Now THAT’S a flower!

Malaysia is a really cool country. It didn’t take long for it to become one of my favorites. Why? Let’s back up.

Everything in Malaysia is rugged. Except for the people. It’s a country of contrasts. When I first arrived, I could hear those crazy screaming bugs (remember them from Bolivia?) humming by the thousands immediately after crossing over the border. It was almost as though they obeyed the international boundary and just sat in a tree on the Malay side. It’s cheaper in Malaysia – so that’s probably it. I imagine that a crazy screaming bug doesn’t get paid too much and must pay attention to these things.

But I digress. As I crossed the border, I was greeted by a Malay man with a warm, but hurried, “Hello. Welcome to Malaysia!” as he passed. I was stamped into the country and was immediately taken aback by the helpfulness of the people. People seem to go out of their ways to help you and a surprising number of people know English. This is a strongly Muslim country and it’s plain to see. There are mosques instead of Buddhist temples (although there are a few); the women wear head scarves and lots of men wear funny hats. It’s a nation where hats rule supreme. Seeing as the sun is really strong here, that’s probably not a bad thing. In the evening, the loudspeakers blast the Muslim call to prayer like I imagine it would be in Turkey or Iran. It’s all quite interesting.

And the place has such personality. It’s quirky and fun. The tuk tuk drivers decorate their tuk tuks with all sorts of headlights and switches (which I doubt actually work, but look damned cool) and all the animals are extreme here. Why, just the other day I actually said, “is that a cat, or a rat?” The insects are like tanks. They have tigers and wild pigs in the jungle. This place is home to the world’s largest flower and stuff like pitcher plants and panthers. Malaysia is surprisingly developed for being a “poor” country and the people here love to laugh. People everywhere are smiling and goofing around. They don’t mind talking to you and always love a good joke. And it’s such a mixture of cultures. There are Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, and Malay all living together under a common flag and a common nationality while all retaining their unique cultural characteristics. It’s something quite unique, I think.

It’s awesome.

So what have I been up to? From the jungle, I caught the bus early in the morning to Kuala Lumpur and then immediately to The Cameron Highlands. I was going the same direction as Luther and Keely, an English couple, so we went together and ended up spending the next few days together. We actually missed the bus to the Cameron Highlands, but were able to get a bus to a town about 30 miles away from which we were hoping to catch a bus to where we wanted to go. When we arrived, however, it was pouring down rain and there was a power outage – and the last bus had already gone. We eventually tracked down a guy who would take us in his car and after negotiations, we were on our way. We had our doubts. His 1979 Malaysian made car looked like it was on its last leg. And it was really coming down outside. But we went anyways.

There were (of course) no seat belts. But then, much to our dismay, he revealed an LCD screen in the front of the car. And he then put on Bruce Lee Return of the Dragon. That VCD alone transformed the 2 hour long ride from a nightmare into an incredible experience. Bruce Lee movies, for those who haven’t seen them, are excellent. Beyond excellent, I would say. They are perhaps the best movies ever made.

After the movie, we eventually arrived at the highlands and eventually found a room. They only had one left at the hostel so we took it. It was in the attic and the walls were paper thin, but we didn’t care. Zachi, the manager, was a great guy and as soon as we arrived he introduced us to everyone. He remembered everyone’s name and he was able to create quite a family atmosphere. Every new arrival became a new friend and I spent the next few days hanging out, drinking tea (which the Cameron Highlands are known for as they have thousands of acres of tea plantations everywhere), playing chess (I attained the title Chess Master), and exploring the nearby tea plantations. I also took a tour to see the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. It was great.

I can remember watching a BBC documentary titled “The Private Life of Plants” (which is nothing short of spectacular, by the way) and learning about this crazy flower called the Rafflesia. It is a parasite and spends the year sucking energy from its host, usually a tree. The bud grows larger and larger and then, in 24 hours bursts open to reveal a massive flower. The flower can be as big as three feet in diameter and it emits a rotting flesh smell in order to attract flies which will then carry its seeds away. The flower stays in bloom for 5-7 days, then rots away. It is extremely rare and is quite hard to find. I thought they were only in Borneo, the other part of Malaysia, but as I was walking through Tanah Ratta, I saw a sign at a kiosk saying that it was in bloom and I could go see it. I was doubtful, but they showed me pictures. $30 dollars later, I was booked on a 4 wheel drive tour for the next day.

It was an excellent day, indeed. The next morning, I was picked up and there were only two other tourists on the tour. We drove for an hour, then an hour off road (and what a rough path it was), picked up a local aboriginal guide and then trekked for about 2 hours through the rainforest to the spot where the flower was in bloom. When we arrived (the guide and I were much more in shape than the other two older tourists and arrived first), he pointed it out to me and I was in awe. It sat there in the silent darkness of the rainforest and after marveling for a few moments, I began snapping photos. I was really excited. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t usually get excited about stuff like this, but this flower is really something special. It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie and was definitely worth the tour. Unfortunately, it was at the end of its bloom and had already started decaying, but I plan to see this flower again in my life so I’ll get a proper picture of it (My next vacation will probably be to Borneo).

The rest of the day was spent exploring the rain forest, visiting an Orang-Asli (aboriginal) village and shooting darts from a blow pipe (how they hunt), going to the highest peak and checking out the pitcher plants (another really cool carnivorous plant) and then heading back. It was a great day.

I had spent the previous day exploring the area’s largest tea plantation. The bus drops you off 2 k’s from the plantation and you have to walk through the tea field valleys to get to the factory. The views were spectacular.

My evenings were spent going out with the “gang” (we all became friends in the hostel and went out to dinner together) and playing chess. The past few days have been quite fun and I’m glad I made it up there. It was quite cool seeing as it was so high up and the coolness was quite a nice respite from the heat of the lowlands.

So now I’m back in Kuala Lumpur. It’s hot and I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’ll spend a day or two here and then head to Singapore. Yes, sir. Malaysia is quite a cool country, indeed.

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