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PENANG: BETEL NUT, BUTTERFLIES AND BIRD'S-EYE VIEWS
Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

"Do you know how Pinang got its name? Our tour guide Tan asks. He is a bespectacled young man with a flair for the dramatic. The group are silent. "Look at this!" he says, pointing with a flourish to cluster of brown nuts hanging from an areca palm tree. "These are betel nuts. Very important in Malaysian culture and tradition. Just like in the western world you offer drinks to your visitors, we offer our guests betel nuts wrapped in betel leaves. It is also served on ceremonial occasions like weddings." He pauses. "We have many areca palms here on this island, so can you guess what the word for betel nut is in Malay?" "Pinang?" I venture. He beams. "Yessss!"

We are in Penang's "Tropical Spice Gardens", and although the humidity is fierce on the street outside, I am now enveloped in green shade: a soothing world of flowering shrubs, and towering tropical trees. Trails wind along gently sloped terraces, edged by meandering streams and waterfalls. Fan-leaved banana plants grow beside bamboo thickets, rubber trees and twisted screw pines. White and lemon orchids cling to the barks of hardwood trees.

Apart from herb beds of mint, thyme, coriander and parsley, we are introduced to a variety of tropical spice plants-red ginger, cardamom, cloves, pepper, turmeric, nutmeg and, of course, areca nut. The air smells of green moist earth mingled with the faint, but unmistakable fragrance of cinnamon

Past the first terrace, with its profusion of crotons, cycads and ferns, (each meticulously tagged with their botanical identity), I part company with the tour group, walk up a small slope, and sit on a wooden bench to savour my surroundings in solitude. A bird whoops somewhere in the jungle foliage behind me, and I watch a ballet of royal blue-and-gold winged butterflies fluttering around a plant bearing droopy-fingered orange blooms.

Not far from the Spice Gardens is Penang's "Butterfly Farm". Although this isn't unique-Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have similar attractions-this Farm is a magical world where up to 4,000 winged jewels consisting of 120 species flutter through an environment of flowering herbs, bushes and trees.

Our guide Yee is a sorcerer when it comes to enchanting his audience. While I try to capture shots of butterflies flickering like brightly-coloured confetti around me, he hands a transparent plastic container to a small boy in the group. "Open it!" he urges. The youngster whoops with delight as a newly hatched butterfly, black with dramatic emerald green markings, flutters out of the container to begin its life's adventure in the garden. His older sister, meanwhile, is transfixed in front of a glass-fronted display window as a cocoon starts to split open to reveal a soggy-winged orange and black butterfly.

The Farm also operates a research facility and a breeding lab to foster the proliferation of endangered butterflies. I strike it lucky as Yee stops dead in his tracks at one point and whispers "Look, that's a very rare Yellow Birdwing!" As we come upon an amorously engaged pair of white and black "rice paper" butterflies he talks about mating rituals which leave me astonished: I would never have imagined that those seemingly delicate male butterflies are capable of rape!

Apart from these winged performers, there are other resident virtuosos. Two small horned toads stare beady-eyed at me, a spiny stick insect freezes into camouflage mode on a brown twig, and a green leaf insect blends artfully into a tropical plant shoot.

Next door, a tarantula is wooing his mate, and family life also seems to be thriving in the scorpion household, with baby scorpions shimmying around their mum. In the world of beetles, a large stag beetle flexes his mandibles (equivalent, perhaps, to a macho guy showing off his biceps?), and a long armed Scarab brings to mind a stylized Egyptian emblem.

No visit to Penang would be complete without making a trip up Penang Hill. I whoosh up 2,450 feet in about 20 minutes emerging from the newly refurbished slick funicular railway carriage into the cool pine-scented air of Flagstaff Hill, a popular tourist area on Penang Hill. Far below me, the city is like a child's jumble of building blocks and in the distance, the 8.4 mile Penang Bridge which links the island to Malaysia's mainland is a pencilled line etched against the water. I hail a rickshaw and ride along a road that curves around Flagstaff Hill, past panoramic views of the city and colonial mansions half hidden behind flowering hedges and spreading tropical trees.

Leaving Penang Hill, and back on Batu Feringhi road, I seek respite from the late afternoon heat in my elegant suite at the Shangri La's Rasa Sayang Resort. Showered and refreshed, I sit out on my veranda looking across manicured lawns, a Margarita at my elbow, and listen to the sigh of the surf as the brief tropical dusk fades into night. La dolce vita!

IF YOU GO:

Penang is conveniently accessible by air, road and train from Kuala Lumpur. The train journey to Butterworth in an airconditioned deluxe first class carriage is a must for railway buffs. Ferries and a dramatic road bridge connect Butterworth with Penang island. See www.penang.ws/penang-info/gettingthere.htm

Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort is the ultimate in sybaritic luxury. Guests in their Rasa Wing Premier Suite enjoy a separate sitting room, a private balcony and a soaker tub overlooking the garden and ocean. They are invited to avail of special privileges such as complimentary cocktails in the Rasa Wing Lounge, and a delectable high tea every afternoon. The Rasa Sayang Resort is more than just a luxury hotel; with its timeless elegance, its serene gardens overlooking the whispering ocean, it is an unforgettable experience. See video clip at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ux-vyfUXrvQ

To check out the full gamut of room rates and special offers, go to www.shangri-la.com/en/property/penang/rasasayangresort

More information: Tropical Spice Garden: www.tropicalspicegarden.com/ Butteryfly Farm: www.butterfly-insect.com/index.php Penang Hill: www.penanghill.gov.my/

Photos by Margaret Deefholts and Rasa Sayang Resort

Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com

 


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