Cover Story: What’s So Special About Belum?
By Vivien Lian
Only two hours north of Ipoh lies one of Peninsular Malaysia’s natural treasures, a hotspot for biodiversity in Malaysia hosting diverse ecosystems and habitats for the many species of flora and fauna of which many of them are endemic, rare, vulnerable or otherwise threatened in Malaysia and the region.
Something for Everyone, from the Intrepid to the Laid Back
Royal Belum is famous for its state park which was gazetted as a protected area on May 3, 2007, under the Perak State Parks Corporation Enactment 2001. The 130-million-year-old rainforest covering 117,500 hectares is amongst the oldest in the world, vying for seniority with the forests of the Amazon, Congo, and others.
Consisting mainly of primary forests, it boasts three species of the largest flowering plant in the world, the Rafflesia (Rafflesia cantleyi, Rafflesia kerrii and Rafflesia azlanii); 310 species of birds including all 10 of Malaysia’s hornbill species; the Malayan tiger, white-handed gibbon, Malaysian sun bear, tapir, elephant and other animals with some of these species unique to Belum.
With a variety of waterfalls, indigenous villages, salt-licks, interesting plants, animals and insects, there is much to do and it is this rich biodiversity that attracts local and foreign visitors who flock to Royal Belum.
Salt licks are natural salt deposits which animals regularly lick to get their much-needed mineral sustenance. Wild animals often leave their faeces around the place to mark their territory.
Access into the Royal Belum is through the Banding Island Public Jetty at Temengor Lake. It is the second-largest man-made lake in Peninsular Malaysia after Tasik Kenyir.
Anyone wanting to enter the State Park MUST have a permit from Perak State Parks Corporation (PSPC), which can be obtained through the local guides or tour operators.
Royal Belum is managed by the Perak State Parks Corporation (PSPC) formed in 2003 under the Perak State Parks Corporation Enactment 2001, specifically for the protection of the natural heritage of the state and their values associated with geology, history, ethnobotany, education, recreation, eco-tourism and science in areas designated as state parks.
Currently, the headquarters and information centre of PSPC is in Gerik, some 45km away from Banding, with PSPC staff responsible for managing the park including issuing visitor permits, conducting anti-poaching patrols, infrastructure development and tourism management.
The usual boat cruise itinerary includes Rafflesia-spotting, a visit to the waterfalls, experiencing the culture of indigenous tribes and treks to the salt licks with the chance to spot wildlife. However, many of the endangered species such as the Asian elephant, Malayan gaur, mainland serow, sambar deer, pangolin and Malaysian tiger are being poached. The number of tigers in Belum-Temengor Forest Reserve has declined from 60 to 23 as of 2019. The poachers also cut down agarwood trees (gaharu) which can be sold at high prices.
For those who want to stay within Royal Belum, PSPC provides accommodation and some basic facilities. There are four basecamps and campsites. The list of tour and boat operators can be accessed through Royal Belum’s website at www.royalbelum.my.
They will make arrangements for permits, boats, and meals (depending on the trip packages) and offer activities like camping, recreational fishing, night-hikes into Royal Belum and house boat trips.
The Only Island Resort in Belum-Temengor
Another option for visitors looking for a more laid-back option to explore this fascinating destination is to stay at Steve Khong’s island resort.
Steve Khong started eco-tourism in Belum-Temengor 15 years ago when he would take his friends around the Belum-Temengor forest complex to spot Rafflesia, do some bird watching and fishing. As demand grew, he acquired a few boathouses to handle larger crowds. The positive word-of-mouth reached the state government and they asked Steve to host their guests.
His efforts and capability in promoting Belum-Temengor’s ecotourism have proven him to be the leader in the field. In 2007, the government granted his purchase of the island so that he could cater to the growing tourist crowd and also to provide better accommodations. The resort named Belum Eco Resort in Khong Island has since opened its doors to local and foreign tourists for the past 15 years.
What sets the resort apart from the rest is that Steve, who is now past 60, conducts the tour around the untouched world of nature in Temengor himself. A permit is not required to explore Temengor as it is not gazetted. Contrary to the fixed itinerary of the Belum tour which includes having to pay a fee for permit and camera, the Temengor tour includes all of that but away from the “touristy areas” minus permit and camera fee. The forest here is denser, greener and the water is cleaner, clearer, where hornbills dance and ant soldiers march in broad daylight, a place which is livelier and richer in biodiversity. The resort itself is guarded by four furry guardians – Obama, Gordon, Donut and Hillary, the only cats on the island. Apart from having your arrival greeted by furry assistants, a list of activities awaits. Kayaking, swimming, sunbathing, fishing (strictly catch and release as the resort stipulates sustainable tourism), karaoke, watching documentaries, card games, mahjong, darts and for dinner, ask Steve for barbeque, steamboat or even firewood pizza. Speaking of sustainable tourism, the island resort itself is proud evidence. It is completely hand-built without the use of heavy machinery, plus the island sewage is managed and maintained at the resort’s cost.
Visit www.belumecoresort.com.my or contact Steve at 012 524 9184 for more information.
A Wee Bit of History
Belum-Temengor is the home to the second-largest lake, Temengor Lake in Peninsular Malaysia. The man-made lake was made for the dam to provide hydroelectricity. On the security part, it deterred the communist insurgents from using the route along the main range to infiltrate into Malaya.
Mythical Tales and Ghost Stories
Pak Teh, who lived in Belum Lama told a story of a legend about the origin of Belum Lama and its people. The villagers believe that they descended from Datuk Pulang Hari and Puteri Saadon, whose marriage is of human and orang bunian or fairy. He added that there is a gold mine which is not quarried but it is still in existence to date. Belum Lama is now a place of the past with no more houses but a home to tombstones. Villagers from Kampung Belum Baru still visit Belum Lama to clean the gravestones at Kg. Sain, Kg. Mekar and Laho (refer to map) annually. According to Iznan, who visited Kg. Kebeng two years ago, he saw a durian farm, tea farm, paddy field and a coffee shop. Now, one can only reach up to Laho as most of the areas in Belum Lama, now known as Pos Sepor is inaccessible. It has been taken over by the military to patrol the Belum-Thailand border. For those who wish to go further, a permit from Perbadanan Taman Negeri Perak is required, including villagers who wish to visit the graves in Belum Lama.
Underwater Village in Temengor
Another unknown history of Royal Belum is the underwater village named Kampung Temengor which is now at the bottom of Temengor lake. According to a former Nuri pilot, Major Dr Nor Ibrahim bin Sulaiman TUDM, 625 villagers from Kampung Panggas, Kampung Bukit, Kampung Mingkong and Kampung Kertei in Kampung Temengor were evacuated to Ayer Ganda, Gerik, by three Nuri helicopters on June 24, 1976, to vacate the land for the building of the Temengor dam. This explains the protruding tree trunks from the surface of Temengor lake which once belonged to Kampung Temengor. Boat guides pay extra attention while sailing to avoid getting a hole in their boats.
It is also known among the locals of Royal Belum that there are three fig trees, in a position of a triangle, where locals claim visitors often get disturbed by spirits and some even see apparitions in the area, especially during the night. According to local belief, the fig tree is the home to the pontianak, the ghost of a dead pregnant woman; Langsuir, a blood-sucking ghost who resembles a pontianak and Hantu Tinggi, which is said to be formed from a tree trunk and possessed by spirits. It is believed that people can get sudden blindness if one made eye contact with a Hantu Tinggi.