Malaysia sits at the heart of Southeast Asia’s most bio-diverse territory, covering thousands of plant and animal species in a multitude of habitats, altitudes, and ecosystems. In its wisdom, the Malaysian government has set aside parts of its territory as nature reserves: places where visitors can see nature up close without spoiling the environment.
Check out these nature reserves the next time you visit Malaysia – many of them are surprisingly close to major Malaysian cities, and can be seen in the space of a day.
Gunung Gading National Park
Gunung Gading National Park in Sarawak was established specifically to protect the rare, odoriferous Rafflesia flower, one of Southeast Asia’s weirdest wildlife finds. The park is the perfect setting for the Rafflesia flower – the landscape is carpeted in dense rainforest and cut through by mountain streams. A plankwalk crosses the ground above blooming Rafflesia, allowing visitors to observe the plants without disturbing them.
The Park is best explored through a series of trekking trails, the longest one ascending the park’s namesake mountain (Gunung Gading). The Gunung Gading park can be easily reached from the city of Kuching; only day trips are permitted within the park grounds, as camping in the park is not allowed.
Lambir Hills National Park
For such a small park (17,180 acres), the Lambir Hills National Park in Sarawak possesses an extremely diverse ecosystem, with thousands of plant and animal species sheltering in the park premises. Take birds – over 230 different avian species can be found in Lambir Hills! Perhaps it’s the rugged terrain –the hilly sandstone covered with dipterocarp forest and an endless series of bathing pools and waterfalls.
Visitors can explore Lambir Hills through a variety of forest walks for all fitness levels – some walks take less than 20 minutes to finish, while others require the whole day and a stout constitution. The park is conveniently located only 30 minutes by bus from Miri.
Kuala Selangor Nature Park
Only two hours’ drive from Kuala Lumpur, this wetland nature reserve protects about 800 acres of mangrove, estuaries, and a 25-acre brackish lake. Permanent residents include fiddler crabs, silvered langur monkeys, herons, and Brahminy kites. Migratory birds also use Kuala Selangor as a stopover.
Around the lake, you can set up shop at one of three wildlife observation towers, and watch out for the wildlife going about their business. Visits to the park begin at the Visitor’s Center, where you can pay for entrance and get refreshments and souvenirs after your jaunt around the park.
Mount Kinabalu looms over 13,000 feet over Sabah – the tallest mountain in Malaysia, covering about 300 square miles of pristine forest and mountain territory sheltering over 326 species of birds, 4500 species of plant, and 100 different species of mammal. Surprisingly, the mountain is a relative doddle to climb - over 40,000 people a year come to Mount Kinabalu just to climb it, with no need for special equipment or experience.
Due to the biodiversity on its slopes, Mount Kinabalu (specifically, the park that was created to protect it) was recognized as Malaysia's first World Heritage Site in 2000. The entrance to the park is located about 56 miles from Kota Kinabalu, a two-hour journey by bus from the state capital.
Malaysia's smallest and youngest national park is located on the northwestern tip of Penang Island – a ten square mile parcel of land that shelters a “meromictic” lake (a kind of lake with both salty and fresh water that do not mix), eight of Penang’s most unspoiled beaches, and mangrove forests.
Start at the Interpretation Center at the park entrance before you head out into the interior. Three trails lead into the Park’s diverse collection of habitats; you can actually see the entirety of the park’s contents within a single day if you begin early enough!
The 1,613-acre Semenggoh Nature Reserve is an animal shelter dedicated to the preservation of the endangered orangutan. Far from being kept in cages, the orangutans in Semenggoh are allowed to come and go as they please, enjoying the thick forest canopy as free apes and benefiting from the care of the park rangers. Most of the orangutans came to Semenggoh as orphans or rescues from captivity - the main goal of the park is to help them re-acclimate to life in the wild.
In Semenggoh, you get a rare chance to see orangutans in their natural habitat, before they make it out on their own. The park is only 12 miles south of Kuching - a bus leaves from Jalan Mosque to go to Semenggoh.
Like the Semenggoh nature reserve, Sepilok in East Sabah is dedicated to the care and protection of the endangered orangutan endemic to Borneo's forests. The park is set amidst the 5,529-hectare Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve near the city of Sandakan: visitors climb large viewing platforms to see apes being rehabilitated for future life in the wild. Your best chance of seeing Sepilok's orangutans occurs during feeding times at 10am and 2:30pm; visitors are discouraged from actually touching the apes.
In the same forest reserve, the Rainforest Discovery Centre allows visitors to see forest life from above, through a series of elevated walkways and towers that allow visitors to view the forest canopy and its residents from 100 feet in the air!
This marine park covers about 12,185 acres of sea territory, with five islands and masses of coral reefs within its boundaries. Located only five miles from Kota Kinabalu, the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is a favorite getaway for Kinabalu families on weekends. You can go camping on the beach on most of the islands in the park, but you’ll be charged a camping permit before you set up camp.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park’s corals shelter an impressive variety of marine life – this, in addition to the marine park’s shallow water and weak currents, make it a prime stop for divers. If you’re lucky, you may see whale sharks hunting plankton in these waters. (Find out more about diving in Sabah.)
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Set in 400 acres of Sabah jungle about 24 miles from Sandakan airport, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is home to about 60 floppy-nosed proboscis monkeys, a small community of gravely endangered primates whose habitat has been seriously eroded by human encroachment. (Forests have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations – the monkeys have nowhere else to go.)
Visitors get a rare chance to see proboscis monkeys in a semi-wild environment within the park premises - two platforms serve the monkeys during two daily feeding times. The park’s trails also allow guests to explore the surrounding forest; visitors should leave early in the morning, to see the animals at their most active.