Malaysia's natural landscape lends itself quite naturally to eco-tourism. Visitors are able to immerse themselves in the many rainforest reserves and well-signaged parks throughout the country. There is really no better place in the world to experience exotic flora and fauna in their pristine tropical environment, so up close and personal!
Malaysia's rainforests, just a few degrees north of the equator, are among the oldest in the world - 130,000 years old, to be exact. Even before Malaysia's independence in 1957, the administrators of the then Malaya recognized the great potential these vast natural resources held and placed much of them under federal care. Such conservation policies remain in force to this day
It is therefore not surprising that nearly 75% of Malaysia's land area remains forested, with approximately 60% of that being virgin rainforests. A signatory to the Rio Summit in 1992, Malaysia has pledged to retain a minimum of 50% of its forests and tree cover in perpetuity as its contribution to the global concern.
As one of the twelve mega-biologically diverse countries in the world, Malaysia is able to boast at least 15,000 species of flowering plants, 286 species of mammals, 150,000 species of invertebrates, 4,000 species of fishes in addition to the countless micro-organisms.
Not surprisingly, it is a point of pride for Malaysia that this kind astonishing level of biodiversity calls Malaysia's rainforests home.
Among the biggest and best-known tropical flora and fauna here are the Sumatran Rhinoceros, the Sun Bear, the Malayan Tiger, the Orangutan, Rainforest Tarantulas and the Proboscis Monkey. Borneo is especially well-known for the giant odorous flower, the Rafflesia - the world's biggest flower.
But until today, the rainforest reveals its secrets slowly. For example, only recently, a species of Pygmy Elephants, previously thought to be simply young Asian Elephant calves, was discovered!
For visitors keen on exploring Malaysia's biodiversity, among the least strenuous pastimes is bird-watching. Ideal locations for this include the mountain resorts of Fraser's Hill and Cameron Highlands, the Kuala Selangor Bird Sanctuary and a number of wetlands and coastal sanctuaries. All of these natural bird sanctuaries are within just a few hours' drive from the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Access is generally convenient although some jungle trekking may be necessary in some places.
Of the many parks accessible to the casual visitor, the one most convenient to explore is the country's premier National Park, Taman Negara, established in 1938. Visitors will find a number of forest and nature activities here, all of which are safe and supervised by park wardens.
A visit to Taman Negara should include a walk on the 510m-long forest canopy bridge suspended 45m above ground level. This unique perspective of the surrounding rainforest from the level of the leafy canopy is exciting, to be sure, but not for the faint of heart.
Spelunking, or cave exploration, awaits the adventurous. Inside the Gua Telinga, or Ear Cave, with its long and narrow tunnels, the lucky spelunker might come across Whip Spiders or even the harmless and shy Cave Racer, a white boa constrictor that feeds almost entirely on cave bats. Other caverns and shorter caves are situated close by, such as the Gua Daun Menari, or Cave of the Dancing Leaves. Wind blowing across the mouth of the cave creates intermittent turbulences, which cause fallen leaves to float and twirl.
The many other parks in Malaysia include wetlands such as the Kuala Selangor Bird Sanctuary and Tanjung Piai, and the forest reserves such as the Mulu and Niah National Parks in Sarawak. The Niah caves are known for the prehistoric human relics excavated there, as well as for the supposedly 'energy-giving' birds' nests so prized by the Chinese and harvested by the native community of the area.
The Mulu Caves house one of the largest caverns in the world, capable of accommodating several jumbo jets.
In Peninsular (West) Malaysia are the freshwater lakes of Kenyir, Chini and Bera, where plenty of freshwater fishes, such as carp and catfish, co-exist with the giant flesh-eating fish, the Toman.
Those more interested in the cooler climate of the highlands might be inclined to climb South-east Asia's highest peak, Mount Kinabalu (4,101m) in Sabah, or to trek up Mount Tahan, accessing it from Taman Negara.
A visit to Malaysia's many marine parks is also a must for the eco-tourist. These include the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park in Sabah and the Pulau Payar Marine Park off the state of Kedah, just south of the idyllic islands of Langkawi.
On the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia lies the Pulau Redang Marine Park, while a number of pristine islands further south, such as Tioman, Aur and Sibu, await both the adventurous and the romantic. On the eastern shores of Sabah lies the famed island of Sipadan, declared by Jacques Cousteau as 'an untouched piece of art' in 1989. One of the foremost dive sites in the world, Sipadan remains relatively unspoilt due to years of diver management and environmental controls with only limited numbers being allowed access daily.