REVIEW: Entopia by Penang Butterfly Farm

Already a very popular attraction visited by more than 5million people and ranking high on tripadvisor, Penang Butterfly Farm recently underwent a major upgrade and became Entopia, a Nature Learning destination. And it’s well worth a visit.

The location, next to Escape Park, has its pros and cons. It’s only minutes away from the major family resorts of Batu Ferringhi but a good half hour drive from Penang city centre. It doesn’t seem to deter school groups and tourists thirsty for nature exploration, who are showing great support to the new facility, and I wanted to find out why. So I recently went and here are a few of my observations.

It starts with a strong and relevant presence on the main road; the building is covered in foliage (vertical gardens) with good signage and a neat looking ticketing and entrance. It feels like we’re in good hands!

The ticket price is higher than Taiping Zoo’s at RM49 (US$11) for adults and RM29 (US$6.5) for children but if you search online you will find lots of discount offers that make it very affordable for every kind of visitor.

The facility is made of large outdoor gardens (Natureland) and a two-storey indoor discovery centre (Cocoon).

The best way to introduce the exhibits is maybe quoting the website: “Entopia is a place designed to inspire visitors to experience nature in a new way. We wish to share the unheard lessons of our natural world with everyone, especially the young. Entopia is a movement to live in harmony with nature – a rallying call for Penangites and the world to get involved! As a centre for nature learning, we bring the best of the insect world and the plant world together for everyone to experience the harmony in nature. It’s a living classroom to learn new things, have fun and share the love of nature. Today, we are pleased to unveil to all our visitors a real-life blueprint for a paradise for invertebrates, plants and humanity.”

This truly transpires in all aspects of the facility starting with the well-themed, well-curated and very entertaining mystery cave featuring amphibians, scorpions, spiders and snakes, which I had the chance to be guided through by a very knowledgeable and jovial tour guide.

Natureland exhibits feature good signs with relevant information, good audio with ambient music and voice recording. The choice of species is just right, not too many. The atmosphere under the butterfly dome is very pleasant, just the right temperature, water features and great photo opportunities.

After Natureland the natural path goes along the café for those in need of a break and then onto Cocoon, the indoor discovery centre. Visitors start with the upstairs exhibition area first, which features nice interactive displays to learn more about butterflies, including their place in some myths and legends, classification and life cycle. My favorite is a small back-of-house type room, where visitors can learn about butterfly breeding with actual breeding going on. Before going down visitors can sit in a cinema room, which is showing a BBC Earth movie. I guess it is more aimed at the school groups market.

The lower part of Cocoon is dedicated to a very cool crawling insects themed exhibition area featuring a dedicated ants room and another room for snails, beetles, etc featuring great jewel tanks placed inside fake tree trunks.

The last exhibition area put me a bit off. It looks like a very themed children museum, where each of the 5 small rooms teaches things about butterflies in association with a theme e.g. a bridal shop, a toy store, a candy store, etc. I guess this is meant more for kids but my childhood must be very far now because I really didn’t understand much of what was going on. I’d be interested to know if kids actually engage. Maybe I’ll learn something about how to create kids exhibitions!

Then it’s classic: a nice big store before the exit, and even a specialty store for nature enthusiasts with material for terrarium, etc: great idea to engage the community.

Overall the experience is world-class and I have to congratulate the staff on a great and visibly passionate attitude as well as a strong attention to details, which results in a very clean and well maintained facility.

I mentioned earlier what struck me at Taiping Zoo was the sense of generosity given by the place and its operator. Well, I find the same applies to Entopia. Just look at how full the entertainment program is and you will feel there’s more than you need or expect. So maybe generosity is one of the keys to success for our industry in the region? Good thing I’m feeling generous in 2017!

REVIEW: Vinpearl Safari Park, Phu Quoc, Vietnam

In a series of reviews of zoos and safari parks here is Vietnam’s first and only safari park, recently opened on Phu Quoc Island by Vingroup.

A bit of background first. For the readers who don’t know Vingroup, it is the Wanda of Vietnam, the country’s largest developer and now a well-diversified conglomerate. Strong from the success of their first integrated resort (opened in 2004) in Nha Trang, featuring a cable car, aquarium, water park, amusement park and marine park, they embarked on a more ambitious project in Phu Quoc featuring an amusement park, water park, night spectacular and a safari park.

Phu Quoc has been earmarked as the Phuket of Vietnam but the destination has been struggling to develop – mostly because of environmental and manpower issues – when Danang soared and became in less than 10 years the leading beach destination in Vietnam. An example of such environmental issues is the very poor waste treatment; we had to drive past open-air waste collection along the main road to reach the safari!

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Following the opening of Vinpearl Land will be the opening of Sun Group’s own integrated resort as well as the Grand World casino project under construction next to Vinpearl. This will be the end of the charming Phu Quoc island where all you could see were fishermen villages, nuoc mam factories and pepper plantations, and the beginning of yet another global tourism destination probably very Asia-focused i.e. Vietnamese domestic, Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans, etc. The island already welcomes more than 1million visitors p.a. and direct international flights to China and Singapore will start in 2017.

We visited Vinpearl Safari Park on Sunday 1st January 2017, which was a very busy day for the park. There were a majority of Vietnamese visitors (mostly in groups) despite a high ticket price (VND500,000 or US$22) and only a few foreigners (Mainland Chinese, Russian). The type of tourists who can afford a holiday in Phu Quoc – where hotels charge minimum US$100 per night – can probably afford such ticket price. Vingroup clearly doesn’t target school groups or Vietnamese middle class families.

As we walked into the park we were greeted by English-speaking staff, who informed us we could wait for a shuttle to take us to the safari bus or walk around the zoo for about 1km, which could take us up to 2hours. We decided to go have a look at the zoo to get our money worth!

The zoo is very average for a new zoo. It does not adopt any of the new design approach. There is not much shade and the landscape is very boring as they have not made much effort to enhance the rather poor native forest, which can be found around Phu Quoc. Rock work is very basic and not very well executed. The attempt to provide an audio system failed and there is only one area with soundscape: in one of the aviaries, which is much nicer as a result. Everything is visible: keeping facilities, pipes, pumps, feeding containers, etc. Another mistake is the size of the enclosures, which is too big and therefore it is hard to see the animals, when on top of that there is acrylic or fencing between you and the animals.

After more than an hour walking in the heat of the zoo we finally made it to the start of the safari journey. Big disappointment: the vehicles are normal transportation buses like the ones you can see in the city, with people standing in the middle as they were packed on the day of our visit.

The 30min safari journey took us through a few large (and bare) enclosures where we saw tigers, lions, rhinos, ostriches, antelopes, a bunch of young giraffes and lots of zebras. The guide spoke Vietnamese, English and Chinese; she was giving very basic info and she was not much of an entertainer.

Speaking of entertainment, there was very little show component. When we arrived there were supposed to be black African performers in costumes to greet visitors but it felt very awkward, as nobody really knew what to do, neither the performers nor the visitors. The only other form of entertainment is the animal show located near the entrance, which we didn’t go to.

Vinpearl Safari Park seemed to meet the expectations of its visitors but overall I found it sad. There was no magic, which I would expect from an animal-based attraction. There was no life either and it felt the people owning and operating it had no real passion for wildlife. It makes me feel a bit angry actually. It is small things; like landscaping, enclosure design, animal shows, etc. They don’t cost much and yet they make such a big difference. Why bother investing so much money to deliver a very average experience, which will be neither memorable nor educational when you could make it so much better for the same investment? Wait, I think I know the answer: because the owner and operator is a real estate developer!?