Looking for the World's Largest Flower in Royal Belum Rainforest
I picked the Malaysian state of Perak for my next long weekend that year. When I thought about where exactly I would go, I decided to skip over the more popular go-to destinations such as Ipoh and Kuala Kangsar. Instead, I thought I would go to the northern part of Perak and check out the Royal Belum Rainforest. It was quite recently gazetted a protected state forest at the time, after years of campaigning by the Malaysian Nature Society.
Although not as well known as the iconic Taman Negara rainforest, at around 130 million years old, Belum rainforest is likewise ancient - older than the Amazon. Uniquely, all 10 of Malaysia's hornbill species can be found in Perak's Belum-Temeggor Forest Complex. (Surprisingly, Sarawak - dubbed the 'Land of Hornbills' - actually only has 8 out of 10). Wouldn't it be amazing to be lucky enough to have a flight of hornbills pass overhead while jungle trekking??
In addition, you could also find the rafflesia in Royal Belum, which is the largest flower in the world. Growing up, I knew that you can find rafflesia in Sabah's rainforests (it is Sabah's state flower), but I did not know that the peninsula had them too. So I thought it was about time for me to see the rafflesia for the first time.
- Road trip to Royal Belum Rainforest
- Belum Rainforest Resort
- Things to do in Royal Belum Rainforest
- Spotting the Rafflesia - the Largest Flower in the World
- Hiking to the salt lick in Belum rainforest
- A visit to an Orang Asli (aborigine) village
- Belum Rainforest in Perak vs Taman Negara in Pahang
Road trip to Royal Belum Rainforest
Getting to Belum Rainforest Resort is pretty easy, only that it's quite far from KL, and you probably have to drive it. Hence, you're looking at a considerable road trip just for a long weekend. However, it would make a great stop along a longer Malaysian road tripping holiday, where you would hit multiple off-the-beaten-track locations in the peninsula (highly recommended).
I suggest taking the western route through Perak, since there are a lot of cool stops in Perak, spanning local history, nature of all kinds, culture, colonial heritage, hipster cafes, old towns. The PLUS highway (if you prefer getting on there in between stops) has better R&R amenities as well.
You could also approach from the other way, but going through Pahang (and probably Kelantan also) nowadays just breaks my heart. The route has neither the history and old culture. Worse, it now has lost its incredible jungle landscapes too.
Plus, since the reason the jungle is gone is because it is being heavily logged and/or turned into oil palm plantations, the roads are often also used by overburdened trucks. So it isn't even a good drive. Anyway, for all those reasons, please skip the route on the right. (And if anyone from Perak tourism is reading this - please keep your nature, since you're looking like the default winner for ecotourism potential in central Malaysia just by doing absolutely nothing).
Road trip tip: What to do if you encounter elephants in Gerik
The last stretch to the rainforest from Gerik (in northern Perak) has elephant crossing warnings. Signboards are posted at intervals providing guidance as to what you should do if there are elephants crossing, but they are in Malay. Foreign guests driving to the resort should take note that the signs basically say that you should:
- stop and let them pass,
- switch off your headlights,
- do not honk your horn,
- do not get out of the vehicle.
My nature guide also said that if you have car trouble and might be stranded for a bit, pull in your side mirrors in case you have an elephant encounter while waiting for road assist. The elephants don't like seeing their reflection. And, when elephants aren't happy, you won't be happy.
Belum Rainforest Resort
I decided to book myself into the Belum Rainforest Resort for my long weekend. I chose this resort because of its sustainability credentials, which Green Pearls had at the time conveniently reviewed and certified.
Most resorts don't really go beyond the tepid 'please re-use towels' as their claim to being sustainable. It's not often that you find a resort that takes sustainability seriously right from the design stage, where it should begin. But this one did. A coffee table book inside the room explained the entire sustainability process of designing, constructing, and staffing of the resort.
Belum Rainforest Resort is a sprawling resort built on Pulau Banding, an island in the middle of the river separating Royal Belum State Park from civilisation. This achieved two things: the water barrier naturally discouraged wildlife incursion into the resort grounds, and at the same time it maintains a buffer distance between the resort's activities and the wild jungle rhythms.
Luxury rainforest stay
I liked the architecture of this resort. It has a kind of a concrete-bamboo rainforest-industrial-bunker chic. It predated Malaysia's urban uptake of the hipster-industrial aesthetic in interior decorating, so it was novel when I saw it.
The resort sprawls across different multi-level buildings within spacious grounds, which also included more conventional detached chalets and villas.
I stayed in one of the rooms in the multi-level buildings. These were actually quite cool, albeit difficult to photograph. They weren't your typical high density hotel resort type of buildings. These were short blocks, connected to each other via an open air network of catwalks and platforms. Some of the platforms have a lounge area with games, or house an open air library.
In terms of the design, I'd say it is the best attempt I'd seen so far at constructing modern, comfortable accommodations by a rainforest.
Rainforests are usually very unco-operative when it comes to this. It is extremely hard to defend your buildings from being damaged by nocturnal wildlife, the incessant biomass, the persistent humidity, the jungle constantly trying to grow over it and critters constantly trying to come in. But this resort did a pretty decent job of it, somehow maintaining close to 5 star ambience inside, while not being an offence to nature. There's even a private outdoor bath attached to the room, if you want a soak while listening to rainforest sounds!
Things to do in Royal Belum Rainforest
The activities in this location revolve around nature tourism, and is ideal for those who want to have a more secluded stay. There are no nearby towns or villages, so it really is either a resort or a camping sort of destination.
River Excursion and Hikes
The resort organises nature activities that you can join. I had only one full day because the other two days were driving days, so I took a river excursion that basically covered the bases. Of course, it had to include rafflesia spotting!
In the morning I wandered down to the jetty, which was where the excursion group would meet the nature guides for a briefing.
There was some kerfuffle concerning whether there were enough riverboats and hints that we might have to take the houseboat instead. I secretly rooted for the houseboat... it would be slower and so the tour would take longer but... hey it's a river houseboat!
However, in the end the guides determined that there were in fact enough riverboats (boo!). So the briefing began. Then we split up and boarded the boats with our respective guides.
Nature guides of Belum rainforest
It had been a long time since the last time I took a nature tour in my own country. I was pleasantly surprised to find the guides very good. They were articulate, confident, knowledgeable, fit, and handle groups well. Clearly they were well trained. All of them were local, which was part of the sustainability principles of the resort.
I remember the lead guide in particular. He was fluent in English - city fluent (a confident command of conversational English is less common in rural Malaysia).
It emerged that he was once a bank officer in the big city, a professional office job which made his parents happy. [I pause here for all Asian readers to nod in understanding]. But after some time, he quit that job to do full time what he really loved, nature guiding. He did not explain whether his parents have been discharged from the ICU yet!
I remember watching the young men shepherding their groups, taking charge and explaining what we were seeing. I thought: these guys, if they had been made to work in the towns and cities at some 'clean' office job, would they be as self-assured and confident? Here, they were near the outdoors they enjoyed, and they looked like they felt empowered.
People should to be able to make a living, where they are happy.
Spotting the Rafflesia - the Largest Flower in the World
That says it all, really.
The rafflesia flower is not particularly (ok, at all) beautiful. Not your 'flower garden', Instagrammable sort of flower.
Neither was it fragrant, unless you were looking for rotting flesh. I hope not, since this would mean one of only two things: that you probably should use the search engine to look for some medical therapy instead of reading my blog, or that flies - the rafflesia's insect pollinator - can now read! But it is huge, at least as far as flowers go. And that is its claim to fame.
The riverboat made a landing at a kind of sandy cove. A black gap in the trees was where the hiking trail begin.
The trees closed over the trail, in the typical way of the rainforest. The morning sunlight was buffered throughout the trail, but occasionally it spears through to wash the forest floor with shafts of light.
It was not a long hike, nor a difficult one. Before long we came to the clearing where the rafflesia grew. They are parasitical plants, so you would find the vines growing on host trees and wood.
The guide explained that at the moment there were no rafflesia in full bloom, as he sifted through the leaf litter to locate the flowers.
However, all the other stages - from budding to withered - were represented.
Just my luck.
Also, there were no hornbills flying overhead thus far.
Hiking to the salt lick in Belum rainforest
We hiked back to the boat and went to the next stop along the river, where we would be taken to see a salt lick. It was a similar short hike through the jungle.
I don't remember very much about the botany that the guide explained along the way. However, I did think this procession of ants was kind of interesting - even if it makes your skin crawl a bit.
The salt lick that we came to was not the typical salt lick of my imagination, i.e. on the ground near a spring. It was a hole in the hill.
The interesting thing about this salt lick was that it was created by elephants! According to the guide, elephants 'know' if the hill has salt deposits within. So sometimes they gore the hillside with their tusks where the deposit is to get to the salt. Once they have made the salt lick hole, it then becomes a focal point for other jungle animals as well.
So, elephants are cool. Taking their tusks are not cool - because then they can't make the salt licks anymore.
A visit to an Orang Asli (aborigine) village
The final stop was a visit to the aborigine village (I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't remember which tribe, now). However, before we got there, we made a couple of other stops.
A river lunch by the waterfall
The boat headed to a waterfall where the water streamed over sheets of slate. While it was moored there, we enjoyed the view while we ate from the packed lunches that were included in the tour.
Here the resort fell a bit short on sustainability. The food was all packed in plastic, with plastic cutlery. All of it went into a great big garbage bag afterwards. I had my water bottle with me, so I washed and ate with my hands and gave back the cutlery unopened.
When we were done, the boat proceeded to the aborigine village, passing by a few circles of aquaculture pens along the way.
A village shop
Earlier in the day, we had also stopped by a kampung (=village) by the riverside. I cannot recall the name.
The boat moored at a jetty. A long set of steps led up a tall riverbank to the village on top, passing under a lovely flowering arch near the top. If you look back, it makes a beautiful frame of the river.
Right by the stairs was a grocery shop. This stop was for us to purchase general household goods as visitor gifts to the Orang Asli whose village we would visit later. Always the practical sort, I chose a bag of rice.
The aborigine village in Belum rainforest
I had already been to Taman Negara before this. There, I had already visited a very similar riverside village of a rainforest-dwelling tribe.
It was a small village, as the rainforest peoples often settle and roam in small groups. Nipa-thatched roofs rest over little huts sided with woven walls, perched low on stilts. Ducks sat in fluffy contentment under the houses, with ducklings scampering around. An unusually territorial cat hissed at my friendly overtures.
The guide presented our gifts to the village elder, along with anyone who wished to give theirs in person. We were given an overview of the aborigine river life, then were allowed to wander through the village for a little while.
And no. Still no flights of hornbills swept overhead. Oh well.
Belum Rainforest in Perak vs Taman Negara in Pahang
The Belum-Temenggor forest complex is actually comprised of two contiguous forest - the Belum side, and the Temenggor side.
Only the Belum side is protected, after much campaigning led by the Malaysian Nature Society on the basis of its outstanding biodiversity value. So now it is officially Royal Belum State Park. The Temenggor side still has active logging licenses in operation, even though the two sides are ecologically connected. Belum Rainforest resort also hosts a WWF research station, whose camera traps have logged tigers in the forest. They hope that it is a healthy population.
Nonetheless, in terms of a nature tourism destination, you might say that Belum rainforest is Perak state's answer to the older and much more famous Taman Negara in Pahang. Generally speaking, the rainforest experience is very similar between the two, if you're intending to come just for a short visit.
In terms of connectivity, you can tack on the popular Cameron Highlands with either one.
Pick Taman Negara if you're looking for...
Convenience & name recognition
More tours from Kuala Lumpur are available to take you to Taman Negara, since it is the primary rainforest destination of peninsular Malaysia. So it is more convenient to reach. Plus, it is a more well-known rainforest, albeit not as well known as Sarawak and Sabah.
Lower budget accommodation
The variety of accommodation options is higher and more towards the lower-cost options at Taman Negara. Yet it is still sustainable in the sense that pretty much most (if not all) of them are locally owned businesses, and no foreign resorts.
A place that's a bit more social
The village of Kuala Tahan abuts Taman Negara across a river. With one exception, you would be staying on the village side if you were visiting Taman Negara. The village has riverside night-time dining, night markets etc. so it is a bit more social in that sense. Also, there are hostel sorts of accommodations and at peak times, the river island in between hosts a camping ground and ball games. Note: alcohol is not common in rural Malaysia.
Pick Belum rainforest if you are looking for...
High comfort + near a rainforest
This combination does not exist in Taman Negara. So if you (or people you're travelling with) are not keen to sacrifice a certain standard of comfort, Belum rainforest is the clear pick.
You can find accommodation options near Taman Negara that gives a more secluded stay, but you have to look for it, and it wouldn't be upscale. Whereas Belum rainforest gives this vibe by default. If you are in Belum Rainforest Resort, you could also rent the houseboat, and be completely away from land.
A combination road trip in Peninsular Malaysia
Location-wise, if you choose Belum rainforest, you can make a more interesting road trip through the state of Perak.
This would allow you to pick up a great range of Malaysian history (Malay sultanate era, Kinta Valley tin mining era, British colonial presence); detour to Cameron Highlands; engage in outdoor activities near Gopeng (caving, river tubing/rafting, rock climbing); stop by Ipoh for the limestone hill temples, street art, and old town culture; and finish in Penang for the world-famous street art and UNESCO Heritage city. And that's just off the top of my head as a non-Perakian!
Interested to add Belum rainforest to your road trip itinerary? Pin for later!
Also check out my complete guide to Taman Negara!