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. 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, Sarawak
Gunung Gading National Park in Sarawak was established specifically to protect the rare, odoriferous Rafflesia flower. The flower is 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 'plank walk' 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.
Kuala Selangor Nature Park, Selangor
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, get refreshments, and souvenirs after your jaunt around the park.
Lambir Hills National Park, Sarawak
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. Over 230 different avian species can be found in Lambir Hills! Perhaps because of 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.
Mount Kinabalu, Sabah
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. It shelters over 326 species of birds, 4,500 species of plants, 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.
Penang National Park, Penang
Malaysia's smallest and youngest national park is located on the northwestern tip of Penang Island—a 10 square mile parcel of land. It 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!
Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Sarawak
The 1,613-acre Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre 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.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, Sabah
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 can 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 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.; visitors are discouraged from actually touching the animals.
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!
Langkawi Geopark, Kedah
The Langkawi Geopark was the first natural reserve in Southeast Asia awarded UNESCO Global Geopark status in 2007. No surprise there, as Langkawi embodies the ideals of natural beauty and ecological harmony sought by UNESCO.
Three geologically distinct areas make up the Langkawi Geopark, all accessible through tours arranged in the city. The Kilim River’s limestone formations make up the best part of the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park; the Machinchang Cambrian Geoforest Park, on the other hand, revolves around a granite mountain dating back to the Paleozoic.
Finally, the Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest Park lies south of Langkawi, centered around Langkawi’s second-largest island Pulau Dayang Bunting.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, Sabah
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, makes 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.)
Royal Belum State Park, Perak
The Temenggor Lake at the center of the Royal Belum State Park was formed by a hydroelectric dam project; despite the lake’s recent vintage, the rainforest that surrounds it is one of the world’s oldest, dating back some 130 million years.
Some of the world’s most endangered large mammals make their home in the forests, among them the Asiatic Elephant, Sumatran Rhinoceros, and the Malayan Tapir. It’s not likely that a casual visitor will spy them on their first trip out, but there’s far more to the park than rare animals.
You might be able to see one or more of the three species of rafflesia flower in the underbrush or go freshwater fishing in Lake Temenggor. You can also trek to the Pulau Tujuh waterfalls, visit the massive Temenggor Dam, or make contact with the local orang asli (tribal folk) who live in Kampung Chuweh.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sabah
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. It is 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.
Kubah National Park, Sarawak
While Kubah National Park has its fair share of animals, it’s the plant life that really draws your attention. This includes orchids, pitcher plants, and over 90 species of tropical palm that inhabit the 2,200 hectares that make up this nature reserve a short drive from Kuching.
The Matang mountain range creates the Park’s dramatic backdrop, most particularly Gunung Serapi, whose summit can be easily reached over a paved pedestrian road. It takes six hours to get there and back. For a real challenge, try one of the six jungle trails that take travelers deep into the local dipterocarp forest, and to scenic stops like the Kubah Waterfall and several viewpoints looking over the mountains and the Santubong peninsula beyond.
Camping facilities are available for travelers who want to stay overnight and make the most out of their Kubah National Park visit.