BootsnAll Travel Network

We’re in the Jungle, Baby

I left Kuala Lumpur early in the morning, on a bus that would cost me RM18, or about US$5, for a 4 hour journey. I was heading inland to an area called the Cameron Highlands, a large tea plantation and fruit growing area high in the mountains. When I arrived at the bus station, I found my platform underground in the dark cavernous bus terminal of Purduraya bus station next to Chinatown. So far, all the buses I had taken were nice, new coach buses. The outside of this bus, while still new enough to not have windows that open, looked slightly old and rusting. But it looked good enough, or so I thought, as I boarded with a ton of local Malays and one apparent other backpacker. The seats looked worn, the floor was dirty and the windows were blurry years of soot and fingerprints. That, I didn’t realize, should have been the least of my concerns.

From all my other experiences on buses in Asia, and from what numerous people have told me, all the buses are absolutely freezing cold with air conditioning. Wear long pants! Bring a blanket! This was the advice I was given plenty of times. What people failed to mention, was what happens when the air conditioning doesn’t work, and the windows don’t open. Oh, of course. Let’s drive on the highway with the front door open, that’s a great solution. Diesel fumes were choking us in the front of the bus, wafting in from the buses and trucks lumbering ahead of us. This was the first time I ever saw a few Asian people actually sweating, and one man decided to risk his life, he was hot enough to stand directly in front of the open door to get some wind. After the first hour, the fumes had given me such a raging headache and my clothes were completely drenched with sweat, as of course I had worn long pants and such for my trip. I looked behind me, and realized that the back of the bus was empty, and the locals had opened the emergency hatch in the roof and were actually getting a fair amount of fresh air, so I clambered back to grab and empty seat, and felt some relief for the first time in over an hour. After another hour, we stopped at what was apparently the main office or parking lot for this bus company, and they had a mechanic come out to fix the a/c. Finally, cool air was blowing through the vents, and we boarded the bus again. Everything was fine for about an hour, and then we started our ascent on the mountain road to Tanah Rata, the main town in the Cameron Highlands. After climbing for about 15 minutes on the winding mountain road, with beautiful forests surrounding us, I suddenly realized that there was smoke blowing into the bus from the front. It was so strong in fact, that the other backpacker on the bus woke up coughing, and asked me what was going on. When I explained that I thought the engine was smoking, and it was blowing in through the vents, she got up to open the emergency hatch. The bus driver, oblivous to the smoke streaming past him , started yelling, No, No, Air conditioning…when she opened the hatch. We quickly motioned to the front of the bus, and a woman who spoke some english realized we were saying, SMoke, Smoke, and she got involved, yelling at the bus driver, who still, oblivious to the streams of gray plumes around his face. Finally, about 5 minutes later and lots of local yelling, the bus driver pulls over on the side of the road of this mountain, where there wasn’t a whole lot of room to maneuver a big coach bus, and we all pile out of the bus. The engine is completely smoking, and another 10 minutes of steep climbs and we would have either caught fire and died of carbon monoxide poisoning, imprisoned on the windowless bus. So we took our luggage and stood on the side of the road, 20km away from our destination, and flagged down another bus. Though a different company, the driver let some of us get on the fill the empty seats, on what can only be described as completely opposite bus from ours, with plush seats only 3 across, curtains and freezing cold a/c, and took us the the rest of the way to Tanah Rata, leaving the few souls unlucky to not get seats waiting for another bus as the driver made some phone calls.

The last 20km went smoothly, and we arrived in Tanah Rata on a gorgeous sunny day. Me and the other backpacker, a French girl who was living in Australia, found ourselves at Father’s Guesthouse and HOstel, probably one of the best hostels in Malaysia, if not Asia. For RM8, or about US$2, I got a dorm bed in a 16 bed dorm, something I would normally avoid but couldn’t resist the cheapness. We chose our beds, and went into town to get some food and look around. It was such a great day, we made our way on a short jungle walk, as there were many in the surrounding hills that you could do, which took us past a small waterfall and into a park and campsite popular with locals. It was a short walk, but a pretty one, and afterwards we made our way up through some of the local streets and found a strawberry farm, where we stopped for some fresh homemade strawberry ice cream, which was completely delicious. Heading back to the hostel, I signed up for a day long tour of the surrounding area, which would include a special walk to find the Rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower, since it only blooms for a few days out of the year, this could be a once in a lifetime chances to see it, so I signed up for the tour for the following day. The hostel was pretty full, and they had a nice sitting area where they played movies all day and had a restaurant and bar for people to hang out in, so we relaxed the rest of the day and night.

The following morning after breakfast, the group got together for our tour, and we had about 12 people signed up, so we took two 4WD vehicles and headed off to our first stop, which was the Boh tea plantation. The surrounding hills had been transformed from jungle to climbing hills of tea plants, and we stopped for a photo shoot and our guide Francis to explain how the tea plantations work and the amount of labor involved in making this worldwide popular drink. He explained the many different kinds and classes of tea leaves, and let us know that the worst tea leaves, the “left-overs”, were used for tea bags around the world, and a few British tea drinkers in the group seemed very unimpressed with that. We headed towards the tea factory, and after a quick tour of the working factory and obversing the drying of the tea leaves and processing, we went to the cafe, a huge modern building overlooking the hills with big open windows allowing the cool breezes inside the cafe, and we all had big pots of local tea and scones and other baked goods. It was a beautiful view overlooking the plantation and hillside, and after our tea we made our way down the hills to the mossy forest, one of the oldest forests in the world.Thousands of years of moss, leaves and other plant detritus had left the ground a soft but stable path through the trees, and Francis explained many of the plants and some medicinal properties they had for the local people. One plant of particular interest was called the Woman’s Plant, and apparently the local Orang Asli women used this plant to keep themselves slim so their men wouldn’t leave them for younger girls. One older woman in our group was very interested in where she could get her hands on this particular plant.

Following our short hike through the mossy forest, we headed back to town for a quick lunch. Traffic on the road between all the small towns was jam packed, as it was a national holiday for the king’s birthday, and also the start of school holidays. It took us much longer to get back to town, and we hurried through lunch to start our way to find the flower. Our hostel had told us it was an hour’s walk to find the flower, but after talking to Francis, he said, Two, maybe three hours one way in the jungle. So I made a beeline back to the hostel quickly for my hiking boots, knowing I hated to do too much hiking in my sandals. As we boarded our covered pickup truck, and another 4WD vehicle followed behind us, it started pouring rain down on us, and we stopped in a small town to buy some big plastic ponchos, since we were freezing in our open truck. My expensive rain jacket, which I’ve still never worn, was waiting patiently for me back at the hostel. We drove for over an hour and along the way picked up two local men with machetes who climbed in the back of the truck, our local guides. These local tribes were responsible for maintaining the jungle paths we would be walking on, and also for locating these large, rare floweres and taking us to them. In return, they received 10RM for each person on the tour from our tour company. We headed onto a dirt path, which was now actually mud, and trundled along the rocky path up the hill. Higher and higher we climbed, often getting stuck and spinning our tires, not a great feeling when the road you are on is almost as wide as the truck, and it is a pretty far drop down the side of the mountain. The 4WD vehicle behind us had even more trouble, and they ended up getting stuck further down the hill. So we left our trucks where they were, and began our walk up the road. After crossing an extremely scary bamboo bridge, made with about 7 rods of bamboo over rushing water below us, we found the jungle path we would be taking. What maybe would have taken us 1 1/2 hours, ended up taking almost 3 because of the mud and terrible condition of the path due to the rain. My nimble, agile body left me on my butt more than my feet, and we were all soon completely covered in mud and scratches, sliding down paths and desperately trying to grab onto a small tree, only to find it was covered in thorns. Because our hostel hadn’t prepared us, many people were not dressed for the walk or for the weather conditions, and we were all quickly soaked, wet and cold. Many people were wearing jeans, which were now heavy with water, and a few girls had only sandals on, one eventually abandoning all hope and decided to not go on with the hike. On one particular stream crossing, there was a large step we needed to take from a rock in the middle to the bank on the other side, to avoid getting our feet completely wet. Not thinking that my feet were already completely wet, even in hiking boots, I attempted the crossing, only to feel my body pulling backwards and, without anything to hold onto, I was now lying in the water, my pants and shirt soaked through. Luckily my backpack was high enough that it didn’t get wet and my camera was okay. Dripping, I continued on the path, my pride bruised more than my body.
About 4:30, 3 1/2 hours after leaving town, we arrived at the Rafflesia. A huge, pink bloom on the ground, we set up a phone card so we could show some scale of the flower on our cameras. Exhausted, after a quick photo and some explanation by Francis that no one listened to, we were off again, headed down the path we had just conquered. It was getting dark, and the more athletic people in the group, basically everyone except me and the 61 year old lady, set a quick pace and disappeared around the bend. My pants clung to me, my shoes squished, and my legs burned with scratches. Stumbling, sliding and clutching our way through this path, trying to hurry as it was now getting very dark, none of us were prepared and had no flashlights, no rain gear and no food. My walking partner the older woman was starting to get shaky, and just the fact she was able to do this hike was something of a wonder, but she needed some sugar and was getting nervous because she was hypoglycemic. Francis slowed up with us and we made our way carefully to the edge of the forest and arrived at the bamboo bridge, now a breeze to cross after everything else, and still had a 1/2 hour walk back to the vehicles. Everyone was there waiting for us, and we quickly climbed in our truck, wet and freezing. The sun was gone, and jungle darkness surrounded us. The hour drive back to town was a freezing nightmare, none of us with warm clothes or wet weather gear, and an open air truck, we were instantly freezing. We arrived back at our hostel and literally raced for the hot showers, desperate to get our body temperatures back up. 50 scratches of varying lengths and deepness covered my legs and arms, and after the mud came off, I counted 8 splinters in my hands. Starving, we headed into town for food, and exhaustion quickly won us over, and after quickly eating, we went back to the hostel and crashed for the night. While every bed was full in that 16 person dorm, we all slept instantly and soundly.

The next morning, I couldn’t move. I was supposed to be getting on a shuttle bus to head deeper into the jungle to the National Park, but I went to the office and changed my day til the next, and crawled back to bed. I surveyed the damage done, aside from muscle weariness and scratches, I felt okay. My clothes were another story. My pants and shirt were wet and covered in mud, unable to dry because of the cool damp air of the highlands. My hiking boots were covered in a brown mud and gravel was stuck in every groove. My cute pink underwear now had a mud stain in the shape of my butt imprinted on them, in the garbage they went. That day was literally the most soothing day I have had in months. Our group, now bonded over trial, lazed around so completely, watched 4, count them 4, movies, ate Indian food and read books, drank cups and cups of tea and napped. Complete recooperation and relaxation was the only thing any of us accomplished that day.
The following day, after another great night’s sleep, I boarded the bus for Taman Negara National Park. The shuttle service, while much more expensive than the local bus, was convenient and took much less time. After a few hours drive, we stopped for lunch, and two more shuttle buses appeared, one from Taman Negara, and one from the Perenthian Islands. We played musical chairs, and switched buses, each of us going to the next destination, some heading to the Cameron Highlands and we all talked and got advice about where to stay and what to do, etc. I met two girls on my next shuttle bus, Ulse from Sweden and Denise from Switzerland, and after arriving in Taman Negara about 6:30pm, we quickly decided to share a chalet at a guest house. Taman Negara and the main town sit on the river’s edge, and we headed down to the water where all the floating restaurants were located. A cheap, quick meal of chicken curry and rice, and fresh lime juice to drink, and night descended over the jungle. We had signed up for the jungle safari, a 4WD drive through the “jungle” to spot wildlife. In reality what we got was a 2 hour drive through palm tree plantations, where we spotted two birds and two feral housecats. It was disappointing but not unexpected, as everyone said you needed to do multiple overnight hikes through the jungle to see elephants and tigers, and even then you weren’t guaranteed you’d see anything. After my previous day’s hike through the jungle to see a flower had turned out so well, I decided against that plan, and realized I wanted to get some sun and beach time. I made plans for the day after next to head to some islands, and would spent only another day in the jungle.p>
The next day we went on a walk through the national park, where the lack of breezes and high humidity quickly made me sweat profusely and made breathing quite difficult on steep inclines. We arrived at the Canopy Walkway, the world’s largest (again) tree top walkway which people came from far and wide to walk across. Relishing in my fear of high, rickety footpaths, we paid our RM5 fee and waited our turn. Since the walkway was only made of ropes and planks of wood over ladders, we had to go one at a time over the walkway, and it swayed and shook, sometimes so much, that I thought I would topple over the side. It was hair raising to say the least, and not for the faint hearted. The walkway took over 45 minutes to complete, and while it offered great views of the jungle and surrounding hills, I saw none of this as I concentrated on every step my feet took over these wobbly ropes and ladders. Soaked with sweat, we headed up a mountain path to get a lookout over the river and valley, and then headed back to town for some lunch. We went to the one internet cafe in town and I booked my flight to Thailand, which took forever for some reason. We had signed up for a cave exploration tour, and made our way to the river to the meeting point. 10 of us boarded a local long boat and rode downstream about 20 minutes through the muddy water to a small dock, where we disembarked and started on yet another jungle walk for about 1/2 hour. By this point, I had had enough of jungles, insects, scratches, stumbling and bumbling around, and just wanted to reach the cave already. We were told to wear hiking boots and bring a flashlight (torch for all you Brits), and this was the one time that I loved the fact I had a headlamp. You needed two hands to make your way through this cave, and without ropes or any safety gear to speak of, the slippery rocks were treacherous. After making our way underground and through a crevass, we reached a sort of room, where hundreds of small bats hung from every inch of rock and flew around the higher reaches of the cave. They were insect bats, named for their small size, and were sleeping peacefully until we came along with our lights and loud voices and flash cameras. Sliding and grabbing onto wet bat guano is not something that I want to do everyday, and the cave exploration quickly came to an end, much to my liking.

That night was uneventful, as we all had early buses and transport to catch and we settled in for a good night’s sleep after dinner. Ulse, as it turns out, was a Swedish masseuse of all things, and I couldn’t help but ask her to work on my shoulder for a few minutes since it always bothers me, and she gladly obliged. After about 20 minutes, I sincerely offered to pay her way through Asia if she wanted to travel with me and give me a massage everyday in return. In no mood to pack, I left it for the next morning, and got up early to take a few missed pictures of town and the surrounding area. I boarded my shuttle bus again, and was heading now for the Perentian Islands, two small islands off the East coast of Malaysia, where people promised me crystal clear waters, awesome snorkeling and much needed rest. My shuttle bus took forever, but at the same exchange point again, I was happy to see Ann, one of the troopers from the flower jungle trek, also heading to the Islands to meet some other friends. We quickly agreed to share a chalet, and as I rested my head on the headrest of my seat, visions of teal blue water danced before. Not wanting to break the traveler’s rule of No expectations, I shook the visions out. But it had to be true, I needed it to be true, an island paradise was what they said. Could everyone be lying? Maybe it wasn’t as good as everyone said. I’d just have to wait and see when I got there.

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-597 responses to “We’re in the Jungle, Baby”

  1. Brian says:

    Looks like Asia is providing plenty of adventure opportunities in even the most basic tasks, like getting from point A to B. A little different from doing the same thing day after day like everyone else. Hope that you find your mini paradise on the Perentian Islands. Tomorrow is my last day of work then I get to start looking for my happy place. Looking forward to reading more about your travels.


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