It was a long day traveling back from Sabah to Peninsular Malaysia. After 2 flights and 3 bus rides, I arrived in Melaka late in the evening. I did not have a hotel reservation by that time. But this was resolved quickly because the guesthouse people were gathering at the terminal snatching customers right off the bus. I was sent to a guesthouse that turned out to be a decent and clean place.
As the earliest trading port of Malaysia dating back to 1400, Melaka offers some interesting historical buildings and museums. The best is the Stadthuys, a Dutch era town hall now restored as a museum. I have also visited the ruins of an old church, a fort, a reconstructed Sultan's palace and the Independence museum. Perhaps the city has oversold its history a bit. I have toured everything in the small town center in half a day. This still left time for running errand, making IDD calls and getting a hair cut.
In the evening I went to dinner at the famous Portuguese settlement. Despite the name, I found it a tourist trap with little Portuguese atmosphere. Some expensive seafront restaurants are all there is. The pushy waiter came across to me as irritating.
After the rural experience in Sabah, I was really back to civilization in Melaka. High rise buildings, cars, department stores and convenient shops are all around. I went shopping in a huge supermarket, where mountains of merchandises started to give me dizziness. I felt lost. I really missed the days in the wild of Sabah. Fortunately, it was only two days before I went back to the jungle of the Taman Negara national park.
Taman Negara is Malaysia's premier National Park. At 4,343 square km, it boasts one of the most pristine primary rain forests in the world. It is only accessible by three hours of boat ride up the Tembeling River. (But in fact Stephen of the Jerantut Resthouse brought us there by a minibus on a dirt road under construction. So much for official direction.)
My trip to Jerantut, the gateway town to the park, was not without glitches. Despite starting early from Melaka, I missed the morning bus connection at Kuala Lumpur. The next bus was in the afternoon hours away. I did not intend to spend time in the noisy capital city. Even worst, the dusty, sun baked bus station is an inhospitable place to spend a few hours. Fortunately there was a Telekom shop nearby with air conditioning and plenty of seats. They wouldn't mind a quiet guest for a few hours, would they?
There I opened the first chapter of Ernest Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls'. This would be my only reading for the whole trip other than guidebooks. Because I want to minimize the amount of baggage I have brought only one book with me. An exceptional novel that is.
I had to layover for a night in Jerantut. It turned out to be really worth it. The Jerantut Resthouse was run by an enthusiastic Chinese family who are avid travelers themselves. They gave the guests an excellent briefing on Taman Negara, how to get around and what to do there. Next day they provided us the minibus transport. As a bonus, he brought us to tour some plantations on the way. He shown us how the major economics crops of Malaysia, rubber trees, oil palm trees and coca trees, are grown and harvested.
* * *
I checked into a dormitory by Taman Negara before noon. These are basic lodging the local people setup right outside the park on the opposite side of the river. It gives backpackers great alternatives to the resort class accommodations inside the park. In the evening, the floating restaurants on the sandbar would be full of international guests. But for now, as I have learned, the best way to beat the tropical afternoon heat is to take a nap.
Later I went to explore the Gua Telinan (bat cave) by myself. The cave was dark, damp, narrow and slippery. I gathered the courage to walk (and crawl) inside. There I found a colony of hundreds of bats in a several chambers. They hanged themselves under the roof, or in some cases hanged under other bats. They are really cute little animals. Constantly shaking their head, they are like baby rats with wings. I crawled out and found my hands, legs, hairs and backpack all filthy.
Perhaps the most interesting activity in Taman Negara is the night walk. About 15 of us, led by our guide, set off in the dark from the park headquarters. Under his observant eyes we would discover the forest is teaming with nocturnal creatures in the dark. We have found fireflies, walking sticks, a scorpion and an owl with its big red eyes. He has taught us a trick; put our torch or headlight over our head. Suddenly we noticed many tiny light spots around. These were light reflection from the eyes of spiders and other creatures! He has also shown us a giant spider he have found nesting in a tree hole. The sight drawn a big grasp from some of us (despite he explicitly instructed us not to grasp beforehand to avoid scaring it away). Another amazing thing was glowing fungi. Too small to be seen in daytime, these fungi glow dimly in the dark and appear as a patch of green light on a dead log.
The next day, a few of us from last night went with our guide again for a jungle walk. He has shown us many jungle plants, edible fruits and medical plants. Lastly we went to the canopy walkway, a passage built high on the top of the trees. It is quite thrilling to walk on the wobbling walkway 50 meters above ground. From there you get a different point of view of the forest as opposite to seeing from the ground.
* * *
The next day I went on a recommended jungle trek by myself. The plan was to go 8 km in the morning to a fishing lodge, where I would relax in the cascade. Afternoon I would continue to the destination another 12 km away. There I would stay in a jungle hide. That is a tall observation tower built for people to observe wild animals from a distance. The next morning I would return via a more strenuous 11 km trail. I needed to carry all my food and water for the two days. It was a long trek but it was not mean to be particularly difficult. But due to some ill planning on my part, this has turned into a little jungle adventure.
It started off as a pleasant walk in the morning. I saw only two people on the way. Even in the popular cascade it was empty and I enjoyed it all by myself most of time. I took a nap in the empty lodge in the heat of the day. The trouble started in the afternoon. I was too relax and started late. When I reached the first river crossing, I naively waded through it. The water was waist deep and I came out completely wet waist down. I sat there wondering what to do with the wet jeans, wasting even more time I am going to need. Then I got lost for a while. By the time I found the way back, there was only two hours of daylight left but still 10 km to cover. Rather than turning back, I pressed on the hardest I can. For the last half hour I walked alone in darkness. At last I arrived at the second river crossing. There I found my salvation. There were people on the opposite side of the river. They were the other fellows staying in the hide that night. I was so weary; it took me a long time to cross the river step by step. They waited and brought me to the hide on the last stretch.
I got four more leech bites from the second river. I checked on myself after the crossing. I found one leech on my boot and another one sucking blood on my foot. The guys helped me to burn it off with a lighter. Including those from the first river, I got seven leech bites on that day. My ankles, socks and jeans were all stained with blood. I was both physically and mentally spent.
Once inside the refuge, I did observed some tapirs (a large mammal) coming to the salt lick at night. Otherwise I was too tired stay up to watch wild animals. Next morning I scraped the return trek and left by a boat with other people instead.
* * *
Instead of returning to the headquarter, I say goodbye to the guys from last night and got off the boat at the Nusa camp. It is an independent lodging a little bit upstream from the headquarter. Less convenient for activities, my plan was to stay for 2 days to relax and recuperate. I take my time to clean my bloody jeans and the muddy boots.
About the leeches, it sounds like a little horror to find some wiggling on your body. But in truth, the bite does not hurt. Mine did not even cause itch. When I got back to town I saw many tourists with multiple bandages on their ankles. I felt a kind of comradeship with them.
At the Nusa camp, I have grown restless and made a short trek to the Abi fall nearby. There I could swim in its chilly pool. I left Taman Negara by river boat after 5 days.
I have arrived in Butterworth by an overnight bus. From there it connects to the island city of Penang by ferry. The bus was comfortable besides that I have to endure a night of freezing air conditioning. Regrettably I caught no view on the ferry because the weather was hazy.
Penang is a laid back city. While there are no spectacular sights, it is pleasant to stroll around. I like the lush tropical green of the Botanical garden. The Fort Cornwallis is not much more than a grassy lawn by the sea. But it is still comfortable to lay there to enjoy the light breeze.
My favorite was always hiking. The Penang hill is accessible by a funicular car. To enjoy both I made a two hours hike uphill and then came down by the funicular car. Although the weather was hazy, the Penang hill still offered a good view of the island and the mainland. I had lunch at the old Bellevue Hotel. It has a beautiful garden with excellent view. But it was a little bit rundown and the food has poor value for its price.
The three weeks Malaysia trip ended in Penang. I went to a local food stall to have the Hainan chicken rice again. It is my favorite dish since I came to Singapore. The last few Malaysian ringgit in my pocket I have spent it on a first run Hong Kong movie. Next stop Thailand would be a minibus away.
2006.12.29 comments -