It was with some trepidation that I boarded the creaky tin-roofed wooden long boat, along with about 15 others and all their gear. As each new passenger stepped in, the craft sunk a little deeper into the wide and muddy Tembeling River, until finally, barely afloat, the noisy engine at its rear roared to life and we were off on a three-hour journey up stream to Malaysia's largest national park, Taman Negara.
Literally meaning "national park" in Malay, Taman Negara spans three states – Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang – and protects 4,343 square kilometres of rainforest, thought to be 130 million years old. Far enough away from the glaciers of the last ice age to be unaffected by the cool climate they created, the Malaysian rainforest began evolving much sooner than others, awarding it the distinction of being the most ancient on the planet.
Declared a park in 1938, Taman Negara is home to 140 species of animals, including wild pigs, elephants, tigers, leopards, rhinos and monkeys, as well as thousands of kinds of plants and insects and hundreds of types of birds, snakes and butterflies. As our boat motored noisily up the river, groups of long tail macaque monkeys swung from the branches in the dense canopy and immense water buffalo bathed at the waters edge.
Taman Negara's resort is located where the Tahan and Tembeling Rivers meet, and here one can opt for luxury accommodation in the heart of the rainforest, just steps away from a myriad of hiking trails.
For a less manicured experience, just across the river is the Tahan Village, a small Malay settlement that caters to the park's visitors. The village is a unique combination of dirt paths, paved roads, rustic cabins, brand new hotels, a school, shops, lots of motorbikes, and many chickens that walk the paths with the same freedom as the locals.
The riverbanks are lined with thatch-roofed floating restaurants and the river is constantly abuzz with noisy long boats, the main mode of transportation. We were directed to our arranged accommodation, a colourful and inviting guesthouse with its very own squat toilet!
Of the many options for guided tours, one was a trip a few kilometres upstream to visit the Orang Asli settlement. The Orang Asli, literally meaning "original people", were the first inhabitants of the Malay peninsula, and many still live in primitive, hand-built villages in the forest. Our guide, a comical Malay who called himself Crazy Like Monkey, negotiated some river rapids in our flimsy wooden craft before we arrived at the village, slightly shaken and soaking wet.
Our group was led up the riverbank to the village while Crazy Like Monkey explained a few things about the culture of Malaysia's aboriginal people. Shy and gentle, these nomadic hunter-gatherers collect fruit and yams from the forest. They also hunt monkeys, squirrels and birds with handmade bamboo blowpipes that shoot darts laced with a poisonous concoction made from the sap of the Ipar tree. Because of their fear of the spirits of the dead, it is very important to them that the animals that they hunt feel no pain when they die, and when a death or serious illness occurs within the village they abandon it and relocate to a different area. Their simple but sturdy palm-thatched dwellings can be erected in as little as three hours!