There are a handful of little known institutions that offer the visitor to Penang to explore more in depth some of the unique fauna of Malaysia.
The Bee Gallery is a small establishment close to Penang’s Botanic Garden on Waterfall Road (Jalan Kebun Bunga). Here, the tiny tropical stingless bee takes centre stage. The lack of sting makes them convenient to cultivate, and the honey is also delicious, varying in taste according to the flowers the bees visit.
The Gallery has exhibits displaying different species of bees and hornets. Panels explain the life-cycle of bees and the health benefits of eating honey, male pupae (the chrysalis of the male worker bee), royal jelly (the food for the larva that becomes queen bee), and propolis (the sticky resin that oozes from certain trees, and with the bees line the interior of the brood cells before the queen bee lays her eggs). You may also sample these bee products, and buy jars to take away should you wish.
The Bee Gallery is open from 9am until 7pm every day. Phone 04 226 9689 for more information.
People with an interest in seeing orangutans and learning about the largest tree-dwelling primates normally head to the Malaysian state of Sabah. But if Sabah is not in your itinerary this time, just an hour and a half’s drive from Penang Island, you can visit the Bukit Merah Orangutan Sanctuary to see them up close and in a protected environment.
Bukit Merah Laketown Resort, in Semanggol, Perak, offers attractions found elsewhere such as a water park, but the Orangutan Sanctuary is something quite special. A 35-acre island, reached by ferry from a jetty within the resort, it was founded in the year 2000 as a rehabilitation centre, and has become a recognized conservation and education centre for the endangered Bornean orangutan. Originally set up to serve as a temporary holding facility for orangutans rescued from illegal possession being returned to their natural habitat, the centre has also been successful in breeding, and there are now over 20 of these intelligent primates, of all ages.
Arriving at the sanctuary after a 10 minute boat ride, you are met by a knowledgeable guide, who explains the life-cycle of the orangutan, and the activities on the island. He or she takes you through the 100m steel fence tunnel which traverses the island, where the visitor is in a “cage” while the orangutans swing in the trees, nap in the bushes, and watch the passing visitors with complete indifference. The guide knows each orangutan by name, knows their histories and idiosyncracies, and enjoys introducing visitors to these noble and gentle apes. The visit takes half an hour or so, though you are encouraged to stay longer if you like, and to watch an education video at the end before returning by ferry to the resort.
The entrance fee is RM30 for adults and RM15 for children. The sanctuary is open 9am to 5pm (subject to the water level in the lake), 365 days a year. More information can be found at www.orangutanisland.org.my
Back on Penang Island, and up on Penang Hill is the small Ginger Gardens and Aviary within the grounds of the Bellevue Hotel. Not a real bird park, the pheasants, peacocks, parrots and pigeons simply complement the real interest of the gardens, which is the plants.
The hotel owner is a botanist of some repute, and has himself discovered and named a number of ginger plants. Here in the hotel gardens is one of the largest collections of palms and gingers in Malaysia. The ginger family is extensive and includes Cannas, Heliconias and the Bird of Paradise, in addition to the familiar ginger. The garden also boasts orchids and pitcher plants. Botanists and keen gardeners may wish to arrange a tour in advance, as few of the plants are labeled.
The entrance fee of RM 12 for adults and RM 8 for children also gives visitors access to the Panorama Gardens, which have a magnificent view over George Town, across the hills, and towards the mainland. Opening hours are 9am until 7pm, or by appointment. Guides can be arranged by contacting email@example.com
Real ornithological enthusiasts should however seek out one of the passionate and knowledgeable birders in Penang to arrange a dedicated Birding Tour.
There are a couple of spots that are good for seeing and photographing bird life on the island, but most tours will take you to the mainland, perhaps to one of the forest reserves in Penang or Kedah, to areas of marsh, mudflat and mangrove, or to the bird sanctuary in Perak, depending on the species of birds you are most interested to see. There are good descriptions of the various birding sites on Penang birder Choy Wai Mun’s website https://penangbirder.blogspot.my, and you can contact him directly to arrange half or full day tours at firstname.lastname@example.org