“People used to come here and stay… We’d have so much fun – I’d take them out into the countryside, down to the kampungs and show them what life here is like. We’d go into the jungle, up to the national park, and…” Mr Tan sighed and abandoned his recollection. I’d disturbed him as he locked up his guesthouse after what had apparently been yet another guest-free day at Chong Heng Backpackers. Fishing gear hung from the store’s walls, a sign of Mr Tan’s second line of business, one that he had started in hope of making ends meet with hooks and reels of fishing line.
Jerantut sits in the centre of Peninsular Malaysia. It is the closest town to Taman Negara – the “national park” Mr Tan spoke of – Malaysia’s largest swathe of old-growth rainforest, and one of the country’s main attractions for eco-minded tourists. Mr Tan opened Chong Heng in the 1990s, when Jerantut enjoyed a steady flow of visitors who stopped here on their way to tackle Taman Negara’s adventurous jungle treks.
Today, visitor numbers have ebbed to the point where few people even bother changing buses in Jerantut, let alone overnighting. The region’s two main tour operators now transport visitors directly from Kuala Lumpur or the Perhentian Islands to the national park headquarters, and improvements in the road network mean that Jerantut and Mr Tan are now comprehensively bypassed.
The guestbook at Chong Heng Backpackers was full of enthusiastic but sporadic comments: “Why does nobody come here? It’s brilliant!” in 2009, to “Still nobody here…” in 2012. The commenters all praised the welcoming Mr Tan, and wrote that they had enjoyed staying in his simple, old-school, fan-cooled rooms. At that point in my trip I was jaded from a month of visiting and reviewing one uninspiring guesthouse after another, and I found it a wonderful break from the underwhelming standard set by the majority of Malaysian budget hotels.
If you’re heading for Taman Negara, ignore TripAdvisor and escape from the major tour operators and lists of “must-sees” – just for a night. Slow down, break your journey in Jerantut and stroll down Jalan Besar to Mr Tan’s maroon-fronted shophouse; stop for a beer, chat to the owner and spend a night in easy-going small-town Malaysia.
Chong Heng Backpackers’
Jalan Besar, Jerantut
Telephone: +60 (0)9 266 3693 or +60 (0)13 963 6019 (it’s best to call ahead)
20 ringgit ($5, £3.50, HK$45) for a double room