Blog: White water rafting in Malaysia

  • have yet to canoe in Malaysia, though it can’t too far off my schedule. I’ve identified a number of rivers that seem worthy candidates. As you may know Malaysia is split - with its sovereign territory occupying the Malay Peninsula (extending south of Thailand, but excluding the island of Singapore on the southern tip) and the northern portion of Borneo (where the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak abut the southern Indonesia territory of Kalimantan). Anyway, Sarawak and Sabah are very rugged, remote wildernesses, and I’d say there are some adventures there.

The ranges of the Malay Peninsula and the mountains of Borneo offer some of the best remote whitewater rafting and canoeing in South East Asia. There are rivers suited for the whole range of river adventurists – from novice to expert. River rapids are categorized from Grade I-V (Class I is easy; III is “intermediate” and V is for the experts, with turbulent rapids, waves, holes and tough routes), so know your limits, or otherwise find an experienced and professional rafting company.

The most popular rivers (river means ‘Sungai’ in Malay) to canoe in Malaysia are:

  • 1. Padas River, 170km from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, East Malaysia
  • 2. Selangor River, near Kuala Lumpur West Malaysia: There is a challenging 2hour run on this river, especially during the rainy season, with rapids ranging from Class I to Class V. See river.
  • 3. Kiulu River in Sabah, East Malaysia
  • 4. Kampar River, Perak State, Malay Peninsula
  • 5. Sungai Itek River, Perak State, Malay Peninsula
  • 6. Sungkai River, Perak State, Malay Peninsula: This river is better suited to kayaking.
  • 7. Jeram Besu, Pahang State, Malay Peninsula:
  • 8. Telom River, Pahang State, Malay Peninsula
  • 9. Kuala Perahu River, Pahang State, Malay Peninsula
  • 10. Loh River, Trengganu State, Malay Peninsula
  • 11. Sedim River, Kedah State, Malay Peninsula

There have been numerous deaths on Malaysian rivers as a result of poor tour guide practices. Then there was the drowning of a Dutch tourist on the Padas River in November and another fatality this Dec-07. The risks posed are:

  • 1. Rafting companies taking too high risks because of the desire to maximize profits. The implication is that they might:
  • 2. Run river tours after heavy rains and no assessment of any damages that have since developed
  • 3. Fail to practice safe procedures to safe time
  • 4. Rafting company staff not having the experience to assess the risk due to inadequate training or lack of safety procedure adherence
  • 5. If you want professionals I would go with river companies with experienced raft guides and the kayak rescuers on standby. The risk posed are adventurers getting trapped in holes, snagged by branches, trapped under the raft, though the buoyancy and headgear should otherwise prevent drowning and head injuries, assuming the gear is worn correctly. Choosing a responsible and safety-conscious operator is the key to avoiding mishaps. When rafting it does not help that 90% of any 13-party group are likely to be “virgins” to whitewater rafting.

Questions you can ask an operator before signing up for a rafting trip: 1. What grade is the river? Is it suitable for beginners? 2. What is your company’s safety track record like and what are the safety-and-emergency procedures? 3. Are your guides trained in Swiftwater Rescue and equipped with CPR and First Aid skills? 4. What kind of gear do you use and provide for participants (e.g. raft, helmet, PFD)? 5. Do you include insurance cover? Can this be arranged for us? Some companies like Pan-Global provide extensive coverage on outdoor sports 6. What is included in the cost? 7. What kind of clothing and things should one bring? 8. Do you have any referrals or testimonials from past participants?

Ensure the following: 1. You should be informed about the risks of rivers 2. The nature of rivers an how to pick features or characteristics 3. How to wear and use the safety equipment 4. How to paddle correctly – so you get good strokes and don’t hit your fellow paddlers with the oar. 5. What river guide instructions to listen to 6. Your guide should take you through some practice sessions on the river 7. How to stay in the raft when riding tough rapids 8. What you should do if you fall out or are thrown out of the raft, eg. Atch out for a throw bag (ie. a nylon sack). 9. They should be using good equipment If you think you are going to be an experienced rafter after a trip – Think about. You are a fee-paying slave under instruction, getting the benefit of an adrenaline rush. Kayaking and canoeing offer you greater opportunity to develop independent judgement.

There are many rafting operators in Malaysia running the various rivers, though some have a dubious track record on the rivers and unsafe operating procedures. The operators with the best reputation are: 1. Tracks Adventures, a Selangor-based rafting outfitter in Kuala Kubu Baru. Tracks Adventures’ guides are all trained in Swiftwater Rescue, a course that teaches proactive prevention of river accidents and injuries certified by the New Zealand Canoeing Association. Guides learn to recognise and avoid common river hazards like “holes” that can trap and hold a buoyant object, and strainers (usually partly submerged trunks or logs) that can trap a swimmer underneath with the force of the current will hold him there. They practise self-rescue and methods of rescuing swimmers and recovering rafts and gear based on the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) syllabus ( Tracks Adventures has been running Selangor River since 1994. Tel: (60-3) 6065 1767; email: [email protected] and 2. Khersonese Expeditions: They are another experienced operator. Tel: (03) 7722 3511; Email: [email protected] and 3. Riverbug: They are a Kota Kinabalu-based operator who has been in the business for 10 years. The company operates on Padas and Kiulu Rivers in Sabah, and Sg Kampar in Perak, and has offices in Perak and Kuala Lumpur. Their trainees have to run Grade I and II rivers at least 60 times, and grade III and IV 80 times before they are allowed to guide clients. Riverbug also uses safety kayakers on their runs. Tel: (60-3) 2162 0114 or

Many beginners are unaware of the dangers presented by rivers. Whitewater has swift and strong undercurrents. Listen to your guides safety tips carefully, follow their instructions, and exercise care. If you are risk-averse, don’t be lulled into going rafting. Avoid groups that take more than 3 rafts (30 to 40 clients) at a time, and those without rescuers in kayaks. Most accidents occur because clients don’t listen to instructions or they don’t take safety precautions seriously.

  • As the yellow raft softly swung into the current, my oars dipped in its first swirl of water. Turning around, I saw excited faces of the 'hard' adventure sports lovers looking eager to get a taste of the river rapids at Kuala Kubu Baru. The 9km river is at Selangor River, located nearby Fraser's Hill. Penisular Malaysia has its share of good rafting sports. These include the Sungai Sungkai in Perak, Endau River, Jeram Besu and Lipis River in Pahang and the Tembeling River in Taman Negara. Earlier on at the put-in point, our raftmaster - Piee has given us importang briefing about white water rafting, showing us paddling techniques, types of rapids, currents, river signals and rigorously stressed on safety and rescue shall there be any unwanted accidents. Divided out in groups, we started paddling into the current. The sun is kind with its warm penetrating through the green leaves of the luch tropical jungle on both sides of the river. 'Paddle up!', yelled the oarsman. We bang our paddle hard on the water and growled in an exciting manner. Water was fast and high with large number of huge boulders to avoid. Moving on, we could see the foamy rapids waiting. Luring us near to it, somehow with its malicious grin. Shouting in excitement, we were in the rapids in no time. 'Left-side paddle!', shouted Dennis (one of the oarsman) - we were heading towards a hydraulic! Good gracious! The raft went out of control from the sucking hydraulic, tormenting our muscles to tighten the gribs on the safety ropes. With no warning, the raft swopped downwards. I felt the sudden drop and a bigger drip when Harry, Kar Weng and two more ladies went tumbling down on me. Pardon me, I happened to sit right in the middle! Left leg got stucked at the side while another was getting pinned by somebody, water was gushing down on me hard, freaking me for a while of the helpless position we were in. At the top of his voice, Dennis shouted - directing us to get to the right side to balance it. While waiting for the rest to struggle their way up, I hang on tight, not allowing the dreadful sucking maching to swallow me up. I felt Kar Weng grabbing my PFD (Personal Flotation Device), pulling me up next to him seconds later but the moment seems like forever. The raft got its balance back fleeing the hydraulic, to our relief. The incident didn't much spoil the fun and I told Dennis we wanted more, to his surprise! We passed through some undercuts, negotiating sharp corners. Going into a rapid felt like riding down a drain most of the time. Exhilarating! Rapids were good that day as it has been raining lately, rising the water level. What's better time to go rafting rather than the monsoon season in Malaysia? A good time to ride the rapids as the rivers swell and the currents becomes more powerful. We parked our raft at the eddy soon after for a light meal. Had a try sliding down the rocks down the chilling river, getting swept by the current in a 'cocktail' style as instructed with the legs in front, knee slightly bent and both arms opened wide like holding a wine glass in both hands. Next stop was a waterfall at the river bank. We indulged ourself there under the waterfall crunching our apple away. Piee and other oarsman were busy checking out the rapids in front, planning the route we were bound to endure. Hours has then passed since our hearty breakfast at KKB's town and the 'chute' in front will be our last thrilling and difficult rapids. A chute is where fast sluice is formed when the river is forced to pass through a narrow passage. Our raft is about 6 feet in length while the passage is only about 4 feet. Before my sense of fear strikes, we were almost reaching the chute. 'Left-side! Left-side!', yelled Dennis. As fast as the speed of light, we throwed ourself to the left to balance the raft bound to be forced through the narrow drop. Little did we know, our raft gave a sudden tilt that went beyong balance - all I could see was fierce white foaming water everywhere. Throwned out in the air like a bowling ball hitting the pins, fear inevitably overpowered me when I saw the rocks only inches from me! I landed on the fall with the raft on my head. Struggling out, I felt relieved to breathe the air and knowing I didn't get any serious injury. Someone in another raft at the further end grabbed me fast before I got swept away. Only then I realised I've got a bad bruise on my left arm swelling like the size of a ping pong ball!. The others were injured too but not as bad as one of the girl who knocked hard on the rock in her face and jaw, giving her a bruised face and a bleeding cut. Despite the accident, we continued our paddling towards the finishing line, still high-spirited. Enjoyed the fun ,the fear and most of all the heart pounding, gut wrenching rapids. Somehow, it leaves me with a really nice feeling of achievement.

White water rafting in Malaysia