Since 1938 Malaysia's Taman Negara has been the definitive must-see park in Southeast Asia. In fact, Taman Negara simply means 'national park' in the Malay language because it is the park. At 4343 sq km, the park is the largest and finest tract of protected lowland rainforest in Southeast Asia, and one of the top parks in all of Asia.
Taman Negara is well known for its absolutely pristine habitats and full spectrum of native animals, including critically endangered Sumatran rhinos and tigers. Sightings of rhinos and tigers are exceptionally rare, but you can be pretty sure of catching some of the park's 400 elephants or maybe an oddly snouted Malayan tapir or two. The park's infrastructure includes a series of hides on stilts that overlook important waterholes and salt licks that increase your chances of spotting unsuspecting wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled for muntjacs (barking deer), seladang (wild oxen), serows, sambars, mouse deer and wild pigs.
When you're not staring into the dense jungle in the hope of glimpsing large mammals, turn your eyes upward to look for monkeys, 1.5kg giant squirrels, yellow-throated martens or a sampling of the park’s 360 colourful bird species. You won't be able to miss the ponderous and remarkably noisy hornbills, one of the park's most distinctive animals. Another favourite are the ground-loving pittas, especially the stunning garnet pitta with its brilliant mix of red and blue feathers. Meanwhile, bird experts seek out the Malaysian rail-babbler, a strange forest-floor dweller with no clear taxonomic affinities to other birds.
The rainforests of Taman Negara are extremely rich because they have been growing and evolving without disturbance for over 130 million years. As a result, the diversity of trees is higher than nearly any other site in the world, with 240 tree species and hundreds of epiphytes counted on a single one-hectare plot.
Taman Negara's popularity is both its charm and its curse. While it's an excellent introductory park, with numerous accommodation options around the headquarters and an extensive trail system, seasoned wildlife observers might prefer one of Malaysia's lesser known parks in order to avoid the crowds.
Taman Negara is 300km northeast of Kuala Lumpur and is easily reached by train, public bus or private car. The best time to visit is during the dry season, when most of the park's beasties are breeding. Check out the official website for more details.
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