frangipani, mingled with the faint, but unmistakable fragrance of cinnamon. Apart from herb beds of mint, thyme, coriander and parsley, I am surrounded by a splendour of tropical spice plants-red ginger, cardamom, cloves, pepper, turmeric, nutmeg, garlic, cassia (cinnamon) and areca nut.
Although Penang's Butterfly Farm isn't unique-both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have similar attractions-it nonetheless grabs my attention for well over an hour, As I try to capture shots of butterflies flickering like brightly-coloured confetti around me, I notice a small boy beaming with delight as a gigantic Raja Brooke, black with dramatic emerald green markings, settles on his hand. His older sister, meanwhile, is transfixed in front of a glass-fronted display window as a cocoon starts to split open to reveal a soggy-winged brand new butterfly. Apart from about 120 species of winged performers, there are other resident virtuosos. Two small horned toads stare beady-eyed at me, and a spiny stick insect freezes into camouflage mode on a brown twig. Next door, a tarantula is wooing his mate, and family life also seems to be thriving in the scorpion household, with baby scorpions shimmying around their mum. In the world of beetles, a large stag beetle flexes his mandibles (equivalent, perhaps, to a macho guy showing off his biceps?), and a long armed Scarab brings to mind a stylized Egyptian emblem.
So is Malaysia boring? Is Penang 'ho-hum'? This is a country where Nature is prolific and flamboyant-see it, taste it, smell it and touch it. It beguiles. It intrigues. And it draws visitors like me back time and again!
NOTE: Malaysia was lucky to escape the full fury of the Asian tsunami. Penang Island was subjected to some degree of flooding, but damage to life and property was minimal. According to Malaysia's Tsunami Aftermath Advisory, things are back to normal and visitors are once more surfing, boating and soaking up the sunshine on Batu Feringgi Beach.
©Margaret Deefholts - Visit Margaret's website www.margaretdeefholts.com
IF YOU GO:
Where to Stay:
Shangri-La's Golden Sands Resort.
Batu Feringgi Beach, Penang
Ph: (60-4) 886-1911
Fax: (60-4) 881-1880
Mutiara Beach Resort
1 Jalan Teluk Bahang, Penang
Ph: (60-4) 886-8888
Fax (60-4) 885-2829
For room reservation please call Toll-free
Both these five star hotels offer their visitors (at a surprisingly reasonable cost) the ultimate in luxury and hospitality.
For up-to-date information please visit their websites.
There is no lack of hotels in Penang to suit every price range.
Click on http://www.penang-hotels.com/search_price_main.htm for information based on search criteria.
Tropical Fruit Farm:
Tel: 604 227 6223
Further Information: Penang Tourism at http://www.exoticpenang.com.my/page.cfm?name=at02c_08
Tropical Spice Garden:
Open 9 am to 6 pm daily
No 830 Jalan Teluk Bahang, 11050 Penang, Malaysia
Tel: 604-885 1253 Fax: 604-885 2011 / 885 1741
Visiting Hours: Mondays to Fridays from 9:00am to 5:00pm
Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays from 9:00am to 5:30pm
Further Information: Penang Tourism at
Getting to Malaysia:
Malaysian Airlines tops the list in terms of superlative service.