MY HERO swoops down in the nick of time. I’m perched atop a bare rock, too petrified to move when she flies to my rescue. Barely seven inches tall, the blue-winged pitta flits to the ground and within moments, her beak is filled with what look like needle-thin worms. I’ve never been happier to see a bird in my life.
It all started so innocuously. The plan was a week-long tropical beach break at the honeymoony Datai hotel (00 60 4 959 2500, www.thedatai.com.my; doubles from £415, B&B) on the sunny Malaysian island of Langkawi. But I couldn’t visit a country so renowned for its wildlife without dipping my toe in (more on that later), so I added a side trip to one of Malaysia’s most uncharted jungles – the 2,000 sq km Belum-Temengor Forest Reserves.
My other half, Tim, just wanted to hit the beach, but I was able to entice him with the promise of two nights’ pootling on a “luxury” houseboat on Temengor Lake, followed by a sun-soaked week at The Datai.
I may have failed to mention the leeches.
Rainforest leeches – those needle-thin worms my new favourite bird scooped up – live in many of southeast Asia’s jungles under the leaf litter of the forest floor. They pounce onto warm-blooded passers-by, and are so tiny before feeding that they can wiggle through the seams of hiking boots and the weave of socks. They then clamp onto ankles and toes for several minutes until they’ve reached their more familiar, sluggish shape.
Blood-suckers aren’t the only inhabitants of Belum-Temengor. Tigers, rhinos, Asian elephants and sunbears roam the hills. But these mysterious forests are so uncharted, tracking them down is tricky (although, tragically, poachers are having better luck – and the government appears to be doing little to stop them, or to halt the extensive deforestation destroying wildlife habitats throughout Malaysia).
After landing in Kuala Lumpur, we take a short flight to Penang, then it’s two hours by car to Belum Rainforest Resort (00 6 05 791 6800, www.belumresort.com), which operates the houseboat from its dock on the edge of the reserve.
Pushing off from the shore, we wave goodbye to civilization and hello to the unsettling silence of a vast, empty lake surrounded by virgin rainforests older than the Amazon. The houseboat – all mod-cons, but unattractively constructed from corrugated iron – is staffed with a captain, a chef and a trekking guide named Su. After 90-minutes, the captain steers us over to the edge.
Hopping out of the boat onto a slim stretch of sandy shore, the blue sky quickly vanishes as we forge into a jungle of 50-metre-high trees. We venture deep inside, traversing small waterfalls and streams, clinging to vines and ropes as we manoeuvre along a narrow, muddy path – and manically picking leeches off our boots and trousers.
Having spent a stressful half an hour flicking the buggers off every few steps, I finally lose it and take refuge on a boulder. That’s when my new favourite bird arrives. The blue-winged pitta is nicknamed “the leech-eating bird” in Malaysia. Sadly, she barely makes a dent in the resident population, so our respite is short. We press on, finally tumbling out of the dark rainforest back onto the sandy lakeshore.
Peeling off our boots and socks, we expect the worst. Miraculously, Tim and I aren’t bitten, although Su has a leech clinging to his big toe, with blood gushing out of the wound. He’s nonplussed, claiming they remove only bad blood and can actually be good for you. I’m not convinced.
As dusk nears, we hop into a dinghy for a ride through some narrow inlets. We’re looking out for hornbills – enormous toucan-looking birds – when we happen upon a family of seven wild Asian elephants. We stop the boat near the shore, and watch as they knock down trees and nibble on grass, just a few metres from our boat. It’s almost enough to make you forget about the leeches.
The sandy beaches of Langkawi beckon the next day, via a half-hour flight from Penang. Floating in the bath-warm Andaman Sea, Langkawi has the laid-back feel of its neighbouring Thai islands, but with lush rainforests, wetlands and hills filled with exotic animals.
The blissful Balinese ambience of the five-star Datai hotel feels a world away from the back-to-basic “luxury” houseboat, but the setting is just as stunning, right on a thickly rainforested hillside, with a private boardwalk down to a calm, clear horseshoe bay with sandy beach, bath-warm waters and small coral reef.
Relaxing on our suite’s balcony on the first night, we’re at treetop height, so the wildlife viewing is done and we have cocktails in hand instead of scythes. Luckily, leeches are less common on Langkawi – but there’s another predator to watch out for.
Sipping mojitos, we’re in dozy holiday mode, soaking up the rainforest and sea views. In just half an hour, we’ve spotted a loved-up pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills, a dainty flying squirrel, a family of adorable dusky leaf monkeys - and a gang of noisy long-tailed macaques.
The macaques spot us, too, and start swinging through the trees towards us with criminal intent. We’d been warned by the staff to be wary of them. Tourists keep feeding the macaques so they can get pictures with them, and now they’ve turned aggressive.
Within moments, we’re surrounded by at least a dozen, some nearly as big as me, baring their teeth and barely deterred by our shouts. I flee inside, with Tim right behind, but not fast enough – a burly male macaque takes a swipe and catches his foot, leaving a nasty scratch. We manage to bolt the doors, but they rattle them so hard, we’re afraid the glass will break. Eventually, they give up and nab the fruit from our drinks on the balcony before disappearing back into the jungle.
A bottle of wine and gastronomic dinner at the hotel’s stilted Thai restaurant helps us recover, and we plan the week’s activities – golf, tennis, a visit to the island’s night market.
That’s the plan – but lethargy takes over, and we barely leave the hotel grounds for three days, flopping by the hillside adult-only pool and strolling down to the beach for a jaunt in the hotel’s hobie cat (a small sail boat). We get massages in the rainforest spa huts and take our binoculars to lunch at the beachside international restaurant, zooming in on multi-coloured butterflies and birds as waiters serve us papaya salads and chilli burgers.
Reenergised, on our fourth day, we book a couple of last-minute wildlife-spotting trips with Birds Malaysia, who have an office at The Datai.
After sunset that night, we notice a few creatures flying from tree to tree in the rainforest canopy by the adult-only pool. “Probably a Colugo,” says Irshad the next morning when we ask him. “Often called the Flying Lemur, it’s actually a nocturnal mammal with webbed skin between its legs, allowing it to glide, but it can’t fly.” On the way to his minivan, Irshad points to a tree with a large grey growth on it. Suddenly, the growth blinks, with lemur-esque come-hither eyes. It’s a female Colugo, getting her daytime 40 winks.
Our first stop is a sleepy mangrove half an hour from the hotel, and within moments we’ve spotted three species of Kingfishers – the Common, the White-collared and Langkawi’s unique Brown-winged. We watch these iridescent beauties for 15 minutes as they flit across the still inlet, blithely passing over dozens of bizarre 20cm-long Mudskippers, a fish that walks on land. I get a fright when I notice a two-metre-long crocodile zooming across the water in our direction, but it turns out to be the harmless Water Monitor Lizard, abundant on Langkawi.
The fast-paced Kingfisher sightings set the stage for a two days of oh-so-easy birding and wildlife-spotting in mangroves, rice paddies and on the island’s tallest hill, the 881m Gunung Raya. Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Greater Flame-backed Woodpeckers, Chestnut Munias and Brahminy Kites make plentiful appearances. But it’s on Gunung Raya that we finally see the enormous and gorgeous Great Hornbill, its golden beak so vast, you wonder how it manages to lift its own head, much less fly.
On our final outing, we’re walking up to a waterfall when Irshad suddenly throws his arms out to stop us moving any further. He points to a small stream just ahead, where we glimpse a long brown-speckled tail slithering into the undergrowth – a magnificent six-metre reticulated python. Its constricting talents are usually deployed on birds and small mammals, but it’s easily capable of squeezing the life out of a human if it feels threatened. That blue-winged pitta might have been helpful, but Irshad has turned out to be the real life-saver.
Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3859, www.virginholidays.co.uk) has five nights at The Datai from £1,455pp (two sharing), full board, including flights from Heathrow to Langkawi and transfers. Bird Malaysia (00 60 12 584 6184, www.bird-malaysia.com) offers guided bird watching from The Datai, with some excursions free, or five half-days from on Langkawi from £217pp. They also organise the Belum-Temengor Forest Reserve houseboat excursions from £606pp (full board) for two nights, including flights Langkawi to Penang and transfers.