Complete Guide to The World's (Almost) Oldest Rainforest!
I have been twice to the national park of Malaysia, our jewel - the rainforest of Taman Negara. It was, in fact, the first destination I chose for my first solo trip when I first decided to get back into travelling.
Taman Negara (literally, 'National Park') was the first Malaysian nature park to be gazetted. Located in peninsular Malaysia, the park covers some of the very oldest rainforest in the world - older than the Amazon - going back 130 million years. I would say the oldest (and it is still widely believed to be the oldest), except that Wikipedia says Australia actually has the oldest rainforest.
Although technically it stretches into the states of Terengganu and Kelantan, 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.
Kuala Tahan is a small town - barely more than a village - located across Sungai* Tembeling from Taman Negara itself. Basically, you need to cross Sungai Tembeling to enter Taman Negara. It 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.
River transport is via long, shallow, narrow boats locally called sampan, which these days is motorised. They are shallow so that it has only a very slight draught, and can more easily navigate rapids and shallow sections of the river. If you are staying in Kuala Tahan, you would 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.
Either the top or the bottom of the slope is where you would probably meet up with your guide for a tour. There are a few tour provider kiosks in the former location, if you are the spontaneous type and only want to start looking on arrival.
Despite the heavy tourism flow attracted by the draw of Taman Negara, Kuala Tahan has thankfully remained fairly small. 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 'floating' restaurants, lining the riverbank. Grilled corn on the cob, satay, or hot banana fritters prepared fresh to order at stalls set up on the river cobbles, and sent to you while you enjoy dinner in a floating restaurant.
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 in 2015 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 this in the cities of Malaysia. Not even in local hotels and local restaurants.
There was also always a local fruit option - the kind that rural people would grow in their back garden. Also seldom offered in more standard hotels in towns and cities. (Don't ask me why not. It baffles me too.) Yes, we actually have waaayyyy more kinds of interesting local fruits than just the (in?)famous durian.
On the other hand, it also means that other types of cuisine are less common. It means you wouldn't get alcohol in Kuala Tahan, except possibly very sparingly in a hotel or two. It means the 'nightlife' here is literally natural wildlife coming out at night. You go out at night to see it, not scare it away with parties. If the nature destination isn't enough of a draw on its own, then don't say I didn't warn you!
I cover this specifically, because if you come on a tour package everything would already be 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.
From wherever it is you started from, you would be headed to Jerantut. This is the last Pahang town before Kuala Tahan. The roads in Malaysia are good, so you should get here just fine. (The other drivers you may encounter on the road on the hand...).
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 significant. You can still drive it with any road car (you won't need to hire a 4x4), but this isn't a route that I would advise for night-time driving.
When you arrive in Kuala Tahan, unless there's parking where you stay, you would likely leave your car in a public parking lot, and then just walk in between your accommodation and other amenities. Buses park here too. This 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.
Where to stay
There are a great many options to choose from, but expect a 3-star level accommodation and down to hostels. Local ownership is relatively high, without the incursion of large or foreign hotel chains.
In most places expect more of a B&B local hospitality feel, as is common in Malaysian small towns, even if the infrastructure is like a hotel. Note 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. My advice is to just go for smaller lodging options, more homestay/ B&B or even hostel style. The owners likely run these themselves, so you probably would get a better response.
Instead of highlighting the types of accommodation, I will give you the options in terms of location types.
Kuala Tahan side
The great majority of accommodation options would be here. If you're on a tour package, this is probably where you would stay.
A place a little offset from the riverside is okay if you want a better class of rooms, and are ok with mainly eating in-house.
However, if you want to regularly eat down at the riverside or the restaurants up above, and like to browse the souvenir stalls, then stay much closer to the river. It is much more convenient.
I may have simply totally missed the true 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. 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.
A subset option is 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.
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 them, 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 probably need to get a river sampan take you along the river. The boat will drop you off by the river where the guesthouse is.
The downside to this option is that you're further from Kuala Tahan. You would be dependent on whatever is the transport option at your guesthouse, or be content with the in-house catering and the tranquil jungle.
Depending on the guesthouse, it may also have a land route. Like the one I stayed at in 2016, which was a 'capsule hotel' owned by my friend. The 'rooms' are actually concrete culverts. It was a cosy fit, but the novelty appealed to me. There is a route down the slope to the sandbank for a swim in the river (locals call it 'mandi sungai'**). Note: The riverbed under the water is a bit silty).
You can also hail passing river boats from the sandbank to take you to Kuala Tahan. But make sure you're not travelling with a stingy travel-mate. The boatmen might bargain, but not too much.
A plus of staying even a little bit away from Kuala Tahan, is you get to see some interesting life. Like funky insects.
Inside Taman Negara itself
There is only one hotel technically inside Taman Negara boundaries. This is the Mutiara Taman Negara. (I'm not getting anything from citing these accommodation options, by the way.) This resort lies just within the entrance to the park. It's also probably the nicest accommodation option in the area. Unsurprisingly, usually it gets booked up fast.
The main plus for staying here (aside from the better digs) is the nightlife. (LOL no! Not that kind! Nocturnal animals kind of night life.) If you're lucky, you might have some critters 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.
Taman Negara tours
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 cover a few others.
Although both times I went on a long weekend, you may not be able to do all of the following tours in one trip. It all depends on how tired you are beforehand, and how well adapted you are already to the Malaysian heat.
And then of course, 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.
Mount Tahan, by the way, is said to be a challenge to climb, requiring several days of trekking through jungle. Do not go without a guide familiar with the jungles here. Not even if you're the outdoorsy type and have camped in jungles elsewhere.
But for the nature-loving tourist who just wants to visit the ancient rainforest of Taman Negara, read on.
Canopy walkway hike
This is a rainforest hike that takes you through the near trails of the park, including 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.
It is possible to 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 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 various plants and trees you will encounter, and how local and aborigine people use them. He will also very likely have far better eyes to spot wildlife and curious insects. There are other trails that you can explore later if you have time, with or without a guide.
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.
However, the groups do get bunched up for the canopy walkway portion. For safety reasons, they release only a few people at a time up to the walkway, so that there aren't too many people on each span at any one time. So there may be a bit of waiting time at this point.
The canopy walkway is not open in rainy conditions.
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 village tour that is typically offered, is a visit to a Batek village.
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. Hence not very convenient for visiting. Basically the arrangement that tours have with certain tribes of the Batek is that, they would occupy a designated village left intact, and show tourists elements of their way of life.
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 while the Batek are not economically well-off as we conceive of it, 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 a different way of managing than we do.
Do feel free to ask the guide questions about Batek ways, but be open-minded. I have overheard a visitor ask her guide quite pushy questions, failing to appreciate that not every government would forcibly remove aborigine people from their preferred cultural context 'for their own good'. 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.
This part of the tour involves riding the sampan through some 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. 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 actually fasten the clips.
Jungle night walk
This is a guided walk along a trail in the near 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, because it is much more difficult for them to be seen at night.
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), so as 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
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 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.
The night safari is a different tour. It takes place on the Kuala Tahan side of the river, and therefore not inside Taman Negara.
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.
Lata Berkoh cruise
Perhaps at this point you might ask, but Teja, where is the place with the featured image at the very top?? The one that looks like a 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, as it is just a cruise up a tributary of Sungai Tembeling, called Sungai Tahan. It is more expensive than the other tours. You go only in a small sampan, maybe room for 4. Little more than a canoe. So you might think, perhaps I'll skip it.
Oh young Padawan. This is the one tour you should certainly take.
The romance of a thousand years
Don't complain about the early start. The magic hour casts a gentle light over the trees, and makes taking a good photo effortless. All of mine are only from an iPhone 5 and with no filters.
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.
If only I had stumbled upon it with the right one.
The glowing waters of the Tahan
The water is much clearer than that of Sungai Tembeling, and you realise that this is the natural state of the river. 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. And 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 with the morning light.
The sampan reaches as far as it could go. Beyond, the water of the stream is too shallow even for the river boat. Even to get there, the boatman had to pole his way through sometimes.
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 would 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.
Lata Berkoh hike - slowly.
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 the sunlight fell upon part of it through a break in the awning of trees. Diffused, somehow, it shimmered like a curtain 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?
On the return trip, very likely the boat would stop at the Kelah Sanctuary. The kelah is a freshwater fish local to the rivers, and the sanctuary area is basically a protected stretch where no angling is allowed.
Apparently 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. So it seems that it unnecessarily turns a sanctuary into more of a zoo.
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.
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.
Reflections on what it means to be 'permanent'
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'. As in 'Permanent Forest Reserve'. 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. And just very recently, the state of Terengganu degazetted 4,515 hectares of forest in one go, against the guidelines of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil.
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 government we would not dismiss sends hydraulic claws to sunder forever the romance of 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