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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.

Lions, Tigers and Bears

I just spent 4 days in the jungle. I stripped off all my clothes and ran around with a spear with paint all over my face. I shot poison darts I fashioned the nectar of a special tree and shot them at monkeys. And then ate them.

Actually, I didn’t. I just made that up. But I did sweat a lot. Literally – I think you could have filled a lot with my sweat, assuming it had the proper barriers to prevent the sweat from spilling out, that is.

So what’s the jungle like? I spent quite a bit of time walking thinking about how to describe it. I’ll try to hit the main points:

Imagine a 130 million year old jungle. Dense green vegetation, massive towering and imposing trees, brown rivers and streams carving out pieces of the land and monkeys swinging from trees. Imagine brown and yellow leaves covering the ground in every direction dotted with the odd red leaf and yellow or white blossoms which are constantly falling from the sky (well, actually the trees, but they are so high up that it might as well be the sky). The trees, vines and bushes usually obscure your view of the sky forming a dense canopy above but when you come to a clearing the blue sky is dotted with wispy white clouds with usually a few ominous darker clouds in the distance – never coming much closer though. And when you do come to that clearing you are naked and exposed. The jungle no longer protects you in its moist cacoon and the sun beats down on you with all its might – as though to punish you for escaping its wrath for the past few hours.

The jungle is oppressively hot and humid. Even in the canopy the air is thick. You sweat everywhere and your clothes very quickly become drenched. Your skin is always slick and you are constantly thirsty, drinking water by the liter at each setting. The water you drink tastes like iodine because you put iodine tablets to purify it – since you take it from the stream. Crazy water insects float about around your bottle (we all know how crazy water insects can be). Roots and vines with massive ants and termites marching across cut through the jungle floor in every direction requiring great care in placing each step lest your foot get caught and you fall flat on your face. Monkeys and birds of a thousand varieties howl with excitement in the distance, like something out of a movie. Insects tick and growl and chirp and hum like an omnipresent generator running on some intense form of energy extracted from the thickness of the air. Trees shake and whisper above, branches crack and break with the wind and massive leaves come crashing down into the pile already below. Frogs croak, flies buzz by your head and the streams trickle and roar by.

And the smells are incredible. My favorite part of the jungle.

Smells are very hard to describe, especially if they are unique. While walking in the jungle at any given time, you are assaulted with a number of smells wafting past your nose, coating the insides of your nostrils – sometimes in unison, sometimes in overlapping sessions. Often times the smell of over-ripe banana fills the jungle air. After that, you may get hit with mint, or fresh cut grass or leaves. Sweet golden honey might be next along with the aroma of wild flowers and vanilla. Pine needles, sage, pepper, the spicy tinny smell of fertile mud and soil, grain and alfalfa, citrus, dark chocolate and a faint hint of beer (although this could have been detected because I would have killed for a beer by day three of my trek). All these scents and countless more mix together in a thick, wet cocktail – inhaled instead of drunk and not nearly as refreshing as intoxicating.

It was quite an experience. So what happened before I arrived here?

Well, I left Thailand. I took the train south, arrived at the border, got stamped out then stamped into Malaysia and wandered about trying to find the train station.

They put it in the next town over so I had to rely on the friendliness of strangers to figure out which bus to take and when. I eventually made it to the next town over and ended up missing my train after waiting two hours for it due to the fact that Malaysian time is one hour ahead from Thailand (who knew?). I spent the night in Kota Baru, the Muslim stronghold of Malaysia and then took the train in the morning to Jerrantut, the jumping off point for the boat ride to the Kuala Tahan and Taman Negara. The train was incredible – as Lonely Planet calls it, an engineering marvel. The line is cut right out of the jungle and winds and twists all the way south down to Singapore. There was no AC and it was unbelievably hot (you sweat the whole time) and there were roaches crawling everywhere – with about 4 or 5 on the seat in front of me at any given time. They crawled up my shirt and I had to smash them and get up and shake my shirt so they would fall out.

Did you just cringe? Pussy. They were small roaches though – not that intimidating.

After I arrived, I spent the night in Jerrantut (where it rained something fierce) and the next day took a boat to the jungle. Once there I booked into a $2 room and headed to the Canopy Walk: a series of bridges built high up into the trees of the jungle and upon which you walk and marvel at how high you are. From there I went back to my “hotel” and spent the evening talking Malaysian politics and economics with a Malaysian guy named Halim and a German kid who had spent 6 months there. It was really cool.

The next day I headed into the jungle with three days worth of food and a stove. I walked to the first stop, a “hide” in the jungle. This is a cabin/fort structure overlooking an open part of the jungle where you can sit and wait for animals to come by. They have beds and a shower (from the river water) and I stayed there the night. I ended up being the only one for the whole night and although I didn’t see many animals, I did get visited by a rat running around on the tin roof the whole night. A mouse visited me in the night and ran around on the top bunk of my bed at which point I chased him around with my broom. It was strange that I was alone because the night before there were 13 people there and the next night, I later found out, there were 10 people. There had been two other people signed up for my night, but I ended up being the only one. Not too bad.

The next day I hiked to a cave. It was only two hours so I arrived quite early. After exploring the cave I lay on the hammock for a while and finished my Economist then went out and gathered some firewood. This cave is in the middle of the forest and there isn’t much else to do. I tried to find some running water and found a small stream that was just barely trickling (it’s been a dry wet season) and had lunch. I was questioning the water quite a bit but figured that whatever bugs I was drinking were dead after I iodine tableted them. I went back to my cave (where I was to sleep) and started a fire. I was ready to wait out the night in my cave, which was actually quite big.

Did the prospect of sleeping in a cave in the middle of the jungle freak me out at all? Yeah, kind of. But I wanted to do it just because it freaked me out. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t get eaten by a tiger – at worst bitten by a rat (which I had heard were quite numerous in said cave). But more than anything was boredom. I had nothing to read and I didn’t want to go outside because it was so hot and much cooler in the cave. I contemplated life over a can of beans I warmed by the fire.

Just then a tour group came in and started making camp. They were surprised to see me in their cave but we soon became friends and, after making a huge bonfire, even went on a jungle safari with their guide later that night. I woke up with rat droppings a few inches from my head. They couldn’t believe that I was doing all this alone. I guess they felt better paying 200 bucks each for some guy to walk around with them. I remembered the guide I was forced to pay for in the cave in Thailand. “HELLO! ICE CREAM CONE!”…”yes…that does look like an ice cream cone…how much am I paying you?”

The next day was an easy 15 mile walk back to Kuala Tahan and I really enjoyed it. Once back in town I walked my stinky body straight to a restaurant and ordered beef, drank down a coca-cola and for dessert ordered a huge banana milk shake.

I was shattered when she said they were out of ice and therefore couldn’t make my shake.

I explained to her that I had been walking around for 3 days in the jungle dreaming of her banana shakes. “Okay okay okay,” she said. She ordered her little brother to go buy some ice. YES!

A shower felt good. So did a break. I gave my aching muscles a break and chatted with Halim about whether China should unpeg their yuan to the dollar.

You know how emotional currency debates can become.

This morning I caught the bus back to Jerantut and will leave in an hour to Kuala Lumpur. Then it’s off to the Cameron Highlands and next Singapore for a few days.

All I have to say is this: God bless air conditioning. I mean…it’s just so beautiful. It makes me want to cry.