The rustic charm of a virgin jungle, believed to be millions of years old, is the perfect setting for a ‘back-to-nature’ experience.
Text & Photography by Jan Yong
Gibbon Retreat is a very special place; it is located amid untouched jungle that’s believed to be about 130 million years old. Such is the pristine condition that it is a haven for many endangered animals, among which is the gibbon.
Gibbons are famous for the swift and graceful way they swing through the trees by their long arms. They are also known for their distinctive call – a long semi melodious sound that echoes in the jungle.
Due to the jungle’s untarnished condition, and existing families of gibbons, rescued gibbons are released back into this jungle by the Malaysian chapter of the Gibbon Conservation Society (GCS). For millions of years, this part of the Titiwangsa Mountain Range, about 8kms from Bentong, is home to families of gibbons.
Nowadays, this beautiful primate is an extremely endangered species worldwide. All because some nouveau riche decided that the babies are so adorable that they needed to have them as pets! But in order to catch one, the poachers have to kill its entire family otherwise the rest of the family would hunt them down to rescue the baby.
To hear their wild call, you would have to be in this part of the jungle in the mornings as their rather melodic calls can mostly be heard loud and clear only in the early mornings. “They are communicating among themselves,” says HP Lem, co-owner of Gibbon Retreat.
“One cannot but be awed by the majesty and perfect synchronisation of life in the jungle.”
From the Rock Chalet at the third highest point in the sparsely built rocky slope, I took a solo hike towards the water source of the Rock Forest (as named by Lem). It’s a long hike which he has undertaken but which I would probably turn back at the halfway point.
As I gingerly make my way on the rocky stream, I became acutely aware of the unsullied surroundings. The barks of the trees are uncommonly wrinkled with complicated patterns amid many layers, partly indicating its age and pure condition.
The foliage is overgrown, verdant, and healthy, and again has that untouched look. The air is so fresh and full of the smell of greenery. Listening to the sounds of the jungle, you know this is raw and untouched nature at its best. Left on its own for millions of years, it has become part of a perfect eco-system.
One cannot but be awed by the majesty and perfect synchronisation of life in the jungle. It’s a natural high unlike any other.
Although there is a man-made trail towards the stream, it ended where there were many rocks which act as a small dam for the crystal clear water streaming down. Few have trekked here.
This is just one of many water streams and small rivers that emanate from the source of the water from the top of the hill. It has been flowing since millions of years, according to Lem, who together with his family, co-owns the forest that covers much of the 180 acres of land.
It was inherited from his father who had immigrated to Malaya (then) and who worked as a rubber planter before eventually owning about 500 acres of rubber estates around Bentong, Lem reminisces about his father: “He was pretty well-known for his philanthropic work then in the small town before his untimely demise when I was still quite young.”
The uncommonly pristine condition has attracted a number of potential buyers, mostly developers who are keen to develop the area into resorts or homesteads. But Lem wants to attach conditions to the development namely that it has to be done very holistically so as to retain its ‘virginal’ condition as much as possible.
“I hope that as few trees as possible are cut to make way for development; that is my biggest concern. I want to retain the untouched quality as much as possible,” the youthful looking former Silicon Valley engineer says.
“The last thing we want is a barren hill with the forest logged and its fragile eco system destroyed. That would be unthinkable!” gasped Lem, a passionate nature lover. He has happily allowed the Gibbon Conservation Society to release back all the rehabilitated gibbons into the private Rock Forest.
On weekdays, he would drive all the way from his residence in the Klang Valley to put up a few nights at the tree house which he has built along with other structures as proof of concept. The idea came when it dawned on him that his stresses would evaporate whenever he’s hiking in the forest.
“The idea is to bring the great outdoors into the indoors to a point where it becomes almost seamless.”
He decided to commission architects to build a series of low impact dwellings that encroached as little as possible on the natural surroundings. It has to be a sustainable living accommodation that blends in with the surroundings.
Due to the steep and rocky terrain, the accommodation has to be on an elevated platform. Of necessity, the platform has to be made of steel galvanised with zinc to prevent rusting and is strong enough to withstand the lashings from the weather. The roof is also padded to soften the sound of rain.
The flooring consists of both galvanised steel mesh topped in the middle with solid wooden planks in a 400-sq-foot platform that’s fenced up by reinforced steel for both safety and security.
The chalet itself consists of a room with sliding doors which separate the bedroom (single beds) from the bathroom which is furnished with a heater. Outside the room is the outdoor dining area cum lounge cum kitchen. This is also the area where Lem does his work and entertain occasional guests. Surprisingly, the internet reception is good, thus one can work from home here without any issue.
The idea is to bring the great outdoors into the indoors to a point where it becomes almost seamless – similar to ‘forest bathing’ but surrounded by modern conveniences. Lem’s chalet is even equipped with a sauna unit for those times when the weather gets cold.
The chalet is built such that it’s a self-sufficient unit complete with mini fridge, stove, sink, and barbeque facilities – the perfect secret hideout, a man-cave for the single man or a romantic retreat for couples.
If you were to stay for a few days and are lazy to cook, you could even order a takeaway or even better, Musang King (MK) durians direct from a durian plantation nearby. This area is after all in ‘Musang King land’ near Bentong (although MK originally came from Gua Musang in Kelantan).
But having one unit would be too lonely and probably not a safe option, so Lem decided to build a few more chalets, but instead of a room, they would just consist of a bathroom with empty space to put up a tent for an unforgettable glamping experience.
At the other end of the immersion experience would be camping pure and simple where guests can bring their own tent and pitch it next to the stream. Bathrooms with rain shower heads and sitting toilets are provided while at night, lights are lit on most of the pathways. The entire area is fenced up with perimeter fencing ensuring a very safe jungle experience.
There is also a common area where guests can build a fire – benches and tables are provided for easy interaction. Next to it is a rocky pool where guests can have a dip in the cool spring water. The water is crystal clear as it flows directly from the source at the top of the hill, and is unpolluted as it meanders downwards.
A lot of thought has been put into making the accommodations as aesthetically pleasing as possible yet complemented by a practical approach. But this being a jungle retreat, do not expect a luxurious experience.
Instead, immerse yourself in the rustic jungle atmosphere – the sounds of crickets, birds and the occasional gibbons, gushing stream waters and the occasional wild dog barking. Inevitably, the sounds from civilization will waft in but let that not spoil it for you.
Instead, follow the tree-friendly canopy bridge to uncover a leafshrouded oasis, complete with cooling rock pool and ‘forestbathing’ decks. Immerse yourself fully in nature’s calming and regenerative effect.
‘ROCK FOREST’ ROCKS
Opened since September 2019, Gibbon Retreat has endured three months of closure due to the Movement Control Order (MCO) imposed in Malaysia to control the Covid-19 pandemic. It is now full on weekends and up to 70% full on weekdays. Its three chalets are especially popular and are often fully booked every day of the week.
Having proved that this concept works and having enjoyed staying there since the last two years, Lem is certain that something could be worked out with future joint venture partners to build a sustainable eco retreat where immersion in nature is the central attraction. Gibbon Retreat has been three years in the making and showcases the love, care and great thought that had gone into creating this jungle haven.
Since the hilly terrain and weather are perfect for planting durians, Lem has allocated about five acres of the land for Musang King durians. The trees are still about three years old and may take another one or two years before they are ready for harvesting.
As durian is a mono crop, Lem plans to plant chili and sour eggplant which will be contracted out to indigenous people (orang asli) to maintain. They not only would get a monthly fixed income but a percentage of sales which hopefully will encourage them to be fully dedicated.
At night, the temperature drops to about 22 – 23 degrees, not exactly chilly but just nice while day time can be pretty hot and humid. Sited just 300 metres from the Karak Highway, the retreat is easily accessible even with a normal saloon car.
The retreat is connected to the electricity grid while water comes directly from the water source which is usually clean, but a filter is attached to the sink to filter out any mud or sediments. The water is then clean enough to drink as long as it’s heated up.
For the next phase, Lem, who is also an entrepreneur, hopes to tie up with environmentally-conscious developers to build more infrastructure and to marshal the human resource and logistics needed to create a one-of-a-kind jungle haven. “Our vision is to share the benefits of jungle life while at the same time sustainably developing parts of the land for profit, for example, in agroforestry,” Lem says.