Taiping Zoo: probably one of the best attractions in Malaysia

The first time I heard about Taiping Zoo was working on the feasibility study for Movie Animation Park Sudios, Malaysia. We had to proceed with a review of key attractions in the Malaysian state of Perak (between Kuala Lumpur and Penang) and Taiping Zoo came as one of the most popular ones. And yet Taiping is a rather small town between Ipoh and Penang. How special can their zoo be?

I have to admit I didn’t bother visiting at that time. But a few days ago I took advantage of a trip to Penang to make a proper and long-awaited stop in Taiping to visit the zoo and adjacent lake gardens. Little did I know I was about to experience on of the best attractions not only in Perak but probably in Malaysia!

It all started with a delicious noodle soup with sambal at Restoran Kakak, which came highly recommended on google. After a short walk in Taiping old town, which looks a lot like a mini Ipoh, I got back in the car for a mere 5min drive to the zoo.

The experience starts as you drive through the beautiful lake gardens to reach the entrance of the zoo. Everything is carefully thought-out with ample (and reasonable) parking on the other side of the road and a small underpass to reach the main building in all safety.

The entrance ticket is reasonably priced at RM17 (US$4) for adults and RM8.5 (US$2) for children including access to the tram; that is more than three times cheaper than Singapore Zoo!

The visitor mix was very diverse with a few large Malaysian Indian families (including grand parents, cousins, etc), lots of Malay and Malaysian Chinese families with young kids and even a few foreigners. It seemed everyone was having a good time and it resulted in very well behaved visitors, who were even engaging discussions or helping out other visitors. It was a rare experience seeing such behavior in Malaysia.

I have to say it is hard not to enjoy the day in such a setting with beautiful tall trees, lots of water bodies, lush foliage protecting from the sun while cooling off and the amazing sound of the rainforest everywhere you go. The layout is very good with a central hub flanked by a small café, kids play area and big shaded area, and to and from the central hub a number of wide paths taking visitors to the various exhibits. The way finding is good, so is the information displays at the exhibits.

Now this is where Taiping Zoo surprised me; the animal exhibits are truly world class although the zoo is more than 55 years of age. You can hardly see any cage and the enclosures are very generous; sometimes a bit too much and it’s hard to see the animals among the overgrown plants. Thanks to a good maintenance and what looks like a real passion for wildlife Taiping Zoo delivers one of the best zoo experience with a much appreciated patina of age, which provides almost an Avatar kind of feeling!

The highlights for me – and visibly for most of the visitors – were the very entertaining monkey exhibits where animals were visibly having fun, playing and singing.

Taiping Zoo is a great family day-out activity with just the right amount of walking surrounded by nature and adjacent to the beautiful Taiping lake gardens, which are also worth going to Taiping for.

 

It is such a contrast with Bukit Gambang for which I wrote a very harsh review a while back. And this is the difference generosity makes. It is clear that the owners and operators of the Taiping Zoo have been and continue being very generous with space, landscape, maintenance, not only for the visitors but also for the animals. And this extra mile they are going is resulting in a complete buy-in from the visitors who have been patronizing and respecting the zoo for many years. No wonder it is the pride of Perak!

Construction Update: Movie Animation Park Studios, Malaysia

Having heard that this theme park under construction in Ipoh, Malaysia is not opening in December as planned but probably in April 2017, I thought I would stop by on my way to Penang over the end-of-the-year break to report on the status of construction and share a few pictures.

The entrance building and car park were finished early 2016 and it seems most of the rides have been delivered by now. The theming in Animation Square is almost done and you can actually see it from the highway itself. I wonder if that will be covered later as I don’t think visitors of the park want to see the highway from the square! It looks like the structure for the stunt show is also done. The main areas requiring more work are probably the Dreamworks Zone and the Blast Off Zone.

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View from the main entrance building of the bridge, Animation Square and Megamind Megadrop at the back

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View from the main entrance of Fantasy Forest at the front and Stunt Legends structure at the back

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Panoramic view from the entrance building

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View of the starship restaurant being built in the Blast Off Zone

Fiesta Carnival and the number one lesson for property developers

When Fiesta Carnival opened in 1971 in Cubao – back then a suburb of Manila – it was the first indoor amusement park in the Philippines, and probably Asia. At a time when the country was the most advanced in the region J. Amado Araneta, a visionary and a great believer in family entertainment, decided to complement his Araneta Coliseum (home of the famous Thrilla in Manila boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975), New Frontier Cinema (Asia’s largest at the time) and ice skating rink with an indoor leisure and amusement center covering close to two hectares.

By the 1990’s, Fiesta Carnival began to lose its appeal among the children who have become more enamored with mall-based entertainment, computer gaming, not to mention the appeal of grander amusement parks especially with the opening of Laguna-based Enchanted Kingdom during that time. Fiesta Carnival soon degenerated as a run-down amusement park that was plagued by incidents of theft and other petty crimes. Jorge Araneta decides to close the park and bring Shopwise supermarket in the building. The ice skating rink was also closed.

Fast forward another 20 years and things are changing, back to entertainment. Earlier this year the New Frontier Cinema reopened as the KIA Theatre and is now welcoming some of the hottest bands on tour in the Philippines, Art in Island – off the trendy Cubao Expo – is the country’s biggest trick art museum and Araneta Centre is considering a new-generation indoor family entertainment centre for the extension of its Gateway Mall.

Does this mean we are (finally) seeing the end of the Retail is King era that saw retail driving all property development? Times are definitely different with online retail affecting the expectations of mall visitors. Lifestyle, community and family entertainment are now the key words we hear from every property developer.

I believe that those who understand it and truly believe in it, like Jorge Araneta, will be the big winners of tomorrow, because what Fiesta Carnival brought to many families are collective memories that will never be forgotten. And that is what successful destinations are made of. #jointhemovement!

REVIEW: The Mind Museum, Manila

I have been going to Manila since 2004 and the first time I went to Bonifacio Global City a.k.a. ‘The Fort’ there was really not much, maybe a few high-end condos mostly for expats. Now there’s a massive Shangri-La hotel, some of the best restaurants and clubs in Manila, and even themed attractions since the opening of The Mind Museum (2012) and KidZania (2015).

I was in town working on a new project in another part of town but I had some free time on my last day and decided to visit the Mind Museum on my way to the airport. I was curious to see the outcome of a collaboration between JRA and the Science Centre Singapore, which won the THEA award for outstanding achievement as a science museum in 2014.

The Mind Museum is a project by the non-profit Bonifacio Art Foundation, which is financed by the Fort Bonifacio Development Corporation together with private donors and a few sponsors (well acknowledged throughout the museum). It is a good example of public-private stakeholders coming together to build a landmark facility for a new city as opposed to fully government led. This is one thing developers in the Philippines are very good at; just look at the success of areas like Makati, Rockwell, Alabang, Araneta Centre, etc.

I went on a Friday afternoon and it was busy! A few school groups, some families and quite a number of teenagers and young adults, mostly couples. Entrance tickets are priced at PHP625 (USD12.5) for adults, PHP475 (USD9.5) for children (and foreign tourists!) and PH190 (USD3.8) for public school students. This is in line with privately owned attractions in the region and reflective of the purchasing power in Metro Manila.

Being a stand-alone building it provides a number of advantages such as the Science-in-the-park outdoor area, a covered open space in front of the outdoor ticketing area for activation and exhibitions, and a high ceiling. The inside is not that big, and a lot smaller than the Science Centre Singapore for example.

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The layout works well with most of the exhibitions on the ground floor and a 1st floor wrapping around leaving a nice atrium in the centre. The content is ambitious with 250 interactive exhibits through five interconnected stories: AtomEarthLifeUniverse, and Technology. There is also a dedicated teenagers area and Mind pods classrooms on the 1st floor.

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I enjoyed the Technology part the most as it is more what I would expect from a science museum. The piano stairs were my favorite; I loved listening to the different notes as my feet were passing captors walking down the stairs: simple yet memorable.

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The museum has been open for 5 years and it shows. Most of the stations are well worn out and some are even broken. This is where maybe the design by JRA was more suited for a Western market than an Asian market like the Philippines, where school groups are bigger and people in general maybe less aware of how to handle interactive exhibitions. I thought there was also too much text, which no one was reading.

The show component comprises of a live lab demo, a few movie rooms and an auditorium on the first floor. I would have suggested more show and maybe less interactive stations, which is an easier way to manage kids groups and convey a message in this part of the world.

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So here is the verdict. The Mind Museum is a very praiseworthy initiative with all the good intentions. The ambitious variety of topics in such a small space is double-edged: it includes many aspects of schools curriculum but it lacks of depth and of a strong storyline. The museum would benefit from a consolidation into 3 areas (instead of 5) and an open show area in the centre. Maybe for the upcoming renovation, hopefully soon!