In Malaysia, one of the world’s oldest rainforests awaits

CNN  — 

In the tropical morning light, Malaysia’s Lake Temengor is a glazed expanse of emerald green, deepened by the dense walls of rainforest surrounding it.

Skimming across the water in a speedboat, we pass a group of indigenous – or orang asli (“original people”) – boys playing on a bamboo raft among deadwoods that rise like silhouettes from the lake’s surface.

It’s an oddly picturesque travel sight, like the remnants of a lost world, made more striking by the highway that bridges the lake.

This body of water is part of Belum-Temengor, a grouping of forest reserves in Malaysia’s Perak state covering an area more than four times the size of neighboring Singapore.

Estimated to be more than 130 million years old, these rainforests date back to a time when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. They are older even than their counterparts in the Amazon or the Congo.

That Lake Temengor is a more recent invention doesn’t detract from its natural beauty. River-damming in the 1970s turned these hills into mini islands – such as Banding, which is a convenient launching pad to explore the area.

The Belum Rainforest Resort overlooks Lake Temengor in Malaysia's Belum-Temengor forest complex.

We’re staying at the Banding Island-based Belum Rainforest Resort, which includes a day’s tour to Belum-Temengor’s most pristine swath of forest. Designated the Royal Belum State Park in 2007, logging is prohibited.

The park, located near the Thailand border, is a good alternative if you can’t make it to the jungles of Borneo or want to veer off the well-trodden course this side of Malaysia.

It’s home to about 1,000 indigenous Jahai people and critically endangered animals like the Malayan tiger, which numbers between 250 and 340 in the country and is the current focus of WWF Malaysia’s conservation efforts.

To enter the park, you need a permit and a licensed guide, and the only way to get there is to follow the lake’s waterways north.

Visiting indigenous Jahai villages

It’s a 30-minute boat ride from the resort’s private jetty to the mouth of Sungai Perak, which snakes through the Royal Belum State Park and branches into smaller rivers.

Our first stop is Sungai Gadong to see rafflesia flowers. Said to be the world’s largest bloom, they can grow as wide as a meter and emit a stink likened to rotting flesh.

But it’s a spectacle that takes some luck to catch.

“It takes nine months to mature, and flowers for just five to seven days before dying,” our guide Hafizul Haron says. We only see only one clamped-up orange bud the size of a volleyball among black rafflesia corpses.

Next, we come to a Jahai village around Sungai Kejar, where eight families live in thatched huts and a generator powers televisions and other modern needs.

Hafizul points out a long rod lying in a boat along the bank.

“That’s a blowpipe, but unlike the traditional ones it’s encased in