Malaysia was a repeat country for both of us. We’ve both visited Kuala Lumpur and Melaka before, so this time around we wanted to see something different. Bob chose Penang, I chose Taman Negara (literally “National Park,”) and both of us wanted to see the Perhentian Islands. The latter two are pretty touristy, but still rural.We’d seen the cities and were looking forward to seeing the Malaysian countryside.
Taman Negara is an interesting place. On one side of the Tahan river is the rainforest; on the other, a small village called Kampung Kuala Tahan (literally, Tahan River Village. Gotta love those Malaysian names.) The traditional activities in Taman Negara are hiking, camping, visiting indigenous settlements, or taking night treks to look for animals. The unfortunate part is that the rainforest is now almost completely surrounded by palm plantations, which detracts from the experience. In addition, there are now so many visitors that it’s tough to find any animals besides insects, leeches, and (on the palm plantations) house cats. It seemed to me like it was stuck at a crossroads: how to get more tourists to come but also maintain the environment that keeps tourists coming.
The rainforest, when you’re in it, is still spectacular. We did the Canopy Walkway, which is basically just a rope bridge suspended 80 feet above the ground. I pretended to be a intrepid rainforest explorer, and imagined taking notes on all the wonderful new species I had discovered and would bring back to England. We saw the biggest ants I’ve ever seen, and also spotted a monitor lizard and a wild pig. On the same day, we took a night jeep tour to look for nocturnal animals. The most exciting part was that we got to ride on dirt roads on the roof of the jeep, holding on for dear life. Eventually I relaxed and enjoyed the ride, tensing up only when we went downhill. Only one person fell off the roof during the ride- and it was our guide. The only animals we saw were house cats, a pair of owls, some eyes which our guide claimed to be attached to various animals like civets or slow lorises, and a flying squirrel- which we saw “fly”- but on the whole, I didn’t think it was worth it.
Another popular jungle activity is spending the night in it. The parks department has constructed some three-story cabins for people to stay in- the first level is open, in case of flood and probably also to prevent animals from coming in. The second floor has toilets and showers and the third has bunk beds (it was quite nice, actually.) Our cabin also had a gigantic observation window looking out over a grassy meadow. We did see *something* but we’re honestly not sure what it was. We had flashlights but they weren’t strong enough to illuminate whatever animal it was. It was definitely something with four legs, not too big but not too small – maybe a deer or some kind of cat? I maintain I saw three shapes, Bob says there was definitely one but he’s not sure about the other two. A few Canadians we’d met in the village went to another hide and had even less luck than we did. The only animals they saw were rats, in the cabin with them. Apparently some previous visitors had been setting fires underneath the cabin, in the first floor open area, which scares away any wildlife for the next few months.
So maybe the wildlife experiences in Taman Negara were a bit lacking. No tigers, Asian rhinos, elephants, or tapirs. We did end up seeing elephants though- in the middle of the night. For anyone looking for wild elephants- I do not make any promises- try taking a night bus. We were on the road between Kota Bharu and Penang when the bus driver suddenly stopped. We were going downhill so I thought something was wrong. Luckily we were seated in the front row and I leaned out into the aisle to get a better view. There were ELEPHANTS- several of them- crossing the road. The other bus passengers started to stir and whisper among themselves. The bus driver flashed his lights several times, but the elephants just brayed at him and refused to move. We waited at least ten minutes for these elephants to make their way to the other side, but eventually one small one made a break for it while the others just ambled back the way they had come. I was finally able to count- there were seven of them!
For people who enjoy trekking, Taman Negara’s great, and spending the night *in* the jungle was scary, but fantastic. Listening to the “jungle orchestra” as we fell asleep was the highlight of our night in the forest. But it’s not akin to going on safari, and we didn’t like the idea of visiting the indigenous settlement (too much like a human zoo.) And there are definitely other places in Malaysia to spot wildlife (like in the middle of the road.)
Our favorite part of Taman Negara was the nightly music sessions at Riffi Hostel. As Sharif, the owner of the hostel, explained to us, “there’s nothing to do here, so we have to make our own fun.” That they do. Every night, several of Sharif’s friends come over, guitars in hand, and invite anyone to join them on the porch for a few songs. Maybe “invite” isn’t the best word… Sharif FORCES you to sing, while his friend Imran makes foreign girls dance with him (mostly involving standing up and waving your arms in the air) and curious onlookers pause to watch. It’s great fun.
Bob can play guitar and neither of us are embarrassed to sing and dance in public, so we were a big hit. The guys told me I was “very sporting” for agreeing to wave my arms along with Imran. I even taught him the Swim. Visitors to Taman Negara should definitely consider stopping by this place, even if you aren’t staying there. But be sure to brush up on the lyrics to “Hotel California,””Zombie,” and “Buffalo Soldier” beforehand.