I hammock camped in the Gunung Gading forest because I was too cheap for a hotel.

Are you staying in a cabin?” “No, I brought my own gear.” “Oh. There is a camping area behind this building. It’s 5 ringgit a night. “Ok.”  I paid the fee and off I went. She didn’t say I HAD to stay at the camp site…only that I could.

Back in August, I was in Kuching, Malaysia (see previous blog post here). I had just arrived from a year of field work at an orangutan research site in Indonesia, and had about a week to explore Malaysia on my own before heading out on a National Geographic-funded expedition into the Batang Ai rainforest with Cheryl Knott and Tim Laman.  I had  originally hoped to climb Mt. Kinabalu, but I ended up scrapping that because Sabah is on the other side of Borneo, and plane tickets were a bit too expensive for me at the time. Out of curiosity, I checked if there a bus route to Kinabalu. There is indeed a way to get there by bus, but it is a mind and butt-numbing 2 day journey involving mountains, dirt roads, questionable bridges, and a border crossing with the sultanate of Brunei. Who in their right mind would ever partake in such torture, I wouldn’t know…so I quickly scrapped that idea.

Emboldened to still do something adventurous, I saw plenty of options available near Kuching. There was Bako National Park, Kubah National Park…all good options. But when I heard the famous Rafflesia (the plant with the world’s largest flower) was in bloom at Gunung Gading National Park, I narrowed down my choice immediately. Rafflesia plants are only in bloom for about a 6 to 7 day period, after which the flower withers away and dies…so it was now or never.

I packed my bags, and headed for Gunung Gading. It’s kind of a pain to get there, so most people end up hiring a transport or booking a tour. But I figured out a way to get there by bus…definitely not the easiest way, but I had the advantage of being able to speak Malay (which is virtually identical to Indonesian). The bus doesn’t take you all the way to Gunung Gading, so knowing Malay came in very handy when I had to hire a local taxi driver to drive me through the final portion of the trip. I got off the bus in the middle of a town square, and as it usually happens when you’re a foreigner, I was immediately rushed by all of the taxi drivers, all of them shouting out variations of “TAXI TAXI” and “WHERE YOU GO FRIEND?” When I answered back in Malay, a couple of them seemed disappointed (it’s a bit harder to rip me off if they think I’ve lived here a while), but most of them got even more excited. I haggled out a deal, and had a nice conversation  with my driver on the way to the park.

I never planned on having this journey to Gunung Gading be a day trip. I wasn’t going back to Kuching that day…I was spending the night. Where? I wasn’t sure. But that was part of the fun. I briefly googled the rules for camping inside of Gunung Gading before I left town, but that didn’t reveal much. The rules were rather vague…apparently staying overnight was allowed, but the article made mention of this only in regards to staying at some guest cabins, or at a specified camping area near the HQ. It didn’t say anything about camping elsewhere. So I figured “well…it doesn’t say camping outside of those places is NOT allowed…”. So I packed food, water, and a hammock, and was planning to set up camp somewhere up the mountain (somewhere hidden and off-trail…just in case). Specifically, this mountain:

Gunung Gading, the mountain (photo from myholdiayinmalaysia.com)

When it came time to pay my entrance fee to the national park, they asked me if I was spending the night. I kept things deliberately vague regarding my full plans.

Are you staying in a cabin? 

No, I brought my own gear.”

“Oh. There is a camping area behind this building. It’s 5 ringgit a night.”


I paid the fee (equal to about $1.50, so cheap!) and off I went. She didn’t say I HAD to stay at the camp site…only that I could. LAWYERED. It was about a 3 hour hike up to where I was planning to set up camp. But first, I had a different mission: find and photograph the Rafflesia plant. The park doesn’t tell visitors where the rafflesia plants are, in order to make you hire a guide to take you there (and also so the plants stay hidden and relatively protected). But I figured I could avoid the extra expense and track it down myself, if I look for signs of disturbance. After living in the forest for a year, it’s not that hard to figure out where people have been. At the mountain, I saw tons of places where people had clearly walked off-trail, and I followed the disturbance signs to potential Rafflesia locations. I had to be very careful of where I stepped though, I didn’t want to trample any young Rafflesia plants (so I’m not encouraging anyone else to do this). I ended up finding a bunch of different Rafflesia plots…but there were no flowers at any of them! All I found at most of the plots were flags with dates written on them. I figure the dates must have stood for the last time the flower at that plot bloomed. I ended up searching for about three hours. And I found nothing. On my last attempt at tracking down a plant off-trail, I looked at my watch and saw that it was getting late. I needed to make it up to my camp site near the summit before dark, to set up camp. So I turned around and started going up hill. Little did I know that if I had kept walking ahead just 30 feet, I would have found the Rafflesia flower (but more on that later).

I was planning to camp near a waterfall, so I had access to water. I wanted to bathe before making camp, and ran up hill so I would have time to do this. The sign at the bottom of the hill said it was three hours to the top…I ended up making it shorter than two.

Standing over a rock at a waterfull at Gunung Gading.
I took a refreshing swim here before setting up camp. Water was safe to drink as well.

After a nice refreshing bath at the waterfall, I was all ready to set up camp. I had about thirty minutes before it got dark. Thankfully, I had my headlamp with me just in case. I walked a bit further up-hill, and walked about 3 minutes east of the trail, just so I was out of sight and no one would stumble across my campsite.

My hammock hanging off-trail.
My campsite, complete a hammock, a rain-tarp and a clothesline.

It was around 6:30pm when I finished setting up camp. I wasn’t sleepy at all yet, but there was really nowhere to go…it was almost pitch dark. About the only thing I could do was read. I didn’t have any books with me, but I had a bunch of eBooks on my iPhone. I ended up reading some Hemingway short stories for about 3 hours. Eventually, I fell asleep.

Not going to lie, it wasn’t the best sleep I ever had. Even though it’s a tropical climate, it gets surprisingly cold up in the mountain at night. I woke up many times throughout the night, sometimes due to strange noises, but mostly because I felt too damn cold. But on a positive note, waking up in the middle of the night let me see the awesome flourescent fungus that grows all over the forest floor. The leaf litter on the ground is covered with this glow-in-the-dark fungus that shines brightly in the night. I’d seen it before, but never as brightly as it was here. The whole forest floor was glowing. It’s pretty cool, and kind of trippy when you’re in the half-awake state that I was in. But I was very glad to see morning come, just because I wanted the night to be over due to the lousy sleep.

I decided to go take another dip in the waterfall, and then started heading back down towards HQ. I took my time going down this time, and explored a bit around the trails.

Crazy lianas at Gunung Gading
Twisting lianas on the trail.

I made it back down to HQ around 10am. I went inside to ask when the next bus to Kuching was, and learned that I still had about three hours. I sat down to think about what I should do from now until then. Seeing as I’d been disconnected for the last couple days, I decided to check-in on my phone using the HQ’s wifi. Then I read the news: Another Malaysia Airlines flight had crashed, this time over Ukraine, and Israel had just invaded the Gaza strip. “I’ve been gone for two days, and the world is going crazy”, I thought.

Just then, a tour group walked into the office, asking for a guide. Seeing as I had a couple hours to spare, I decided to join their group. I hadn’t seen the Rafflesia flower yet, after all…and that was kind of the reason I came. It was the best decision I made. Not only did I see the Rafflesia flower (which ironically was found right at the last spot I was going to check, before deciding to turn around to go set-up camp), the guide was AWESOME. During the entire day before, I hadn’t really seen that much wildlife….but this guide was a pro at spotting them. She said she was Dayak, and grew up living in the area, and working as a guide since she was young. She definitely had WAY better forest eyes than I do, or could ever hope to get. So she was a big help in getting me these photos:

Lizard at Gunung Gading

Flower Some sort of Cicada-like bug

A Rafflesia bud, which was set to bloom in a few weeks.
A Rafflesia bud, which was set to bloom in a few weeks.
What I came fore: the Rafflesia flower. It's the biggest flower in the world. It also smells like rancid meat.
What I came for: the Rafflesia flower. It’s the biggest flower in the world. It also smells like rancid meat.
The inside of a rafflesia flower. It's a bit of a scary-looking plant.
The inside of a rafflesia flower. It’s a bit of a scary-looking plant.

Moral of the story: guides are probably worth it. I felt I got way more out of the trip with the guide than I otherwise would have. Also, if you want to hammock-camp up a mountain, bring blankets. 

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