It rained all night and into the morning. Tucked in the loft of the A-frame chalet in the middle of the night, I thought I heard a sound like rolling thunder. It was loud yet muted, and strangely only once. Quite unlike the booms of thunder whose growls tend to increase as the storm advances. And there was no flash of lightning either. I wondered, as I drifted back into sleep, whether it had something to do with the monsoon floods. Perhaps I was on the wrong side of it, after all.

The next morning, I learned what the sound was from my friend’s husband, Dan. He said that the orang asli told him it was the sound of kepala air, or the headwaters bursting.

I thought back to yesterday’s trip up the Tahan river – my favourite Taman Negara tour. The river had seemed higher than I remember from previous trips. I guess the rains that continued overnight had been enough to trigger the floods downstream.

Rising waters

I was there at their eco resort in Taman Negara mainly because our friend Liza had wanted to come. A teacher, she didn’t have a lot of flexibility as to when they could go on vacation. And she and her teacher friends had wanted to visit Dan & Anim’s place for ages.

Sure, December was cutting it close. Pahang is notorious for floods in Malaysia’s east coast monsoon season. But that period in December should only be the shoulder season, albeit right at the turn. Besides, Danz Eco Resort is on high ground, despite being by the Tembeling river. I knew it wouldn’t flood. And indeed the teachers, who only had time for a few days’ vacation, timed their trip perfectly. They were already home by the time the headwaters burst.

But I had wanted more time with Anim, and to just soak in the forest. So I stayed to spend a few more days, gambling that the floods wouldn’t start quite yet.

Anim reckoned it was a reasonable bet, but a gamble nonetheless. “Well, if you don’t mind being marooned in the floods with us anyway,” she said pragmatically, knowing full well that unlike most people, I travel for unusual experiences, and can match her in equanimity under trying circumstances.

I replied, “If you’re not worried, then I’m not worried.”

View of the high water levels of the Tahan River just before the floods, with thick verdant jungle crowding over the water.
High water levels in the Tahan River
Lone woman in rain gear and batik print tights looking up to the jungle canopy from the cobble lined edge of a jungle stream. She is standing ankle deep in the rust-coloured water.
Taman Negara the day before the floods (credit to Liza)

Preparing for the floods

The resort swung into flood preparations in the same day. Dan’s staff went away to move the riverboats up the Tahan river tributary – the same ones that would take tourists on the Bateq village tour and the rapid shooting trips. Others went down to the river bank to dismantle the lean-to and the banner about the meteor shower. The riverbank was the only place to view the night sky without the obstruction of tree cover.

I went down to watch them work. The river water was noticeably rising from the previous day’s rains upriver. The water’s edge crept higher up the sand banks. Ants crawled out of the sand in a panic as their nests became saturated. Anim came to join me. She said, the river will rise further still.

A sampan floated past. Probably anglers, she said. There are lots of fish during the flood. The river flows too fast for the fish to swim against the current, so they’re all over the place in a panic. Cast a net out and you’ll get them for sure – if you can manage the flow yourself.

The highly prized kelah

“What about the kelah?” I asked, thinking back to the mahseer fish sanctuary. Tok Wal, the sanctuary officer, had told us that the kelah can swim against the current.

Oh, those have already swum upriver. Apparently, kelah can sense the headwaters bursting in advance, and would have begun swimming upriver before the floods. Ah, forward planning fish after my own heart.

They head to small tributaries where the flow is more manageable. It goes to show how smart these fish are. Kelah are notoriously hard to catch, hence it’s highly prized by anglers. They also fetch a high price because of this prestige. You can sell one for RM500 a kilo, easy. Sometimes, villagers would catch some to sell to restaurants in Genting Highlands for as much as RM1000. Anim grinned at my surprise, confirming that casino-goers would pay that much just to treat their posse.

Liza’s teacher friends did ask Tok Wal cheeky questions about catching the kelah in the sanctuary portion of the river, or just holding them for photos. But he steadfastly dodged all such questions. He did, however, say that the ones which venture beyond the sanctuary zone are fair game. 

The rainforest floods

The floods rose further by the next day, reaching the boat mooring post on the river bank. The river island was almost gone, water widening around it. The Tembeling river was now flowing so fast that waves were breaking on the sandy river banks, even with no boats passing and leaving their wakes behind. Apparently, this was a faster rise than would usually happen.

The leaves shone wet with water. The jungle was quieter than usual, as the cicadas don’t sing when it’s raining. In the distance, I could hear hornbills calling in the near forest. Anim told me that a pair of them normally flies over to perch in the resort’s tualang tree in the mornings and late evenings. Not this rainy week, though. 

They came over to tell me that the floods were rising so fast, that the rivers were already overflowing into low-lying areas and submerging portions of roads. Yesterday was the last day I could have left Taman Negara. It was no longer possible to drive out. We were marooned in the rainforest.

I took the news calmly, which surprised even myself. But I guess, I had prepared to cope with this risk. We were on high ground, and the resort had adequate supplies. We had fresh water, electricity, and the data services were up (although it would temporarily go down in the coming days). Worst case scenario, we could still evacuate to flood shelters. I did feel a bit sorry for the guests who literally arrived the previous day though. They came only to get flooded in.

I decided to ask for a massage from the local masseuse in the afternoon. 

Tea coloured flooding river of Sungai Tembeling. On the left the sandy riverbank is barely visible. Green jungle foliage rise on either side of the river. A sand island in the middle of the river is nearly completely underwater.
Floodwaters rising

Marooned with other tourists

News came of resort guests who had to leave the premises due to police recommendation, but had nowhere to go. At first, local trailers tried to carry cars across the inundated portions of the road. Alas, the floods rose so quickly that only a few cars went through. They stopped after one trailer broke down.

The tourists who couldn’t make it dispersed to other places. One family came to our resort. Some ironically had to go back to Mutiara Taman Negara, forced to make the risky river crossing twice. So it was that Danz Eco Resort found itself surprisingly busy in the monsoon season.

The stranded tourists, being Malaysian, quickly bonded over exchanges of news. Thankfully, everyone faced the situation with stoicism and nobody was a diva. There was a high ranking person in a government ministry with his family, and a fuel station retailer taking his staff on a year-end trip. I met a guy who used to work in the big city as a supervisor at construction sites. He couldn’t bear the traffic so he now works as a community college teacher in Kuantan. He asked what I did, so I told him about groundwater risks and common water quality issues, and how virtual site visits are getting normal nowadays.

There was also a government officer regulating oil palm smallholders. We had an interesting chat about the differences between the sustainability certifications MSPO and RSPO, and the challenges of educating smallholders. She was slated to represent the smallholders at a FACT conference following COP26. I brought up soil carbon and we pondered the possibility of the oil palm industry for carbon sequestration.

Swinging sideways left on a jungle swing. The Tembeling river is beneath  in the background and the rainforest of Taman Negara lies beyond.
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude towards the problem.”

The unprecedented floods of 2021

The butterflies are yellow. I watched them idly. Maxis data has been intermittent, and sometimes not at all online. Celcom proved somewhat better. Umobile surprisingly has the best connection here.

In the resort, we became aware that it was not only Taman Negara that flooded. Of course, we knew that the flood would be significant across Pahang for a few days. The full moon meant the tides were high at the mouth of the Pahang river. Since the Tembeling drains into the Pahang, the water would stay backed up until the rains recede, and the moon wanes.

But that year, the flooding did not just happen on the east coast. Normally, when the rains begin it takes three days for the river to rise and make the roads impassable. In 2021, the rise was within a day, taking people by surprise. The rains swept across the peninsula, seemingly unimpeded by the mountain range, falling in monsoonal torrents along urban Klang Valley. Suburbia were engulfed in flood, forcing residents onto the roofs of even double storey houses. Those with windows barred for security became trapped on their upper floor where they had thought themselves safe from the rising water.

It poured all along the way too, causing the road crossing the Karak pass to become impassable due to landslide. Motorists were stranded en route without food and water. Traffic was backlogged everywhere. Even if we could leave Taman Negara, there was no guarantee that we could make the rest of the way home.

I wondered whether the deforestation over the years contributed. Perhaps the rains used to be stopped by the thick Pahang jungle that was now patchy or replaced by new suburbs.

Tembeling river as it begins to recede from flood. The right bank has vegetation that bends flat to the ground and stained with silt, showing the extent of the flood waters from previous days.
Tembeling river a few days after the highest flood

Bukit Awan

A lull in the relentless monsoon rain. The birds were noisy, I thought they might be gossiping about the unprecedented floods. But the sky finally showed some blue and the sun was shining. My laundry might actually dry today.

Since the day was fine, Anim and Dan decided to take me on a drive to Bukit Awan. I had expressed interest in the non-touristy things of Taman Negara, since I’d done many of the tours by now. One of the more local points of interest was a viewpoint along a fairly new government road to the upriver villages. The road meandered against the hill slopes that fell into the Tembeling river. As its name suggests, if you came to Bukit Awan in the early morning, you could view the ancient rainforest beneath a blanket of cloud.

The hilly terrain was why there were no roads to these upper villages as recently as a generation ago. Dan was a native of these parts. As a teenager, he had to go to boarding school, and every school term it was a 6-hour barge trip down the ancient river. Back then, all supplies and trade happened by boat. The upland villagers tap rubber and gather forest harvests like rattan, which they sell for rice from the lowlands.

Life in the inner villages have improved tremendously in the latter part of the 20th century. Rural infrastructure like the road we were driving on, is the pride of Malaysia’s Gen X engineers. 

View across Taman Negara rainforest from the vantage point of Bukit Awan. A brown sign showing 'Bukit Awan' is in the foreground. The sky is blue with cumulus cloud on the left.
Looking out upon Taman Negara protected rainforest

The daydreaming floodwater

The rains continued, but were no longer incessant. There was still a lot of water backed up along the river, but some places had begun to dry out. At other locations, however, the flood water was stagnant. This was because the rains continued to fall in different parts of the river basin. So even if it no longer rained in some areas, water was still pouring into the basin, maintaining the flood.

A part of the road out of Taman Negara was in a low-lying area, and it was notorious for being the last to dry. There, the water simply stayed on pause, only slowly drying out. The Malay term for this is air termenung, which describes the water as staring vacantly into space, as though daydreaming or idling pensively.

The food stocks were running low. Anim had the foresight to provision amply, so we ate surprisingly well. But with the fresh items consumed, we were down to the frozen backups. Government food aid hadn’t arrived yet to Kuala Tahan and further upriver, so Dan told the District Officer that we were fine for now.

The orang asli had received theirs, though. It seemed like the Department for Aboriginal Affairs was more efficient than the mainstream distribution machinery. The senior ministry official, perturbed that people were cut off merely due to a single road being underwater at a single point, dictated a letter which the village headman can send to the government to petition for a road upgrade. Mention that aboriginal children are unable to go to school, he said. He seemed to feel that this would bump up the petition in priority.

The abandoned Bateq village

Overnight there had been panthers on the riverbank, Dan said. I asked him how he knew. From the tracks, he replied.

With nothing to attend to, he suggested taking his wife and I on a hike around the area. Up the slope we went on the dirt road, ambling through the bush, eventually coming upon a Bateq settlement. It was abandoned; Dan said that the people were at their riverside settlement. They’d retreat up to this one if the floodwaters got really high.

On the way back, we came across a Bateq man out hunting. Unlike in the Bateq culture exhibition at the show village on Taman Negara tour packages, he sported some modern technology. His blowpipe was steel but he still used traditional darts, and slung over his shoulder was a small modern backpack. Dan stopped to chat with him, but I couldn’t make out what they spoke about. Later, he introduced him to us as Kumbang, which is a bit ironic since he was once mauled by a panther (panthers are called harimau kumbang in Malay). Before we parted ways, he told us about the pheasant he was tracking, and that he saw a mousedeer, but left it be. There’s a kijang near the canopy bridge, he said. I remembered that Mai, one of Liza’s teacher friends, thought she had seen one thereabouts. He left that antelope alone as well.

Along the hike, we mused about new night safari tours with a Bateq guide. Perhaps it would be a hit with tourists. We stopped near the top of a cliff, where Dan shared another of his many ideas. He thought the spot would be perfect for a viewing tower, to watch the sunset.

Rustic indigenous Bateq huts up a slope in an uninhabited rainforest village.
Uninhabited Bateq village

Hope for escape

We began to welcome the sunny spells, which we hoped would help to evaporate the pensive water, and looked forward to the updates from the local flood watchers on how far the flood waters had receded. The monsoon rains come in several waves, they told me. Now that the first pass seemed to be over, the tourists began to talk about possible routes out. The teenagers, especially, had grown restive.

We could get to our vehicles at Kuala Tahan, no problem. By this time, the Works Department had completed enough repairs that there were route options now possible around the remaining blocked roads. From Jerantut, we could either go through Bentong to bypass the still-obstructed Karak pass, or circle south through Muadzam Shah. The former suited those of us whose final destination was Kuala Lumpur, the other suited those bound for Negeri Sembilan.

The problem was whether the stagnant water near Padang Piol would have receded enough. It was hard to tell, since the location was some distance from where we were, and it would be silly to drive over and back just to look at it. But it would be equally silly to pack up and leave without knowing the way was clear.

Some tourists opted to leave their car to be taken across by boat, aiming to return for the car at a better time. Some spoke of decamping and staying at a homestay near there, the better to move immediately when the road became passable. They worried that the rains might begin again, and they’d lose any window of action that might open. But most of us ended up simply staying put.

Plotting the best route home

The ‘flood festival’ of Taman Negara

I too, stayed put and didn’t hurry. After all, unless the road dried completely, we would realistically be looking at hiring a trailer to carry our cars across. Either the flood stayed low long enough for the packing up, driving over, and trailering across, or it didn’t.

By this time, friends, family, and colleagues all knew that I was marooned in Taman Negara. Those close to me were relieved, and amused, that I seemed to remain in such good humour. In fact, those who really know me, know that I’d be more cheered by dark humour, than by drama. But I sensed that some people were miffed at my cheerful resilience, as though offended that I was not miserable. And it’s funny how attributes like consistently making good risk choices with incomplete information, and remaining cheerful in a disaster situation, are things you’re told to cultivate at work, yet some people seem to feel you’re not supposed to display them outside of work too. Like it’s cheating or something.

By contrast, in these rural parts people are sympathetic of distress, yet are stoic themselves and don’t resent others who are. Used to floods, they are not unprepared. They don’t waste unnecessary exertion when there’s nothing to be done. Yet through collaboration things do get moving, when it’s time.

And that’s how something as simple as flood watching can become a local social event, almost a mini festival. People waited together for the last bit of flood to recede. And those with trailers readied themselves, for they knew that soon they would be ferrying the tourist cars across.

Villagers of Kuala Tahan congregate to watch the final inundated stretch of road leading out to Jerantut. Cars line the road sides. Enterprising villagers have set up roadside stalls to sell snacks, turning the event into a mini festival.
Watching flood waters is a micro festival in Kuala Tahan

Joining the convoy out of the floods

We finally got news that the floods had dropped low enough that a trailer could cross. The trend should continue, given that we weren’t expecting more rain. So it should stay low for long enough, that it would be worthwhile to mobilise the trailers. I hadn’t felt like making a move, throughout my time there. But this time, my gut told me that this was it. Tomorrow was the time to move.

The other tourists thought the same. Someone found out what it would cost to hire the trailer, and we agreed to leave together as a group. That way, we could travel the rest of the way in a convoy as much as possible, in case we encountered unexpected obstacles en route. In a convoy, we wouldn’t have to be stranded alone.

A seasoned traveller, it didn’t take me long to pack in the morning. We said our goodbyes and before long, we arrived at the offending portion of road. The flooded section had drawn a crowd, particularly since things were happening. Trailers had arrived to ferry the tourists across. It was a kind of organised chaos. We parked by the roadside before trying to figure out where to find the trailer guys, and where to move our cars closer for loading.

It was slow going, as there were other tourists there before us. The two trailers went back and forth, back and forth. But eventually, it was our turn, and we all managed to cross before the day was done.

Though I usually prefer to go my own way, and look after myself, that day I was glad to be part of a convoy. I was even glad for the Home Guard escort, whose favour the senior ministry official had asked. For night had fallen and the way back was still many hours yet, and the rural state roads we needed to take could still be dark and remote.

Loading a tourist car onto a trailer to cross the flooded road out of Taman Negara. Villagers and stranded tourists stand around watching.
Flood crossing on a trailer

6 Responses

  1. Wei says:

    Came across your post when I was googling things to do in Pahang. Definitely going to stay away from taman negara during the floods now..This was a lovely read!! Thank you :)

    • Teja says:

      I think right now is not flooding, but now is entering into the risky time, so it could happen any time. Better wait until February!

  2. Sara Essop says:

    This sounds like quite an experience. It’s a good thing that you had friends and everything ended well.

  3. Adéle says:

    Wow, what an event to have experienced. It sounds like the locals did a great job of keeping everyone safe and eventually getting everyone out. Thanks for sharing.

    • Teja says:

      They did indeed! What a difference it was to the mayhem in suburbia that flooded for the first time. It really made me reflect on the difference that adaptation and preparation makes, in terms of how much suffering you experience in a disaster.

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