Hikes of KL: FRIM and the Canopy Walk

FRIM Canopy Walk will be closed from 30 June 2017. 

This was back in May 2017. An environmental group that I follow on Facebook was passing on the Forest Research Institute's announcement. That was how I heard about the closure of one of KL's top attractions. 

I shared it on my own wall.

FRIM's canopy walkway hike is something I've done a couple times before. Each time, I had taken someone whom I considered significant. But after the second time (which was not successful because it coincidentally took place in the thunderstorm damage closure period of 2015-2016), I had not gone again. It's one of those things you keep 'meaning to do'. But you don't, because you assume you'd have the chance always. 

It would be Ramadan soon though - not really a hiking sort of month. And by the time Eid comes around, the walkway would be retired already.

It was too late. I felt a little bit sad because I would not be able to go there, one last time. 

Or so I thought. 

The first of many good challenges

Looks like we have to go! Jason responded, upon seeing the post. He was referring to when he would arrive in Kuala Lumpur soon, when we agreed he could couchsurf at my place for a bit. 

It was the opposite of what I was thinking. 

And for that reason, his remark made me re-visit my mindset. Why could I not hike in Ramadan? It's not like after years and years of fasting practice, the hunger and thirst truly still bothered me - not after the first few days anyway.

Teja and Jason on our first hike | Waiting our turn for the FRIM canopy walkway

Not as tiring as I feared!

I remember when I was a navy reservist under training, they still had us run morning exercises when I was a cadet. And I knew the hike was a light one, from having done it before. 

probably could do it. And if it turned out I couldn't, well, I learned my limit. Good to know.

I was learning to be a lot more tolerant with making mistakes. 

And that was how I took someone to the canopy walk for the third time!

Getting into FRIM 

FRIM is the first and most venerable research institute in Malaysia focusing on forestry science, to which its spacious grounds and rainforest acreage are dedicated. Sited adjacent to Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve, it is also a Malaysian Natural Heritage Site, as well as on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Yet it is just about half an hour to an hour away from Kuala Lumpur city centre. 

Green spaces are precious and constantly threatened by development throughout the Klang Valley. So it comes as no surprise that any proper natural site left around KL attracts the recreational public.

Although actually devoted to research, FRIM opened much of its grounds for public access and use, allowing activities as varied as hiking and mountain biking, to birdwatching and camping, to wedding photography. 

The best way to get to FRIM is by car. Note that it isn't a particularly easy place to hail a return taxi, even if it is easy to get one to go there from the city centre. So if you don't have your own car, it might be best to get a taxi to wait, or try and GrabCar it. 

Entrance Fees for entering FRIM

There is an entrance booth where you will pay the applicable charges. There are two kinds of charges: the access fee itself (for the grounds), and a fee if you're bringing in vehicles and equipment. 

The access fees are nominal; just RM1 (~25 US cents) for Malaysians, and RM5 for non-Malaysians. People with disabilities have the fee waived, whether Malaysian or not. Full fees table here

If you are bringing in a car, that's an additional RM5. Motorbikes and mountain bikes are RM3, and a DSLR camera is another RM5. 

Back when the canopy walk was still open, there would be another charge for hikers who want to go up onto the walkway. 

A small stream cascade in the grounds of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) at Kepong, Kuala Lumpur | hiking in KL

FRIM Canopy Walk - What it was like

It feels a bit strange to write about an attraction that is no longer open. But it was iconic - if you were to mention 'FRIM', the first association would be 'canopy walk'. 

Back in 2007, when I took the man who later became my husband (and who later became my ex), it was all quite laidback. You show up and sort of guess which building would have people who can advise you where the canopy walk is. When you find it, they give you a rough trail map of sorts, and just sort of wave you on. At most, they'll tell you to stick to the trail.

The rainforest view from FRIM canopy walkway

Forested hills

Eventually, you get to the walkway, and there would be people manning it who will sort out who gets to go next, so that there's never too much weight on the spans at any one time. 

By the time I went in 2017, you have to wait for a nature guide to take you. There were a bunch of other tourists, who had booked a slot in advance, and we were absorbed into their group.

Our guide exchanged communications with his peers manning the walkway, looking slightly worried. The sky was clouding over, and it had begun to drizzle. No one is allowed on the walkways, if there is a storm. 

"Sometimes it rains here, but it is calm there," he explained. Inside the forest higher up on the hill, it has its own climate. 

He decided it was safe to go, but emphasised that he does not promise anything. The weather can change, after all. 

Hiking in Ramadan - actually quite doable

The hike was as light as I remember. The high humidity and coolness of an oncoming storm probably helped. I don't think anyone could tell that I was fasting.

Crossing a shallow stream in the rainforest within the grounds of FRIM in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur | hikes in KLIt was as I preferred it. Foreigners invariably assume that this thing that is merely not easy, has to be impossible or dangerous - just because they couldn't. If I miss only lunch, I'm desperate! or something to that effect, is a very common thing I hear.

So I was pleasantly surprised that Jason never said such things. Never. Not even when we hiked an even longer day much later, in Cameron Highlands.

In fact, that day when we went to FRIM, because I did not eat or drink anything, he sort of didn't either. It was very unusual and frankly quite impressive for an Australian. But maybe that's why he didn't ask - he assumed that it was quite a feasible feat and not that big a deal. 

Up in the rainforest canopy

Looking down along the walkway of FRIM's canopy walk rope bridge

However, there was another thing that I was apprehensive about. 

The last time I went on the canopy walk, I was rather scared. I tried to get the spans over with as soon as I could, and didn't really stop midway to look around. Even on the intermediate platforms, I stayed close to the trunks of the trees. 

Since then, I had gone on other canopy walks. Chief among them, the one in Taman Negara, when I technically travelled solo for the first time. I had taken a diving license in Redang. I had swum with whale sharks in the Maldives. Would I still be afraid?

Stepping onto the first plank, I found out. No

From the rainforest canopy, the view of the KL skyline is often dusted with smog. But it was still fine. 

View of the Petronas Twin Towers through the urban haze, from the old FRIM canopy walkway

The Twin Towers in the distance

Will FRIM make a new canopy walk?

The closure of the canopy walk is final. The trees have suffered injury, and need to heal. They cannot now bear the canopy, as they once did. 

It is said that FRIM are reviewing routes for a replacement walkway, but that it may be made of aluminium. ExpatGo has written about it, albeit in a slightly entitled tone and forgetting that the original canopy walkway's primary purpose was research, which is why the fee charged was so nominal. And so if there is no actual research need anymore, funding a replacement is a harder sell...

Today, there are other canopy walkways in Malaysia. In fact, in the heart of KL, inside Malaysia's smallest forest reserve of Bukit Nanas (the hill that KL Tower is on), there's another one. They're typically made of metal, sturdy and unwavering. They last longer. They can bear more weight, more people. 

More importantly: who will the new canopy walk be built for

But it's not the same. Those are invariably supported by pylons, which had to be constructed within the rainforest. They have the feeling of being too obviously made for people. For visitors. For tourism. The kind of thing you build, and expect to get a return on investment for. 

Looking out to the KL skyline from the FRIM canopy bridge

The FRIM canopy walk, on the other hand, was entirely composed of narrow planks suspended by a rope lattice construction. The walkway is so narrow that you can't really spread your legs apart. Trees were carefully chosen for the route as well as being capable of bearing the bridges. The entrance and exit towers blend in. 

It could only have been made by people who knew and cared about forests and trees.

When you walk upon them, your shoes thud softly against wood planks, the bridge bobbing slightly up and down with your step. Not the sing of sole scraping against metal, no metallic squeak of steel cables shifting. 

I hope FRIM does build a new canopy walkway. And I hope that the design and siting is completely up to them and their expert opinion, whether it's rope or aluminium, because I can trust them to put the forest first

But I would rather they do not build a replacement, if the replacement has to be funded with the expectation of profit. What was lost was not just 'a' canopy walkway. Not just a pile of rope and wood. 

It was this canopy walkway - along with all its intangible values. 

The rainforest floor within the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, a view looking down from the canopy walkway

The soul of the walkway is more important

FRIM - Things to do aside from the canopy walk

Even without the canopy walk though, FRIM is still a good place to visit for the nature-inclined. Although not yet a World Heritage Site, it's not just anywhere that can qualify to be considered in the first place. 

There is still the general hiking in the forest, a wetlands area, various botanical gardens and arboretums, a picnic waterfall. People come to cycle and jog by the lake, enjoy birdwatching (182 species), and there's even a collection of traditional timber houses. 

Perhaps I'll go again, for these other things, next time. 

Travel story 'Hikes of Kuala Lumpur: FRIM Canopy Walk' on travel blog Teja on the Horizon | View down the old rope bridge up the rainforest canopy in Kepong, Malaysia

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