In peninsular Malaysia’s most wild area, I trekked 30 km through the jungle, saw a tapir and heard elephants at night, was bitten by 37 bloodsucking leeches, completely destroyed my clothes, carried 15 kilos of food, water, and camping gear for a total of eleven hours, and loved every minute of it. That pretty well sums up my experience hiking in Malaysia — in the spectacular Taman Negara National Park.
The rainforest protected by Taman Negara is over 100 million years old. It’s estimated to be one of the world’s oldest rainforests. A trek through this park is high on the bucket-list experiences in Southeast Asia. In this post, I’ll share how to make it happen and what to expect on the trail.
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Choose your Taman Negara hiking trail
Taman Negara National Park has a huge variety of hiking options for both day hikers and overnight trekkers. You can do as long or a short of a jungle trek as you want.
If you only want to do Taman Negara hiking for one day, consider a couple of the trails close to park headquarters, which range from 1-5 km. You can also do a beautiful canopy walk that gets you up higher above the jungle floor, where most of the more vibrant plant and animal life lives. Many of the trails in this area are on raised boardwalks — so you don’t have to contend with the mud and leeches.
The shortest overnight treks that you can do on a Taman Negara tour involve camping just 1.5 km outside the park headquarters. This is still a pretty authentic nature experience, with a chance to see tapirs, but probably not elephants.
At the middle of the difficulty spectrum is the 12 km hike to Kumbang Hide. This is an out-and-back trek along the banks of a small river, which you have to cross at the end. It’s often waist-deep. (There is a rope to help with balance.)
Want more jungle? You can also do a longer trek to the far end of the park and sleep in a cave. Three days is the minimum for this adventure. The most epic Taman Negara hiking is the nine-day trek up the park’s highest mountain, which will give you the best chance of spotting wildlife.
If you’re not sure which trek is right for you, ask the staff at the park headquarters. They speak English well and are very knowledgeable. The only thing to keep in mind is they’re accustomed to hiking in Malaysia, with all its extreme heat, humidity, and rain, while you may not be — so their definition of “easy” will be slightly different from yours.
When I went hiking in Malaysia, it was possible to do all of these treks without a guide. However, the park headquarters have since cracked down on independent trekking — if you want to stay at a salt lick, you must hire a guide to go with you. You can still do the day hikes on your own. Prices start from 230 ringgit.
Out on the trail: What to expect when hiking in Malaysia
Taman Negara National Park’s ecosystem is mostly dense rainforest. So don’t expect spectacular viewpoints out over the jungle. Instead, you’ll be surrounded by huge trees and vines most of the time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an amazing experience. Hiking in Malaysia is just a different type of hiking than you’re probably used to at home.
Try to start your Taman Negara tour early in the day to avoid the worst of the heat and the afternoon rains. Luckily the jungle provides lots of shade, but it’s still pretty steamy.
The trekking is mostly flat, except when you descend and then ascend the banks of small streams that you cross. If it weren’t for the heat, humidity, and mud, this would be pretty easy hiking. You’ll also have to climb over fallen trees and hop around giant puddles if it’s rained recently. The trails have few signs or maps along the way, so only your guide will know how much further you have to go.
During the day and the closer you are to the park headquarters, you have little chance of seeing big wildlife. But keep your eyes on the canopy to see an impressive variety of birds. You’ll also see plenty of giant ants and monitor lizards throughout your Taman Negara trekking trip.
Perhaps the worst part of hiking in Malaysia are the leeches. Expect to get bitten at least a few times while on the trails. If it rains, they’ll be out in full force. They’re actually completely harmless — they don’t carry diseases — but they’re gross and their bites are very itchy. Long socks are your best defense.
Overnight at a jungle lodge
The trek to Kumbang Hide takes about five hours, and you’ll arrive late in the afternoon. During high season you’ll run into a few other tour groups and you’ll all have dinner together on the viewing deck while watching the animals come and go. (It’s mostly rodents during daylight hours.)
The lodges are on stilts above the jungle floor to make for prime wildlife viewing. They have one large room with eight wooden bunk “beds” — no mattresses or pillows, just planks to sleep on. They don’t have showers, but they do have (questionably clean) Western toilets. You can rinse off in the nearby rivers.
Dinner is canned chicken curry (it’s surprisingly tasty) and rice heated up on a propane stove. After you eat is the prime time to see animals — they come out in force at dusk. This is when my group saw a tapir.
You’ll go to bed early, but keep your ears partway open overnight. Large animals like tapirs and even elephants come to the hides after dark!
Wake up at dawn for another great chance to see large animals. I struck out in the morning, but you never know! Then, hit the trails as early as you can, retracing your steps to get back to civilization. You’ll arrive back at park headquarters in plenty of time to catch a bus back to Jerantut if you’re ready for your hiking in Malaysia experience to be over.
What to bring hiking in Malaysia
The key to a comfortable Taman Negara trekking trip is to carry as little as possible. You’ll have to carry your own backpack for the entire Taman Negara tour. Trust me, you’ll feel every extra ounce when you’re 10 km in.
Since most hikes are only two days, and you won’t get a shower, there is little reason to bring a change of trekking clothes. Wear a wool or polyester shirt and long trekking pants to stay cool and prevent bug bites. It’s warm enough at night that you don’t need a fleece. Bring fresh socks and underwear and you’ll be fine.
You can stock up on snacks near park headquarters, but you’re better off going shopping in Jerantut, where you’ll find more variety. The guides don’t provide much, so I’d definitely recommend some nuts and dried fruit to keep you going.
An inflatable pillow will make your stay in the lodge much more comfortable. If you have a sleeping bag liner, it’s worth bringing that too. A whole sleeping bag wouldn’t be worth the weight.
Packing enough water can be a problem. Given the heat and humidity, you really should drink at least 3 liters a day — but you won’t be able to carry that much. I recommend bringing a reusable bottle and a Steripen, which purifies water in 90 seconds using a U/V light, without affecting taste. This way you can refill in the streams along the way. It’s great for reducing plastic waste throughout all your travels in Southeast Asia too!
If you don’t have a waterproof cover for the backpack you use, pick up a couple garbage bags. Use one to line the inside of your pack (to keep the contents dry no matter how much it rains), and another to hang over the outside — it works amazingly well!
How to get to Taman Negara National Park
The gateway town to Taman Negara, where the park headquarters are located, is Kuala Tahan. This tiny town straddles the river and is mostly centered on tourism. Most of the guesthouses and shops are on one side of the river, while the park itself is on the other — a boat ride across costs 1 ringgit.
The most popular way to kick things off when you visit Taman Negara National Park with the spectacular three-hour journey up the river from Kuala Tembeling. Boats into the park depart at 2 pm daily, and leave the park at 9 am. They cost 45 ringgits. You can arrange this trip from Jerantut (18 km from the Kuala Tembeling jetty), or even from further afield, through a travel agency. Boats can’t always run during dry season (December-March) due to low river levels.
The cheapest way into the park is using a shuttle bus from Jerantut. This costs just 25 ringgits. You can connect to most other towns and cities in Malaysia on local buses from Jerantut, or take the “Jungle Railway” train to Kota Bharu. While it’s not as incredible as the boat ride, you still have a good chance of spotting wildlife — I saw a king cobra on this route.
If you’re short on time and coming from further afield, you can also organize a shuttle from most other popular tourist spots. Options include Kuala Lumpur, Penang, the Cameron Highlands, and Kuala Besut (for the Perhentians). They’re fast, but at least double the cost of going to Jerantut and changing vehicles to a local bus.
When you arrive, you’ll have to pay the Taman Negara entrance fee and photo fee, for a total of 6 ringgits. Kuala Tahan doesn’t have an ATM — bring in enough cash from elsewhere.
Where to stay and eat when you visit Taman Negara National Park
All Taman Negara accommodation is in Kuala Tahan, which has has a handful of guesthouses with dorms and private rooms. They all seemed similarly half-clean. I stayed at Liana Guesthouse (dorm RM15) because I liked its riverside location. The dorms were nice and the showers worked well enough, but it wasn’t anything to write home about.
The barges along the river house restaurants where you can get a decent local meal. A couple places dish up street food on the main road. Otherwise, you’re stuck with the tourist restaurants. The food isn’t particularly noteworthy anywhere — it’s more about refueling from your Taman Negara trip than enjoying your meal.
Shops in town sell basic junk food to stock up before hiking in Malaysia: cookies, chips, and (all-important) ice cream. But their supplies are limited.
To sum up, hiking in Malaysia is an unmissable adventure — and Taman Negara National Park is one of the best places to do it. Whether you’re a serious hiker or just want to do a short boardwalk stroll, it’s worth the trip!
What’s your favorite hiking spot in Southeast Asia? Leave a comment and let me know!
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