THE COOL AIR-CONDITIONED BUS is a welcome escape from the heat of the city streets crammed with a multitude of vendors, smelly exhaust from weaving mopeds, honking cars and the occasional trickshaw [three-wheeled bicycle] with their aged drivers seemingly oblivious to it all. I am anxious to arrive at my final destination, which would be the undoubted highlight of the long journey to Penang, a large island in Malaysia washed by the Straits of Malacca. I have come to the island for a glimpse of the Monkey Gardens that are famed throughout the region not only as a magnificent expanse of jungle and manicured gardens, and home to an extraordinary number of monkeys, but also are reportedly one of the better ecological efforts of the often criticized environmental policies of Southeast Asia.
Penang is an island of fascinating cultural depth. Full of color and character, the population of the capital city of Georgetown manifests an impressive ethnic diversity. The oldest British settlement in Malaysia, the city streets are shared by saffron-robed monks, veiled Muslim women, turbaned Hindu men and Chinese merchants. The cacophony of city sounds is drowned out only by the melodic Muslim prayer played ritually over loudspeakers. The visual display is as stirring as the sounds, evoking an almost theatrical atmosphere. Fantastically ornate and multi-colored Thai, Chinese and Hindu-style temples are set against the stark white Muslim mosques with their solid-colored domes, all interspersed between soot-stained shop-houses and the precise lines of traditional Colonial architecture.
The Botanical Gardens (aka The Monkey Gardens) variety seems to reflect the citys cultural diversity. Established in 1884 and sprawling over 70 acres of hilly landscaped terrain, the Garden is surrounded by dense jungle that contrasts with the meticulously manicured formal gardens. Theres a cactus house with a nearby waterfall and lily pond, herbal and medicinal gardens, an indigenous orchid house and a small shop with a huge variety of hybrid orchids for sale. All are set in such a peaceful and idyllic setting that it is difficult to conjure memories of the crowded dirty streets and resort-clad skyline of the coastal city beyond.
Once I leave the chaos of the city center and go toward the green hills beyond, I see the first evidence of the exquisite nature of this island that claims to have it all: rich culture, lush jungle, endless shopping, deliciously varied cuisine, and lovely palm-lined beaches.
The impressive main bus depot now has a mall built up around it, still in the works, but promising three vast floors of shopping and dining choices. The station appears outwardly to be well-organized, with bus numbers in clear block letters aligned in a half dozen aisles and maps showing each lines route, but there are no time schedules. Luckily, a plain-clothed attendant roams the area in search of travelers looking confusedly at the buses arriving in a completely random fashion and never parking in their marked lane. It is precisely this outward appearance of a successful strategy getting lost somewhere in its implementation that will become the leitmotif of my Monkey Garden visit.
In the Garden
Monkey watching is definitely not the only draw to this fantastic area. Serene water lilies, the exotic flowering black lily, the bluish leaves of the Peacock fern, the tiny, pale purple petals of the Limestone Kaempferia, also attract their fair share of attention. There are dynamic climbing palms, 2/3 of which are rattans recognized easily by their scaly fruited vines, and found almost exclusively in primary forests such as this one. Their impressive buttress roots hold up gigantic trunks, stretching out over boulders and down steep inclines.
The loud humming of the cicadas and crickets seem at times to mount to a deafening roar, but still it is a meditative and soothing sound far from the irregular and irritating ruckus of the nearby city.
The vast lawns are dotted with individuals and small groups both young and old, foreign and local, doing yoga and Tai Chi exercises or simply relaxing.
I recognize a young couple as being the only other Western tourists on my bus. They approach explaining to me excitedly in broken English that there is a large group of monkeys on the other side of the circular path. I make a beeline in the advised direction, not being sure exactly how common the creatures are, and knowing the nickname and even the brochures hype could easily be a gimmick to lure tourists. I see immediately the rush was unnecessary as a dozen langurs swing wildly on the nearly bare branches of two trees in the middle of a large hill surrounded by fertile green lawn.
Monkeys seemed to be coming and going in every direction. They are lining the treetops, scrambling across the lawn to join their kin. A short time later they are frightened away by a group of long-tailed macaques.
The dusky langurs, also called leaf monkeys, are easily recognizable by their cute little faces with white-ringed eyes and long tails and are best known for their death-defying leaps. So adorable, they look more like stuffed animals being tossed energetically by children between the tree limbs than living creatures. Normally this species are fairly difficult to observe by the layman because they are extremely shy. Hunted for meat and captured as pets, they face an uncertain future throughout the region. But at the Gardens they seem to proliferate unimpeded and even to flirt with the small crowd of onlookers, flying down from their branches when an offering of food is presented.
Unfortunately, as fun as it may seem, feeding the monkeys is strictly forbidden in the Gardens. Next to a large Please do not feed the monkeys sign we watch one tourist and his child doing just that. Clearly, the Gardens have had tremendous problems keeping the visitors from feeding the monkeys and have begun a massive campaign including a new book, local media coverage, thousands of pamphlets and signs galore. That day a local paper quotes a Garden official saying; We are in the process of drawing stringent rules to empower us to compound offenders on the spot.
The monkey feeding dilemma is expounded upon by a friendly retired English teacher and Georgetown native who begins chatting with me during a climb up the steep hill behind the Gardens on my way to the top of Penang Hill. He laments on the tourist practice of feeding the monkeys, explaining how it teaches the monkeys bad habits, like stealing bags, and sometimes mildly accosting visitors. More importantly, he emphasizes, are the dangers to the monkeys themselves. Over-population is one problem, but also dangerous is the overly-friendly relationship the monkeys develop with humans. Their innate fear of humans is obviously a bad instinct for them to lose considering the widespread exploitation of wildlife in countries around the world.
Climbing Panang Hill
If feeding the resident monkeys of the Gardens is not bad enough, feeding those that live in the wild is even worse, since there they have no safety zone away from poachers. If you choose to make the vigorous three hour trek up to the top of Penang Hill along one of the 20 nature trails, you will most likely have the opportunity to observe far more monkeys than in the Gardens, and this time in their more natural habitat.
Once at the top, the fabulous panorama of the island below, and the cooling breeze that makes it about nine degrees cooler than at sea level, should be enough to keep you motivated to finish the steep climb. If not, there is always the option of taking the funicular up and descending the hill on foot instead.
Halfway up the hill, where you can rest while drinking Chinese tea and munching on crackers with the locals for a small donation, is also where my chat with the friendly teacher takes place. He assures me the worst of the hill is over. Since his retirement he has made the climb daily and he laughs as he tells me he and his friends have nicknamed the first half of the hill the killing fields. As Im doubled over and exhaustedly sucking my water bottle, he talks at length about the monkeys and about life as a Buddhist in a predominantly Muslim country. After an extended rest we part and I continue my assent to the top alone.
The jungle around me is thick, but the sweltering heat is now accompanied by a cooling breeze. Suddenly I see another group of monkeys around the bend and in the middle of the road. Amazed that they should come so close to civilization out here in the wild, I approach cautiously, camera perched into position. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? Not a park official, as Im now far beyond the parks parameters, but an armed, uniformed police officer who has dismounted his motorcycle and stands with an armload of fruit, casually sectioning off small pieces and hand-feeding the large family of monkeys now encircling him. Ah, yes, I think to myself, the vigorous campaign to keep the visitors from feeding the monkeys looks like it could be a successful strategy, but it seems implementation might need to begin from the inside. As I pass I cant resist repeating the message observed so often in the gardens below, but with a slight alteration: Please do not feed the monkeys . . . Officer.
Mishelle Shepard has been writing and teaching in a new location every year since her service ended. She is currently living in Girona, Spain and working on her first novel.