Until the discovery of Asia’s Hidden Eden at a local bookstore in Penang, I did not know of the existence of Tropical Spice Garden.
This award-winning eco-tourism destination is tucked away from the busy city and located on the slopes after the popular Batu Ferringhi area. If you don’t look closely you will probably miss this hidden gem.
About Tropical Spice Garden
Opened in 2003, this abandoned rubber plantation is transformed into a beautiful garden which resembles a beautiful tropical forest.
Huge trees towered looms over you, giving the much-needed shelter to the scorching Malaysian sun. There are over 500 varieties of exotic fauna and flora, mostly spices, which provides hours of entertainment if you’re interested in botany like me.
It’s a peaceful place where you’ll hear insects creaking and birds chirping, a nice change from roaring engines after days of eating adventure in the city.
If you can’t spot a huge purple signboard bearing a red bunga kantan (ginger torch) logo, you will probably notice the stalls right at the opposite. If you’re driving, you’ll have to park by the roadside (like in most places in Penang) as no proper parking space is provided.
Upon entering the garden and paying RM 26 entrance fees (RM 15 for children, and RM 20 for both senior citizens and students), you’ll be offered natural citronella oil to apply on yourself to avoid insect bites.
Tropical Spice Garden covers 8 acres of land, which is about as big as 8 football fields! Besides the main garden, you’ll find a cooking house, cafe, restaurant and souvenier shop. Yes, that means you can spend many hours there.
You can get a free map, but I thought it was rather unnecessary. The routes are rather intuitive that you probably wouldn’t be lost.
There are two routes that you can take – the short and the longer one. On my first visit, I took a guided tour. I asked so many questions that the guide had no choice but take a shorter route. This time, I did without a guide and felt like I had more leisure time to slowly explore the garden.
But if you have little knowledge in tropical plants, I highly recommend a guided tour. They’ll show and tell you amazing things like how most cinnamon that we buy from the market are not true cinnamon and have inferior quality.
I saw two European tourist looking very enthralled when a local tour guide explained about curry leaves; a spice they probably never seen in their home country. After it’s done, take your time to enjoy the garden at your own pace. Read the signs, admire the plants and touch them if you like.
The garden is divided into a few distinct areas focusing on different types of plants. There’s a Spice Terrace, Ginger Walk and a Coffee Trail for example.
As I’m starting a herb garden at home, my favourite part is naturally the Spice Garden. There were many types of basil all in a row – holy basil, thai basil and sweet basil. I not only get to see but smell the herbs.
There were a plethora of other interesting plants such as the Pinang tree in which Penang is named after, laksa leaves which is used in asam laksa and rare vanilla tree. I saw the biggest curry plant I’ve ever seen and the only one with a snake hanging over it.
A snake on a curry tree and ginger flower
What I personally love about this place is the wealth of information on local plants. We’ve seen cinnamon in our kitchen, but how many of us have seen the entire cinnamon tree and realise that it’s cylinder shape is due to the fact that it’s scrapped from the bark?
We love vanilla ice-cream, but didn’t realise it is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron; that’s why artificial vanilla flavouring is often used in confectioneries.
At the entrance, you’ll be given an audioguide (something which I didn’t have in my first visit). I was truly impressed with this. I’ve only seen such facility at reknown European museums e.g Lourve in Paris. This handheld device tells you stories in each area, in a clear and interesting manner.
Right at the beginning of the tour, there’s a pond with huge lotus leaves which can support up to 30 kg. Do you know that pandan natural habitat is swamps hence grow very well in the pond? If you’re not an audio learner, there are a lot of signboards to explain the history, profile and uses of the trees.
I’m most impressed with the stevia plant. At my last tour, the guide plucked a leaf and let us taste it. It was extremely sweet. Why isn’t this healthy herb cultivated to replace sugar, I thought. Then I learned that in America, it was banned protect the local sugar industry.
Learning about stevia
The Tropical Spice Garden was both educational and entertaining. There is a huge wooden swing strategically located to overlook the pond and the sea. Although it is big enough to seat a few adults, I took the whole seat by myself and, as I swing, inhaled in the breeze and admired the beautiful view laid upon my eyes.
Not too far from the Ginger Walk, there’s a colourful hammock which beckons you to lie on it. Then there’s a stop to showcase local spices such as cloves and antique stone grinder, in which you can smell and touch, and a turtle pen. There seem to be something to distract you at every area.
If you listen to every audio and read every sign like I did, after walking in the hot and humid tropical jungle, you’ll appreciate a seat and a cool drink. You’ll see a hut beside the stream where you can rest and enjoy a complimentary nutmeg drink. I help myself to two cups. It was so refreshing on a hot and active day!
The tour ends at their souvenier shop. I am normally not a compulsive shopper. O that day I was sold by the the array of both practical and beautiful things, that I spend couple of hundreds there. Thankfully, unlike other establishments in Penang, this shop accepts credit card.
There’s a wooden lime squeezer, weaved fan, books on botany, essential oil, handmade soaps, vanilla pods and of course beautifully packed local herbs. Earlier, I overheard from the tour guide that there’s two different types of cinnamon and that the best for health is ‘true’ cinnamon. So I bought a packet, and some other spices and books.
Right after the shop, there is a cafe and restaurant. Judging by the quality of everything else I’ve seen and experienced, I probably would enjoy the food there but Siam Road Char Koay Teow beckons and, in Penang, it’s hard to choose anything over it.
I believe that this garden is constantly improving its facilities and attractions. A year ago, there were no wooden swings nor drinking pit stop. Perhaps, when you visit, you’ll discover more than I did. But I assure you that both adults and kids will have a wonderful time.
Tropical Spice Garden is located
Address: Lot 595 Mukim 2, Jalan Teluk Bahang, Teluk Bahang, 11050 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Phone:+60 4-881 1797
Hours: Open daily, 9AM–6PM