Abu Dhabi to Malaysia

Time Out takes a jungle break in Malaysia and finds marvelous monkeys and fantastic fish Discuss this article

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Jungle gateway

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, has cleaned up its act since André Gide called it ‘Kuala l’Impure’. The old KL – scruffy, haphazard, carefree – has reinvented itself as an attractive modern city, conscious of its image and keen to please. Tumbledown shophouses and snarling traffic have given way to ordered highways and bold new developments, but not entirely at the expense of the city’s original character.

KL certainly warrants a few days’ exploration, though for many people it serves as a gateway to greater riches – namely Malaysia’s magnificent national parks. Dozens of conservation areas shelter the oldest and most biodiverse rainforest in the world: a single hectare of Malaysian jungle contains more species of tree than the entirety of North America.

For the majority of visitors, a trip into the Malaysian jungle means a longboat journey into the Taman Negara, Peninsular Malaysia’s flagship national park. Here, well-worn trails loop into the rainforest, while a series of hides overlook carefully placed saltlicks.

If you’re willing to head further afield, there are other, little-visited corners of the peninsula that offer better chances of spotting wildlife and the opportunity to spend time with semi-nomadic orang asli (Malay for ‘aboriginals’).

One of these is Tasek Bera, the country’s largest freshwater lake system. The Semelai tribespeople, indigenous to these parts, paddle the gentle waters of the lake in impossibly shallow dugouts, setting fish traps and hunting deer and wild boar.

This wetland wilderness and its surrounding rainforest provides sanctuary for a huge variety of fish, birds and mammals. Highly prized catches like tiger barbs, harlequins, marbled goby and Asian arowana draw sport fishermen to the shallow waters, while the presence of rare mammals makes the region a hotspot for conservationists: tigers, clouded leopards, elephants and the endangered Malayan false gharial (an odd-looking crocodile) have all been sighted in recent years.

With the help of Wetlands International, an organisation called SABOT has been founded by the Semelai of Pos Iskandar, a remote settlement on the west bank of the lake. The organisation manages tourism here, ensuring that any revenue generated is shared equally among the community. SABOT offers homestays within the settlement, plus jungle treks and canoe trips in Semelai dugouts (http://tasekbera.jones.dk/).

Navigating in silence along the calm waters of the lake is a serene and unforgettable experience. Common sightings include dusky leaf monkeys, wild boar and occasionally gibbons. Get lucky and you may even encounter large mammals, such as elephant, deer and tapir – though in the wild these animals are shy. Big cats are even better masters of disguise and rarely seen from the water.

Either way, the setting is reward enough. A maze of water channels weave their way through beautiful thickets of pandanus, and between May and September, the surface of the lake explodes in a pink bloom of lotus flowers and water lilies. Here and there, islands of swamp forest – hung with thorny rattans and carnivorous pitcher plants – rise from the peat-black waters.

Trips organised by SABOT combine wildlife spotting with a visit to the tiny settlement of Jelawat, where local families will invite you into their homes and entertain you with traditional music, offering betel nut, home-grown cigarettes and the mutual thrill of contact with people who lead such different lives to your own.

By James Alexander
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

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