Though Malaysia’s Sarawak Province is home to a plethora of national parks, there’s only one where you can find the ultra rare Rafflesia flower: Gunung Gading National Park. Fortunately, the park, located in the town of Lundu, is within easy reach of Kuching. While a visit to see the world’s largest flower can be done as an easy day trip, don’t make any definite plans just yet. You’ll have to get lucky with your timing, as Rafflesias remain in full bloom for no more than several days.
Occasionally, within a single month, up to five or six Rafflesia’s may bloom somewhere within the confines of Gunung Gading National Park. Other months, however, may see no blooms at all. In 2017, there were no Rafflesias throughout May, June or July, while 2018 saw a few each in those same months.
Luckily, one of my free days in Kuching just happened to coincide with the first day of a flower’s full bloom (check here for updates). And I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to see this ever elusive flower, while also checking out some of the park’s waterfalls.
A Lucky Encounter
Arriving at the Lundu bus terminal, a local man asked everyone who was going to see the Rafflesia. He said he had a van and could take us there, as it’s normally a 20-30 minute walk. He also said he knew where the Rafflesia’s location was, and could walk us to it. He was going anyway to show his friend who’d arrived on the same bus, he said.
As the Rafflesias bloom in different locations every time, visiting the flower with an official park guide is normally compulsory. It costs RM30 around ($7-8 USD), which I thought was a bit much to ask for on top of the normal park entrance fee. The man seemed like a friendly local rather than a scammer, and so I decided to trust him and hop in his van. The other groups of foreigners on the same bus as me had their doubts, though, and passed up on the offer.
Thankfully, my instincts turned out to be right. This friendly local helped save me a decent amount of both time and money. He not only drove his friend and me to the park entrance, but after I paid the park admission fee, he guided us to the flower for free.
The Rafflesias will almost always be off trail, located deep within the forest. This time, at least, the location was fairly close to the park entrance. After a fairly easy walk, which involved stepping over some large stones and fallen tree branches, we came face to face with the world’s largest flower.
What's a Rafflesia?
Rafflesias are parasitic plants, of which there are 28 species. They can be found in tropical countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. They’ve only been known to Western science since the early 19th century. But indigenous inhabitants of rainforests, of course, have always known about them.
Despite being the world’s largest flower, Rafflesias lay down no roots, and are completely dependent on their hosts. And their hosts are a vine called Tetrastigma, a member of the grape family. No Tetrastigma means no Rafflesia.
Nobody can tell where one is going to emerge right up until they start to bloom – a process which can take up to 9 months. And once fully mature, Rafflesias remain in full bloom for no more than 4 or 5 days before they begin to rot.
The largest species, Rafflesia arnoldii, can reach up to 3 meters across. The ones at Gunung Gading National Park, however, are called Rafflesia tuan-mudae, and generally grow up to 50-70cm in diameter.
Interestingly, this flower in full bloom was situated right in front of a presumably old and rotting flower which was entirely black. And this one happened to be on the larger side for Gunung Gading National Park, measuring out to exactly 70cm across.
My unofficial guide and his friend had seen enough after a few minutes, but I wanted to stay longer to get some pictures. And so they returned after I told them I could find my way back to the trail on my own. It’s a pretty rare experience to get to hang out with one of these things all by yourself. I snapped as many photos as I could, but there are only so many shots you can take of a single flower – even the world’s largest!
And then it was time to head back to the main trail. But after a couple minutes of walking, I wasn’t so sure I was headed in the right direction. I soon realized that I didn’t recognize anything around me, and that the trail was nowhere in sight, either. This is exactly why a guide is compulsory, I realized.
I had to stop for a moment to try and remember small details from our journey over. I walked back closer to where the flower was, and found part of the river which I remembered seeing in the distance. And trying again from there, I started to recognize certain plants and rocks. And thankfully, I ended up making my way to the main trail unscathed.
But don’t do what I did. Definitely take a guide. And if you go with an unofficial one, be sure to walk back to the entrance with him!
Hiking the Waterfalls
My plan was to spend most of the day at the park. But I’d already returned to the main trail before the people on the same bus as me had even arrived! It was still very early, and I had plenty of time to explore the park’s other main attraction – its waterfalls. Formed by the Lundu river which flows through Gunung Gading, there are three main sections of the waterfall accessible by a single hiking trail.
After several days at Mulu National Park, where most of the trails are entirely flat, I was in the mood for some serious hiking. And Gunung Gading did not disappoint. I started my ascent up the steep trail, my first destination being ‘Waterfall 1’.
The waterfall, conveniently, is just a little off the main trail. There’s a clear sign indicating where to turn to see it. As Waterfall 1 is still at the lower level, the water is rather gentle, but scenic nonetheless.
Old Man Rock
Shortly after the first waterfall is another landmark called Old Man Rock. According to legend, a man of Chinese origin once got lost in the forest while out searching for produce. He ended up getting lost for days, and he eventually came across this large rock formation.
He rested at the rock for a few nights, praying for a sign that would help him find his way out. And eventually, he somehow did manage to escape the forest. He later credited the rock with his success, considering it holy. He returned to give it offerings and prayer, and a small shrine has remained at the site ever since.
Hiking up the steep path a little further, I eventually arrived at Waterfall 3. This one was a little difficult to access, and in the end, I’m not entirely sure I saw the main portion of it. Walking over a series of slippery rocks, I only encountered a pool without much flowing water. It didn’t seem like there was anywhere else to go, and it was too slippery to explore further.
According to local legend, there are three princesses who like to hang out and bathe in this pool. And supposedly, they’ve also planted some kind of ‘Love Bamboo’ in the vicinity. Though they’re guarded by wild beasts, if a man manages to find it then he’s destined to marry up to ten wives! Perhaps that’s what the Chinese man from the ‘Old Man Rock’ legend was looking for?
Finally, after a pretty strenuous climb up the damp and slippery trail, I finally made it to ‘Waterfall 7.’ This is easily the most impressive portion of the waterfall, and conveniently, there’s a nice little viewing platform set up right in front. I took the time to relax and reward myself with a snack, which I’d definitely recommend all visitors take with them.
Though it’s supposedly possible to climb all the way to the top of Gunung Gading (gunung means mountain), there aren’t any great views from what I’ve read, and that part of the trail was closed anyway during my visit.
One Last Trail
And so I made my descent, but realized I had quite awhile before the last bus back to Kuching. Back near the beginning of the trail, I remembered a section where the path forked into two, and decided to see what it was all about.
The path was called the Lintang Trail, and it was a hell of a climb. The first portion consisted entirely of steps, but they were much steeper than the trails up to the waterfall, and they seemed to go on forever. Finally reaching the top of the staircase, I walked through a forested trail, stepping over roots and ducking under branches, not entirely sure I was still on the right path. But finally I found a sign, pointing me in the right direction.
I arrived at a wooden walkway, only to discover that the rest of the trail was closed! And that’s why you should always consult with park headquarters before starting any of your treks. In any case, it was decent exercise and I still had plenty of time until the last bus.
I headed over into Lundu, had some lunch and some tea, and chatted with some friendly locals before taking the bus back into town.
Is Gunung Gading National Park Worth Visiting?
If there are no Rafflesia in bloom, then I’d have to say no. While the waterfalls were nice to look at, they really can’t compare with all the things you can see at a place like Bako National Park.
And if the Rafflesia is in bloom? Then yes, you should definitely go.
Also accessible as a day trip from Kuching is Kubah National Park, which was my original plan until I learned that the flower was in bloom. Therefore, I recommend keeping a few days open and flexible as you check for updates on Rafflesia blooming periods.
As mentioned above, Gunung Gading is an easy day trip from Kuching. First you’ll need to head to Kuching Sentral Bus Terminal. It’s accessible by public bus, but to make sure you arrive on time, it’s best to call a Grab car.
It’s imperative that you double check the schedule before you travel. The bus schedule at my hotel said 8:15am, and I left for the bus station intending to board at that time. Luckily, I arrived a little early, as when buying the ticket, I discovered that the schedule had changed! It would depart at 7:45am, while the next bus wouldn’t leave until 11am. Luckily, I made the early bus and got to the park just fine, but it was a really close call.
The bus you want to take is EP 7 bound for Lundu. Lundu is the town the park is situated in, and it’s about a 20-minute walk or so from the Lundu bus station. The buses back to Kuching depart 14:00 and 16:00, but again, double check in advance for any schedule changes.
Each ride costs RM12.
As exotic as a trip to Borneo may sound, Kuching is fairly easy to get to. There are plenty of flights between Kuching and Kuala Lumpur, which itself is reachable from all over the region thanks to being the main hub of AirAsia.
There are also direct flights between Kuching and Penang and Kota Kinabalu. Internationally, you can also fly between Kuching and Singapore as well as Pontianak, Indonesia.
Coming by bus, Kuching Sentral Terminal is very well connected to the rest of Sarawak.
Considering the city’s size, location isn’t incredibly important, as you’ll still be able to get most places on foot. Basically, aim for anywhere in between the Kuching City Mosque and the Cat Statue.
One popular place to stay is the Riverside Majestic Hotel, which is right across the street from the bus stop that takes you to Bako National Park. Otherwise, there are all sorts of options in Kuching, from luxury hotels to budget youth hostels.