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Part 4: Kuala Lumpur, Royal Belum state park

30-31.7: Munich -> Abu Dhabi -> Delhi -> Singapore
1.8: Singapore -> Desaru
2.8: Desaru
3.8: Desaru -> Singapore
14.8: Jakarta -> Kuala Lumpur
15.8: Kuala Lumpur -> Kuching -> Batang Ai
16.8: Batang Ai
17.8: Batang Ai (longhouse and waterfall trip)
18.8: Batang Ai -> Kuching -> KL -> Bangkok
20.8: Bangkok -> Kuala Lumpur
21.8: Kuala Lumpur
22.8: Kuala Lumpur
29.8: Kota Bharu -> Temenggor lake (Royal Belum state park)
30.8: Tour on Temenggor lake and Belum reserve
31.8: Belum state park -> Ulu Muda
1.9: Ulu Muda
2.9: Ulu Muda
3.9: Ulu Muda -> Dabong (near Gunung Stong state park)
4.9: Stong state park -> Gua Ikan -> Gua Musang -> Dabong
5.9: Dabong -> Tumpat -> Kota Bharu -> KL
6.9: Kuala Lumpur
7.9: Kuala Lumpur -> Abu Dhabi -> Munich

20.8: Bangkok -> Kuala Lumpur
Geo hotel Kuala Lumpur. RM 148 for budget, but quality room with a comfortable bed, too cold A/C, flat screen TV, table, chair, cupboard, tea making equipment. phone. Good shower in the bathroom.The hotel is conveniently located in the Chinatown area of KL, opposite the central market (Pasar Seni). Free Internet, but due to maintenance it does not work.
Weather: overcast the whole day in Bangkok. Some isolated thunderstorms after 4pm.

After two days in Bangkok, around 3:40pm I fetch a taxi and initially drive back to the hotel to take my bags, then continue to the Don Muang airport. Heavy, heavy traffic until we reach the highway. A bit pricey tolls (50 Baht + 60 Baht).

Once at the airport I check in and proceed to the gate. Not that many shops in the gates area (was thinking of buying a small souvenir for my kids).

The Airasia flight takes off with a small delay shortly before 8pm and lands in KL around 11pm. I get to KL Sentral with the 11:35pm KLIA Express, then fetch a taxi to the hotel. I call Shirley suggesting a trip to Cebu in the Philippines, which Shirley initially declines.

21.8: Kuala Lumpur
Geo hotel, Kuala Lumpur. Internet finally works, but is slow.
Weather: sunny the whole day, no rain, some light clouds

In the afternoon I check out a travel agency in the Sungei Wang mall in Bukit Bintang street. I get a quote for a trip to to Redang, three nights, for RM 4000 (accomodation + flight; 1135 adult + 865 child; at the Redang Reef resort; Airasia flights make approx. RM 1600, i.e. RM 800/night). This is with the Timeless vacation Sdn Bhd travel agency (+60 3 21458600, tour @ timeless.com.my), the same agency I used a few years ago for the trip to Lang Tengah. Prices haven't increased significantly over the past years. It's just that trips to Redang are ridicolously expensive.

The area around Bukit Bintang / jalan Pudu is undergoing a redevelopment. A new tunnel is being built, which will make the traffic flow more smooth in the Golden Triangle. The completion date is 2015-16 from what I understand.

In the evening I meet Shirley and the kids, who just came back frorm their trip to Singapore. Shirley agrees to the trip to Cebu, so I book the flights (which now are by RM 450 in total more expensive - should have booked yesterday).

22.8: Kuala Lumpur
Flat of Sara, the sister of Shirley
Weather: mostly sunny, no rain.

In the morning I book a hotel on Cebu with booking.com.

Around noon I transfer to the flat of Sara and join the rest of the family. Overpriced taxi transfer (RM 20) as the driver refuses to use the meter.

In the afternoon we go to KLCC for lunch. After that I walk to the Pavilion mall, were I print out some documents in a DHL service point. The entire walk from the Petronas towers to the Pavilion mall is now covered and built as elevated walkways, partially with A/C. Good solution, which protects pedestrians from the sun and the rain. I notice that there are now more skyscrapers around KLCC and even more are being built, i.e. the area is being actively redeveloped.

When Shirley asks if our hotel in Cebu is with the breakfast, I double-check the booking. The breakfast is not mentioned anywhere, but I discover in the small print that there are a total of 25% of surcharges which are not included in the price quoted by booking.com.

Shame on booking.com, as they should have indicated the correct final price. BTW, it's too late now for a cancellation, as the cancellation fee is very high (10400 Pesos, i.e. 180 Euro). And honestly, at a room price of 6500 Pesos, i.e. 112 Euro, one could expect a breakfast included in the price.

In the evening we try to get a taxi to go back from KLCC. We ask a taxi driver who just arrived and dropped off some guests if he can drive us to Jalan Ipoh. He agrees and is even willing use the meter. But then a guy from the KLCC counter shows up and says we must pay him an RM 2 commission because we took the taxi here. It takes some complaining to get rid of this individual.

29.8: Kota Bharu -> Temenggor lake (Royal Belum state park)
Banding Lakeside Inn, Royal Belum state park. RM 180/350 for a large comfortable room with a soft bed, adjustable A/C with a remote control, phone, TV (vacuum tube type, not LCD), table, chair, cupboard, tea making equipment, fridge, toilet with bathtub/shower.
No Internet in the room, only in the lobby and there it comes and goes, i.e. it's barely usable (imagine if you are in the middle of a flight booking and the line suddenly is cut off).
Breakfast included. The hotel lies on a hill overlooking the Temenggor lake.
After reading some bad review on tripadvisor I was expecting some old, filthy and run-down place. But actually my room is clean and stylish. Perhaps some renovation has been done since these reviews were posted. The hotel however is a bit oldish (mechanical key to open the door, just to make an example).

Weather: overcast in Kota Bharu, thin clouds layer in Belum.

I check out of the Tune hotel at 11am, then take a taxi to the airport (RM 30). There I walk to the car rental (Hawk) and get the car.

The car rental is charging me only RM 960, vs the RM 1239 I've been invoiced by billiger-mietwagen.de. Perhaps the extra amount is the commission billiger-mietwagen.de is pocketing. Next time I should book the car directly in Malaysia.

The car by the way is a Proton Persona with 45000 km with automatic gear. It feels a bit cheap and old.

After keying in the destination into the navigation system, at 12:30pm I start driving the car. Weird feeling initially when driving on the left side of the street. Very unusual. Now the central mirror is on my left side and I'm used to have it on the right side. A bit confusing and the small rear window doesn't help either.

It seems that in Malaysia you are allowed to drive up to 70-80 km/h in urban areas and 110 km/h on motorways. Less if there are speed limits.

The problem is that for the first hour the urban area is never ending. Probably poor city planning by the Malaysian authorities. Instead of having concentrated urban centres they allow cities to spread around the countryside.

In any case for the first two hours I average a pretty low speed (around 60km/h). Only after a while does the road go through wilder areas with no or few human settlements.

Confusing road signage (speed limits) or perhaps the speed limit data in the Sygic navigation system is outdated.

The road climbs up the mountains and at one point reaches an altitude of over 1000 metres, because it crosses the central mountain range. Nice scenery every now and then.

Interesting road signs: first one warning of crossing elephants, then one warning about crossing tapirs (!).

Finally, shortly before 4pm, I reach the hotel and check in (pleasant surprise that the first night costs only RM 180 instead of RM 350). For some reason they can't find my booking, but they have rooms available.

Then I get back to the car and drive to the jetty (had spotted it the side road leading there before). This lies on the Pulau Banding island.

I stop at the rainforest research centre, which indeed is a centre for researchers and academic staff who spend some time here and need assistance. It's not for tourists yet. However a tourist information centre is currently being built and should open in 2014 or 2015.

Some chatting with the researchers: in Belum there is primary rainforest, elephants, tapirs, even tigers. Thanks to conservation efforts, there is a stable and growing tiger population of 20-25 individuals, which in 10 years might double. The reserve has a counterpart in Thailand, so the wildlife can roam across the border in a protected area. 130 million years old forest (indeed I see many tall trees).

On the southern side (the Temenggor area) there is secondary forest which has been declared 'production area', meaning that it can be logged. However the researchers are trying to talk the authorities into not logging the forest. Tourism could be an alternative revenue source.

Indeed the area with the lake and the forest is very scenic and beautiful, and does have tourist potential. The Belum reserve is a gem, which is little known by tourists.

Part of the issue seems to be that there has been a communist emergency in Malaysia. The Belum area served until the late 1980s as a retreat for the guerillas, so the government would restrict access to it.

Perhaps it's a restricted area even now, as I remember having seen a truck full of Malaysian soldiers at the Banding hotel.

I ask if there are trails into the forest. They mention a short one near the Belum rainforest resort. Otherwise I need to book a tour with a hotel, which involves a boat trip.

After the discussion I walk back to the car, on the way running into a (wild) pig which is looking for food in the rubbish. Then I continue driving on the side road until I reach the jetty.

Here there are a restaurant and a shop selling food. Several boats of local people coming and leaving. Two boathouses docked in the lake. It seems that if you want to reach any place here, you need a boat.

At 5:20pm I get back to the car. The researchers told me that there is a forest trail on the left side before the Belum ranforest resort. After some searching I find it (it's the Banding trail).

So I start walking on this trail. Lots, really lots of hungry mosquitoes in some spots. Should have applied much more mosquito repellent. Beautiful views of the lake and the rainforest.

I reach the top of this trail where there is a big helipad. Some noise in the trees. It's group of black monkeys which hop from tree crown to tree crown. Unfortunately I'm too far away for a good photo.

Around 6pm I start walking back to the car. I drive to the hotel and ask in the lobby what tours they offer.

Well, these tours are all very expensive. RM 550 for a half day tour, RM 1000 for a full day tour for the entire boat. Meaning that this cost is shared among all participants of the tour. I ask if there is a group I might join for tomorrow. The answer is no and the receptionist suggests that I go to the jetty and ask some locals if they want to bring me somewhere, because that will be cheaper.

So I get back to the car and drive to the jetty (it's very good to have a car available in this place; actually I'd also need a boat). Once at the jetty I ask some people if anybody has a boat. Some guy says yes, he has a boat, but he is expensive. RM 450 for the half-day trip (9am to 2pm). Trip to Belum reserve not possible because I would need a government permit, which needs to be applied for one week in advance.

I suspect that this permit issue is not so much to protect the forest against hordes of tourists. It's probably more a border issue. Perhaps the Belum reserve, because it runs parallel to the border with Thailand is considered by the Malaysian government a sensitive area and they want to know who is going in there.

Anyway, this Belum place starts looking like a failure. Beautiful area, but I'm not able to get into it at a reasonable cost. How to avoid logging the forest by earning tourist money, if it's so difficult for tourists to get in?

It's probably also lack of competition which keeps prices so high. There are only a handful of hotels in the area, and perhaps also only a few operators offer tours.

I have a dinner in the restaurant at the jetty. Fried rice with chicken. The chicken meat in microscopic doses. Perhaps I should buy a piece of chicken meat in a shop and ask the cook to prepare it for me with the rice.

After the dinner I drive to the Belum Rainforest Resort and ask if they have tours. Yes they do, and the full day tour (6 to 7 hours) costs 'only' RM 280. Reasonably priced, considering the prices I have been quoted so far. It's still a rip-off, but I have no choice if I want to see something of the area.

So I book this tour and get back to my hotel.

30.8: Tour on Temenggor lake and Belum reserve
Banding Lakeside Inn, Royal Belum state park. The breakfast is not bad.
Weather: in the morning overcast, then in the course of the day the sun comes out (more or less thin clouds cover). As I spend the entire day on the lake I would however have preferred a clouds cover. No rain the whole day.

At 9am I'm in the lobby of the Belum rainforest resort and ask where the tour starts. They tell me to go to the jetty, which I do. But with jetty, as I find out later, they meant the hotel jetty (the resort has its own jetty), not the jetty to which I went yesterday. So basically I drive to this jetty, find lots of people (crowds of Malaysians who came here for the Merdeka extended weekend), but I can't find the tour of the resort.

At 9:25am I'm back in the hotel lobby and they ask a hotel staff to show me the jetty. A guy arrives and drives me on a service car to the hotel jetty.

There the organiser doesn't have my name (should I be surprised?), but tells me I can join one of the boats.

So, at 9:45am the tour starts. The tour consists of two boats with an insufficient sun cover. In my boat there is a couple of Austrians and a Dutch couple (lady is pregnant).

On the other boat there is a family of three Germans (parents and son) and a young Malaysian couple (she is Chinese, he is Malay, which is a bit unusual, as Malays and Chinese don't mix due to religion issues: in case of a wedding the non-Muslim must convert to the Muslim faith and has to keep this faith even in case of a divorce).

We initially head north, deep into the Belum park, for 20 minutes. Beautiful rainforest, with very tall trees.

We then get out of the boat and climb along a steep, short trail for 8 minutes and reach the rafflesia site. Unfortunately the refflesia flower is already dead and dry, but near it are two buds which will bloom in about a week according to the guide. The flower is a bit small by the way, because the larger species only grow in Borneo according to the guide.

So we walk down this steep trail back to the boat. Some comments from the other tour participants because I'm wearing slippers instead of trekking shoes. I've chosen slippers for today's trip because of the waterfall swim and because I wasn't expecting any difficult trek. But this trail is a bit challenging indeed.

The boat then turns south and stops at the jetty on the island to allow us to do some shopping. The idea is that we buy some presents for the chidren of the orang asli village.

Most people buy some snacks, because there is not much else you can buy here. No paper, no pens etc. Later I realise that this not such a good idea, because this village receives visitors every day and the kids get used to receive junk food snacks every day.

We get back to the boat and head south again. The boat trip this time takes really long. At 11:34am we see the Temenggor dam (completed in 1991 according to the guide) and the power station.

20 minutes later we reach the trail to the salt licks. We walk for about 20 minutes in the jungle (which here is quite dry) and reach this salt lick. Elephant shit everywhere, but no elephants (shouldn't come as a surprise as it's noon and the elephants will be resting somewhere in a fresh place in the jungle).

The salt lick consists of basically two spots where the elephants dig out black salt and white salt from the ground. Makes one wonder how the elephants found these spots in the first place i.e. how they knew that they could find salt by digging in this place.

By the way, the rainforest south of the east-west highway is secondary forest. Most trees are smaller and not so old; only in some areas there are tall trees.

At the salt lick there are some automatic cameras fixed to trees, probably triggered by animal movements.

After some time at this lick, we walk back to the boat, which now brings us to the place where we have lunch. This is called Pelan Susun Atur, and has some tables under a roof overlooking the lake, toilets and other facilities. There is even a camping, i.e. somehow it is possible to camp here.

We have lunch between 1:10pm and 1:50pm. Lunch consists of a sandwich box and an apple.

After lunch we take the boat to the orang asli village. This lies on a peninsula and consists of some huts made with wood and tree leaves. Only a few houses have tin roofs.

Lots of tourists, a large group of Malaysian tourists is just leaving when we arrive. More tourist groups arrive while we are there. Tourists outnumber villagers, at times by a factor of 2:1.

The villagers consist of women and children. Most men are out fishing or hunting. The villagers are really racially different from Malays. They are like blacks from Africa, quite interesting. These are the original inhabitants of Malaysia, i.e. those who lived there before Malays, Chinese and Indians arrived.

Present giving to the kids. This is almost embarassing. Lots of tourists handing over junk food snacks to the kids. Kids filling their stomachs with all that junk food. Some Malay lady at least gives them some paper and pens.

Overall the village is like a zoo. I hope the villagers at least get some financial compensation for having their village flooded by tourists.

In any case, the situation of these orang asli seems quite hopeless. Every two weeks a teacher come and teaches something to the kids, i.e. these kids will never receive a proper education. It's quite possible that these people still live in these huts in 50 years, still depending on welfare from the government.

At 2:30pm we are done with the orang asli village and head to the next place, the waterfall. First we go for half an hour by boat, then we walk 25 minutes along a jungle trail, finally reaching the waterfall at 3:30pm.

This is a nice jungle waterfall, with a not so deep pool. We get a bit into the water, then at 4pm start walking back to the boat.

We are back at the Belum resort shortly after 5pm. I pay the tour (RM 280), then drive to the jetty where I have some dinner in the restaurant. Then I get back to the hotel. Tomorrow I'll drive to the Muda lake in Kedah.

Copyright 2014 Alfred Molon