Exploring Taman Negara National Park: A walk in the woods
First published 18th June, 2012
We were within one final hour's stagger of the river bank, at the base of one of Taman Negara's many animal viewing hides, and Guatamalan Santiago glared into the towering trees' canopy.
"There's something there but I can't see it!"
Our squad of seven -- Santiago, two Brits, two Canucks, an American and myself, along with head guide Aa (pronounced Ah Ah) and his assistant Ali, have been tramping -- okay staggering actually -- through the wilds of Malaysia's premier patch of greenery, Taman Negara National Park. The river, and the boat home, were within earshot. We were all exhausted and it seemed like what were most likely macaques were taunting us, but to be honest we've more than had our fair share of highlights.
Morning at Kuala Taham looking across to Taman Negara National Park.
If you're umming and ahhing about a visit to Taman Negara, let me put your mine to rest: you should do it.
Two days earlier, the way the affable receptionist at Teresek View Motel spun it, the trek sounded like a bit of a walk in the woods. She described it as "a boat ride, then some walking, sleep in a cave, some more walking, then a boat ride home". While factually that is all correct, there were some missing adjectives: exhausting, gruelling, incapacitingly humid, steep, slippery, leech infested ... you get the idea.
The trip commenced at one of the rafthouses at Kuala Tahan opposite the National Park entrance. It was there we discovered we'd be lugging a good portion of our own kit, including sleeping bag, bedroll, three large bottles of water, canned chicken curry (you may sneer now, but I'd have happily eaten six cans when they fed it to us) and other bits and bobs. We hopped into the longtail and off we went, up the Tembeling River.
Big skies, big trees.
The trip upriver had us flanked by a towering wall of National Park forest on our left and a mix of semi-developed or forested land to our right. The swift-running river has a Scandinavian tan to it and while we were occasionally pummelled by minor rapids, we mostly sliced through calm waters passing by Orang Asli villages and fishermen.
An hour and a half later we pulled up to Kuala Keniam where there is a substantial ranger station. Aa gave us a final pep talk, we crossed a suspension bridge and the business end got underway.
I've lived in Southeast Asia for more than 15 years and would say I'm relatively acclimatised to the humidity, but under the canopy it gets raised another notch. The amiable banter and laughter quickly dissipated into silence as we trudged along. We had eight kilometres to cover on the first day, and another eight to look forward to on the second (though in fact we end up walking around 20km in total) and the going was slow. Within an hour, I was drenched, soaked to the skin, sweat beading up on my eyebrows and dropping into my eyes at the most inopportune moments (note to self: shave eyebrows before next trek).
And we're off!
The trail which commenced as quite a well defined easy to walk pathway, deteriorated. Sharp-spiked ferns closed in closer, catching packs and tearing at skin and clothes alike.
The real tormentor though, were the tree roots. Despite the trees' formidable height, many of the root systems are very shallow and we were forever stepping between (or tripping over) their exposed upper parts. It's almost magical how the roots gather; like the trees are furnished from a ball of clay with the fingers squeezing, clay oozing between to create the aerial roots as the ball is stretched high into the heavens.
I stopped now and then by an especially magnificent specimen, seemingly stabbed into the earth fully grown. Hand on the trunk I gazed up into the heights while I snuck a few dozen breaths. The light dappling down through the leaves, reflecting off the ferns, coupled with the cicadas and birds singing -- on one occasion I heard the "whoosh whoosh whoosh" of a hornbill overhead -- made it all magical.
This is a big tree.
Occasionally Aa stopped to show us some bush magic -- leaves pulped in the hands to keep mosquitoes away, or a tree whose toxic resin is used to tip darts (one dose will kill a monkey). At the same time we learned more about the Orang Asli -- Malaysia's original inhabitants -- who live a hunter-gatherer existence within the bounds of the park.
While the park is reported to be home to tigers, Malayan sun bears (both virtually never seen) and wild elephants (infrequently seen), Aa admits his number one fear is trees falling in windy weather. With their shallow root system, the taller they are the harder they fall and we frequently saw massive spreads of destruction where a single tree has come down, taking with it the canopy and anything else it can hang onto. Aa talked of taking shelter behind massive aerial roots while wind-storms thrash the canopy apart overhead.
Towards the end of day one, we clambered up a rock face into the Kepayang Besar cave. The initial entrance disappointed, but when we penetrated further, the cave bloomed into a sprawling, yawning cavern with, at the centre, a massive stalagmite almost meeting the stalactite at the top. You can walk the whole way around it, with bats swooping up high and voices bouncing around; it had an almost science fiction feel to it.
Aa cooked up a storm and after dinner led some of the group around the cave spotting cave spiders and the like. Theron and I stayed near the fire and I saw what I thought was a massive (beagle-sized) rat coming towards the dirty bowls and dishes. Aa arrived to explain it was a female porcupine; it certainly doesn't seem too bothered by us and our snapping cameras. Eventually, after tipping over some of the plates, it scatters.
We slept on the cave floor with a steady stream of bat guano falling on our sleeping bags and face; yes, if you tend to sleep mouth agape, you're best to sleep on the side in Gua Kepayang Besar.
Late afternoon at the cave entrance.
The next morning we headed to Gua Kepayang Kecil -- a far more compact cave (kecil means small) -- known for its bat population. The cave was teeming with bats, but it was in a rear chamber that we experienced one of the highlights of the trip. In a narrow crevice above us, dozens of bats, disturbed by our torches, flew all over the place while, coiled like a spring a couple of metres up the rock face, was a cave racer (Elaphe taeniura ridleyi). As we watched, the snake propelled its head and about half a metre of its body out into the air with its mouth open wide. Then in the blink of an eye, its jaws snapped shut on a bat and the body retreated to the wall, where it enwrapped the unfortunate bat, crushing its bones ready for eating.
That's gotta hurt.
Sated with our first kill we left the cave and continued our way through the forest, stopping for lunch at a river with a deep swimming hole where some of the group washed off the latest layer of mud, sweat and tears. Don't worry, plenty more where that came from.
The final stretch took us through dense forest interspersed with bamboo, and we quickly spied elephant footprints. They like to munch on bamboo sprouts and we got our hopes up as we followed the seemingly fresh trail for a few hundred metres, but then it suddenly disappeared, only to be replaced with another set of trails coming towards us. Not seeing an elephants was one of the only true disappointments of the trek.
Time lapse silliness at the set of Alien 5.
Two hours later we emerged back onto the bank of the Tembeling river, throwing ourselves down to wait for the boat back to Kuala Tahan.
Later that afternoon, two of our party were on a bus en route to Jerantut, driving through a landscape that once held the same kind of jungle we'd just trekked through. Today it's palm oil plantations, as far as the eye can see.
What a tremendous loss.
Here's an idea, lets cut it all down and plant some cash crop.
Other points of interest, such as the Canopy Walkway and Teresek Hill viewpoint can be walked in a day and without a guide. For those with limited time, this is the best option.
We paid 230 ringgit for a two-day, one-night trek. A three-day, two-night trek costs 330 ringgit per person. Those without a specific interest in the park will probably find the two-day trip to be a perfect fit. Trips leave daily from Kuala Tahan and there should be no need to book ahead, though in wet season some trails close.
Accommodation in Kuala Tahan runs from mediocre dorms for 10 ringgit through to comfortable, simple rooms in the 50-90 ringgit range and fancier hotel accommodation in the 150-300 ringgit range.
Admission to the park is 1 ringgit per day and the camera permit is 5 ringgit.
Aa is a freelance guide and gets but a fraction of the fee should you book through a travel agent. If you can rustle up a small group I'd suggest contacting him direct on T: (011) 1783 7330. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend him as a capable guide.
Pack as little as possible for the actual trek (most guesthouses will store your gear for you).
From Kuala Lumpur you can get a bus (3-4 hours, 16.80 ringgit) or a night train (8-9 hours, 35/41 ringgit depending on berth) to Jerantut from where it is another hour or so by bus (7 ringgit) to Kuala Tahan. Bus is the better option as the train arrives in Jerantut at 3/4am. Once in Jerantut, another option is to get a bus from Jerantut to Kuala Tembeling jetty (1 hour, 5 ringgit) followed by a 3 hour boatride to Kuala Tahan (35 ringgit).
Read 1 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (19)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Gibbon Rehabilitation Project
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Khlong Toey Music Program
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (8)
- Cambodia (24)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Why you should stay longer in Siem Reap
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (20)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Northern Laos or Southern Laos?
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (8)
- Thailand (85)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Chang's east coast
- Ko Lanta's best budget guesthouses
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Loy Krathong in Thailand
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Songkran festival in Thailand
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The changing face of Ko Lipe
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (33)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay DIY
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay midrange budget
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Ha Long Bay: Which tour is right for you?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (14)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi 2015
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (18)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Great river trips in Southeast Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- Where is the best place in Southeast Asia for ...
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.