Our final stop in Southeast Asia is Taman Negara National Park, the oldest and largest national park in Peninsular Malaysia. Less than four hours from Kuala Lumpur, the park is one of Malaysia’s last strongholds of tigers, leopards, elephants, and tapirs. Despite the potential for dangerous encounters, tourists are free to roam around the park, using the long trails to explore the lowland rainforest. A guide is only required for the park’s far corners and for climbing Gunung Tahan, the highest mountain in the park and in Peninsular Malaysia.
Having done plenty of trekking, climbing, and camping over the past few months, we decided to skip Gunung Tahan and to take it easy around park headquarters. We rented a small chalet in the park and can pop out at a moment’s notice to see birds or other creatures that roam around the forest edge. From our porch, we can see black-and-red broadbills and hear reddish scops owl calling late into the night.
On our first night in the park, we realized that it is unnecessary to go very far to see wildlife. Sitting in the restaurant, we watched as a palm civet stalked around the lawn. Moments later, we realized that a Malaysian tapir was taking a nap in the landscaped flowers nearby. The tapir, rescued as a baby and released in the park, frequents the hotel on a search for food. On two occasions, it has even tried to enter the restaurant.
We have been here three days already and have barely made it past the boardwalks, finding so much within minutes of our cabin. Yesterday, we walked down to the swamp loop where Rick immediately spotted a large green snake, coiled beautifully in a bush. A red-tailed green racer, the snake was non-venomous, but large enough to strike if we got too close. For an hour, we photographed it and observed it, amazed by the number of people who passed by without seeming to notice or care.
On another evening, we went for a hike, and only made it 150 feet down the trail before we saw a blue-eyed angle headed lizard on a tree trunk. Although we have seen the species before, we had never seen one so large and with spikes entirely down the length of its back. The sapphire-colored eye stayed on us the entire time, but the lizard barely moved.
When you do make it out of the area around park headquarters, you get what I would call “a real jungle experience.” Outside of the deep Amazon and the heart of Borneo, there are few places I have been that feel quite so wild. This morning we took a boat upriver for 40 minutes to explore a different part of the park. The forest there was thick with vines and massive trees towered overhead. Elephant dung littered the trails, comfortingly old enough to have sprouted mushrooms.
We were looking for some of the elusive ground birds that call this park home – the Malaysian Peacock Pheasant and the brilliantly coloured hooded pitta. We did not turn up any of those species, but we did find a large wren babbler, a small marbled bird that stays hidden in the understory. A little ways down the trail, I was startled by the sudden appearance of two men, members of the indigenous Orang Asli tribe that still inhabits the park. Shirtless and rugged, they nodded to us as they passed by, blowpipes resting confidently on their shoulders.
On our walk back to the boat, we even spotted a cat print, probably that of a leopard cat or another small species. We also heard a low bellow and splashing from the river – Rick thinks it may have been a gaur, a wild cow that inhabits the jungles here. We chose not to investigate, thinking it best to give large, unidentified animals their distance. It was a reminder of the potential for other encounters and I shuddered to think about meeting a tiger while on foot.
As in every place we have visited in Southeast Asia, there are very few Americans. We have befriended an older British couple, sharing our sightings each evening at dinner. Our stories are greeted with exclamations of “Jolly good!”, “Splendid!,” and “Capital!” There are also a lot of local visitors, and the staff of the hotel are very helpful. One of the managers also has an interest in birds and he frequently appears out of nowhere, motioning to us to follow him. He has shown us the nest of black-and-yellow broadbill and a fruiting tree filled with colourful pigeons. Yesterday, he showed us a picture of a paradise tree snake, one of the gliding snakes that lives in park. It had glided out of a tree and landed right in front of a French couple. He had been attracted to it by their loud screams. Rick and I were both very sorry to have missed the snake and the commotion.
My plan for this afternoon was to walk the perimeter of park headquarters, looking for lizards and snakes. I had just rolled my socks up over my pant legs – a deterrent to leeches – when a clap of thunder reverberated overhead. The wind began to blow and the rain started to pour down in a heavy sheet within minutes. So, instead of exploring, I am sitting inside, watching the wet jungle from my window. Tomorrow I will resume my search for the denizen of the rainforest, followed, no doubt, by a slightly larger cloud of mosquitoes.