The only rainforest where all 10 of Malaysia’s hornbill species is found in
the Land of Hornbills, Sarawak, Borneo Belum-Temeggor Forest Complex, in the peninsular state of Perak. I had ambitions of getting lucky and have a flight of hornbills pass overhead while jungle trekking. Or something. Plus, you can also find the rafflesia flower here.
So when I thought about where I would go to in a long weekend trip to Perak, I decided to book myself into the Belum Rainforest Resort. I chose this resort because of its sustainability credentials, which Green Pearls has by now conveniently reviewed and certified. Most resorts don’t really go beyond the tepid ‘please re-use towels’. It’s not often that I find a resort that takes sustainability seriously right from the design stage.
Belum Rainforest Resort
Belum Rainforest Resort is a sprawling resort built on Pulau Banding, an island in the middle of the river separating Royal Belum State Park from civilisation. This was to discourage wildlife incursion into the resort grounds. At the same time it maintains a distance for the impacts associated with the resort’s activities.
I liked the architecture of this resort. It has a kind of a concrete-bamboo rainforest-industrial-bunker chic. It predated Malaysia’s uptake of the hipster-industrial aesthetic in interior decorating, so it was novel when I saw it.
There are different buildings in the grounds including the more conventional chalets and villas. I, however, stayed in one of the hotel rooms in the multi-level buildings. These were actually quite cool, albeit difficult to photograph. They were in short blocks, connected to each other via an open air network of catwalks and platforms. Some of the platforms would have a lounge area with games, or be an open air library.
River Excursion and Hikes
The resort has a bunch of nature activities you can join. I had only one full day, so I took a river excursion that basically covers the bases, including (of course) rafflesia spotting.
In the morning I wandered down to the jetty. The excursion group would meet the nature guides for a briefing, before we began. There was some kerfuffle concerning whether there were enough river boats and there were hints that we might have to take the houseboat instead. It would be slower and so the tour would take longer but… hey it’s a river houseboat!
However in the end the guides determined that there were in fact enough riverboats (boo!). So the briefing began and then we split up and boarded the boats with our respective guides.
It had been a long time since I’ve taken a nature tour in my own country. I was pleased and pleasantly surprised to find the guides were very good. They were articulate, confident, knowledgeable, fit, and handle groups well. All local – which was part of the sustainability principles. I felt quite proud.
I remember the lead guide in particular was fluent in English – city fluent. It emerged that he was once a bank officer or something in the big city – a professional office job which made his parents happy. [Pause for all Asian readers to nod in understanding]. But after some time, he quit that job to do full time what he really loved,
world travelling nature guiding. He did not explain whether his parents have been discharged from the ICU yet.
I remember watching the young men shepherding their groups, taking charge and explaining what we were seeing, and thinking: these guys, if they had been made to work in the towns and cities at some ‘clean’ office job, would they be as self-assured and confident? Here, they were near the outdoors they enjoyed, and they looked like they felt empowered.
People should to be able to make a living, where they are happy.
Rafflesia – the Largest Flower in the World
That says it all, really.
The rafflesia flower is not particularly (ok, at all) beautiful. Neither was it fragrant, unless you were looking for rotting flesh. I hope not, since this would mean one of only two things: that you probably should use the search engine to look for some medical therapy instead of reading my blog, or that flies – the rafflesia’s insect pollinator – can now read.
However, the rafflesia is the largest flower in the world. Normally more associated with the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak, it is less known that actually you can also find them in the peninsula. One of the locations is in the Royal Belum State Park.
The riverboat made a landing at a kind of sandy cove. A black gap in the trees was where the hiking trail begin.
The trees closed over the trail, in the typical way of the rainforest. The morning sunlight was buffered throughout the trail, but occasionally it spears through to wash the forest floor with shafts of light.
It was not a long hike, nor a difficult one. Before long we came to the clearing where the rafflesia were.
The guide explained that at the moment there were no rafflesia in full bloom, as he sifted through the leaf litter to locate the flowers. However, all the other stages – from budding to withered – were represented.
The salt lick
We hiked back to the boat and went to the next stop along the river. There was a similar short hike through the jungle to the salt lick.
I don’t remember very much about the botany that the guide explained along the way. However, I did think this procession of ants was kind of interesting – even if it makes your skin crawl a bit.
The salt lick that we came to was not the typical salt lick, on the ground near a spring. It was a hole in the hill, exposing the salt deposits naturally present within the hill.
The interesting thing about this salt lick was that it was created – by elephants. According to the guide, elephants ‘know’ if the hill has salt deposits within. So sometimes they gore the hillside with their tusks where the deposit is, to get to the salt. Once they make the salt lick hole, it becomes a focal point for other jungle animals as well.
So, elephants are cool. Taking their tusks are not cool – because then they can’t make the salt licks anymore.
The Orang Asli village
The final stop was a visit to the aborigine village. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember which tribe, now.
However, there were a couple of other stops before this.
Lunch by the waterfall
The boat headed to a waterfall where the water streamed over sheets of slate. While it was moored, we ate from the packed lunches that were brought with us.
Here the resort fell a bit short on sustainability. The food was all packed in plastic, with plastic cutlery. So all of it went into a great big bag of garbage afterwards. I had my water bottle with me, so I washed and ate with my hands and gave back the cutlery unopened.
When we were done, the boat proceeded to the aborigine village, passing by a few circles of aquaculture pens along the way.
A village shop
We had earlier in the day also stopped by a sort of kampung (=village) by the riverside. I cannot recall the name.
The boat moored at a jetty. There was a long set of steps up a tall riverbank to the village on top. You pass under a lovely flowering arch near the top. Looking back, it made a beautiful frame of the river.
Right by the stairs was a grocery shop. The stop was for us to purchase general household goods as visitor gifts to the Orang Asli whose village we would visit later. I think I chose a bag of rice.
The aborigine village
I had been to Taman Negara before this, and had already visited a very similar riverside village.
Nipa-thatched roofs rest over little huts sided with woven walls, perched low on stilts. Ducks sat in fluffy contentment with ducklings scampering around, under the houses. An unusually territorial cat hissed at my friendly overtures.
The guide presented the gifts to the village elder, along with anyone who wished to give theirs in person. We were given an overview of the aborigine river life, then were allowed to wander through the village before ending the tour.
And no. No flights of hornbills swept overhead.
The alternative Taman Negara
The Belum-Temenggor forest complex is actually comprised of two contiguous forest – the Belum side, and the Temenggor side.
Only the Belum side is protected, after much campaigning led by the Malaysian Nature Society on the basis of its outstanding biodiversity value, and is now Royal Belum State Park. The Temenggor side still has active logging licenses in operation, even though the two sides are ecologically connected.
Nonetheless, in terms of a nature tourism destination, you might say that Belum rainforest is Perak state’s answer to the older and much more famous Taman Negara in Pahang.
My verdict: If you are keen to sample the Malaysian rainforest but would rather avoid the throng of tourists in Taman Negara, or would like to do so while having the option to stay in much more upscale digs, then Royal Belum State Park would be the place for you.
Check out also a different flavour of sustainable tourism at Belum Adventure Camp.