There are not many places where you go from city to jungle so quickly and this means you’ve got an incredible range of activities, from white water rafting to caving, treks and diving, as well as historical city tours, bustling food markets and cityscapes.
When you arrive in Kuala Lumpur (KL) you can see the jungle bursting through, whether it’s the drive from the airport or even just walking around town. It’s certainly doing it’s best to take back over and return to its original state. KL literally stands for ‘muddy confluence’, ie the joining of two rivers, and that’s pretty much what it was, a muddy uncleared forest. The development started when the royal family opened Tin mines back in the late 18th century when the British also had their influence. Then in the early 19th Century, the Chinese started the main expansion due to the demand for car tyres in the west, and the planting of rubber trees. This is what created an incredibly diverse culture and one of the culinary capitals of the world, which is best experienced by the street food and night markets.
When we arrived we went straight to Batu Caves, a Limestone Hindu Temple built in a network of bat caves. It’s a nice place to start to learn about its history and culture and see just how interconnected we are with nature. Make sure that you try the King Coconut, cheap, tasty and a natural rehydration, which you’ll need in this heat.
We arrived in KL just in time for dinner and went to one of the food markets. The great thing about these spots is that you find a table and get to try out all the different street food. The best way to experience it all is to share amongst yourselves so go and explore. And, no better way to finish it off than with some fresh coconut ice cream. The toppings are endless and there are some weird and wonderful choices but make up your own concoction. It sounds weird but highly recommend the sweetcorn and condensed milk, strange but definitely worth a try.
After exploring KL it was time to set off to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, The Taman Negara National Park but first we went to visit the White handed Gibbon Rehabilitation Programme. This is grassroots at its finest and a perfect stop for lunch to learn about our endangered shy, tree-loving ancestors. We thought this would be great for a quick visit for adult and family trips but also an incredible programme for the hardcore conservationists out there. Following lunch, we continued North up to the Rainforest, where over the next few years we’ll be working on an environmental and social programme to build chocolate factories, and help the local tribe bring back its cacao production from bean-to-bar. It’s an incredible project that will do so much for the community and their habitat, which western consumerism has destroyed due to an increased demand for rubber and palm oil over the last 100 years, decimating the land. It’s one of the best places in the world for chocolate, but rubber and oil are worth more and historically the environmental impact wasn't as important as profit. However, ‘times are a-changing’ and not only do the locals want to protect their lands but they want to produce something they’re proud of.
By planting more Cacao plants, they can increase the biodiversity in these ecosystems, provide themself with an alternative source of income and therefore not need to poach the local wildlife.
This, in turn, will help to protect the most important wildlife corridor in Malaysia and a vital migration route for tigers.
Aside from the chocolate factory project, there are ongoing conservation efforts in the Kubang Rusa so another fantastic opportunity for students who are looking to gain hands-on conservation experience. For families and adults, we’ll simply visit the area and see some of these activities, such as trekking and caving, as well as run workshops and presentations for those that want to learn and understand more. For the students, this will include: wildlife corridors; deforestation; Indigenous forest survival skills; and camera-trapping with GPS & SMART Conservation Tools. You’ll also delve deeper into:
Bird counting techniques
iNaturalist & Small mammal trapping
Mist net trapping
Elephant conservation, and
Night surveys looking for Slow loris and Colugo (flying lemurs).
A pretty full-on programme and invaluable experience. It’s this kind of stuff that employers want to see further down the line and as mentioned, for non-student groups we’ll include as much or as little as you wish, with the aim to give you an overview of the area, appreciate and enjoy it’s beauty and understand the impacts of these conservation efforts.
Following the terrestrial programme, we made our way further North up to the Perhentian Islands and man do we love the Ocean. Ian probably has more tolerance for the jungle but Brad is certainly more marine focused. The boat journey over was ace but certainly not for the fainthearted, check out our Instagram highlights to see for yourself. It's these hard to reach places that are extra special as it’s the more adventurous minds that will go the extra mile. It creates that backpacker-simple-life ambience. You forget about time, what you’re wearing, where you need to be, what you should be doing, you just ‘be’ - you meet real people not governed by social media or boxed because of the clothes their wearing, car their driving or place of work. It’s simply them, just them and nothing else.
It’s the people you meet in these circumstances that are the kind of deep connections and friendships that last a lifetime.
The Perhentian's can accommodate everyone as it caters for all. If you want to relax there are quiet beaches, serenity, and high-quality restaurants or if you want more of an atmosphere there are busy beach bars, nightlife and cheap eats. If you're the more active type and want to explore, you can hire a boat and jump between the islands or get your fins on and go diving.
Depending on how long you’re there, you can obtain your Open Water certificate (3.5days) or Advanced (2days) and then jump into the marine conservation work. The diving season had just started when we got there (March) so the visibility was just starting to settle down after the rainy season.
For adults and families, you can book dives whenever you wish and there are all kinds of workshops and presentations if you want to learn more. For the conservation students, once you get stuck into the marine work they’ll be lessons on Coral and Fish ID and an introduction to the sea turtle and shark photo ID projects. (Opportunities are available if you want to run your own research for dissertation/project work). You’ll be involved in Coral Nursery Maintenance, beach cleans, microplastic surveys, data collection, analysis and the Eco club, which has had a significant impact on the local community, school and village children.
Adults and families can get involved in as much or as little as you wish, we certainly love the odd fun dive and exploring life under the sea. However, it does feel very rewarding to dive with more of a purpose, ie collecting data, running surveys or helping with a beach clean. It’s great to learn about the local environment and understand the threats these reefs and island inhabitants face.
The community here is built around the school, which is all but the driving force on the island...
There is a beautiful link between these communities and the ocean, which starts early on when they pick and name their pet coral.
This pathway can continue to offer them all sorts of invaluable experiences and provide them with links or careers within the marine conservation world. In a few years time, your dive instructor may well have attended this school.
After the Perhentian’s we make our way to Royal Belum State Park and here you can see where nature has been left to her own devices. There is a real sense of eco-tourism, from the accommodations to activities, which are focused around the old flooded park, Temenggor Lake, now one of the biggest tourist attractions and conservation work in SE Asia.
As soon as we got off the boat and headed into the jungle for a waterfall trek we are reminded that Malaysian tigers, Sumatran rhinoceros, Malaysian sunbear, tapirs and even the white-handed gibbon are all residents here, not forgetting leeches and the Rafflesia arnoldi, the world's largest flower.
This gave us a true sense of connection like we were walking into nature's backyard.
For students, you can live on the boat and carry out the programme from here, which is pretty awesome. You’ll probably find yourself opting for the deck on a few nights instead of your bunks and you’ll set off in mornings by kayak to go and explore the forests. You’ll enjoy BBQ’s and evening lake swims straight from your own research vessel. For adults and families, you may want a little more comfort and opt for the infinity pool and eco-lodge, which is pretty spectacular. You’ll probably see the students swimming in the lake right from the poolside. We also stayed here and after going for a run through the jungle, it was incredible to jump straight in, cool off and look out to the lake and State Park backdrop. We were just missing a cold beer but too lazy after our run to go and get one. The resort is literally set within a tropical paradise and has everything nature-lovers and adventure travellers would expect: phenomenal views, tranquillity, adventure, and the chance to get close to nature.
After leaving Bellum we made our way down to Ipoh with a few roadside stops on the way. Due to our travels over the years we’ve certainly built up some immunity so be careful with what you choose to eat but highly recommend it if you’re an adventurous foodie, like us. The local food is incredible and so varied, not to mention as cheap as chips. Many of them offer a buffet-style setup so take a plate and get stuck in. We highly recommend the aubergine curry accompanied by a cold, sweet, milky tea. They love their sugar out here so be sure to say ‘just a little sweet’ (hanya sedikit manis) otherwise you might as well just grab a spoon and eat straight from the sugar bowl.
We were taken back by Ipoh as didn’t expect it to be so developed or western but it was quite a nice way to ease ourselves back into ‘urbanisation’ before hitting KL. The main reason for coming to Ipoh was for the white water rafting and whilst there aren't many rapids this time of year it was still ace. You feel kind of hidden in the jungle when your on the rivers that pass through it, no roads, no trails, no people, it’s like you get a little secret view from the inside out.
Simply just listening to the cicadas and birds, amongst the other wildlife was the perfect moment to just ‘be’.
A few hours later we were back in KL, one of the cheapest places in the world for 5-star resorts, so we took full advantage. In fact, we were so tired (had some work to catch up on) and enjoying the comforts that we didn't even leave the hotel. We had a little workout, jumped in the pool overlooking the skyline and relaxed knowing that our flight wasn't until tomorrow morning.
We obviously love these projects and as students, loved the rawness and connection we’d get with the communities by living with and amongst them. We loved the frontline research and data collection (which was part of our Marine Biology studies) and knowing that we were part of something making a difference. Now, we’re not saying that we still don’t love any of this 'stuff' but after a hard day in the forest trekking, hiking, running or getting involved with other cool project work, we don’t mind a slightly nicer bed, maybe a skyline pool, some fluffy towels and nice lounge area to reflect on our trip with a cheeky espresso martini - maybe we’re just getting old.
Either way, another great trip and incredible location with awesome projects that make a difference and give all an opportunity to get involved. We can’t wait to share this one with everyone.
These blogs are written off the back of our inspection trips. When we hear about a project that we think will be suitable we get the ball in motion and first do our research. After speaking with the various stakeholders, we decide if it’s a programme that meets our criteria and values, and if so, plan an inspection trip. We use this to see as much as possible, not just the project but to get a feel for the logistics, the food, the rustic little markets and back street vendors. The hidden nature spots, the core culture of the community and the people that bring these places to life. We want you to get a real experience of these places and travel whilst understanding the social and environmental impact. Unfortunately, it means that most of them don't even make the starting line because we don’t think they’re good enough. If they do, we then bespoke them for each of the different groups, i.e students, adults or families. The focus will always be conservation and sustainability, with the main difference being just time spent in different parts of the programme, the transport and the accommodation category. The level of learning, engagement, activities and adventure is all up to you so just let us know what you like (or don’t) and we’ll help you design your perfect, life-changing trip built on purpose and impact.