When Monkeys and Cactus Attack: Life Lessons from Penang Botanic Garden

When Monkeys and Cactus Attack: Life Lessons from Penang Botanic Garden

Our family made an outing to the Penang Botanic Garden on Saturday.  This is a large urban park in the foothills of Penang.  It pops up on all the lists for tourists in the area, and with good reason.  Our family was happy to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and escape to a place where the loudest sounds were insects buzzing in the trees.

We took an Uber car from our apartment and the driver warned us of the monkeys.  Anyone who has traveled in eastern Asia knows to be wary of monkeys, at least the semi-tame ones that frequent parks, temples, and other tourist attractions.  In general, the monkeys are not outright aggressive, but you simply can’t carry food or drinks in their presence or they will snatch it from you–and you risk bites or scratches in the process.

Don’t be fooled by cute, grizzled appearances.

We had only started on the first path when I saw a woman carrying a plastic sack full of food.  There were monkeys ranging about and I thought, “Hmm, maybe the monkey threat here is overstated.”  No sooner than I had that thought, and a monkey approached her and ripped the bag out of her hand.  The woman looked insulted but was smart enough to not put up a fight. Soon the thief and a half-dozen of his cohorts had shredded the bag and were sampling their ill-gotten goods.  Between this and the accompanying noises–the woman’s daughter crying, the squabbling between monkeys over the food–Simon was pretty startled.


The thief.
I saw the opportunity for a Life Lesson.  I knelt down and hugged him close.  “You don’t have to be afraid of monkeys.  They aren’t going to bother you.  But you must never, ever carry food around monkeys because they will steal it from you.  Do you understand?”

“Yes!” he exclaimed.  “When I grow up, I’m going to be a monkey and then I can steal other people’s food!”

Hmm.  Not the message I was going for.

We meandered around the park.  The gardens are a great place for people-watching: families wandering with their children, foreign tour groups, joggers and other exercisers.  Likewise, the gardens themselves are quite interesting.  There are many small themed enclosures; the fern garden and bromeliad garden were my favorites.  

Here are some bromeliads:



 The morning had started out fairly cloudy and less hot than typical. But soon the humidity was quite high and two out of three of us found it tough going up the hilly trails.  We let Simon lead the way and soon he ducked into the cactus garden.  It didn’t seem to be a good place to play, so I redirected him to the exit.  He was jogging along and not looking at where he was going.  As we tried to walk through the doors, an elderly couple came through and Simon was thrown off balance to avoid bumping them.  Over he toppled, smack into a cactus display.

It wasn’t as bad as you’re imagining.  But you can’t just fall into a cactus garden and come out unscathed.  He had about a dozen fine cactus spines embedded in the palm of his hand.  Joel picked him up and we rushed to the front of the park, looking for a first aid station.  I had hoped for a pair of tweezers, but no such luck.  The two Malay guards at the entrance spoke no English but had a bottle of iodine and some paper towels.  I pulled out the spines with my fingers and we washed Simon’s hands as well as we could.  He was a trooper.  Just a few tears when he first fell down, and then he was a brave boy the rest of the time.


The scene of the incident. Note the small depression in the sand, to the right of the barrel cactus.
No one had the heart for Life Lesson #2.  (Look where you’re going; don’t run in confined spaces.)  But as Joel was carrying Simon to the front gate, he consoled him, “Simon, I don’t like it when you get hurt.”

Simon: “Why?”

Joel: “Because it makes me sad.  I know you don’t like getting hurt either.”

Simon: “But I do like getting owwies.”

Joel: “Why?!”

Simon: “Because if I get an owwie, Daddy picks me up and kisses me and holds me.”

So there’s your tearjerker for the day.  
Simon was feeling OK, so we continued to wander the park for a while.  But by then we were really hot and sweaty and hungry.  We left the park and ate a small Indian snack before making our way to the bus stop and home.


Orchid garden.
At the front of the park, sweaty and tired.


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