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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah Nov/Dec 2011,
This report is written by Rosemary Royle, from Pembrokeshire and the trip was undertaken by myself and my husband Peter between 5th November and 7th December 2011.
We had booked a birding trip with Birdtour Asia in Sabah from 20th Nov to 4th Dec and decided that, while we were in that part of the world, we could do some birding in Peninsular Malaysia (PM). We therefore planned a circuit of the most popular birding sites in PM - Fraser’s Hill, Taman Negara and Kuala Selangor – travelling by means of a hire car. We realised that it was the start of the rainy season in PM but decided to take the risk – in the event, the time of the year was not a problem because of the rain but because it was completely out of the breeding season. The birds were hard to find as they were not calling or singing – often the forest was eerily quiet.
Despite the fact that it was hard work finding the birds, the trip was a great success. In the PM part of the trip we recorded 173 species of which 98 were lifers. We saw 336 species in total over the two parts of the trip of which 237 were lifers – a high total as we have not birded in this part of the world before. Our life list is now getting really close to 4000!
The complete trip (including absolutely everything) cost us £8,300 for the two of us, of which £5,300 was for the Birdtour Asia tour. The Peninsular Malaysia part of the trip cost very little, despite the fact that we stayed in good accommodation and ate well. Everything was booked in advance on the Web, directly where possible or, if not, through Expedia, and all these bookings worked just fine.
5th Nov - To Malaysia: Train from Milford Haven to Heathrow for the Emirates flight via Dubai to Kuala Lumpur. The first leg was on an Airbus 380 which was extremely spacious and comfortable. Overnight at the Concorde Inn near the KL airport.
7th Nov - To Fraser’s Hill: Took the shuttle bus back to the airport to pick up the hire car - the office was very close to the shuttle bus drop off point. Then drove to Fraser’s Hill only getting a bit lost once in Rawang. (We followed signposts to Ipoh on the motorways around KL until we picked up signs to Rawang. In Rawang we picked up the (1) northwards until just outside Kuala Kubu Baru where we followed signs to Fraser’s Hill.) Checked in to the Shahzan Inn for 5 nights.
8th – 11th Nov - At Fraser’s Hill
12th Nov - To Taman Negara: Drove to Kuala Tahan (for Taman Negara) via Ruab, then north on the (8) and then across the (64) to Jerantut. Here we followed the new bypass towards Maran until we picked up the road to Kuala Tahan which turns left after the river crossing over the S. Pahang. Parked the car in a car park with gates opposite the Woodland Resort. Crossed over the river to the Mutiara resort where we checked in for 5 nights.
13th – 16th Nov - At Taman Negara: At the Mutiara Resort at Taman Negara
17th Nov - To Kuala Selangor: Drove to Kuala Selangor retracing our steps all the way until we picked up signs near Rawang for Kuala Selangor – there is a new motorway which took us most of the way there. Checked into our cabin for 2 nights.
18th Nov - At Kuala Selangor
19th Nov - To Kota Kinabalu: Drove to KL airport to drop off the hire car, then took the shuttle bus to the Low Cost Terminal for our Air Asia flight to Kota Kinabalu. Check in to the downtown Shangri La
20th Nov - At Kota Kinabalu: Took a boat to Pulau Manakan and explored KK. Met up with the Birdtour Asia group.
21st Nov - 3rd Dec Sabah Tour: With the Birdtour Asia group trip. (Kinabalu, Sepilok, Kinabatangan River, Danum)
4th Dec – To Rasa Ria: Taxi from KK to the Rasa Ria resort for some R&R and two more lifers!
5th Dec – At the Rasa Ria
6th Dec – To Pembrokeshire: Fly from KK to KL then onwards to the UK and train back to Milford Haven
We found Peninsular Malaysia to be a well organised, quiet, tidy country. It was pleasantly lacking in noise and garish advertising hoardings and the people were gentle and reserved.
We were not prepared for how English everything seemed – driving on the left, motorway signage just like ours, semi-detached houses, electric plugs just like ours, toast at breakfast, fish & chips and bread & butter pudding on menus. They even had motorway service stations – though the food court was much more interesting than ours. The language script is Roman so everything is quite approachable, readable and even pronounceable but many advertisements, company names and signs were actually in English. Food packaging was almost always in English as it is the common language of the Malays, Tamils and Chinese.
However, dried sea cucumbers and sea horses, durians, the mosques and the call to prayer, the heat and the thunderstorms were all reminders that we were in a tropical Muslim country.
Here a few more general notes:
Birding was quite hard without a guide. This is they way we prefer to do it, but really you do need someone with good knowledge and experience to know where to find all the difficult and secretive birds and how to call them out. If you just rely on running across the birds as you walk the trails there are a whole lot of birds you will probably never see. For example, you will probably find most of the bulbuls, but hardly any of the babblers. (However I am sure that when the birds are calling things would be somewhat easier) Doing both types of birding in the same trip was a good compromise.
Weather The rainy season did in fact start early in Peninsular Malaysia – it rained heavily throughout October, which was supported by what we saw on the weather forecasts before we went. Miraculously it all changed when we arrived and after a big thunderstorm on the night of the 6th Nov it was much drier for the next two weeks. We had some days with no rain at all and some with only a few drops. At Taman Negara, where it should really have been wet, we only had two days with any real rain. However, when we flew to Kota Kinabalu, we were unable to land because of a gigantic thunderstorm – we had to circle around for an hour and a half before we could land, with lightning flashing along the wings all the time. Even when we did land it was still raining torrentially – we got very wet walking across the tarmac despite Air Asia’s umbrellas! But after that, the rain on Sabah was quite restrained – on Kinabulu we had rain for an hour or so most afternoons, and at Kinabatangan we had little rain though there were huge thunderstorms all around us when we were out on our night boat ride. At Danum we had a few lunchtime torrential showers, and one wet afternoon, but the most inconvenient rain was on the last morning. Because we had been focussing on finding Bristleheads and had found them late the previous day, we now had to catch up on a couple of trogons and a whole sheaf of babblers, flycatchers etc. – and it was raining! Birding is really no good in the rain, but we sent off anyway hoping it would stop – which it did, and we then had probably the best few hours of birding in the whole trip as well as decent views of Bornean Gibbons. So the motto was, at this time of the year at any rate, “No two days are the same”.
The temperatures were much as we had expected - about 30º - 32º during the day and 24º at night, The night-time temperatures were cool enough not to need air con. – we usually had the ceiling fan on. When we used air con. we set it to 24º and even that seemed quite cool when you came into the room! It could feel very hot when the sun came out – often the sunny mornings could be baking, even at Fraser’s Hill. However it usually clouded over. The high humidity was a bit debilitating – you just had to get used to being soaked with sweat all the time when you were out on the trails.
Clothing Because of the humidity and rain the most important thing about clothes were that they were light, cool and dried quickly. (Much of the so-called technical clothing on sale these days seems unnecessarily heavyweight.) Everywhere you will read that you should wear long sleeves in the rainforest – why?? I never did – I cannot bear my wrists being covered, they are an important cooling location. Our guide in Sabah, James Eaton, who spends half his life in tropical rainforest never wears a long sleeved shirt. If insects are a problem (and they rarely were) then 50% DEET roll-on was easy to apply and did the trick. Some sources will tell you that you do not need waterproof boots – well we found that ours were more or less essential.
Leeches These were present at Fraser’s Hill, quite bad at Danum and Poring Hot Springs, and very bad at Taman Negara. But I think they were never quite as bad as the leeches in Sri Lanka or Madagascar! Leech socks were essential – they can be bought on the web or homemade. If you buy them, get them well in advance as you may to need to alter them to make them comfortable especially if you have small feet or short legs. DEET repels leeches so should be liberally used on the arms, hands, neck etc as these are the most vulnerable areas if you are well leech-socked at the bottom end.
Insects Large insects – birdwing butterflies, rhinoceros beetles, huge cicadas, praying mantises – were an unexpected highlight of this trip. Cockroaches were hardly ever seen, except in the bat caves. Mosquitoes were very few and far between. Other small biting insects were, however, quite common so an application of 50% DEET was more-or-less essential.
Driving was easy, signposting was good and if you got lost you could usually find someone in a petrol station who spoke English. Many of the motorways are toll roads – not expensive or complicated but there were several different ways of charging – we came some where you paid for each section of road, and others where you took a token on entry to the road and paid when you left. New roads are being built all the time.
Maps We had a map recommended by Stamfords – “Reise Know-how 1:800,000”. The scale was just about OK but it was not very accurate – new bypasses, motorways and changes to road numbering were just not represented. However this was less of a problem than it might have been because the signposting was very good. When in doubt follow the signs! No map was supplied with the hire car.
Car Hire We hired our car from Sime-Derby (Hertz) and got a really good deal on the web for 99 MR (about £18) per day for a medium sized car. We were limited in our choice of rental companies as most of the local firms had an age limit of 60. Returning the hire car was simple – it was well signposted.
Airport terminals at KL Kuala Lumpur International Airport or KLIA is the name of the main terminal where the big international carriers arrive and depart. Air Asia has a separate terminal called the Low Cost Carrier Terminal or LCCT. If you need to get from one to the other as we did, you can probably get a taxi but there is an efficient half-hourly shuttle bus called the Airport Liner which does the trip for a few MR. It leaves KLIA on the hour and half hour and takes about 20 minutes for the journey.
Air Asia We flew Air Asia from KL to KK – about £40 per person each way for a 2½ hour flight including payments for extra baggage. The seats were a little cramped but otherwise everything was fine. The planes were all modern Airbuses.
Concorde Inn This hotel near the airport at Kuala Lumpur had everything we needed for an overnight stop. It has a shuttle bus service and was reasonably priced – even quite a few birds in the grounds in the morning. We booked through Expedia.
Laundry All the hotels and lodges did laundry, often very quickly and it was very cheap. However disgusting the objects you handed in they came back looking fresh and clean!
Food We found it hard to eat enough at first – Malaysians seem to eat about 5 snack meals per day and don’t seem to eat more than one course. A plate of Nasi Goreng or Fried Noodles was appetizing but not really a full meal. The same was true of the wet noodle dishes – i.e soup. We found that you could sometimes pad it out by adding “side dishes” which could be Stir Fried Veg or a Curry (Beef Rendang was always good) or even Wedgie Potatoes (it was not just us – we saw the locals eating wedgies too!)
Rice and noodle dishes featured on every menu. I ate a lot of Nasi Goreng as I’m not very keen on noodles – it was very variable ranging from almost plain rice to a very tasty dish with lots of bits of onion, chilli, chicken and prawns served with sambal (hot relish) and a fried egg on top. Also on most menus were Chicken Rice (plain rice with a piece of chicken and some broth, Nasi Lembak (plain rice with several garnishes and relishes) and Chicken Chop – a chicken escalope (maybe boned, maybe not!) with rice and chips. The latter dish was nice and filling with the addition of some “Sos Chili” to make it more interesting. There was a whole range of wet noodle dishes, many of which can be had with either mee (yellow noodles), meehoon (very thin silky noodles) or kway teow (flat ribbon-like noodles).
The best way of eating was at hotel buffets – and if there were no other western guests you could guarantee it was pretty authentic. We tried oxtail, lamb and rabbit at buffets in addition to the more usual chicken, beef, fish and prawn dishes.
The spiciness (or hotness) of dishes was generally very variable – some dishes such as Nasi Goreng were usually quite bland (but not always) and some of the soups were always very fiery. At a buffet there would always be a range of fieryness in the dishes so you could just leave the ones which were too hot.
Desserts were generally very odd – there was often a selection of very pretty little green and pink shapes, or moulds, or green jelly, all of which were completely tasteless. Coconut milk jelly was nice, as was banana cake. The fruit was disappointing – often not very ripe. And although very tasty bananas appeared at breakfast they were never there for other meals and pineapple, whilst used for juice and in cooking, rarely appeared. Instead there was always papaya and water melon, rarely mango, sometimes guava, dragon fruit, snake fruit – all pretty tasteless. Rambutans were sometimes offered and were good. The best sweetmeats we had were doughnuts bought from a little lady on the quay at Kuala Tahan and at the buffet at the Shangri La hotel in KK. Incidentally it you want to try Durian in a painless kind of way try Durian ice cream – it is very interesting.
We did try Fish & Chips (OK - the fish was nice) and several Bread & Butter Puddings - these were very variable.
We did miss bacon and pork – the local beef bacon is strange, more like Biltong and the frankfurters which always appear at breakfast are presumably chicken based.
Interesting that menu items were often in English – e,g Fried Noodles.
Drinks Peninsular Malaysia is basically a dry country unless you are in a Chinese area. We did not drink any alcohol at all – when it did appear in hotels it was pretty expensive and we were not that bothered. Beer was more apparent in Sabah – often on menus – and we did have a couple of Tigers though at nearly £4 they were certainly pricey!
Various coffees and teas were always available, both hot and iced, and quite cheap. I really liked “Kopi” – local ground coffee which is quite sweet and not at all bitter. It was often served with condensed milk and sugar – good for a bit of a sugar boost! The only other coffee option was Nescafe or packeted “3 in 1” coffee concoctions. Lemon tea, sometimes with honey, was very good. “Hot lime” was most interesting – it contained a couple of strange wrinkled fruits like sour plums – anyway it was very good. Fresh fruit juice was very expensive. The “Red Apple” juice we had at one place was actually the most awful thing I have ever tasted – no-one could drink more than a small sip!
Mammals One of the unexpected highlights of this trip was the variety of mammals seen. The many varieties of squirrel (including Giant) were a constant delight and we had excellent views of Siamangs, White Thighed Langurs and Dusky Langurs at Fraser’s Hill and Silver Leaf Monkeys at Kuala Selangor. On Sabah the we had a number of truly excellent views of Orang Utans – also Proboscis Monkeys, Slow Loris, civets, flying squirrels (3 species), Mountain Tree Shrew and Gibbons and there were always pigs of some description around the lodges. We also had excellent views of Otters at Kuala Selangor.
Research and materials We used the following reference materials:
Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Lonely Planet
Borneo Bradt Guides
The Birds of South East Asia Craig Robson
The Birds of Borneo Susan Myers
Birds of Taman Negara Strange and Yong
Birds of Fraser’s Hill Strange
Mammals of South East Asia Francis
Robson was OK but some of the illustrations are poor – we were unable to identify a Chestnut-Breasted Malkoha from his picture (compare Myers). We had the first edition of Myers which had several incorrect illustrations – this has been fixed in later editions.
Note that the order of the birds in Robson and Myers is quite different, and different again from our Birdtour Asia list – not helpful. The list below is in Robson order.
We also bought A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Malaysia by Bransbury but found it very out of date.
I constructed a spreadsheet showing which birds I expected to see in each location, highlighting the important birds for each location. This was useful in telling us what we were missing, and helped to target our activities, though in retrospect it meant that we spent too long around the Tahan river searching for Straw-headed Bulbuls which have possibly become quite rare there.
I downloaded many calls from Xeno-Canto to my Olympus DS40 which were useful for helping confirm ID (for example for barbets, owls and cuckoos). We did not use it much for calling birds out because we did not know what was likely to be there! We did try it for several Wren Babblers but got no response whatsoever.
We stayed 5 nights at Fraser’s Hill and could easily have stayed longer. It was a very pleasant place in which to birdwatch, though the birds were very quiet and quite hard to find. Very few birds were breeding and on territory so essentially you were dependant on “bird waves” – these are mixed species flocks which can contain up to 15 species, but often much less. They pass by every so often – perhaps once an hour or less.
We birded along the Hemmant and Bishop Trails (twice each) and along the Old Road and New Road. Also around the “Telekom Loop” and Jalan Magar, and down at The Gap. We also went down to the Jelau waterfalls in the late afternoon and saw almost nothing at all though we probably heard forktails calling. As we were staying at the Shahzan Inn which is right in the centre of the village, the car was extremely useful in enabling us to get to more distant places such as the New Road and the Telekom loop. On the last morning we went to the Jelai Highland Resort car park for the early morning birdfest – it is not a large car park so must get quite crowded when there are lot of birders about – as it was, it was just us and a manic photographer who was trying to take pictures in little more than pitch darkness! This is a really good way to get good close views of stunning birds like the Silver-eared Leiothrix and even Sultan Tit, which you otherwise only see flashing by in a bird wave – but it did seem a bit like cheating!
We also drove along the High Pines road with the intention of birding at High Pines itself – but this is now a private property and is not open for birdwatchers to wander around – a shame as it obviously has a stunning view. .
The trails seemed to be well signposted and in reasonable condition – with ropes to help on the really slippery bits.
It was notable that, both from a climate and bird-watching point of view, no two days were the same – the second time we walked the Hemmant Trail we saw hardly a bird compared with two good bird waves the first time. The only consistent thing was that we never saw or heard any birds on the Bishop Trail! Not quite true – I did manage to tempt out a calling Streaked Wren-babbler using record and playback (he was only there the first time) and we saw Black Laughing-Thrushes the second time. We persevered with this trail as that is where people see (yes, we met a non-birding pair who had a photo of it!) the Red-headed Trogon, but regrettably not us. In retrospect we may have been looking too high – in Sabah we found that the trogons actually perch quite low.
Apart from the trogon, other birds which we missed at Fraser’s Hill were Large Niltava (supposedly common) and Mountain Scops Owl (not even calling). Also Silver-breasted Broadbill – a bird I really wanted to see and apparently not difficult in the breeding season. We did not see any hornbills, only two woodpeckers and no Siberian Thrush. However, we did see Sultan Tit, Long-tailed Broadbill, Slaty-backed Forktails, Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Tiger Shrike, Blue Nuthatch, Streaked Wren-babbler, Red-bearded Bee-eater and Malaysian Whistling Thrush – the latter back at its old site right by the gate to the Old Road. (This was after a tip-off from a Dutch birder, the only other visiting birder in FH, as we had been previously been looking along Jalan Magar as recommended in recent trip reports.)
Although we did actually see 72 species here, we felt a bit depressed as we had not seen many of the birds marked as Fairly Common in “Birds of Fraser’s Hill”.
Incidentally we did bump in to Mr Desai the local bird guide, but he was bit tied up managing a visit from the Minister for Tourism (who we were introduced to as we ate our Nasing Goreng in the Puncak Inn café) and did not offer us any guiding. This was OK with us as we are happier on our own.
We were lucky with the weather at Fraser’s Hill – although it was often spotting with rain or thundering all around us we only had one long spell of rain during the day from 1:00pm to 5:00 pm. It was often very hot and sunny in the mornings.
A footnote about The Gap – we intended to stop here on the way to Fraser’s Hill but found ourselves going up the Old Road before we realised what had happened! (Note that the New Road is now in use for descending traffic) There is not much infrastructure at The Gap – the Rest House is still firmly closed (though hosting nesting red bellied Striated Swallows) and the little café further down seems only to be open at weekends. We found a good layby to birdwatch from with an excellent view over the forest – we spent about 2 hours there – and did manage to find incredibly distant Falconets but otherwise it was quite quiet.
And another footnote, this time about Siamangs – we heard these calling all the time and then had terrific close views from the Old Road – one of the highlights of the holiday.
Some domestic notes regarding Fraser’s Hill: Our room at the Shahzan Inn was absolutely fine – spacious with a good view and it was pretty cheap. We had booked in advance but they do not have a web site so it was quite tricky and involved a series of emails. It was virtually empty midweek but quite busy at the weekends. The restaurant was very unpredictable – probably OK at weekends when they have some decent staff and a buffet, but could be pretty dire otherwise. (Baked beans at breakfast were always cold and I won’t bore you my attempt to have a dessert….) There were no other westerners there so it was nice to eat true Malaysian fare.
We ate most of our meals at the café at the front of the recently renovated Puncak Inn. The food here was very good – some of the best we had on the whole trip, and, like most food in Malaysia, very cheap. We drank a lot of iced “kopi” (the local coffee) and iced lemon tea and the Nasi Goreng here was definitely the best anywhere (even if I did have to pick out a lot of the chillies). The bread and butter pudding was truly excellent. And you can watch the world go by as you eat and there are some birds too – the town square is quite a good spot for Green Magpies.
The much-recommended Hillview Chinese Restaurant is now in the small complex of eateries further up the village. We ate here once and it was fine. There was also a Malaysian place in the same complex which looked good for lunch – very busy.
There is no petrol at Fraser’s Hill – fill up before getting here as the tank may not be as full as you thought, and they are quite small tanks! We were sweating a bit by the time we got to Ruab and the nearest petrol.
We were puzzled by the opening, and more importantly, closing strategy of shops and restaurants at Fraser’s Hill – we never got to the bottom of this and it must have something to do with being out of season. The moral was – don’t assume anywhere will be open when you need it!
We expected the birding to be hard here and it was. The trails were muddy and often steep, slippery and full of tree roots. When it rained the trails turned into puddles and waterfalls. The leeches were quite bad – we used leech socks and insect repellent on arms and neck but they still found a way into shirts via ventilation holes and other such useful facilities. The weather was hot and extremely humid. The trails were very quiet birdwise – there was often no bird sound at all – a bit like a British woodland in August. Despite all this we did manage to find 63 birds – but many of these were in the grounds of the resort or in the more open areas such as the campsite. We thought that 63 was absolutely pathetic until we were told that Dennis Yong had brought two clients there the week before and he only managed 64 – usually the expected count is over 100. This was all due to the time of year. Actually it could have been worse as we could have had a lot of rain – in fact we were lucky with the weather and only had a couple of afternoons washed out by rain.
We had great expectations of the boat trip up the Tahan river to the Lata Berkoh waterfalls – we had heard about a gentle drift downstream, rare kingfishers and almost guaranteed Lesser Fish Eagle and Straw-headed Bulbul. Sadly none of this materialised – there was not much chance to drift when there are rapids to be negotiated! We did see a few birds on the walk from the landing spot to the waterfall (a very brief view of Black & Red Broadbill being the best) and there were Black-capped and Stork-billed Kingfishers on the river but no sign of the Eagle or Bulbuls. The next day we took a boat up to the landing point for the Tabing Hide hoping for another chance at these species but again, no sign. And in fact we sat in the Tabing Hide for 2 hours and only saw two species – one Banded Broadbill and one small flock of something small, fast and unidentified (and two wild boars).
On the first day we walked to Lubuk Simpon (described as a gentle stroll – through thick mud, over a stream crossing with steep and slippery approaches, then down broken stairs to the beach - we saw several people start this walk in flipflops and turn round very quickly!) then up the Jenut Muda track, down to the canopy walkway (this was actually the worst bit of trail we came across as apart from the usual things it was also very heavily eroded) then down to the river and back along the trail by the river to the camp. This took us all morning – from 7:30 to 2:00 - much longer than you might expect from looking at the map and at the distances. It was however quite good birdwise – the campsite area, the area around the canopy walkway (even though it was getting late in the morning) and the trail along the Tembeling river were better for birds then any other trails we went along. We saw a group of Crested Partridges, had excellent views of Orange-backed, Maroon, Banded and Crimson-winged Woodpeckers and managed to identify some babblers and bulbuls. Jenut Muda on the other hand was extremely quiet apart from the ever present Argus calling – quite close but invisible.
We felt the trail distances were under-estimated – it was easily taking us an hour to do a quoted kilometre which just couldn’t be right even despite the difficult conditions underfoot.
The boardwalk behind the resort and the Swamp Loop were pretty birdless whenever we tried them – one day we explored this area just after dawn and saw nothing at all. There was actually no dawn chorus apart from the Magpie Robin – the birds seemed much more active once the sun had come up and indeed what activity there was kept going until about 2:00 pm in the afternoon. There was no real perceptible evening activity apart from semi-crepuscular birds such as the Crested Firebacks. These would regularly appear in the evening and gave great views, though the females were much more wary.
The resort had a number of fruiting trees which did attract a handful of species. One big tree was always full of Thick-billed Green Pigeons in the late afternoon but nothing else seemed interested in it whereas the two trees near the restaurant, although they had nearly finished fruiting, supplied us with good views of several species of bulbul and Red-thoated Barbet. There were a few flowering trees and plants which attracted sunbirds, flowerpeckers and spiderhunters but we rarely saw any of these birds more than once.
One lunchtime there was suddenly a big commotion in the trees and a big flock of mixed bulbuls and Asian Fairy Bluebirds appeared – they stayed around for some time, and even seemed to be mobbing something. This flock gave us several new species which we only saw once, and was one of only a very few examples of a bird wave which we experienced at Taman Negara.
Despite all the above, we enjoyed our time here and could happily have stayed for longer – we would like to have had time to stay overnight at the Kumbang hide, and to investigate the area around the Telinga Cave. Our enjoyment was partly due to the very comfortable accommodation, which is right on the edge of the forest – our verandah looked right into the forest and gave us good views of little piglets furrowing up the ground one evening. However disgusting you might be on return from a long hot leechy muddy walk you could always spruce up in the air-conditioned cabin and have a nice meal under the ceiling fans in the restaurant!
Some domestic notes regarding Taman Negara and Kuala Tahan: As we had a hire car, it spent our time at Taman Negara simply parked in a car park – but as the car hire rates were pretty reasonable this was still worth it for the extra flexibility it gave us. The apparently fairly secure car park (it has gates but we never found out if they were ever locked) does not have anywhere you can pay – however, this did not turn out to be a problem. We drove down the rather bumpy and steep road to the waterside where we parked temporarily while we unloaded our bags. We were immediately approached by a man in white overalls and a crash helmet who said we should not park there long term (we had no intention of doing so) but in the car park up the top, that he would show Peter where it was and give him a lift back down on his motorbike. This indeed all took place and we paid the man 35MR. And the car was still there when we came back so all was well.
There is a perfectly good road all the way to Kuala Tahan, but it was not where it was shown on our map. The map showed the road going through Kuala Tembeling which it appears not to do (checking on Google Earth reveals no bridge crossing there – maybe there is a ferry?). At Jerantut we followed signs for “Taman Negara by car” rather than “Taman Negara by boat” and went along the new bypass towards Maran until we picked up the road to Kuala Tahan which turns left after the river crossing over the S. Pahang – this is about 10 km beyond Jerantut. We found the best form of navigation was to follow the pretty good signage – and ignore what the map said!
Kuala Tahan itself seems to be having a bit of a makeover – the direct road down to the area above the waterside was being resurfaced and other works were taking place. It was not as scruffy as the guide books had led me to believe. There are a string of restaurants along the pebbly beach accessed by wooden planks – these also act as ferry points for the crossing to the Park. We ate once at the Family Restaurant – it was extremely cheap (4.5MR – about a £1) and the food was very plain and basic.
The restaurant at the Mutiara resort was very good. We have heard reports that it is expensive – well, it was 40MR for a buffet containing everything you would ever want to eat – this is only about £9 which does not sound expensive to me! The drinks actually were expensive – so we just drank water which was free. Breakfast was excellent – how disappointing to watch fellow westerners filling up on cereal and toast when so much more was on offer! (Congee (rice porridge), noodles, pancakes, freshly cooked eggs etc)
Our cabin was very well appointed but a long walk from the restaurant/reception. We reckon it was about 300 metres – it took 5 minutes to walk it. However, the Taban hide which was well beyond our cabin was shown as being 200 metres from reception so it didn’t all add up. Some cabins were much further away than ours. Large umbrellas were supplied for when it rained, and, as in most places in Malaysia you were expected to take your boots/shoes off when indoors – this included the restaurant.
The Mutiara resort was surprisingly busy when we were there, with foreign tourists during the week and locals at the weekend, this despite it being the off season. Some nights, we watched about 5 night walks each with about 20 people depart – I cannot believe they saw much that was interesting! Still, if you have never done it before, even a few spiders and frogs can be fun. We did not investigate the night drives which are run from Kuala Tahan – we were always too shattered and just wanted to go to bed!
We made our arrangements for boat trips through Mutiara reception which all worked well but was not cheap. (It is actually quite confusing - the resort had a desk where you could book tours and boat trips (and guides?) and there is also a Parks office where you need to get a permit if you want to take photos and where you book a stay in a hide and where you can book guides. And you can get boats to anywhere from over the river as well – too much choice!)
There was no easily available map of the trails and jetties so it was well worth while having done some homework and having read the “Birds of Taman Negara” and various trip reports. The best map was on a big notice board outside the Parks office – not very portable. I think this lack of maps is because most guests come on a package, with guided walks and boat rides included, so maps are not required. And even independent travellers tended to go around in small guided groups. Only birdwatchers come intent on setting out unguided and armed with detailed trail maps with “Here be Great Argus” marked on them!
The canopy walkway opens mid-morning and gets very busy – all the tours and groups go there. It is quite long, takes about 40 minutes to walk, is made mostly of rope so is very wobbly and swaying and is really only worth it to say you have done it (I didn’t!). There is quite a good path with steps down to the river from the walkway which leads to a jetty – I think the tour groups arrive here by boat. This path meets up with the path along the S. Tembeling and thence back to the resort but the signposts gave you no indication of this only signposting Kuala Trenggan. We went up and down along this section in an indecisive fashion and managed to get our best bird wave here!
The path up the hill to Bukit Teresek was in appalling condition – large broken steps and very steep. Peter tried a few hundred yards and gave up.
We very much enjoyed our 2 days here despite it being extremely hot and the cabin being a little basic. It made a nice change to bird in a non-forest environment and to see a few easily visible large birds – though of course most of them were widespread birds of prey and water birds so the lifer count was bit low! The Grey and Purple Herons were noisily nesting. In total we managed 53 species here
We found the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, Yellow Bellied Gerygone and Laced Woodpecker fairly easily. Despite looking hard we had no glimpse of Mangrove Pitta or Mangrove Robin – and we did hear that these are getting increasingly difficult to see here. We spent all our time on the bund trail around the lake, on the mangrove boardwalk and in the various towers. Unfortunately, the boardwalk to the tower at the seaward edge of the mangrove was closed (it was falling apart) and the trail through the scrub which meets up with the trail around the lake was grown over as the bridge was broken and the trail had obviously not been used for some time.
One hot afternoon we drove up to Bukit Malawati – not so much for birds but for the view and to watch the very polite Silver Leaf Monkeys being fed green beans. There were also a few not-so-polite Long Tailed Macaques, one of which snaffled Peter’s cornetto!
We would like to have had time to visit the Fireflies which are accessed from a village nearby, and maybe to visit some rice paddies and mud flats - in retrospect we should have had another day.
Some domestic notes regarding Kuala Selangor: We stayed at the cabins run by the Nature Park which were fine and very cheap www.mns.my. There is no bedding or towels supplied here so we brought our own. (You only really need a sheet to lie on and to cover the pillow as is it too hot for covers) For evening meals we ate in a little modern restaurant just across the road from the exit to the park, and for breakfast and lunch we bought food in the modern 7/11 store on the other side of the block. We found that the soft rolls filled with anything from tuna to Ikin Bilis to Chocolate to Blueberry cream and sold in sealed packets, made an excellent breakfast! Pringle-type crisps are also widely available and make a good snack.
Finding the park was not easy - but if we had known this one thing it would have been simple. Although the name of the place is Kuala Selangor Nature Park, and all over Malaysia everything has been signposted in English, this place is simply signposted Taman Alam, on brown tourist signs. The signs are everywhere but unless you know that it is what you are looking for it is not much help. All the maps I had previously seen were simply wrong or misleading. Here is how you find it (apart from following the signs!):
Head north into Kuala Selangor along the (5). It has quite long and sprawly outskirts but keep going. Go past a very large mosque on the left. You are looking for a set of traffic lights where the main road turns sharply right over a bridge, shortly after a BJP petrol station on the left. At these traffic lights fork left, which is actually the road which goes straight on into the town centre. After about 100 yards you pass a small car park on the left – turn left immediately after this. There is a white column in the middle of the road you are turning into and the turning is immediately before the arched entrance to Bukit Malawati which is straight ahead. The Nature Park is a short distance down this road.
If the heat gets too much for you, as it did for us one lunchtime, you can chill out at the heavily air-conditioned De Palma Inn – first left past the big mosque in town – where the delightfully local lunchtime buffet was only 20 MR.
Beware the Long-tailed Macaques – there seemed to be enormous numbers of them here (can this be good for the birds??) and our windscreen wipers suffered from their attention when we left the car in the car park. Take the blades off when the car is unattended if you can work out how to do it. We got ours fixed at a place down the road - the lack of a common language did not seem to be much hindrance!
Incidentally, the walk along the track through the forest to the lake was the only place on the entire trip where we were troubled by mosquitoes.
The part of the trip in Sabah is not covered here in any detail – James Eaton will publish a trip report on his website www.birdtourasia.co.uk in due course. However it is worth noting that the birding season was different in Sabah from PM – the birds were more active and there was more song.
Sabah was very different from PM in many cultural respects – more Chinese, more Christian, much less Muslim, a bit more chaotic. Many people find the many acres of palm oil plantation depressing but to me it was no worse than the green grass desert of Carmarthenshire, and after all there is still 35% forest coverage in Sabah which is more than you can say for the UK. A lot of this forest is degraded in some way – having been selectively felled for example – but many of the birds in Sabah don’t seem to mind. What is definitely a problem is the loss of riparian forest in the Kinabatangan river area but numerous NGOs are working hard to buy riparian acres back from palm oil plantations and replant forest. This, and the preservation of all remaining large trees is essential if the Storm’s Stork, Orang-utan and the larger Hornbills are to survive. (See www.worldlandtrust.org/projects/malaysia)
For us, one of the benefits of the Sabah trip was that it enabled us to catch up with some of our more obvious dips from the Peninsular Malaysia trip – for example, Little Pied Flycatcher and Lesser Fish Eagle. But the main focus of the Sabah trip was on the Borneo endemics and specialist birds. We perhaps did not get as many Pittas as we had hoped – Blue-headed, Bornean Banded and Black-crowned. Although we heard Giant several times it would not come in and the Blue-banded was nowhere to be found (the area in which this is usually found was mostly inaccessible due to recent heavy rains.) We dipped on Mountain Serpent Eagle, and all three green Broadbills but we did have spectacular views of Great Argus and decent views of really difficult birds like Bornean Ground-cuckoo and Everett’s Thrush. We had a whole hatful of babblers and flycatchers, all 8 hornbills, 11 cuckoos, 5 trogons, 5 barbets, 5 broadbills etc. We did not find Bristleheads until the penultimate day - James must have been sweating a bit!
It is worth noting that some of the locations in which we stayed with James offered good facilities for the independent birder. The Kinabatangan Jungle Lodge was run by Robert, who is a first class birder and knows his local patch very well – I am sure he would be very helpful to any visiting birders. His wife runs the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort – very pleasant and handy for the Sepilok Forest Reserve and canopy walkway. I am sure they would put a package together including all necessary transport. Also the Borneo Rainforest Lodge at Danum has good trails, a canopy walkway and good birding along the entrance road, with guides available if needed.
The hotel used by Birdtour Asia in Kota Kinabalu was the Shangri La (no connection to the expensive chain of the same name). This was a very pleasant, reasonably priced and functional hotel on the landward side of KK with a really excellent Saturday buffet and good facilities including left luggage and quick laundry.
After the Birdtour Asia tour, we spent the last two days of the trip at the Rasa Ria Resort, Kota Kinabalu
This was really intended as a spell of (rather expensive) R&R after the undeniably quite hard work of the Birdtour Asia trip. However, when we booked it we were aware that the hotel had a small nature reserve which had Tabon Scrubfowl. In order to get a chance of seeing these we had to book a birdwatching walk with a ranger at 6:30 am for 40 MR each, as you are not allowed access to the Nature Reserve unaccompanied – they have young Orang Utans there. We had a fairly quiet walk birdwise but did eventually get good views of a pair of Scrubfowl. We also found Malaysian Plovers on the beach, so were pleased to get two lifers on our last day!