As far as mythical legends go, Lake Chini has remained out of the public eye, shrouded in mist and mystery for many years. Paula Tan discovers one of the country’s hidden gems as she makes her way to Pahang, the tranquil state.
A mere 85 kilometers from the bustling city of Kuantan stands a mystical place where an ancient empire is believed to lie slumbering, guarded by a legendary monster. Here begins the tale of Lake Chini, whose banks have witnessed the changing times, yet kept their secrets from a skeptical world.
Lake Chini is Malaysia’s second-largest natural freshwater lake, 12.565 acres of lush wetlands comprising a dozen interconnecting bodies of water.
Historians believe that the lake is the site of an ancient Khmer city, from an era when the Khmer empire extended into the Malay peninsula.
Locals, on the other hand, believe that the mysterious lake is guarded by a dragon-like beast known as Naga Sri Gumum. Over the decades, there have been occasional reports of sightings, but as in the case of the Loch Ness monster, these have never been scientifically proven.
Over time, the existence of seven pyramidlike hills near Lake Chini has sparked interest in the possibility of a lost Khmer civilization that could date back to the 12th century.
While there is no proof that the hills are man-made, there is a likelihood that it is part of a lost city that lies at the bottom of the lake. This is based on a theory that the area was submerged in water after the fall of the Khmer empire, of which the city was a part of in the 15th century.
Although many have made claims of this elusive sunken city, little effort has been made to unravel the mystery. Based on pieces of porcelain found in the area, the city could have been built when the Khmer empire was at its zenith.
Ruled between 802 and 1432 by a succession of “god kings”, the Khmer empire had its capital in Siem Reap, Cambodia, home to the famed Angkor Wat. According to locals, the “pyramids” became more evident when one of the unique hills in the nearby vicinity of Padang Kerbau was cleared by a plantation company.
Legends aside, Lake Chini is blessed with vast natural bounty that is rich in biological resources. There are 138 species of territorial flora, 300 species of non-aquatic vertebrates, and 144 species of freshwater fish. Thousands of pink and white water lilies blossom across the lake between August and September, transforming it into a vibrant floating garden.
From the Lake Chini resort, a boatman can steer you across the lake through a charming secret arch of river rushes, a hidden gate to Kampung Cendahan. This is where the local indigenous community, or orang asli, comprising the Jakun tribe, resides in a small clearing.
Here, life moves slowly, unchanged over the centuries, as these simple folk rely on cultivating “Tongkat Ali” and other herbal roots for an income, retiring to their makeshift huts at the end of the day. In villages like these, the old ways live on in the fine woodcarvings, combs, trinkets and blowpipes lovingly handmade from bamboo, and laid out in a small, yet proud display for visitors. On request, a tribesman will oblige with a blowpipe demonstration, or reveal how the tribe lays traps to snare small animals for food.
For visitors who enter via Kampung Belimbing or the Kuala Chini jetty, the 30-minute boat journey along the winding Chini River under a canopy of giant tropical trees is nothing short of magical. During the lotus season, flowers are plentiful and a single bloom makes a delightful souvenir, with an additional fun factor when the boatman makes you a hat out of a lotus leaf.
The area surrounding Lake Chini offers several exciting routes for jungle trekking, and terrain that challenges any 4WD enthusiast. Local guides are ever ready to direct visitors to the Terapai and Mentagan Waterfalls, or on a hike up to Chini Mountain for the more adventurous – an endeavour that will require an overnight stay on the peak.
Go lake-hopping across the 12 lakes, a seemingly endless expanse of water, or revel in the great outdoors at camping sites that take you back to nature. Alternatively, opt for a homestay at the nearby Kampung Baru Salong if creature comforts are essential for you.
Nature at its finest
One of Lake Chini’s most popular activities is fishing, and the best time to try your hand at this is between November to January, when the rains increases the volume of the lake. Boatmen who ply the area will be more than happy to show you the best spots to seek out the giant Snakehead fish, or toman, which you can snare with tiny green frogs as bait. Another species that is popular among visiting fishermen is the catfish, or baung, that often emerges in the evenings in search of food.
For visitors traveling with children, bird watching is an enjoyable pastime, as the vicinity boasts a wide variety of avian life, along with the plump squirrels that come to feed on palm kernels set out at the resort especially for them. A stroll on the banks of the lake reveals a captivating array of flora and fauna, including the popular pitcher plant, also known locally as the “monkey cup.” If you’re lucky (or unlucky), you may even meet a crocodile on the riverbanks where they often nest, protecting their eggs. However, these creatures are fairly shy of humans and are likely to take refuge in the water, unless provoked.
Lake Chini Research Centre, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s field station at Chini, is a research hub dedicated to the preservation and monitoring of the ecological site. Located just beside Lake Chini Resort, the centre is an educational eye-opener for students, conservationists, and visitors seeking information about the lake and its flora and fauna.
On your nature ramble, an interesting addition would be the Bebar peat swamp forest, or Black Water Jewel. It takes its name from the Bebar river that flows within it from an orang asli settlement called Runchang, to the fishing village of Nenasi by the South China Sea.
Peninsular Malaysia’s largest forested wetland in terms of area covered, the Bebar forest is located about forty kilometres from the nearby royal town of Pekan. The forest’s rich biodiversity has made it an area of conservation interest at both national and global levels. It is also the main artery of a peat swamp legacy which forms the core of Southeast Pahang.
Despite its myriad of activities and visitors, Lake Chini unfailingly revisits its forgotten past at dusk. By day, it is an ode to creation, a joyous rippling blue in the breeze and sunshine. Yet, tranquil and still after the last evening boat returns to its mooring post, it changes moods, taking on a quiet charm as if awaiting a lover. In the deep purple hue of its waters, the night sky is reflected with thousands of stars. And as the nocturnal birds call to each other across the tall grasses, the legends come alive once more.
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