Taman Negara National Park is centrally located in Malaysia, about three hours northeast from Kuala Lumpur. Taman Negara literally means “national park,” so we joked about visiting National Park National Park. It’s also referred to as Malaysia National Park. It is considered one of the oldest jungles on the planet! I spoke with my mom before heading there, and she told me she just watched Planet Earth with her students in which Taman Negara was mentioned. I take pride in visiting these world marvels in person.
We went straight to Taman Negara from the Cameron Highlands, and it was the absolute worst bus ride in my entire life. I am not one to get car sick at all, but when the 20 person mini bus rolled up to retrieve us I knew we were in trouble. There were only 5 of us travelers on board, so luckily we had the freedom to sit wherever we wanted. I sprawled in the very back to have some privacy as I worked on my GRE vocabulary flashcards. This was a bad idea. With every small bump or turn in the road, the bus would sent my behind floating in the air. My neck would whiplash, my limbs turned to jelly. The driver sped around the tight curves of the mountains, leaning into each turn. He’d speed up during the short stretch of straight shots then slam on the breaks to go around yet another corner. When there was a lull in the driving I inched forward to a seat near the front, moving so slowly like a sloth so I wouldn’t be bucked onto another person’s lap. When upright I feared for my joints! It was absolutely miserable! Of course I had to pee almost immediately, so it made the three hour ride even more unbearable. Every bump made my bladder twitch. I was on the verge of throwing up the entire time. I wondered if he was speeding so we could catch our boat ride to the park. Nope. When we finally reached the boat launch it was a two-hour wait until our boat departed.
The more scenic route of getting to the park is by boat. We boarded the 16 passenger boat, sitting cross legged on life jackets for comfort. Ours eyes were almost at the water level as the boat sunk down with our weight. It was a relaxing 1.5 hour ride along the river with massive trees and sandy beaches stretching for miles on either side. We saw warthogs, water buffalo, and monkeys on the beaches relaxed in their natural habitat.
We were dropped off at Kuala Tahan, the small village across the river from the national park. Men would take visitors back and forth across the river all day long! It cost RM 1 for a ride across (about 25 cents). There were several floating restaurants along the river, and accommodations were up a small hill in the village. We stayed at Wild Traveler’s Lodge, a simple five room hostel on the hill with an amazing view of the park on the other side of the river. The wall in our room facing the park was made entirely of a sliding glass door.
We spent three days at the park jungle hiking, swimming, and relaxing on the hostel deck. The hiking was a bit less strenuous than Cameron Highlands. The shorter hikes near the park entrance had comfortable boardwalks elevated a couple feet above the vine covered ground.
We marveled at the huge, HUGE trees towering over us. Their trunks so straight and perfectly round shot up into the sky as if a rocket ship left a tree in its trail. There were vines everywhere, filling spaces between trees, invading their trunks and branches. Some of the vines would wrap in a delicate spiral around the cylindrical shape of the tree. We could hear the soft harmonic chirps of tropical birds, yet we couldn’t spot them ourselves. The only wildlife we saw were monkeys and large lizards we have yet to name. We did spy some elephant droppings and footprints, which made our trek more exciting knowing there was a small, very small chance of spotting one in the wild.
The trees were jaw-dropping. Some of the tree trunks were the size of cars, with their roots draping down at the base like a dress. Sometimes the roots emerged from the ground and sprawled for several feet. They reminded me of tendons in people’s necks.
One day we went on a longer hike through the jungle to a swimming spot. Once we got there Marc noticed a couple leeches on his feet. I instantly remembered other traveler’s warnings of them and quickly checked my own feet. None. Thank god. I kept on and after a few steps I felt that familiar stinging and tugging sensation on my calf. I drew up my pant leg and spotted one of those nasty buggers. It was a difficult extraction, but I managed to pluck it off. Blood streamed down my leg, and it didn’t clot until hours later. They are tiny little things and very thin! I ended up having several more on my feet, my socks stained with blood.
The swimming spot was murky and had several large trees thrown about. Slimy, eel-like fish were spotted from the dock. We decided not to swim but enjoyed a picnic lunch on the dock completely alone in the jungle. We fed the fish the leeches we plucked off our feet.
The trails are similar to Cameron Highlands. Roots growing above ground form little staircases. It gets quite muddy in some areas, and so the trails will twist and turn around mud pits. We were surprised to find no mosquitos as we hiked! The vines are mesmerizing the way they coil around trees in beatiful patterns. I love how they hang about at random but then grab onto something and create a pattern of growth. Luckily, because of the canopy of trees we were almost always in the shade, so no sunburn!
A major attraction at the park is the canopy walk. We went in the early afternoon after all the tours had gone through. This was a great idea because we had it to ourselves. There were six canopy walks connected with circular platforms built around a tree. I don’t know how tall they were. In some parts you could see the jungle floor but at other times you couldn’t because of the thick foliage. The walk was only scary when the bridge would sway strongly and creak. It was impossible not to hold onto the sides as you walked because of the constant sway!
We sat in a “hide” for a bit during our time in the park. At the top was a bench overlooking a clearing. It had a picturesque tree in the center with some food hanging on ropes. We watched for a long time to see if an animal would come out. My mind was busy imagining the coolest things we could see: perhaps a tiger chasing a mouse deer, or a mom and baby leopard eating some lunch. We saw nothing, of course! It was, however, a meditative experience sitting in silence gazing at the peaceful field.
We ate on the floating restaurants each night. There was nothing too unique about the food compared to the rest of Malaysia, but they did serve up a larger quantity of vegetables in their dishes!
We had a few travel experiences in the park that solidified what we already knew. Don’t always assume you need a guide. We read in several internet articles that you NEED a guide to visit the national park. They stated some trails were only accessible with a guide, or you’d only see wildlife if somebody else pointed them out. The canopy walk, for example, was a popular guided tour. In reality, it’s a very easy boardwalk hike that is clearly marked. You pay an entrance fee and climb up to the canopy walks. Who needs a guide for this? It’s a simple way to save some money by eliminating hiring a guide for something that’s easily DIY. Additionally, every lodge is trying to sell you bus tickets out of the park and to other Malaysia cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands, etc. They easily charge double for tickets you can buy yourself from local buses. Although trips may take an hour or two longer on public buses, it is another easy way to cut your travel costs in half. Most of the time, the buses are just as comfortable and easy to find. We’ve taken the slow boats, public ferries, and local buses every where we can. I am grateful for this as we’ve saved tons of money and seen how the locals travel. When you have the time, I suggest all travelers do the same!