Best of Mother Nature
With so many beaches in the country, the attractions of sun, sand and sea seem better than the jungle. That is the usual response I receive from friends and family, when I ask them why they don't visit Taman Negara.
But if you have never been there, how would you know if it's worth the trip?
At 130-million years old, Taman Negara is one of the world's oldest tropical rainforest. It stretches over 4,300sq km and straddles three States - Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu.
Within its boundaries you'll find thousands of different species of flora, fauna and insects - some very rare and others indigenous only to Malaysia: 300 of birds, 200 of mammals, 10,000 of plants, 150,000 of insects, 250 of freshwater fish, and more than 25,000 different invertebrates.
That is a lot of difficult-to-pronounce Latin names. And there are still endangered tigers roaming deep inside the national park.
Peninsular Malaysia's highest point can also be found here. Gunung Tahan stands proudly at 2,187m. While not as high as Gunung Kinabalu, it is arguably more difficult to climb, as you need to carry all of your food, shelter and water for the gruelling six-day round-trip through the jungle.
Taman Negara's air is clean and fresh, a welcome respite if you have recently experienced haze.
There are no noisy neighbours, and it is the perfect destination to get away from the sharp elbows and 24/7 go-go-go attitude of the city.
During my stay, the only noise I heard was the sound of falling leaves and birds on my chalet roof, and the sound of thunder during a short afternoon downpour. Just like KL or its nearby beaches, you still experience morning or afternoon showers. But you can still visit the park all-year round.
Although it is ulu or remote, there is a strong hand-phone signal, so in case of an emergency you can still be contacted. Only the lobby area of the Mutiara Taman Negara has WiFi. And 3G signal is almost nil. So do not expect to be emailing, surfing or posting regular status updates on social media.
This is the beauty of Taman Negara. Like it or not, you are in the jungle, with no online distractions, and the perfect opportunity to focus on one thing only: Mother Nature. Bring sturdy footwear and cool, comfortable quick-dry clothing as well as a bottle of water, bug spray, sunblock and hat, and you are all set to explore.
The best part is that the trekking trails that begin from Mutiara Resort are all above ground level, thanks to metal boardwalks that are a good half-metre above the jungle floor level. In other nature parks I have visited, they are usually made from wooden planks that are soon covered in a fine green moss, just waiting for you to slip upon.
Metal boardwalks mean you won't get muddy footwear, can avoid blood-sucking leeches and there's less chance of slipping and falling over.
During my three-day two-night stay, I only spotted one leech.
Of course, if you're a hard-core jungle trekker and go deep into the jungle, you'll need proper leech socks.
My guide suggested two methods of deterring these bloodsuckers.
Soak your long socks in tobacco, or spray them and the top of your high boots with insecticide. I tried both methods when climbing Gunung Tahan in the past, but neither worked for me. I usually just wait until they drop off, a little fatter and less thirsty than before.
Climbing up the 344m-high Bukit Teresek is a good start to your day. On the way back down, you'll find the jungle canopy walkway. Considered the world's longest rope suspension bridge, it is 43m above ground level and more than 510m long.
Be careful that you follow the rules when sky-walking.
Ensure that you keep a distance of 10m or more from the person in front of you. Otherwise you will overload the capacity of the ropes. Do not run or sway on the rope walkway, as you'll probably injure yourself, or others. Remember, you are not Indiana Jones.
Finally, never have more than four people on the platforms in between the different sections.
Follow these simple rules and you should have a trouble-free sky trek.
Unfortunately as you can only walk the walkway in single file, it does mean that when there are large groups of trekkers, it is difficult to pause and take in the views, or take photographs.
Jungle trekking, like scuba diving, is best done using a knowledgeable guide who explores the same routes frequently and know the local flora and fauna like the back of their hand. They'll show you which plants have medicinal properties, which fungi are poisonous or edible, and find creepy, but harmless stick insects, everywhere.
The guided night trek is even better. But beware as your guide shines his torch into the hole of a tree trunk to reveal a huge, hairy bird-eating spider.
Or more bizarrely, the black scorpion, whose luminescence means it may be seen in the dark.
If you're very lucky and have penetrated deep into the jungle away from the resort and other trekkers, you may even encounter a slow loris, giant squirrels, or even the small Asian elephant, of which less than 200 are believed to inhabit the national park.
There are hides overlooking salt licks and watering holes, where you can wait patiently at night to spot deer, wild boar, porcupines and monitor lizards.
What fascinates me most are the Orang Asli, the indigenous people found in this part of the peninsula.
The Batek people have a small settlement close to the resort which you can visit with a local guide and using a boat.
The Batek are short and dark-skinned with very tight, curly hair. Almost African in appearance.
Several families live together in palm-thatched shelters. If you do go to visit the Batek, remember that it is their home. And to walk in and take photographs of them, without first asking for permission, is an invasion of their privacy. That said, they are very welcoming and will not hesitate to show you their bushcraft skills, such as fire-making, blowpipe target practice, and how to make the darts for hunting.
SHOOTING THE RAPIDS
For a faster action-packed form of travel, shooting the rapids in one of the longboats is a must-do. Wear quick-dry shorts and a T-shirt made from synthetic material, and a pair of water sandals.
Don't forget a dry bag for your camera gear and other valuables. And if you're on an uncovered boat you'll need a hat and plenty of sunblock. Prepare to get soaked and sunburned!
Once you're ready, don your lifejacket, sit back and keep your eyes open.
I was lucky enough to spot a pair of rhinoceros hornbills flying overhead. These black-feathered birds have enormous orange coloured bills. They can have a wingspan of nearly 1.5m and weigh as much as 3kg. Do you know that the male has mahogany red eyes while the female's eyes are white?
Sitting in the longboat can be a bit of a white-knuckle ride, especially when shooting the rapids and turning a corner to avoid the hidden rocks that could ground us, or the huge fallen trees that lie along our route. A boat-ride to Lata Berkoh waterfall and pools is perfect for cooling down in its natural jacuzzi-like pools.
Seek out fallen large trees to jump off from into the deeper pools. These are all fun and tiring activities that will take you out of your city slicker comfort zone and guarantee you a deep night's sleep. But just as you begin to get used to your newfound sense of adventure, it is time to go home.
The journey back to KL reminds me of our delicate balancing act with nature.
Outside of Taman Negara, we pass truck after truck carrying hundreds of logs, an abrupt reminder of what the future holds for unprotected parts of rainforest around the world. We should all visit Taman Negara to better understand our natural heritage. Without understanding what we once had, you will never believe the little that we have left.
There is accommodation for all budget levels.
The air-conditioned chalets are solid wooden buildings with either two singles, or one double bed. An extra bed is available on request. The family chalets have a bunk bed for your little ankle-biters.
With a flat-screen television and comfortable beds, you're all set to put your feet up, freshen up, relax after an active day, and prepare for your next day. The management has even thought to install a heavy-duty washing line inside the recently revamped bathrooms, so you can quickly dry your jungle clothing for tomorrow's adventure. A refrigerator, tea and coffee-making facilities complete your daily needs. And a prayer mat is provided too.
Choose a chalet suite if you need more living space.
Or receive VIP treatment and stay in the two-storey bungalow which has two bedrooms, a living room and an expansive balcony overlooking Tembeling River. For those on a budget, there is hostel-style accommodation with bunk beds, mosquito screens and ceiling fans, accommodating up to eight in a dormitory.
For the more adventurous there is a designated camping site within the grounds. Have the best of both worlds, while using the resort's facilities. Organised activities include jungle trekking, the jungle canopy walkway, night walks, boat cruises, fishing, mountain climbing and visiting Orang Asli settlements. All carried out safely, efficiently, and it's great fun! For food, there is a choice of local buffet and an a la carte menu to instil some variety, especially if you're staying more than a couple of days. The sambal hitam is delicious with local dishes and the local coffee is strong, tasty and an excellent caffeine-infusion.
At first you may think that no Internet access is a bad thing.
But after a day or two you'll be glad you're cut off from the rest of the world. It'll help you focus on nature, relax, and really feel like you're on holiday. Like most people, I too love the beach. But sometimes I just need a change. And this is it. There is no sand blowing into my food. There are no sand flies. Other than the sound of boats and nature, there is very little, if any, noise pollution. The only karaoke is nature.
It is cooler, as the jungle canopy shades you, although you should use sunblock on the open-top boats.
And there are numerous adventurous activities, all designed to get you out of your usual daily comfort zone. It's a great introduction to the tropical rainforest and perhaps one that you should seriously consider for your young children's education. Visitors are split 60:40 (international:local), with the Dutch making up most of the foreign visitors.
They fly for more than 13 hours, covering a distance of more than 10,000km to Kuala Lumpur from Europe. Jet-lagged due to the seven-hour time difference, they then do the coach and boat transfer to the resort. Meanwhile, all some KL-ites can do is complain about a four-hour long car journey.
So important an educational experience is Taman Negara, that international schools from Malaysia and Singapore send groups of students to work on projects as a part of their curriculum. What's stopping you from learning more about our natural history and living heritage?
LIVING WITH NATURE
Mutiara Taman Negara is located on the front doorstep of the peninsula's most famous tropical rainforest.
Driving there from central Kuala Lumpur takes four hours. Alternatively, catch the scheduled coach. It departs at nine o'clock every morning from the Hotel Istana lobby on Jalan Sultan Ismail and takes three hours.
You then take a three-hour boat ride along Sungei Tembeling, arriving in style.
The return coach departs from Kuala Tembeling at 12.30pm daily. On arrival you'll unload your luggage on a floating jetty. To access the resort there is a very steep set of steps. Luckily they have a small trolley on a pulley system that will transport your bags to the top of the steps. You'll be greeted at the top of the stairs with a refreshing hand towel and a cooling soft drink.
The resort has its own precious "private" flora and fauna within the grounds.
After a few very close face-to-face encounters with many a wild boar and its young, and magnificent deer roaming the grounds, you'll take it for granted that this can happen every hour of the day. And it does. Bird watching from the chalet verandah will also reveal some natural beauties. The flowers and insects you'll see on the grounds mean that at nightfall, you'll think you are living in the middle of a rainforest with a background chorus of nature. And you are.