Ginger, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cardamom and vanilla evoke images of exotic tropical climes, gin-pickled plantation owners, westward bound clippers and delicious, aromatic curries. The Tropical Spice Garden, in a jungle valley that was formerly a rubber plantation, is a great place to discover the heady world of Southeast Asian spice, past and present.
Although the staff at the ticket counter will bring you firmly back to reality by producing an industrial sized bottle of mosquito repellent, strongly advising a liberal dousing, don’t be put off, for like an intrepid early planter, great riches await the adventurous -- this is one of the most rewarding, fun half-day trips Penang has to offer.
The superbly designed garden is a feast for the eyes. For starters, take the shimmering Water Garden, a sampan boat wallowing near its reedy banks, giant water lilies the size of dustbin lids dotting the surface, as fish dart below and dragonflies hover above.
Meandering pebble paths zigzag up to the spice terraces, stepped down one side of the valley. Amble past citronella, torch ginger, aloe vera, turmeric, tamarind and countless others, learning about medicinal, culinary and even musical uses before winding up at the vanilla grove, rust red bark stencilled against jungle green. Learn too, either from the audio guide or discreetly placed information boards, about a lost world of travellers, pioneers and planters and the importance of the spice trade in Penang’s rise to glory; how fortunes and empires were made and unmade overnight by the modest clove, pepper and nutmeg.
The terraces descend down into the Heart of the Garden, an ancient rainforest ecosystem framed and fanned by gargantuan palms, with trickling waterfalls and stepping-stones along the main artery. The space suddenly clears to reveal a stroke of garden design genius: a huge jungle swing, with a well-placed net for overzealous visitors and beautiful views across the gardens and out to the sea beyond.
In the Bamboo Garden, another original but welcome touch is the self-service tea kiosk, inspired by the traditional public tea stations on Penang Hill. Sit and catch your breath over an invigorating brew of lemongrass and stevia, poured from mammoth kettles perched on clay stoves over charcoal fire.
Refuelled for the climb up the hill to the Beverages of the World section, take a closer look and learn about the harvesting and processing of the tea, coffee and cocoa plants without which our world would undoubtedly cease to spin. Fittingly sited next to the stimulants, a giant game of snakes and ladders cheerily awaits, with big colourful steps for the ladders and giant flumes for the snakes, another addition to keep the kids spirits from flagging.
A tasteful gift shop packed with spices you can bring home adjoins the cooking school. The school offers courses where you can learn to cook an array of local dishes from scratch every day except Mondays, starting with a guided tour of the spice terraces and ending with lunch on the pavilion. Groups are kept small to allow for a personalised approach. Advanced booking is advised.
If the aromatic smells wafting from its doors have you drooling, Tree Monkey, a wonderful restaurant set in the treetops and serving Thai delights is the answer. Wriggly children and nature enthusiasts will more probably than not be rewarded with sightings of the rare spectacled dusky leaf monkeys that seem to love hanging out at this spot, to glance curiously at their guzzling cousins.
If you’re not hungry, take the meandering jungle walk past the original rubber trees back down to the exit. A stretch of beach lies just across the road, or stay on this side for the bus stop if you fancy heading a bit further along the coast to the National Park or Butterfly Farm, or in the opposite direction for Batu Ferringhi’s night bazaar, beaches and water sports.
How to get there
To get to the Tropical Spice Garden take bus No. 101 (Weld Quay – Teluk Bahang – Weld Quay), around 45 minutes one-way or bus No. 102 if coming from or going on to the airport. Ask the driver to drop you at the Tropical Spice Garden.
By Judith Atkinson
Last updated on 8th August, 2016.