Travel Right
  Please do not feed the monkeys . . . Officer!
by Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 1994–96)

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Travel Right

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.

Garden variety
The Botanical Garden’s (aka The Monkey Gardens) variety seems to reflect the city’s 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. There’s 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 line’s 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.

Surprised langur
     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.
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