What happens when you combine a swish eco resort with acres of pristine wilderness and one very big lake? Top-of-the-line adventure, it seems.
Fish spas are overrated. You go in and pay an unjustifiable amount of money just so these food-deprived little creatures can gnaw at your feet. However, there’s none of that nonsense at Lake Kenyir in Terengganu, where the massage is au naturel and the fish are friendly, not menacing.
Find that hard to believe? Try dipping your feet into the Kelah Sanctuary’s cold, glassy waters.
Located at Sungai Petang, one of the 14 rivers that supply water to the dam, the sanctuary is home to hundreds and thousands of foot-long Mahseer fish that will glide up to your submerged feet and give them a good, slippery massage. While it isn’t meant for the faint-hearted, those who are brave enough will find themselves greatly rewarded.
The best part of it all is that it is free.
“Careful,” warns Abdul Latif Jamaludin to those of us who are about to attempt the inconceivable. “If you kick any of the fish with your foot, I’ll flick you into the water.”
Lake Kenyir Resort & Spa sales manager Abdul Latif, 42, formerly the resort’s sports and recreation manager, is understandably protective when it comes to the Malaysian Mahseer. Like the wild salmon, Mahseers brave rapids to breed in the rocky streams upriver. They feed on a weird combination of algae, crustaceans, insects, frogs, other fish and fruits that fall from trees overhead.
Unfortunately, some of the larger species have declined dramatically over the years, and are now on the endangered list due to pollution, habitat loss and over-fishing.
The Kelah Sanctuary was established to rehabilitate the species. Tourists are granted entry, but their numbers are limited to 40 a day to reduce environmental impact. Fishing, of course, is strictly prohibited.
Getting to the sanctuary is not easy; its accessibility depends on how willing you are to sit out an hour’s worth of rollicky boat-ride from the resort (with magnificent views along the way), and an additional half-hour of huffing and puffing through a forest believed to be millions of years old.
In fact, the place is so secluded that producers of the reality series Survivor had intended to film their next season in this very place — until fate messed with their plans.
The hills are alive
“This feels like a scene from Apocalypse Now,” says my friend, as the boatman expertly navigates us past each river bend under the light drizzle. “This could be Vietnam or the Amazon.”
We had left the sanctuary and are now heading to Lasir Falls, one of the more popular waterfalls in the area because of its 500-foot drop and multi-tiered ponds. Apart from the waterfalls, there is also a limestone cave called Gua Bewah in the vicinity.
However, I am told that we are giving that a miss because it is being cordoned off for further excavation works following the discovery of Malaysia’s oldest artefact early this year. Carbon-dating has revealed it to be a 16,000-year-old skeleton dating back to the Mesolithic age.
Up ahead, an otter emerges from the water’s edge and disappeares into the foliage before any of us can snap pictures of it. Still, many in our group who were silent a minute ago have become chatty and visibly exhilarated over this random encounter. Although the sighting of any wildlife is usually cause for celebration, Abdul Latif says he’s spotted bigger animals before.
“I was with a group of tourists recently, and we saw something black swimming in the water. So we stopped the engine and held our breaths for 15 minutes. When it leapt onto land, we realised it was a panther!” he exclaims.
“I’ve also seen a tiger crossing the road when I least expected it. But that’s usually what nature is like. Nothing is promising.”
In Lake Kenyir, however, your chances increase significantly. After all, the man-made lake was once part of the tropical lowland rainforest that surrounds the area. It was created in 1985, after large tracts of the forest spanning over 209,199ha were felled to construct a hydroelectric dam.
To give you a sense of its size, Lake Kenyir is 1½ times larger than Penang island. There is no exact estimation of the number of species of flora and fauna existing within this vast ecosystem, but local villagers and the indigenous tribes have to share their space with elephants, tigers, panthers, gibbons and even crocodiles.
Although a large number of the animals were caught and transported elsewhere (to Taman Negara, for instance, at the southern end of the lake) when the dam was created, nobody really knows how many animals slipped through and were subsequently lost.
Then, according to past records, came the the unexpected downpour. What was supposed to be completed within a year happened within two weeks, and the dam started to fill up.
The fast-rising lake soon claimed everything, including millions of ringgit’s worth of machinery.
The 340 islands we are gawking at are not really islands but hilltops above 138m in height. What was once a virgin forest became a murky, mystifying underwater world. I’m told that years after the great flood the submerged trees continued to be harvested for their top-notch wood — a potentially dangerous job attempted by many but pulled off by few.
“A group of Thai divers were invited to chop these trees underwater. That went well. They were eventually replaced by Canadian loggers, who came with fancy-schmancy robotics. They were, for the most part, unsuccessful. That’s what happens when you think you’re able to outsmart nature,” says Abdul Latif.
Try as I might, I can’t make out the tree carcasses and rusty metal that lie in the depths of Lake Kenyir. Beneath the cloudy sky, the lake resembles an emerald-tinted mirror, reflecting the hills and heavens. Dozens of dead branches and twigs stick out from the water like proud testaments to the past, contributing a sense of surrealism to the already picture-perfect scenery.
Nature’s last resort
There’s nothing better than to wake up by the edge of the lake, to the sound of squawking birds and cheeky primates. In a place filled with spartan digs and ill-equipped boathouses, the Lake Kenyir Resort & Spa has the final say in style and comfort. However, visitors will be disappointed if they expect satin quilts and flat-screen TVs.
Think shabby chic, not ultra luxe.
The resort itself has been around for years, and comprises 135 kampung-style chalets built on what was once a hilly oil palm plantation. DRB-Hicom Berhad wanted the resort to blend with its natural settings and, at the same time, reflect the rich cultural heritage of Terengganu.
It was a tricky task, but the company managed to create a place that is actually pretty nice, complete with big, shady trees and decently landscaped gardens. These new trees are home to a variety of birds, making the resort and its environs (especially Sungai Buweh Road) a birdwatcher’s paradise.
“Most people would go to Sabah and Sarawak for birding. They don’t know Kenyir has nine hornbill species, which is more than the two states. With a bit of luck and skill, you can see all nine species in and around the resort in one day,” says Anuar McAfee, 45, vice chairman of Malaysian Nature Society in the Terengganu district, and an avid birder.
The hornbills are part of the more than 230 residents and migrant species that live in Kenyir. Other interesting birds include the peregrine falcon, which can swoop down at 400kph, making it the fastest bird in the world, as well as the elusive forest pigeon, brighter and more beautiful than its city counterparts.
According to McAfee, the resident birds are here all year, but migrant birds from the north fly in between September and April. The best time to birdwatch is in the early morning, between sunrise and 10.30am, and in the late afternoon, from 4.30am to sunset.
“Some might say luck is involved in spotting interesting birds, but I think the more time you spend in the field observing birds, the better your identification skills, the more likely you are to find something special,” he says.
I am a hopeless birder, impatient and easily distracted, but I meet an elderly Singaporean lady with bionic eyes the very next day who proves McAfee right.
“Look, look!” she yelps excitedly. “Can you see the flock of birds in the trees? Absolutely gorgeous!”
As she points out a bunch of invisible birds, I find myself growing disheartened. No matter how hard I squint, I can’t make anything out. But neither can her group of travel companions.
There’s something in the air that makes people giddy with cheerfulness, no matter how exasperating the situation seems. Abdul Latif claims that there’s a science behind this.
“When you’re in the office, on the phone, in front of the computer, you’re exposed to all these positive ions, making you sick in the long run,” he says. “But when you get out here and surround yourself with nature’s negative ions, you’re neutralising your body, recharging it.”
The Kuala Lumpur native, who is a bit of a Tarzan now, has lived here for more than three years. He says he doesn’t wish to be anywhere else.
“When I’m alone, I like to go to the jetty and talk to the trees and animals. Once you understand nature, you realise it’s God’s greatest gift to mankind,” he says.
It’s a pity then, that only last year newspapers reported that yet another tract of forest north of Kenyir Lake would be sacrificed for dams and timber. The Tembat and Petuang forest reserves is home to countless species of wildlife like the highly endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, Malayan tiger and Malayan gaur.
It also harbours the Asian elephant, tapir, primates, wild cats and plants, of which 94 species are Red Listed as threatened by extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
But never mind that, nature soldiers on in the face of development, brave and persistent. If this is Apocalypse Now, I’d pray for the end of the world every day. – By Louisa Lim
From Kuala Lumpur, the shortest route is via Kuantan, taking the Jerangau-Jabor Highway to Lake Kenyir. Those from the south can take the Kota Tinggi-Mersing route to Kuantan, then up the Jerangau-Jabor Highway.
For those coming from the north, head towards Kuala Terengganu, then make your way to Lake Kenyir. If you don’t fancy driving, then there is the Tasik Kenyir Express Coach Service departing from Kuala Lumpur which drops you off at the resort’s doorstep.
Tel: (09)-666 8888/(03)-2052 7766