I have been several times to the first-gazetted national park of Malaysia: our crown jewel, the rainforest of Taman Negara. Located in peninsular Malaysia, Taman Negara (literally, ‘National Park’) covers some of the very oldest rainforest in the world. It is older than the Amazon, going back 130 million years. I would have said the oldest, except that recent discoveries meant that Australia actually has the oldest rainforest.
- Yet another guide to Taman Negara
- Tips for getting to Taman Negara
- When not to go to Taman Negara
- Itinerary ideas to combine with a Taman Negara road trip
- Where to stay in Taman Negara
- Where to park in Kuala Tahan
- Kuala Tahan, the Gateway to Taman Negara
- The different ways to experience Taman Negara
- Day tour recommendations
- Recommended reading
Yet another guide to Taman Negara
It is very rare that I would write a guide on this website, unless one doesn’t already exist online. Certainly there are already many guides written for Taman Negara, given its status as the most valuable rainforest of peninsular Malaysia.
But the reason why I chose to write a Taman Negara guide anyway, is because I feel the existing guides are too dry. They reduce the rainforest into mere things to do, to check off a list. I feel that a Taman Negara guide should also give you a sense for the emotional experience of discovering pristine, ancient rainforest.
Tips for getting to Taman Negara
Most of Taman Negara is located within the borders of Pahang, but it actually stretches into the states of Terengganu and Kelantan. Nonetheless, if you intend to visit Taman Negara, very likely you would head towards Kuala Tahan, which is the Pahang gateway into the park.
If you’re coming on a tour package, chances are the logistics are already taken care of. However, if you intend to go to Taman Negara as part of a road trip (a great way to see Malaysia properly, by the way), then here are a few tips.
Wherever it is you start from, you should aim to reach Jerantut. This is the last Pahang town before Kuala Tahan. Unless you’re driving down from Kelantan, you would probably get on the East Coast Expressway, in which case you’ll take the Temerloh exit to Jerantut.
The roads in Malaysia are good, so you should get to Jerantut just fine. However, the road from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan may have sustained flood damage from monsoons, and be at different stages of repair. You won’t need to hire a 4×4, but it’s best not to drive this road after dark.
When not to go to Taman Negara
Although Taman Negara is pretty much nearly a year-round destination, there are a few weeks in the year when it is less ideal. Monsoon season in the December-January period often result in flooding across the state of Pahang. Rivers rise all through the state, including within Taman Negara itself.
Although most places you might be staying at will remain above water, many activities would be cancelled for safety reasons. In addition, the way out of Taman Negara may be underwater in some low lying portions, leaving you possibly stranded in Kuala Tahan. For this reason, if you do plan to go to Taman Negara near the monsoon season (i.e. early December or mid-January), it’s less advised to do it as a road trip, since it’s easier to evacuate people without vehicles.
Itinerary ideas to combine with a Taman Negara road trip
Taman Negara is not the only nature attraction in the Jerantut area. Below are a couple of nearby attractions that you can easily combine with a Taman Negara road trip. You will see signage for both as you drive towards Jerantut after exiting the East Coast Expressway.
Taman Eko Rimba Gunung Senyum
This is a recreational forest best visited with a local/tour guide. Activities include caving, climbing, trekking, and camping. The mountain and surrounding jungle contain sites of archaeological interest, and are associated with folk legend. This park is about halfway to Jerantut from where you exited the East Coast Expressway.
Kota Gelanggi caves
These are ancient cave complexes dated at 150 million years old. Believed to be the site of a lost kingdom, the caves are steeped in myth and legend. My caving trip there was with a trip organised by the Malaysian Nature Society, but today there are tour companies that run caving tours. Kota Gelanggi cave complex is near Jerantut town.
Where to stay in Taman Negara
Instead of describing the accommodation options by type, I’m going to do it in terms of location. I think this is actually more relevant for planning the Taman Negara experience you’re looking for.
1. Staying within Kuala Tahan
The majority of tourist accommodation options for Taman Negara are in Kuala Tahan. If you’re on a tour package, this is probably where you would be staying.
Choose a place a little further away from the riverside if you want a better class of rooms, and are ok with mainly eating in-house. This type of accommodation would also probably have its own parking area.
However, if you want to regularly eat down at the riverside at the floating restaurants, or like to be close to whatever action there is around the restaurants and souvenir stalls at the top of the river slope, then choose to stay much closer to the river. The walk would be a lot shorter.
An offbeat option, which is technically not within Kuala Tahan but I’m gonna list it here anyway, is to stay on the camping ground on the sandbank island in the middle of Sungai* Tembeling, between Kuala Tahan and Taman Negara. You can see it on the left in the photo above.
2. Staying inside Taman Negara itself
There is only one hotel technically inside Taman Negara boundaries, the Mutiara Taman Negara. This 3-star resort lies just within the entrance to the park. Unsurprisingly, it gets booked up fast.
The main plus point for staying here (aside from the familiarity of normal hotel services), is the nocturnal wildlife. If you’re lucky, some rainforest critters might decide to wander through the resort grounds – maybe even in front of your chalet! Wild pig, perhaps, or deer. Possibly something even rarer.
If this happens, relax. The resort staff are on it; it is safe. But do not approach, alarm, or otherwise disturb the animals. Just watch and enjoy.
3. Staying along Sungai Tembeling
Another option is to stay at guesthouses that have popped up along Sungai Tembeling, on the not-park side of the river. This is a bit more adventurous.
If you book a stay at one of these, the host will give you specific instructions to get to their location. But in general, basically you would arrive in Kuala Tahan, and then you will need to get a river sampan take you along the river. The boat will drop you off by the river where the guesthouse is. This does mean that you shouldn’t arrive too late in the day, so that you’d have time for the boat ride to your guesthouse.
Depending on the guesthouse, it may also have a land route. For example, on my second visit to Taman Negara, I stayed in a ‘capsule hotel’ at a nature resort owned by my friend Dan, which has a land route. If this is the case, then you would be picked up from Kuala Tahan at a rendezvous point.
The plus side of staying even a little bit away from Kuala Tahan, is you get to see some interesting life, like funky insects. You would also be able to indulge in a river swim (locals call it ‘mandi sungai‘**).
The downside to this option is that you’re further from Kuala Tahan. If you wanted to check out the shops and restaurants in town, it’s pretty inconvenient.
Where to park in Kuala Tahan
Unless there’s parking at your accommodation, you would be leaving your car at the Kuala Tahan public parking lot. It is easy to find, since it’s the only one and Kuala Tahan is not that big. Buses park here too, which kind of helps you spot where it is.
This parking lot is managed by the local village committee, and is fenced. In 2021, the parking fee was RM10 per day (it’s higher if you want to park under the roofed portion). You get a ticket receipt for the payment.
The parking lot is guarded in the daytime, and locked at night until the following morning. So don’t arrive too late, or it may already be locked. Try not to have to leave Kuala Tahan too early either, because they may not arrive to open it up yet, and you wouldn’t be able to get to your vehicle.
Leave your car there for the duration of your visit, even if you’re staying in Kuala Tahan. You should be able to just walk in between your accommodation and the other amenities or attractions.
Kuala Tahan, the Gateway to Taman Negara
Kuala Tahan is a small town – barely more than a village – located across Sungai Tembeling from Taman Negara itself. This means you need to cross Sungai Tembeling from the Kuala Tahan side, to enter Taman Negara.
Kuala Tahan stands on the high ground (see photo above), because when the river is in high flood, the waterline can reach all the way up there. If you are staying in Kuala Tahan, in order to cross to the rainforest, make your way to the top of the terraced slope, and down the steps to the boats. There, get a boat to ferry you across.
River transport is via long, shallow, narrow boats locally called sampan, which is motorised these days. They are shallow so that there is only a very slight draught, so you can easily navigate rapids and shallow sections of the river. The fee to cross to the park office is nominal, RM1 per person (~$0.25).
Park fees for Taman Negara
Once on the other side, ascend the steps into Mutiara Taman Negara resort. The park office is within the resort grounds, and is where you will pay the park entry fee.
The fees are shockingly cheap, for such an iconic national park. At only RM1 per person, it’s possibly the cheapest entrance fee worldwide for a nature park. However, there are additional fees (still quite nominal albeit more than RM1) for photography, fishing, etc. Drones are not allowed within the national park. I asked my friend who runs nature tours there, and he reckons it’s because they keep getting stuck in trees, which then requires expert climbing to get them down from the tall rainforest canopy.
Still an authentic Malay village.
Despite the heavy tourism flow attracted by the draw of Taman Negara, Kuala Tahan has remained fairly small. As a result, the atmosphere is still fairly close to the rural norms of Pahang and Malay life.
The rural Malay character also means that you wouldn’t get alcohol in Kuala Tahan, except possibly very sparingly in a hotel or two. And it means the ‘nightlife’ here is literally natural wildlife coming out at night.
On the plus side, you would usually get at least one dish at your resort that was not just Malaysian, but a Malay kampung (rural) dish. You would rarely find such dishes in the cities of Malaysia, not even in local hotels and local restaurants. That said, the local characteristic of Kuala Tahan also means that other cuisines are scarce.
The different ways to experience Taman Negara
There are different ways to experience Taman Negara, and it basically boils down to how far into the jungle you go. A long weekend trip would be enough to have some of the rainforest fringe experiences, and is the most popular. A little bit longer would be enough to add on short multi-day excursions into the jungle. The most demanding would be trekking into the deep jungle, typically as part of a Mount Tahan climbing expedition.
1. Jungle trekking to climb Mount Tahan
This is the longest expedition type from Kuala Tahan. The tallest mountain in peninsular Malaysia, Mount Tahan is located within Taman Negara. Although not as tall as Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, the climb to summit Mount Tahan is widely considered the hardest climbing trek in Malaysia, as you first have to cross thick jungle for days.
There are two typical routes to Mount Tahan. The trek starting from Merapoh to the west is shorter, but steeper. The trek from Kuala Tahan is longer, but not as steep. You could also climb up via one route and down the other. Whichever place you start from really depends on your personality; i.e., whether you prefer to get the hard part over with quickly, or ease into things. From Kuala Tahan, this trek is at least a 7 day hike, and should be undertaken by people with jungle survival skills.
It is easy to lose your way in the rainforest. Do not go without a guide familiar with the jungles of Taman Negara, not even if you’re experienced in camping outdoors and have camped in jungles elsewhere.
2. Overnight jungle expeditions
If you want to trek into Taman Negara, but not to the extent of the Mount Tahan climb, there are shorter multi-day tours where you get to spend one or two nights in the jungle. It’s best to request this type of experience in advance. It is not as popular as the jungle fringe experiences, and needs more preparation.
Two types of such trekking tours combine similar activities with slightly different emphasis. They typically involve trekking to a limestone cave and spending a night within. The difference is whether you prefer it to be wildlife-centric, or people-centric. In the first case, you’d spend a night at a hide, watching out for wildlife encounters. In the second case, you’d spend the extra night in a Bateq aboriginal village within the jungle.
There are also options to do long treks in the jungle, albeit returning to your accommodation at the end of the day.
These short tours don’t require you to have jungle survival skills, although reasonable fitness is desirable. You’d be looked after by licensed guides from where you booked the tour.
3. Day tours at the jungle fringe
The most popular and comfortable way to experience Taman Negara is via the variety of day tours. As they typically only take half a day (or part of the night), they don’t go far into the jungle – or at all. These are suitable for people visiting Taman Negara as a weekend trip. You could also fill up a week with nothing but day/night tours, and do them all. (If you do this, it’s best to discuss this with your tour provider in advance in order to plan the less popular tours).
Although it is possible to pack in the most popular tours in a single long weekend, it all depends on how tired you get from being out in the Malaysian heat. I would suggest scheduling in some lazy time to buffer your schedule a little bit. This also means that you can have a nap in the evening, so that you’re fresh for a night tour.
Day tour recommendations
Whether it’s your first time to Taman Negara, or you’re on a return trip, you would probably look into having a day tour or two. There’s a lot to choose from; I’ll cover the basics in two planning categories, so it’s easier to customise your itinerary. Then I’ll tell you my favourite tour of all.
1. Canopy bridge + orang asli village + rapid shooting tour
By far the most common tour offering is this triple combo. If it’s your first time to Taman Negara, you might as well tick this box. The canopy bridges are iconic, the Bateq people are indigenous to Taman Negara, and the rapid shooting is a lot of fun. An expanded version of this tour may include a trek to Teresek hill, which you could do before or after the canopy bridge.
Taman Negara’s canopy bridges
Taman Negara’s rainforest canopy bridges hold the record for the world’s longest canopy walkway built entirely by hand. It’s relatively close to the river, and the hike to it is not arduous if you’re reasonably fit.
You can do this hike without a guide. You still need to pay the fee to enter the park, but you can get trail maps from the park ticket counter. However, for a better experience, I advise you to go with a guide. Generally the nature guides here are knowledgeable and articulate. You would learn about the rainforest, the various plants and trees that you will encounter, and how local Malay and aboriginal peoples use them. He will also very likely have far better eyes to spot wildlife and curious insects.
The hike portion does not really feel crowded, although in peak times you would see/hear another group behind or up ahead with their guides. I think the guides time it between themselves to give tourists the best experience.
However, groups do get bunched up at the canopy bridge entrance. For safety reasons, park authorities only allow a few people at a time on to the bridges, so that there aren’t too many people on each span at any one time. The canopy bridges are not open in rainy conditions.
Visiting a Bateq village
The rainforest of Taman Negara is inhabited. The largest aboriginal group still living within the rainforest is the Bateq nation. Thus, the orang asli village you would visit as part of this tour will be one of the Bateq villages in the Kuala Tahan region of Sungai Tembeling’s riverbanks. On this tour, Bateq villagers would demonstrate elements of their way of life, such as blowpipe hunting and rattan weaving. Typically this tour takes place after the canopy bridge.
The Bateq are nomadic, and do not stay in one location for very long. However, some Bateq villages are left intact so that tourists can visit them. Local tour businesses make arrangements with the Bateq headman of the area for the villages willing to host tourists.
The Bateq retain much of their original lifestyle that is dependent on the rainforest. As a result, their way of life may appear extremely simple to city people. This does not mean that they are, as I once overheard a foreign tourist put it, ‘deprived’. The Bateq have their own elders, and are independent. In fact, in the jungle they are more in their element than us. As a guest, please refrain from assuming otherwise.
Go on a rapid shooting adventure!
This part of the tour involves riding motorised sampan through sections of the Sungai Tembeling where the water flows a bit faster. Depending on the height of the river, you feel the ‘rapids’ part of it more, or less. The boatmen and the guides will do their best to rock the boats at the rapids, and instigate water fights between the rushing boats by raising waves of water with an oar to splash the next boat. Although there’s not much more to it than that, it is actually quite fun. This is normally the final part of the tour, as you will get wet during this activity!
Safety message: Always wear the life jackets, and wear them correctly. Do not feel you’re too cool to fasten the clips.
2. Night tours in Taman Negara
There are a few activities you can do as part of your night-time itinerary. Three are regular, and one is pretty niche. Which one you choose depends on how tired you think you’ll be, and what you hope to see.
Go on a night walk
This is a guided walk along a trail in the nearer part of Taman Negara, which takes place (duh!) at night. The entire trail will be on a low plank walkway, for two reasons.
Firstly, it reduces the impact of heavy foot traffic on the rainforest trail.
Secondly, the rainforest has many creepy crawlies which are poisonous or otherwise deadly. Many of them are nocturnal. That being said, with a guide and staying on the footpath, the walk is very safe.
Most of the time, the guide will lead the group in near-darkness. He will ask you to use your flashlight sparingly, to reduce disturbance to the nocturnal life. Occasionally, when he detects something interesting, he will shine a light on it and show the group.
The first time I went to Taman Negara, the guide found a huge poisonous spider on the trunk of a tree. The you-can-die kind, not the get-a-rash kind. It was large and fuzzy, and he was really careful not to startle it. He gathered us all close so that he needed to flick the light on just once, and only briefly.
A really cool thing the guide would certainly seek to show if it’s there, are scorpions. This is because scorpions have an attribute that is particularly cool to show at night: They glow under ultraviolet light.
Go on a night river safari
This is a tour I have not done before, mainly because I did not know about it. This tour basically takes you along Sungai Tembeling on a tour boat equipped with a spotlight. You’ll be looking out for nocturnal animals that may be down on the riverbanks, such as panthers and boar.
Tour boats normally have a roof, so you’ll have cover against rain compared to the night walk. However, it’s not the cheapest night tour, so it’s not as popular with domestic tourists. You probably have to request this tour in advance.
Go on a night safari
The night safari is different from the night walk. It takes place on the Kuala Tahan side of the river, and therefore not actually inside – or even adjacent to – Taman Negara. This makes it possible for it to be a vehicle-based tour, which would be too disruptive for the park itself.
The guide will take you on a pickup truck, modified to carry benches on the flatbed behind. You would drive around the rural roads, looking for nocturnal wildlife.
Because of the proximity to Taman Negara, even with the river separating the two areas, wildlife does cross over. Panthers, for example, are known to hunt in the oil palm plantations. Bears have been seen on the more remote trunk roads. I once saw a slow loris hanging onto a telephone pole, and a sleepy little bird among the fronds of a palm tree.
I personally don’t prefer this tour. But it is a popular one, since it requires very little exertion, aside from being shaken about on the back of the vehicle.
Now I’ve only seen this offered by Danz Resort, my friend’s nature resort. When there are meteor showers, e.g. the Geminids, his guests get to lie down on the sandy riverbank to watch and photograph them. Bring your tripod and photography equipment if you want to capture the Milky Way. Bring an extra sleeping bag or thermal sleeping liner for extra comfort, as it can get cold by the river later in the night. Dan has some, but there might not be enough.
3. Must-do: Lata Berkoh tour
Perhaps by this point you might be impatient enough to ask, But where is the place in the feature image? The one that looks like a classic movie scene?
Well, I’ve saved my favourite tour for last.
You might see a tour called ‘Lata Berkoh’ (Berkoh rapids). It may sound boring, since it is just a cruise up Sungai Tahan, a tributary of Sungai Tembeling. You go in a small sampan, and there’s maybe room for 4. Little more than a canoe. Not only that, it costs more than the other tours.
So you might think, perhaps I’ll skip it.
Oh young Padawan. You have much to learn. This is the one tour you should certainly take.
And choose to have an early start, for the magic hour.
The breathtaking Sungai Tahan
The sampan scuds along the tributary, against the current. It keeps to the middle, occasionally weaving by a rock or a fallen timber. The magic hour casts a gentle light over the trees, and makes all your photos amazing. The slight changes in angle give you different perspectives of the breathtaking river-level view of great rainforest trees outstretched over the water, reaching to embrace.
Liana and vines weep from them in trailing tendrils towards the river. Their boughs ruffled with muffs of fern and scarves of orchid.
You may have your Paris and your Vienna. But the sight of these river-torn dryads, to me, is pure romance.
The glowing waters of the Tahan
The water of Sungai Tahan is much clearer than that of Sungai Tembeling, which is silty brown. Though the main rivers are always murkier than the headwaters, the Tembeling receives more silt due to deforestation outside of Taman Negara.
But though the water is clear, it is not colourless. There is a slight russet-brown gleam to it that’s translucent.
This is due to the ancient trees, fallen into their watery burial in flood and storm. The tannin from their decaying skins of bark bleed into the ever-flowing currents of the Tahan, staining it a glowing bronze in the morning light.
Lata Berkoh picnic spot
The sampan reaches as far as it could go. Beyond, the water of the stream is too shallow even for the river boat. To get there, the boatman has to pole his way through in certain sections.
We disembark. The boatman tells me that we need to hike the rest of the way to the picnic spot. He gives us a time for when we should be back for the return trip.
The hike is light, but I am glad I wore my hiking sandals for the tour. It isn’t far to the picnic spot, and we readily recognise it when we arrive.
The trail opens into a small clearing looking out over a curve in the river, buttressed by shelves of rock rounded and pitted by the shear of water over aeons.
Life buoys hang from signs sternly warning against swimming in the rapids. I reckon if we had brought a picnic, we could have it right there on the rocks.
Cruising back down the Tahan river
The river is beautiful both ways. However, the sun by this time had risen higher, and the magic hour was over.
Nonetheless, at certain portions where the river bends just right, the tree cover tempers and filters the harshness of the equatorial sun. And so you can still get dramatically lit views of the leaning trees on the way back.
Too soon, regretfully we cleared the tributary and re-entered the silty flow of Tembeling. Back ashore at Kuala Tahan. Much too soon.
Bonus: Kelah fish sanctuary
Along the way towards or back from Lata Berkoh, the boat would stop at the Kelah Sanctuary complex. The kelah (mahseer) is a freshwater fish local to these rivers, and the sanctuary area is basically a protected stretch where no angling is allowed. The centre now has information about kelah biology and its conservation. You can feed and play with the fish that linger in the shallows.
The 2019 Special Edition of the Malayan Nature Journal includes articles chronicling this history. This journal edition is hard cover and you can buy it on the Malaysian Nature Society online store.
Taman Negara was the first National Park in Malaysia, but there were Game Reserves in colonial Malaya before that. It almost didn’t come to be, for the development-minded colonial authorities – among them the most well-regarded Pahang Resident, Hugh Clifford – favoured economic development. This often meant converting forests into plantations.
Taman Negara’s genesis is interesting because it owes its existence almost solely to the single-minded efforts (and personal fortune) of an English engineer, former planter, and big game hunter, who turned conservationist later in life. In 1922, Theodore Hubback was appointed Honorary Game Warden for Pahang, mainly because he didn’t need to be paid a salary due to his financial independence. He then proceeded to become a thorn in the side of the colonial Administrators in Malaya by campaigning to preserve the rainforests that now form Taman Negara.
The story of Hubback reminds me that though forces in history could be judged as good or evil, individuals on either side cannot be classified so neatly.
* Sungai = river
** Mandi sungai = river bathing
Looking for an accessible rainforest experience? Pin this Taman Negara guide for your Malaysia itinerary plan!