7 forest gems in Malaysia worth visiting for some 'healing' time

Bukit Lambir in Sarawak is known for its waterfalls. — Photos: Tourism Malaysia

Thanks to Malaysia’s favourable location near the equator, it is home to stunning forested ecosystems aplenty. You may be familiar with her famed national parks such as Taman Negara, Endau-Rompin National Park, Bako National Park and Royal Belum State Park. All these attract droves of tourists from near and far.

If you’re looking to get away from the maddening crowds and enjoy some fresh air, here are some less popular – but no less magnificent – forests to keep in mind for the next time you’re bitten by the adventure bug.

When planning a visit, don’t forget to check with the relevant state authorities or park rangers first, as you will usually require a permit to enter these forests, and stay overnight.

1. Ulu Muda Forest Reserve, Kedah

Considered the “jewel of Kedah”, Ulu Muda Forest Reserve is one of the only two places in Peninsular Malaysia where you can find all 10 species of Malaysian hornbills (if you’re lucky, that is!).

Besides that, it’s home to a host of other varieties of flora and fauna, such as elephants, tapirs, sambar deer and the majestic Tualang tree, which is one of the tallest tropical tree species and can grow up to 80m or more.

In the first quarter of the year, intrepid honey-hunters can be found scaling up the trees’ great heights under the cloak of darkness to collect wild honey from the hives of Asian Giant Honeybees.

Its terrain is considered easy, as you won’t be scaling up any mountains, so it’s perfect for families with young children and beginner hikers who want to try their hand at jungle trekking.

You can also go on a river cruise for the chance to spot some local wildlife, venture to nearby saltlicks (known as “sira”), go spelunking in limestone caves or take a lazy tube ride down Muda River.

Ulu Muda is about a two-hour drive from Alor Setar; you will need to enter the forest via an hour-long boat ride from Muda Jetty.

If you’re lucky, you may get the chance to spot Asiatic elephants at the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve in Kedah. — STEPHEN HOGG/WWF-MalaysiaIf you’re lucky, you may get the chance to spot Asiatic elephants at the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve in Kedah. — STEPHEN HOGG/WWF-Malaysia

2. Penang National Park

Spanning 1,213ha, the Penang National Park is Malaysia’s smallest national park – but it sure packs a punch.

It is tucked away in the northwest corner of Penang Island, and is just a 30-minute drive from bustling George Town.

The park’s main entrance is a short walk from Teluk Bahang’s main bus stop. From there, you can choose to either go west towards Kerachut Beach (about a two-hour journey), or northwest towards Muka Head Lighthouse (approximately three hours of trekking).

On the way to Muka Head, you’ll come across the charming Teluk Ailing, where the University of Malaysia has its Marine Research Station, as well as Monkey Beach, a popular stop for – you guessed it – the monkey population.

Once you reach the trail’s end, you won’t be able to climb up the lighthouse, but the panoramic view from the tip of Muka Head is stunning all the same.

If it’s to Kerachut Beach you’ll go, don’t miss the opportunity to visit a rare sight: a meromictic lake, which consists of two layers (one freshwater and another seawater) that do not mix due to having different temperatures and density.

There are only a handful of such lakes in Asia, and it’s the only one you’ll find in Malaysia.

At Kerachut Beach itself, you can visit the Turtle Conservation Centre, as the beach is a popular nesting ground for Green Sea Turtles and Olive Ridley Turtles.

You can then end the day by witnessing the pretty sunset from the beach, but be sure to bring torchlights for the trip back if you don’t intend to stay the night at any of the campsites.

You can chill out at the Monkey Beach at Penang National Park. — Asiadetailfeed/Wikimedia CommonsYou can chill out at the Monkey Beach at Penang National Park. — Asiadetailfeed/Wikimedia Commons

3. Perlis State Park, Perlis

Malaysia’s smallest state is also home to an impressive state park, comprising Mato Ayer Forest Reserve and Wang Mu Forest Reserve with a total area of about 5,000ha.

The park has several unique features that make it worth a visit. For example, the forest of white meranti-gerutu trees found in the park is semi-deciduous – the trees shed their leaves during the long dry season – and is the only one of its kind in Malaysia.

The park’s towering limestone karsts are part of the Nakawan Range, which is part of the Setul Formation, the oldest carbonate rock formation in Malaysia and the region, forming some 370 to 490 million years ago.

The karsts form an ecosystem unlike any other, meaning that rare plant and animal species can be found here, such as orchids, geckos and spiders. The park is also the only place in Malaysia you’ll find the stumped-tail macaque.

Every year, between April and August, thousands of migratory birds will travel over the park in search of warmer climates, so it’s a great spot for bird-watching. Species from countries like China, Russia and Siberia can be seen during the migratory season.

The Gua Wang Burma Dua is just one of the limestone caves you can explore at the Perlis State Park. — FilepicThe Gua Wang Burma Dua is just one of the limestone caves you can explore at the Perlis State Park. — Filepic

Bukit Buluh in Pahang is also known as the ‘red forest’. — Pusat Ekonomi Digital Pekan DamakBukit Buluh in Pahang is also known as the ‘red forest’. — Pusat Ekonomi Digital Pekan Damak

4. Bukit Buluh, Pahang

You probably know about the atmospheric Mossy Forest in Cameron Highlands, thanks to Instagram and other social media platforms, but have you heard of Pahang’s “red forest”?

This one isn’t exactly located within a state park or forest reserve, but in Felda Padang Piol, about 20 minutes from Jerantut.

You’ll first need to trek through the oil palm plantation before you get to the forested area. As you reach the top of the hill, you’ll be greeted by the fascinating and unusual sight of thick tree trunks and sprawling branches that possess the deep reddish hue that inspired its nickname.

The trees are said to be “pokok kelat gelam”, or its scientific name, Eugenia cerina Hend of the Myrtaceae family. The red of the tree bark brilliantly contrasts with the greenery it’s surrounded by, giving hikers the perfect backdrop for photos. The view isn’t too bad, either.

At 371m above sea level, Bukit Buluh isn’t a very challenging hike for frequent hikers, but it can be steep and the route can get a bit rough at some points, so beginners, take note. It should take about an hour to reach the summit.

Setiu Wetlands is the largest natural wetlands in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.Setiu Wetlands is the largest natural wetlands in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

5. Setiu Wetlands State Park, Terengganu

If you’re looking for a getaway that’s more easygoing with a touch of culture, look no further than Setiu Wetlands, the largest natural wetlands on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

It’s the only wetland ecosystem in Malaysia that consists of nine interconnected ecosystems, including rivers, estuaries, freshwater swamps, mangroves, mudflats, beaches, a lagoon, the sea and islands.

Here, you get to stroll on the boardwalk paths and learn more about why wetland ecosystems are so important (did you know that Setiu Wetlands is home to the critically endangered painted and river terrapins?); go digging for clams in the mudflats; hop on a boat for the river safari; and be enchanted by the glow of fireflies on the firefly cruise.

You can also check out nearby fishing villages and support cottage industries, such as handicrafts made from kerecut leaves and the processing of coconut sugar.

Last, but certainly not least, no trip to the east coast is complete without indulging in snacks made from freshly-caught seafood, such as keropok lekor and ikan celup tepung (deep-fried battered fish).

6. Bukit Lambir National Park, Sarawak

At 6,952ha Bukit Lambir, also known as Lambir Hills, is one of Sarawak’s smaller parks, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see and do here.

It is recognised by scientists and researchers worldwide as one of the most ecologically diversified areas to date, according to the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, which manages Sarawak’s parks and nature reserves.

Over 200 species of birds can be spotted here, in addition to larger mammals such as gibbons, tarsier and even the clouded leopard. Its terrain is mainly lush lowland dipterocarp forest, followed by heath forest further uphill. Bukit Lambir is particularly known for its picturesque waterfalls.

It’s a wonder that such natural spectacles can be found a mere 40 minutes from Miri by car.

For those new to jungle trekking, you can take the 15-minute stroll from the park’s entrance to the Latak Waterfall, where you can take a relaxing dip in the cool, clear waters and have a lovely picnic.

As for the more seasoned hikers, the four-hour hike to the Bukit Lambir peak should prove to be an adequate challenge, where you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the surrounding jungle at the end. On the way down, jump into the emerald-coloured pool of Dinding Waterfall for a quick recharge.

If you’re something of a history buff, you may want to take the Oil Well trail, which leads to an antique oil well that was used by the Japanese during World War II. Hikers can take a look around the oil well and learn more about its significance.

Maliau Basin is a fascinating forest to explore.Maliau Basin is a fascinating forest to explore.

7. Maliau Basin Conservation Area, Sabah

Be forewarned: Maliau Basin is not for the faint of heart. It is often called Sabah’s “Lost World”, as it is essentially a self-contained ecosystem due to its remote location and unique bowl-like geological formation.

The basin is host to a fascinating diversity of forest types, consisting mainly of lower montane forest, dominated by towering Agathis trees, rare montane heath forest, and lowland and hill dipterocarp forest.

Botany hobbyists will enjoy paying a visit, as Maliau Basin’s flora includes at least eight species of pitcher plants and several orchid species which have been recorded here for the first time in Sabah, like the necklace orchid Coelogyne odoardi, endemic to Borneo.

The basin may also be one of only two remaining sites of the rare Rafflesia Tengku Adlinii, which was first discovered here in 1988.

Another point of interest is Lake Linumunsut, located just outside and below the steep northern rim of the basin. According to the conservation area’s official website, Lake Linumunsut is Sabah’s only true lake – the others are oxbow formations found in floodplains of larger rivers.

The lake, being as ancient as it is, has a special cultural significance to the local indigenous communities living nearby. A native Murut legend tells of a dragon that lives in the lake and holds back the water with its massive tail.

For the more nocturnal among us, luckily for you, the forest comes to life at night: you can go on a night walk in the hopes of coming across rare insect species like the purplish atlas moth and the three-horned beetle; or opt for a night drive to spot nocturnal wildlife.

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