Taking a trip into the tropical rainforest of Taman Negara, peninsular Malaysia's premier national park, is a chance to get back to basics and immerse yourself in all things wild and wonderful
Suspended and swaying some 40 metres in the air, clutching handrails made of rope, and looking down between unsteady feet to see the thick layer of jungle below, you’ll probably wonder why you first thought the world’s largest canopy walk was a good idea. But by the time you have steadied yourself at the next base (read: sturdy tree), the adrenaline will have kicked in and you’ll be off chasing the sounds of the exotic. Elephants, tapirs, gibbons and cobras are just a few of the species that call this area home, and with some patience and a sense of adventure, you’ll soon be ticking them off your must-see list.
Taman Negara, Malaysia’s piece of wild and the world's oldest jungle, lies only 250km northeast of the capital, yet you’ll feel like you’re on another planet - quite possibly because travel there takes about the same time. All-inclusive package trips are easily arranged from city guesthouses and the ever-present HAN travel group, but it’s much more exhilarating and rewarding to go it alone. A three-hour trip along the RM19, on a bus festooned with decorations straight out of Aladdin’s cave and full of locals eager to catch up on some rather nasal sleep, takes you to the remote town of Jerantut, where a horde of friendly men and their vintage cars will be waiting to carry your bags and transfer you to Tembling Jetty, an 11-mile uphill chug away.
The jetty itself is home to a bubbly pair of sisters who organise transport along the river and direct you to the nearest pit stop, where some of the cheapest and tastiest local food can be savoured under the shade of an arching tree. This is the last stop for all those essential supplies and already the pace of life has slowed, with the bustle of traffic being replaced by the singing of birds.
Handing over 35 ringgit ensures the next three hours are spent cruising 37 miles along the Tembling River in a classic wooden longboat. Canopied from the intense afternoon heat, it is the perfect opportunity to stretch out, relax and enjoy the ride, with spray from the water offering perfect respite from the blazing sun. Before long, you’ll be partaking in the spot-it game - as you delve further into the wilderness, the remote comes alive with lush green vegetation, roaming animals and bathing buffaloes.
Arriving in Kuala Tahan feels like stepping back in time, and the village itself has more of an island atmosphere; there's a sedentary pace and the hum of boats is overshadowed only by calls of the wild. Despite its small size, Kuala Tahan is actually the life and soul of the jungle, and with 15 choices of accommodation ranging from campsites (Esmokafa Camp Site, RM5) and dorms (Liana Hostel, RM10) to luxury bungalows (Mutiara Taman Negara Resort, RM1,500), it caters for all budgets - without compromising Mother Nature. A walk around town takes merely minutes, allowing more time to be spent in full Attenborough mode.
The friendly locals are full of jungle stories and suggested itineraries, ranging from bird watching and fishing to canopy walking and cave exploring. Many will ask to take you to their village to show you their way of life (from traditional foods and body painting to blowpipe shooting), and they’re only too eager to support Malaysia’s ‘thousand-star hotels’ – a plethora of basic hideouts, nestled in the midst of the National Park, in which you can stay. Such adventures enable you to really get off the beaten path and live out your own Mowgli fantasy under the stars - mosquito net recommended! After registering with the relevant authority and buying your entry and camera permit (RM5), you’re free to roam the jungle, either guided or on your own, with trails ranging from 0.5 to 55km.
The base of Nusa Camp (www.tamannegara-nusaholiday.com.my), a short river journey through the rapids, is the starting point for a moderate walk through the jungle, perfect for all those short of time or fitness. It offers all the adventures associated with Indiana Jones: crossing rivers, rope walking, dodging lizards, climbing through webbed tree roots... all the while following directions that have been spray painted onto trees. The 90-minute hike through dense undergrowth and trees that seem to touch the heavens meanders among some of the world's oldest meranti hardwood trees and rare orchids. The path leads to the modest Abai Falls - never before has water looked more inviting, and a quick dip followed by an impromptu sunbathe restores the energy for the return journey.
Back in Kuala Tahan, floating restaurants line the water's edge and vie for your business; dinner is an experience in itself, as you bob up and down with every passing river vehicle. Fresh fish is featured in abundance, and is the key ingredient in the traditional laksa (spicy noodle soup).
Exploration really is the key activity here, and nightfall offers more time to embrace nature, with a choice of night safaris and jungle walks on offer - the perfect opportunity to see nocturnal animals and reptiles going about their daily business.
The location's remoteness, coupled with the Muslim beliefs, results in an alcohol-free area. However, beer can always be found in the early evening, just as the mandatory waterside bonfire is lit and slightly before the guitars are picked up. Whether you spend a day or a week here, memories of Taman Negara will imprint themselves much deeper than the footsteps you leave.