Welcome to Malaysia everyone!
We left our hostel in Singapore at 4:30am on Wednesday to take a taxi to the train station. Amazingly enough, a taxi appeared within a few seconds of walking out onto the street, just as we had been told. We arrived at the station in perfect time and boarded the train to take us into Malaysia. The only hitch was that we took our malaria medication on empty stomachs, and all almost threw up. But after a Nutella sandwich and a hour of sleep, we all felt much better!
The train was our first encounter with squat toilets, which we have to say was not entirely enjoyable. (Some people did not seem to have read the sign requesting that you clean up if you have “unintentionally soiled the toilet”!) However, we quickly saw the advantages of a design where you don't have to make contact with the seat! In contrast to the bathrooms, there was a very nice entertainment system: a 40” Samsung flat screen TV at each end of the carriage. Unfortunately the movie was “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, but this ended up being hugely entertaining because the volume was so low that we had to rely on subtitles that had been written in English by someone whose native language was clearly something else entirely.
It was still dark as we crossed the bridge to Malaysia, and got off the train briefly to clear immigration. We then traveled north up the Malaysian peninsula through dense forest of mostly palm trees. Gradually we started to see small villages of very rough wooden huts with tin roofs (although most had satellite dishes!) Later, we passed through larger towns, eventually reaching Jerantut around noon, which is where we got off the train. Jerantut is the gateway to Taman Negara, a 4300 square kilometer national park that holds the oldest (at 130 million years) rainforest in the world.
We bravely ignored all the men at the train station yelling to give us a ride, and walked into the center of town trying to look like we knew where we were going. After asking a few shopkeepers we found our way to the bank and successfully changed our Singapore dollars into Malaysian ringgits, and withdrew the maximum amount of cash the ATM would allow, hoping this would last us through our stay at the national park, where everything is cash only. By this time, we had missed the boat to the park, and next city bus was another four hours, so we persuaded a tour operator to take us by minibus. The ride was a little scary: no seatbelts, a disturbing number of families of four piled onto small mopeds, and a typical Malaysian driver at the wheel of our minibus, who left only about six inches between us and the car in front, began overtaking even when he wasn't quite sure if he could make it, and definitely did not heed the New Zealand policeman's advice to “just stay left”. But at least the road was in excellent condition: we found out later that it was built just eight years ago; prior to that the only access to the park was up the river by boat.
We were dropped off at around 2pm at the small town of Kuala Tahan, which is just across the river from the park entrance. This was the first stop on our trip where we had no reservations, so we wandered through the town until we found the hostels recommended by our guide book. Our first choice was full, but on the way there we did see some roadside rubber tree taping so it was worthwhile. It looks like maple taping but there are deep gouges cut all around the tree and the sap runs down the gouge into a little bucket. The next hostel we went to had two very nice doubles rooms available next to each other, each with its own bathroom. Squat toilets again, but this is absolute luxury compared with the train. Clean and tiled throughout, it's a little self-contained cubicle where you can take care of everything bathroom-related all at once. The floor is sloped to a central drain, so no need for any partitions or curtains (and no problem if some of the plumbing leaks a bit!) And in addition to the sink, shower and toilet, there is also a hose for squirting the parts that are hard to reach with the shower. (It appears that Malaysians use this hose instead of toilet paper, but we haven't quite mastered this technique yet.)
After dumping our packs (heaven!), we took a little motor boat to the park headquarters for 1 ringgit (33¢ US) per person, and booked our tours for the next day. The man at the information desk spoke great English, and was very helpful explaining our choices. He suggested a selection of adventures and promised to find us a very good guide who would stay with us for the whole day. We decided on a jungle hike (which to Rachael's joy includes a 500 meter canopy bridge 45 meters above the forest floor), a cave exploration (which to Rachael's joy includes tight, dark cave crawling through masses of bat guano, spiders, bats and snakes), and a boat ride through some rapids to visit the area's nomadic tribe of Orang Asli (which to Lucas' joy includes learning how to make poison darts and shoot them through a blowpipe).
We then went for a walk in the forest to find a good swimming place in the river. We could hear lots of monkeys but no sightings, as they stay well hidden in the dense forest canopy. We did however find a recent elephant footprint in the middle of the path, which was very exciting. It was at that point that Rachael realized her thought of preventing malaria infection by dressing in long sleeved shirts and trousers and covering herself with repellent had some flaws. Mainly, we were all bitten several times. We'll have to hope those prophylactics we've been taking work!
We returned to our side of the river, which is lined with floating restaurants. We chose the “Family Restaurant”, and sat down to a feast of omelets, fried rice, stir-fried vegis, fruit salad, and fresh-blended watermelon and lychee juices. At 40 ringgits ($13) for the four of us, we are thinking we are going to like this part of Malaysia a lot!!
Back at our hostel, we all took a very welcome shower – cold water only, but we were so hot and sticky we didn't care. We flopped into bed, and thanks to comfortable mattresses, and a super high powered fan over each bed, fell asleep almost immediately.
Thursday morning, we awoke to one of the five daily prayer songs broadcast from the mosque right next to our hostel. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, and it has a strong influence here in the village. There are signs requesting visitors to dress properly, alcohol is not allowed, and we are strictly forbidden from wearing shoes anywhere in our hostel.
We walked down to the river and had another great meal of lemon and sugar pancakes (crepes in the US), mango roti, fresh juices and omelets. We met our guide at the park headquarters at 9:30. His name was Amran, and he turned out to be the brother of the man at the reservation desk – apparently a lot of people here are related! He spoke very good English and was a great guide for us as he has a daughter Beckie's age and a son slightly younger than Lucas. I'm not sure we had quite the same tour as the high-paying tourists at the resort across the river, but then again they probably didn't learn how to make tremendous popping sounds by slapping leaves, or do a magic trick with two small sticks!
We started with a hike to a couple of lookout points with great vistas across the forest canopy, and with views of the highest peaks on the peninsula in the distance. As we left the resort, we saw a lizard and a group of monkeys near the cabins, and Amran showed us a viewing tower (known as a hide) overlooking an artificial salt water lake where we might see deer and other animals in the late evening. As we wound our way through the forest, he pointed out a variety of interesting plants. We learned how to crush the leaves of the Hairy Rhododendron, which produces a foam that can be used to cover wounds, drying to form a protective antiseptic layer. The kids suddenly found a number of serious cuts on their arms and legs, and quickly became experts at jungle first aid. They also gave themselves manicures with the leaves of the sandpaper tree, which are also used by the natives for smoothing and polishing their hunting arrows. We watched Amran light the resin of the Damar tree, which is used locally as a fuel for burning, and also as a glue for sealing boats. He also cut away a piece of wood from an Sarsaparilla tree, which is used to make root beer, and sure enough, smells exactly like it. Of course the kids tried climbing and swinging on the vines Tarzan-style; we also learned which type of vines could give us potable drinking water if we were in desperate need but fortunately we didn't have to try that. Apparently tastes awful. As we neared the top of the steepest climb, we were lagging a little, so Amran found some Curry Lime leaves, which we crushed and inhaled for a little pick-me-up. They had a fresh lemony smell, and Lucas put a few in his pocket in case he needed another reviver later!
An interesting fact we learned from the fallen trees we saw is that trees have no rings here because there are no seasons. So determining the age of a tree is not as simple as counting the rings the way we do. Instead a rather inaccurate estimate is made based on the size of the tree and observed growth rates.
Once again we heard plenty of monkey sounds during this hike, but the overwhelming noise was the cicadas. They are much louder than cicadas back home, so loud that they resemble chainsaws! Our guide explained that due to the climate here, after they come out of the ground they have only about two weeks to mate and lay eggs before they die. So what we were hearing is the singing of a lot of very desperate cicadas!
The temperatures here are not unbearable: around 25ºC in the hottest part of the day, and cooler at night, which makes sleeping quite comfortable. Hiking in the jungle is a different matter, though, because of the incredible humidity. Jeremy reaches his maximum sweat threshold (i.e. all clothing completely saturated) within a few minutes, and even Rachael and the kids are sweating profusely after a while! But we noticed Amran our guide did not sweat at all, even though he was a little out of breath after some of the steeper climbs. Apparently the locals have adapted to the humidity here, which is a good thing because all the Muslim women are required to be covered from head to toe at all times, which to us looked incredibly hot.
After admiring the views from the top of Bukit Teresek (approx 370 meters elevation), we descended to one of the highlights of a visit to Taman Negara – the canopy walk. Constructed of mostly aluminum ladders, rope and planks, and suspended between enormous trees 45 meters above the forest floor, it was quite an experience! Only four people at a time are allowed to be on the tree platforms because they are only tied onto the trees, not attached with nails or bolts. They check the knots every morning, especially after a rainfall, but it was a little disconcerting nonetheless! It took them three years of manual labor to build. We'll let the pictures speak for themselves on this one. Beckie and Lucas saw a giant squirrel – four feet long – but other than that no wildlife was spotted in the canopy.
We returned across the river for lunch and a break. Amran picked us up from the restaurant at 3pm in a long boat to continue our explorations. It was now time for Gua Telinga, Gua being cave in the Malay language. Rachael decided not to go inside, instead hanging out outside the entrance inhaling the delicious aroma of guano. Jeremy went in with the kids and Amran and according to Beckie it was the highlight of the day. There were tight openings to squeeze through, streams to crawl through, and masses of fruit and insect bats flying all around your face. What could be better?! They also saw two Cave Racer snakes coiled in crevices snapping at the bats as they flew by and a baby Giant Toad. Everyone came out covered in poop and washed in the river before proceeding onto the next adventure.
We climbed into our longboat again for a half hour journey to an Orang Asli settlement. An added bonus was that the tribe had recently relocated upstream to the other side of some rapids, so we had an exciting ride. At the settlement, we learned how to make poison arrows from the sap of the Ipoh tree and how to shoot them out of a 2.5 meter bamboo blowpipe. Beckie and Rachael hit the bullseye first shot! The Malaysian government has tried to “civilize” the various aboriginal tribes but this particular group was having none of it. The camp looks just as it might of centuries ago except for some modern adjustments – namely blue tarps for roofing instead of palm fronds! They were also clothed in some English Premier Football League tee-shirts, Manchester United being the favorite locally, and had some modern packs and cooking pots. The kids went for a quick swim in the river, then the boat driver gave us a drenching ride home, which had the kids shrieking all the way. Back at Kuala Tahan, the guide finished the day on a high note by giving Beckie and Luke a ride home on his motorcycle. Lucas says he had been worried about traveling to Malaysia, but it is now his favorite of the places we have been, so we think the day was a success!
We had learned that the best chance to see jungle wildlife was around the park entrance in the early morning and late evening. So the next day, we crossed the river early, and sure enough, we found a whole troupe of Long-tailed Macaque monkeys (about twenty, including several babies) leaping from tree to tree. One of the rangers then gave the kids a Bronzeback snake to hold. To the amusement of the staff, they played with it a long time, long enough for the snake to get bored and bite Beckie. Fortunately we knew it was harmless, and she is quite proud of the fang marks on her wrist. We then sat down for a late breakfast, tortured the kids by making them write in their journals, and set off through the jungle for a lazy day beside the river. We brought some takeaway lunch, built sand castles and swam until dusk.
By the time we left, the beach was deserted and the sun had gone down behind the mountains. As darkness fell, the sounds of the jungle grew louder all around us, and we saw the splash and ripples of something large diving into the river near the opposite bank. We also heard what we are pretty sure was an elephant just out of sight around a bend in the river, and later saw some fresh elephant prints in the mud that had not been there earlier in the day. Hiking back through the twilight we heard a wild boar snorting and blundering off into a thicket as we approached, and startled a group of three Crested Fireback pheasants.
Around 7pm, we crept out to the hide (viewing tower), and were fortunate enough to see some large deer at the salt lake, including a stag. And on the way back through the resort, we stumbled upon a wild boar standing about ten feet away from us in the darkness! We followed him, and he led us to another group of three feeding. They are smaller than the wild boar in the US, but they are still pretty big (think very large, very solid, very snouty pig), and were very impressive – and a little scary!
Saturday morning we had a leisurely breakfast before boarding the local bus back to Jerentut. From there, we will be heading up into the Cameron Highlands in search of some cooler weather.