Welcome to the jungle
After some refreshing days in the Highlands, it was time to get back down to the tropics. Our last stop on peninsular Malaysia was Taman Negara in the state Pahang, which literally means “National Park” in Malay. The park covers a protected area of more than 4000 km2 of tropical rainforest, estimated to be more than 130 million years old and has the reputation as the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. It is home to many different species of animals, even some few tigers and wild elephants, rhinos, monkeys, birds… so after our bad luck in Periyar, India we started a second attempt to wildlife spotting, hoping that this time we would be more lucky.
Even though Taman Negara Pahang is a famous eco-tourism destination in peninsular Malaysia, is remains a quite remote place. To get there from Cameron Highlands it was a 5 hours minivan ride – o dear, how I started to hate those vehicles! – to the small town of Kuala Tembeling and from the jetty there a 3 hours long tail boat ride through shallow river waters to Kuala Tahan, the village in front of the park headquarters. The boat ride was already an attraction in itself, leading us along shorelines more and more covered by deep forest.
From the boat we already saw several animals: buffaloes taking a bath, goannas – which looked like small crocodiles – shifting their heavy bodies along the shoreline to have some water and several colorful birds watching our boat from a safe position in the leafy trees – among others again the kingfisher.
Kuala Tahang is a good example of a village waking up to serve Western style eco-tourism needs little by little. It has a good selection of guest houses, food stalls and floating restaurants on the river, but the location beneath the sandy river banks, the hot and sunny climate and the surrounding jungle still are full of unexploited potential.
Some hundreds of meters outside the village found one of the nicest guesthouses we’ve had so far in our trip and one of the most similar places to the Goan corner in Hampi. Run by a local Malay family, it basically was a backyard with small cottages spotted around in the middle of mango and papaya trees. Ours was the one most up the hill, covered by the leaves of surrounding trees and so remained fresh during the day. It had a small terrace in the front and a water boiler, so in the morning we could have our coffee with condensed milk and biscuits sitting there and enjoying the view of jungle hills and observing the squirrels running through the trees.
We spent the first day just enjoying the unexpectedly nice place we had got to, walking along the riverside, watching local boys playing football and later in the afternoon groups of women having a bath in the river.
Our first encounter with the forest was at night, as we decided to take a guided night walking tour in order to experience the jungle sounds at night. A nice idea, but unfortunately all groups walk along the same trail in the park entrance and so the noise is far too much to spot anything else but some spiders, snakes, giant ants and with a lot of luck, a scorpion. The biggest nighttime attraction was a semi-domesticated tapir the staff of the jungle resort attracts each night with tons of watermelon pieces so it comes into the resort and people can take pictures of it. Not really a wildlife spotting experience, but nevertheless interesting to get so close to a tapir in an environment other than a zoo.
Deceived – again! – by the tour service, we decided to do the jungle trekking the next day on our own. It was a walk of 6km well signposted trail, first leading us to a 500m canopy walk installed at about 1.5km from the headquarters, which made you walk at about 40m above the soil, in the middle of the treetops. The rope walkways were quite shaky and while doing one step in front of the other it was definitely not a good idea to lean over and look down.
The trail continued up a hill with a very nice view and then down again to the river side. More we went up, less people we met on the track and we could enjoy the authentic noise of the jungle – insects, bugs screaming like a baby, birds singing, giant leaves falling. We even spotted a wild pig -even though from a far distance – and some more goannas, but now bigger animals. To my big relief, I have to admit, as I still had a story from our Israeli firends in mind who did a guided jungle walk in Nepal and ended up being chased by a male wild elephant and then by a rhino. We found some dry elephant poop on our trail, which already made my heart beat a little faster and my feet walk a little quicker.
The trek was by far easier than the one we did in Cameron Highlands, but passing noon the heat and the sun did their part to make us tired, so we were happy to return in the afternoon to our little hut paradise. We had started to already consider it a little bit our home, so that leaving it the next day to catch the morning local bus to Jerantut, heading towards Kuala Lumpur, was a little more sad than the normal goodbye.