Not judging a book by its cover in Taman Negara National Park

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Asia » Malaysia » Pahang » Taman Negara National Park
March 31st 2014
Published: April 10th 2014
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We woke at 5am (in Melaka) for a 6.30am start to Taman Negara National Park. We wouldn’t be arriving at our hotel in Kuala Tahan until 5pm, so we walked to Restaron Melaka Raya for a teh tarik(pulled sweet milky tea) at 6am. We jumped into a minibus at 6.30am and travelled north east until we arrived at the Gemas rail station at 7.45am. We noticed children going to school on the way, as their school day starts at 7am and finishes around midday.

We dropped our bags at the station and walked straight to Gemas Curry Point for breakfast at 8am. We shared a roti canai (flat flaky Indian bread served with curry sauce), a thosai (thin crispy fermented rice flour pancakes) and a couple of teh tariks – it was sensational! The roti was freshly made and the curries were fantastic. The staff at this unassuming little eatery was incredibly friendly, and it was one of our most memorable breakfasts to–date.

We headed back to the station and jumped on our Jerantut bound train at 10.45am. An old man was in one of our seats (he was in the wrong carriage), so the train porter had to explain to him that he had to move. We felt terrible, but there were no spare seats. We finally left at 11am, with just over three hours travel northwards.

As we made our way slowly north, we watched sadly from our train window as palm plantation after plantation stretched as far as the eye could see (eventually becoming nothing more than a recurring blur). We arrived at Jerantut rail station at 2.45pm, jumped into a minibus and headed to the NKS Travel Agent and Cafe for lunch. What can I say about this place – bad service; bad food; bad attitude. Despite an extensive menu (handed to us as we sat down), the cafe offered no food choice. Fried rice with fried chicken, a squeeze tube of sweet chilli sauce and bottle of soy sauce was all that was available (and we had to ask for the soy sauce). Beer was also on the menu, but I received a stern “No” when I asked for a bottle, so I opted for a lemon tea.

After our uninspiring lunch, we paid $RM5 each for a photographic licence (to take photos in Taman Negara National Park), jumped back into the minibus and started our final leg towards Kuala Tahan at 3.45pm. After driving through another endless labyrinth of palm plantations, we finally arrived at Woodlands Hotel at 5pm, and it was pouring. We were meant to have travelled from Jerantut to Kuala Tahan by boat (a three hour trip with stunning scenery), but this had been cancelled at the last minute. The afternoon’s travel hadn’t gone well, and I was grumpy. I was also very hot, as the air–conditioning in the minibus was faulty.

We checked into our spacious but basic cabin and headed out to dinner at 7.30pm. We walked to the Family Restaurant, which was a floating open barge on the bank of the Sungai Tahan (Tahan River). After a teh tarik and banana smoothie, I ordered ginger fish (which was sensational). Ren started with a lychee juice and ordered an extra spicy fried kway teow (flat rice noodles with chicken), but she ended up with non–spicy fried wheat noodles with chicken. She finished with a banana and honey pancake. The food was great, and we were amused during the evening when a few very large cicadas (about the size of small bats) decided to dive–bomb everyone in the restaurant. The reactions of some were unbelievable, especially one woman who hid under her table and screamed hysterically.

We walked back to the hotel at 10pm, checked email in the wifi–enabled lobby and then retired to our cabin. We crashed at midnight.

We woke at 5.30am to prepare for a day of trekking, boating and swimming in the National Park. We headed to the hotel lobby for breakfast at 7.30am, which was a basic affair of coffee, juice, eggs and toast. There was a sausage (of sorts) on our plate, but I’m not sure it passed as a food source. We walked to the Tahan River at 9.30am and jumped into a small boat that navigated the fast flowing current to take us to the opposite side. We walked along a well maintained boardwalk for a few kilometres in high humidity until we arrived at the canopy walk. At its highest point the canopy bridge floats 45 metres above the forest floor, and because walking speed was restricted to a crawl, I opted out. Ren absolutely loved it, although she was held up by a few very slow tourists. We kept climbing to Bukit Terisek (on boardwalk steps and bush tracks), and while the climb was difficult in the heat and humidity, it was well worth the effort. The rainforest views from the top were impressive. Taman Negara is one of the oldest rainforests in the world, and its ancient trees and jungle–clad mountains are amazing.

We’d each purchased a photographic licence the day before (on which we were listed as being from Australis), but mine proved worthless. I carried my camera in my hand for the entire walk, and my perspiration somehow infiltrated the casing and rendered it inoperable. Luckily the memory card was fine, so the photos I’d taken since arriving in Malaysia were still accessible. From this point on, Ren was solely responsible for all photos on this trip. Broken or mislaid cameras have become a recurring theme on our last two trips.

We retraced our steps and arrived back at the Tahan River at 1.30pm. We navigated the current in the same small boat, walked back to the hotel to re–hydrate and then headed out to pick up some takeaway lunch from a local cafe. With chicken fried rice and chicken with vegetables in small polystyrene containers, we set up in the hotel lobby and made use of the limited wifi. Ren also had a local chocolate ice cream and loved it.

In the late afternoon (4pm) we headed out on a boat trip up the Tahan River. Our fibreglass boat was long and narrow, with only enough room for two people to sit side by side. It sat very low in the water and had a makeshift roof which offered some shelter from Malaysia’s recurrent afternoon thunderstorm. The out–board motor struggled a few times as we sped upstream through a series of rapids, and it cut out altogether when we were halfway through one – we drifted downstream for a while until the local driver finally got the engine going. Another local guy sat behind me with a small plastic container and continually scooped water from the bottom of the boat. A thunderstorm erupted directly above us as we travelled upstream, and the lightning and heavy rain just added to the amazing experience. We were soaked from rain and river water, and the driver enjoyed pitching the boat from side to side as we sped through the rapids, causing the incredibly warm river water to stream over us. We were sodden by the time we pulled into a small sandy part of the river for a swim. The thunderstorm was still raging overhead, which made the swim even more enchanting in the warm river current. The lightning was not abating, so we sped back downstream through the rapids.

We arrived back at Kuala Tahan, jumped off the boat and trudged back to the hotel in wet clothes. After a quick change we headed out to dinner at the Daily Break Restaurant, which was nestled back from the riverbank and offered elevated views of the Sungai Tahan. This tiny backpacker restaurant specialised in roti, so we decided to order four different types – plain, egg, sardine and banana. It was fantastic. We sipped teh tariks and gazed over the river as dusk fell around us and lightning filled the sky. It was a brilliant night.

We headed back to the hotel at 8.30pm and relaxed in the lobby (where we used the hotel’s limited wifi to check email and work on our travel notes). We retired to our cabin at 10.30pm and eventually crashed at 11.30pm.

We woke late at 6.30am and headed to the hotel lobby for a reasonably basic breakfast of coffee, juice, potato wedges, scrambled eggs and toast, which was perfect for the trek that lay ahead. We leech–proofed ourselves as best we could, made our way down to the river and jumped into a small boat to transfer to the opposite side. We trekked along the riverbank for two hours in the sweltering humidity until we arrived at a small inlet where a longboat was waiting. We carefully climbed in and continued our mesmerising journey upstream into the Malaysian jungle, gliding through beautiful calm waters and occasional rapids before arriving at a small bend in the river around midday. On the way we saw a monitor lizard slowly drift past us (we got very excited as we thought it was a crocodile). We climbed out of the longboat and walked another 30 minutes along the riverbank to Lata Berkoh, where large boulders protruding from the river have created a small but impressive cascade. We retraced our steps to the longboats and sat on the riverbank for lunch around 1pm. We snacked on cold fried rice and chicken from polystyrene takeaway containers, and it was surprisingly tasty.

We climbed into our longboat and headed back downstream. After a few minutes the driver cut the engine, which allowed the boat to drift slowly and silently with the current. We laid back, listened to the sounds of the Malaysian jungle around us and looked up through the canopy to the sky above. We passed another monitor lizard, but this one was sunning itself on a large branch protruding from the water. It was at this point that I wished my camera hadn’t packed it in the day before.

We eventually arrived back at Kuala Tahan around 2pm. We headed straight to the hotel, changed our jungle clothes and relaxed in the hotel lobby until the late afternoon heat forced us to retreat to our air–conditioned cabin.

We ventured out at 7.30pm and made our way to Wan’s Floating Restaurant. We sat amidst noisy renovations and attempted to make sense of the menu. Having clients in the restaurant apparently didn’t warrant the local fix–it guys to stop hammering a false wall into place right beside our table. We ordered hailam kway teow (flat noodles with chicken, vegetables and gravy) and red chicken in spicy sauce. It was fantastic, and the spicy sauce was seriously spicy. We sipped teh tariks as we floated on Wan’s open barge, and it was a brilliant last supper in this likable little tourist village. The fix–it guys even managed to finish their makeshift wall before we finished our meal.

We wandered back to the hotel and relaxed in the lobby. We retreated to our cabin at 9pm, packed for the following day and caught up on our travel notes. I finally crashed at midnight. This had been a memorable experience in Malaysia’s foremost National Park.

We left Melaka for the ancient Taman Negara National Park at 6:15am in the very early morning. It was still dark when we left our packs at reception and scurried across to the 24 hour Restoran Melaka Raya for a quick teh tarik with Richard and Linda before the long travel day ahead. We caught a minibus for an hour or so to Gemas Train Station. The drive was lovely, as we got to see the suburbs and small towns coming awake – people leaving for work; kids heading off to school; and roadside stalls setting up for the day.

We arrived at Gemas Station at 8am, left our packs and walked around the corner to grab breakfast at Gemas Green Curry Point. We had the most delicious roti and thosai meal here. The roti came on a thali plate with a dhal sauce, a curry sauce and a tomato and onion chutney. The thosai was served with a coconut and mint chutney, a coconut and chilli chutney and a dhal sauce. This establishment has now surpassed Restoran Melaka Raya for the best roti on this trip. It also helped that the staff and owner were super friendly and very understanding of the convoluted and confused orders from people in the group. I cannot recommend this tiny curry house highly enough! Oh, and the teh tariks were delicious too.

We caught the 11am train (yes, there was a whole lot of waiting around after that insane early start!). There was an older gentleman in my seat who also had a boarding pass for seat 3C. When the train conductor was fetched, it turned out that he was in the wrong carriage (as we suspected), but he was either genuinely confused or trying it on to get a better seat. The three hour journey went quickly between looking out at the endless sea of palm oil plantations, writing, having a few naps and looking at more palm oil plantations.

We arrived at Jerantut at 2pm and piled into a minibus to head to lunch. Well, this turned into a bit of a debacle. It turns out the NKS travel agents who organise the National Park transport and passes have a bit of a monopoly in the field, and we saw the downside of dealing with them. By the time we got to lunch at the NKS Cafe (did I say they had a monopoly of everything?), they claimed they had sold out of everything apart from fried rice! So here we were, held captive at the cafe of the transport company eating a plate of fried rice after a long morning of travel. It really sucked. But it got worse. We were supposed to catch a three hour boat into Kuala Tahan, but it had been cancelled at the last minute, so we were squeezed back into the hot minibus with ineffective air–conditioning for one and half hours.

We finally arrived at the Woodlands Hotel in Kuala Tahan, in Taman Negara National Park. We were shown to our plain wooden bungalows which seemed quite basic on first inspection, but I grew quite fond of them by the end of our three day stay. Taman Negara National Park is a large National Park that straddles three states (Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan). However, we were only visiting the part in Pahang. Claiming to be the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, Taman Negara National Park is supposed to be rich in plant, bird and wildlife. However, from all accounts I’d read, the wildlife is extremely hard to spot on the more popular trails, especially as the trails been made more accessible with boardwalks and a rainforest canopy walk. So we didn’t have high expectations.

Kuala Tahan sits right at the gate of the National Park and seemingly only exists to service the tourists and the tourism staff. Eateries were limited and alcohol was scarce. We walked down to the riverfront and had dinner on one of the floating restaurants – Family Restaurant. Andrew’s fried fish with ginger was superb. My fried noodles with chicken (I ordered flat rice noodles, but mistakenly ended up with Wendy’s order with yellow noodles) was ok, but nothing to rave about. We were parched after the long travel day, so I ordered a large lychee juice and Andrew guzzled four drinks, including two teh tariks. As with most tourism towns – banana pancakes were a staple on most menus. So of course I had to have one.

The hotel breakfast was not bad, but there were complaints from the group’s resident whiney guy that the offering of a fried egg, toast and condiments wasn’t enough. I found it more than adequate, and the kaya (coconut and egg jam) on offer was of a type I hadn’t tasted was a lot more like caramel.

On that first morning we gathered at 9am to meet our local jungle guide Bogo. We walked down to the river ferry stop and crossed the fast flowing Sungai Tahan into the National Park. We were taken on a stock standard nature walk and then conveyor–belted across the treetop swinging canopy walk. The canopy walk is a very narrow chain of high walkways that had been strung up between trees tops over about 600m. Andrew opted out of the canopy walk as it turned out he couldn’t go first as I had requested of Aldrin. There was a system that everyone had to maintain a distance of 10m from the person in front, but you could take as much time as you wanted, stopping to take photos etc. One of the two very slow walkers on the trip insisted that he wanted to go first, which held everyone else up. The last thing Andrew’s discomfort of heights needed was to be stuck half way on a swinging netted walkway while someone dithered.

I was so disappointed for Andrew. However, it wasn’t the first sign that Aldrin was turning out to be one of those group leaders who greases the squeaky wheel, and the older (more complaining) travellers on the trip were starting to take advantage of this. There had been a request that we stop eating at ‘street food’ outlets, so it looked like there are only a few of us who appreciated engaging with the local culture. I’m seriously not sure why someone would travel to Malaysia and want to eat bad bland food in western style eateries.

Anyway, back to the canopy walk. Even though it’s every bit as touristy as it sounds, I enjoyed swaying my way through the rainforest treetops. We were relatively high up and the movement of the walkway added to the sense of adventure. At the end of the canopy walk we had the option of doing a difficult 2.4km uphill climb to explore Bukit Terisek. Six of us decided to do it, and it was nice to get off those boardwalks and finally access a less crowded walk. However, we had been on the heels of a school group the whole day and the squeals of thirty thirteen year olds absolutely killed any chances of seeing any wildlife. It was a very hot and sweaty walk, but it was absolutely gorgeous. The view point at the top was pretty, but this was very much about the journey and not the destination. We returned back to the river, caught a ferry across to the other side and absolutely collapsed in our air–conditioned cabin.

We eventually dragged ourselves to a street stall on the main street for a takeaway lunch of fried rice with fried chicken, and rice with chicken curry and vegetables. I know we’ve had a lot of great street food in Malaysia, but it still amazes me when we get an absolutely delicious meal from such unassuming stalls.

Sadly, Andrew’s much loved camera seems to have succumbed to the heat and humidity of the jungle (and the sweat from his hands). We are hoping it’s just the battery, but we won’t be able to have it checked out for about a week. 😞

We met at 4pm for a longtail boat ride upstream along Tahan River, which wasn’t as peaceful as it sounded – there were small rapids in parts of the river that created quite a LOT of splash–age. We had to face the fact that it was quite a boysie/ bogan activity, and we also had to face the fact that we loved it! By the time we arrived at the swimming spot, we looked like we’d already been swimming fully clothed. I’m so glad we had heeded the advice to put our cameras and other possessions in waterproof bags.

The river bank had a few isolated collections of huts and we caught glimpses of indigenous people – the Orang Asli. Orang Asli is a collective term for the three main groups of indigenous people in peninsular Malaysia. Not unlike in most countries in the world, these indigenous people remain marginalised, and issues like land rights remain unresolved. Many of the travel agents were selling overnight village stays at the Orang Asli villages, so I assume they have embraced tourism.

At the end of the first day in the National Park, I was a little disappointed with the experience. It was nowhere near as remote as I had wanted – we had seen no wildlife and the high number of people made me doubt if numbers through the park are restricted at all. As fun as the canopy walk and ‘shooting’ the rapids were, I don’t believe either of those activities have a place in a National Park. Thankfully it got better the next day. Much better.

For dinner that night Andrew and I wanted a break from the riverfront floating restaurants, so we scouted around and found a place that specialised in roti. The Daily Break Cafe, was the restaurant of a backpacker hostel, so we were surrounded by twenty–somethings smoking all over our meals, but the roti was really good. We had plain rotis, an egg roti, a sardine roti and finished with a banana roti...all accompanied by frothy teh tariks.

While our bungalows were quite comfortable, one annoying thing about this hotel was that wifi was restricted to the hotel’s open air lobby. It became a bit of a ritual for people to gather after dinner on the really really uncomfortable heavy wooden chairs around reception and check our email and facebook on phones, tablets and netbooks…with chocolate ice creams in hand.

The next morning we met our local guide Bogo again and headed off on a three hour guided trek through the ancient rainforest. The first 800m was boardwalked, after which we walked along cleared hiking trails. Apart from the distinct lack of wildlife, the rain forest offered up everything I had expected – dark, shadowy sodden trails with that fresh yet old smell of decaying leaf matter in the undergrowth. The plant life was spectacular! To me, nothing says ‘old forest’ like tangled vines and massive buttressed roots that seem to take over everything in sight. The symphony of bird song was very loud, but I didn’t recognise any of the bird names our guide identified. The racket of crickets and cicadas was even louder, and more insistent and constant.

Since we’d arrived, there had been a few incidents with large cicadas. They created such an almighty commotion on the first day that we thought there was either a very large bird or farm machinery outside our bungalow. Apparently it was mating season, and the louder the vibrations in the male cicada’s thorax, the better his chances. I think we had a couple of stud males around our hotel! They also liked to dive bomb people, so there were a few screaming people around as a result.

We walked for about two hours, which doesn’t seem long, but we were walking through primary and secondary jungle, so it was dense in parts and very very humid. We had to make sure we kept drinking to replenish the buckets of sweat we were losing. We also had to keep moving, as stopping to wait for stragglers gave the leeches the advantage in the leech–human battle.

After much anti–leech preparation – using 80% deet insect repellent and tucking trousers into socks and shirts into trousers to minimise entry points for the little suckers, neither of us were attacked on the walk. The only people who had leech issues were the ones who decided to trek in shorts or had worn short sports socks rather than our rather nerdy long socks. We had thought about buying leech proof socks, but on actually seeing what a pair looked like, I decided that it would be over the top to get a pair.

The first part of the trek ended at the crystal–clear cold waters of the Tahan River, which was a refreshing welcome after the hot and humid jungle. We were transported in small four person dugout canoes to our lunch spot, a shady stone beach on a big bend in the river. For those of us who wanted to keep walking, we walked a further 1.2km along a narrow path that followed the river to the cascades at Lata Berkoh. This walk was faster paced as we didn’t have to stop and wait for people to catch up, so there were no leech incidents. Lunch was cooked by Bogo’s wife and we got individual servings of fried rice, delicious fried chicken and an orange.

After lunch we returned back down the Tahan River in our dugout canoes. For part of this journey the motors on the canoes were killed, and we drifted in silence with the current for a while. The only sounds were the occasional paddle to correct our path, the lapping of the river against our canoe and the sounds of jungle and river life. On the way to lunch Andrew had spotted what we thought was a small crocodile swimming near some logs, but we were later told it was a monitor lizard. We now saw another very large 2m monitor lizard sunning itself on a log near the river bank. The only other wild life we spotted was a family of crab-eating macaques playing high up in the tall trees. It was so amazing to see them in their natural environment after seeing so many of them hanging around cities and tourist attractions. I really really loved today.

We headed straight to the hotel and had a cold shower and recovered from a big day of walking and sweating. We then lounged in the lobby with a chocolate ice cream and checked our email. For dinner we headed to Wan’s Floating Restaurant on the riverfront. We shared a spicy red chicken dish and hailam kway teow (hailam is a thick red sauce served with fried flat rice noodles). The meals were really tasty, but the atmosphere was unlike any restaurant we’d been to. There was construction on one side of us (the workmen had brought their own pontoon that they worked on alongside the restaurant), while on the other side of us there was a tour counter booking night safari tours – we seemed to be the only customers who weren’t on a package tour with included meals. It made for a very noisy meal, so it was a good thing that the food was really good.

Our time in Taman Negara NP had come to an end. I would recommend any of the treks that go further than the crowded boardwalks. The harder trek on the third day, as well as going further into the jungle made for an amazing experience. Any disappointment I had felt after the canopy walk day had completely dissipated. After packing for an early start we luxuriated in our air–conditioned bungalow and caught up on our writing.

Next we travel to the state of Terengganu and head to Kuala Terengganu!


11th April 2014

Food heaven!!
Guys just wanted to say I am LOVING all the descriptions of delicious Malay food. I am reading your travel blogs out loud to my Dad. Not sure how much he's taking in but he certainly perks up when we get to the food descriptions! Mmmm am getting homesick for KL!
11th April 2014

A sauna on 2 legs!
Such a rich set of descriptions of such physical effort and sensory experiences! There is nothing to match that feeling of relaxation and relief after a day of hard exercise - a good meal and a bed to sleep on go such a long way! Yet again I am loving the vicarious enjoyment via the blog! Thank you!
11th April 2014
tahan river butterflies

The variations in butterflies are amazing. I spent hours trying to get good shots of a Ulysses butterfly near Cairns. They only have their bright colours on the top of the wings. The underside is drab greyish with some tonal markings. These butterflies seem to have colour both sides of their wings. Nice shot. Happy travels! Marg and Rob
11th April 2014

Jungle experience
It sounds a lot more crowded than when we were there in 2007. We enjoyed the jungle and the hiking. Plus we loved the 3 hour long boat ride. We chuckled the entire time not being able to believe were were in Malaysia.... a long way from home. We had not traveled to many exotic lands at that time. It was a real experience for us. I'm glad you really enjoyed the 3rd day of hiking and it was the experience you were looking for.
13th April 2014

Re: Food heaven!!
Thanks Sangers! I had completely forgotten your Malaysian connection until I read your comment...wish we could have teleported the food to your Dad. xx
13th April 2014

Re: A sauna on 2 legs!
Thanks Louise. It totally was a sauna - hot and wet... but not in the way Prince meant it in his song of the same name ;)
13th April 2014
tahan river butterflies

Re: Butterflies
Thanks Marg and Rob. There were hundreds of these butterflies flying around as we ate lunch on the river bank, but we just couldn't capture the extent of the colour and movement in a photo.
13th April 2014

Re: Jungle experience
We are still upset that we missed that three hour long boat trip into Kuala Tahan. If we go back, I think we would consider entering the park through one of the other states which get less tourists. It was still a great experience despite the disappointment with aspects of day one.
13th April 2014
canopy walk

Pea green with envy!
14th April 2014
canopy walk

Re: Beautiful!
Thanks Andrea! It was very pretty.

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