Quiet, lush and teeming with plant varieties from around the globe – and monkeys – Penang’s 29-hectare Botanical Gardens are worth going out of your way to visit; no other such well-stocked public gardens exist in Malaysia.
The gardens lie in a valley about eight kms outside Georgetown, Penang’s capital. They were established in 1884 on the site of a former granite quarry by Charles Curtis, who moved massive boulders and paved roads to give the gardens the spacious layout that persists until today.
At the head of the valley lies a waterfall whose stream flows through the gardens. When the island was first settled as a colony, passing ships stopped regularly at Georgetown’s harbour to collect fresh water from this stream; bullock carts were used, but it nevertheless would have been quite a hike to collect it. Today the waterfall lies in an area controlled by the Penang Water Authority, so permission needs to be sought if you’d like to view it.
In fact, the existence of the waterfall nearly spelled the demise of the gardens in 1910 when they were handed over to the Georgetown authorities for the express purpose of building a water reservoir within their grounds. The plans were eventually scaled back, and a smaller reservoir lying just outside the gardens was constructed. Nevertheless the gates to the gardens remained firmly locked until 1921, and many species were reportedly lost.
The gardens were also used by the Japanese for military purposes during their occupation of Penang from 1941 to 1945. The trees’ canopies provided camuflage which allowed the storing of ammunition and the assembling of torpedo bombs underneath them to safely take place – a network of underground tunnels was also built beneath the gardens. Again, plants were neglected and many were lost over these years.
Although the scientific attraction of the gardens might be strong for a certain portion of the population today, Penangites generally head there as it’s a lovely spot to exercise or just take a stroll.
The monkeys are thickest along Waterfall Rd, on which the main entrance is situated, with the signs warning visitors that it’s forbidden to feed the cheeky animals largely ignored by those keen to see them up close.
Despite the stifling heat when I visit in the middle of the day, there are plenty of people wandering around, although most seem to be seeking refuge in the shade of trees.
A stop off at "Botanika", the shop and information centre, to pick up a guidebook and a map is a good way to get your bearings before seeking out whatever horticultural delights take your fancy.
There are two main routes recommended to the visitor: one for ambitious heat-resistant souls known as the Upper Circular Route, and the other for lazy-bones like myself called the "Lower Circular Route". I try the Upper and find a short cut to take me back to the Lower when I have had enough.
Near the entrance is a tree whose name catches my attention: Cannon Ball tree (Courupita guianensis). The tree is a native of South America, and the fruit it bears resembles a cannon ball (clearly it got in before the coconut.) The trees on this side of the globe tend to flower without bearing fruit, but the cup-like flower is brilliant red and impressive enough on its own.
As I head up the hill past the palms collection, I pause to take a photograph of a Yellow Saraca tree (Saraca Thaipingensis), which my guidebook tells me is rarely in full bloom. There are plenty of flowers on this one, so I must be here at the right time.
I hear a stifled yelp and turn to see a man standing a few metres away, beckoning me to come look. An almost-black scorpion the length of an adult’s hand is crawling patiently along the gutter lining the asphalt road, oblivious to our interest. The man is quite excited as he tells me it could very well kill me. He grabs a stick to prod its deathly tail into action, and sure enough it curls viciously around in an attempt to sting the stick that’s just bugged it’s afternoon stroll.
I make a note of my open sandals and decide to conscientously keep an eye on where I’m walking.
Besides the main paths, there’s the occasional track you can wander along in denser brush. There are also various cages housing particular types of plants, such as the Bougainvillea House, the Orchidarium and the Fern House. These are open limited hours during the day.
As I’m heading to take a peak in the Sun Rockery section, a gardener named Ahmad Rahman strikes up a conversation with me. It turns out he has worked in the gardens for more than 32 years. His grandfather, he tells me, also worked in the gardens and assisted Charles Curtin in collecting plant specimens.
His specialties are orchids, ferns and ginger, and he looks disparagingly at my guidebook.
"I see you have the new guidebook," he says. The one I have is published in 1989, and I tell him so. "Yes, that’s the new one. You should have tried to get the old one. It’s much better. You can’t find it very easily anymore, but I have a copy. If I’d known you were coming…"
He has to head off to lunch, but agrees to pose for a photo in front of some ferns he planted many years ago. "I planted these, but I don’t look after them now – the boys took over, but they have to come and ask me what the names of them are," he says, shaking his head.
I wander on, and find that he’s right about the guidebook – I’m soon quite confused about directions. Many plants are labelled, however, so it’s not essential to carry a guide, but a good one would definitely be an asset.
It’s a shame that Ahmad doesn’t write one himself.