Just over an hour’s drive from central Georgetown, roughly 40 kilometres south of the mainland part of Penang state, lie what must be one of the northern region’s most unexpectedly rewarding attractions: the mangrove swamps of the Matang Forest Reserve in Kuala Sepetang.
Located west of Taiping, beyond green paddy and traditional Malay kampong, or villages, this reserve is part of the largest area of coastal mangrove in Peninsular Malaysia, covering more than 40,000 hectares along a 50-kilometre stretch of the Perak coast. A place of peace and serenity, with nothing but the sound of rustling mangrove trees, the lapping of the estuary rivers and the occasional chug of a boat, it is completely removed from the relatively fast pace of Penang island.
At the reserve, visitors can walk the wooden boards — though beware, as some are distinctly rotten — and follow the raised path over the brackish, waterlogged forest floor. The towering mangrove trees are spindly but supported by tangles of buttress roots. As you walk around, you’ll see information boards explaining the ecosystem of the mangroves, as well as a rundown of the birdlife you might encounter, including white-throated kingfishers, jungle mynas and bright blue lesser adjutants. On windy days, the trunks of the trees sway eerily around you, not – as you might expect – in unison but in different directions. This just adds to the tranquil magic of the place.
Not far from the entrance to the reserve, back towards Taiping and on the opposite side of the road, is the entrance to a clutch of cottage industry charcoal factories. This may not sound remarkable, but they are fascinating and have become a requisite stop on the increasing number of eco-tours which visit the area. Operated using very little in the way of machinery but relying on sheer brute strength manpower and a degree of alchemy, this is where you can watch ships laden with mangrove wood, chugging up the canals and delivering their loads to the warehouse factories, where the wood is magically transformed.
Once you have experienced the crackle of charcoal shards under foot and the heady smell of smoke in the air, you can go into the long factory buildings to see how the lengths of wood are stacked vertically in giant dome-shaped brick-and-clay kilns, ‘baked’ in a continuously tended fire for 24 days, and then sealed and left to dry out for a further week. A month after being put into the kiln, the logs are completely drained of moisture and transformed into blackened lumps of charcoal, using a process originally brought to the Malay peninsula by the Japanese during World War II.
Despite the industrial landscape, this is is a photogenic and atmospheric place. Look for signs to the factory belonging to Mr Chuah, who will give you a very enthusiastic and friendly welcome and will be happy to explain the whole process.
Round off your trip by heading into the predominantly Chinese village of Kuala Sepetang to experience some of the freshest seafood in the north of Malaysia. The unassuming Kedai Makanan Tepi Sungai seafood restaurant, located above a fishing warehouse with a balcony overlooking the picturesque estuary, is a particular favourite with local tourists-in-the-know, who go there to enjoy deep-fried soft-shell crab, baby squid, succulent manta prawns and a whole load of other seafood and fish bought straight off the boats that ply the river below. For a great end to your trip, try to get here for sunset overlooking the mangroves that you have explored earlier in the day.
How to get there
Operators in Penang offer the afternoon/evening trip to Kuala Sepetang so keep a look out for details on the agents’ boards in Georgetown. A seven-to-eight hour trip, including pickup from where you are staying, return transport and seafood dinner in Kuala Sepetang, should cost you 150 ringgit. Michelle at Spiral Synergy (016 457 0221) comes highly recommended. Alternatively, you could rent a motorbike or moped from one of the many places on Lebuh Chulia, or else get a bus to Taiping and take a taxi from there, and make an adventurous day trip under your own steam.