..Michele C. Hollow..

Flight of the Fireflies

As the small wooden sampan gently glides down the river on this moonless night, I look to the distance and see a flicker of light. As we get closer, the lights grow brighter. It looks as if someone strung a handful of tiny white Christmas tree lights on the trees along the river.

Flickering on and off, as we draw nearer, I can make out the trees that line both sides of the river. The guide assures me that these tiny white lights aren't Christmas tree lights. These are the famous fireflies of Kampung Kuantan, which is about a ninety-minute drive northwest of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

Deeper along the route, the trees are illuminated by thousands of fireflies. What draws them here, no one knows for sure. Perhaps it is the presence of the mangrove trees (Sonneratia caseolaris). Our guide tells us that the fireflies like to feast on the young leaves of the mangrove trees. While mangrove trees grow in other parts of the world, they don't attract large numbers of fireflies. It is here in Kampung Kuantan that one can see such a brilliant display.

Kampung Kuatan is one of the few places in the world where thousands of these shining stars cluster together. Kampung, the Malaysian word for village, is a small village surrounded by coconut and palm oil plantations.

Here along the river away from the plantations, the fireflies illuminate the trees for about a quarter of a mile. Up above, the stars add to the magic of this natural light show.

Fireflies twinkle every three seconds to attract mates.

The lights, which the male fireflies produce, are brighter than those of the female species. When the males find a mate, they begin to blink in unison. This is called synchronicity.

The fireflies are not attracted to flashlights or flashbulbs on cameras. Oddly, enough our guide attracted two fireflies when he inhaled on his cigarette. He caught one and placed it in my hand. Fireflies are really little beetles. They are around six-mm in length. I held it for just a few seconds. Carefully protected by strict Malaysian laws, people are fined for harming fireflies. The firefly in my hand flew back to his tree.

The mangrove tree is a type of oak tree that grows abundantly on these riverbanks. These trees thrive in a humid climate and swampy surroundings. The fireflies survive by sucking out the nectar produced by these trees.

The fireflies only come out at night. During the day, they retreat to nearby grassy areas. They will not illuminate in the daytime, even if they are put in a dark place. At sunset, they return to the mangrove trees to feed and display. Their "lighting-up" time occurs after dusk (about 8 p.m.) and continues until midnight. The best conditions to view the fireflies are on moonless nights. This way there is no competition from a bright full moon. The best way to see the fireflies is on a sampan. Sampan rides are propelled by human strength, avoiding smoke and noise pollution.

It is a peaceful, quiet and romantic ride.

Tours can be booked from most hotels in Kuala Lumpur. The concierge at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Kuala Lumpur will arrange a package tour, which can also include dinner at a nearby restaurant in Kampung Kuantan. Taxis at the hotel will also make the trip. Admission is 10 RM per person for a four-person sampan ride. (That's about $3 per person depending on the exchange rate. It is currently 3.8 RM to the US dollar.)

The river ride is open daily from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. For more information, contact Majlis Daerah Kuala Selangor, 45000 Kuala Selangor, Selangor Darul Ebsan or send an e-mail to mdksgr@pojaring.my.

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