January 19 to 23
I take a small shuttlebus from Tanah Rata towards Taman Negara, which means just national park. The oldest and the biggest reserve in the country. takes about three hours to drive from Tanah Rata to a village called Kuala Tembeling, where we board a little river boat and continue another three hours upstream to Kuala Tahan, the only town in the park. The ticket is combined an covers both the minivan and the river transport. Kuala Tembeling is also where you buy your entrance ticket to the park and a photography permit, be sure to buy it and to carry it on you, if you fail to produce the permit when asked for it by a ranger, the fines are huge. I think the park entry can be acquired in the rangers station at Mutiara resort too, I am not 100% sure, but it would make sense.
Once we get back to the lowlands, the climate becomes hot and sticky again. The boat trip is surprisingly refreshing (terribly loud, but given the temperature, rather pleasant). Kuala Tahan is a sleepy town, there is a school and a hospital, few floating restaurants on the river that remain ventilated even when the rest of the village sizzles under the sun. The temperature is the only plus, the food is an uninspiring variation on fried rice or fried noodles, none of the places stands out for particularly good cuisine. They all claim they sell fresh river fish, which would have been the only interesting thing, if they actually had it (not that the river looks particularly inviting for fishing, but I’d willingly risk a fish curry over another bland fried rice). The village is predominantly muslim, so no restaurant serves any alcohol (except for the western one in Mutiara resort across the river that sells overpriced wine). There is one chinese-ran minimarket in the village that has a secret room with some stock of wine, beer, and some local poison.
Taman Negara is enormous, and most of it is still unspoilt rainforest. You have hundreds of possibilities how to spend your time in the park: boat trips to villages of indigenous tribes (I never do this, visiting these places set up for tourists makes me feel like going to the zoo with humans in it), there are easy walks of under an hour, there is the longest canopy ropewalk in the world (it is a tourist trap, but when is the next time you’ll walk above the trees in the jungle), are a few day hikes you can do, or you can hire a local guide and go on a multi-day trek and even climb Mt. Tahan, the highest peak in the park. It is not unusual to see wild elephants if you venture deep into the jungle.
Staying in the jungle overnight, however, is nothing for me. Fears are irrational. Therefore, irrationally, I am convinced that cobras “are alright”, even though a cobra will kill you if you corner it. A huntsman spider on the other hand is harmless, albeit huge. I know huntsman is not dangerous. But it’s still a spider. I don’t care if it doesn’t do anything, I don’t want to be anywhere near it. So there is no chance I will willingly give up my air-conditioned room and clean and insect-free bed to spend a night somewhere in an open shelter wide awake, imagining giant spiders crawling into my sleeping bag. No thank you.
As soon as I make it to my guesthouse, I meet three Swedish photographers in their 60s who turn out to be one of the most pleasant and funniest travel companions I’ve met on this journey. I hike with them on most days, except for when they want to sleep in the jungle, I kindly refuse the offer to join them on grounds explained above. Venturing into the jungle with wildlife photographers is a great experience, and I too manage to get some shots I would otherwise dream of (although they have much better gear than I would ever carry around on a world trip).
Jungle pheasant (if anyone know what is this bird actually called, please feel free to comment):
The routine is this: 7 am depart, pick up nasi lamak in the village (Typical Malaysian breakfast: rice with spicy tomato sauce, topped with an egg and dried anchovies, all wrapped in banana leaf), take a little taxi boat across the river to the national park, venture to the jungle, eventually find some spot to eat the breakfast, back in the village by 2 pm for lunch, siesta or swimming in the afternoon. Awesome. Sometimes alone, sometimes with the Swedes. The jungle early in the morning is magical. The mist rising from the river, bird songs, gibbon cries…then of course, it may all mean: “hey guys, food is on its way”. The only thing that is not magical are leeches, but they are only disgusting, they don’t carry any diseases, or haven’t been linked to any as yet. They live in the mud, so if you go trekking, they are inevitable. You can wear long trousers and socks over them, they will still find their way in. The only leech-free trail is the climb up to Bekit Terisek, which is about 1 hour from the entrance to the park, all boardwalk. If you go there early in the morning, you have a good chance of seeing gibbons. What you will most likely see are cobras and monitor lizards. I met a group of young Brits, employees of the Royal Zoo, who sleep during the day and went out at night in search of all kinds of snakes and spiders. They were very disappointed when I told them I saw a cobra basking in the sun just few metres from the guesthouse.
My flight to New Zealand is on the 24th early in the morning. I leave the park on the last bus (around 5 pm) on the 23rd, about 90 minutes ride to Jerantut, where i take another bus to Kuala Lumpur, then spend the night on the airport. The lady who sold me the ticket for the bus in the village was adamant that there would be no connecting bus to KL, but she was wrong (she did make me a little nervous, though).
And now it’s good-bye Malaysia, and off to New Zealand!