The Tropical Gardens of Malaysia and other Treasures
Malaysia is a kaleidoscope of flowers, wildlife, tropical fruits, exotic food and nature.
From the bustling, metropolis of Kuala Lumpur, the Capital of Malaysia, to the quiet beaches and exquisite beauty of Langkawi, Malaysia has plenty of interesting culture, natural environments and foods and plants to discover and enjoy.
Selamat Datang (Welcome) to the heart of southeast Asia, to Kuala Lumpur and the Petronas Twin Towers, a signature of the KL skyline and a symbol of the prosperity, growth, culture and shopping found in this cosmopolitan city of 1.5 million.
The tallest twin buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers were designed by Argentinian-American Cesar Pelli and completed in 1998. The 88-floor towers are constructed of concrete with a steel and glass front. The “stainless steel” look gives the building a shiny new appearance, even 10 years or more after it was built. Petronas, the national petroleum corporation have their corporate headquarters in Tower One. A skybridge, the highest 2-story bridge in the world, which was shown in the movie “Entrapment” with Sean Connery and Catherine Zita-Jones, joins the two towers on floors 41 and 42. Free ticketed public access is available on the skybridge for a limited number of visitors each day. Get there early to pick up tickets and avoid my disappointment of not getting one of the 1700 tickets available per day.
Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur is the site where the Malayan flag was raised at midnight on August 31, 1957 atop a 100 metre high flagpole to signify the country’s independence from Great Britain. Aside from the historic significance to the spot, it has beautiful gardens and wonderful building architecture.
Immaculate gardens and an expansive cricket pitch and are a frame for the historic buildings that surround it.
The Kuala Lumpur Tower, completed in 1994 houses communication equipment and features an antenna 431 metres tall making it the fifth tallest freestanding tower in the world. A public observation deck offers an impressive panoramic view of the city. Having been atop the CN tower in Toronto, the height of the KL Tower wasn’t what was impressive, it was the view of the city that radiated out in all directions that I liked the most.
Kuala Lumpur features plenty of gardens to fill several days of touring. A good area to visit is the KL Lake Garden Park which has a Hibiscus Garden, Orchid Garden and Bird Park.
Malaysia’s national flower (Bunga Raya), the hibiscus has a garden dedicated just to it in Kuala Lumpur. With over 2,200 varieties from singles to doubles and in all colors, it is worth the visit.
Right next door from the Hibiscus Garden is the KL Orchid garden and next to that is the KL Bird Park. Plan a half a day and visit them all.
KL is also home to one of the King’s Palaces (Istana Negara) with its massive expanse of park-like lawn, formal gates and considerate garden areas in the public parking area. Even though the gate and much photographed Royal Guard on his horse are the only close-up attractions, a corner of the palace can be viewed with a long driveway from the gate and some nice gardens can be admired in the public parking lot area.
Many temples are available for worship or visiting in Kuala Lumpur. One, the Thean Hou Buddhist Temple is a six-tiered Chinese temple nestled on a hillside with impressive architecture. It is thought to be one of the most picturesque in KL. Visit early in the day before the sun gets too hot.
Many gardens throughout Malaysia feature a highly showy vine with brilliant orangey-red blooms. Wherever it is, it attracts instant attention. After seeing it several times, without knowing its name, a local gardener solved the mystery.
Red Trailing Bauhinia is a dramatic native, woody vine in Malaysia that is grown as an ornamental on arbors and posts. Botanically known as Bauhinia coccinea (B. kockiana), with vine blooms year round. The blooms change from red to orange to yellow as they age.
Putrajaya – An intelligent Garden City
Putrajaya, a city of the 21st century is Malaysia’s designated Federal Government Administrative Center. The city was started in 1993 and is expected to be completed by 2012. At the heart of the city is a 400-hectare man-made lake that can be traversed in a traditional wooden Malay perahu boat. The boat cruise is the best way to see the impressive landmarks that border the lake. These include the Putra Mosque, large enough to accommodate 15,000 worshipers, the palace (Istana Melawati) of the King and Queen, the Taman Botani (Putrajaya Botanical Gardens), the office and residence of the Prime Minister and the palace of the Sultan of Selangor.
Taman Botani Putrajaya Botanical Garden
This relatively new botanical garden that has “matured” nicely during the 10 or so years that it has been open and now is a fitting landscape for the new city of Putrajaya “City in the Garden”.
Most of the plants are well labeled and the garden is laid out nicely to lead the visitor from one section to another in a meandering pleasant way. A modernistic visitor center adds a dramatic flare to the garden entrance and a focal point to the garden.
From the visitor center, the first views of the garden are from the canopy bridge, suspended 170 metres across the valley and culminating at palm hill. The canna collection and vine garden were two additional highlights of my visit.
Handkerchief trees (Maniltoa browneoides) provide visitor interest from the parking lot to the visitor center.
One evergreen vine that caught my eye inside the botanical garden was Maiden’s Jealousy. This fragrant, native, yellow blooming vine blooms year round and is called Tristellateia australasiae.
The Shangri-La Putrajaya Resort gardens and the neighboring city park provided great floral attractions during a couple of short walking tours at the start and finish of a busy day of touring. One interesting plant was the Carnation of India (Tabernaemontana divaricata) which reminded me of gardenia with its fragrant white flowers.
Exploring outside of Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is a different world when visitors travel outside of Kuala Lumpur. Leaving the city, is always a pleasure after a few days for me. So a trip from KL to Cameron Highlands was a welcome relief to escape the city life and also the heat and humidity. A favorite stopping place for many on the way to Cameron Highlands is Lata Iskandar Waterfalls. The narrow two lane road takes a “U” turn right at the base of the waterfalls and a small collection of roadside stands has sprung up to tempt those that stop for a rest.
The base of the waterfall is a favorite splash party play area for kids and adults seem to naturally migrate to the roadside stalls for a local Malaysian snack, fresh fruit or handicraft purchase.
Not far from the Lata Iskandar waterfall was a roadside house of a native Malay who demonstrated the art of blowing darts for our little group of tourists.
At 5,000 ft above sea level, this area of Malaysia enjoys breezy, cool temperatures, rarely above 25 deg. C. and is ideal for strawberry, rose, vegetable gardening and tea plantations. The mountainous and sparsely settled areas are full of interesting things to do and see. After the exceptional strawberries and tea have been sampled, there are the butterfly farm and insect display, honeybee exhibit, cactus nursery, roadside vegetable stand and several rainforest trekking tours to investigate.
One of my favorite destinations in Cameron Highlands is the BOH Tea Plantation. BOH (for Best of the Highlands) is the largest tea plantation in Malaysia and produces amazingly smooth, mellow tea. The best I have ever tasted! BOH has a great visitor center with a tea shop and seating area that overlooks a beautiful valley full of tea plants. The tea growing areas are not terraced and often have to be picked by hand if the 2-person hedge trimmers can’t be used. The tea plants are kept to knee height and trimmed with hedge shears. They are harvested year round whenever they have 2 new leaves of new growth. The tea “shrubs” are from 30-60 years old and have thick woody trunks. The plants can produce harvestable tea for over 100 years. All the BOH tea plants originally came from Assam, India.
Tea plants if left uncut form large trees. The higher the elevation of the Cameron Highlands, the better the tea. The increased UV levels increases the tannins and produces the high quality tea. “Lowland tea tastes like grass,” commented our local tea drinking guide. “The perfect cup of Cameron Highlands tea is brewed 2 minutes (1 minute if you like light tea),” he also said.
Strawberry growing is a big feature of the Cameron Highlands. Many “Pluck your Own” opportunities exist and some “Do not pluck your own” growers too. The strawberries are grown hydroponically on raised benches under small greenhouses. The cool temperatures in the Highlands are perfect for strawberry growing and they can grow four crops throughout the year.
The Cameron Highlands also offers plenty of nature tours to explore the wilder rain forest parts of the region. Over 150 types of ferns, the showy pink, bamboo orchid (Arundina graminifolia), native rhododendrons, tree ferns, wild cinnamon, and many wonderful Nepenthes (pitcher plants) grow in the quartz soils and spongy humus soils in the Cameron Highland hillsides.
On the way to Penang Island from Cameron Highlands is a unique private sanctuary for rehabilitating Orang utans called Orang Utan Island and EcoPark. Here adult orang utans roam freely on a 35 acre island and young babies are nursed back to health in a care facility. The facility is part of the Bukit Merah Laketown Resort and houses about 20 orang utans. Built to provide safe accommodation for the animals and human visitors, the nursery for example has big glass windows for visitors to interact with the babies.
Penang Island just off the northwest coast of Malaysia is reached by bridge from the mainland. Be prepare for lots of congestion and slow moving traffic when traveling to the island, but once you arrive be prepared to spend several days exploring all that this island has to offer.
Just outside of Georgetown, on the island of Penang is the Penang Botanical Garden. The gardens have been operating since 1884 and were known as the Waterfall Gardens. The very tall waterfall still exists but it is out of bounds to the public as it is on water utility land. The downstream portion is very visible as if flows through the gardens though. The botanical garden was built on the site of an old granite quarry and the resultant bowl shape topography is still present. Today the gardens cover 72 acres.
One of the signature plants in the garden are the cannonball trees, and there are several planted in the main garden area. The cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis) is native to tropical South America (the northern part) and the southern parts of the Caribbean. The attractive, fragrant, orange-pink flowers bloom on 3 metre long dangling branches close to the trunk. When pollinated by bees or bats, these form large, brown, woody fruits the size and shape of cannonballs. Often the flowers and fruit are on the tree at the same time. The cannonballs are also found on thick stems that grow from the trunk of the tree. Once the fruit is ripe, it falls from the tree and cracks open exposing up to 300 seeds. A word of warning… don’t stand under the cannonball tree. The fruit has been used for medicinal purposes for its antibiotic, antiseptic, and analgesic properties. [Do not self medicate without consulting a professional.] It is hardy to zone 9b.
Many rare cacti and succulents can be enjoyed in the Sun Rockery at the Penang Botanical Garden. The gardens also have long been the home to several troops of Long-tailed macaque monkeys, which fascinate and can scare some visitors. The botanical gardens brochures warn against feeding the monkeys, walking while eating or staring down the dominant male – always good advice when avoiding a confrontation.
Penang is home to many very beautiful temples and mosques. Beautiful in their architecture and homage to various Deities, whether Muslim, Buddhist or Hindi, these sacred places are fascinating to visit. Two noted ones are the Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram, a Buddhist temple built in 1845 with Thai, Myanmarese and Chinese architecture. It houses a 33 meter long gold-plated reclining Buddha. Across the street the Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, founded in 1803, offers a different feeling and reflects the look and feel of Burma (Myanmar). The Monk on duty is readily available to offer advice and prayers.
Up on the hillside, 800 ft from sea level in Teluk Bahang is the 25 acre Tropical Fruit Farm. With an orchard as varied as any in the world, the harvests for sale in the shop run the gamut of shapes, colors and sizes.
It was fascinating to discover that Dragon Fruit, the round pink fruit with white fleshy interior and black seeds are from a vine-like, epiphytic cactus called Hylocereus. Dragon fruit is usually eaten raw and is served quartered with the outer flesh attached.
Not so fascinating was the discovery that ripe Durian fruit tastes like nothing that I would ever want to put into my mouth again. It is definitely an acquired taste that you have to grow up with, as our tour guide said. Yuck, bleah! To me, the large, lumpy spiky fruit, native to Malaysia, fully deserves the signs banning it from many hotel properties where we stayed. Even in the husk, the distinctive odor of the “King of Fruit” can be had.
The Tropical Spice Garden on the island of Penang is an excellent destination for the plant lover. Covering over 8 acres, with more than 500 varieties of exotic plants, the garden has three trails with excellent signage for visitors to explore. Well worth the uphill hike, or tram ride, is the spice museum, gift shop and cafe, located strategically away from the main entrance to entice visitors through the gardens first. The shaded garden trails meander up and down the stream valley and offer an up close view of many great useful plants.
Destination Langkawi, a group of islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia
With so much nature and wildlife around, we found a bird watching hut erected at the Frangipani Langkawi Resort that was made of bamboo walls and a palm roof. The resort has taken significant steps to be eco-friendly, including making their own compost in recycled bathtubs. The compost decomposes in 3-4 months with this method.
Bougainvillea, with their long-lasting colorful bracts look terrific in the full blazing sun and after the daily mid-afternoon rains in Langkawi. White, dwarf Mussaenda, also known as white wing (Mussaenda luteola), with its silly single white bract was a shrub growing in the hotel gardens. Hardy to zone 8.
Frangipani (Plumeria sp.) is a gangly shrub or small tree when not in bloom and wouldn’t rate a second glance. The fragrant, vivid flowers though are definitely a sight and smell to behold.
A unique and very informative destination on Langkawi is the Laman Padi, The Rice Museum. The self-guided museum features the history and development of the Malaysian rice growing industry. The museum also offers an elevated view of the padi fields from their rooftop.
An interesting herb and edible garden lies between the museum and the rice fields.
Picturesque and authentic water buffalos reside in the nearby rice fields.