Tea With Malaysia's Dark Heart

Monday, March 31, 2008

Kuala Lumpur was a long bus ride behind us as we wove up the scenic old road into the highlands of Malaysia en route for a land renowned for tea, volcanoes, and temperate-cool weather, at least relative to the coastal areas. The Cameron Highlands were upon us and we met their emissary, Tanah Rata, a small town boasting a strip of restaurants and shops, a bus station, and some great walks through surrounding hills and rainforests. We also met some non-metaphorical people in the guise of hostel touts. Kristoffer and I decided to first check out Daniel’s and pretty much decided to stay there straight away. Dorm beds per night are 10 Ringgit (RM) or $3.20, they have a bar, a movie area, other travelers, and as I would soon discover, wireless internet. We were too hungry for any of that nonsense at present however, so we chanced upon a restaurant on ‘the strip’ and despite our hunger found the flavour a bit wanting. Perhaps we’d been spoiled traveling with Marcus. A further exploration of the town unearthed much less touristy places, an Islamic school where a game of baseball was raging, and a barber where Kristoffer would get his hair cut. It was too late in the day to do much more, but that was soon to come.

I went back to the hostel and ran across a professional photographer who takes stock photos and manages to sustain himself quite handily on the proceeds of these photos. I wound up chatting with him for a good couple of hours and picking up some Photoshop tips while I was at it. Kristoffer went for a second dinner that I was not up for and I stayed and chatted with the photographer instead and also got some work done before packing up. From there to the Jungle Bar where we sat around the fire and chatted until about 3 AM. The bonfire is a definite nice touch and the travelers here are pretty nice; I suspect I shall be running across them again in the future. The next morning, by the time Kristoffer and I got sorted, showered, and decided what we were doing (during brunch, of course), it was pretty much noon. We grabbed a cab to the Boh Palais Tea Plantation, set in the hills north of town and had a cup of tea whilst admiring the view. It was a view to remember, all the tea spread out in front of us across the uneven terrain. We also took a tour of the factory, during which I discovered that tea production is more complicated than I’d first guessed, involving fermentation and everything.

After our tour of the factory and tea and cake, it was time to set off. We’d intended to hike up to the top of a nearby mountain for some sweeping views of the countryside, and we started by trekking through some tea fields. But soon, it was drizzling, a common condition that, for some reason, neither of us was prepared for. Luckily, some passersby picked us up and we got a lift to the fork in the road where we could continue up the mountain. We thought to wait the rain out at the policeman’s hut and then continue, but the rain got worse and worse and would not relent. To pass the time, Kristoffer and I started taking photos of plants and things around the shed. Flowers, mostly, tended as we’d later discover, by the Nepalese guard who worked there. And of course, we chatted with the guard for some time too. Eventually, the rain passed and we got yet more photos of people harvesting tea and pressed on. Not, mind, to the mountain, but back to town. It was too late for that hike.

We passed countless beautiful tea plantations and all too soon found ourselves back on the road at a vegetable market. After a few fried bananas and sweet potatoes, we managed to hail a bus and just in time. It started raining just as we’d arrived in Tanah Rata. That’s twice we were caught in the rain and didn’t get wet. We felt pretty fortunate. To pass this second storm, the two of us had a steamboat, the Asian fondue of sorts, with a spicy broth and a more plain one. It was pretty tasty and very filling but it definitely passed the time while it rained. From there, back to the hostel for more campfire, more beer, and more sleep. We were, perhaps too soon, due to leave for Tamar Negara (the rainforest) at 7:30 AM the next morning.

So it happened that 8 of us and our backpacks were packed into a crowded minivan for three hours to Gua Musang. There, we grabbed a bit of breakfast (BBQ and rice is breakfast over here, by the way), a few snacks, and boarded the jungle train for Jerantut, whereupon we would minibus it to Kuala Tahan, the park headquarters. Joining Kristoffer and I are a Dutch couple named Ernst and Mar. Anyway, the jungle train was quite beautiful, passing wide brown rivers meandering alongside the tracks, thick forest, occasional pillars of granite towering overhead, and the occasional woman carrying a wicker basket walking towards her hut. The whole trip, which departed at 7:30 AM, was supposed to have us at Kuala Tahan at 4:00, but first of all the train was delayed 40 minutes. Then, when we arrived at Gua Musang to grab a minibus, it was there… but the company (HAN – Holland America Norway, incidentally) decided to delay us two more hours so that they could put us on their next bus. Nice. There’s no recourse for that sort of thing here. You can complain until you’re blue in the face, they don’t care. They won’t see you again, and what are you going to do? Aside from recommend people avoid this company, that’s HAN again, if you missed it, absolutely nothing.

We did eventually arrive and scoured the town for accommodation before settling on the yellow house hostel. It is not only the cheapest but (usually) has air conditioning, decent, clean rooms, and well, it was the only place with vacancy anyway. We checked in and grabbed dinner with our English roommate and almost joined him on his jungle safari but didn’t. Kristoffer and I left the Dutch couple behind and went off to sort out our own next few days and wound up bargaining the price for a two-day one-night jungle trek (including 2 hours on a boat going upriver to start the excursion, food, supplies, etc) for 170 Rm. Still not cheap, but pretty good value all said. That made me feel a lot better, especially as Ernst (the Dutch guy) was really starting to get on my nerves, complaining about everything. That said, his girlfriend seemed nice enough (she’d have to be) and we also met two other nice Dutch girls on our walk. Yes, the Dutch are back in Malaysia.

Kristoffer and I sat and listened to some live music at a little bar of sorts (a shack that served fruit juices and teas – since it’s a Muslim area, alcohol is not served). It was a mix of local songs and international ‘hits’ of yore, but a great way to cap the night. Kris was excited to be going on the jungle trek and I was excited not only to go on the trip but to have salvaged something from this rather dull day, to get a good deal, and to leave the Dutch in the colony. We were off to the jungle the next morning, purportedly it was us two and a couple girls, but alas, we both were duped. Instead, we ended up with an aging French couple that were, as Kristoffer described them, wool heads. During the course of our two day jungle trek the woman in particular almost destroyed my camera twice, dropped my shirt in the ashes as it was drying over the fire, and knocked my backpack from its perch on a tree, spilling some of its contents all over the mud.

Those incidences aside, the trek was quite good. It started, as I’ve mentioned, with a two hour boat ride up the rainforest river, brown from all the mud washed in by the rains. This ride alone was just about worth it. We reclined back, soaked in the sun, crossed the occasional rapid (not to mention village), had lunch, and of course were kept cool by the breeze and occasional splash. Finally the time came to debark and we set off into the jungle, crossing a suspension bridge that would be our last sign of civilization for two days. Then off into a world of plants that coagulate blood (perfect for post-leech-patches), mushrooms that must have inspired the Super Mario creators, ants that grow as long as an index finger, and, did I mention, all sorts of wild animals from monkey to bears to tigers. We had not traveled far when our guide squatted in the mud and pointed out a fresh tiger track to us. It was one thing to see them in the zoo, another to pet one with two qualified trainers nearby, but another altogether to be roaming through their home, their turf. I felt decidedly bold as I adjusted my weathered hat and strode forward like Indiana Jones in this ancient abode. I felt much less Jones-like when, a few minutes later, I fell flat on my butt walking on a fallen tree.

We came to a small cave where a vine hung over the ground below and I was, again, for a moment, decidedly Jones-like as I swung across the green abyss to a tree and pushed off it, until, again, moments later I realized I’d launched myself straight at another tree with not near enough time to get my legs into position and again slammed butt-first into the aptly named buttress tree. Still, the swinging was fun and I did several more takes (Kristoffer behind the camera) before swapping roles. It was then that, as I took video, he landed poorly and rolled his ankle. We still had hiking today and for a good part of tomorrow ahead of us, and this was not good news, but he managed to make it to the cave where we would spend the night in fairly good order. After some firewood collection, we set up camp and had dinner. Between dinner, a hard day, and more sweat collectively than your Mediterranean country of choice, we were soon asleep.

That didn’t stop me or the Frenchies from waking at a sound at the peripherary of our camp within the cave. We knew elephants were regular customers, but the shadow cast by the dying fire clearly showed a cat; A large cat. Not quite full-sized-tiger, but about half to three-quarter sized. I somewhat nervously grabbed the flashlight and covered it with my hand before turning it on, leaking a slowly increasing amount of light until we could see that it was about 2m head-to-tail, stood about 3 ft tall, and was finishing off our beef curry. It had stripes/dots, a sort of mottled skin, and I regret immensely not taking a photo. My only concern at the time was that I might spook it into running or worse – attacking – when the flash went off. I also should’ve woken up Kristoffer, but with his ankle I knew he’d have trouble getting to sleep and didn’t want to wake him if not needed. It turned out to be a leopard in our camp, a wild leopard, no more than 5m from me, and hungry. Now THIS was a jungle experience.

I don’t know if I mentioned we saw a viper that day as well, or if, the next morning, we saw a millipede and a deadly caterpillar, or that we crossed any number of rivers on small and precarious logs, but it doesn’t seem to matter now. There were wild tigers and leopards sniffing around; that we could hear gibbons waking up in the morning was icing on the cake. As was our 30 minute return boat ride down river to the village. Kristoffer’s ankle was tender but fine that day, which was a relief, and it was also a relief that our guide hooked us up with some underground beer, which was much deserved after those two days. We had dinner, visited, showered (a must), re-packed, and before we knew it, 11:30 was approaching and we were dead to the world.

Cameron Highlands Photos
Taman Negara Photos

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