The magic of Malaysia
They are pursuing me. Small, black, limbless creatures throw themselves on my legs, wriggle into my socks and gorge on my blood. I have a terror of leeches and at one point, I retch, shudder, turn, then turn around again and stumble on, undecided whether to plunge on through this nightmare or turn back. After a couple of hours I surrender to carrying my passengers calmly and suddenly everything changes. I realise it is somehow fitting: I have become part of a beautiful, wild, symbiotic ecosystem in this ancient jungle; everything feeding on everything else. Including me.
Trekking in the Malaysian rainforest is a walk on the wild side. The trail leads up and down hills, past trees woven with vines and across burbling dark creeks. Crawling over logs in the steamy undergrowth, I become muddy and dirty. I don’t care.
Thrust into a multi-sensory wilderness experience, I am having the time of my life. Every sense fills to overflowing with the sight of intense colours, the pungent aromas, the sound of birds and monkeys and the tactile textures of wood, moist moss, bark and large leaves. Taman Negara National Park is a world away from the rest of Malaysia and Malaysia feels a world away from anywhere else. Exotic in every sense of the word, this country covers a peninsula bordered by Singapore in the south and Thailand to the north, as well as two states on the island of Borneo.
Excellent public transport, accommodation, food and attractions along with a courteous, conservative culture and a favourable exchange rate mean travelling is easy and attractions and activities accessible. Landscapes range from steamy jungles to cool highlands with modern and historical cities, sunny islands, coastal villages, beach resorts and hill stations.
Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL), is a heady mix of contrasts: skyscrapers tower over wooden houses built on stilts; old dented cars elbow gleaming limousines on the busy streets; and bustling business and commercial strips hide pockets of rainforest.
From a 17th-century trading post, the city now supports 1.5 million people from a potpourri of races and cultures, mainly Malay, Chinese and Indian. The presence of “green wedges” saves Kuala Lumpur from the endlessly “cemented” fate of many large Asian hubs. This is a very likeable city with an efficient, hop-on-hop-off double-decker bus system that takes you to various spots of interest, including the Palace of Culture, National Museum and Chinatown.
As the bus rumbles around the city streets, I look at a contrasting mix of lush gardens and Mad Max-type waste lots; glass and chrome buildings and run-down grimy houses; full and empty streets; mega shopping malls and tiny hawker stalls.
In one street a deity is reverently carried out of a doorway and put in the back of a truck, while drums roll and people dance. White-walled colonial mansions sit atop hills and when we pass the famous landmark Petronas Towers I am reluctantly impressed (it’s hard to condone resource-hungry skyscrapers). These twin towers shoot their scalloped structures into the sky, their clean lines offering a different elegant view from every angle, while at night it appears like some futuristic Moorish spaceship.
The bus travels through the 60-hectare Lake Gardens, offering several worthwhile attractions including a butterfly sanctuary and the world’s largest bird aviary. Here, feathered creatures of all varieties fly, flap and strut in a kaleidoscope of colour, size and form. More than 200 species from around Malaysia and the world live in a variety of cages and enclosures, while the most fortunate fly throughout the entire space. It’s a wonderful experience to walk past waterfalls beside which flocks of flamingos reflect pink legs in a lake, be inspected by a large-beaked hornbill, watch storks leg it on a roof and wonder at the beauty of a bird of paradise preening his sumptuously long tail.
North of KL is the British-sounding Butterworth Station and a ferry to the island of Penang. Its main attractions focus on the lovely northern beaches and Georgetown’s rich tapestry of culture and history. Originally a Portuguese outpost, Penang provided a sheltered harbour for Asian, Middle Eastern and European ships plying the Straits of Malacca during the 17th century. Georgetown, the main settlement, became a den of iniquity enriched by brothels, opium, gambling and alcohol pits. Walking the streets of Georgetown now offers safer insights into various cultures and centuries.
Intricate deities adorn Hindu temples, mosques present geometric facades, incense pours from shrines in Buddhist temples and Catholic churches invoke transplanted beliefs from halfway around the world. Then I hear about Cheong Fatt’s mansion from an Australian who had spent three days just sitting and soaking up the atmosphere of oriental grandeur without stepping out the door.
Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese tycoon, settled here in the 1890s and built a home for his seventh and favourite wife. His status attracted other wealthy Chinese landowners and the street eventually became known as Hakka Millionaires’ Row. Sumptuously decorated and beautifully restored, Cheong Fatt mansion is now the sort of romantic pad in which you can imagine writing a novel about an exotic oriental romance novel … or conducting one. Indeed, the romantic movie Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve was partly filmed here.
I take a guided tour and am escorted passed rustic rickshaws leaning against blue walls, under gable ends decorated with charred porcelain detail, lime wash and tempera paintings and into the unique interior. Fatt built two stories: the ground floor for conducting business and an upper storey for the family. The tiled foyer features stained-glass windows, traditional Chinese detail and period oriental furniture including Chinese lanterns and decorative walls.
We wander through some of the 16 rooms, admiring magnificent room dividers carved into intricate pictures covered in gold leaves or inlaid mother of pearl. Eight columns (a lucky number in Chinese traditions) surround a sunken courtyard in the centre of the building, supporting the upper floor with its courtyard balcony decorated with wrought-iron railings and arches.
At the temples of Kuan Yin and Thai Pat Koong, I’m surrounded by swirls of colours and textures from temple decorations and people’s clothing. I love it; I’m wandering around a cauldron of the Orient.
Crossing the top of the country, I arrive in the city of Khota Bahru. Here are markets, craft centres and the Khota Bahru Cultural Centre, which offers daily traditional dance and music performances. Musicians settle on a mat with a kind of oboe and three drums. A narrator explains some of the traditions and meanings before a dancer strides on stage. Clasping his hands, he breathes deeply, visibly drawing in energy and grounding himself. His hands begin a low shaking before rising above him as he steps in great pounding movements.
A second dancer arrives and they ‘fight’. The movements are stylised, yet look spontaneous and are unmistakably masculine and powerful, a legacy of a local traditional tribal culture where both strength and the arts are prized.
Khota Bahru is also the terminus for the northern end of the “jungle train”, a local service running down the centre of the country to Johor Bahru near Singapore. For the first couple of hours travelling south of Khota Bahru, I see a constant stream of banana and palm plantations. Palms are common in Malaysia and, when great swathes of jungle disappear to supply increasing global demand, the traveller is constantly reminded that some forms of biofuel come at serious environmental cost.
The occasional villages hold busy markets, near which chestnut-coloured cattle graze perched upon by white birds. Then the landscape becomes more rugged and clouds wrap the hilltops as the train picks up speed, rocking along the tracks through the misty green countryside.
Halfway to my destination, the town of Jerantut, the thicker jungle appears impenetrable and mysterious. Giant fronds arch towards the train, tall trees rise out of the heavy forest and looming cliffs rear in half-coned shapes towards the sky. As the train crosses bridges, small boats float underneath looking like pointed shards of balsawood glued together by a child. The cliffs are larger now, with orange exposed rock, or emerge as shadowy giant shapes in the mist. Along with the steamy jungle, it’s a deliciously primeval landscape and I feel swept into another world.
Disembarking at Jerantut, I make for Taman Negara National Park; a 4343 square kilometre area of protected rainforests whose diverse plants and wildlife developed over 130 million years. The park was established in 1938 and encompasses lowland areas covered in ferns and rare orchids and intermediate slopes growing oaks and laurels, while smaller palms poke their fronds into the mists of cooler summits.
More than 250 species of birds live here including hornbills, fireback pheasants, eagles and kingfishers, while the more exotic broadbill, drongo and blue-throated bee-eaters are magnets for bird watchers. Animals are present, though rarely seen. Deer, tapir, elephants, tigers and even Sumatran rhinoceros live deep in the jungle. More visible are curious long-tailed macaque and leaf monkeys, while gibbons chatter in the upper canopy.
Apart from trekking there is plenty to do. You can raft the rapids of Sungai Tembeling and fish along the upper reaches of the Tahan and Kenyam rivers. A 450-metre canopy walk offers panoramic views of Gunung Tahan or many people go for a dip in the Four Steps Waterfall. For those feeling more adventurous, caving or mountain climbing beckon and you can visit the settlements of Orang Asli, the local semi-nomadic tribes.
However, the greatest attraction in Taman Negara is trekking with or without a guide and, like me, you don’t have to be fit to discover the beauty of an ancient forest. I take my time; absorbing the splendour of an ancient ecosystem for a multi-day hike while staying in animal hides overnight is unforgettable.
Vines weave around great thick trees. The undergrowth steams and different bird sounds keeps me swinging from a tranquil state of wonder to high excitement. When the birds and monkeys quieten (I try not to think which hunting animal causes these regular silences) the silence is almost tangible, before a trill heralds another orchestra of calls and songs.
Pungent aromas of life, death and rebirth are all around and technology, hurry, interruptions and the trials of the modern world seem far away. It’s time to breathe deep and find my own rhythm. Settling into the tree-top hide for the night, I peer out of the large window into the darkening jungle. All I see are the dark silhouettes of treetops though there are plenty of interesting sounds during the night.
When I finally re-emerge into Jerantut, the town feels two-dimensional after the richness of the forest. I board a bus for the east coast, feeling better for having touched upon a magical world. It’s time to contemplate life at a little fishing village called Besera where I watch fishermen mend their nets, or walk the beach, eat at the local restaurant and generally take time out from the tourist trail. Goats wander past my simple guesthouse and a water buffalo grazes by an old wooden bridge. In the village I nod at grandmothers smiling between wooden shutters and glimpse babies swinging on tiny hammocks made from shawls.
My last meal before boarding the bus north to Cherating is at the local cafe, where the owner gives me a glass bracelet and, wishing I had something more special, I give her a clip-on koala in return. As the bus trundles up she takes my hand within both of hers, then places her hands on her heart and closes her eyes. “This is the way we say goodbye here,” she explains. I am very moved and we both have tears in our eyes. Cherating is a place to hang out and meet travellers from all over the world who congregate here for the wide beaches, warm water and turtles, before heading to nearby tropical islands.
I decide to join a local guide for a trip down the Cherating River. I meet Halvis and we set off in his boat. Long mangrove seed pods hang over the water and the great fingers of aerial roots plunge deep into the river. Spaghetti-like vines twist around host branches and monitor lizards rest on branches. Dark creeks glimmer with mysterious dim lights, a kingfisher flies over the water and fish blow bubbles.
Halvis brings the boat very close to a mangrove snake, its bands of orange colour barely visible from behind thick leaves. “Is it dangerous?” I ask nervously. “Oh yes, very, very poisonous,” Halvis explains, bringing the boat closer. “OK, that’s enough,” I burst out.
Less harmful squirrels bound along branches, butterflies float above us and mangrove crabs crawl in the muddy banks, half-hidden by great ferns arching over the water. It is a primeval, mysterious atmosphere. Halvis points out what his people eat and different aspects of the flow and ebb of life along the waterway. As he talks, large monkeys swing through trees making a flapping sound as they connect with each branch and birds fly overhead.
Another place to connect with nature is the nearby Cherating Turtle Sanctuary and Information Centre. Opened in 1998, the centre helps and protects giant leatherback turtles — the largest marine reptiles in the world’s oceans — that come here to breed and nest. The centre offers information panels and displays about turtles and other marine life as well as a few adult turtles in ponds. A staff member shows me a batch of week-old turtles brought here for protection from predators.
During May to October, visitors can join guided tours to watch the giant leatherback turtles nest and lay eggs in the sand, before the eggs are moved to a protected hatching area. At the centre, I am able to hold one in the palm of my hand and it is a wondrous few minutes. I gaze at the perfection of its little flippers, tiny shell and big black eyes before putting it back in the tub for future release.
Sadly, this is an endangered species on the brink of extinction. It is not just animals that feast on the baby turtles; the human demand for turtle eggs has decimated the once-healthy giant leatherback turtle population. Its decline is also helped along by fishing nets, which cause the turtles to drown, the loss of nesting beaches to development, and ocean pollution. Scientists estimate that only one in 1000 hatchlings survives into adulthood.
I head off to a tropical island and, like Lieutenant Joe Cable in the classic movie South Pacific, which was partly filmed here, I arrive by plane on Tioman Island, the largest of 64 volcanic islands. I look down to see jungle-clothed mountains whose dramatically jagged peaks are wrapped in cloud. The jungle rolls down mountain slopes to end in lines of palm trees. It is a vision of loveliness: smooth boulders dot icing-sugar sand and the thick jungle dwarfs the low beach huts. I take a water taxi to villages along the coast and walk the narrow interconnecting paths.
Monkeys play along the branches and balance from telegraph poles. Quiet and lush and overgrown, this island is peaceful and finding an empty hammock slung between two tree trunks, I lie there gazing at a supply boat heading to a pier.
Malaysia has been a green carpet rolling out many different experiences, yet I get the feeling I have barely touched the surface. I wish I could get to know the Besera villagers more deeply, volunteer at the turtle sanctuary or explore more of Penang. Right now though, I can only wonder at the colourful cultures, the beautiful landscapes, the warmth and helpfulness of the people and the diversity and challenges of its wildlife.
Further information: Malaysia Tourism: www.tourism.gov.my
More about Malaysia’s turtle sanctuaries: www.malaysiavacationguide.com/turtle-sanctuary.html