It’s time to sing the praises of another of Malaysian’s picturesque smaller towns, as part of our ‘A place in Malaysia you’ve probably never heard of‘ series – this time it’s the town of Kuala Sepetang.
Home to the first railway station in the country, Kuala Sepetang, formerly known as Port Weld, is located about 70km from Ipoh. The railway line, built in 1885, ran between Taiping and Port Weld, which was once a thriving harbour for trade. Eventually, the water levels in the area became too low for ships to dock, so the harbour and the train station were deserted. All that’s left of the railway station now is the ticketing booth and the signboard.
Kuala Sepetang, which is a coastal town, thrives as a fishing village that specialises in crustaceans, as the nearby Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve and mudflat region is a hotspot for crabs, shrimps, lobsters and other shellfish.
The Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve, which spans over 43,000 hectares, is alive with local wildlife, including some rare species of birds and trees, and was gazetted as a Permanent Forest Reserve in 1906. Now it is recognized as one of the most well-managed mangrove ecosystem in the world. Scientists have set up a bird rehabilitation centre on the northern tip of the forest and silviculture programs are run by the Perak State Government to cultivate and maintain the trees.
The reserve is also home to a small population of rare pheasant called the Great Argus Pheasant, known locally as Kuang. These pheasants like to stay low when moving and only take short flights between low hanging branches of the mangrove trees.
Another famous inhabitant of the forest is the Microhyla nepenthicola, also known as the Matang narrow-mouthed frog which was only discovered in 2010. For a short while, this was the smallest frog known to mankind at only 10-12mm long; a big deal for a tiny amphibian. Now it has been succeeded by the Paedophryne amanuensis, which measures an incredible 7.7mm long.
Edit: The matang narrow mouthed frog is actually found at the Matang Wildlife Park or the Kubah National Park in Sarawak and not the Matang Forest Reserve in Perak.
What to do in Kuala Sepatang
Experience the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve
The reserve has been developed with a small number of wooden walkways, amenities, lighting and an information centre so that visitors can learn about the local wildlife and still enjoy the relatively untouched beauty of the forest. You can spend some time learning about the types of mangroves that make up the forest as well as the animals that inhabit the area. You might even glimpse a horseshoe crab while you’re there!
The Perak Government estimates that there are 41 species of mangroves in the forest and 19 mammals, including long-tail macaques, otters, and Malayan pangolins. However, the largest group of animals that can be spotted in this forest is birds.
In fact, the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is well known among birdwatchers, both locally and internationally, as a hotspot for resident and migratory water birds. An estimated 200,000 birds can be seen in the forest between August and April during these migrations, so you’ll be treated a magnificent view if you visit during that period.
Take a boat ride
Another exciting thing to do is take a boat ride along the river. You’ll be able to see the fishing village up close, cruise through the forest, birdwatch and perhaps, if you’re lucky, spot a pink river dolphin!
The Sousa Chinensis is a humpback river dolphin native Asia. They have either white or pinkish skin and they like to swim along with the boats sometimes. If the boat take you further out, you might be able to spot a dugong, as well, which would quite memorable.
Visit a charcoal factory
Another industry that thrives in Kuala Sepetang is charcoal making, which has been around since the 1930’s. The charcoal industry is booming here because of an abundance of material from the local mangrove forest.
To ensure the sustainability of the industry and protect the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve, the Perak State Government has implemented a 30-year work plan in collaboration with the charcoal factories. After the trees are harvested, the area is replanted with more mangrove seedlings and the area then is off limits for 30 years.
The most popular charcoal factory that you can visit is Mr Chuah’s Charcoal Factory which is owned by Mr Chuan Chow Aun. Mr Chuah has gained a reputation among locals for being an enthralling storyteller and tour guide, so you can rest assured that a trip to the charcoal factory will be as educational as it is exciting.
At the factory, Mr Chuah will teach you about the process of charcoal making, including choosing the right tree and debarking. And if you want, you can even try it out for yourself. Tours at the factory cost RM5 per person and arrangements can be made by calling Mr Chuah directly. You can find out more on the Charcoal Factory Facebook page.
Visit Kuala Gula
While you’re in the vicinity of the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve, you can also drive up to Kuala Gula, which is on the northern edge of the forest where the Kuala Gula River meets the Malacca Straits in the district of Kerian. This small town gets its name from the town’s history when its main crop was sugar cane, which supplied the local sugar industry – as Kuala Gula translates to ‘sugar estuary’.
Driving up to Kuala Gula from Kuala Sepetang is like driving from Shah Alam to Ampang, only about 40km away. The detour will be worth it because Kuala Gula has some beautiful experiences to offer as well.
Birdwatch at the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary
The bird sanctuary is perfect for getting some wonderful snapshots of birds, either in flight, resting, or wading the waters. The Perak government estimates that there can be as many as 85,000 birds in the mangrove forest, so you’re bound to see some feathery creatures while you’re there.
In 2004, the entire Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve was classified as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) by Bird Life International. IBA’s are identified to enable the documentation and protection of birds all around the world, and since the Matang Mangrove Reserve is an important halfway point for migrating water birds, this classification is significant.
The Department of Wildlife and National Parks have identified about 166 species of birds in the area, including some globally threatened species such as the Milky Stork and the Lesser Adjutant. During migration season, the forest is also visited by a variety of other water birds such as the waders, herons, and egrets. If you’re lucky, you might even be graced with the presence of the hard-to-spot Chinese Egret, which is also a globally threatened species.
At the sanctuary, you can learn about the various species of birds that have been identified and the threat level of each species. For some fun times, Malaysian Nature Society has prepared a check list of birds that you tick off as you spot them. Bird bingo!
Learn about belacan (shrimp paste) at the factory
The Chinese fishing village at Kuala Gula supports a thriving cottage industry as well, making belacan (shrimp paste) and dried shrimp, both staples in many Malaysian kitchens. You can tour a belacan factory and learn about the processes involved.
Fair warning, though, if you’re unfamiliar with belacan, you’ll have to brace yourself for the smell as shrimp paste is made from fermented shrimp or krill. Despite the smell, this will definitely be an educational tour, especially for culinary enthusiasts.
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