Lovely leeches and romantic rats

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Asia » Malaysia » Pahang » Taman Negara National Park
October 29th 2009
Published: November 1st 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

I arrive at Kuala Lumpur without feeling too overly excited, having stopped there two times before, and roughly knowing what awaits me. The bus ride to the city and the train ride to a suburb are quite hassle-free. When I walk through the exit gate of the train station, a mean-looking conductor motions for me to throw my ticket into the bin so I can't reuse it. Interesting system. When it comes to getting a taxi, though, I'm a bit at a loss as to how that system works. People seem to queue up for taxis, at least some of them, other ones are just hanging around. There are not enough taxis, so I have to wait for half an hour until I get one to drop me off at my host's place, which is a giant ugly condominium close to a university. I cross a really dirty bridge over a freeway, with the crazy KL traffic passing by underneath my feet, as though it never stopped in the last three years. The staircase is so littered with garbage it's not funny anymore, but at least somebody took the time to sweep everything neatly to both sides of the stairs, so you can walk in the middle.

My host Eunice is a Malaysian Chinese and consequently very busy with work all the time. She doesn't have time to show me around, since she gets up early to go to work and comes back late at night. At least on the first night, we have dinner with her flatmate Trish at a Chinese hawker's. Trish is a Orang Asli, a native from Borneo, and quite outspoken about everything ranging from illegal logging on her home island to the stupidities of the 1 Malaysia policy that was introduced by the current Prime Minister, who really seems to constantly rub it into people's faces that all three races - Malay, Chinese and Indian - form Malaysia and should live in harmony, conveniently ignoring the obvious advantages the Malay majority enjoys. Both girls seem to be Christian, and I keep my mouth shut about anything that could offend them.

I make my way to Chinatown, roaming around, trying to recognize anything from my first stay here. I find the hotel I stayed in and am quite surprised how posh it is. The travel agent paid for it because he fucked up my connecting flights, otherwise I would have stayed in a more low-key place. I start getting acquainted with the street food, having banana cake and soy milk at a Chinese stall for breakfast, and later roti canai, a flaky pancake served with daal, a type of lentil curry, at an Indian stall. I consult my Malay phrasebook and try to memorize basic words and phrases, like hello, goodbye, thank you, yes, no, I only eat vegetables, without meat, and I learn how to count to six. I find that any number exceeding six will be useless anyway.

I make my way to Merdeka (Independence) Square, which consists of a big lawn and an even bigger flagpost flying the Malaysian flag, which looks suspiciously close to the US flag, except that instead of stars, they have the Islamic half-moon and a sun next to it. At Masjid Jamek, an Indian Muslim mosque, they won't let me into the prayer room because I'm not Muslim. I feel this to be strange since at other mosques I could roam around freely, but I content myself with taking pictures in the yard. At the bigger Masjid Negara, the National Mosque, visitors are allowed in at certain hours. Like many others, I flick on a purple cape, which makes me look like a wannabe hobbit. Unlike the female visitors, I don't have to wear the hood, though.

As I make my way towards the Petronas Towers, it gets dark, and when I arrive, I'm happy to be able to take a picture at night, which makes the towers look a lot more atmospheric and iconic. I enter a supermarket to buy water and notice with bewilderment that they have Pringles Soft-Shell Crab, Grilled Shrimp and Seaweed. I meet up with a guy called William, another Chinese, and he drives me around the city for a couple of hours. He points out the sights, which include an opera house that almost looks like an exact copy of the Sydney Opera House. He even gives me a ride back to my host's place, despite the fact that it's a considerable way out of town.

After three nights, I happily leave KL behind, and make my way to Melaka. Getting a bus ticket is so incredibly easy that I start getting suspicious. But nothing happens, the bus leaves five minutes after I enter, and arrives after a very comfortable two-hour ride in Melaka. I take a local bus to get to kolej komuniti, a student dorm where my new host Jimmy lives. He's 20, Indonesian, and incredibly metrosexual. Not in a flamboyant way, though. He's also so laid-back that he almost falls asleep. We go to a mamak, one of those lovely Indian restaurants that open 24 hours and are usually run by Tamils and Bangladeshis. I order teh tarik, which means 'pulled tea'. It is essentially tea with sweetened condensed milk, and when the waiter adds the condensed milk, he draws his arm up and it looks as though he pulls the tea, hence the name. I notice that the locals draw the attention of the waiter by smacking their lips or making kissing noises, as if to spur on a horse. I decide against doing that, and Jimmy lets me know that it's more polite to call out 'brother' in either Tamil or Bangladeshi.

The student housing complex looks very new and actually has a lot of atmosphere, plus a pool. Thinking of my old concrete bunker style-dorm from the 60s in Germany, I get a bit jealous, but take advantage by swimming some lanes in the pool, which could be a bit deeper, really. I get out after a gang of Arabs take over and start mucking around, doing homoerotic rituals and not seeing the irony in coming from a completely homophobic culture.

Jimmy takes me around the city centre, which is nice, but a bit too touristy, with trishaw drivers wooing the tourists, who walk around in sandals, blond and sunburnt if Western, and in groups and wearing silly hats if Japanese. We go to the Museum of Enduring Beauty, which I find great, since it features any possible body modification from tattooing, scarification and lobe-stretching to tooth filing and cranial binding in indigenous cultures around the globe. We eat cendol, a typical dessert of the Baba-Nyonya people, the descendents of the Chinese traders who settled in Malaysia and married Malay women. The dessert consists of shaved ice with cocunut milk, sago and sirup, which is nice and refreshing in the incredible heat and humidity. I tell Jimmy how irritating I find the ubiquitous American fast food restaurants, to which he replies "I don't like them either. My friends are really into it, though. I always tell them, 'Why do you go there? You're Asians, eat rice!'", to which I don't have to add anything.

To battle the heat, I take two cold showers a day. In KL, I was introduced to the bucket-and-pan-method. You fill up a bucket with water, then use a small pan to pour it over your body. It took a while to get used to it, but then I found it a lot more refreshing than standing under a shower head. At Jimmy's place, they have a standard shower with an electrical boiler on the inside. I don't bother switching it on, and am just content using cold water. Bathing in hot water would be a travesty given the temperatures.
When my bowels need movement, I can't find the toilet paper, and ask Jimmy for some. He just says that they don't use toilet paper, they just use the hose that's next to the toilet. I should have anticipated that one, really. "But if you use water your arse gets wet. Do you then use a towel to dry yourself?" -"No, I just use the water. I don't even use my hand." "But I thought that in Muslim culture the left hand is dirty, so wouldn't you use it at least to clean?" -"Maybe some of them do, but I'm not even a Muslim, I'm Christian." "OK, but when you eat, isn't it considered disgusting and offensive in Muslim countries using your left hand?" -"Malaysia is not a Muslim country. The majority may be Muslims, but they don't care how you eat. Even less so in Chinese or Indian restaurants."
I felt a bit silly now, having taken great pains to try ripping off pieces of roti with just my right hand, and having felt a little more culture-savvy in the process.

We have dinner at a small mamak hidden away in a tiny alley. Jimmy orders tosai massala, which is a light bread stuffed with potatoes, lentils and other veggies. It is served on a banana leaf and comes with three different types of sauces, a hot one, a mild one, and one with coconut cream. We also have a mountain of rice with chick peas, cucumber and cabbage, and Jimmy shows me how to properly eat it. You use your right hand taking some rice, then some of the veggies, you dip it into a sauce, then finally you direct it towards your mouth and use your thumb to shove it in. I try very hard not to make a complete mess, but it is inevitable. Luckily, in every mamak, there's a basin where you can wash your hands after eating.

I go to the Friday night market in the streets of Chinatown while Jimmy heads to work in a café. I ask him how much he earns, he says RM4.50 per hour, which is about €0.90. I plan to shout him the next meal we have together.
There's nothing you can't buy at Melaka's night market. There are food stalls serving Malay, Indian and Chinese food as well as desserts, drinks and lollies. You can buy clothes, antiques, toiletries, dvds, electronic goods and pygmy hamsters. I even find an antique shop that sells traditional ear weights from the Iban of Borneo. They look a bit too rusty for my taste, and the lady asks too high a price for a casual buy, though. There are even some bars where mostly Westerners hang out, buying overpriced Heineken or Tiger beer by the bucketful. There's a tipsy-looking Englishman, obviously an expat, with a sleeping iguana on his shoulder. The locals indulge in karaoke, with people entering the stage to sing Chinese
songs that sound like the ones in Jackie Chan-flicks, while the audience watches with the serious faces of connoisseurs, and gives nods in appreciation when they like one of the performers.

My onwards trip to Taman Negara National Park is not without obstacles. I have to make my way to the bus station in Melaka first, which is a bit tough since the local bus times are very unpredictable, and I have to be there before 8am, then take a bus to Temerloh. In Temerloh, I alight on a bus to Jerantut, and until then, everything goes relatively smoothly, but once arrived in Jerantut, I learn that the bus to Kuala Tahan, the gateway to the National Park, leaves only in four hours. There's not much to do, and I am tied down by my luggage, so I decide to find a restaurant and hang around for while. After finishing my
meal, I get a bit irritated with the locals staring at me and commenting on my appearance in their own tongue, so I leave and find a Buddist temple set on a hill, which has some benches in front of it. After a while a dodgy-looking Indian approaches me and asks where I'm from, what I do, how long I'm in Malaysia, and where I'm going. I answer his questions truthfully, but cringe when he says "In Malaysia and Singapore boyfriend ok, boyfriend good." I'm not 100% sure if he's trying to say what I think he is, but to be safe I say "No, girlfriend, girlfriend good", which doesn't seem to bother him, and he keeps repeating himself until the expression on my face turns a bit sour, and he finally decides to leave me to it.

In Kuala Tahan I stay in my first dorm in Malaysia. There are three other people in my room, a Scottish couple and a Swedish guy. The couple has been travelling for eight months through Southeast Asia, and are about to go to Indonesia, and then "to Australia to work for a year. And then probably another one in New Zealand." To save money, they were eating mostly haggis back home, since it's the cheapest meat you can get. I ask them if there's a vegetarian version, and they say there is, "and it's even cheaper than the one with meat!" I'm happy to finally meet some non-obnoxious fellow travellers, and we chat and listen to music from an ipod with small boxes attached. As I plan to do a longer hike and stay in one of the hides in the jungle the next day, I ask them about their experience. They warn me not to take the route where the bridge has been destroyed, they did and had to wade through the river, which gets you soaked up to the waist. We also discuss the leech issue, and they start comparing leech wounds like battle trophies. I said I plan to stay in a hide called Bumbun Kumbang, and find out that they stayed in precisely the same one, although the girl pronounces it as 'bumbum cum bang', which makes the boys crack up with laughter.

Early the next morning, I buy three big bottles of water, a can of baked beans, some cookies, and ask the lady in my hostel for some rice in a take-away container. I rent a camping mat, since the beds in the hide are just bare wooden bunks. I hire a boat to cross the river, which takes about 30 seconds and costs RM1, and make my way to the park headquarters, where I pay the entry fee (RM 1) and camera permit (RM 5). The guy behind the counter gives me a very basic map, and I ask for the best way to Bumbun Kumbang. He points it out to me rather willy-nilly on the map, and then tries to get rid of me quickly by staring into space, looking incredibly bored. No interest whatsoever in when I plan to come back, no asking me to register upon return.

My backpack is way too heavy, but the first hour is an easy hike. I see big monitor lizards who run into the bush before I can take a picture. As I take a rest, I find a tiny worm on my bag, and I'm only to learn later that this is what a leech looks like. They don't look like much, standing on one end, strategically located on roots and leaves, somehow always where you put your foot (how the hell do they know?), scouting for potential victims with their 'head', really just one end, turning like an antenna. Later I see that my sock has turned red in colour, but can't remember scratching anywhere.
The terrain gets increasingly tricky, and I fight with my backpack as well as with the extreme heat and humidity. I find it hard to breathe, and my heart beats faster than I think it should. Needless to say, I'm completely drenched in sweat. The jungle is wonderfully scenic, but I can't fully appreciate it due to aching shoulders and legs.

After about 7 of the estimated 11.5km I suddenly come across a couple of wooden barracks without walls but with blue canvas draped over them. I turn my head and find a bunch of black people staring at me in shock. I have no idea what's going on, and sit down on a branch to catch my breath and stare back at them. They look like Africans, black skin, afros, the kids are pot-bellied and snot-nosed. The women are tall and slender and the men muscular and sinewy. They just look as though they've never seen a white man before, and I'm not sure how to act. I say hello, but nobody reacts. It's obvious they're not too happy at my intrusion, so I walk on, slightly confused. Behind one of the makeshift houses there are actually a bunch of Malay people in front of a campfire. Five or six Malay girls with headscarves sit there, staring at me. I ask a guy if he speaks English, and as he answers in the affirmative, I ask where I am. "This is the Orang Asli village", and it suddenly all makes sense. I'm in a village which is visited by tourists every day. They arrive in boats on the nearby river, and experience authentic indigenous stuff like learning how to use a blowpipe.

I cross a suspension bridge covered in leaves and lianes, and after falling down, slipping on rocks, sliding down muddy hills, I finally arrive at the hide after six hours of extremely demanding hiking. Inside there's just one guy lying on a bunk in his undies, and we make our introductions. He's Mikko from Porto, son of Finnish parents, but born and raised on Portugal. His right shoulder and knee are heavily bandaged, "from a motorbike accident in Langkawi", and I wonder how the hell he made it all the way to the hide. He has half a dozen leech wounds, and I check myself and only find one.
Dusk is falling already, and I eat some rice with half the can of baked beans, and mix the rest for breakfast. As I'm about to fall asleep, I hear animal noises, and using my torch, I find rats about to eat my food. I hang the plastic bag with the container in it on a bed posts and try to sleep, but less than an hour later I hear the rats again. Somehow, they've eaten their way into the bag and are happily munching away at what would have been an important meal for me. I take a lighter and decide to burn them, but of course, the plastic melts first, and they fall out and run away. My breakfast is ruined, though.
Later on, I wake up finding something furry touching my arm and scream, startled and disgusted, jumping off the bed. The rat screeches, too, and Mikko wakes up, asking what the fuck's wrong. The next morning he tells me "Man, it was like in Blair Witch Project" and laughs at my expense.

After sunrise Mikko shares some of his food with me, and we decide to hike back together. Again I feel stifled by the heat, but at least my backpack is a lot lighter now without food and half the water. We walk through the village again, and this time I manage to take a sneaky shot. Again, they stare at us, and I wish I could stay for a while to see how they live, but there's something in their gaze that makes us move on quickly. As Mikko puts it, "they're not very hospitable, but not exactly hostile either".
We take more breaks, cooling our feet in the many creeks. The leeches are attacking us now with a vengeance, and we have to stop every 10 minutes to flick them off our socks and shoes. Mikko wears breathable shoes, and the little bastards just crawl through them to suck at his feet. It always takes several flicks to get them off, and sometimes they end up sucking your finger, which just exacerbates us even further.
When we finally arrive at Kuala Tahan, I buy a big bottle of isotonic soda and down it in 10 minutes. I feel completely exhausted and dehydrated, but with a sense of achievement. I take a long and nice shower and make my way back to Jerantut, where I check into a bed bug-infested, noisy hostel, but at least I'm the only one in the dorm.

I take flight after one night and hop on a bus to Ipoh, where my host Sandrea picks me up at the train station. She's a Chinese from Johor, the region closest to Singapore, and she lives in a house with three other Chinese. Their landlord is a wealthy, old Chinese man who lets them stay in the house for free. Ipoh doesn't have a lot that would be of interest to the average traveller, but it has a pretty decent dining scene, plus it's famous for its white coffee. After trying it, I can't find anything special about it, it's just white coffee. More to my liking are the tiny Chinese soy bars, where you can eat tau fu fah ('soy custard'), which is essentially silken tofu with a gingery sirup. I have it with a drink of black soy bean milk, and the owner assures me that it's very healthy.

Walking around in the burning sun in Ipoh's dirty streets and sucking in the exhaust fumes isn't exactly what I'm looking for when travelling, and I'm happy to leave the city after two nights for the Cameron Highlands. Will I encounter a cooler climate, tea plantations and strawberry farms there? Stay tuned to see what happens.

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