Malaysia - one country, but many islands

Normally tourists fly to Malaysia, which has 4500 km of coastline, for its dream islands in the warm tropical sea with beautiful coral reefs, like Thioman – or for the orangutans in Borneo. But for freshwater fish? I learned how closely locals pay attention to their rivers during a telephone conversation with a ferryman who crosses a river in Sarawak/Borneo up to 20 times a day: "Does the river have clear or cloudy water?" I wanted to know. His answer: "I don't know, I've not really looked for 35 years".  

The right places for aquarists to go

We freshwater aquarists, who focus on small fish that you can't eat and on clear water for snorkelling, are a bit different!! Our biggest problem is getting information about the freshwater BEFOREHAND in order to reduce time-consuming searches on site. Since this hardly ever works out, we have to proceed differently: We look for possible arrival airports in Malaysia, mostly Kuala Lumpur or Penang, and research the region in advance with Google Maps, looking for rivers that can be reached by road and are not close to cities. These larger rivers are practically never clear, but they are fed by many smaller rivers. And these are precisely the ones that are exciting and rewarding destinations for us! In the small rivers we don't have to worry about crocodiles either. In really clear waters, crocodiles are not really a problem, but not everyone likes crocodile encounters.

Sometimes we hit the jackpot with very small and shallow streams: turtles and countless barbels, usually in shoals, swim around in them. Identifying barbels is not really easy. Almost all species somehow have a stripe and a point. From memory it is impossible to find out the species afterwards. But even a simple picture, even a still from the ActionCam, is very helpful. In very remote regions, fish are not used to humans at all and usually flee at great distances. An extendable pole with the ActionCam at the end often helps. Many fish ignore it after a short time and we get some very nice underwater shots of their habitats. Only for very small species and shrimps are the ActionCams not really ideal because of their extreme wide angle and the rather large minimum distance for sharp shots. 

If no one is around, we don't feel strange lying around in a stream only 30 cm deep to observe and photograph our pets. Pedestrians might think they have just discovered a victim of drowning and call the police. The lonelier we are, the less embarrassed we become. 

A thin diving suit helps prevent lobster-red skin and protects against the cold as well. After all air temperatures of 35 °C do not automatically mean pleasant water temperatures! We usually lie very still and accordingly cool down quickly. If you lie quietly in the water, you also have a good chance of seeing other animals such as monitor lizards, frogs and insects very closely. Apart from mosquitoes, no animals are hostile to us. They sometimes curiously examine us, snakes indicate this by intensive tongues moving, but then decide we’re inedible and move on. You really just have to wait calmly!

The beauty of the national parks

National parks are also worthwhile destinations. Endau Rompin Park on the east coast of Malaysia, north of Singapore and near the beautiful island of Thioman, has absolutely gorgeous landscapes with many noteworthy fish. However, national parks always mean paperwork: entrance fees, permits and prior clarification - never on site first! Never mention that you want to test the water or catch fish. That will only cause trouble. Pretend to be a normal tourist who wants to experience the beauty of nature.

Guides are often obligatory, but can be very helpful. They can always find their way back and sometimes even know where there are nice waters. But a question about fish and clear water almost always overwhelms them.

After rainfalls, the water levels rise enormously within a few hours. A road can then disappear and we need a plan B. Rapid streams can always be crossed. With a taut safety rope it is 100% risk-free, but even without a rope it almost always turns out fine. It usually looks worse than it really is. We're just not used to it! But a waterproof bag for the camera is always useful, also because of the rainfall. Never forget: It is called rainforest because it can rain suddenly and heavily!

Pet Shops in Malaysia

With a rental car or moped, we can move around Malaysia very freely and also quite safely. The crime rate is very low outside the big cities and Malaysians are friendly people. There are many and also very large pet shops in Malaysia. The multi-storey CTY (Chew Thean Yeang aquatic & pet) in Penang is particularly recommended. There you can marvel at all the breeding forms that are banned in Germany: flowerhorns, arowanas, blood parrot cichlids and lightfish. A visit to discus and arowana breeders is always worthwhile. You can simply drive there without an appointment, knock, ring or call. If someone opens the door, you are 100% welcome to take a look at the fish. When it's time to change the water, be sure to watch: the water is drained until the discus are all lying flat on their sides. Then it is filled up again and the discus are happy. What was that again about the delicate kings of aquarium fish, which are reserved for absolute experts only...

Malaysia is great! The big cities alone are worth a trip, but the partly very pristine nature with real primary forest is world class. In addition, the Malaysian peninsula is a safe destination and can be reached by direct flights from Germany in 11 hours. Sabah and Sarawak are not considered safe. Piracy takes place in the waters around Malaysia. Visitors to Singapore should consider neighbouring Malaysia as worthwhile. You can even drive from Singapore to Malaysia by car.

Travel tips

Flights start at €500, then mostly to the capital Kuala Lumpur. Without bargain prices, non-stop flights are around €1000. Hotels start at €8 per night, but can also be as high as €120 in 5-star establishments. The cost of living is far below Germany. Street food is good and cheap.

The best time to travel depends very much on where exactly you want to go: For the west coast (Penang, Kuala Lumpur): January, June-August and September. On the east coast (Thioman, Perhentian, Redang), the least rain falls in January/February, June/July and November/December. East Malaysia does NOT describe the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, but the northwestern part of Borneo (Sabah & Sarawak). There, the months of March to September are ideal for travelling. Typhoons usually occur from May to November, but only in the regions near Borneo. Dry seasons, however, only mean that it rains much less than in the rainy seasons. Short, heavy rains can occur at any time, usually in the afternoon.

Germans do not need a visa for Singapore or Malaysia. Polio (infantile paralysis) and hepatitis A and B are at the top of the vaccination recommendations. If you’re leaving the islands and the direct coastal strips, a malaria prophylaxis (tablets) is highly recommended. Overnight stays in simple conditions in the jungle put us at especial risk of mosquitoes. The best protection is mosquito repellent. However, as we aquarists are constantly getting in and out of water, the products all keep getting washed off. That’s why it’s better not to snorkel at dusk when the malaria-carrying mosquitoes are active, but rather during the day and in absolute darkness.

© 04.09.2022
Heiko Blessin
Heiko Blessin

Tauchen, Fotografie, Aquaristik, Haie, Motorrad


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