After arriving on Pulau Pangkor (Pangkor Island) off the west coast of Malaysia I found out that it was easy to see hornbills in Malaysia and I could even feed them.
Getting to Pangkor
I had chosen Pangkor Island because I wanted a beach and somewhere quiet to visit and unwind before I continued travelling in S E Asia. I had just come to the end of a very fun couple of months volunteering in a hostel in Melaka, Malaysia and my friend Jochem, who always knows what sort of places I would like, recommended this small island over and above Langkawi or Tioman.
I took a bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to the town of Lumut and even though I was a bit apprehensive because I knew that I had a ferry trip ahead of me and I HATE water, everything went smoothly. I walked to the ferry port from the small bus station and I bought my ticket. It was a smooth and quick crossing on the large catamaran and the hostel that I had booked was just a short stroll from the jetty on the island.
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One of the ferries over to Pangkor Island
I had chosen to stay in a fishing village which was on the east side of the island – again on Jochem’s recommendation – but I wasn’t disappointed and this was certainly the best place for me and any backpackers to stay.
The extremely friendly and homely hostel, the SPK Hostel (check here for up to date prices) is in the tiny town of Sungai Pinang Kecil where there are lots of places to eat and drink nearby. There is a terrace with hammocks (always worth a star in my book) and the dorm that I was in was lovely and light and airy.
After checking in and dropping my rucksack off I arranged to hire a scooter the following morning and I went out to explore on foot.
Just up the road from the hostel is a huge and rather strange temple complex full of plaster figures. The Fu Lin Kong Temple contains a replica ‘great wall of China’, pretty gardens and ponds containing fish and turtles. It’s worth a look if only to see the beautiful gardens, the plaster tigers and the views back down to the sea.
The Fu Lin Kong Temple
Within spitting distance of the Chinese temple is the Hindi Sri Pathira Kaliamman temple that was in the process of being renovated and repainted in the usual Hindi bright colours. All along the shore line below fishing boats in equally bright colours were tied up or were in various stages of construction. This island is famous for making traditional wooden boats without any paper plans and in many cases, without nails!
I ate that evening at a tiny little restaurant where the chef cooked everything in his wok on the street before heading back to my hostel for an early night.
the Hindi Sri Pathira Kaliamman temple
Riding a scooter around the island
When I went to collect my scooter the following morning the hostel owner was chatting to a young German woman and expressing her reservations about renting a scooter to somebody who had never ridden before. I offered to accompany Carina so that we could explore the island together; she could gain confidence riding alongside me and I would have company at the beach.
That was the beginning of a fun couple of days together and we covered just about all of the small island as Carina soon grew in confidence and had no problem handling the scooter on the roads.
Please, please, please don’t travel without a decent insurance and never think about getting on a scooter without a good policy. If you are from the UK you can get a quote from Alpha Travel Insurance which is the company that I have been using.
Hornbills on Pangkor
I told Carina about the hornbills in Malaysia and especially here on Pangkor Island and she was also excited to go and see them.
Some of the hornbills on Pangkor are incredibly tame because many of the bar owners pop them little titbits of food. These birds defy all logic with their huge beaks and their lumbering bodies and whilst normally quite rare and shy, here on Pangkor Island it’s a common sight to see a few birds hopping along the floor or playing in the trees and paying little attention to people. Carina and I had been told of a man who regularly fed the birds every evening at dusk so we went along to find him. I try to travel ethically so I was keen to find out how and why this man fed the birds.
Hornbills in Malaysia
We met Noordin and he explained how he had begun to put food out for the hornbills over 16 years previously when he first arrived on the island and set up his guesthouse.
Now his guest house is a supper stop for many of the birds as they fly home to roost in the trees in the jungle for the night and a regular tourist spot. Noordin buys bananas every day which he chops up into small pieces and then he sits on the roadside outside his guesthouse at dusk every evening and he waits for the tourists and the birds.
Sometimes there can be thirty or more hornbills waiting on the cables above the street or hopping along the fence of the Sunset View Chalet… and then it begins. One at a time, you hold a piece of banana between your finger and thumb, raise your arm and wait. One of the hornbills will swoop down and surprisingly delicately considering the size of them and their beaks, they will take the banana from you.
Once they have had their fill the birds head off for their trees to roost for the night.
Noordin pays for the fruit out of his own pocket every night – and often he has to drive to the other side of the island to buy suitable bananas. He doesn’t charge people a fee and he won’t ask for a donation but I know he’s very grateful when people do give him some money towards the food for the birds.
Noordin could tell that Carina and I really wanted to know more about the hornbills so once everybody had left after the sunset feeding he invited us to jump onto our scooters and follow him and to see if we could spot the giant hornbills in their night roosts. We didn’t find any that evening but we arranged to meet him the next day just after dawn for a breakfast of roti telur (a type of savoury pancake) and another ride out to look for the birds
We rode all around the island for a couple of hours searching out the best spots where Noordin knew that the far more elusive giant hornbills would hang out and we weren’t disappointed. We did spot some – which were truly giants – and again later that evening when we repeated the process. The majority of the hornbills on Pangkor Island are pied hornbills but no matter how many times you see them, they are always very special.
Pangkor Island Attractions – additional things to do on Pangkor.
Apart from feeding the hornbills there are other things to see and do on Pangkor despite its small size.
The Beaches on Pangkor Island
With long stretches of white sand or tiny rocky coves there’s a beach for everybody here on Pangkor. Some beaches are backed with dense forests of coconut palms and others have music playing, beach bars or boat trips.
When I visited in February the water was as warm as a bath and the main tourist season hadn’t yet begun so there was plenty of space for everyone.
The best beaches are over on west side of the island but it’s a pleasant 40 minute scooter ride across on the one main island road if you are staying at the hostel in the fishing village. It’s impossible to get lost riding around on this island although all of the locals suggested that you don’t take a scooter along the north east corner as the road is too dangerous.
I loved the north beach at Teluk Nipah and I ended up here nearly every day and this is where Carina and I got to know our Swedish friend called Hans.
Once we arrived at this beach we really fancied a swim in the calm sea but we could see that there might be a problem with monkeys who were lurking in the trees behind the beach. I approached a kindly looking gentleman who was lying on a sunbed and I asked him to guard our possessions – not from possible thieves but from the monkeys.
Avoid these monkeys at all costs because they can be nasty and they will attack you if they think that you have food. We saw them steal a guy’s clothes from the beach when he was swimming in the sea and another couple got trapped in the water when the monkeys chased them and ganged up on them along the shore line because they were eating ice-creams!
I was told by a local lady that the monkey problem has got a lot worse in recent years as many tourists, ignorant of the long term damage that they are doing, feed them and encourage them close into selfie photos. They are now a real and dangerous pest, and I even saw them raid a roadside restaurant with little disregard for the people who were trying to eat and they will bite if they feel that they aren’t getting what they want!
Our soon to be new friend Hans was very happy to keep an eye on our clothes so we could swim in the sea without worry.
Visit the Dutch Fort.
The Dutch Fort on Pulau Pangkor is a tiny brick-walled enclosure set on a hill overlooking the bay, although trees now block much of the view. Ride along the coast road too fast and you will miss it – as Carina and I managed to do. Twice!
The fort hasn’t been rebuilt in its entirety but there is enough of its footprint to show you its size (surprisingly small) and its strategic importance.
The tiny Dutch Fort
The Sacred Stone
On the road between the Dutch Fort and the floating mosque this large boulder is famous for a rather macabre reason. It’s said to be the last place where a little girl was seen playing (or a boy depending on which version you listen to) and it still has some of the drawings that she made on the rock before she disappeared.
Folk law says that she was killed by a tiger (despite Pangkor being an island with no tigers) or taken by pirates, although in reality she probably sadly drowned or was killed by someone and her body thrown into the sea.
The Sacred Stone or Tiger Rock
The Floating Mosque – Masjid Terapong
This recently built mosque is really quite beautiful and if you want a good photo opportunity it’s best visited when the tide is high and there’s little wind. When conditions are right, the mosque reflects in the water, although it is worth a visit at any time of the day.
Avoid prayer times unless you are Muslim, remove your shoes and cover yourself with one of the robes that are supplied at the entrance. The mosque is decorated in green and blue tiles which match its aquatic setting. Surrounded by water and reached along a wooden pier it’s a very calm and tranquil place to be and magical when the call to prayer, the Azaan, echoes across the bay.
As you would expect on a small island with a large fishing fleet there is a heavy emphasis on fish and seafood all around the island. Like much of Malaysia there is a big Chinese influence and traditional Malay foods and cuisine from the Indian sub-continent also feature.
Basically you can get just about anything and everything and there are countless small roadside restaurants with massive choices from their menus.
One evening, Ching Ching who knew the island well, took me over the road and down a tiny alleyway between two houses. It was dark and seemed to lead nowhere, but then it opened out onto a large dockside which was lit with floodlights.
One of the fishing boats had come in and people were busy everywhere. Gangs of men were unloading, passing boxes out along a human chain and others were sorting fish out on the huge tables. Ice blocks were being smashed up and people haggling and weighing out fish in quantities to feed either a family or a small village.
I would never have dreamed to have walked down that tiny alleyway at any time of the day or the night if Ching Ching hadn’t been chatting to me in the hostel. Later that evening she invited me to join her and eat some of the tiny fish that she had bought once she had cooked them.
You can travel to the most historic or beautiful places in the world but experiences with local people around their local districts beat most of the mainstream tourist attractions into touch most of the time.
Where to stay on Pangkor and how to get around the island
I stayed at the SPK Hostel in the fishing town of Sungai Pinang Kecil. This town is the first stop for the ferry from Lamut on the mainland and the hostel is just a two minute walk from the jetty where you will land.
There are hotels and guesthouses all along the beaches and towns on the west side but at the time of writing, there were no backpackers’ hostels over there. However, it’s very simple to hire a scooter (don’t forget that travel insurance!) and make your own way around the island (there is only one main road after all), or there are pink minivans that taxi people around.
if you don’t want to be hiring a scooter to cross the island to get to the beaches then you can stay on the outskirts of Teluk Nipah at Noordin’s place.
Noordin is the guy that is passionate about the hornbills has a guest house called the Sunset View Chalet and if you stay here you will be right on the doorstep for the sunset feedings. His rooms are set in lush gardens and are also just a very short walk to a great beach and stacks of beachside restaurants.
There are many places to stay in this small island and I hope that they don’t develop too many more, but if you want one of the more mainstream hotels then head on over to the west and south west side of the island and Teluk Nipah.
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If you also loved Pangkor Island and I have missed something out, please do comment below the pinned image so that others can also enjoy the island and will take the time to visit.