Belum in full bloom

Belum in full bloom


Hidden in one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests, in the Belum Valley, on the shores of Tasik Temenggor in Upper Perak, are some of the great wonders of the floral kingdom. Visitors often emerge with tales of exciting sightings: of fungi, plants, herbs and flowers, not to mention animals.

Forest guide Mohd Zaidie admiring the rafflesia found in the forest near Kampung Sungai Chuweh in the Belum Valley.
One particular flower that never fails to catch the attention of scientists and laymen alike is the Rafflesia. Its bloom is a beauty to behold but one must be prepared to pay in sweat and blood in order to worship it in its natural habitat. These giants of the floral kingdom are normally found on rugged slopes in leech-infested territory in lowland forests. An encounter with the flower depends much on luck. The flower wilts after only three or four days, and even the presence of buds do not guarantee a bloom. Some think it is easier to strike a lottery than to come face to face with a perfect bloom.

Malaysia is known to have seven species of rafflesia, of which three – R. cantleyi, R. hasseltii and R. kerrii – can be found in Perak. Recently it was announced that Perak is actually blessed with a fourth species, the R. azlanii named after the Sultan of Perak Sultan Azlan Shah. The Malaysian Nature Society first discovered this species in the Belum Valley during a scientific expedition in 1993.

Recently, photographer Saiful Bahri and I decided to visit a known rafflesia site on the shores of the Temenggor lake upon hearing of a flower in bloom.

We took a boat and stopped at Kampung Sungai Chuwey, where Banding Island Resort executive director Arphan Ahmad, who was our contact person, paid the headman Kawah Careng a RM20 fee.

The Jahai orang asli village has 17 families with 79 people. They are mainly hunters and gatherers of jungle produce.

The Temenggor lake is the source of water for the orang asli.
“The settlers from the village were the ones who informed us about the Rafflesia. We have an agreement to pay them RM20 each time we bring clients to the site,” said Arphan. He said the agreement means the orang asli have a source of income and it also helps to preserve Rafflesia sites.

Arphan said several Rafflesia sites had been destroyed in the past when the orang asli cut the buds for sale to traders for a small fee. The Rafflesia, or bunga patma is a traditional medicine to the Malays who believe it to have the ability to shrink wombs after delivery.

The natural habitat we were heading for was located a few minutes ride from the village. Our boat was parked where white water-lilies grew beside some rocks.

We climbed up the bank, carefully placing our feet to avoid the slippery moss-covered patches on the rock surface.

Trekking along a rugged, gentle slope in the humid forest was an energy-sapping task. On the way our guide Mohd Zaidie Abu Bakar showed us some herbal plants. These included the tapak harimau leaves, which the orang asli boil in water and drink as a remedy for diarrhoea, and the tongkat ali, the Malaysian Viagra.

The beauty we came to see was basking in the sun, whose rays had filtered through the canopy. The orang asli had fenced up the site using raffia strings and put up a signboard to claim their find. Black patches had started to appear on two of the lobes of the flower, indicating that the bloom was at least three days old.

One of the gigantic trees found in Rimba Kiroi in Belum.
Looking at the pattern of the white warts on its lobes, I deduced that the flower, with a diameter of 35cm, was likely to be that of the R. hasseltii. We took turns to have our photograph taken with the flower while taking care not to step on its host plant, a Tetrastigma vine, or the buds nearby. Two of the orange coloured buds would probably bloom in a day or two.

On our way back to Banding, we visited Rimba Kiroi, a forested area where the Banding Island Resort organises motivation camps for clients or ferry tourists on day visits. Walking along a looping trail, Mohd Zaidie pointed out nenering fruits, normally grown in orang asli settlements.

We also saw gigantic trees like the kekabu which produces cotton-like flowers used by rural folks to make pillows. Other interesting plants found at the site were several species of wild ginger, begonias and herbs.

We left with the thought that the Belum Valley never fails to fascinate visitors. W

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