TAP tap tap tap tappity tap. That’s my leg, incidentally. Tapping away. The minutes are ticking by and we’re still waiting for a few tardy people to show up. It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon and any chance to get away from the drudgery of staring at the computer screen back in the office while nursing a cup of coffee, is something I’m grateful for.
Of course, I’ve just had my second cup of coffee while waiting for said tardy people. Never mind that. The thought of the cool misty Genting adventure beckons and I’m more than happy to sit and wait in the cool air-conditioned van, while the worried-looking van uncle makes a few urgent calls outside.
“Adventure…” “Forest…” “Birdwatching...” Those words stood out when I was given the assignment. A chance to see birds, breathe in fresh forest air and go on yet another green excursion got me excited. “But you’ve just been to the forest! A few times already! Another one now?” My mother rolled her eyes as I was trying to shove my binoculars into an already over-stuffed knapsack the previous night.
“Why are you packing for a month? You’re there for only one night!” she remarked again, shaking her head. It’s the city girl in me. One can never be too prepared. Sunblock – check, repellent – check, clothes for morning, afternoon, night and everything else in between – check, entire beauty regime in a huge toiletry bag – check, binoculars – double check. Eight years spent working for an environmental NGO hasn’t taught me to pack any lighter. “Are you sure you’re not out there to gamble ahh?” asked my mother suspiciously, both eyebrows raised.
One can’t blame her. Mention Genting Highlands, and chances are the casinos and the razzle-dazzle of Resorts World would be the main highlights of this mist-cloaked peak of Mount Ulu Kali perched at 1,800 metres above sea level. The cold crisp temperatures match other hill stations, but nature? Most of its peak has been landscaped and built up into a vast entertainment complex housing open-at-all-hours casinos, brightly lit shopping malls, amusement parks, bars, restaurants and around 10,000 hotel rooms. The cool air, buzzing indoor entertainment and splashing cash at the roulette tables form part of Genting’s main attraction.
If one wanted a taste of the quintessential Malaysian hill-station experience, the glitz of Genting isn’t the place to get that. Or so I thought. But the great outdoors haven’t been entirely eradicated from the Genting experience. One just needs to look a little harder and just a little lower from where most of the action takes place.
Approximately 945 metres (3,100 feet) above sea level lies Awana Hotel, a serene sanctuary nestled within acres of virgin rainforest that cover the hilly terrains of the mountain. The five-star hotel which boasts a sprawling 18-hole golf course, views of a breathtaking mountain range, heated swimming pool (a guaranteed perk in the cold weather) and various sports facilities, is also the gateway to the Awana Bio Park, a 200-acre swathe of forest with trails, trees, plants and wildlife where visitors can get a chance to immerse themselves in the 130-million-year-old rainforest, far removed from the lights, glamour and clamour that take place at the peak.
That’s the adventure I’m looking forward to, far from the beaten track and into the wild where birds, gibbons and other wildlife still roam free. The tardy albeit sheepish additions to our motley group of media finally arrive, and van uncle looks relieved. “Boleh jalan! Boleh jalan! (Can go! Can go!)” he reports loudly into his mobile phone, grinning. The van soon begins to move and we’re off to the mountains, 50 kilometres up north of Kuala Lumpur.
THE GENTING QUANDARY
The hour-long van ride is uneventful, but while we slowly make our way to the top, the view outside the window slowly changes as the elevation gets higher. Rows of fir trees sway in the slight drizzle and beyond the trunks are glimpses of vast canopies of green as far as the eye can see.
With all that’s been said about weekenders not being here for nature so much as the cool air and buzzing indoor entertainment, while environmentalists mourn the development of this once-majestic landscape, there’s still a hidden part of this place that remains to be explored and appreciated.
The First World Resort where we’re to stay the night is as glitzy as it comes. Scores of people, mostly tourists from mainland China and Taiwan by the looks of it, fill the vast lobby. It’s undeniable the highlands are especially famous for the gaming public but the local population also look towards this place as a refuge to escape the heat and dust from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and its surrounding towns. Amusement parks, casinos and shopping arcades fill this sprawling complex of hotels and there’s something for everybody, especially families in search of thrills and excitement all contained in one large glittering space.
Our rooms are functional to say the least and reasonably clean. Given the cool temperatures, there’s no air-conditioner, just a ceiling fan. There’s just enough time to put my bursting-at-the-seams knapsack down, grab my binoculars, head back to regroup with the rest, and make our way back down below to the Awana Hotel.
“We’ll be taking the cable car!” announces Deena Marzuki, the public relations executive who’s playing host to us, and that’s enough to put a spring to my step. The ride is thrilling. Stepping into the gondola, we settle ourselves for a breathtaking view of the mountain landscape as it slowly descends from the SkyAvenue station.
There are two stops for passengers to disembark. You could alight at the Chin Swee station to visit the iconic nine-storey pagoda perched on a sharp rocky slope near the peak, and view the 15-metre high statue of Buddha.
The second and final stop leads you down to the Awana station. With amusement parks, malls and casinos deluging the senses of visitors, it’s easy to overlook the rippling valleys and forests that thrive on the periphery of this massive entertainment complex. But the forest beckons nevertheless. Sitting inside that tiny vestibule, the panoramic view of the vast forest below takes my breath away. A whole different side of Genting approaches.
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
“Welcome to the Awana Bio Park!” our affable host Eddie Chan greets us with a beaming smile. Chan and his wife Pat Ang are specialists from the nature consultancy Treks, who work with Resorts World Genting guiding and sharing their knowledge with visitors.
A mere 15-minute walk from the hotel, the Awana Bio Park is teeming with rich biodiversity, offering guests a chance to step into the dappled shade of Mount Ulu Kali’s rainforest and enter into a journey of discovering the treasures concealed within its dense undulating topography.
“There’s so much to discover within this place,” Chan tells us gleefully, adding slyly with a wink: “Are you prepared for an adventure?” In the deep stillness of the forest, the sound of our footsteps on a carpet of leaves die away, as he stands in front of a towering tree. “This is what I wanted to show you,” he says, craning his neck to look at the leafy crown, deep green against the blue sky.
Pointing to a tag pinned on the tree depicting a NFC code, he says: “This entire place is set to become a digitally immersive experience. There’s a wealth of information within the forest and anyone who enters its domain may be able to have instant access to information about the trees, plants and wildlife thanks to the Near Field Communication (NFC) technology and the smart tags that work with NFC.”
The Bio Park may well be the first forest in the world to incorporate these technological elements to glean additional information for the curious and those who want to know more about the park and all that it contains. “Every tree contains information, every animal contains information,” explains Chan, adding: “How do we engage with the number of visitors who come up the highlands? The answer is technology… because everyone has a smartphone!”
Each trail within the Bio Park, Chan explains, has been designed to highlight the special aspects of the mountain forests of Genting Highlands – a unique ecosystem shaped by terrain and weather located between 920-1,830 metres above sea level. “Soon, information can be obtained not just through the keen observations of the guides who bring in visitors. Smartphones can be a useful platform to unlock the secrets of the forest.”
The first is the new Conservation Trail, an 800m loop that focuses on the flora of the Upper Dipterocarp Forest (750-1,200 metres above sea level), a biome rich in pitcher plants, montane bamboo, rattans, wild orchids and black bat lilies, all growing under the shade of towering Strangler Fig and montane timber trees.
Ang quickly points out a black bat lily in full bloom. Native to certain parts of Southeast Asia, the black bat lily (Tacca chantrieri) derives its name from its black-coloured flower that resembles a bat in flight. The jungle is a natural habitat for this rare endangered plant.
A viewing deck along the trail is the perfect place for visitors lucky enough to spot a passing hornbill. This particular trail will also highlight the conservation efforts dedicated to maintaining these primeval species, as well as the natural, cultural and practical usage of the plants. The birds are a joy to spot at the Bio Park. I quickly spot the Verditer flycatcher, Grey chinned minivet and the Ferruginous flycatcher flitting amongst the branches.
The Herb Forest Trail and Biodiversity Trail also focus on the Upper Dipterocarp Forest biome, taking a longer route (1.8km and 2.7km, respectively) to see even more of Mount Ulu Kali’s ancient rainforest. The longer Biodiversity Trail is the most picturesque, an undulating trek that descends into a valley and requires the crossing of a cascading stream, dominated by the skyward reach of towering montane timber trees.
It’s a different universe out here in the forest. The call of the siamangs (gibbons) fill the air and Chan reveals that there are at least 22 families of this species who thrive within the forest sanctuary. The whispering trees, undulating trails covered with forest leaves that crackle beneath our feet, the sounds of chirruping insects coupled with birdsong – the forest buzzes with a different type of life, far removed from the excitement that goes on at Genting’s peak.
More theme park attractions are coming up soon for those looking for entertainment. But just below the glitter and schmaltz, the desperation of gamblers and thrill-seekers alike, the loud concerts and thumping music that lasts through the night – the ancient forest awaits patiently, ready to unveil its treasures for those who care to traverse its path. The Bio Park would be a perfect start for anyone wishing to get off the beaten track and into a journey of self-discovery.
For long before Genting Highlands – as we know it – was built, the forest existed and hopefully, what’s left of it will continue to exist and thrive. For the real rewards are not found on the casino tables, but within the silent enclosure of ancient trees and plants. I realise that relatively few people have experienced the pristine, undisturbed rainforest at Genting first hand. But many of those, like me, are awed by the soaring cathedral of life we find ourselves in.
The next time you decide on embarking on a trip to the glittering entertainment complex up in the sky, why not make a detour and have an adventure of a different kind? The forest will not disappoint.
AWANA BIO PARK / FASHION FOREST
ALL trails are conducted by specialist guides, by appointment only with the fees being RM75 per person for the Conservation Trail, RM95 per person for the Herb Forest and RM135 per person for the Biodiversity Trail. A minimum group of three is required for each trail.