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Malaysia: Embarking on experiential learning in nature escapades close to the urban spaces of Kuala Lumpur
Sungai Chilling in the province of Selangor, Malaysia, is a nature reserve consisting of a picturesque waterfall and the Sungai Chilling Fish sanctuary, a project under the Selangor State Fisheries Department. This idyllic nature trove being located roughly at a distance of 75kms from the northern peripheries of Kuala Lumpur that involves about an hour and half drive via the town of Kuala Kubu Bharu, is one of the main eco-travel spots closest to the bustling spaces of Kuala Lumpur.
For day-trippers and campers, Sungai Chilling provides a perfect setting for nature-based recreational opportunities within a convenient distance. The central attraction, the Chilling waterfalls, is located at a certain height that makes it necessary for visitors to cross the rapid flowing river 5 times and a trek uphill for almost 4 hours through the bushes and dense vegetation of Malaysian rainforests. The difficulty in negotiating with rapid flowing river are generally moderate especially on a rainless day and is therefore somewhat within the reach of softer ecotravelers. However, during rainy days and thunderstorms, the hike can become challenging and can involve considerable levels of risk as the waterflow in the river increases substantially sometimes taking the form of flash floods. In October, 2015, a group of 21 visitors were stranded near the waterfalls as the water levels in the area around it reached considerable levels and disrupted human movement after heavy rainfall. The site attracts visitors and hikers during weekends and public holidays, from all walks of the society, both demographically and ethnically speaking, who embark on this 4 hour trek involving river crossing multiple times with enthusiasm and thrill. Campers are allowed to set up tents for overnight stay on the river bank just outside the entrance to the trek path to the waterfalls.
The entry fees to the sanctuary and the trek route is an extremely humble RM1 (USD 0.25). Deposit amount RM3-4 (USD 0.71- 0.95) are required to be paid for plastic bottles or any other similar material to be carried inside the park and the amount is refundable if they are brought back by the trekkers and visitors. Campsite charges are RM4 (USD 0.95) with an amount of RM50 (USD 12) / 150 (USD 36) to be deposited and refundable if the campsite is left clean. These modest charges for entry, use of campsite and deposit amounts make it affordable to any visitor and add to the egalitarian aspect of this attraction in the economic sense. On the other hand such modest charges also ensures cleanliness as It was observed that throughout the hike though the forests and rivers, there was almost no trace of trash at any point.
The entrance to this sanctuary has an open space next to the river bank where there is an entry ticket counter, a public toilet and a few food kiosks run by local Malaysian Fast food joint Ramli. Food is not allowed to be taken on hiking route but only to be consumed outside it. This area has no electricity but few solar power facilities that provide lighting to the campers and caretakers of the reserve after sundown. Cellular connectivity is highly inconsistent here and at times there is no connectivity for considerable time period. This provides ample opportunities for visitors to get disconnected from the epidemiologic digital life and focus on experiential learning of the environment and ecology and intense face-to-face socialisation with friends, family and fellow visitors. The socialisation process that occurs here does not only consist of social interactions but also attitudes and behaviour reflecting solidarity, kinship and cooperation.
As a part of field trip for degree students in tourism and hospitality in relation to a module on experiential learning outdoors on tourism, I was able to experience the intensity of student participation and social engagement under the ideal conditions provided by the natural settings of Sungai Chilling. Trekking through the forest trails and more significantly, negotiating through the fast flowing waters and slippery boulders in the river did make the experience reasonably challenging for the students. This provided the scope in one hand, for cooperation and kinship in the form of helping each other in forming human chains to make the difficult river crossings easer and on the other, a deeper understanding of the somatic and epistemic aspects of nature-based recreation. The experience provided the opportunity to exhibit leadership skills for those who had prior expertise of negotiating with difficult conditions of natural settings. Students with nature-based experience were assisting fellow students in negotiating through the difficulties they were facing during the 4 hour trek. This had a snowballing effect on other students who were trying to lend a support to other visitors from and trekkers who were facing difficulties during the experience. However, it was observed that
the natural settings at Sungai Chilling is not the most difficult to engage with or extraordinary to experience compared to many other far more exotic ecotourism settings in Malaysia yet it offered immensely in terms of providing ideal opportunities for visitors from urban areas who have very little experience of nature beforehand, to learn the thrills and beauties in nature and importance of human fellow-feeling amid natural experiences. The low connectivity of cellular and internet services made the socialisation process among the students more intense in terms of understanding each other better as against the self-absorbed behaviour induced by digital gadgets in well-connected places. Nature troves like Sungai Chilling can potentially break the malefic illusion of social connectedness in the virtual settings driving urban lives today. Having said that, it is also imperative to realise that technological and digital devices can facilitate effective visitor movement and management especially during any emergencies.
Incidents of flashfloods and inundation during thunderstorms and heavy rains have been reported at Sungai Chilling in many instances in the past including the October, 2015 flooding incident. Emergencies arising out of such incidents can be dealt with more strategically with the use of technology for rapid communication and effective monitoring of such situation.
Given the significance of Sungai Chilling as a simplistic yet a reasonably intense means of experiencing nature close to a mega-urban area, public transport connectivity is an aspect that remains neglected. The Kuala Kubu Bharu KTM station is the nearest public transport link but services are not regular and there are no public transport services connecting the station with Sungai Chilling. Moreover, there are no automobile parking facilities near to the entrance to the sanctuary leaving visitors to park their vehicles on the space left on both sides of the narrow road that also leads to Fraser Hills. This clogs the area near to the entrance and on the road. Hence, in terms of accessibility, the best means being private transport and yet the absence of parking facilities at a suitable zone that causes congestion, makes the place less smart in environmental and egalitarian terms than many other nature spots within and closer to Kuala Lumpur. In addition, it was also observed as a part of the experiential learning that professional guides were required to be provided by the sanctuary authorities as some river crossings involved certain levels of difficulty and risk. Moreover, there was a need for better signage indicating the entrance to the sanctuary, directions to different areas of the sanctuary and precautionary measures. For recreational purposes, there is a need for more provision of relaxation areas along the banks of the river in the form of huts and benches.