Peninsular Malaysia’s interior comprises a vast swathe of territory, stretching northeast of Kuala Lumpur all the way up to Kota Bharu on the east coast. Until recent times this was a remote region of steep, sandstone peaks with knife-edge ridges and luxuriant valleys inhabited by Orang Asli groups. Colonial administrator Hugh Clifford described the terrain in the 1880s as “smothered in deep, damp forest, threaded across a network of streams and rivers.” Indeed, rivers were the sole means of transportation until prospectors, investors and planters opened the interior up through the twentieth century; companies built the earliest roads and a railway arrived in the 1920s, helping to establish the townships of Temerloh, Gua Musang and Kuala Lipis.
Much of the interior has now been logged, settled and tamed, though Clifford’s deep, damp forests survive in the dense chunk of undeveloped jungle that is Taman Negara (literally “National Park”). Gazetted as Malaysia’s first national park in 1925 and covering 4343 square kilometres, Taman Negara forms by far the largest tract of rainforest in Peninsular Malaysia; it contains some of the oldest rainforest in the world, which has evolved over 130 million years as a home for a fabulous array of wildlife. Some of the Peninsula’s one thousand Batek Orang Asli live here too, many as hunter-gatherers; the park authorities generally turn a blind eye to their hunting game.
Reached via the transport nexus of Jerantut, Taman Negara’s main entry point, the riverside township Kuala Tahan, is the trailhead for jungle hikes lasting from anywhere between a few minutes and two weeks. With so much to see here, it’s easy to overlook the rest of the region, but outside the park you can ride the “Jungle Railway” north through the interior, touching on lesser known sections of wilds – caves and waterfalls at Kenong Rimba State Park; remoter areas of Taman Negara at Merapoh and Kuala Koh; and more forest, waterfalls and views at Stong State Park.
North through the interior
North from Jerantut, Route 8 and the parallel Jungle Railway run around 200km to Kota Bharu, up on the east coast. Head this way if you want to spend time among the region’s abundant forests and limestone hills at Kenong Rimba State Park, or reach the alternative entrances to Taman Negara at Merapoh and Kuala Koh, or the forested waterfall trails at Gunung Stong State Park. Settlements along the way – including relatively substantial Gua Musang and Kuala Lipis – are more jumping-off points for nearby sections of wilds, rather than destinations in their own right.
GUA MUSANG (Civet Cave), 30km from Merapoh, is a former logging town strung thinly along a stretch of Route 8. A 100m-wide knot of scruffy old buildings, shops and services surrounds the train station, while a new satellite town coalesces 3km south. With Kota Bharu just a couple of hours away, the Malay accent here displays a distinctive Kelantanese twang, and alcohol is practically unavailable (for more on Kelantan society and politics, see chapter 4).
Gua Musang is fairly close to Taman Negara entrances at Merapoh and Kuala Koh; time spent between connections can be filled exploring the caves that riddle a mass of limestone above the train station.
To reach the caves, cross the rail track at the station and walk through the small kampung in the shadow of the rock behind the station. Once you’ve scrambled up the 20m-high rock face, along a loose path, you’ll see a narrow ledge; turn left and edge carefully along until you see a long slit in the rock that leads into a cave – you’ll need to be fairly thin to negotiate it. The interior is enormous, 60m long and 30m high in places, and well lit by sunlight from holes above. The main cave leads to lesser ones, where rock formations jut from the walls and ceilings. The only way out is by the same route, which you’ll need to take very carefully, especially the near-vertical descent off the ledge and back down to the kampung.
The Jungle Railway
It took indentured Tamil labourers eight years to build the 500km-long jungle railway from Gemas, southeast of KL, to Tumpat, on the northeast coast near Kota Bharu. The first section from Gemas to Kuala Lipis opened in 1920, with the full extent of the line following in 1931. Initially it was used exclusively for freight – tin and rubber, and later oil palm – until a passenger service, originally known as the “Golden Blowpipe”, opened in 1938. Today the route is mostly served by trains from Singapore, with just one daily service from KL.
By dint of its very existence, the line doesn’t pass through virgin jungle; instead much of the route south of Gua Musang is flanked by regrowth forest and belukar-type woodland, and the line often dips through cuttings below ferny embankments, or skirts the backs of kampung gardens, within eyeshot of bougainvillea and fruiting rambutan and mango trees. On the final section, the mountainous, river-gashed terrain is replaced by plantations of rubber, pepper and oil palm, which – given their sprawl of uninterrupted vegetation – actually look more jungly than the real forest. None of this is to detract from the fact that as a way to encounter rural life, a ride on the jungle train can’t be beaten, giving you the chance to take in backwater scenery in the company of cheroot-smoking old men in sarongs, and fast-talking women hauling kids, poultry and vegetables to and from the nearest market. For the unadulterated jungle railway experience, you need to be on one of the slow local trains, which call at just about every obscure hamlet on the route, some with Orang Asli names.
Rolling stock is worn and fairly ordinary, dating to the 1980s; the only advantages of the so-called “first class” carriages seem to be air conditioning and slightly larger seats. Buy tickets at the station if possible (you shouldn’t need to book in advance except on express services during school holidays), though you can also pay the conductor on board – indeed, you often have to, as rural station offices keep erratic hours.
The Jungle Railway’s official name is the less romantic “Sektor Timur & Selatan” (East and South Route), managed by KTM. Timetables (wktmb.com.my) are to be taken with a pinch of salt, as delays aren’t uncommon – cattle grazing along the track sidings cause constant problems for train drivers. It’s not unknown for trains to show up early either; be at the station fifteen minutes ahead of the scheduled departure. Occasionally you may find the time on the ticket doesn’t match the timetable, in which case ask station staff for clarification. Even if everything appears to be going to schedule, note that there’s only one set of tracks on long stretches of the route: delays elsewhere may mean your train being held at a siding or even reversing for an extended period to let an oncoming train pass.
Kenong Rimba State Park
Covering 128 square kilometres and backing onto the remote southwestern corner of Taman Negara, Kenong Rimba State Park offers jungle trails, riverside camping, mammal-spotting and excellent birdwatching, plus the likelihood of crossing paths with the nomadic Batek people. You can see the main sights within five days, using a 50km-long loop trail through the park that passes a string of caves, the Lata Kenong waterfall and several limestone outcrops with rock-climbing potential. If you’ve only time for a brief visit, head straight for the waterfall and camp there for a night, leaving along the same route the next day. There’s some accommodation at the park, otherwise bring all you’ll need with you (see Checklist of camping and trekking equipment), or organize a tour from Kuala Lipis.
Kuala Koh, Taman Negara’s northern entrance 85km east of Gua Musang, offers a similar experience to Kuala Tahan, but within a much smaller area and – unless you happen to encounter a tour party – nowhere near as crowded. Wildlife isn’t obviously more abundant, though it certainly includes wild boar (whose wallows you see everywhere), tapir, mouse deer and occasionally elephant. Get here at the right time of year – park staff say February – and you might strike lucky and encounter the bizarre stinky blooms of Rafflesia. Although trails at Kuala Koh are relatively short, it’s also possible to trek right through to other park entrances at Kuala Tahan or Merapoh – these routes are seldom used and require advance preparation. There’s good-value accommodation and food at Kuala Koh, but transport here can be expensive.
It’s hard to believe that KUALA LIPIS, 50km northwest of Jerantut, was the state capital of Pahang state from 1898 to 1955. Today, it’s a sleepy, inconsequential place, situated at the confluence of Sungai Lipis and Sungai Jelai (a tributary of the Pahang), dwarfed by steep hills and surrounded by plantations. There are a few mementoes from colonial days – many associated with the veteran administrator, Sir Hugh Clifford (the Pahang Resident 1896–1905), plus plenty of shops and places to eat, but Kuala Lipis’ biggest draw is access to the relatively unvisited rainforest trails at nearby Kenong Rimba State Park.
Merapoh (Sungai Relau)
The small market township of MERAPOH, served by road and rail 80km north of Kuala Lipis, marks a 7km-long access road east to Taman Negara’s western entrance, officially known as Sungai Relau. This is the only part of Taman Negara where a proper vehicle road runs deep into the park, providing access to the trails – most famously, that to Gunung Tahan. Although there’s accommodation and the local park headquarters at the entrance, even with your own car there’s not much point in turning up here unless you’re prepared to arrange for a guide and transport, as the 14km-long park road is closed to private vehicles. What might make it worth the cost is the above-average chance of seeing elephants and even tigers (though don’t get your hopes up), plus leopard cat, civets, otters, huge monitor lizards and even packs of dog-like dhole.
Stong State Park (Taman Jelawang)
Around 55km north of Gua Musang, Stong State Park is an off-the-beaten-track gem based around 1400m-high Gunung Stong, a prominent, forested granite mountain 7km outside the small rail township of DABONG. Current train schedules make it a great day stop, with a tough but short hike up through lush forest to a series of waterfalls and plunge pools, where you can have a swim and catch a late afternoon train out. That said, it’s also worth staying overnight on the mountainside, for the magical sunrise views.
Taman Negara: Kuala Tahan
The main gateway to Taman Negara, the township of Kuala Tahan, 250km northeast of KL, is the location of the national park headquarters and the pick of its visitor facilities. It’s also where to get your bearings and seek advice before crossing the Tembeling River and heading into the forest: well-marked trails include relatively easy strolls along boardwalks to hilltops and a treetop canopy walk; tougher day-treks out to caves and hides overlooking salt licks in the jungle; or a ten-day return ascent of Gunung Tahan, Peninsular Malaysia’s highest peak, involving steep climbs, river crossings and camping rough. If you’ve never been inside tropical rainforest before, just listening to the bird, insect and animal sounds, marvelling at the sheer size of the trees and peering into a tangled understorey of palms, flowering lianas, luminous fungi and giant bamboo is a memorable experience. You don’t have to go far to encounter wildlife either; monkeys, elephant, tapir, mouse deer, seladang (wild oxen) and a host of smaller creatures can be found – with a dash of luck – within minutes of Kuala Tahan’s ranger station. If you’re not a hard-core hiker or wildlife spotter, you could also take advantage of opportunities for a river swim, low-key rafting or even angling.
Kuala Tahan is reached via the service town of Jerantut, somewhere to shop for supplies and change transport. Note that you can also enter Taman Negara further north at Merapoh and Kuala Koh – or even hike to either from Kuala Tahan in a ten-day traverse of the park. Both require more effort to reach and have fewer facilities, but they’re also less crowded than Kuala Tahan – though not necessarily easier places to see wildlife.
In bustling JERANTUT, 50km south of Kuala Tahan, road, rail and river converge in a small grid of streets. Activity revolves around the central, open-air bus station, set among market stalls close to most of the businesses, with the train station 500m west and Tembeling Jetty, for traffic upriver to Kuala Tahan, a short taxi ride north. And that’s about it; the town is just somewhere to find last-minute supplies, top up with cash (there are no banks at Kuala Tahan), and have a feed before heading out.
Around 50km north of Jerantut, KUALA TAHAN is a grassy township of guesthouses and floating restaurants, facing a solid green wall of jungle across the turbid, 50m-wide Tembeling River. As a base, Kuala Tahan has many virtues: it boasts reasonable transport connections, plenty of accommodation, a few stores selling (and renting) basics you might have forgotten to bring with you, and even mobile coverage, though no banks or ATMs. Most importantly, current information about Taman Negara is on hand at the national park headquarters – where all visitors also need to register and pay park fees – just a quick ferry ride over the river at the start of the park’s hiking trails. Take a torch with you to wander around the village in the evening, as the electricity can be flaky.
Hiking at Kuala Tahan
The shortest hiking trails from Kuala Tahan are clearly signposted and easy to follow, but go any distance and trails deteriorate into slippery tangles of roots and leaf litter, and you’ll be relying on small, reflective markers attached to convenient trees, and the photocopied trail maps handed out by the national park headquarters. On treks ranging more than about 10km from base, it’s strongly recommended that you hire a guide. The Kumbang hide is the furthest you’re meant to go without one, and they’re absolutely essential for any of the longer trails. If you’re moderately fit, the hiking time estimates given out by the park authorities (and in the text) are pretty reliable; expect to average 2km per hour.
Except on the very simplest day hikes, you should inform park staff of your plans so they know where to look if you get into difficulty. You won’t be able to phone for help, as the mobile phone signal dies out just a little way from Kuala Tahan. Perhaps the most important advice is to know your limitations and not run out of time. Slipping and sliding along in the dark is no fun and can be dangerous – it’s easy to fall and impossible to spot snakes or other forest-floor creatures that might be on the path. If you do get lost and night is about to close in, it’s best to make your way down to either the Tahan or Tembeling rivers (assuming you’re near them); there is boat traffic on both into the evening, and if you are unlucky enough not to be spotted, you may be able to find a dry section of bank where you can spend the night.
Don’t be paranoid about encountering large wildlife on the trails – in fact, count yourself lucky if you do, as most animals don’t hang around after they hear you coming. There’s almost no way you can avoid getting bitten by a few leeches, however, and their numbers increase dramatically after rain; see section Cuts, bites and stings for general tips on keeping them at bay.
The Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary
One attraction in the southern part of the interior is worth making a diversion for, the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre (wmyelephants.org), run by the government’s Wildlife Department. Here they care for elephants being relocated to reserves from areas of habitat destruction, or which had to be subdued while mengamuk – a Malay term that would be untranslatable were it not the source of the English word “amok”. The best time to turn up is 2pm (2.45pm on Fri), when for a couple of hours visitors have the chance to get hands-on with the elephants, riding, feeding or even bathing with them (bring a change of clothes).
Kuala Tahan activities
Most people in the park for just a few days sign up for various activity packages offered through the park office and Kuala Tahan accommodation.
Night jungle walks (1hr–1hr 30min; RM25; bring your own torch) are easy and, despite being crowded and held along the park’s most heavily used paths, can turn up everything from tapirs to scorpions, and the sharp-eyed guides invariably spot camouflaged creatures you’d otherwise miss.
Night safaris (2hr; RM40) actually take place outside the park; you’re driven around a plantation in a 4WD, and may get to see leopard cats, wild pigs, civets and the occasional snake.
Orang Asli village visit (2hr; RM60) shows you how to use a blowpipe and fire-making using sticks at a semi-permanent Batek encampment; very touristy, but interesting too.
On the river, fairly tame rapids shooting trips (1hr; RM60) take place a few kilometres upstream, designed to appeal to families rather than hard-core rafters; you’ll ride this stretch anyway if you catch a boat back from Kuala Trenggan. The night river safari (2hr; RM200) uses a tamer stretch of water, where you often see larger animals along the riverside.
Longer trips include guided forest walks, the best of which have you staying overnight at a hide (Bumbun Kumbang is a favourite) or even a cave; you usually make your way down to the river on the second day and catch a boat back to Kuala Tahan. This far into the forest you really might see anything – or nothing at all. Price depends on numbers, duration and destination, but expect RM280 per person for an all-inclusive two-day, one-night trip from Kuala Tahan.
The most popular area for fishing is the Sungai Keniam, northeast of Kuala Tahan, where you can hope to catch catfish or snakehead; all fish must be returned. The very basic Perkai Fishing Lodge, around 2hr upstream from Kuala Tahan, is a popular base; a boat there costs RM480.
Kuala Tahan hides
Spending a night in one of the park’s hides (known as bumbuns) doesn’t guarantee sightings of large mammals, especially in the dry season when the salt licks – where plant-eating animals come to supplement their mineral intake – are often so waterless that there’s little reason for deer, tapir, elephant, leopard or seladang to visit, but it’s an experience you’re unlikely to forget. It’s best to go in a group and take turns keeping watch, listening hard and occasionally shining a torch at the salt lick – if an animal is present its eyes will reflect brightly in the beam.
The Orang Asli
The twentieth-century spread of the timber, rubber and palm-oil industries through the interior had a huge impact upon the region’s Orang Asli, who were traditionally nomadic peoples living by hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture. These days many have been forced to settle down, existing at the fringes of the cash economy (a transition steered in large part by the government’s Department of Orang Asli Affairs). The mountain-dwelling Temiar, for instance, trade in forest products such as herbal medicines and, increasingly, timber (though their logging activities are minimal compared with those of the State Forestry Department). Some Batek do still live fairly traditional lives at Taman Negara, where you might meet shy groups walking in single file along forest trails, or come across their temporary vine-and-forest-brush shelters in jungle clearings.
However, three-quarters of Orang Asli peoples (including many local Batek, Senoi and Semang) live below the poverty line, compared to less than a tenth of the population as a whole. That fact makes it all the harder for them to confront the many forces, from planning agencies to Christian and Muslim groups, who seek to influence their destiny. The issue of land rights is among their gravest problems, for while the country’s Aboriginal People’s Act has led to the creation of Orang Asli reserves, at the same time many Asli traditional areas have been gazetted as state land, rendering the inhabitants there, at best, tolerated guests of the government.
Planning a visit to Taman Negara
Given that tropical rainforest is always sodden, the driest time of year is between February and mid-October, with the peak tourist season roughly from May to August – make sure you book ahead. Mid-November to mid-January is extremely wet, and movement within the park can be restricted as paths go under water and rivers become impassable. Usually, however, most of the park’s trails require no more than an average level of fitness, though of course longer trails require some stamina. Some essential camping and trekking gear is available to buy at Jerantut, or to rent at Kuala Tahan, but take your own if possible.
To budget for your trip, remember that for any trek involving overnighting in the forest (other than in a hide close to a park office or accessible by boat), you must hire a guide. The charge may seem steep, and boat excursions can also prove costly, but these are the only substantial outlays you’ll face, as inexpensive accommodation, eating and transport options are easy to find. Many visitors never do any serious trekking and stay for just two or three nights, which is enough to get a reasonable flavour of the park.
Getting around the park
If you simply need to cross the river from Kuala Tahan, small on-demand wooden boats (daily dawn–9pm; RM1) cross from Kuala Tahan’s floating restaurants to the jetty below the resort and national park headquarters. Put your fare in the tin by the ferryman.
Aside from trekking, wooden longboats seating four to ten people are the only way to get around Taman Negara from Kuala Tahan; you can use them like a taxi service to reach distant trekking trails, or speed your return journey after a long hike. Boats might wait for you or, more likely, return at an agreed time; don’t expect them to hang around indefinitely if you are late. Book through the national park office; prices are the same for single or return trips.