The center of the Malay peninsula is a large mountainous region that's now a protected area, not unlike our national parks. The rule is that nobody can build houses or use technology unless they are affiliated with the park service, to preserve the natural splendor. Within are some settlements of primitive people, apparently, and they were allowed to stay, as long as they kept their primitive ways. If they modernized, they'd have to move. At the time this was described in a way to make the government sound benevolent and everything, but the more I think of it, the more I visualize some government fatcat getting rich off of it, at the expense of the people.
The bus took off from the tourist bureau. Most of the other people were european tourists. There was stuff to talk about but I don't remember any of it.
We were all crowded into a sortof minibus van, actually relatively nice. Acceptable by US standards. We were driving up this road. It was a typical two lane highway. This was not your typical hot tempered third world driver, this guy was pretty reasonable. He wore glasses and sortof looked western. If he was driving your bus in America, you'd think he should maybe have a professional job, and you'd be glad that he looked more responsible than the average driver fresh from some third world country.
So we were driving along on this road, on the left side of course, which was still pretty freaky for me. To our side, there was a guy on a motorcycle, with his daughter, this little girl maybe five years old or so. They were going along in front of us, toward the left edge of the road. (The way a motorcycle might be going along the right edge in the US.)
All of a sudden the motorcycle darted to the right, directly in front of the bus, way too close. This was dangerous, and our driver started slowing down, but then the motorcycle slowed down to stop with us right behind. Screeching of wheels.
I and all the other tourists on the bus thought we were going to see a forty year old guy and a five year old girl tumbling along the asphalt like rag dolls. They weren't wearing helmets.
Well everything came to a stop and nobody hit anything. Everybody on the van breathed a sign of relief. But the guy on the bike got off and it looked like there was going to be a fistfight. This was really wild, everybody on the bus was freaking out. The guy came over and grabbed at the handle to the drivers side door and pulled at it like he was going to rip it off and bite the head off of our driver. The whole van was rocking with this guy lunging on the door handle.
Then a really funny thing happened. Somehow they made peace with each other and the next thing I knew my driver had opened his window and they were talking. They were holding on to each other's arms, sortof with each person's hand on the other person's elbow, almost like the closest thing to a hug you could do without getting out of the car. And they talked it over, this was all in Maylay, I couldn't understand it.
They left each other on a good note apparently. I suspected there was some sort of religion going on that they had in common, most probably Islam. I thought about how wouldn't it be nice if disputes in the US could work that way. Well, maybe in a small town where everybody goes to the same church...
The idea is, you take a bus to the river. You take a boat to the middle of the campground. There's no roads that go up there, just the river. The only way to get up there is by boat up this river.
We finally got to the boat landing. Basically, a bunch of dockhouses that the longboats dock at. Plus a few places to eat and shop for the tourists. Not excessive, things were very easy going, but a bit confusing because of the language barrier. A few forms to have rattified at various desks that I barely understood. No I don't need a fishing license. An extra 5 ringgits to take in a camera, per camera. Well I had disposable cameras. Let's call them all one camera and maybe they won't complain.
We all got piled into boats with our stuff. This was my first experience with longboats, the ones in the Togian Islands were more rustic.
I ended up sitting next to this guy I'd noticed before. He was a loner, he didn't have any friends on this trip, just like me. I was glad I was put with him because I was curious about him.
Raymond is a traveler. He's part Canadian and part Russian. He can speak Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, English, French, Bahasa (= Malaysian = Indonesian), Spanish, and three other languages we never got around to talking about. He really liked traveling in Africa. He'd been to Indonesia already three times that year, and it was only half way through the year. He was into camping. He wasn't going to go anywhere tonight where he'd have to pay rent; he had his own tent and he was going off in his own direction. After we got to camp, I saw him walk off and I never saw him again. He reminded me a lot of Greg.
When we got there, it somehow reminded me of summer camp. There's a front desk, sortof like in a hotel, but beyond that you go and find your cabin. I think Yosemite is like this. There's a large number of cabins that are perfect for a couple. Maybe they're duplexes I don't remember.
Then there's these apartment things.
Then there's the dorms. Like being in a youth hostel, you sleep in a room with eight beds total, one bunk bed in each of the four corners of the room. It wasn't full when I was there, and actually each bed is private if you use the mosquito net; you end up with a small gause space as big as your matress which is relatively private. The guy at the tourist agency set me up with the dorm room because I had a backpack. A stereotype.
There was just a little bit of sunlight left. I had heard of a swimming hole just 500 meters from the resort area. Just 500 meters. Should be like 1/4 mile or 1/3 mile. It felt more like a mile to me, I was walking it in my Teva sandals with my bathing suit on.
When I got there, it wasn't anything like I expected. Basically, a piece of the river, and the water was all brown. Not opaque brown like the Gangese river, or a mud puddle, but if you look through a few inches of thickness, you can see that the water has a brown tint. I think now that the brownness was just rotting trees and stuff, but it just wasn't appealing. Some austrialians were there too, they decided against swimming. I remember trying to rationalize to myself that it wouldn't be that bad, but it didn't work.
This was the middle of the jungle and there were monkeys that would just come down from the trees and hang out, hoping for maybe a banana or two. This one had a baby hanging on to the back of her neck.
Night fell and I had dinner in the tourist-priced restaurant. I have to say they did a good job of integrating the wealthy and the cheap. There was three different economic levels to stay at, and two different places to eat: one of which clearly had good service and atmosphere, and the other of which had good prices.
I was never sure what I was doing in that respect. I could afford the wealthy but I could tolerate the cheap, and sometimes it felt more fun. But other times I just wanted to be pampered, and it was nice to be able to pay a little bit extra for that. So for instance I stayed in the dorms but ate in the nice restaurant.
So dinner came and went and I didn't make any friends and i was bored. My image of the tropics didn't include climate that was this nice - a cool night, perfect for walking around in a short sleeve shirt, but not uncomfortably warm. No bugs, or maybe just a few. Just pleasant.
The trail through camp eventually lead to a trailhead into the woods. The woods were very dark; the electric light photons seemed to just screech to a halt when confronted with the wall of vegitation. And right in the middle of this green wall was a black hole. It looked like a trail off into the woods. I've done that before. But this is the jungle, I really shouldn't wander off like that, not in the middle of the night, not when I don't know the place, the jungle. Lions and tigers and bears.
There's no lions and tigers and bears. This is a family place. There's mothers and fathers and kids wandering around here. And european tourists with way too much money.
I stepped into the black hole. It was OK. Just the woods at night. Quiet. Just a step or two from civilization. A dirt path, that's nothing new for me. I bet I could go a little farther.
I went a little farther. I had no flashlight. I would just step carefully and look and see if I could see anything by the moonlight. It was pretty easy.
I wandered as far as maybe thirty or sixty feet into the trail. That was as far as I dared to go. There was some funny branches in the way. Better just stop right here and enjoy the quiet, the jungle at night.
I stood there for maybe five or ten minutes. In the quiet. Listening to the jungle.
Then I started to hear something. Somebody was coming. People. Two or four or so. With flashlights. They were coming from out in the woods, in to camp. Suddenly I felt like I was doing something wrong or dangerous, or at least wierd, standing in the dark in the jungle without a flashlight. I scampered back into camp and made myself scarce.
I went back to my dorm bunk. I knew what I wanted to do. I got my flashlight and my daypack and went back to the trailhead. I wanted to go hiking at night. There wasn't anything else to do and I was really really curious.
The flashlight made all the difference in the world. The branches that I stopped at before, they were just an unusual root formation. I walked past. I kept walking.
It was thrilling but it was easy. I just kept on walking. My goal was this place called the "Canopy Walk". They were charging you five ringgits to go on this walk. And it was only like 9am to 3pm, other times it was "closed". Hogwash, I said, I can wander by late at night and there won't be anybody there. I guess I was angry at the touristification of the whole thing.
So this was my first hike through the jungle. At night. It was really easy. There wasn't any big animals, no bugs, nothing to be afraid of really.
My image of the jungle included suffocating humidity and insects that swarm your face, hungering for the moisture of your eyes and lips. But here, a dab of jungle juice, or some long pant legs, and the bugs were no problem.
I finally got to where the Canopy Walk was. The way up was this building, like a stairwell but made of wood and in the forest all alone. And it was locked. I couldn't get inside.
I could walk around it and see above where the canopy walk started, there was a rope ladder like in boy scouts leading off into the jungle. I considered climbing up there. It was purposefully difficult. I thought of the circumstances, especially if something went wrong I'd be stuck out here in the middle of the woods until morning. I went back and went to bed.
The walk was spectacular. It consisted of several rope bridges through the treetops. The idea was to get an appreciation for the ecosystem that goes on in the leaves in the trees, far above where we usually walk. Birds, monkeys, leaves.
The walks themselves were thrilling enough. Every one of them had wooden planks as you see to make it easier to walk on. Otherwise it would have been walking on rope, and too many little kids and their parents would fall off per year.
I got to the end and it dumped out on a different part of the trail. I had a map. Two in fact. Both were pretty lame, but between the two I was rarely lost. I followed the trail to an overlook.
This was the tropics. I was just a few degrees off of the equator. And I was in the middle of the humid jungle, in the middle of the day. The only way to survive is to let yourself sweat, not even worry about it. I sweat so much my shirt was soaked. I managed to grab my shirt and wring droplets of water out of it - yuck!! I set it on the picnic table to dry. A butterfly came by to alight on my shirt (see picture).
There were other hikers there. There was a french couple. They seemed a little bit distant, a bit of french arrogance I guess. No big deal, I'm used to it.
Another european couple came by and the French couple left, to go onward. According to the map, the trail ended right there. But clearly the trail kept on going down the other side of the hill. These maps were lines on paper; I never felt like I knew my way around by the map, even though I spent a few days there and I learned several trails by sight.
This second couple was talking and I detected a German sound to it but I couldn't make out any words. They asked me about the trail, according to the map... yeah, the map says it ends. But it must go on. "Where does it go?"
"Well, I dunno. I figure it must go somewhere. Where did that french couple go? Of course, if the trail didn't go anywhere, they're French, they would never admit that they shouild go back so we may never see them again."
They had a chuckle at that, and then the guy said, "How did you know we weren't French?" I told them that their speaking sounded kindof German. They were insulted! It turns out they were speaking Flemmish (belgian dutch). The idea that they sounded like Germans put them off. Oh well. Next time I say, "like some Germanic language".
They moved on and another couple came by. These people were American, but they were English teachers. They had been teaching English for several years; I can't remember where. They were on vacation. Hey, when you live in Southeast Asia, you take your vacations in Southeast Asia. Pretty easy.
I told them about my travel plans and they told me all about what to do in Bali and where to stay and everything. I took copious notes.
I wandered around quite a bit more for the rest of the day. The jungle was just amazing. You stand there and listen... and it sounds almost like music by Brian Eno. Quiet, but you know things are happening and you hear them, off in the distance.
It's very much like the woods in the States that I'm used to. But the vegitation and wildlife are different.
There were trail signs around. There were several trails that were too long to go on that day. The farthest destination was 50 some odd kilometers away. As in yosemite, you could go backpacking and set up a tent and stay the night, on your own. I started formulating where I would go the next day; there were some waterfalls up the river that would make a good day hike.
As the sun was coming down, I was coming back to camp. I had seen most of what was interesting that was close to camp. I was coming back, maybe a half kilometer from camp or less.
I got to this one place on the trail where this other trail branched off to the left. The sign said something that neither of my phrasebooks had listed. What was it? A waterfall? I knew the word for waterfall. A view? A hill? I knew several of these words, but this was something different. Says just a few hundred meters. Maybe I can find out for myself. The sun was still in the sky, although you couldn't see it through the canopy.
I figure, OK. I'll just run up and run back and get to camp before nightfall. The first part was uphill. For some reason, I decided I'd be coming back that way and I wanted to go faster, so I dropped my pack by the side of the trail.
So I took the trail to the top of the hill, then to the bottom of the hill after that. And I walked and I walked. Up the next hill, and down the other side. Across a streambed, up another hill. I could see it was getting dark, so I tried to hurry.
I remember at one point, I was walking along and it had gotten so dark that I couldn't see everything. I heard off to the side some grunts. There was some sort of animal, probably a boar, about thirty or so feet away. I guess he could have charged me, but why bother? I scampered up the next hill.
Well, I had gone for what I thought was certainly far enough, and I didn't see anything that the sign might be referring to. You know the anguish about turning back is that you always think that you're really close, and it would be a real drag if you gave up after coming this far. But I finally turned around, it was getting dark. I didn't have a flashlight, that was in my daypack that I'd dropped by the side of the trail.
So I went up a hill and down a hill and after another hill or two I noticed that it was really dark. Like, night dark. There was an issue of denial here, Ho, no, hehe, it's just dark twilight, that's all. We'll get back in no time.
I kept on moving and I kept myself busy by being fascinated by the way I was navigating. Even though I could barely see the trail, I could see the trail; I could see what was open and what was branches and non-trail. It made a really big difference whether it was a clearing or under the canopy, or in between. Most of the time it seemed in between, so I could see some things, I could see enough, just enough. There were a number of times when I wasn't sure, and I started walking in one direction, felt leaves and branches, and then took the other direction.
I was worried that there had been forks in the path that maybe in my haste I hadn't noticed on the way in. If I take the wrong fork, where will I end up? But I didn't remember any forks on the way in. As usual a trail looks different going in the other direction, and I neglected to look back every so often. I guess trails in daylight are easy, you just follow them and don't worry. I remarked to myself that if I had not been an experienced hiker I could have been in trouble. (But if that were so I probably would not have taken this risk.) Heck, I dinnt even know, I didn't remember, just keep going on the trail.
All I have to do is find that daypack. That's all I have to do, then I'll be OK. There's my flashlight in there and I'll be fine if I get that daypack. But of course at this point I'd lost track of how many hills I'd gone up and down. On the downward side of hills, I'd try to see, along the right side of the trail, if my pack was there. I couldn't see anything. Many times I'd grab at ghosts; there was nothing there. Was it on a part that was this steep? No, it was a steeper part of the hill wasn't it? I couldn't remember.
I remember that at one point I got to an intersection in the trail. I could clearly see trails go off in two directions. I thought this was the original branch off, but I could see no sign, like the sign I had seen that started this whole fiasco. I didn't remember any other branch in the trail. I didn't know, I just decided to take the left fork.
I guess I was getting scared at that point. I kept on looking for my pack by the side of the trail; it wasn't there. A few times I tripped on roots, maybe I fell once. I was going a little bit too fast, I was a little bit too scared.
Then, all of a sudden, I saw a light ahead. It was enough to see my way out of the woods. I came out in... the campground. I'd stumbled all the way back home.
My first reaction was of thanks and relief, dragging my butt out of the jungle back to civilization. Then I looked at the other campers, hanging out in front of their tents (this part of the campground had tent campers), and I felt a little foolish about what had just happened.
Pretending to be just another hiker who straggled into camp a bit late in the day, I walked through to my dorm and my bunk. I wanted food and I wanted a big tall beer.
Unfortunately all my money was in my daypack. Hey, do you keep it in a wooden footlocker with a wimpy padlock, or do you take it with you? OK so now I had no Malaysian ringgits.
I went to the front desk; they were no help. I went to the restaurant; they were no help. A dirty tourist with some problem about no money. They just didn't have very much sympathy. I sifted through my pack and found a US $20 bill. The front desk accepted it at an exchange rate that was probably like 10% down from what I could have gotten in the city. The restaurant charged the usual amount for the buffet; it was excellent but I used up most of the cash.
The next day I found my pack on my way back out into the woods.
There was this trail that was supposed to take me up to the waterfalls, up the river where the water was clear and it was nice to swim. So far on this trip I had been swimming once, and it was in the YMCA pool in Hong Kong. That doesn't count.
It took a few hours to walk up there. Wonderful jungle walk. On the way I saw a number of people coming the other way. A few kilometers out of camp, you pretty much get rid of the little kids and random tourists, and all there is left is the serious wilderness loving people like me. Most people seemed to be campers who had camped out there all night, or even for a few nights. I talked to one or two of them. Some were malaysians.
One place I saw ants. Not a few ants, not just a stream of ants like I was used to seeing in my kitchen on a bad day, but a stream a few inches wide, marching up a tree. Ants in the tropics don't mess around.
The trail went on one side or the other of the main river. At one point there was a river crossing. I took off my sneakers and put on my Teva sandals to wade across the river. I remember there was a sandbar nearby with lots of people who could best be described as local tourists; they looked Malaysian or maybe from Singapore, but they were not acting like hikers; a boat was taking them up and back. The boats were leaving right as I got there. We were friendly to each other, but I was a bit irritated; you wander off into the woods and you don't want to see crowds of people and sputtering motorboats.
Finally I got to the falls. I had visualized blue water splashing down a thirty foot waterfall, with bare-breasted young native women frolicking and laughing in the water.
When I got there, it was similar but not quite the same. The water was still brown, I figured at this point that it must be clean enough to swim in, there was nothing upstream from here. The waterfall could better be described as "rapids pouring over rocks". Apparently the Malaysian word was sortof the same. There were several bare-breasted young native men frolicking and laughing in the water. They had come up to camp and fish, and their fishing was degenerating into jumping in the water.
My Malaysian was still pretty weak. After trying to study it in the states with tapes and books and the occasional phrases traded in an Indonesian restaurant (it's pretty much the same language). And, if you are in any place where the people speak English, let's face it, you won't learn the language.
So I was trying to talk to these guys;
they knew about as much in my language as I knew in theirs.
I wanted to know if it was OK to drink the water.
I guess we were all swimming in it.
They didn't get what I said in english.
I managed to dig up two words that I knew:
Minum = drink, Minuman = something to drink; drinking
Air = water, I know it doesn't make sense.
I said to them, "Air Minuman?" He understood! "Oh... Tiduk!" Tiduk - that means No. Then he said something. I didn't understand. Then he said in English, "Fire fire!" Then I understood. They boil the water.
I think that was the first time I used the language to bridge a communications gap, as opposed to the usual restaurant formalities.
They were very friendly, and I was in the mood to be friendly, and we hung out and swam more. The "rapids" weren't dangerous, unless you tried to float downstream like a log I guess. But it was incredibly refreshing after hiking in the noonday sun.
I spent the rest of the day hiking back and relaxing in this scenic place where there was a stream that flowed into the river, and a dock. It was quiet and peaceful and I took a long nap.
I liked it so much I even picked up some garbage left on the ground by some other hikers.
I was getting irritated about how everyone in this part of the
world would just litter and not think about it.
Back in my dorm room, I got to know this guy named Aw. He was a guide for European tourists. He knew his way around and told me and this other tourist all about stuff. It was somewhat unfortunate because I was leaving the next day.
He told me that a much better place to eat was across the river from the campground. Apparently the locals who live on the other side will take you across for free.
So I went down to the dock and waited. And in fact I was taken across the river in a longboat for free. I was delivered onto a dock that was actually like a big raft permanently moored against the other side. A big raft - big enough for a restaurant. Now there's a business angle!
I sat down and ordered dinner. There wasn't much common language, but all I had to do was point to something on the menu, and I was getting used to the standard items on the menu in this part of the world. A stomach full of low-fat asian food, and a drink, and it was all for about $1.40us. A far cry from the $12 buffet across the river for the wealthy tourists. It wasn't like that was a big amount of money, it was just, I dunno, maybe a thought of some wealthy government creeps getting rich while the locals scrape a living out of the land.
Well, there was an issue of sanitation too; the raft restaurant washed their dishes in the river. But who knows, the tourist restaurant probably did too, we just never saw it.
After dinner I wandered around to explore the area. There was a whole town here on the other side, with streets and motor vehicles. I counted more than a dozen, and I saw at least one road that went off somewhere. No drinking establishments, though. There were small hotels and guesthouses though. So much for the story about how you have to take a boat up.
The next morning, I woke up early, about 5am. While I was puttering around, I could hear off in the distance, praying from a mosque. They have speakers, and you can hear it all over the valley. It's the moslem equivalent of our churchbells, except it's every day. They're supposed to pray five times a day I think but I didn't hear it that much.
I was to leave that morning. I was looking through some of my papers with Aw the guide, and he found these pink slips of paper that were coupons for lunch and breakfast at the cafeteria (the cheap one). Apparently I had been unknowingly forfeiting them every day. Oh well. At least I could get breakfast today.
After breakfast, I saw Aw wandering around the grounds with binoculars with this other tourist we had met in the dorms. He was bird watching. I'd never done this before. He took me along and we saw a number of birds that he seemed to think were really cool. I was open minded about it and I had a good time for the half hour or hour it lasted.
Aw told me there was 632 types of bird in Malaysia. And there was one type of bear. I don't know, he was a smart guy, he just knew all this stuff.
Aw and I sat next to each other on the trip back. (He took the trip all the way back to KL with his clients; there he was to pick up another European couple. I think he said the current couple was German; the next couple was going to be Swiss.)
His name is Aw Tong Wah.
He was a third generation Chinese in Malaysia.
(The chinese were imported to Malaysia as sortof a managerial class by the British a hundred years ago.)
He said that somehow mixed marriages were no big deal around there.
At least for him.
We sat around and told racist jokes and talked about American politics all the way down the river,
with him occasionally grabbing his clients and pointing out an interesting bird or a historic building.
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