After traveling to two major cities (Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur) in pretty short order, we were craving some time in nature so hiking Taman Negara and Cameron Highlands was the perfect itinerary. These two locations, although drastically different, equally satisfied our hiking appetite with the added bonus of some unforgettable moments with new friends!
Journey from KL to Kuala Tahan
Thankfully, Devin did his research and found the ultimate way to reach Kuala Tahan – 3-hour drive plus a 3-hour boat ride down the Sungai Tembeling river. Not only was the boat ride an experience in itself but we got to see at least 30 wild water buffalo cooling off in the river along with cows, local fisherman and other boats cruising down the shallow river.
The boat itself held about 15 passengers and was so shallow you sat on the bottom of the boat with legs outstretched in front of you and each row held two people. It was a long and narrow boat made of wood with an aluminum covering that could maneuver through the shallowest of waters. The men were instructed to get out and assist the “captain” if we were to get stuck along the way but fortunately that never happened.
Arriving into the town, we docked at a strip of floating restaurants and were given our strict instructions to follow while entering the National Park. Threatened by jail, exorbitant fines and some other broken English phrases we couldn’t understand, we knew they took it quite seriously so we triple checked before embarking that we were following protocol.
Taman Negara simply translates to “national park” in Malay and is the second oldest rainforest in the world, estimated to be over 130 million years old. With it’s close proximity to Kuala Lumpur (230 km) it is a very popular eco-tourism site with plenty of trekking opportunities. The protected national park is northeast of Kuala Lumpur and is spread over three states including Pahang, Kelantan, and Terengganu.
With our permit and photography license in hand, we took the boat across the river to the entrance of the national park. From the point of entry into the national park until we were seated at one of the floating restaurants for lunch, 4 hours had passed which included a 10 km hike plus all the stops we took to admire the beauty.
Hot & Humid
The first thing we noticed on the hike was how deathly hot and humid it was. I am pretty sure our clothes were already soaked through just walking up the steps to enter the park. With the temperature around 36C / 97F and humidity upwards of 80%, we looked like we jumped into a pool and felt like we got hit by a bus. The heat was by far the most challenging part of the hike and staying hydrated seemed to be a losing battle.
Once we reached the top Devin took his shirt off and wrang it out, not once, not twice but three times he was able to get a full stream of sweat out! I wanted to be disgusted by this but I knew my shirt would yield the exact same sweat-drenched results, so all I could do was laugh.
Canopy Walkway – closed for maintenance
One of the major attractions in Taman Negara is the world’s longest canopy walkway; a 530m long suspension bridge that is 40m above the jungle floor. It was something Devin and I were really looking forward to but come to find out it closed the day before we arrived for one month for maintenance.
Although we were disappointed we didn’t get to cross the bridge, we didn’t let it deter us from enjoying all the other incredible sights and sounds in the national park and we are so glad we still paid a visit to the ancient rainforest.
On to the Next
After two nights spent listening to the magnificent sounds of the jungle and torrential downpours, it was time to move on to our next Malaysian destination – Cameron Highlands. A very windy four-hour bus ride took us from Kuala Tahan to Tanah Rata where we would spend the following two days.
Named after explorer Sir William Cameron, who mapped the area in 1885, the highlands were developed during the British colonial period. Endless tea plantations, gardens, bungalows and even a golf course all introduced during the 1930s made the Cameron Highlands a welcome escape for the Brits with temperatures rarely reaching 30C.
We stayed in Tanah Rata and instantly fell in love with the quaint British colonial town filled with charm. The town sits on a relatively flat area in the highlands and has an elevation of 1,440 m / 4,720 ft so is by far the highest area we had been since Denver, Colorado.
The Hidden Trail
At the top of my list of things to do in Malaysia was hiking through the Cameron Highlands and considering there are 14 trails surrounding the town of Tanah Rata, you would think you could easily find the hiking spot! Wrong! The particular trail we wanted to hike (Trail 1) was apparently closed indefinitely but with no way to confirm, we needed to find out for ourselves. That proved to be quite difficult, taking the local bus from Tanah Rata to the trailhead just north of the neighboring town of Brinchang. Once dropped off by the bus we had to walk about half an hour down a dirt road, through a residential area, around a water purification plant, and across a little stream. Now keep in mind this is just to get to the hike!
Right as we approached the stream, we ran into two German girls also trying to find this infamous trail 1 and they were about ready to call it a day as there were no markings of a trail anywhere near us and they were not about to try to find it alone. Lucky for them and us, we found each other and were able to figure out that a sign written solely in Malay was marking the closure of the trail. Now, this would probably deter most and almost did for us too after Devin used google translate to read the giant red sign across the stream. Turns out that sign included the words: caution, prohibited, illegal and if that wasn’t bad enough, there was barbwire fence blocking the entrance to the rainforest! At this point, another guy had joined forces with us, a Russian “MacGyver” as we referred to him and he was on a mission to complete the hike, with or without us. Needless to say, we hopped over the stream, ignored the cautionary signage, climbed through the hole in the barbwire and began our trek.
Finally on the Right Path
From this point on it was about another 5-minute climb uphill until we met up with the actual trailhead and knew we had followed the correct path. The signage had been taken down or moved since the closing of the trail but the path was pretty easy to follow with only a few forks that we had to hesitate before proceeding. So now we have formed a little pack of Devin, me, the two German girls and Russian MacGyver leading the way. I am pretty sure the girls were not as happy as the rest of us to be on that hike but they were troopers and we all had some good laughs.
Based on our limited information about this path we couldn’t be sure how long to anticipate being out there but whatever we had originally planned on was way too short. From the trailhead until we were at the bottom again took approximately six hours, with no breakfast and only a handful of mini bananas, we were burnt out by the end. The most ironic part of the whole experience is the challenging climb through the damp rainforest, using ropes to pull ourselves up the steep inclines was the best part! We were all in good spirits, we were sweaty and tired but invigorated. It was once we reached the top and realized our only real option to head down was down a winding paved road. This is where the fatigue, exhaustion, and hunger set in for all of us. We had all made the incorrect assumption that the walk down was approximately 4 km but in reality, it was well over 7 km, meaning after we completely wore ourselves out on the climb we had a 2.5-hour walk down.
The silver lining to the unfortunate walk down was that we walked right up to the BOH Tea Plantation, the most magnificent view I have ever seen! It literally took all of our breath away when we rounded the bend and it opened up to the rolling emerald hills of tea leaves as far as we could see. The awe turned to excitement and before we knew it everyone was giddy and giggling at the magical moment, except Devin who I quote directly “I am way too hungry to enjoy this beauty”!
We were all trying desperately to capture the panoramic views with photos but looking back, nothing will ever do it justice. One of the German girls said “this doesn’t even look real, it looks like a green screen” and that is no lie, views like this are reserved for fairytales.
Finding Our Way Home
That 7 km walk down the hill I mentioned, that only got us to the first small town and was still 7 km from Tanah Rata and there was no steam left in our engines so we decided to part ways with our new friends and bus back to our hotel. But as with every transportation experience in SE Asia, that was easier said than done. It was now 4P, we were beyond starving and we had just crossed our fingers that the bus would conveniently swing by and pick us up. Nope, no such thing happened so again we were in a dilemma of how to get home. At this point, I said fuck it, we are hitchhiking. We walked about 10 meters, I stuck out my thumb and a nice gentleman stopped, told us he was heading to Tanah Rata and we didn’t even let him finish his sentence before we jumped in.
I have never been so relieved to be sitting in a vehicle even if it was with a stranger on a random road in Malaysia! Devin and I just had these beaming smiles on our faces, a huge sense of pride in what we had accomplished and it was a moment I will remember forever. Our friendly driver dropped us off right in front of an Indian restaurant, at this point it was close to 5P so Devin and I practically inhaled the most satisfying dinner of all time!
If my stories of Taman Negara and Cameron Highlands haven’t already convinced you that they are a must-see in Malaysia than hopefully, my photos can be the clincher. Going into these two rural areas of the country, we had no preconceived notions of what to expect so we were astounded at how much there is to see and do! It was hard to say goodbye to this magical place but we had more to explore in our final stop in Malaysia, Georgetown.