The Slow Travel Guide to Taman Negara Ancient Rainforest
I have been twice to the first-gazetted national park of Malaysia: our crown jewel, the rainforest of Taman Negara. Taman Negara was, in fact, the first destination I chose for my first solo trip when I decided to get back into travelling.
Taman Negara (literally, ‘National Park’) is located in peninsular Malaysia, and covers some of the very oldest rainforest in the world. The rainforest 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
- Kuala Tahan – the Gateway to Taman Negara
- Road trip tips for getting to Taman Negara
- Where to park in Taman Negara
- Where to stay in Taman Negara
- My Taman Negara tour recommendations
- Hike to Taman Negara’s canopy walkway
- Visit an orang asli*** village
- Go on a rapid shooting adventure!
- Go on a jungle night walk
- Go on a night safari
- Take the Lata Berkoh cruise.
- Visit the kelah fish sanctuary
- ‘Permanent’ forest reserves in Malaysia
Yet Another Guide to Taman Negara
Technically Taman Negara stretches into the states of Terengganu and Kelantan; however, most of it is located in the state of Pahang. If you intend to visit Taman Negara, very likely you would head towards Kuala Tahan, which is the Pahang gateway into the park.
It is very rare that I would write a guide on this website, if 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 guide anyway for Taman Negara, 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.
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 in the photo below, because when the river is in high flood, the waterline can in fact 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 (in the vicinity of the hut with the blue roof), and down the steps to the boats.
To get across to Taman Negara, just get a boat to ferry you across. Once on the other side, ascend the steps to the park entrance, where you will pay the entry fee.
If you’re on a tour, you would probably meet up with your guide before crossing to Taman Negara, either at the top or the bottom of this slope. There are a few tour provider kiosks in the former location, if you are the spontaneous type and only want to start looking for guides on arrival.
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.
Kuala Tahan, 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.
What this means is, most of the restaurant options will give you the typical light local fare. You will get to sample local style ‘floating’ restaurants, lining the riverbank. Grilled corn on the cob, satay, or hot banana fritters can be prepared fresh to order from stalls set up on the river cobbles, which are then sent to you while you enjoy dinner in one of these floating restaurants.
Rustic fare in Kuala Tahan
Depending on your accommodation choice, you may not have to go all the way to the river for local food.
The place I stayed at the first time had a pretty good buffet, in that it always had at least one dish that was not just Malaysian, but a Malay kampung (rural) dish. You would not really find these in the cities of Malaysia, not even in local hotels and local restaurants.
There was also always a local Malaysian fruit in the buffet – the kind that rural Malaysians would grow in their back gardens. This is also seldom offered in more standard hotels in towns and cities. (Don’t ask me why. It baffles me too.)
On the other hand, the local characteristic of Kuala Tahan also means that other cuisines are difficult to come by.
In addition, 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. If the nature destination isn’t enough of a draw on its own, then don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Road trip tips for getting to Taman Negara
If you’re coming on a tour package, chances are the logistics are already taken care of.
However, if you intend to make Taman Negara as a stop on a road trip (a great way to see Malaysia properly, by the way), then there are a few things you should know.
The map above assumes that you start from Kuala Lumpur. But, wherever it is you started from, you should aim to reach Jerantut. This is the last Pahang town before Kuala Tahan.
The roads in Malaysia are good, so you should get to Jerantut just fine. (The other drivers you may encounter on the road, on the other hand, may be the real challenge). However, the road from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan can be quite poor, because it is shared with oil palm plantation trucks often carrying heavy loads.
The authorities repair them every so often, but different portions may be at a different repair stage. So, depending on the damage and weather, some of the potholes can be really big. You won’t need to hire a 4×4, but I don’t advise driving this road after dark.
Where to park in Taman Negara
Unless there’s parking at your accommodation, you would need to find parking. There is one public parking lot, which 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. I forgot how much the fee is, but in 2016 it was something like RM5 a day. You get a ticket receipt for the payment.
The parking lot is fenced. It 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 up. 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. You should be able to just walk in between your accommodation and the other amenities or attractions.
Where to stay in Taman Negara
There are many options to choose from, which isn’t surprising considering Taman Negara’s tourism draw status.
However, this is one of the few top-tier tourist attractions in Malaysia which somehow has not been taken over by big resorts. So, expect your options to comprise 3-star level accommodation, down to hostels. Local ownership of the tourism businesses is high, without the incursion of large or foreign hotel chains.
Indeed, if you’re a sustainable-minded tourist looking for destinations in Malaysia that support local livelihoods, Taman Negara is a pretty good choice.
Expect more of a B&B local hospitality feel, as is common in Malaysian small towns (even when the infrastructure is built like a hotel). Please note that the flip side to this is that attention to detail can be… inconsistent. For instance, whether soap would get replaced when it runs out, etc. may not necessarily happen unprompted 100% of the time. Hospitality training would not be on par with big hotels and cities.
My advice is to go for smaller lodging options, more towards a homestay, B&B, or even small hostels. The owners likely run these personally, so you probably would get a better response.
Now, instead of highlighting the classes of accommodation, I will summarise the options in terms of location types. I think this is actually more relevant to the kind of Taman Negara visit you’re looking for.
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, or like to be close to whatever action is there around the restaurants and souvenir stalls at the top of the slope, then choose to stay much closer to the river. The walk would be a lot shorter.
I may have simply totally missed the Taman Negara peak periods both times I went, but even though Taman Negara is a major tourism draw, Kuala Tahan does not feel like it’s insufferably crowded. It’s not like some other tourism destinations in the region, where I didn’t even feel up to leaving my room sometimes. So it’s not a big deal to stay right at the gateway to the park, even for an introvert.
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 first Kuala Tahan photo above.
If your preferred travel style is ‘unplanned’, Taman Negara is fairly forgiving. I’d say that you could look for accommodations after arriving in Kuala Tahan, and not be in trouble.
Staying along Sungai Tembeling
Another option is to stay at guesthouses and novelty resorts that have popped up along Sungai Tembeling, on the not-park side of the river.
This is a bit more adventurous. To be honest I don’t know how foreign tourists even find out about some of these obscure places, but they do.
If you somehow discover one and book a stay, doubtless they will give you the necessary instructions. But 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, I stayed in a ‘capsule hotel’ owned by my friend, which had a land route. If this is the case, then you would be picked up from Kuala Tahan at a rendezvous point.
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, you would be dependent on whatever transport option is available at your guesthouse. Extroverts, take note.
Alternatively, you can also hail passing river boats from the sandbank to take you to Kuala Tahan. Don’t be too stingy! The boatmen might bargain, but not too much.
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‘**).
If you can content yourself with the in-house catering, this is a great option to bask in the tranquil jungle. It is the next best option for this type of stay, other than within Taman Negara itself.
Staying inside Taman Negara itself
There is only one hotel technically inside Taman Negara boundaries, the Mutiara Taman Negara. This resort lies just within the entrance to the park. Mutiara Taman Negara is also probably the nicest accommodation option in the area. Unsurprisingly, it gets booked up fast.
The main plus point for staying here (aside from the better digs) is the nightlife. (Yes, I’m still talking about 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. Perhaps something else more exotic.
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.
My Taman Negara tour recommendations
By far the most common tour offering is the triple threat combo of canopy walkway + orang asli village + rapid shooting. So I’ll cover these first and give an overview of what they involve. Then I’ll cover a few other options, with my favourite one last of all.
Although it is quite possible to pack in everything 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.
A special note for the serious outdoor enthusiast: If you are looking to really go deep into the jungle, for instance to camp inside it or to trek and climb Mount Tahan, then that is an entirely separate endeavour from those covered in this article.
Mount Tahan is said to be a challenging climb, requiring several days of trekking through jungle. It is easy to lose your way in the rainforest. Do not go without a guide familiar with the jungles here. Not even if you’re experienced in camping outdoors and have camped in jungles elsewhere.
Hike to Taman Negara’s canopy walkway
This is a rainforest hike that takes you through the nearer trails of the park to an elevated walkway. This elevated walkway, the world’s longest canopy walkway, is the bit that takes you up to the rainforest tree canopy level. So it’s pretty awesome. A must-do, especially now that the canopy walkway inside the Forest Research Institute in Kuala Lumpur is retired.
You can do this hike without a guide (you still need to pay the fee to enter the park). It’s a fairly easy hike, and you can get trail maps from the park ticket booth.
However, for a better experience, I advise you to go with a guide. Generally the nature guides here are really good, and articulate. The guide would tell you about the rainforest, about 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 walkway portion. For safety reasons, park authorities only allow a few people at a time on to the walkway, so that there aren’t too many people on each span at any one time. The canopy walkway is not open in rainy conditions.
Besides this hike, there are other trails that you can explore later if you have time, with or without a guide.
Visit an orang asli*** village
The rainforest of Taman Negara is inhabited. The largest aboriginal group still living within the rainforest is the Batek nation. The orang asli village tour that is typically offered is a visit to a Batek village. It was here that I bought my bracelet woven of rattan strips, which I gave away to a girl in the Maldives who had admired it.
Note that the village you will visit is most likely not going to be a ‘real’ village. This is because the Batek are nomadic, and do not stay in one location for very long. Therefore, aside from privacy considerations, it is not practical for tour purposes to actually visit a live Batek village, which could shift location at any time.
However, tour businesses have arrangements with certain tribes of the Batek, in that some of them would continually occupy a designated village left intact, in order to show tourists elements of their way of life, such as blowpipe hunting and rattan weaving.
Etiquette for visiting a Batek aboriginal village
Do feel free to ask the guide questions about Batek ways. The Batek in the show village are happy to indulge curiosity about their culture and worldview. However, please be open-minded.
I have overheard a visitor ask her guide quite pushy questions about why ‘the government’ leaves the Batek in these ‘deprived’ villages. Fortunately the guide was quite diplomatic and handled it well. But it was a bit awkward – especially as the Batek man who was his friend was right there.
While the Batek are not economically well-off in the way of non-rainforest people, and have less access to schooling and healthcare, they are not ‘deprived’. The rainforest supplies them, and they lead simple lives. Consequently they have a different pace of life, and may maintain value priorities that are different from us.
For example, the Health Ministry may send doctors to provide medical care, but the tribes may opt out of some interventions. Education officials may bring in books to the villages – but the books may end up as mere fire-starters.
While we see civilised life as a plus, with its access to education and modern healthcare, that does not mean it is right for a government to forcibly remove aboriginal people from their preferred cultural context ‘for their own good’.
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. Although there’s not much more to it than that, it is actually quite fun!
You will get quite wet during this activity! If not naturally from the rapids, the guides will very likely instigate water fights between the rushing boats, by raising waves of water with an oar to splash the next boat. Before long, we tourists picked up oars and joined in too!
Safety message: Please wear the life jackets, and wear them correctly. Do not feel you’re too cool to fasten the clips.
Go on a jungle 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.
And 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 (if you brought your own), to reduce disturbance to the nocturnal life. Occasionally, when he detects something interesting, he will shine a light on it and show the group.
Memorable cool critters on the night walk
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 of poison, 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 safari
The night safari is a different tour from the night walk. It takes place on the Kuala Tahan side of the river, and therefore it is not actually inside Taman Negara. This makes it possible for it to be a vehicle-based tour, which would be too disruptive for inside 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, and into the nearby oil palm plantations.
Because of the proximity to Taman Negara, even with the river separating the two areas, wildlife does cross over to the ‘human side’. Panthers, for example, are known to hunt in the oil palm plantations. You might see a slow loris hanging onto a telephone pole. And sleepy little birds among the fronds of palm trees.
Take the Lata Berkoh cruise.
Perhaps by this point you might be impatient enough to ask, But where is the place with 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 cruise’ (Berkoh rapids). It may sound boring, since it is just a cruise up Sungai Tahan, a tributary of Sungai Tembeling. Not only that, it is more expensive than the other tours. You go in a small sampan, and there’s maybe room for 4. Little more than a canoe.
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.
Don’t complain about the early start. The magic hour casts a gentle light over the trees, and makes all your photos amazing. All of mine are only from an iPhone 5, with no filters.
The romance of a thousand years
The sampan scuds along the tributary, against the current. It keeps to the middle, occasionally weaving by a rock or a fallen timber. 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 is much clearer than that of Sungai Tembeling, and when you realise that this is the natural state of the river, you weep for the beauty that must have been, all along the banks of the Tembeling.
The murky yellow of Sungai Tembeling is because of the silt that washes into it from upriver. Upriver, where the unprotected forest is logged away.
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.
But, coming unprepared, and not foolish enough to disregard the signs, we merely gaze at the river.
And then we wander back.
Hiking back from Lata Berkoh
I hiked large portions of the trail alone on the return trip. The day was warming, but the sun was not yet too high. But what made me slow down, and stop completely, was that I happened to glance at the stream as I walked.
The water was nearly still, the flow imperceptible. But sunlight fell upon part of it through a break in the awning of trees.
Diffused, somehow, the rays shimmered like a curtain of light. It was like a fairy tale. I wouldn’t have been too surprised to glimpse a celestial princess frolicking in the water, having descended down a beam of light.
I thought to call my friend, but he was already too far away. And so this sight was mine alone.
I looked around more after that. In keeping with the fey theme, I found mushrooms, including one that formed a shelf partway up the trunk of a tree. Green moss overtopped it, and I fancied fairies dancing upon it in the starlight.
We Malays have our fairy folk too, orang bunian. I wonder if it was true that they were our size – or might they be as small as fairies after all?
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.
Visit the kelah fish sanctuary
On the return trip, the boat would very likely stop at the Kelah Sanctuary. The kelah is a freshwater fish local to these rivers, and the sanctuary area is basically a protected stretch where no angling is allowed.
Supposedly, you could feed and play with the fish in the shallows. I’m not sure this is the kind of activity I associate with a proper sanctuary, especially the feeding part. While it may not be too harmful for the fish, it seems to be contrary to maintaining the fish’s ability to function naturally in its own ecosystem.
This is the only part of Taman Negara that I had misgivings about. I would really like to know the opinion of a kelah and freshwater ecosystem biologist about it. It seems that it is less sanctuary and more of a zoo?
‘Permanent’ forest reserves in Malaysia
The rainforest of Taman Negara is one of those jewels of natural beauty and biodiversity of Malaysia which is so obvious and so old, that people like me sort of take for granted that it would safely remain protected. And maybe it is enough of a tourism draw, that it would be.
But Malaysia’s various state governments have a peculiar comprehension of the word ‘permanent’. A ‘Permanent Forest Reserve’ does not mean to them the same thing it means to the rest of us.
Selangor de-gazetted a strip from its own exceptionally precious water catchment zone for a highway not too long ago. This is like New York removing protections for its upstate watersheds. The state of Terengganu degazetted 4,515 hectares of forest in one go, against the guidelines of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. And it doesn’t seem to matter which political party is in power.
Every few years, in one state or another, tracts of forest already gazetted as permanent forest reserves would somehow be cleared for developing, forcing citizens to mobilise objections. It gets really tiring. You’d think that you could leave a forest reserve be without worrying about it being developed when you’re not looking, for at least 100 years.
Not in Malaysia.
I used to say, I really should see Venice before it is abandoned due to sea level rise. I should see the monarch butterflies before they are extinct.
But I wonder if I should also think about what fey and precious loveliness I should see here in our deep woods. Before the complicit government allows greedy hands to send hydraulic claws, that sunder forever the rainforest’s embracing trees.
To support or learn more about Malaysian environmental conservation, visit the website of Malaysia’s oldest nature society, the Malaysian Nature Society. Another rainforest I visited, the Royal Belum in the state of Perak, was finally gazetted a forest reserve through long years of advocacy by MNS together with its partners.
* Sungai = river
** Mandi sungai = river bathing
*** Orang asli = aborigine