Even in the centre of Penang’s Georgetown, nature is never that far away. Just beyond the suburbs, the encroaching jungle blurs the boundary between urban and rural Penang, and if you want to experience Malaysia’s rainforests without straying too far from the sanctity of the city, you need go no further than the Botanic Gardens.
Set within a valley at the base of Penang Hill and bordered on three sides by dense tropical forest, the gardens offer a respite from the hectic streets of Georgetown. Wandering along its broad, tree-lined boulevards, and listening to the whine of cicadas and the chatter of birds and monkeys in the jungle beyond, it’s easy to see why this has always been such a popular place for locals to come and relax.
The present gardens were established in 1884 on this 29-hectare site as a recreational facility for the town and as a repository for a wide variety of different plants. For seasoned horticulturalists, the gardens are perhaps not as impressive or as well tended as others around the world. Certain parts look distinctly tired, shabby and neglected, and although there are lots of labels citing the Latin names of species, there is not much information. However, the state government has hired a new senior curator, formerly of the famous Kew Gardens in London, to come and help revive things, and changes are underway.
The rolling lawns and the backdrop of the rainforest make this a pleasant place for a stroll, and there are plenty of different zones to explore, including a Fern House, Orchidarium, Formal Garden, Palm Collection, Perdana Conservatory and Cactus House, all featuring both endemic and foreign species. Even if you have never been that interested in plants, you may still be impressed by the cannonball trees, whose trunks are festooned with huge round fruits, or by the bizarre alien-looking black lilies in the Japanese garden.
One of the highlights is a recently renovated 1.5 kilometre rainforest walk, the Curtis Trail, named after the founder of the gardens. The entrance to this smart stone-paved track, with new rope handrail, is about 50 metres beyond the Orchidarium, on the right hand side. As you climb up into the jungle of towering trees, you really feel as though you are leaving the city far behind and get a real sense of Malaysia’s natural environment. Keep an eye out for brightly coloured birds and butterflies, and the occasional monkeys swinging high up in the canopy. Informative boards have been placed at various intervals along the trail, with interesting facts about the rainforest ecosystem and some of the main plants to be found here in Malaysia. Did you know, for example, that many of Malaysia’s climbing plants are in fact related to cucumbers?
A small shop in the gardens sells various gifts, as well as canned and bottled drinks and snacks. For more substantial food, visit the Waterfall Cafe next to the car park outside the main gates, for cheap, simple char kway teow, nasi kandar and chicken rice for under five ringgit. You can bring your own picnics into the gardens, too, although beware of the monkeys: they are shameless thieves, so make sure food is hidden away in bags while you are walking around, in case they catch you unawares.
The number 10 bus to the Botanic Gardens leaves every hour from Weld Quay, via Chulia Street and Burmah Road, and costs two ringgit. It can get very hot during the middle of the day, so it’s best to visit when it’s overcast, or else in the morning or at dusk, which is when most locals come to exercise or simply sit and enjoy the atmosphere. The gates are open daily between 05:00 and 20:00 and best of all, entry is absolutely free.
The trail just to the left of the main gates is the start of the climb up Penang Hill, in case you are feeling energetic and can’t be bothered to queue for the funicular railway. It’s worth noting, however, that the start of the railway is on the other side of the mountain, so don’t count on being able to cop out of the hike at the last minute.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 23rd September, 2014.