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June 10th 2007
Published: June 10th 2007
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Welcome to the JungleWelcome to the JungleWelcome to the Jungle

Rainforest borders the muddy waters of the Bohorok River near Bukit Lawang. © L. Birch 2007
Gunung Leuser National Park, Just North of Bukit Lawang

June 6th

The walk - uphill and through hot, sticky jungle - left us breathing hard, sweat from even this small exertion, popping out on our faces and running down our backs. We were on the big Indonesian island of Sumatra, only a few degrees north of the equator and the heat was stifling. Smothering everything in a wet, humid blanket, it sapped the strength and weakened our resolve to carry on.

Hemmed in by a solid wall of foliage; bamboos, thorny rattan palms, looping vines and big leaved aroids, we followed the path - that only rarely afforded any views - and pushed on, trying hard to ignore the heat and the reluctance of our legs to keep moving. But it wasn’t far now. The reward for our endeavours lay just up ahead and with that thought, our pace quickened almost imperceptibly as we resumed the uphill climb…..

The Quest

Only two weeks before, we had crossed the Tropic of Cancer, dropping south through China and back into Thailand. As on many other occasions, we were just passing through: this time stocking up on anti-malarials
Jungle MoonJungle MoonJungle Moon

A silvery moon rises over the jungles of the Gunung Leuser national Park outside Bukit Lawang. © L. Birch 2007
and making arrangements for travel into Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. En-route however, we had a small quest to undertake.

Thirteen years previously, we had been travelling through Thailand’s deep south and had been befriended by a Chinese-Thai who had shown us such overwhelming kindness that ever since; we had nursed the desire to somehow repay his generosity. During our very brief time in his company, Somboon had told us, rather wistfully, that it had always been his ambition to study for a degree at Cambridge University in England. Sadly, it was evident that his dream could never be fulfilled and was destined to remain simply that: a wistful dream. Although he owned a small pharmacy in Songkhla and was reasonably comfortable by local standards, it was obvious that the airfare - let alone all the other expenses necessary - was quite beyond his financial capability.

In the intervening years, we had sent letters and postcards but had heard nothing in return. Had he moved… was he even still alive? We had no way of knowing. All the same, we were determined to try and track him down and had returned this time bearing a small gift - a
Chinese ShopfrontsChinese ShopfrontsChinese Shopfronts

Still grace the streets of Had Yai's old commercial district. © L. Birch 2007
Cambridge University tie that we had carried with us from England on the off chance that we might be able to find him. But as if finding Somboon in a place that we had only visited once before - thirteen years ago - was not enough of a challenge, we were also going to have to face the possible threat of terrorist activity in Thailand’s deep south. Four days before we had planned to head south for Had Yai - a seedy town just north of the Malaysian border - a dramatic headline appeared, blazed across the front page of the Bangkok Post: “13 injured in Had Yai Bomb Blast”, it read. It appeared that since 2000, a number of separatist factions including the long running PULO (Pattani United Liberation Organisation), had been stepping up their demands for an independent Islamic state within Thailand composed of the four provinces bordering Malaysia; Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and Songkhla.

This was not something new. Bombings, arson attacks and assaults had been going on sporadically since 1959 but just recently, demands for separation from Thailand had been growing. In dealing with the threat, the Thai government was taking a hard line approach and
Songkhla BeachSongkhla BeachSongkhla Beach

Curves along the edge of the South China Sea in Thailand's deep south. © L. Birch 2007
(naturally enough) seemed resolutely determined that all four states should remain part of Thailand. The result was something of a stalemate with central government pledging more troops in an attempt to counteract the problem while the PULO - no less determined - were spreading their activities further afield, even - it was claimed - as far as Bangkok. What did this mean for us? We weren’t sure but we were not going to go treading in a war zone unnecessarily. After weighing up the pros and cons, we decided to go and see how the land lay and take it from there.

The journey to Had Yai took 17 hours, a mini bus finally depositing us outside the rail station in the sweltering heat of mid-day. Our first consideration was to find somewhere to stay and we trooped around several hotels before plumping for the “Cathay”. It was not the best hotel by far but others we had looked at were either too expensive or they were ‘short- time’ hotels - patronised by prostitutes and their customers. That evening, a quick look around revealed no sign of terrorist activity (apart from the increased presence of armed security guards) but
Somboon on Top of the WorldSomboon on Top of the WorldSomboon on Top of the World

Somboon on top of Tuan Kuang Hill with Songkhla and the Thale Sap Lake spread out below. © V. Birch 2007
we were not surprised to discover that we were virtually the only foreigners in town. There were some attractive old Chinese shop fronts but Had Yai itself had little to detain visitors, most passing quickly through on their way to neighbouring Malaysia. We felt a desire to do the same but first we had to try and find Somboon. Surprisingly, it was much easier than either of us had thought it would be.

A receptionist at the “Cathay” told us that Somboon’s pharmacy was still there - as far as she knew - and that there were no problems in travelling between Had Yai and Songkhla. So, next day, we caught a bus from outside the market and made the short journey to Songkhla, an oil rich boomtown that had mellowed considerably since our last visit. Armed with a map and the address of Somboon’s pharmacy, we navigated our way through the old part of town until, reaching the night market, we stopped to ask directions from a trishaw driver. I recognised the little shop even before it was pointed out to us. Inside, Somboon - now grey haired and a trifle portly - rose to greet us with
Rubber Tree Rubber Tree Rubber Tree

Rubber - collected in the time honoured fashion - drips into its collection bowl in a plantation on the Malaysian border. © L. Birch 2007
an uncertain smile. At first, it seemed as if Somboon did not recognise us but it had been thirteen years after all. It was also apparent that his English had not improved much in all this time. He apologised for this, explaining that he had little cause to speak the language. We put his reserve down to embarrassment at his inability to communicate but even so, to begin with, it was an effort to see in this man the same one who had hugged us and cried when we last parted company. Later however, after we had eaten a meal at a restaurant on Songkhla’s pretty beachfront, Somboon sat back in his chair, a glass of beer in his hand and beamed at us. The beer had done its work and had loosened his Thai reserve. “My lady and gentermans come back to see me”, he announced with that same silly grin. “I very happy!” We were delighted too, even more so since we were able to meet Somboon’s wife, Naiyana, who captivated us with her naive sense of humour and cheeky giggle. When we produced Somboon’s present, he held it up proudly for Naiyana to inspect, a sparkle in
Tin TownTin TownTin Town

Medan, Indonesia; a city that looks as if it was made from bits of wood and corrugated iron. © L. Birch 2007
his eye. His daughter, he explained, was getting married soon and he had needed a tie for the wedding. “Now the Gods bring me new tie,” he said, obviously very pleased with his gift.

After far too many beers (that Somboon insisted on paying for. “It is my culture,” he told us), we made to leave but it wasn’t until after darkness had fallen that we finally got away, waving from the back seat of a taxi until the pair of them were out of sight. It had been a pleasant interlude and the 17km journey between the two towns passed without incident: no roadblocks, no hold ups, no bombs. After a final night in Had Yai, we crossed over into Malaysia in the borderland between May and June. Physically, Malaysia looked much like southern Thailand had done; rubber plantations, coconut trees and forested hills. Culturally however, it was very different. From here on in, we were exchanging the Buddhist traditions of the north for the Islamic culture of the south.

It’s a Jungle Out There

Entering Malaysia had been easy: it was one of the few countries on our journey that didn’t demand a fee payment
Mesjid Raya, MedanMesjid Raya, MedanMesjid Raya, Medan

The Hotel Zakia provided a ringside seat for the morning call to prayer at Medan's Grand Mosque. © L. Birch 2007
or visa upon entry. Not that we were staying long, for we stepped onto a boat bound for Indonesia just two days later. Crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the boat trip between Malaysia and the Indonesian port of Medan took six hours. It hadn’t looked that far on the map but then, everything about Sumatra was surprising. Geographically sliced in two by the equator, it is the world’s 4th largest island and has the sad distinction of having suffered some of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. While its once pristine jungles have been decimated, it is still one of the last places in Asia where wild tigers can be found. Much of it is unbearably hot but there are places - mostly in the mountains of the Bukit Barisan - where it can seem decidedly chilly. Then there is the sheer diversity of its ethnic cultures. The lingua franca of the country is Bahasa Indonesia, but there are people - like the Bataks of Lake Toba and the Acehnese to the north - who still speak their own, completely different languages.

We passed through border formalities at Belawan where we had to
Bridge across the BohorokBridge across the BohorokBridge across the Bohorok

A wooden suspension bridge spans the Bohorok in Bukit Lawang - one of several that were rebuilt after the 2003 flood. © V. Birch 2007
purchase a visa ($US25 for 30-days) before taking a bus for the final leg of the journey to Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city. Many people find Medan a bit of a shock. Shattered and filthy, its buildings either looked run down and on the verge of collapse or as if they were still in the process of being built. And of course, this being Indonesia, there were mosques everywhere and for western women - the disapproving stares of men who considered them ‘unclean’ and improperly dressed: such are the joys of travel in a Moslem country. We stayed for one night, rooming in the Hotel Zakia that overlooked Medan’s Grand Mosque (When told we were staying at The Zakia, an expat friend said, “Ah yes, hot and cold running cockroaches”). At 4.45 am next morning, we were woken with a start by the morning call to prayer that was so loud, it seemed as if the loudspeaker had been placed in our room. Grateful to be checking out and leaving behind the sullen stares of the Zakia’s staff and clientele, we found our way to the bus station and boarded a bus for Bukit Lawang, 95kms north. We were joined
The Snake CatcherThe Snake CatcherThe Snake Catcher

Bukit Lawang's answer to Steve Urwin shows us some of the snakes he had caught during a recent jungle sortie, most of which were venomous. © L. Birch 2007
by Andy, a Scotsman who hailed from “the Kingdom of Fife,” and together, we endured the appallingly long journey - much of it on unmade dirt roads - that took us from the concrete jungle... to a jungle of a very different kind.

Situated on a river bend and surrounded by forested hills, Bukit Lawang had suffered badly from one of those freak natural disasters that had so plagued Indonesia in recent years. In 2003, a tidal surge had swept down the Bohorok River after heavy rains, almost completely destroying the original town in much the same way as the flood in the Cornish village of Boscastle had done. In the case of Bukit Lawang however, nearly 300 people had died. Even now, the town still bears the scars of its ordeal. The destruction of several of its hotels and restaurants, coupled with a slump in visitor numbers (due to political unrest, numerous natural disasters and changes to the visa regulations) has left Bukit Lawang a mere shadow of its former, busy self. Much of the time, it felt as if Andy and ourselves were the only visitors in town, which was good for us but not so good
Orangutan at LargeOrangutan at LargeOrangutan at Large

One of our first views of an orangutan as it swung down out of the trees to greet us. © L. Birch 2007
for the people whose livelihoods depended on tourism.

Gunung Leuser National Park, Just North of Bukit Lawang

June 6th

…. Up ahead, the forest opened out into a clearing - dominated by tall dipteracarp trees whose canopies burst like fireworks high above our heads. We had already seen several species of monkey - including long-tailed macaques and the more delicate, Thomas’s leaf monkey - but now, the creatures we had come so far to see, came crashing through the branches to greet us.

Our first sight of a wild orangutan was an exciting moment; akin to the first time we saw a giraffe in Africa or got our first really good look at a wild crocodile in Australia. The orangutans at Bukit Lawang however, are special. They’re part of a rehabilitation scheme set up to return captive or orphaned apes back to the wild. Once re-released, the animals are supported with daily handouts of bananas and watered down milk, a diet kept deliberately bland in order to encourage them to seek their own food. After a time, most of the animals stop visiting the feeding station and resume a natural existence, living and feeding
Orangutan PortraitOrangutan PortraitOrangutan Portrait

Sad, expressive eyes watched us, watching them. Were these animals the last of their kind? © L. Birch 2007
deep in the forest. And therein lies part of the problem. The sad fact is that the forests grow smaller with each passing year. In addition, orang’s have such slow reproductive rates and are so dependent upon their forest environment that conservationists fear they may become extinct in the wild over the next 10 to 15 years. The rehabilitation schemes in Sumatra and Borneo have been fairly successful but will it be a case of “too little, too late?”

As we watched Alice and her baby accepting fruit from the Indonesian ranger, we could not help but draw parallels between orangutans and Homo sapiens. Their faces and expressions are so like ours, and it is not until you learn that they share around 90%!o(MISSING)f our genes that you begin to realise just how alike we are. In Malay, the name ‘orangutan’ means “Old Man of the Forest”, which is exactly how they appear - stooped and larger than you expect with sad, rather dignified faces. Enthralled, we watched them in silence, the few of us present, whispering - if we spoke at all. Eventually, their appetites sated, they climbed back into the treetops and looked down upon us
Crossing the BohorokCrossing the BohorokCrossing the Bohorok

This pulley mounted canoe was the only way to get into the National Park and provided a last thrill as we experienced the speed and strength of the Bohorok. © L. Birch 2007
with an air of inscrutability . Looking up at them, we wondered what they were thinking. It was hard watching them, not to experience feelings of sadness at the thought that we might be witnesses to the last days of a species.

Walking back the way we had come, we discussed the day’s events and the things we had seen in awed tones. There was a final moment of excitement as we re-crossed the - by now - swollen Bohorok River using a canoe mounted on a rope and pulley, the small craft bucking alarmingly and shipping water before we made the other side. Stepping barefoot from the boat into fast flowing water, a last look back across the river was rewarded with the sight of a lone orangutan, feeding on leaves in the top of a forest tree. Had we been on a tight schedule, we might well have planned to move on the next day. But pulling on our wet socks as we watched the animal - seemingly unconcerned by our presence - we knew that, in all likelihood, we would be back to relive the adventure tomorrow…. and do it all over again.

Going Ape over Orangutans...

If you're interested in learning more about the plight of orangutans in the wild or how you might be able to help, click on the links below:

SOS - Orangutan

Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme


4th July 2007

Yo bro (and sis) it's good to be able to keep up with you like this; nice suntans! Thinking of you, love Wese.
27th October 2010
Rubber Tree

rubber tree
19th December 2012
Rubber Tree

need some sound advice
We have 5 hectors of land in Las Nieives in the Mindanao area just outside of Butuan City the family are interested in changing from corn to rubber commencing in march after the raining session can anyone give us tips on the best way to do this and what is the best crop to help fund the lean years while the trees grow we are a poor family owing to the years of growing corn and having little left after the harvest kind regards alan

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