Malaysia is one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries and home to a stunning number of national parks which by some estimates hold up to 20% of the world’s known animal species. A staggering number of these (at least 5,000 to hold that megadiverse title) are endemic, particularly on the nation’s eastern landmass on the island of Borneo.
Spread across the length and breadth of the country are some of the world’s most bio-rich national parks, protected and preserved to maintain the precious ecosystems that lie within them. It’s said that a hectare of ground in Taman Negara contains more tree species than the whole of North America. And that’s only one of many incredible statistics.
If you’re an explorer at heart with the desire to strike out into Malaysia’s rainforests or coasts, we’ve rounded up her most beautiful national parks – some formed over hundreds of millions of years, and with flora and fauna that will take your breath away.
Mulu National Park
Clocking in at over 55,000 hectares, Mulu is Sarawak’s biggest national park and contains some of Earth’s most extensive caving systems. The signature karst formations, giant limestone shards that cut into the air, are one of the many visual spectacles here. Over 60 million years of erosion have created these rocky daggers and surrounding them is lush equatorial rainforest, sinkholes, springs, vanishing rivers, vast caves and towering cliffs.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is named after the state’s second highest peak and offers something for all levels of adventurer and naturalist. Hardened explorers can descend into the Sarawak Chamber or Deer Cave, the world’s largest natural chamber and cave passage respectfully, while those that want to stay above ground have an abundance of nature walks to go on including canopy walks which are ideal for bird watchers.
Each day when the sun drops and dusk takes over, the mouth of the Deer Cave erupts as millions of bats pour out of it to embark on their nightly feed – a mass exodus that has become one of the defining features of Mulu.
From Sarawak’s largest national park, to its smallest, what Tanjung Datu lacks in size it more than makes up for in sheer beauty. This 14 square kilometre patch of deep green is located on the southwestern tip of Sarawak on the Datu Peninsular and was long one of state’s best kept secrets due to its remoteness. That changed as a new road opened in 2019 improving its accessibility.
What makes Tanjung Datu so enticing is its combination of primary rainforest and pristine beaches. The white sandy stretches here are some of Sarawak’s finest, with clear emerald waters, vibrant sea life and creamy coral formations. This confluence of rainforest and sea is also home to rare and unique species including the Bornean Banded Langur and the beaches here also serve as nesting grounds for critically endangered green turtles and olive ridley turtles.
Hiking trails criss-cross the park, some hugging the coastline before turning back into the park – chances are that along the way you’ll see at least three types of hornbill, some bearded pigs and maybe even civet cats.
It may require a bit of extra effort to get to, but the untouched ruggedness of Tanjung Datu is worth every bit. Its seclusion acts like a soothing balm that helps give your life perspective and its rich biodiversity reminds you of the world’s natural wonders.
On the west side of Malaysia there is one park that reigns supreme and proudly takes its place as one of the nation’s top destinations. Taman Negara is an ancient rainforest (older than the Amazon!) that spans 4,343 square kilometres across the states of Pahang, Kelantan and Terrenganu. Vast flora and fauna are found in this 130 million-year-old virgin jungle, with much of it still undiscovered.
From the capital it takes only three hours to reach the edge of the park, and from there you catch a river boat or long boat that takes you towards the interior. Taman Negara is also the home of five nomadic aboriginal groups, some of which you can visit along the way including the Batek people and Orang Asli.
There are countless activities to undertake here but high on the list are journeying into the bowels of Gua Kepayang and Gua Daun Menari – two massive cave systems with stunning formations inside; summiting the majestic Gunung Tahan, the highest mountain on Peninsular Malaysia and well known for being more challenging than Mount Kinabalu; walking across the longest canopy walkway in the world where you can get up close and personal with the animals that call the treetops home; and taking on the thrilling rapids of the Tembling River.
Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
If you feel drawn to the ocean and its sub continental lands, the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park should be high on your list. Encompassing an area of 50 square kilometres (two thirds of which are water), the TAR Marine Park as it’s otherwise known is made up of five islands that lie just off the cost of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and all located a quick boat ride from each other.
The charm, beauty and accessibility of Manukan, Gaya, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug have made them a popular spot for both locals and tourists. Crystal clear waters that offer top notch snorkelling and diving, pristine beaches and lush rainforest mark each island as its own little tropical paradise. A thriving wildlife population exists in both the water and the land here so you’re bound to see something exotic.
Most visitors here are on day trips however a variety of resorts are available if you’re looking to spend a few days. The two biggest islands, Gaya and Manukan, are home to high end resorts with their own private beaches perfect for an exclusive getaway. Aside from that, there are also camp sites on most of the other islands if you’re on a budget or just want to rough it out. You’ll definitely want to hit the jungle trails as well and see what you spot – Proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs, hornbills, monitor lizards and much more roam the islands.
Kinabalu National Park
In December 2000 the Kinabalu National Park made history by becoming Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated on the Crocker Range in the district of Ranau, it has been declared one of the richest, most biodiverse sites in the world and counts thousands of animal and plant species to its name.
It also contains Mount Kinabalu and Mount Tambuyukon, the former being one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks and a focal point in the climbing world. The summit to its 4,095 metre Low’s Peak (named after British naturalist Sir Hugh Low who was the first to conquer the mountain) takes two days and one night and requires a decent amount of fitness to reach. The majestic sunrise when you do is one of the most memorable sights you’ll ever see.
If climbing isn’t your cup of tea, Kinabalu Park has a multitude of other wonders that will leave you in awe such as the striking Botanical Gardens where you can discover the flora and fauna that cover the area. We recommend taking a guided tour here for added insight.
A network of trails for all levels of hiker spread throughout the whole park (with an impressive canopy walkway in one zone) and if you feel like relaxing, take a drive to the Poring Hot Springs to soak up some heated goodness. Finally, if you’re an anthophile you’ll want to pass by the Orchid Conservation Center to see the world’s most expensive orchid – the Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid.