An Eco-Friendly Theme Park in Malaysia

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A new theme park is set to open in Penang before the end of the year, but don’t expect acres of coloured concrete, giant mice, or long queues for switchback rides; this park is profoundly different. Frances Wilks went for a preview of an eco-friendly woodland valley where there’s no age limit on fun and play is a four letter word.

BILLBOARDS HAVE BEEN appearing all over Penang recently with a single intriguing word – ESCAPE – accompanied by images of people getting wet, fl ying through the air, climbing trees, and chilling out in nature. It’s a clever campaign, because it tempts with the opportunity to escape the sterility of the modern digital world for one of outdoor activity that promises to be simple, physically engaging, and fun. ESCAPE has been designed as a world fi rst; a theme park with a difference. Instead of spoon-feeding the visitors with a packaged fantasy, this new park will gently challenge them to discover the limitless wonder of the natural environment.

What’s the Big Idea?

The man behind ESACPE is Sim Choo Kheng, the Founder and Chief Executive of Sim Leisure Group, an international theme park design company with a long track record of 50 projects worldwide spanning the last two decades. Despite being based in Penang for the whole of their lengthy existence, the company had never worked on a major project here, but all that changed when Sim saw that the PBAPP Berhad (Penang Water Supply PLC) was offering a 44-acre piece of land in Teluk Bahang that had formerly been used as part of a construction site. Sim Leisure won the tender to develop the site as a theme park, and ESCAPE is on its way.

The first phase of ESCAPE, Adventure Play, is about to open, and the second and third phases – Water Play (a park with waterbased activities) and a hotel with tree house guest rooms – will open in 2014 and in 2016 respectively.

Sim, a Penangite who started his working life at the Butterfl y Farm (just next door to ESCAPE), has returned to his roots after a career which has seen him design, build, and operate theme parks all over the world. As the father of three boys, he is concerned that the younger generation may not be experiencing some of the fun of his own childhood. “We had such a lot of fun outdoors, we could spend an afternoon making a bamboo pop gun or swimming in a forest pool. Life wasn’t sugar coated,” Sim recalls. “I hope ESCAPE will show children of all ages (senior citizens most defi nitely included) how to have fun in a green, sustainable way.”

The Site, Past and Present

The land itself is a brown-fi eld site, with buildings left over from the construction of the Teluk Bahang Dam in the early 1990s. “It was really important to use the site creatively,” says Sim. “We need to be different, to show the people of Penang that you don’t need to cut into virgin forests, or destroy natural habitats to create something beautiful. You can recycle and renovate. All you need is imagination. We have a policy of ‘tree fi rst, human second’, so we’re not cutting down trees. We move them if we possibly can, and in any case, we plant more.”

Sim has kept the old buildings for offi ces, shops, and a food court but has given them a wonderful eco twist – grass roofs. They look amazing but the kicker is that they lower the temperature inside by at least fi ve degrees, reducing the energy needed for air conditioning thus reducing the building’s carbon footprint. It makes the buildings almost like trees because, unlike the conventional tiled roofs, grass roofs create a delaying effect in the rainwater run-off and so the heavy rainstorms of Penang can be more easily absorbed by the earth.

The construction of the activity equipment is almost fi nished, and much of it is made of wood and other natural materials rather than cement. A focal point of the site is Atan’s Leap; a tower that you can jump off (with harness attached) and experience the exhilaration of a leap of faith with a gentle landing onto the ground below, secure in the knowledge that safety is the highest priority.

There are different levels of rope courses – great for team bonding and personal development – as well as a Gecko Tower, which is an amazing climbing experience. There’s the Tubby Racer, which looks a bit like a dry ski slope, where teams can race each other down a hillside course. Younger children will enjoy the Zoom Bug, a human-powered go cart and the Tot’s Trail, a combination of crawling, balancing, and climbing.

There’s a nod to Malaysia’s mining history in Discovery Dig, where participants pan streams for hidden treasure. When you want to rest, there are little tree houses where the whole family can spend a relaxing day in the open air.


Planning for the Future

But ESCAPE is more than the activities available on site; Sim hopes to make the theme park a centre for learning about the environment as well. When visitors arrive in the car park, they are greeted with vegetables gaily growing between the parking spaces; a wonderful way of demonstrating how important it is to grow food. Visitors will be able to take away a little bit of ESCAPE in the form of a take-away grow box, ready planted with vegetables, to grow their own dinner, even on an apartment balcony.

On top of this, there will be all sorts of classes and events, such as toy making, natural crafts, creative writing, and story telling. Sim would like to involve some expat volunteers, and he hopes that people on the MM2H programme may be interested in sharing their skills (details of this initiative will be announced soon).

Many people from the local area are already employed here, and many more will be by the time all three phases of the project are up and running, which should boost the economy of Teluk Bahang quite signifi cantly. As well as appealing to the local people of Penang, who will receive a 20% discount on the entry price of RM60 (which includes all activities), ESCAPE will also be a key draw in the Penang tourist market. As the Communication Director of the Shangri-La Hotel Group says, “we need new products to showcase the excitement of living on this island”. ESCAPE could be just the ticket to a whole new experience of Penang.


This article was written by Francess Wilks for Penang International.
Source: Penang International October-November 2012

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