Taman Negara is Malaysia’s largest and best protected conservation area, spanning across three states in the center of Peninsular Malaysia (Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan). The name is a literal Malay translation of the word, “National Park”. It is officially 4343 square kilometers in size, which makes it much larger than any other protected area in Malaysia.
A legacy of the far sighted Game Warden of then Malaya, Theodore Hubback, who lobbied hard to get the park established in 1938, Taman Negara’s value today is simply priceless. There is now nowhere else in Malaysia, let alone throughout South East Asia, where extreme lowland dipterocarp forest (stretching all the way to the top of mountain peaks and ranges), along with entire river basins, are still in their original state. There may be larger national parks in Kalimantan/Sumatra, but they are usually at somewhat higher elevation, and all suffer from shifting cultivation or from rampant illegal logging/poaching, thus demeaning their value.
There are several reasons why Taman Negara is regarded as one of the very best conservation areas in South East Asia.
- Taman Negara has only ever been inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherer Negrito tribes in very small numbers. There is no history of any form of large scale shifting cultivation in the park, as is common in Borneo and elsewhere.
- Fairly significant areas of Taman Negara are below 200 m in elevation. Nearly all such land at similar elevation throughout Malaysia or South East Asia have suffered from the ravages of man in one form or another. There are also no roads in the park (I hope it stays this way), apart from the one at Sungai Relau. This makes Taman Negara the largest expanse of pristine lowland rainforest wilderness in Malaysia
130 million years old?
I am always reluctant to pander to this oft quoted tagline, although most of the Sunda Shelf has been relatively stable with no major cataclysms, and in this sense, have had a lot of time to evolve, but one must remember that during the 130 million years, the forest would have looked very different from today.
Bear in mind there were major eruptions of volcanoes in Indonesia, and the eruption of the Toba super volcano in Sumatra just 75000 years ago would no doubt have severely impacted the entire landscape of South East Asia back then.
Nonetheless, there is no evidence yet of large scale forest fires in Taman Negara (inferred from soil charcoal), in comparison to other places (like Danum Valley), so one can safely assume Taman Negara is a “virgin rainforest” that is millions of years old, in that loose sense of the word!
Kuala Tahan, the Main Gateway
When local people mention Taman Negara, they usually mean the park entrance at Kuala Tahan, Pahang. This is the main entrance into the park, and by far, the most established one with all the amenities and accommodation for visitors. Recently, I visited Taman Negara via Kuala Tahan with a friend, the first time I’ve done so in a long time. I was pleasantly surprised by how large the village of Kuala Tahan has grown. What used to take a long boat ride up the Tembeling River, now can be substituted with a long car drive along a rural inner trunk road that runs along the opposite bank of the Tembeling all the way to Kuala Tahan. Taking the boat ride is more “idyllic”, of course.
Indeed, Kuala Tahan can now be reached by car via Route 1508, starting from Jerantut town, a distance of some 70 km, if I’m not mistaken. The road passes mostly oil palm plantations, but there is a section where it passes through some beautiful lowland forest that still look untouched for the most part. Watch out for the timber lorries though, and don’t become an accident statistic. Also watch out for wildlife that sometimes dash across the road.
Taman Negara – The Background
The rainforest of Taman Negara around Kuala Tahan provides endless opportunities for exploration, and you could spend years just exploring in the nearby areas, and still not uncover all there is to be known. The main artery to reach the inner parts of the park is the Tahan River, and I highly recommended to take that boat ride to Lata Berkoh, if only to take in the splendid scenery along the way and to experience a Malaysian rainforest river in its natural, pristine state. The main trail to summit Gunung (Mount) Tahan also follows along the side of the Tahan River.
The Tahan River is crystal clear, but colored tea brown due to a high level of tannin content in the water caused by peaty soil from its headwaters in the Tahan range. It is teeming with fish, like the Kelah (Tor tambroides) of which a fish sanctuary has been setup at Lubuk Tenor along the Tahan river, to protect them; fishing is prohibited in the Tahan river.
A short 10 minute walk from the Mutiara Resort takes you to Lubuk Simpon, a small sandbar, where bathing in the Tahan River is possible. Along the way, keep a look out for monitor lizards, wild pigs, hornbills, and the sound of woodpeckers up in the trees. Some of the common riverine trees here include the Bungur (Lagerstroemia speciosa), Gapis (Saraca multiflora), and Melembu (Pterocymbium javanicum).
Along the sides of the river, the largest tree is the Neram tree (Dipterocarpus oblongifolius), which can attain huge size. Although not really common near to the Mutiara resort, once past Lubuk Simpon they proliferate, and there are certain stretches of the Tahan River which still have some magnificent stands. Noticeably, some of the older and bigger trees that took hundreds of years to grow have already died in recent times, their huge trunks collapsing into the river eventually; their dead trunks can still be seen when you take the boat trip to Lata Berkoh.
Speaking of Lata Berkoh, it is more or less the furthest navigable point by boat up the Tahan River, after which the journey has to continue on foot. Most boatmen will stop a few hundred meters downstream before it, and visitors will have to proceed to Lata Berkoh by hiking a footpath alongside the river.
Lata Berkoh is a rocky cascade with a lot of sharp angled sedimentary rocks, which characterize the underlying geology of large areas of Taman Negara in Pahang. It’s one of the “must-visits” if you plan on visiting Taman Negara, and a good spot to cool off in the icy cold waters.
Flora and Fauna
The tree flora of the lowland forest in Taman Negara is very rich indeed. Strangely, there are not many floristic studies done in Taman Negara to date, but one recent study done at Kuala Keniam yielded an average between 280-400 tree species per hectare (Suratman, 2012). Those are amazing numbers. The park authorities have labeled many trees in the vicinity of Kuala Tahan, covering even the Canopy Walkway and Teresek Hill, so this is like an arboretum of sorts. Very useful if you wish to familiarize yourself with Malaysia’s native flora.
One of the most common and conspicuous tree species found growing in abundance here is the Tualang tree (Koompassia excelsa), which comprises a large part of the emergent layer in the upper canopy. In fact, I found the tualang growing nearly everywhere. Other common emergent species here include Merbau (Intsia palembanica), Meranti Tembaga (Shorea leprosula), Damar Hitam Siput (Shorea faguetiana), Kempas (Koompassia malaccensis), Meranti Sarang Punai (Shorea parvifolia), some species of Balau (Anisoptera spp), Canarium spp and many more.
The emergent layer in Taman Negara is very tall, averaging 50-65 meters, which we determined after many sample measurements using a TruPulse 200X laser rangefinder. The tallest and biggest trees we measured were a gigantic tualang growing near the Tahan riverbank which was an impressive 69.3 meters tall with a trunk diameter of nearly 3 meters across, and a slightly smaller one at Simpang Tualang, at a spot along the Tenor trail heading to Gua Telinga (Telinga Cave), measuring 66.5 meters tall. These two giant trees are also among the two tourist attractions in the Kuala Tahan area.
There were also many tall dipterocarps; the tallest (measured one) was a Damar Siput Hitam (Shorea faguetiana) at 63.2 meters tall. Incidentally, the Shorea faguetiana grows to even more towering heights in east Sabah, and is the tallest tropical tree in the world! I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that trees well over 70 m in height still exist within the boundaries of Taman Negara, and I have seen very huge trees jutting out from the canopy in the distance, from atop Bukit Teresek.
Just behind the Mutiara Resort, are some freshwater alluvial swamp forest. The forest here has a low canopy, because it is dense with climbers and creepers, which practically suppress young trees from growing, and interspersed with some emergent trees here and there, that have otherwise broken loose of the vines. Although they’re a part of the tropical jungle, climbers and vines are bad for the jungle trees, and here’s why.
The swamp forest gets periodically inundated by the Tahan River when the water level is really high, but otherwise is quite dry and not nearly as swampy as you would imagine. Boardwalk trails have been constructed here to allow visitors to view the forest without getting their feet muddy.
The nearest hill to Kuala Tahan is Bukit Teresek (Teresek Hill). This 334 meter tall hill affords one a nice view of the lowland interior of Taman Negara from a lookout point at its peak, and it is well connected by the trail system around Kuala Tahan. Bukit Teresek has classic lowland forest with sparse undergrowth and palms everywhere at its foot, while the higher one ascends, the forest changes to Hill Dipterocarp forest with many trees of Syzygium and Shorea curtisii abounding, and finally some form of stunted Hill Dipterocarp forest at the peak (due to the thin and poor soil).
Look out for the cycads when you are in the forest, up to several meters tall. The cycads that grow here are probably Cycas macrocarpa, as this species has been recorded in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia. Contrary to their appearance, cycads are not palms at all, but are ancient plants from the dinosaur era, and living relics from the past. They grow very slowly, but so do many rainforest plants and trees, so don’t underestimate the age of anything here!
All the iconic animals of Peninsular Malaysia are believed to dwell in Taman Negara, with the possible exception of the Sumatran rhino, which has not been sighted in the wild for a long time (largely believed extinct). The wildlife population is definitely still largely intact in Taman Negara, although many tourists complain about not seeing any wildlife. Fact is, most of the larger mammals avoid the presence of man, and do not venture anywhere near Kuala Tahan. So to spot any wildlife, you need to stake out at one of the hides deeper in the forest. Some of the hides that are located further afield with decent chances of spotting wildlife are the:
- Kumbang Hide
- Tabing Hide
- Blau Hide
- Yong Hide (the trail is rather unclear)
Elephants, sambar deer, tapir, barking deer, and wild boar are the ones most frequently encountered at the hides although sighting them still requires a bit of luck. Siamang and gibbons are also present in the forest, but much less noticeable compared to other parts of Taman Negara like Sungai Relau, because they too, keep well clear of the tourist areas. Actually there are a couple of tapirs that often venture into the Kuala Tahan Mutiara Resort area and have been “tamed”. Hornbills are also frequent guests and if you’re lucky, you can catch them resting on one of the building roofs. Long ago, I remember there were also a couple of sambar deer that regularly came to the resort grounds. Other animals like tigers and panthers keep clear of man, although you probably would not want to encounter them face to face!
The nearest hide to Mutiara Resort is the Tahan Hide, which is right behind the chalets. If you wait here overnight, you might catch a glimpse of some deer, tapir (probably the same tamed tapirs), and wild pigs foraging in the clearing in front of you.
Trail system in and around Kuala Tahan, Taman Negara
The good thing about the trails in Taman Negara is they are signposted. There are plenty of trails in and around Kuala Tahan, with the longest one leading all the way to the summit of Mount Tahan, some 55 km away. From the summit, you can continue onwards to Sungai Relau, and vice versa, if you are starting out from Sungai Relau.
For the best introduction to the flora and landscape of the Taman Negara region around Kuala Tahan, take the trail to the peak of Bukit Teresek (Teresek Hill) and loop back to Mutiara Resort. The whole loop is about 4 km and gives a good sampling of the rainforest. Part of the trail is also on a boardwalk, and makes for relatively pleasant hiking. The Canopy Walk is also on Bukit Teresek, and is one of the “must-visits” in Taman Negara.
A slightly strenuous hike is going to Bukit Indah (Beautiful View Hill). This is about 2-3 km from Kuala Tahan and therefore 4-6km return journey. To get there, simply take the riverside trail to Bukit Teresek, but instead of going up, continue straight on. Eventually, a signboard should point you to where you need to climb up the hill. Bukit Indah is a very small hillock by the Tembeling River, with a panoramic view across from it. The summit is nothing more than a rocky outcrop with a porous soil substrate at the peak, consisting of slowly decaying plant material. Stunted trees with papery bark grow on the peak, notably Syzygium spp.
A recommended long distance trail is the one to the group of caves centered on Gua Luas (Luas Cave). There are four caves here (Gua Kepayang Besar, Gua Kepayang Kecil, Gua Luas, and Gua Daun Menari) and basically, two ways to get to these caves, an “inner” and “outer” trail. The inner trail stays well clear of the Tembeling, and takes you past the Kumbang Hide, while the outer trail skirts the Tembeling River and takes you to Kuala Trenggan before they both merge at Kumbang Hide, and from there, onwards to the caves. From the caves, you can even proceed on to Kuala Keniam, and Kuala Perkai, the last human “outposts”. Beyond them, the jungle continues on where few, if any humans, trod.
Both the “inner” and “outer” trails are quite well marked and signposted although they require an overnight stopover. It is best to do the hike with a guide because it is a long, rugged, and tiring journey through a dense rainforest teeming with wild creatures and other risks. The outer trail that skirts the Tembeling is shorter but with more challenging terrain as it constantly goes up and down along the side the Tembeling. Nonetheless, both trails showcase the best of Taman Negara’s primary lowland dipterocarp rainforest.
The wildest and possibly the most challenging, is the Tenor Trail which is across from the Tahan River. This trail is a long loop of some 30km in total if not mistaken, but the distance is not the chief challenge; it’s because the trail is rather unclear after you venture past the Yong Hide, due to lack of maintenance and few tourists. And wild elephants do roam the Tenor Trail, and can pose a danger to hikers – Their dung and footprints were frequently encountered by the writer along this trail.
My impression is that the Wildlife Department has unofficially closed the trail, but although you can still trek the trail, you are advised not to venture too far. Even guides that I spoke to, don’t seem too keen to take tourists beyond the first few miles; the trail seems to fade out after that.
The lack of maintenance is a shame though. There are two hills along the trail with good views of Taman Negara from their peaks – Bukit Pecah Piring, and Bukit Guling Gendang, although getting there would be highly challenging simply because of the unclear trail. Much nearer at 2.1 km from Mutiara Resort, is the now closed cave, or Gua Telinga, which has flooded up within. The trail up to Gua Telinga is clear, but beyond Blau Hide, it’s not advisable to proceed without a guide. The majestic tualang tree still stands guard at Simpang Tualang though.
Another trail that you can hike is the main Gunung Tahan trail. This trail is already decades old and therefore very clear/wide, and it follows the bank of the Tahan River all the way. You don’t need to go all the way to the summit of Mount Tahan; one suggestion is to hike until the Tenor Kelah Sanctuary or onwards to Lata Berkoh, and then turn back, which should take up a good day’s fill of trekking.
The original human inhabitants of Taman Negara are the Orang Asli from the Bateq tribe. Technically, they are Negritos, so named by the early Spanish missionaries because of their resemblance to African Negroes. Racially, they are closely related to the native Australo-Melanesians. Small tribes used to live as nomadic hunter gatherers scattered throughout the forests of Taman Negara since thousands of years, but today, they are more settled in a few villages beside the Tembeling River. Of course, you can pay them a visit, but it helps to be aware of a few things – Be respectful and courteous.
It is highly advisable to bring along useful gifts if you intend to visit them, such as rice and dried foodstuff (try to avoid anything canned, because those aluminum cans have to end up somewhere). They have already entertained literally thousands of tourists, and it is worthwhile keeping this in mind!
Personally, I just think it would be awesome if I could live like the Bateq, with no internet and trappings of “modern civilization” if only for just a while. Everything is so simple out there in the jungle and time just seems to tick at a very slow pace, once you get intoxicated by the ancient yet constant rhythm of the rainforest.
The Tembeling River
The pulse of human life in Taman Negara obviously centers on the main artery of this region – the broad Tembeling River. All the villages here like Kampung (Village) Bantal, Sat, and Mat Daling are sited on the riverbank, as are the aborigine villages. It is a fascinating journey to travel upstream of the Tembeling by boat, albeit an expensive one if you want to visit the remote rivers like the Sat and Sepia. For those that do, the speedboat journey affords wonderful panoramic views of the narrow plains and steep hills on both sides of the Tembeling, replete with towering rainforest. Awesome.
If you can afford the steep boat fares, I would recommend a boat trip to at least the Keniam River, and then proceed as far upstream the Keniam as your boatman is willing to go. It’s a slightly adventurous trip because the Keniam oftentimes has low water levels, meaning – you would be required to get into the water and help push the boat along!
Gunung (Mount) Tahan is the tallest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia, and thankfully, is contained in its entirety within Taman Negara’s protected area. This is one of the few mountains in Malaysia that has its forest cover unmolested by logging activity, meaning you actually get to climb a tropical mountain and experience ALL the habitats in their natural, virgin form, from the tall and humid lowland forest at the foot all the way to the dwarf upper montane forest at the summit. Nothing quite like it.
Climbing Gunung Tahan from Kuala Tahan would take 7-9 days return journey, while if you start from Sungai Relau, it would be only 4-5 days return trip. Another option that has become popular over the past decade, is to start from Kuala Tahan and finish at Sungai Relau, or vice versa.
An option along the Gunung Tahan Trail is to take a detour to visit the 4 Steps Waterfall, a spectacular cascade plunging off a steep cliff. There are actually many other spectacular waterfalls in the Mount Tahan region, which can only be seen from high up in the air, since they are all located in very remote and rugged terrain.
Things to remember when you visit Taman Negara at Kuala Tahan
If you are planning to visit Taman Negara, here are a few helpful things to remember:
- The rainy season is from late in the year extending to the early part of the year. Loosely speaking, from November to February. The Tembeling and smaller rivers can swell – and flood. Floods may cut off the access roads to the park and has been a major issue every time it rains heavily (since recent years). Heavy logging and land clearing activities in the forest reserves opposite Taman Negara have been blamed for the increased siltation of the Tembeling which then lead to floods every time it rains a lot.
- Leeches are not a big problem in the area surrounding Kuala Tahan compared to other similar jungle areas in Malaysia, and definitely not an issue during dry weather. I believe the hordes of tourists have killed off most of the leeches already over the years! But during wet seasons, be prepared for them. Leech socks and a small bottle of salt are adequate in most cases.
- Malaria is not an issue in Taman Negara, and neither are mosquitoes. Contrary to what you may have read, the stable undisturbed ecosystem of Taman Negara is not conducive to mosquitoes. They are in fact, uncommon or nonexistent in the virgin rainforest here, preferring to feed on the animals instead. It may be a different story in disturbed, secondary rainforest where the natural balance and order no longer exist.
- The only accommodation development permitted within the grounds of Taman Negara is the Mutiara Resort. For any other accommodation, they are on the opposite bank, at Kuala Tahan, of which there are more than enough choices (including shops to get supplies/provisions). To get to Taman Negara, simply hop aboard any one the “river taxis” to take you across the Tembeling River for RM1.
- Make sure to register yourself at the Wildlife Department office (if you haven’t already done so), upon arriving at Taman Negara. Registering gets you an entry permit so that you can (legally) enter Taman Negara. It’s easy to forget this step.
Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footsteps
Taman Negara is truly the closest thing to that last bastion of the primeval rainforest of Malaysia. In fact, there are still many regions of the park where no man has ever set foot. You could spend a lifetime here and still barely scratch the surface of what lies hidden beneath that green canopy; long may it continue.
Over the years, Taman Negara has survived road construction, dam construction, logging, and even fish farm proposals – as a testament to human greed and insanity. For it to survive, it’s entirely up to us. It’s not a wonder, most visitors to Taman Negara give a great review of their trip and express hope to revisit again. I certainly had a wonderful time here, and I will return someday.