Dark spots in Malaysia that are great for stargazing

Spectacular star trails in Bandar Baharu, Kedah. — Photos: FATINI JAAFAR

Throughout the year, one may be able to witness clusters of stars dotting the night sky on good, clear days.

That’s because Malaysia’s strategic geographical position on the equator makes her an ideal destination for astronomical tourism or astrotourism, said 34-year-old astronomer Fatini Jaafar, who is also an “astroguide”.

Fatini has been fascinated by physics and astronomy since she was a teenager, and this led to her pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in physics with a minor in astronomy at university. She is currently doing her postgraduate studies in Indigenous Astronomy.

Fatini is also the programme manager of Sahabat Langit Utara (Salut), a grassroots initiative dedicated to using astronomy for development via educational, tourism, photography and conservation activities.

The organisation was given a grant by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to train Malaysian astroguides in order to conduct astro tours properly and safely.

According to Fatini, while some people see stargazing as just a casual hobby, there are so many interesting things about the constellation that you could learn from astro tours.

Fatini with the Scorpius dotting the sky in Penang.Fatini with the Scorpius dotting the sky in Penang.

For example, she explained that from February to November, Scorpius – a zodiacal constellation – makes a frequent appearance in the summer sky. This constellation can be identified by a string of stars, which is shaped like a fish hook (or the letter “J”).

What lies in the heart of Scorpius is a supergiant star called Antares.

Based on astronomy studies, even the Sun – that’s 100 times wider than Earth – is dwarfed by the enormous Antares, which is said to be 700 times bigger than the Sun!

“Imagine the sun as a basketball glowing with intense heat. In comparison, Antares resembles a giant inflatable ball, much larger but casts a cooler, orange-reddish light. Although it’s far bigger in size, Antares is thousands of degrees cooler than our white-yellow sun,” Fatini described.

“Our Malaysian skies also showcase the Sagittarius, the Milky Way, and of course, the meteor showers,” Fatini said.

The Milky Way can be seen throughout the country.The Milky Way can be seen throughout the country.

Some time in mid-December, you may see some streaks of light in the dark sky. Typically taking place between November and December, the Geminid meteor shower is one of the most spectacular celestial events which could be seen from various countries throughout the globe.

“Meteor showers are named after a constellation that’s closest to its original point. Hence, the Geminids is an eponym of Gemini,” said Fatini, who goes on a trip to observe astronomical events at different locations in Malaysia every month.

The country is blessed with various meteor showers all year round, namely the Quadrantids, Perseids, and Draconids.

The landscapes

To truly capture the beauty of a star-filled sky on film, you would need to be surrounded by interesting landscapes.

“If you want to create beautiful celestial portraits, you have to pay attention to the location, which is the essence of nightscape photography. You need the right gear for the job as well, like a telescope and imaging camera,” advised Fatini.

Personally, Fatini prefers to stargaze with the naked eye without the aid of any equipment or device, but she does bring them along during her nightly observations.

“You need a pair of binoculars to look for deep-sky objects like planets, galaxies, and star clusters. And if you wish to take photos, a telescope or digital camera will come in handy.”

Fatini said one of her most memorable stargazing experiences took place at the Royal Belum National Park in Perak.

“Stretching into the vastness as far as the eye can see, the Milky Way – a faint, glowing band – dazzled in the night sky that day. It was a great spectacle as it also felt incredibly close, which kept us glued to the sky,” reminisced Fatini. She is constantly on the hunt for “dark sky” sites in Malaysia.

For those who wish to find out about astronomical phenomena occurring in Malaysia and other South-East Asian countries, she suggests checking out Almanak FalakOnline’s astronomy calendar, as well as timeanddate.com.

“I believe the best part about stargazing is its unifying power – we are all connected under one sky,” Fatini shared.

Bright skies

Unfortunately, Fatini said that the night skies in Malaysia are no longer as dark as they used to be. In many places around the country, light pollution has become so bad that you can no longer see the twinkling of stars at night.

“Light pollution and the unforeseeable Malaysian weather are partly to blame for the ‘disappearance’ of the stars. Artificial light from streetlamps and skyscrapers, for instance, are drowning out the stars. The sky appears yellow, sometimes even red, making it hard to observe the faint stars, let alone collecting astronomical data,” she said.

With an unwavering heart, Fatini set about finding a way to combat light pollution, or at least reduce it. She and her team hope to bring into the limelight the detrimental impact of artificial light to the environment, as well as to nocturnal life. Part of their plans to do this is via stargazing activities with the public, which give them an opportunity to share their knowledge.

During these events, they encourage the use of red sheet stickers to tint torchlights.

“Our eyes are very sensitive to blue and white light so reducing the brightness of something like a torchlight can help to protect the sky and even nocturnal animals, such as turtles, pangolins, flying lemurs and birds,” she explained.

The Milky Way in Semporna, Sabah.The Milky Way in Semporna, Sabah.

According to Fatini, the local astronomy community is advocating for more eco-parks to be built, within which “astro-parks’’ could be created.

“Currently, Malaysia only has one at Port Dickson Forest Sungai Menyala (in Negri Sembilan),” she said.

For a good stargazing experience, Fatini suggests looking for dark open areas with no obstruction from buildings or trees – like on a hill or mountain, on an island or in the wetlands. Malaysia offers numerous “dark” spots scattered across the country that are suitable for such leisure activity. Here we’ve listed some popular spots, but you may also find some suggestions from websites like lightpollutionmap.info and darksitefinder.com.

There are many places just outside of the Klang Valley where you can see the spectacular Milky Way, like the Sungai Selangor in Kuala Kubu Bharu. — SAFUAN SALAHUDINThere are many places just outside of the Klang Valley where you can see the spectacular Milky Way, like the Sungai Selangor in Kuala Kubu Bharu. — SAFUAN SALAHUDIN

Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor

Surrounded by hills, Kuala Kubu Bharu has always been the go-to destination for Klang Valley folks to do some stargazing activities, or to just escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend some time in nature.

Fatini said some people would even spend the night camping by the Sungai Selangor dam – just to observe the star-lit skies at the top of the hill.

Besides the dam, Taman Tasik Milenium is another spot to check out. It can get quite lively at night there, with campers and stargazers hanging around to spot either the brightest, smallest or most unique star.

Sekinchan, Selangor

Sekinchan may be more known for its padi fields and fishing activities, but these days it is rapidly gaining popularity as a stargazing spot. As night falls, the glittering stars take over the evening sky, creating a magical and peaceful atmosphere amid lush padi fields. There are a few accommodation options here, too: You can choose to stay at one of the homestays or themed bed-and-breakfasts, or look for a campsite to set up tent.

The Milky Way can be observed here, but Fatini said it may not appear as bright any more due to light pollution.

Mersing, Johor

There are several beaches in the coastal town of Mersing, Johor that locals love to hang out at during the weekends and public holidays. But some of these beaches are also great for watching the night sky.

When the night approaches, you can see millions of twinkling stars shining brightly. If you do go, bring a folding chair or a mat, as well as some snacks.

Among the beaches that you can include in your night endeavours in Mersing are Tanjung Penyabong, Teluk Buih and Pantai Pasir Lanun.

Padang Terap, Kedah

The white stars shine the brightest at Pedu Lake in the district of Padang Terap, Kedah. But there are also other lakes in the area that astronomy fans can go to. Fatini’s suggestions include Gubir Lake, Ahning Lake and Beris Lake.

Also, a hike up the hills will reward visitors with a magnificent view of Ahning Lake during the day. It is a popular spot with nature photographers and campers, as well as night-time adventurers.

A good landscape is what you need to make your nightscape photographs stand out.A good landscape is what you need to make your nightscape photographs stand out.

Setiu, Terengganu

On a cloudless night, the Setiu skies are usually full of stars. Located about 50km from Kuala Terengganu, Setiu is not only a showcase of nature, but it is also home to a number of constellations.

You can enjoy the view from most places in Setiu, but for a better experience, head to the observatory at Pantai Merang. Run by the Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin (KUSZA), the Balai Cerap KUSZA or UniSZA Observatory is a great place for you to feast your eyes on the millions of stars sprinkled in the night sky.

Should you decide to go to Pantai Merang during the day, we suggest going on a mangrove tour with a local guide to learn about the thriving saltwater ecosystem.

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