Twinkle twinkle little flies

During a weekend visit to Kuala Lumpur (KL), my friends and I took an evening's break from the throbbing capital and headed north on a short road trip instead.

An hour's drive from the towering skyscrapers in the urban jungle is a quiet little town called Kuala Selangor. There, a totally different conurbation of night lights await.

This former royal capital of Selangor sits at an estuary where the Sungai Selangor meets the Strait of Malacca, and is where many informed locals and tourists come for a change of scenery, and to meet Malaysia's wildlife - especially the thousands of blinking bugs that form one of the world's biggest firefly colonies.

Historical Bukit Melawati

While waiting for complete nightfall so that the tiny starlets could be witnessed in their best moments, we visited Bukit Melawati.

This one-time administrative centre with a fort enclosing a palace was a pivotal hill sentry for the Selangor sultans and, later, the Dutch who occupied the territory in the late 18th century. After the sultans wrenched power back from the colonialists, Bukit Melawati became burial grounds for its subsequent rulers.

On top of the hill is a perfectly functioning 1900s lighthouse that comes alive at the first signs of dusk.

There is also a museum, several old wells and a rock where executions were supposedly carried out.

Sections of the fortified wall and dislodged cannons pointing towards a coastline separating the vast mangrove swamp and the Strait of Malacca bear the most obvious hints of Bukit Melawati's past and historical significance.

Dating couples, families and the odd tourist come here mainly to appreciate the panoramic view and setting sun. On a clear day, fishing settlements can even be seen in the distance.

Every evening, hundreds of tame silver-leafed monkeys and long-tailed macaques appear from the surrounding forests to join the admiring crowds.

Their accomplices - the banana and peanut vendors - make sure that while the monkeys are well-fed, the crowd is kept entertained while waiting for sunset.

Be careful not to monkey around too much with these primates though. I spotted a few making off with more than just snacks.

It's showtime!

A 10-minute drive away is Kampung Kuantan, the playground for Kuala Selangor's stars - the kelip-kelip (fireflies). We stopped in a nondescript parking lot and followed a small crowd along a barely lit path. You have to walk a short distance to a jetty, so be careful where you are going or you might end up in one of the small longkang (drains).

For RM10 (S$3.90) each, boatmen will take passengers on a 45-minute ride along the Sungai Selangor to catch a glimpse of these glowing beetles.

These fireflies emerge to feed and mate in the mangrove bushes lining both sides of the fast-flowing river when it gets dark - usually between 8pm and 10pm.

There was a pretty long line of visitors when we arrived, but the queue moved surprisingly fast. Four by four, people in life-jackets were herded into the neverending stream of small sampan (wooden boats) at the side of the simple jetty.

Even though we were told to stay quiet so as not to disturb the insects, I could tell under the faint light of the single florescent lamp that everyone was eager to witness nature's showcase.

Carried by river currents on a moonless night, the boat slowly drifted down the river. Our eyes grew accustomed to the dark, and soon, the first faint twinkles became visible. As the boatman steered towards the river bank, the mangrove bushes began to completely dazzle with fairy lights.

For a moment, we sat mesmerised by the twinkling show. Some fireflies flew around us - one even settled on my head.

But as tempting as it is, do not bring these little insects home - there is a RM1,000 fine for catching fireflies.

Even though we were dazzled by this natural spectacle, my friend said their numbers had dwindled significantly through the years largely because of developments along the river which affected their habitat.

So, the next time you are in KL, make a detour to Kuala Selangor and experience this spectacular firefly show because, sadly, it may not last forever.

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