After Kuala Lumpur, we hired a car and went north to the Cameron Highlands, a region in the interior of the Malaysian Peninsular. It was a long, windy road up to the Highlands which are around 2,000m above sea level. The air is much cleaner here and the temperature was a far more refreshing 20 degrees. This whole area was once dense jungle up to just only a few decades ago, but has since been heavily developed, with almost 70% of this huge rainforest cleared for logging and development; a huge concern amongst conservationists.
We stayed in Tanah Rata, a pretty hamlet at the heart of the Highlands, deep into the cloud forests. The influence of the former British colonists is immediately evident in much of the architecture, with terracing, balconies and faux Tudor exteriors on much of the village. Today, the area is most famous for its tea plantations and its strawberry farms. With the atmosphere of tea everywhere, I had the feeling of being in England but also, unmistakably, of still being in Asia. We headed straightaway to one of the most famous plantations, the Boh, and to its tasting room. The tasting room was a modern glass structure of the kind you see at some vineyards; it just jutted out suspended over one of the valleys giving us magnificent views across the plantation. Despite the rain, the plantation is one of the most beautiful landscapes I‟ve yet seen. Everywhere is not just green, but a patchwork of different hues of verdant greens, rich and lush from the soils and the recent rains. We tried several black teas, one spicy, one sharper, one smooth, one full-bodied and rich – all delicious! That afternoon, however, high in the Malaysian Cameron Highlands, I also started to crave a good, strong cup of English builders‟ tea – PG Tips or Tetley‟s! Perhaps a sign of homesickness.
I said goodbye to the guys in Tanah Rata; they were heading to the island of Langkawi further north for a few days, whilst I was heading east to Taman Negara, a National Park in the middle of Peninsular Malaysia. It was an 8 hour bus ride to Kuala Tahan, a shanty village and the “base camp‟ to the Park. Taman Negara is 130 million years old and is primary rainforest jungle; it may well be the oldest rainforest/jungle in the world. It was my first time in jungle conditions; I’ve seen it on television and I wondered how I’d cope. As expected, the jungle was intense. It was super-hot (in the late 30s), super-humid and, in May, it rains incessantly. You literally sweat all day long. The heat and humidity gets into your brain; it got to the point where I was even thinking more slowly and everything from washing to eating to mentally processing anything became a great effort. I stayed in a shanty hut where I found 8-inch lizards (geckos that were to pop up everywhere in South-East Asia – they’re quick little fuckers! They‟re amazing creatures that can stick to walls and might not move for hours until, suddenly, they zip off!) and tiny frogs in my toilet (a little unnerving when sitting on the gents); there were animals on the roof and mosquitoes everywhere.
On my first evening in the Park, I took a night safari tour around one of the palm plantations that border the jungle. A group of us sat on the back of a pick-up truck and, with powerful flashlights, went looking around for local wildlife. We didn‟t turn up much, except for a few monkeys idling in trees, the odd wildcat cub hiding in bushes and a fairly bewildered wild boar. Despite this lack of visible wildlife, the forest at night is psychologically intense; it‟s incredibly noisy with high-pitched sounds from crickets, lizards and birds; it‟s incredibly claustrophobic and suffocating; and being constantly alert to a hostile, unfamiliar environment is thoroughly exciting but mentally exhausting.
The next morning, I went into the jungle proper. It was wet, muddy, boggy, hot and smothering; in fact, everything I was expecting. I hiked through mud trails, past massive ancient trees and trampled through thick, jungle undergrowth. I walked across the tallest (45m) and longest (510m) canopy walkway in the world; a series of swinging rope bridges suspended by wire from treetop to treetop across the tops of the jungle; 45m is sooo high! It sways and swings when you walk across and you would have no chance if it suddenly snapped! It does give you awesome views both across the jungle and looking downwards. Afterwards, I took a longboat across a quick-flowing, muddy-brown river straight out of any “Vietnam War‟ film; I wouldn’t have liked to have fallen into that.
The jungle isn‟t my ideal environment; (give me mountains and deserts any day of the week) but it was fantastic to see it for the first time and walk through a small part of the oldest rainforest in the world. With more time and money, I would have taken a flight to Sarawak province on Borneo Malaysia, where I would have liked to have met the Iban tribes-people, who reportedly have a headhunting history. Apparently, they have a fascinating culture of body-art and, whilst I don‟t have a burning desire to get another tattoo, it would have great to have one designed and inked by an Iban, using traditional methods. I’d also liked to have attempted Mount Kinabalu but then I suppose, when travelling, there’s always something more you’d like to have done.