Malaysia and Singapore
Author: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
A return to Andalucia for Semana Santa with Steve & Pippa was our original plan for an Easter holiday but we couldn’t manage to get our leave to coincide so we decided to look for something different and happened upon some reasonably inexpensive flights with Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur. With minimal research we decided to book two weeks in South East Asia.
A little browsing of relevant internet sites gave us a few ideas about places to visit. Singapore was a short distance away and conversations with a local birding friend Patrick who had been there a few months previously for his birthday helped us to decide to pay a brief visit. Kuala Selangor sounded good for monkeys and water birds, Bukit Fraser for montane species and Taman Negara for lowland rainforest appeared to be unmissable.
We booked accommodation for most of the first week, one night in KL, a night on the KL to Singapore sleeper train, one night in Singapore, two nights in Kuala Selangor, two nights in Bukit Fraser, our hire car and the Singapore to KL flights and decided to leave the rest to chance. Extra time in BF or Taman Negara seemed strong possibilities so we wanted to leave our options open.
Some useful (?) info
Costs were as follows:
Flights (Air Asia) £786
Spending Money (exchange rates approx 5.3 MR and 2.3 S$ to the £) £712
Hire Car £279
Concorde Hotel £87
KL Menara restaurant £39
Changi Village Hotel £87
Sleeper train £48
Singapore - KL flights £45
The Smokehouse (Bukit Fraser) £109
Petrol (on card) £9
De Palma Inn (original booking) £74
Palace of the Golden Horses £76
Radisson Hotel, Stansted (i/c parking )£119
All accommodation that wasn’t prepaid came out of the spending money pot. In general, costs of accommodation, eating out, petrol etc. was considerably lower than in the UK. We didn’t really know how much money we’d need but we set ourselves a target budget and easily failed to reach it. We didn’t make a big effort to keep costs down and could have spent much less if we’d used cheaper accommodation and the least expensive places to eat.
10th April - 01:30 flights from London Stansted to KL LCCT
Overnight in Concorde Hotel, KL
11th April - day in KL
Overnight in sleeper train to Singapore
12th April - day in Singapore
13th April - morning flights to KLIA, day in Kuala Selangor
Overnight in De Palma Inn
14th April - Kuala Selangor
15th April - drive to Bukit Fraser
Over night in The Smokehouse Inn
16th April - Bukit Fraser
17th April - drive to Kuala Tembeling, boat to Taman Negara
Overnight in Mutiara Resort
18th April - Taman Negara
19th April - Taman Negara
20th April - drive to Cherating
Overnight in Bayview Hotel
21st April - Cherating
22nd April - return to Kuala Selangor
Overnight in De Palma Inn
23rd April Kuala Selangor
24th April - return to near KL for early flight tomorrow
Overnight in Palace of the Golden Horses
25th April - return flight LCCT to Stansted.
10th April 2009
An early morning flight from Stansted (dep 01:30) meant that we were able to sleep through quite a decent chunk of the 12 hour direct flight. Air Asia is a budget airline but the seats were quite comfortable with a reasonable amount of leg room.
We were only having a single night in KL and the airport is quite a distance from the city centre (about 60 kms) but we’d found a decent deal with the Concorde Hotel, which was pretty much exactly where we wanted to wake up, which included a deluxe room and an airport pick-up. There was nobody waving a card with our name on it when we arrived but we wanted to get some cash, the ATM within the restricted zone of the airport having been non-functional, so we weren’t too bothered.
Despite some signs, we couldn’t find any ATMs (they are easier to locate in Departures, for some reason) so we ‘phoned the hotel and where told that the car was on its way but had been held up in traffic. 10 minutes later we were in the back of a pleasantly air-conditioned car and speeding through the night towards KL city centre.
Having booked in and taken a minimal amount of stuff out of our luggage (toiletries and clean socks for tomorrow) we headed off into the night for a late meal before bedtime. The Concorde seems a decent hotel with an impressive reception area. We’d read a few reviews suggesting that it was a bit ‘tired’ but we’d opted for one of the more expensive rooms and were quite satisfied. It was clean and well kept and seemed to have been recently redecorated. No view of the nearby Petronas Towers, unfortunately.
The obvious place to go when we left the hotel was the vicinity of the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, whatever that means. We had seen them glowing against the night sky on the drive into the city and hoped to get some photos. We were not disappointed. The building is well lit in the evening (the lights are mainly switched off later) and we got some shots that we thought might be quite good.
We’d passed a couple of lively looking outdoor restaurants on the drive in to the hotel so we retraced our steps and found one of them, the Pelita Nasi Kandar. The protocol was a bit baffling but we managed to order some bowls of soup (mutton and quail-bird) and some naan bread and it was very good indeed. There was durian juice on the menu as well so we decided to give this notorious delicacy a try. It looked pretty but tasted horrible - decaying blue cheese spring to mind, but mixed with something else that’s gone off. Fortunately the ginger juice was much nicer so we had something to drink. Website at http://www.pelita.com.my/p_finder_kl2.html
After this and knowing that we’d want an early start the following morning, it was time for bed.
11th April 2009
No alarm was needed for us to get up before sunrise in a part of the world we hadn’t seen before. The Concorde served breakfast from about 6 a.m. so we sat down on a balcony overlooking the swimming pool area whilst it was still dark.
Our first Malaysian birds started to appear whilst we were eating and we quickly had a lifer identified, Malaysian Glossy Starling. Also Common Mynah, Indian House Crow, Tree Sparrows and some unidentified swifts.
By the time we’d finished breakfast the day was getting light so we set off to find a way into Bukit Nanas, a forest park in the centre of the city where there was a chance of some birds as well as monkeys and with a bit of luck, tree shrews as well.
Access to the park from the hotel is probably best just past the nearby Bukit Nanas monorail station. Around the corner from here is a sort of forest info/ timber products centre and behind this are some steps leading to a gate which takes you straight into green habitat on a series of walkways and more steps.
We saw a woodpecker that we couldn’t identify and a squirrel or tree shrew but not too many birds at first. We followed signs for the KL Menara and came to an area with tended lawns where Oriental Magpie Robin was easy and familiar. Behind the trees a large raptor drifted. This looked like Black Kite but we couldn’t say for certain and the species is described as ‘rare to scare passage migrant’ in Robson.
Birds were easier to see around the KL Menara where we got a good look at a few common birds like Yellow-vented Bulbul and Black-naped Oriole. Our second group of monkeys were Silvered Langurs and in amongst them was a baby with orange fur, something that was definitely on our ‘wanted list’.
From the Menara we walked down the road and at the first roundabout we glanced over the wall and saw two Common Tree Shrews foraging on a wooden platform that we later found was on one of the way marked trails through the forest. A loud call from the trees around the roundabout sounded good for kingfisher or woodpecker but despite a search of about 10 minutes we didn’t even get a glimpse of it. Continuing down the road, after a detour to follow the trail mentioned above we found a Black-thighed Pygmy Falcon in the trees by the elaborate ornamental gate and nearby prolonged views of a Banded Woodpecker.
A short distance further down the road was a small reservoir. The water was nor visible from the road but there was a Red Jungle Fowl (wild or introduced?), several Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters and a possible Dollarbird. Javan and White-vented Mynah’s were both in evidence, although we mis-identified Javan as Jungle Mynah initially. Hopefully we’ll find a way to rename the photo on the website one day.
It was a 15 minute walk back to the hotel from where we took a taxi to the lake gardens park. This provided a pleasant stroll and a few birds including a presumed Chinese Pond Heron (we didn’t get close enough for a proper look but we saw several in other locations and they looked similar) and then as it was getting on for lunch time we decided to head back towards the Menara because we fancied lunch in the revolving restaurant high up on the tower. KL Sentral railway station was close by and after a couple of failures we eventually found the entrance to the monorail station which took us back to Bukit Nanas.
The free shuttle bus was used to get us to the tower - we didn’t much fancy the walk uphill in the increasing heat and humidity - and then we were whisked up to the restaurant level in a fast lift. CC had swapped trousers for shorts before we headed to the lake gardens but the restaurant operates a dress code and so he was given a sarong to wear when we arrived at the top.
The restaurant revolves through 360 degrees every hour and all the tables are arranged around the edge so everybody gets a full panoramic view of the city whilst eating. The food was ok, although we had lots better later in the holiday but it was at about £40 the most expensive meal that we had in two weeks in SE Asia. It was worth it for the views though and whilst we were inside there was a heavy downpour that had passed over by the time we left.
After lunch it was back on the monorail to visit the Chinatown district where we had a stroll down Jalan Petaling with its multitudes of shops and stalls. Shortly after coming out at the far end of Jalan Petaling, when we were looking for somewhere for a quick drink, we got caught in torrential rain. Umbrellas would have been useless so we found some shelter in a shop doorway and waited until it stopped. There were a couple of Pacific Swallows trying to find some shelter too.
When the rain eased sufficiently we scrambled back to Jalan Petaling to find a bar to quench our thirsts. Then it was back on the monorail to The Concorde to retrieve the luggage that they’d kindly looked after for us and to grab a taxi to KL Sentral Station. Both the concierge at the hotel and the taxi driver were both keen that we should not bother with the station because it was just as cheap to take the cab direct to the airport but as we had a cabin booked on the sleeper train to Singapore that didn’t seem such a great idea to us.
Arrival at Sentral Station was about an hour before the scheduled departure so we found a café for a breather and then located the entrance to the platform. The Singapore train departs from a platform downstairs from the main station but the stairs were cordoned off and the waiting passengers weren’t allowed down until the arrivals had cleared. After that several hundred people all bailed down the escalators at once and predictably the first people down stepped onto the platform and stopped dead. A serious accident was probably only avoided by a lot of shouting and pushing, some of it by CC. The same no doubt happens every day.
We’d booked the highest grade cabin and when we found our carriage we were shown straight to it by a member of staff. As an alternative to flying, this way of getting to Singapore was actually pretty good, especially because it meant that we did our travelling overnight. The cabin was clean and the shower worked. The bed was reasonably comfortable and we even got a light meal before bedtime and coffee and biscuits when we got our wake up call.
Without trying too hard we’d had a pretty good day in Kuala Lumpur, seen a few of the tourist sights and identified 18 bird species, half of which were new ones for both of us. Not long after leaving the station we were stretched out on our bunks and fast asleep.
12th April 2009
We were awakened quite early with a knock on the door and a cup of coffee, and told that Malaysian immigration officials would be coming aboard shortly, so we got dressed and found our passports. After Malaysian immigration we then had to negotiate Singaporean immigration, which meant quickly repacking our luggage and then getting off the train to go through the normal procedures such as passport checks, visa checks, bag scans etc., and then it was back on the train for the final stretch into Singapore proper.
At the station we were ‘found’ by a minibus driver who agreed to take us to our Changi Village Hotel for S$25, as long as we didn’t mind waiting whilst he tried to find some other paying customers. We’d checked in advance and knew that the price was fair, so we were happy with this. It turned out to be a pretty good deal because we stopped at a couple of different spots around the city before heading out to Changi and our driver turned out to be a good guide, pointing out numerous places of interest and putting some good context around it.
The area around the hotel was noisy with parrots that we decided not to spend too much time on as they are introductions. Some were almost certainly Tanimbar Corellas. The hotel itself was very pleasant, although to be honest we saw virtually none of it, as we were outside walking down to the jetty for the bumboats to Pulau Ubin almost as soon as our rucksacks had been unceremoniously dumped in a corner of our room.
We were originally planning to spend half a day in Bukit Timah park in the city before having a look at some of the more obvious attractions but a couple of sessions with birdforum.net’s Patrick_L convinced us that Pulau Ubin might be more fun.
Pulau Ubin lies a short distance of the north east coast of Singapore and is generally reckoned to be the last “traditional” part of the country. It is reached from the Changi Jetty via a bumboat, which costs a few dollars. They leave when they’re full enough and we only had a few minutes to wait.
The arrival at Pulau Ubin is attractive but almost as soon as we arrived the heavens opened. We took shelter in a restaurant at the water’s edge and realised that we were getting quite hungry, so decided upon an early lunch. The food in the Season Live Seafood Restaurant was superb and worth lingering over, which was a good job because the heavy rain continued for quite some time. When we got to the point where we couldn’t squeeze another emperor’s noodle or fried baby squid in the weather had settled down to a gentle drizzle which pretty much stayed with us for the afternoon, so we set of walking, armed with an excellent free map from the little information stand, in the direction of the Chek Jawa wetlands.
We hadn’t got far when we were delighted to find a couple of Oriental Pied Hornbills in a roadside palm tree but even better a short distance down the road were several Straw-headed Bulbuls, definitely our Pulau Ubin target species. In the same area Emerald Doves gave some nice views but resulted in disappointing photos because of the low light levels.
Walking on the island is pleasant because apart from rental bikes there is very little traffic. Most of the walk between the jetty and the wetlands is through secondary forest and there’s an abundance of birds. The Red Junglefowl here seemed somehow more convincing than the one in Kuala Lumpur and the island is quite well known for its Wild Boar, of which we saw about 8 in total.
The Chek Jawa Wetlands starts at the info centre shortly after the Punai Hut and it was here that a White-rumped Shama was calling impressively. After having a quick look at the visitor centre we followed the signs and took the route past the Jejawi watchtower and onto the Mangrove Boardwalk.
Mudskippers were numerous in the mangroves and a Rufous-tailed Tailorbird eventually gave good views. Asian Koels were calling in several places. From the Mangrove Boardwalk we ventured out onto the Coastal Boardwalk but the tide was fully in so there was no mud and therefore no waders (we had no idea whether this location attracts waders but we were willing to give it a try). Apart from a couple of Brahminy Kites and White-bellied Sea Eagles we didn’t see much from the boardwalk so we decided to give the Jelawi Tower a go and were quickly rewarded with a view of a male Brown-throated Sunbird, followed by another Oriental Pied Hornbill that stayed around for several minutes and an Olive-winged Bulbul.
Returning to the jetty we took a different route back and passed a quarry that had partially filled with water where we found a couple of Long-tailed Parakeets in a dead tree, and a Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker was located along a path a few yards from the main road.
Returning to the main island we were quite surprised to discover that everyone getting off the bumboat had to pass through a mini-immigration check, with x-ray scanners for day sacks and shopping.
Having showered and changed we went into reception to discover that the free airport shuttle was about to depart so we jumped on board and then got on the metro into Singapore city centre, where we had a good meal in Chinatown.
Being stuck in the city centre looked like a possibility because none of the taxi drivers we spoke to seemed interested in driving all the way out to Changi so we consulted the map and decided that if necessary we could walk from the last station on MRT Line 1, so we hopped on another train and were delighted to find plenty of taxis waiting at Pasir Ris station to take us the last few miles back to the hotel.
13th April 2009
After a reasonably early flight from Singapore airport to KLIA we picked up our hire car. Our original plan was to have a sort of hairdresser’s 4x4, just in case we found any roads where a high wheelbase would have been an advantage but despite us reserving a manual gear change vehicle, they turned up with an automatic. CC doesn’t like automatics. Quite apart from it not being proper driving his foot gets bored with no clutch to play with and tries to do emergency stops, so we got them to change it but all they had was a little Proton which we had to make do with.
The drive to Kuala Selangor was easy enough with roads being fairly quiet and local driving standards ok. We got a good close up view of a Rufous-bellied Eagle from the car about 20 kms after leaving the airport. More raptors were seen as we got nearer to KS with first a Black-shouldered Kite and seconds later a female Eastern Marsh Harrier being seen in some flooded fields set amongst the extensive palm plantations.
The De Palma Inn is reached by driving through KS village and then out the other side. It’s about a mile further on in a pleasant mainly agricultural setting. We had a chalet which was on the edge of the complex and after briefly settling in we set off in search of the Taman Alam park where we hoped to see a few birds. Walking along the perimeter fence towards the car park we came upon a large fig tree or similar. We spent a few hours around here over the next couple of days because it always had a few birds and usually had monkeys too. On this occasion it was a large party of Silvered Langurs, including at least one orange baby being passed around and plenty of youngsters.
After watching the monkeys for some time we realised that we were getting hungry. We’d missed the turn off for KS village and the De Palma Inn on the way down and had crossed the Selangor River on a road bridge from where we could see some interesting looking waterside restaurants, so we went to get a better look. We took our binoculars and ‘scope into the 1st place we found that we liked the look of, the Riverside Seafood Restaurant, and spent some time trying to decipher an egret on the far side of the river until it clicked. We were waiting for our lunch and looking at a Milky Stork! The food would have tasted excellent in any case but with a quality bird like that it was even better.
There were plenty of herons about as well, with Little Herons being the most numerous, along with Pacific Swallows, Kingfishers, Brahminy Kites and some really tricky terns, some of which, in the strong sunlight appeared very pale indeed - almost pure white. We might have managed to identify them but the Seafood Noodles, Deep fried Mantis Shrimps with Chilli and Fried Chicken Hot and Sweet Style was very demanding of our attention.
We’d obtained a map from the De Palma Inn showing Taman Alam but this was completely misleading. The road to the reserve and also the entrance to Melwati Hill are both in the actual village. Approaching from the KL direction where the main road bends to the right at the start of the village take the left fork and the Taman Alam road is a short distance down here on the left. We opted for a look at Melwati Hill first to see if there was a view and because this is a well known site for monkeys. There were loads of Silvered Langurs, because they were being fed by lots of tourists. Plenty of birds around here including some swiftlets (?!), Coppersmith Barbets, Whitebreasted Kingfishers and others.
The langurs seemed only interested in natural food. By contrast a small group of Long-tailed Macaques that arrived after 30 minutes or so seemed to eat anything that they could scavenge.
The macaques are generally characterised as being more aggressive than the langurs which are seen as being calm and gentle, but the langurs are usually bigger and the small group of macaques was very well behaved whilst in amongst much larger number of the other species. Mind you, the langurs did have control of the ordnance!
It was getting quite late by the time we finally got to the Taman Alam reserve, a few minutes drive from Melwati Hill, but we paid the small entrance fee and went to have a look. The first section of path passes through forest and we didn’t hang around because there were lots of biting flies. Across the dyke the path goes straight on to a tower hide which is where we headed. From here the structure used to house the Milky Stork breeding programme is visible and this was covered in Long-tailed Macaques presumably getting ready to sleep. From the hide there were plenty of herons and kingfishers as well as hundreds of Pink-headed Green Pigeons. A Chestnut-bellied Malkoha spent some time in the top of a nearby tree but proved difficult to get a prolonged view of. Several large Water Monitors drifted lazily across the pool as the light faded.
The area around the reserve entrance was overrun with macaques as we returned to the car and by the time we got back to the De Palma Inn it was pretty much dark. We showered and got dressed and headed off in the car to a nearby village to experience what is probably the area's best known tourist attraction, the “kelip-kelip” or fireflies. This is sign-posted from numerous points on the main road and is very easy to find. You can take organised trips from Kuala Lumpur or from the hotels in Kuala Selangor but DIY is simple and cheap. They use battery powered boats with almost silent engines and after a bit of waiting around by the jetty we were off with about a dozen other people. The boats we saw headed up-stream first before moving in close to the banks where the bio-luminescent bugs are. This means that they can drift with the current along perhaps a kilometre of river bank where the bushes are infested with tens of thousands of glowing beetles in absolute silence. To our surprise and gratitude, the people on our boat seemed sufficiently affected by the experience to keep quiet, which for us, at least, increased our enjoyment. We heard a couple of other boats going past where incessant chatter seemed to be the order of the day (or night). Probably a good thing we weren’t on them.
We hadn’t had a drink for the whole of the trip or the drive there and back and were getting rather parched. CC decided that he really fancied a beer. There is no alcohol served at the De Palma so we grabbed the umbrellas and started off on the mile or so walk into town. We don’t normally bother with umbrellas but the idea of wearing waterproofs in the humidity of lowland Malaysia didn’t appeal. Having to hold an umbrella is a nuisance but it really was raining hard and we managed to get to town with just the bit of our trousers below the knee wet.
We tried a Chinese restaurant called Laut Ah Poh. It didn’t look much but we followed the owners recommendation of Chilli Crab and agreed that the food was superb, especially washed down with a few bottles of Tiger. When he found out where we were staying the boss even gave us a lift home in his car. If you’re planning on staying in the area, definitely give this one a try.
14th April 2009
The dawn chorus at De Palma Inn was pretty good, with Orioles and Koels supplemented by kingfishers and plenty of less easily recognisable species. In the “monkey tree” were a couple of different woodpeckers, one of which was Grey-headed and lots of macaques, many of which were jumping onto the roofs of nearby chalets.
A short distance down the road was a religious shrine on a rock overlooking a small pond. From here we finally managed to identify the swiftlets that had been causing us a few difficulties as Germain’s. These were numerous in the area. A Black-naped Oriole showed well as did both male and female Olive-backed Sunbirds.
Breakfast had been paid for and was taken and then we were off for the day, with a reasonably early start in Taman Alam being preceded by just a few more monkey photos and a short stop to identify a Brown Shrike just over the back fence of the hotel grounds, a few White-bellied Munias in the same area and a Collared Fantail and a small flock of Chestnut-rumped Babblers in the “monkey tree”. Another woodpecker at the same location was frustratingly elusive and only looked like a species that was well out of range.
Taman Alam was pretty in the morning sunshine and we arrived just before a large and rather noisy school party. We opted to head left after the bridge in the hope of exploring the mangroves via a couple of boardwalks. Two large Water Monitors startled us as they fell out of a tree just as we were walking past it but we soon forgot our surprise as we tried to get a decent view of a small flock of Scaly-breasted Munias. White-rumped Munias a little further along made it three Munia species in an hour.
A young Canadian couple, Geoff and Laura who we recognised from the previous evening’s boat trip caught up with us and we walked along together for a while before stopping at one of the rather pleasant hides by the water’s edge for a little shade and a drink. We got reasonable views of what was to become the most familiar large raptor apart from Brahminy Kite, Crested Serpent Eagle from this hide along with several herons and passerines. A Lesser Adjutant drifted over and we sat in the relative cool of the shelter just chatting about travel (the Canadians had been in South East Asia for many weeks, having visited Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand) and picking off a variety of bird species from different families. A check on our provisions showed that we didn’t have much water between us and it was beginning to get very warm with a relentless sun beating down, so we agreed to walk the Mangrove Boardwalk and then retreat to a restaurant somewhere to get some lunch.
There were a few birds seen from the boardwalk but the largest numbers were from the platform at the end, with plenty of distant and unidentifiable waders and terns, even with the aid of the telescope. White-winged Tern was the only bird that we could identify with confidence and the haze meant that we could agree that there were at least three different sizes of wader.
Geoff and Laura didn’t have their own transport, so we took them on the short drive around Melwati Hill before heading for the Chinese Kampong where we’d lunched the previous day. We chose a different restaurant, simply for a different view and ordered what seemed like enough food - which in the event turned out to be sufficient for a small coach party. We got good views of a Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker on the timbers of the next building whilst we were eating.
After lunch we dropped Laura and Geoff off at their hotel, having agreed to pick them up later so that they could take us to a restaurant that they knew for dinner and headed back to Taman Alam for a final session (it had been a long lunch). There were lots of macaques around the entrance and many of the younger ones were jumping out of the trees into a large puddle where they seemed to be having lots of fun. There was enough daylight left for us to attempt a full circuit of the main reserve so we set off in the opposite direction to the morning’s walk after we’d crossed the bridge.
A bird that we at first thought was a bittern turned out to be a rather shy Little Heron. There were lots of Monitors about and plenty to keep us interested. The Mangrove Boardwalk was transformed because it was now high tide and what had been mud in the morning was now inundated. The whole boardwalk earlier on had been over “dry” land and now it was over water.
Geoff and Laura were ready at the agreed time and we headed out of town along the road towards KL for a few kilometres to find the Mahaa Maju curry house. This place served up an excellent meal on banana leaves instead of plates - these are really just the appetizers served up before the selection of main courses arrived and we left feeling that we might not want to eat again for a week. The meal cost 28 Ringgits which made it the best value of the whole fortnight, at less than £6 for the four of us, including soft drinks.
Not many tourists come this way, apparently, and the tables were turned on us a few minutes later when we called in at a shop to get some drinks (the restaurant did not serve beer) for a late night ‘picnic’. A group of gentlemen at the rear of the shop who were playing cards were delighted and amused to see foreigners there and insisted on getting some photos of us and sharing their whisky (only CC drinks whisky and he was driving, but fortunately it was heavily watered down). Our most prized purchase was a can of Kickapoo Joy Juice which we could not resist. The best description that we can think of is that it is perhaps a touch on the sweet side for most western tastes.
Braving the bugs, we then went back to the De Palma in and found a picnic table where we sat and compared photos and travel tales to the accompaniment of a couple of Large-tailed Nightjars, one of which eventually flew close enough to the lights to give us a brief view.
15th April 2009
Time to move on again so after breakfast we checked that the monkeys at Melwati Hill were ok (they were) and then headed off for our next stop, the highland village and former Hill Station, Bukit Fraser (Fraser’s Hill) where we had a booking for a couple of nights in the renowned Smokehouse hotel. Rather than turning south on the main road towards KL and the motorways we decided that we’d take a slower route across country and headed north instead. Although the road parallels the coast it is a few kilometres inland so after we’d been on the road for a while we tried a few left turns to see where they took us. The first one ended up at a dense mangrove swamp filled with macaques, where we flushed what we first thought was a large mustelid but on reflection must have been a Malay Palm Civet.
A little further on, the road ended at a bank overlooking mudflats so we got the ‘scope out and found a bit of shade under a tree (it was hot) and started looking for birds. JD saw a mongoose crossing the path but it had disappeared into the undergrowth before CC was on to it, only to reappear a few minutes later and further along the track along the top of the bank. This was a Small Asian Mongoose.
Terns were quite numerous and just as hard to identify as those at Kuala Selangor but some of the waders here were much closer and so we started to examine some of them. Redshank was easy on call alone and was one of the most abundant waders here. One of several Greenshanks in a loose group looked rather pale and brought up the possibility of Nordmann’s Greenshank but we were only using one scope and lost it in the change over. Some of the terns settled on a piece of driftwood further down the track, so we moved a bit closer to them and soon realised that they were all Whiskered Terns.
Getting back on track we found our way back to the main road and discovered that we had been at/near a place called Sungei Besar, where the turnoff for was about 100m south of the fairly major junction for Tanjung Malin. Probably any road heading towards the coast in this area will get you near the mudflats.
Looking at the map, the Tanjung Malin road seemed a decent direction to take for Bukit Fraser but we didn’t get far along here before stopping to look at the flooded padi which held loads of birds. A Black-shouldered Kite sat nicely for photos but we were more excited by several Chinese Pond Herons just opposite where we had parked. Numerous White-winged Terns flew over the flooded fields and there was an abundance of herons of several different species on both sides of the road. There were plenty of Brown Shrikes on overhead wires and we rather wished that we could have a little more time in this area, but it was stiflingly hot and the road was quite busy with several mopeds with up to 4 people aboard.
Further inland, the padi gave way to extensive oil palm plantations. We’d noticed before that in low lying areas, many plantations seemed very wet with many trees standing in pools of water. In this area, the floods had come over the road and we were faced with a stretch of flooding that went on for 100s of metres. A saloon car was cautiously making its way in our direction. It didn’t seem to have more clearance than our hire car so, moaning about the fact that our 4x4 would have been better for this and not wanting to have to do the long drive back, we set off. The water seemed very deep in places and we weren’t particularly reassured when we passed a car that had broken down part way through. Even better, whilst we were still in the flood, the low fuel light came on, giving us something else to worry about. We were somewhat relieved when the road started to rise a little, to the point that we could actually see it under the water and as we rounded a bend we saw that it was only a few tens of metres to dry road. We tested the brakes, picked up speed and almost inevitably came to another flood within a matter of seconds. This was, fortunately, not as extensive as the first one, being only a few hundred metres long, the first having been at least half a kilometre, although it felt like more. There were about 5 more flooded sections and we somehow got through them all. When we were confident that we were through the worst of it we had a look at the map and found to our dismay that the nearest settlement of any size was about 50 kilometres away. CC has never done such conservative driving. The further away from the coast we got, the sparser the traffic was, so at every opportunity the car was put into neutral to freewheel down even gentle gradients. We went through several small villages but didn’t see anything that suggested that we might be able to refuel until we finally reached a main road and saw a very welcome petrol station sign. We managed to put over 40 litres in, which is over the specified capacity for the vehicle, so we must have been very close to completely running dry when we nervously made the right turn across the heavy traffic and onto the forecourt.
Up to a few years ago, Bukit Fraser was reached by a single narrow road which is controlled so that, during daytime, traffic is allowed in only one direction, with the switch coming on the hour. A new road was built to allow two-directional traffic but this was quickly closed by a major landslip so now when you get to The Gap, at the bottom of the Bukit Fraser road you might need to wait. We were lucky, getting to the bottom of the road about 5 minutes before the change over, which happens at 20 to the hour, to allow traffic coming in the other direction to clear the route, so we didn’t need to wait and within 15 minutes we arrived in Bukit Fraser, after a brief pause to try to get a photo of a small group of Pig-tailed Macaques that were crossing the road as we drove up. These were the only representatives of this species that we saw during the whole trip, but the photos were not very satisfactory.
The Smokehouse is not the easiest place to find and we drove a round a bit before realising that there were brown signpost for it, as opposed to white for most places. Hint - if you’re going to The Smokehouse, go left at the clock tower as you arrive in the village. We didn’t. It’s worth finding, because it’s possibly the best place in the area to stay and it’s certainly quirky. A lot of effort has been put in to making the place look as English as possible, which, given the surroundings is rather unusual. Amongst birders, The Smokehouse is known for its cream teas and its bird table. Cream tea is part of the package for guests and we were told that we could have it as soon as we wanted, so we left our luggage in a pile at the end of the 4-poster bed and found a table with a view of the birds.
Several species visit either the table or the shrubs and bushes and most were new to us. Silver-eared Mesias, Long-tailed Sibias, and Spectacled (Chestnut-capped) Laughingthrushes were present most of the time. A Streaked Spiderhunter visited frequently, apparently on a circuit that included several of The Smokehouse’s bushes and a few Black-throated Sunbirds paid fleeting visits. The cream tea was delicious, in particular the home-made scones and jam. We can think of worse ways to waste half an hour.
Heading back to the room to get a few things for a late afternoon walk we heard a commotion in the trees behind the hotel and at first thought that we were seeing gibbons but a check of the field guide showed that this was actually a small party of White-thighed Langurs, our fourth monkey species of the day and the second new one for us.
There are numerous well-marked trails around Bukit Fraser but we weren’t too sure about starting out on one late in the afternoon with rain threatening so we went for a stroll down the road to The Gap, hoping that we might find a few more montane species.
It started to rain a bit as we set off down the road and bird activity was limited. A blue flycatcher defied identification but a Raffles Malkoha was not so difficult. It was along this stretch of road that we first realised that the Malaysian forests are the noisiest forests we’ve been in, with thousands of cicadas in the trees seemingly coordinating to make an incredible racket, causing us to raise our voices to be heard. A Mountain Bulbul was located a short distance down the slope and a Little Pied Flycatcher sat out in the open and gave us prolonged views. The call of Mountain Tailorbird is quite easy to learn because some of the phrases (not all) sound like a rendition of “Whistle while you work” - to us, at least. A shrike low down at the roadside in the gathering gloom allowed us to take lots of photographs with the flash. It seemed unperturbed by the bright lights but given the number of thunderstorms in the region, this is perhaps not surprising. It was only when we examined the photos (most were awful) that we discovered that this was actually a Tiger Shrike.
We couldn’t resist trying a meal at The Smokehouse, even though it was, by local standards, rather expensive. We had Garlic Mushrooms, and Smoked Duck with Asparagus followed by Devilled Chicken and Beef Stew. The food was good and the staff were attentive. After dinner we went for a walk down the hill, to listen for owls and nightjars. We didn’t hear any but we did see a few fireflies.
16th April 2009
One of the specialities of Bukit Fraser is Malayan Whistling Thrush and the time to see this secretive bird is just before sunrise, when they can often be seen under street lights, presumably collecting bugs that have stunned themselves on the light and fallen into the road. It was still properly dark when we set off in the car down the hill towards the Jeriau Falls but despite approaching every artificial light with care we didn’t have a glimpse of anything that looked like a Whistling Thrush. We did find an Orange-headed Thrush, familiar from our Goa trip in 2006, on the road down near the entrance to the falls. A biggish bird on a roadside sign had us puzzled for a while, thinking that it might be a cuckoo-shrike but it was virtually all dark and it dropped behind the sign and went out of sight. It was only later when we sat with the field guide that we worked out that it had been one of our target species, Dollarbird.
Giving up on Whistling Thrushes and with an hour to go before breakfast we returned to The Gap road for another Raffles Malkoha, with the Hoopoe-like call of Himalayan Cuckoo standing out amongst the bird-song. A couple of fly-by Barred Cuckoo Doves were surprisingly easy to identify in the morning sunlight. Several passerines were harder to identify but notes were taken and then we returned to the hotel for breakfast on the patio during which we were able to add Glossy Swiftlet to the list. There were lots of these around.
A couple of British birders came marching up the hill from the direction of the falls and we exchanged greetings and asked if they’d had any luck. They told us about a forktail along the stream by the path to the falls so our next move was not hard to determine. Mountain Fulvetta and Yellow-bellied Warbler and Grey-throated Babbler were picked out from the field guide using the notes taken during the morning’s walk.
We parked again by the entrance to the falls and were immediately struck by both the heat and the incredible songs/calls of gibbons further up the valley. We started to walk along the track to the falls and quickly found a pair of delightful Slaty-backed Forktails behaving much like Grey Wagtails in the UK, flying off down the stream each time we got reasonably close to them.
The falls were pretty enough but hardly dramatic and bird activity had dropped off by the time we got down to them. However there were several spectacular butterflies about, many of which were settling on a small mound of rubbish behind the small changing huts. A skink was enjoying the sun on the edge of the concrete steps down to the falls.
To our surprise it was about time for lunch so we found a café in the village and ordered a few odds and ends, with cold drinks being what we really needed. We watched a Blue-winged Leafbird in a tree opposite the café for several minutes.
We’d shelled out for leech socks before we came away so we thought we’d better go somewhere that there were leeches to get our moneys worth, so after lunch we found our way to the start of the Bishop’s Trail. We weren’t disappointed because we found our first leeches only a few metres along the trail. They’re small but quite scary and surprisingly fast. Presumably they locate their hosts either by heat sensitive or reaction to movement/vibration because as soon as you walk close to them they “stand up” on one end whilst the other end scans around frantically like a searchlight hunting for an enemy bomber before hurtling off in the direction they decide is best.
The Bishop’s Trail, like many in the area is usually described as ‘not recommended when wet’ and we could see why. It’s easy enough to follow but pretty steep in parts and the combination of fallen leaves and the dried mud surface of the path could be make it quite precarious during or shortly after rain. The presence of fixed ropes on some of the steeper or more difficult sections was a help, though. A few hundred metres into the trail we heard a terrific commotion ahead and two Wild Boar came hurtling down the hillside just in front of us, crossed the path and continued at an alarming pace down the very steep hillside and out of sight. We never found out what had startled them. There weren’t too many birds about and we actually did a lot better along the road, walking back to the car from the trail exit (the trail is about a mile long), especially in the area around Wavertree Cottage, where Mountain Bulbul, Golden Babbler, Large Niltava and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo were present, along with a number of other species.
Time for cream tea at The Smokehouse again, and just as good as the first time, after which we stopped in at the Tourist Information centre where we bumped into renowned local birdwatcher, Mr. Durai who seemed quite amazed by all the good birds that we hadn’t seen. He recommended the area around the entrance to the waterfalls for Silver-breasted Broadbill so we headed back down there for the third time in the day. No luck with the Broadbill, but some compensation in the shape of a beautiful venomous snake, a Speckled-bellied Keelback.
With the day drawing to a close, we thought we’d take a walk down the new road, perhaps as far as the landslip. Good views of drongos and some more Mountain Fulvettas and more incredible cicada calls but easily the star prize was a Red-headed Trogon.
We went into the village for dinner where we had a brilliant meal at the Hillview Restaurant for about a quarter of the price of dinner the previous night, then after admiring a couple of very large and presumably nocturnal butterflies (are there nocturnal butterflies?) we took the car and drove slowly around the Telekom Loop. We counted 4 different nightjars, mostly flushed off the road, but none were calling so we couldn’t identify any of them.
17th April 2009
Another early start saw us back near the top of The Gap road and searching for Whistling Thrushes, again without success. This was followed by another circuit around the Telekom Loop which was more productive with great views and good numbers of birds. A possible Whistling Thrush species defied our efforts to identify it but a Large Cuckoo Shrike was much easier. Buff-breasted Babblers were seen in a couple of spots and a pair of Scarlet Minivets were active in the canopy.
The day was getting warm and bright by the time we got back for breakfast and after this we packed and loaded the car in order to head off for our next destination, Taman Negara.
We timed our arrival at the top of The Gap road well and didn’t have to wait to be allowed down. There’s no ATM in Bukit Fraser and the credit card machine in The Smokehouse was hors de combat and we were getting very low on cash. The road to Kuala Tembeling, the place from which the boats to Kuala Tahan, main tourist entrance to Taman Negara leave had several towns marked so we figured that we’d find something suitable on the way.
Shortly after reaching the main road we saw some movement in the trees and were pleased that we’d stopped because we had come across a small group of Dusky Langurs, the only ones of the trip.
Raub looked big enough for banks but the heat when we left the car was a bit of a shock after an hour or so in the air-con. Three ATMs were tried but none of them liked our cards so we went inside the 3rd and they directed us to the HSBC at the other end of town. There was no problem getting cash out from this bank but we were hot and bothered by the time we got back to the car having spent about an hour rushing around looking for a suitable cash machine.
Boats to Kuala Tahan only leave twice a day and we knew that we were running short of time when we got to Kuala Lipis. We made the mistake of heading in to the town centre when we probably should have stayed on the road that by-passes it, wasting a few more precious minutes but we eventually found Taman Negara signs and drove as fast as was sensible to the boat dock at Kuala Tembeling.
There’s a large car park here and tickets can be obtained from the obvious offices nearby. We paid for our return trip (an open return was available for a few extra Ringgits), hauled our bags down the steps and after a short delay we were off down the Tahan River towards Kuala Tahan in one of the fast, low lying flat bottomed boats that are one of the main methods of transport in the area.
It’s quite a long trip, from 2.5 to 3.5 hours, depending upon strength of currents and water depths and as the boat is moving quite quickly there are limited chances for wildlife observation. It’s also not all that comfortable. You sit on the floor with your back up against a removable bulkhead and not much opportunity to change position. The views are pretty, though.
Red-wattled Plovers were one of the most noticeable bird species along the river, with one or two pairs on many of the small, shingly islands and in the air, Bee-eaters were the most numerous.
On arrival at Kuala Tahan village the boats pull in at one of the floating restaurants where an employee gives you a few hints about getting to your chosen accommodation and describes some of the excursions available. The Mutiara Resort is where the National Park Office is and is one of very few places to stay that is on the “right” side of the river for the reserve. There are plenty of places on the other bank but to get to Taman Negara you have to get a boat across and can’t get into the reserve until after about 8 a.m. The Mutiara Resort is more expensive than most but it wasn’t a hard choice to make so we found a water taxi and paid the 1 Ringgit each for the short crossing.
The steps up from the dock are steep and we reached reception feeling very hot and sweaty. They had plenty of rooms available and offered to show us two different types of chalets. Despite the first and more expensive one having really good air-con, we chose the older, cheaper one because it was up against the top of the river bank and nearer to a trail into the forest.
Having checked in, we slung our bags somewhere out of the way and JD had a quick look out of the back door where she was able to get a quick blurred photo of a Wild Boar that was relieving itself and was rather surprised to see us. Certainly not the best photo in the world, but the closest we got to one of these powerful animals.
There are trails into the forest signposted and we followed one signed for a nearby hide. There wasn’t much activity as it was getting quite late and so we made our way back to the chalet, showered and took a boat back across the river for dinner in one of the floating restaurants, making sure that we got a seat on the edge so that we could watch out for a Bat Hawk, this being a renowned locality for that species. We didn’t see one but the food was again really good. There was a large and scary-looking bug on the steps back to the resort and an owl calling in the trees near our chalet. We’d brought head torches with us and tried to find it but only succeeded in revealing thousands of spiders lurking in the long grass. Wherever you shone the light, there were numerous small eyes looking back at you.
There were also lots of bugs in the room, so we went to sleep with the light furthest away from the bed left switched on, figuring that it would keep them down that end. It worked. Sort of.
18th April 2009
It was straight down to the hide before sunrise in the hope of seeing a bit of nocturnal wildlife on its way to bed for the day. Any early Common Tailorbird of the maculicollis subspecies was fly catching from the lawns in resort.
The hide is two stories high and overlooks an open damp area with long grass and a few isolated trees, surrounded by dense forest. There were two people there when we arrived, maintaining proper hide etiquette for an early morning and keeping quiet and moving about slowly. A Red Muntjac walked cautiously across the clearing whilst a family of Red Jungle Fowl came out of forest at the far side and a Great Hornbill drifted overhead in a stately way. Better still was our first ever broadbill, a Black-and-Red that was using the tree in the middle of the clearing as a lookout post. A couple of squirrels moved noisily through the trees around the hide but it was still too dark to stand a chance of identifying them.
We walked back to the resort for breakfast chatting to the couple who we had shared the hide with, two more Canadians, Janet and Bob. They had arrived by car at the same time as us the previous day and said that they were planning to take a boat trip up the river to a well known swimming and beauty spot so we agreed to join them and share the costs, as we had no plans for the next day.
Breakfast was a buffet with loads of choice from a number of different cultures and not at all bad. After filling up we set off to walk the well signposted Swamp Loop trail. We started to hear the calls of Great Argus whilst on this trail, although they were clearly some distance away. We felt that we could hear 4 or maybe 5 different birds. Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and White-rumped Shama were noted along the trail and a female flycatcher of indeterminate species was also seen, but not much else.
A stop at the resort shop to pick up some drinking water was followed by a lounge about on the seats outside, watching the opportunist Long-tailed Macaques and failing to identify an interesting looking thrush-sized bird hopping about at ground level. The shop is quite expensive by Malaysian standards but operates an excellent policy of putting a sticker on the wrapping of just about everything it sells and giving you a 1 Ringgit deposit back if you return the packaging/bottle/wrapper. This seems to work because we didn’t see any litter in or near the resort.
A fruiting tree between the shop and the restaurant had good numbers of birds. Black-hooded Oriole was easy, Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker took a bit more work but a probable female Asian Fairy Bluebird had to remain probable.
A round-trip from the resort, along the river and then up a nearby hill, Bukit Teresek, eventually coming out at the Canopy Walk before descending to the resort again was next on our list. This trail passes through the display ground of a male Great Argus so we set off in some anticipation. By this time the day was beginning to get very hot indeed. The path is easy to follow but properly steep in many places (fixed ropes are provided) and there seem to be more roots underfoot that earth. It’s quite strenuous so visitors from less challenging places should allow more time than you might for a similar walk at home.
The path starts next to the National Park office and crosses a grassy field (camp site?) before entering the forest. There were certainly birds about in this area, where the path follows the course of the river, and a few buttrflies and bugs, including this handsome Leaf Insect that was missing a limb.
There’s a slight detour, with boardwalks and steps down to a shallow pool filled with small fish. Not far from the pool we got a good close up of a very fluffy-backed Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler. Robson describes the elongated plumes as “rarely visible in field” but that was not the case with this individual. One bird song that we’d been hearing in the forest on and off since early morning was that of Rufous-crowned Babbler. The songs seem very variable and Scharringa has no less than 6 different examples but for sheer mournful beauty none of them come close to the songs we were hearing in Taman Negara. Sadly despite hearing lots we didn’t get a definite sighting of this species. A quick view of a White-eye was presumably Everett’s because Robson states that Oriental is not found in forest habitats in Malaysia.
The Great Argus’s display territory was easy enough to identify, having been swept clean of debris by the enormous tail, but the bird was nowhere to be seen and no amount of “Ooh wow!”s could bring it out of hiding. Compensation was soon to be had when we turned a ridiculously long tail hanging from a branch high in the canopy into a Helmeted Hornbill.
It was about this time that CC started to feel rather fatigued. The heat was intense and the humidity very high and frequent drinks of water weren’t helping much. We looked at the bottles and were surprised to find that it was actually distilled water, with the label offering the benefits of “reverse osmosis”. This presumably means the removal of essential salts from the blood stream. We were a long way up a steep slope and almost certainly more than half way around, but given the fact that there was obviously more slope ahead with no obvious “top” CC was all for heading back the way we’d come. Fortunately one of our silly purchases in the shop had been a can of a local energy drink, so we shared this and the beneficial effects of what was probably little more than heavily sweetened fizzy water were immediate. JD said that she thought the top would be quite close, climbed a further few metres and announced that the way looked easier so we carried on. As we only had distilled water to drink, which we decided to avoid, the last spur path to the top of the hill was ignored and we continued down the hill arriving back at the resort a couple of kilometres later and heading straight to the bar where we enjoyed several very welcome drinks.
A check of the shop’s chillers proved that they did have real water as well as the distilled stuff, so we were more careful when buying drinks after that.
Stocked up with pop and water, we headed back to the room to find quite a lot of bird activity out the back, so we set up the ‘scope, poured ourselves some drinks and sat on the verandah. Blue-throated Bee-eaters, a Brown Shrike and a Blue-winged leaf bird were all species that we had seen before but a large Bulbul bringing food to a nest caught our eye and we were soon getting great scope views of a Stripe-throated Bulbul. A Tiger Shrike hopped out onto the cables supporting the telegraph pole and we noticed that instead of the while breast and belly described in the book this bird was a rich, buttery golden yellow. It wasn’t a trick of the light because it was quite overcast at the time, but this was a striking bird.
Night-time 4x4 ‘wildlife safaris’ are on offer just about everywhere, so we headed down to one of the floating restaurants, booked ourselves on one and had another excellent but Bat Hawk free meal whilst the sun went down. We’ve been on some excellent night drives in southern Africa but this was an entirely different affair. The vehicles were pick-ups and everybody sat in the back (apart from the unlucky couple who got to sit on the roof of the cab) which meant that nearly everybody was facing inwards. There were two vehicles and these offered just enough room for all the customers except one. The guides suggested that JD and CC might go in separate vehicles but we refused, because seeing different wildlife rather defeated the point of travelling together. In the end everybody squeezed in with CC sitting with one leg over the back and a foot resting on the spare wheel.
The drive takes you on rough tracks through palm plantations, sometimes at high speeds. We didn’t see much, although what we did see was pretty good, with a Leopard Cat and an attractive and compact Malay Civet. The only birds were a Barn Owl and a roosting Common Tailorbird. On the drive back along the main road a larger animal dashed across the road ahead of the pick-up to disappear into the bushes. Although we only got a brief view of it and couldn’t see the head at all it is difficult to imagine that this could have been anything other than a Binturong.
19th April 2009
As per our arrangements, we met Bob and Jan for breakfast, after a session in the hide (three Wild Boar and a Muntjac with small antlers) and then headed down to the jetty to meet our boat. The price for the trip for the four of us to the cataract was about £8 per person. The trip was pleasant and we picked out a white morph Asian Paradise Flycatcher and another Black-and-red Broadbill as we sped upstream.
More exciting (for CC at least) was a small group of primates in the top of a tree high above one of the river banks. These could only have been White-handed Gibbons which meant that CC had caught up with JD as she had been certain that she had seen one briefly from the boat from Kuala Tembeling.
The boat pulled up at a pebble beach near Lata Berkoh, from where we walked for a kilometre or so to find the swimming area (this is easy to recognise because there’s a sign saying “danger, no swimming”). En route we had almost walked into a Diard’s Trogon on a branch above the path.
Several Whiskered Treeswifts were obvious in a tall tree just above the cataract but much more exciting was a fly over Rhinoceros Hornbill, making three large hornbill species in two days for us. However the water was very tempting so we ignored the warning sign and found a safe way in. The water was pleasantly warm and the best fun was to be had by immersing yourself in a small waterfall where the river squeezed between a couple of large boulders.
After our swim we returned to the boat, passing a Blue-necked Keelback snake on the way, to find that hordes of butterflies including plenty of Common Jays were fluttering around the remains of a camp fire, presumably finding trace minerals that had been dissolved in recent rains.
Once out into the current the boat’s engine was turned off and we drifted silently and slowly down the river. A Straw-headed Bulbul sat prominently in a bush overhanging the water
On our return to the resort we set up the ‘scope at the back of room 73 and sat with Bob and Jan to see what might be about. Most of the birds seen the day before put in an appearance, except for the Tiger Shrike, but new additions were Oriental Turtle Dove, White-rumped Shama and best of all a Greater Coucal that was foraging on the ground at the end of the block for about 10 minutes.
Head torches were included in our luggage so after dinner (still no Bat Hawk) we set off to look for whatever might be about. Three pairs of eyes in front of the hide were probably Muntjac but we had to look closer to confirm that the multitude of reflections coming back from the grass were not dew drops but the eyes of thousands of spiders. Two Collared Scops Owls were calling in the grounds of Mutiara Resort and at least two Great Argus could be heard.
20th April 2009
Sunrise found us at the hide again where the usual birds and animals could be seen. We had decided to move on from Taman Negara which meant that we had to be down at the floating restaurants before 9 a.m. so by 7:30 we were back at the room, having picked up a Laced Woodpecker on the way. Pausing outside room 73 we glanced up as a large-ish bird flashed overhead to see the unmistakeable silhouette of a Bat Hawk, so you don’t have to sit for hours by the river for a chance of one. Bills paid and breakfasts devoured we we soon back on the boat for the long return trip to Kuala Tembeling. After only about 5 minutes a fairly large (dozens) flock of Brown-backed Needletails zoomed around at canopy height. About an hour further down river a parrot with a brown head could only have been a female Blue-rumped Parrot. Unfortunately the more brightly coloured male was nowhere to be seen. Looking rather like a swallow-tailed Alpine Swift, the next bird of interest was a Grey-rumped Treeswift, about an hour and fifty minutes from Kuala Tahan.
We had a prolonged period of uncertainty when the boat’s engine failed completely and refused to start despite the driver’s efforts. We drifted down river and eventually became partially entangled in some fishing lines. The driver had to more or less strip the engine down before he could get it started again and we then had to get out of the nets and line whilst trying not to destroy them completely. We were almost an hour late arrive at Kuala Tembeling.
One of the advantages of travelling with a laptop and the widespread access to wireless networks in Malaysia means that you can do last minute research on the internet. One of the disadvantages of the internet is that it isn’t always right. In the search for somewhere interesting to stay we’d settled on one of Peninsular Malaysia’s few natural lakes, Tasik Chinee, so we set off with ideas of blissful morning boat trips on mirror-calm pools surrounded by unspoiled forests. We’d found a place that looked good for at least an overnight stop and as we got closer started to see road-side signs for it. When we arrived at the lake shore the last section of the road was through glades of tall evergreens and it was beginning to look like a good place to stay, but despite the presence of buildings and people we could see nothing that looked like an hotel or guesthouse. We found someone who could speak a little English who seemed quite perplexed that we might be wanting to overnight in the area and then drove back up the road a short distance because we’d seen a rather unwelcoming sort of guard-house that we surmised might be the entrance to hotel grounds, although why physical security would be needed in this remote location we could not guess.
The guards weren’t very welcoming. They too had no idea why we might be looking for somewhere to stay and weren’t at all inclined to let us through the gate, so we turned around, reversed our route for quite a considerable distance and fell back on Plan B. We headed for the small resort of Cherating on the South China Sea. As we were by now ravenous we halted at a roadside restaurant, mainly a sort of truckers stop where we had two plates of Nasi Goreng and two cans of pop for just 10 MYR, the cheapest meal we had on the whole trip.
The Bay View in Cherating (http://cheratingbayviewresort.blogspot.com/2008/04/cherating-beach.html) had been recommended to us by Bob & Jan. We didn’t have much of a reason to stay except perhaps to say that we’d seen the South China Sea, which is probably a pretty good reason.
The resort looks attractive enough as you approach it down quiet roads from the village centre and the check-in/bar is pretty. We opted for one of the most expensive Deluxe Room at 150 MYR but on reflection the older Standard Rooms might have been a better bet, simply because of the appearance of the buildings and the slightly better view (the deluxe rooms are behind rows of casuarina trees which are themselves very attractive). The rooms were spacious and clean though, with effective air-conditioning that seemed essential because it was very warm in Cherating and almost as humid as at Taman Negara.
Our first priority in what was now the late afternoon was to take a stroll along the beach. The hotel owner had told us about a very good Chinese restaurant at the village end of the beach so we set off in the other direction, towards the river mouth. We had the long beach almost to ourselves with the exception of an elderly, scrawny European who seemed to take great delight in jogging shirtless along the strand before bearing all and slipping into some skimpy and unappealing trunks to go for a swim.
We collected a few small shells and bits of coral rubble, noting the absence of any kinds of birds over the sea. Upon reaching the river mouth (no waders) we turned around and ended up at the aforementioned restaurant. We asked when they closed and were told that it would be “not before 11 p.m.” so we had a quick drink and returned to the Bayview to shower and change.
Wifi access is available in plenty of places in Cherating and we walked along the road rather than the beach on the way back to the restaurant, stopping at one of the riverside bars that looked nice and enquiring about the advertised mangrove boat trips for the next morning.
Dinner was, as expected, excellent and inexpensive in quirky surroundings, with a highlight being the sizzling chicken with ginger and spring onion.
21st April 2009
The beach at Bayview faces east, so CC got up to see if he could get some photographs of the sunrise but the sky was mostly overcast so opportunities were limited. Maybe tomorrow.
We’d noticed that the wifi bar from last night, the Bayung Café also served breakfast so we thought we’d get something to eat before the mangrove trip. A sign outside the restaurant claims “The best scrambled eggs in Malaysia” so we ordered them and sat with a view of the river, entertained by various cats and dogs and the occasional Water Monitor. They were good enough to ensure that we would go back there for more the next day.
Oriental Pied Hornbill put in an appearance at the café, where both Common Mynah and Oriental Magpie Robin were feeding young whilst the occasional Water Monitor drifted lazily by. It was a short stroll to the office to pay for the mangrove trip and within a few minutes we were out on the river. We had not been in the mangroves for long when we came across the first of several spectacular Mangrove Snakes. Most of these striking reptiles were asleep, coiled up in branches over the water and as they are venomous their lack of activity was something of a relief. We only saw movement from a couple of them.
The small boat offered a great opportunity to get a close look at the mangroves with their exposed roots but there were few birds about, although we heard a call repeatedly that was identical to the Great Arguses we’d heard in Taman Negara. There were plenty of invertebrates about though, with numerous crabs and lobsters in amongst the roots. The boatman was keen to explain which were edible and which were not. Highlight of the trip was a tiny fruit bat, Possibly Horsfield’s Fruit Bat that we found hanging under a large leaf and that lingered long enough for us to grab a few photos in rather poor light. Overhead a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo took on a White-bellied Sea Eagle that had wandered into its territory. There were also plenty of monitors along the banks.
After the trip we nipped back to the hotel to collect some stuff, spotting a Tree Shrew at the roadside from the car. As we parked the car we noticed a small flock of birds in the trees at the front of the hotel and found Both Common and Green Iora and a Plantain Squirrel.
Sungei Ular village got an interesting write up in our guide book so we went to have a look. We missed it at first but stopped at the roadside service station of the same name and asked directions to be told that it was down the road behind the pull-in. Either we missed the village or we missed the point. There seemed to be little to recommend it, but we thought we’d try one of the side roads on the far side of the village to see if we could get to the river and found a few birds, most notably several Paddyfield Pipits and a few Red-wattled Plovers. However the temperature was soaring and it was much too hot to walk, so our birding was restricted to the air-conditioned car. We didn’t find the river, as the road sort of petered out, but we were kept puzzled for several minutes by what turned out to be a completely bald Common Mynah, which for a few minutes we thought might be Golden-crested Mynah, though this would presumably be an escape in this locality.
Money was getting tight again and we needed cash to pay for the hotel so we headed up the road to the nearest ATM in Chenamam. We found a spot to park overlooking the river near the market where we immediately found several White-bellied Sea Eagles. We thought we might get something to eat in the market but the stall we tried was shutting up so we just had some drinks and bought a bag of Dragon Fruits at about 1/3 the price we would pay in a UK supermarket.
A Collared Kingfisher was easy to see in the mangroves round the back of the market food stalls but we couldn’t get a photo. but by way of compensation a Zebra Dove posed rather nicely for photos in the car park.
It was now mid-afternoon and we thought we’d have a look at a turtle sanctuary that we’d passed on the road to Chenamam, after a drive around trying to find either the coast or the estuary. They seemed to be doing a pretty good job at the sanctuary but we’d seen lots of turtle eggs on sale in the market proving what a challenge this must be. We chatted to a member of staff who showed us the hatchery, it being necessary to recover as many eggs as possible and bring them in to be hatched in safety. We were surprised to discover that although there is a peak season they record egg-laying in almost every month of the year. The peak was just getting going with turtles being located on about 12 nights in April and we asked if we might get a chance to see one. He took our phone number and said he would call if a turtle came ashore during the night’s vigil.
Back in Cherating we decided to combine a bit of sea-watching with a bit of beach-combing. CC set up the telescope whilst JD went to look for shells. As on previous occasions there were absolutely no birds over the mirror-calm sea but within minutes of starting to look, CC had found a small pod of dolphins which we watched for about 15 minutes. These appeared to be Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphins. After these had disappeared around the headland CC found an unusual object a fair way off-shore and after watching it for a short time was surprised to see a large flipper waving in the air. This was clearly a very large turtle and given it’s size and the apparent shape of the shell must have been a Leatherback.
Dinner was at the Warung Kendi restaurant where the crab with ginger (pick your own crab from the display) was exquisite.
We saw and heard Great-tailed Nightjars on the walk back to the hotel and found several pretty Painted Bullfrogs near the room before retiring.
About two hours after going to bed, the ‘phone rang. It was our contact from the turtle sanctuary. The line was rather bad and he asked us to call him back. Unfortunately the number that came through with the call had just 7 digits, so the return call failed.
22nd April 2009
There was much less cloud cover this morning so it was out with the camera and tripod onto the beach as the sun was poking above the horizon (just behind the headland) for a few fairly satisfying sunrise shots. We were even early enough to beat the skinny nudey man who had a nasty tendency to forget to change into his trunks before getting to the beach and then proceeded to make quite a fuss of getting into them. We’re not prudes, but he was no Adonis, unless you’re really into gristle and string, and this really seemed to be a family beach.
A tall tree in the hotel grounds was regular host to several bird species including Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters.
Breakfast again at the Payung Café where this time it was Yellow-vented Bulbuls feedings young, then we set off on the longish drive across the peninsular for a couple of nights back in Kuala Selangor and the De Palma Inn. Entertainment on the way was provided by Classic Rock FM - “We may not be rocket scientists but we sure know how to rock it!” - and sustenance by Preserved Red Ginger from the Miaow Miaow “Sweet & Sour” range. We tried a few different items from the selections available at most petrol stations and supermarkets but these were the only ones that really appealed.
It was in our thoughts to break the journey at the famous Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur but despite following signs for quite some distance and seeing some impressive limestone cliffs we failed to find an entrance. If you visit you’ll wonder how this is possible but the the traffic was pretty hair-raising. We did however manage to locate FRIM, the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia so tried there instead.
The canteen was cheap and confusing and had a fascinating range of food on display. We didn’t really work out how to order but somehow managed quite a pleasant lunch, after which we walked a few of the trails in the institute’s grounds where we didn’t find any birds but did spot a distant otter on one of the ponds. For the second time in Malaysia we were able to answer the philosophical question about whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the forest and no one sees it. Yes it bloody does - an almighty crash, especially if it falls across the path you were walking on about a minute before!
From here is was straight through to Kuala Selangor, with only one wrong turn just as we left FRIM, although some of the driving and navigation on the outskirts of KL was challenging.
After checking in we returned to Taman Alam and did the long walk around the ponds as the temperature had dropped a little. Plenty of monkeys, monitors and birds that we’d seen before. Sorting out the difference between Great and Little Egrets proved tricky.
Dinner in a sort of fast food chain place in town proved to be both cheap and tasty.
23rd April 2009
As usual we were up early but some of the guests at the De Palma Inn might have been awakened before their alarms went off because outside it was monkey mayhem, with a large group of macaques and langurs leaping out of the trees and onto the roofs of many chalets.
Back to Taman Alam for an early morning walk and it was looking very pretty under a pale-blue, cloudless sky. A Smooth Otter was glimpsed swimming across the pond and heading our way but we waited 10 minutes after it dived in the hope that it would reappear with no luck. A Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker gave cracking views. In general birding was much better this morning with lots of woodpeckers about, some of which where quite vocal. The area around the mangrove boardwalk seemed best. Common Flameback and Laced Woodpecker where much in evidence but an unassuming little Mangrove Whistler had to be tracked down. A pretty Mangrove Blue Flycatcher sat on the handrail of the boardwalk but the light was too weak for a decent photo.
There were hundreds of waders on the wrong side of the river from the end of the boardwalk but only Redshank (by call) and Common Sandpiper by sight could be identified, even with the scope.
With the weather warming up we headed back to the car and JD was quick enough to get a snap of the last of three Smooth Otters that ran across the path although skinks and butterflies proved easier subjects and a Stork-billed Kingfisher posed nicely. A Golden-bellied Gerygone sang out its mournful tune and a Rusty-breasted Cuckoo was unfortunately seen off by a Fantail.
On the drive out of the reserve we witnessed a rather shocking event when a very big monitor started to cross the road and the car in front of us swerved to try and hit it. Fortunately the lizard was quick enough to get out of the way, although we are certain that it was hit, but it settled on a rock at the roadside and seemed uninjured.
Our long session on the reserve merited a lunch at one of the riverside restaurants (again), the Jeti, that was just as good as before and from where we saw a couple of raptors, at least one of which was a juvenile Eastern Marsh Harrier, and after that we headed off northwards along the coast, taking advantage of the air-con in the car and just having a nosey around on back-roads, hoping to maybe get a glimpse of the sea or some padis.
A Crested Serpent Eagle sat for some nice photos atop a telegraph pole.
We drove around for a while and saw some pleasant scenery and some interesting settlements, picking up the odd bird here or there, like this Blue-tailed Bee-eater and finally, at a spot that looked worthy of exploration, had it not been so bloody hot, Black-capped Kingfisher. A White-browed Crake stayed around just long enough to allow identification. Both these latter species were near the Pencawang Elektrik station, which can be reached from the main road north of Kuala Selangor by following the side road marked “JLN PARIT 1 PANTAI, SG. SIREH” or turning left at the traffic lights just after the ‘Kuala Selangor 19km’ if heading south.
Another session at Taman Alam seemed right for an end to the day and our first excitement was seeing a Flying Lizard glide up to a tree trunk alongside the path.
For the first time during our visits, the tide was in and the mangroves were transformed with none of the mud that we were used to. A group of macaques had taken possession of part of the boardwalk . There were fewer birds to be seen, but one or two let themselves be photographed, including a Collared Fantail and a female Olive-backed Sunbird.
As we headed back on the main path, not far from the rope bridge, JD suddenly regretted not looking more closely at the funny pile of leaves that she’d noticed ahead, because in broad daylight and well before sunset, it turned into a dark nightjar with no white in the wings or tail which was presumably Malaysian Eared Nightjar.
The De Palma Inn have a poster up about a couple of their culinary treats including something described as Steamboat. We had no idea what this was but it didn’t seem expensive and we had walked enough to make a trek into town seem like a big effort, so we gave it a try. It seems this is a popular dish in the region. Basically, they bring a heated structure full of boiling soup and a large tray of goodies including dumplings, prawns, sausagey things, vegetables and goodness knows what and leave you to do the cooking. It was excellent and quite good fun too and as is often the case, there was far more than we needed but definitely worth a try if your hungry.
24th April 2009
This was our last full day and we allowed ourselves a bit of a lie-in as reward for all our hard work so far, but were delighted to discover that the members of the police conference (at least that what we think it was) were out and about for a pre-breakfast callisthenics session led by a shrill and insistent individual with a bull-horn. Not for us though. We had a quick breakfast and checked out before heading for a final look around Taman Alam.
The monkeys were up to their tricks (of course) in and around the car park and thoroughly upsetting the chap across the road, whose garden they seemed to be ransacking. He was chasing around after them rather ineffectually with a long and bendy pole, but he was fighting a losing battle.
We’d avoided the trail in Taman Alam called either (or both) the Otter or Pangolin Trail because when we’d first arrived parts of it were underwater, but we gave it a try this morning because we’d seen no rain for days. A large Black-spined Toad was sitting on the path, just after a root that seems to have grown deliberately with the intent of tripping people up. The trail comes out at the rope bridge and from here it was straight to the Mangrove boardwalk. We had a quick view of another Smooth Otter crossing the path on the walk down.
There were not so many birds about today but this was more than compensated for prolonged views of first three, then four and finally five otters from the estuary end of the boardwalk. At least four were Smooth Otters and seemed to be together, although one, possibly the largest seemed to stay apart. We were less convinced about the fifth one, which proved to be very unpopular and was chased off into deeper water by the other four.
A male Brown-throated Sunbird gave us our best photo opportunity yet, as we headed back to the car and a bit of a bonus was a Van Hasselt’s Sunbird and an Eastern Crowned Warbler in the tall trees in the area around the visitor centre.
The Palace of Golden Horses was an hotel we’d stumbled upon whilst looking for somewhere convenient for both Kuala Lumpur and the airport for our final night. After looking at the website it proved irresistible. There can’t be many places like this, where the word excess seems to have been deleted from the dictionary but despite the cheesiness of some facets, the room was actually excellent and despite the fact that it was easily the most expensive place we stayed in, it was good value for money. For reasons not entirely clear to us, we ended up with a room upgrade - and the place was huge! Two bathrooms, several TVs, beds for about 6 people, a large work desk, a minbar and even a bit of free wi-fi. You’ll probably hate yourself for booking, but love it when you see the room.
With plenty of daylight left we took one of the waiting taxis and got him to take us to the Batu Caves which we reached just as the heavens opened. We sheltered near the bottom of the steps under the colossal statue of Lord Murugan whilst the first flight of 272 steps became a temporary waterfall. When the rain had eased enough, we set off. Unless you’re very fit and run to the top, you’ll appreciate the fact that there are numerous reasons to pause for a few photos or just to admire the view on the way up. Take water if you can’t afford slaves.
The interior of this large cave is a Hindu temple and it is fascinating to wander round and admire how natural elements have been combined with artificial to create an harmonious whole.
On the way down we were tempted by the staff to pay for a tour of the Dark Cave. Do this. You’ll be given hard hats with lights but if you have your own head torches then these will probably be better. There’s a chance of bats and various cave-dwelling creepy-crawlies as well as some nice limestone features, but the scene at the furthest point of the tourist route (there’s a longer more energetic trip available) is quite magical and we won’t describe it here for fear of spoiling it for anybody tempted.
Our taxi driver had waited for us and he took us into KL City Centre, with the total cost being about 100 MYR. We wandered in to the bottom of the Petronas Tower, watched a fashion show, had a meal in something called the NZ café (pretty good) and then somehow got a taxi back to the hotel, which might have been tricky but for the help of another taxi driver who was waiting for a pre-booked fare.
After a comfortable night in the hotel it was up early for the short-ish drive to the airport where we were efficiently met by the rental company and then 14 hours on the plane back home.
A Field Guide to the Birds of South-east Asia - Craig Robson (New Holland)
A Field Guide to the Mammals of South-east Asia - Charles M Francis (New Holland)
Birds of Tropical Asia 3.0 - Jelle Scharringa (DVD)