Malaysia: In the thick of it

In Malaysia's far north lies Belum National Park, a rainforest refuge for birds, bugs and endangered mammals. Yet for all its natural wonders, it's an uphill battle for survival.

By Lee Cobaj
Published 30 Mar 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:12 BST
Banding Island, Lake Temenggor

Banding Island, Lake Temenggor.

Photograph by Getty Images

The darkness closes around us like a slamming door. Thick yellow mud sucks at my feet. Menacing shards of bamboo, long fingers of rattan and gnarled vines swoop towards my face in the light of my puny torch. The air is warm and damp. And then there are the sounds; the startling cries of cicadas, the high-pitched chirrups of crickets, the foghorn blasts of frogs, which, from the decibel level, I can only deduce must be the size of basketballs. The deeper we delve, the more my imagination takes flight; distant rasps become tiger calls, snapping twigs indicate an imminent bear attack and that twinkle I thought I saw in the tree morphs into the eyes of a panther, ready to pounce and turn me into a midnight snack. I feel like I'm in an outdoor haunted house.

The shadowy trail steepens to 45 degrees and I automatically reach out for some support. "Don't touch the trees or ropes or anything without looking first," my guide Salihin tells me, adding to the intensity of the situation. "There are many poisons here." I whip back my hand as if I've already been bitten. "What kind of poisons?" I ask, trying to sound cool, while also considering that the nearest hospital must be at least two hours away. Stepping precariously over a dead tree quivering under the weight of a billion termites, my guide stops abruptly and sweeps a stick through the air in a Zoro-like Z. "Trees, insects, scorpions, snakes. There are cobras, but it's the blue coral snake you really don't want to see. Their bite is seven times more dangerous than the cobra and will give you a heart attack."

Happily, the jungle also seems to provide a leaf, bark or bud that works as an antidote to every terror. Should a blue coral snake happen to chew on my wrist, Salihin knows of a leaf that will keep me alive long enough for us to reach a medical facility. Still, I keep my hands to myself for the remainder of our walk.

This is my slightly terrifying introduction to the Royal Belum State Park in Perak state, in the far north of Malaysia. It's part of Belum-Temengor, which spills across the border into southern Thailand. One of the world's oldest rainforests, it dates back 130 million years, making it older than the Amazon and the Congo.

Its 741,300 acres of glassy lakes, bushy islands and rolling tropical forest are populated by some the world's most endangered mammals, including wild Asiatic elephants, sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, cloud leopards, tapirs, tigers and panthers, as well as 10,000 indigenous people from 18 different tribes, each with their own distinct language and culture.

And yet for all its natural wonders, it's an area that's seen little in the way of tourism. In truth, it's often overlooked in favour of the lush landscapes and guaranteed orangutan sightings of Borneo. Its odd location doesn't help, either — a five-hour drive north of the capital, Kuala Lumpur; plus there's no airport and it's not on the way to or from any of Malaysia's fabulous beaches or hip heritage towns, so you really have to want to visit Belum specifically. Until recently, accommodation options were meagre too.

Located on Banding Island, the Belum Rainforest Resort, where I'm staying, is one of only two hotels in the entire national park and one of only a handful in Malaysia with a sustainable, eco-friendly approach.

"In the future, we hope that no more than 20% of the park will ever be developed," activities manager Husayne tells me. "The biodiversity here is like nowhere else on Earth; it's a gift from God." Working with government, NGOs and indigenous people, over the past five years the Belum Rainforest Resort has established a research centre with a rota of visiting academics and a mobile education centre, as well as 112 guest rooms and a rather lovely houseboat. The overall design of the resort has been kept simple. There's a pool and a rustic-style spa. But the best bit, by far, is the insider access the resort gives visitors to the park.

Lake cruises, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing and trekking are just some of the ways to experience the area, and each season brings with it its own delights. It's November, at the tail end of a rainy season, when orchids of every colour imaginable unfurl from the thick trunks and branches of mango and mahogany trees. Low water levels from January to March make these the ideal months to fish for 3ft-long giant snakeheads and hefty jungle perch. In April, the forest dazzles like a giant Pride parade, as more than 200 species of butterflies burst forth from their cocoons. In summer, this vast emerald canopy is hung with juicy jungle fruits, which in turn attracts swarms of hornbills, green pigeons, barbets and leafbirds — a twitcher's paradise.

After the floods

The park itself is nowhere near as intimidating as the previous night's trek had made it seem. In fact, in the morning light it's extremely pretty, and there's a tranquil quality to its rocky inlets, sweeping coves and gently lapping waters. I'm keen to see as much of the park as possible, so sign up for a full day's exploration of the Upper Belum.

This time, Salihin and I set off by boat, cruising across calm, bottle-green waters pierced with lumpy limestone islands. As the sun rises, layers of rolling mountains shimmer in the distance in shades of everything from indigo to navy blue, emerald, chartreuse and shamrock green. It's a scene that feels as timeless as the tide, but Royal Belum didn't always look like this. Its serene waters (up to 1,000ft deep in places) and 80-plus islands are man-made, the result of a hydroelectric dam system created in the 1970s. There was also an ulterior motive to this construction project; this frontier land was once a Cold War haven for drug smugglers, people traffickers and communist rebels who'd sneak back and forth across the border from Thailand sheltered by dense unchartered forest. Flooding the Upper Perak River in 1974 literally flushed them out.

Sadly, though, poachers still manage to infiltrate the jungle to plunder its wildlife. Fuelled by the Chinese market's desire for rare animal parts, Malaysia's tigers and sun bears are in serious danger of disappearing, with numbers of both species now thought to be in the low hundreds. And the Sumatran rhino, whose horns command prices of up to £22,000 per kilo on the black market, is all but extinct. Just 20 are thought to remain, and Salihin, who was born and raised in the forest, confirms that he's never seen one in his 30-year lifetime.

Elephant tusks have long been another valuable commodity sought by poachers in Belum-Temengor, but a tightening of laws in 2010, which saw prison time increased to 10 years for the killing or kidnap of elephants, is helping the population to slowly recover. "We've seen many babies lately," say Salihin. "We think we now have more than 1,500 elephants in the park."

NGOs, including the World Wildlife Fund, are desperately trying to protect and boost these numbers further — elephant underpasses and tiger corridors have been put in place and there are camera traps to monitor endangered populations and their habitats — but it's a mammoth task, funding is minimal and their foes are formidable.

The birds and the bees

For now, the mammal population is hanging in there. Our first stop on the island of Jenut Papan reveals the footprints and poo of elephants, which the encyclopaedic Salihin informs me must have swam here in the past few days for a taste of the island's delicious salt lick. These dry springs are rich in minerals, which help to supplement the diets of wild boar, sambar deer, mouse deer and large cats. The biodiversity at these spots is delicate in the extreme and my guide politely asks me not spray any suncream or insect repellent, as even the slightest hint of foreign chemicals could scare off future visitors.

Further into our hike, we spot the distinct shape of paws slashed into tree bark — evidence of the elusive sun bear. Moments later, small scratches in the sand are revealed by Salihin as evidence of a pangolin, a weird little creature that looks like a cross between a puppy and an acorn. "Pangolin are shy but we used to see them regularly," Salihin tells me. "Now, we don't see them much. The black market will pay 3,500 ringgit (around £550) for one kilo of pangolin — and one pangolin can weigh up to 12 kilos." It's a seductive amount of money in a country where the median salary is about £250 a month. As a result of this financial incentive, this mesmerising creature, which has been around since before the dinosaurs and used to be counted in the hundreds of thousands, has been pretty much wiped from the face of Southeast Asia, earning it the depressing title 'the most trafficked animal you've never heard of'.

It's clearly an uphill battle for conservationists but where there's life, there must be hope. And Belum-Temengor is teeming with both. Over 3,000 varieties of flowering plants are sprinkled throughout this pristine landscape, including three species of the Rafflesia, the world's largest flower.

Elsewhere, Salihin introduces me to woody versions of Viagra, barks that aid slimming after pregnancy, leaves that can be inhaled to relieve asthma and mushrooms that will shrink haemorrhoids. I can't help but think that Pfizer should have a vested interest in preserving this place, if no one else. The birdlife too is wondrous — over 300 species have been documented, including 10 different types of hornbill, which are so plentiful here they can often be spotted in flocks. And the insects are unforgettable: throughout the day, we encounter grasshoppers as big as birds; millipedes as long as skipping ropes; storms of daffodil-yellow butterflies and caterpillars so insanely coloured they look like they're sporting '90s shell suits.

And still there's more. We criss-cross the lake and hike across yet another island, skipping over rivers and wild boar droppings for a picnic lunch at Sungai Ruok Waterfall. I throw myself into its chilly waters before lying on a boulder to dry off while listening to its thundering soundtrack.

Rejuvenated, we take to the water one last time to call in on the curly-haired inhabitants of Kejar Hill. This clan of around 30 people is part of the Orang Asili, an indigenous people genetically distinct from Malays and Thais. The men of the village are gathered together bare-chested in the shade fashioning bamboo blowpipes and poison darts, while the women tend to slippery children and floating homes draped in batik curtains. The only clue that this place exists in 2016: a single satellite dish strapped to a palm tree.

As I leave Royal Belum the following day, my only fear now is whether this delicate, infinitely fascinating place can survive much longer. Poachers, illegal logging and even tourist developments are all immediate threats to its fragile ecology. But on the other hand, only a tiny percentage of this placid landscape has been documented, so there's a big opportunity for a different type of tourism that's scientific, charitable and community-based. It may have been around for 130 million years, but the battle for its survival has really only just begun.


Getting there
British Airways and Malaysia Airlines fly from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur.
Average flight time: 12h 30m.

Getting around
Although it's possible to hire a car and make the five-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur to Royal Belum State Park, this lesser-known part of the country is best experienced as part of an organised tour.

When to go
Malaysia is hot and humid all year round, with temperatures hovering around 30C most days. Visit in October and November for slightly cooler conditions in the jungle. Twitchers should aim to visit during August and September to see rare birds migrating from India; while February is the time to see Belum-Temengor's 3,000-plus species of tropical flowers in full bloom.

Need to know
Visas: No visa required for UK citizens.
Currency: Ringgit (MYR).
£1 = RMB 6.39.
Health: Ask your GP about essential vaccinations and anti-malarials. A mosquito repellent is advisable as a precaution against dengue fever, for which there's no vaccination, although you're not allowed to spray it in some parts.
International dial code: 00 60.
Time: GMT +8.

More info 

How to do it
Audley Travel offers a 10-day tour from £2,090 per person, with time in Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Penang and two nights at the Belum Rainforest Resort, on a B&B basis. It also includes British Airways flights, private transfers and guides.

Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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