Many of us who live in the city have lost touch with nature. Skyscrapers tower above us in place of trees, and what little pockets of green we enjoy in our concrete jungle are confined to small spaces and parks. Even then, with a Starbucks just around the corner, cars honking in traffic, and the constant ping of your Microsoft Teams, it can be hard to feel in tune with nature within the city when you’re surrounded by so many distractions.
The solution? Experts recommend forest bathing.
First coined by the Japanese in the 1980s, shinrin-yoku propounds the idea of slow and mindful enjoyment of our natural surroundings, and how adopting this practice regularly can benefit our mental and physical wellbeing.
Unlike a challenging jungle trek or a sweaty hike, which may require a certain level of physical fitness, forest bathing is much simpler and focuses rather on the experience of being in nature – whether it’s strolling through a wooded area to take in the fresh air, or even taking a walk in the garden to observe the plants and flowers.
When visiting Penang, one of the best places to experience forest bathing is at The Habitat, a world-class rainforest discovery center perched atop Penang Hill. Part of the UNESCO-recognized Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve, the park boasts a 1.6 km trail, which comprises well-laid paths and an elevated walkway that takes visitors through the different layers of a hill dipterocarp forest – the most extensive type of rainforest in Peninsular Malaysia. The walk is mostly flat and extremely relaxing, so even families with small children can complete it with ease.
The Habitat is easily accessible from Penang Hill’s main square. Once exiting from the funicular railway’s upper station, head left, past the Hindu temple, and follow the signs to reach its entrance.
You’ll come to a small kiosk selling tickets. The standard fee is RM60 for adults and RM40 for children. There are also toilets here as well as a cafe serving drinks and light snacks.
As we were there on a Thursday, we almost had the whole place to ourselves!
Our vision was flooded with a sea of green as soon as we entered the premises. The air was fresh and clean, and the atmosphere buzzed with the sounds of the forest – the cries of birds, the chirps of insects, the rustling of leaves in the wind. An animal – presumably a primate of some kind – hooted repeatedly in the trees.
Just a couple of steps in and we were already privy to the amazing biodiversity the rainforest had to offer, as N spotted a large black beetle on a leafy plant.
One of the highlights at the park is the Langur Way Canopy Walk, which is the longest double span stressed ribbon bridge in the world and the only one in a rainforest. Built about 40 feet above the forest floor, the bridge affords stunning views of the valleys and Andaman Sea beyond, while also allowing visitors to get up close and personal to the upper layers of the virgin jungle’s canopy. It’s also built in a such a way that doesn’t obstruct any trees, but feels very stable.
Did you know? Malaysia has some of the world’s oldest rainforests, some that are over 130 million years old – making them much, much older than the Amazon rainforest, which is only 55 million years old. This dates them back to the Cretaceous, a time when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. It’s hard for me as a human, of whom 100 years already seems very long – to fathom the scale of time that has passed since these forests first came to be. What strange memories of the world sleep within their roots?
N’s acrophobia won over halfway past the bridge, and he doubled back to wait for me on solid ground. I decided to walk to the end, and guess who I met? A dusky langur! Apparently they like to hangout in this area, so they named the bridge after it.
Native to Peninsula Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar, dusky langurs are an old world species of monkey that can live up to 30 years in the wild. There are seven recognised sub species, with variations in colour.
My first thought was that it looked like a Muppet lolol. I also thought it was very cute. The round spots of white around its eyes and mouth made it look like it was wearing a mask.
The monkey sat on the railing, looking at me with a pensive, almost human-like expression, as if wondering about the curious intruder into its habitat. It remained sitting in its position even after I walked to the end of the bridge and back. Felt lucky that I had this encounter, as not every visitor gets to see them up close! We might not have very long to see them in the wild like this, as dusky langurs are currently threatened with loss of habitat from deforestation.
We were on a streak, as after seeing the monkey, we heard a rustling in the trees and N’s sharp eyes zoomed onto a large black spot flitting its way between the branches and leaves. It was a black giant squirrel, a large squirrel found in the forests of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Indochina region, as well as parts of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and China.
Measuring about 13 to 15 inches long, with a tail that added another 15 inches, it moved with extraordinary speed, jumping with ease from one tree to another, using its tail as a balancing tool. These squirrels are quite a common sight around the Habitat, as we saw two others as we walked along the trail.
There’s a Butterfly Bank section within the park, where you’ll find dozens of butterflies dancing amongst the greenery. The area has been designed to house plants with flowers containing sweet nectar, which attracts the butterflies. If you stand very still, these colourful insects might even land on you.
Any lepidopterists can help me identify what species this is?
We spotted many fine webs amongst the leaves, the fine silk threads shining and glistening in the sun. Also this dude on a leaf.
As you make your way along the trail, take advantage of the gazebos and observation platforms to take a short break and soak in the forest atmosphere. There are also two giant swings where you can chill, but these were occupied during our visit and the people sitting in them didn’t seem to want to leave anytime soon, so we moved on.
We came across a kiosk with a bunch of jars containing preserved insects and small creatures on display.
And then it was on to one of The Habitat’s star attractions: the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk, named after 19th century English botanist Charles Curtis. Perched at 820 metres above sea level, it is the highest viewing platform on the island.
N again chose to skip this, and I think it was a solid decision. Being up there in the open, with nothing separating you from the valley below and the clouds above except a steel walkway and railing (albeit, a sturdy one) is enough to make one’s knees wobble. But you’ll be well rewarded for your valor with unparalleled views of the lush rainforest and surrounding sea.
The sight took my breath away (that, or maybe I’m just unfit, having climbed four flights of stairs).
The platform is shaped like a circle, so you get to enjoy 360-degree views of the island. On this side is George Town and Penang Bridge. You can also come here during the evening to catch the sunset, by purchasing the Sunset Walk ticket from the concierge.
We took our time wandering down the path towards the exit, stopping frequently to squint into the trees whenever we heard a sound, to see if we could spot more wildlife. Walking amidst the greenery, surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature, it felt like time moved in a slow and unhurried pace. There was nothing to rush for. I could feel all my worries melt away as I stood, breathed deep, and felt the sun’s rays warm my skin.
It didn’t feel like it, but we were inside The Habitat for almost three hours. Emerging from the forest, we entered the cool, air-conditioned confines of Kommune Lifestyle, The Habitat’s retail and F&B outlet.
True to the eco-friendly theme, the space boasted a minimalist design with floor-to-ceiling windows letting in plenty of sunlight, as well as wooden shelves filled with books on nature, Penang culture, and history. There were lots of nice souvenirs for sale too, including handmade soaps, candles, body wash, and oils for aromatherapy. From the F&B area, a delicious smell of coffee wafted through the air.
We exited the shop and walked down to the second entrance of The Habitat, where a buggy took us back to the funicular railway station.
I absolutely loved my time at The Habitat. It’s my favourite place so far on my road trip, and I would visit again in a heartbeat the next time in Penang. Everything is well kept, the facilities are top notch – but what is priceless is the experience of immersing yourself in nature, in one of the world’s oldest rainforests. Well worth the entry price!
Jalan Stesen, Bukit Bendera Air Itam, 11500 George Town, Pulau Pinang
Opening hours: 9AM – 7PM
Phone: 019-645 7741
More info and tickets: https://thehabitat.my/
Getting to Penang Hill
Getting around Penang island is fairly easy, with loads of taxis and Grab available for hire. If driving, there is a multi-storey car park at the lower station of the funicular railway. The 204 Rapid KL Bus services Penang Hill as its last stop, and makes pick-ups along various tourist attractions and major roads such as Fort Cornwallis, Burma Road, Penang Road, Lebuh Farquhar, and Pengkalan Weld.
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