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Into the Mountains

2008 May 18
by rob

This blog post is especially long. I used to feel bad about making such long posts, but several people have recently told me that they really enjoy my writing and didn’t mind the length. I know that a few people are reading EVERY word I write, so this post is dedicated to my loyal readers. Enjoy!

May 13, 2008

It was an early start today. I wanted to catch the 8:30 AM bus from Butterworth (on the mainland across the harbour from Georgetown) directly to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. To make it for that bus, I had to try and catch an early ferry. It was tiring, but it worked out. Thankfully, the ferry was free and the bus station was nearby.

Tanah Rata is situated at an altitude of 1200 metres above sea level in the Cameron Highlands. This mountainous region is famous for its tea plantations and vegetable farms — both of which I would see many of in my stay there. The road to Tanah Rata was windy and steep. The bus had to work hard to take us there.

Several people (and the Lonely Planet Guidebook) had recommended Father’s Guesthouse in Tanah Rata. I checked myself into. They had dorms for 10 ringgit each (CA$3), but they were crowded, so I decided to take a full room for myself. It was only 25 ringgit per night (CA$8/night), so it was no great cost. I wanted my privacy and the ability to sleep in late if I wanted. I still wasn’t feeling the best, so I tried to pamper myself.

There were several other backpackers on the bus with me, so we went for lunch together in town. I was astonished by Tanah Rata. Surrounded by mountains, many of the buildings are built in a classic European style. I thought I was in Switzerland!

This second photograph looks strikingly similar to a photograph of a soccer field that I took when I was in St. Moritz. The resemblance was so uncanny, that I stopped to stare and fight off feelings of deja vu. Had I been here before? What’s with this country?

Tanah Rata, however, is not really in Switzerland. The hills around the town are covered with jungle, not the usual type of forest you’d see in Europe. There’s about a dozen official hiking trails around the town. Three of the guys from the bus (Fabian and Daniel from Berlin and a Belgian guy who’s name I forget) decided to take on the easiest one. It’s not that we were wussy men (hardly true at all), but it was already 5 PM and we knew it would be dark soon.

We trekked a short way and found ourselves at a waterfall! The waterfall was not very big though. The river was also filled with garbage. I was not impressed.

We continued on and climbed a steep hill to find ourselves at a lookout tower. The stairs were rickety, but the view of the town and the hills from the top were impressive. At least something was good about our hike!

We stayed and chatted for a long time before continuing. We didn’t really know where we were going, but we continued on boldly anyways. The way back was much rougher than the way to the tower. Due to a lack of good trail markings, we had accidentally swiched from the easy tourist trail to a poorly maintained slog down a hill through the mud.

Nevertheless, we made it back before dark. All was good. On the way, we walked over this bridge. It was unremarkable, but we took this amusing picture there, so here it is:

On the way back into town, the German guys stopped for hamburgers at a fast food restaurant. These guys were eating machines and were always looking for food (even more so than I). There was a birthday party at the restaurant and it was filled with about 30 Malaysian kids. I waved at them and said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” and they erupted in squeals of laughter and shrieking. One kid attempted to perform Power Ranger moves in front of my camera.

There was a woman in a sad chipmunk costume. It was so bizarre to see something like this in Malaysia that I had to have my picture taken with her.

May 14, 2008

Today was a big day! I signed myself up for a full-day tour of the Cameron Highlands. It was very memorable and I’m happy that I spent the money (80 ringitt, or CA$25) to do it. The tour was provided by the guesthouse. We spent the whole day driving around in tough Land Rover vehicles (made in England!) with very enthusiastic and charismatic tour guides, Sorya and Kumar.

The Cameron Highlands are famous for their tea plantations. In particular, the Boh Tea Plantation is well known throughout Malaysia for their excellent quality teas. This plantation was the first stop on our tour.

Wow. That’s all I can say. The plantation was simply stunning. It was located in a valley in the mountains. Emerald green tea shrubs lined all of the hillsides. The valley floor undulated with small hills and it was mesmerizing to watch the light change and play over the tea plants. It was a gorgeous sight and I spent a long time trying to take good pictures. It was challenging since the sun was facing us, so here’s the best I could come up with. I want a real camera :(

After the plantation we continued on and drove up to the top of the tallest mountain in Malaysia accessible by road. At 2013 metres, the wind cut through my hoodie and chilled me. When was the last time I felt cold? It must have been back in Canada in February.

Once the guides felt we had suffered enough from the wind, we descended down the mountain a bit and went for a trek through the jungle. Sorya told us that this rainforst was one of the oldest rain forests in the world, estimated at 130 million years old. Since it was on one of the highest points of Malaysia, this is one of the points that first emerged from the sea and the vegetation first took hold. However, because of the high altitude, the trees in the forest were small, not more than about 3 metres high. Sorya showed us catepillars, spiders, pitcher plants, herbs, and other kinds of plants.

The highlight of the day, for me, came after the jungle when we returned to the tea plantation. After a quick tour of the factory we had lunch at the cafe. Again, the view of the tea plantation was to die for. The tea and scones with strawberry jam that I had for lunch were, as well!

At the cafe of the tea plantation I was officially in a “happy place.” As Alex remarked back in Laos, I am “a romantic” and live to savour moments. I was definitely savouring my moments at that cafe. I was drinking good tea, eating good scones (and rich chocolate cake), had an amazing vista, and was enjoying the company of entertaining people (the other people on the tour). The radio of the cafe played a song where the lyrics included the phrase, “Have you ever felt joy in your life?” Yes! I have! I was feeling joy at that very moment in the cafe.

From the cafe, we drove a long distance through a valley in the Cameron Highlands known for its vegetable gardens. There were some 2000 gardens in the valley. We saw greenhouses, terraces, and fields. There were terraced fields high up on the slopes of the valley. Once we reached the end of the valley, we could look all the way down the whole length of it, and take in a view with 2000 gardens all at the same time.

Once we left the valley, we continued through the largest jungle reserve in the Cameron Highlands. Since it was at a lower altitude, the trees were much higher here. Sorya showed us huge spiders, how to eat the inside of a banana tree, and other survival tricks. On the way out of the valley, I got to ride on top of the Land Rover along with the German guys Daniel and Fabian. Sorya knew how to drive that machine and made the ride extra bumpy for us. Owww… my poor boney ass. As we drove through the jungle, I started to sing a song: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight!” Daniel and Fabian backed me up by singing, “A weem o way, a weem o way, a weem o way…”

Some pictures from the jungle:

Huge spider (probably about 30 cm wide)

Bee on flower

From the valley we entered an Orang Asli village, one of the few village of the indiginous tribes left in Malaysia. Orang Asli literally means “Original People.” The young people of the tribes were getting caught up in a fervor of modernization and the villages were disappearing at a rapid pace. At the village, Sorya showed us how the villagers used blow guns and darts to hunt small game in the jungle. We had a chance to try the guns, too. I’m proud to announce that I was the first person to successfully hit the target, the sole of a flip flop!

After the blowgun demonstration Sorya showed us how the native people crush the seeds of a plant to create a dye that the apply to their faces. Since I played along with all of his other tricks that day, he eagerly used me as a canvas for his face paint. Sorya also showed us the staple food of the villagers: tapioca; their musical instruments: bamboo trunks and nose flutes; and a puzzle: twigs twisted with string. We tried to get the string out of the tangle of twigs, but I was unsuccessful. I can’t even do these kinds of puzzles at home!

It really was a good day and I felt I was in a good place. That night, we had a drinking party back at Father’s Guesthouse. I befriended David, from a village near Lake Simcoe in Ontario. He was 21 years old and had been traveling for three and a half years. He left home the day after he wrote his final high school exam. His mother had to email his report card to him. He was a very skilled budget traveler and I admired his tenacity. Even though I considered myself a budget traveler, too, his budget was much tighter than my own. I wonder how he did it. I also met Alexandra from Paris, France that night. The three of us formed a little group for the rest of our stay at Father’s.

David is in the lower left and Alex is in the lower right of the above photograph.

May 15, 2008

Didn’t do much today. Just walked up a mountain with David. Our hike took about three hours: around one mountain, through the jungle, and up another. David was very good at hiking and sprinted up and down the trail like a sure-footed mountain goat. I wasn’t nearly so good, and meandandered up and down more deliberately. The views from the mountain top were nice, but don’t look so fantastic from a camera, so I’ll show you a picture of the jungle instead.

After we got back to the Guesthouse, David and I went for lunch at his favourite street vendor. Two old Indian women served us piles of rice and curry while we ate on plastic patio furniture on the street. The food was good, healthy, and cheap. I had lunch and dinner at this place three days in a row. Unlike in Penang, I didn’t let my zest for good food go out of control and didn’t overeat. I guess I was learning.

That night, David, Alex, and I wandered around the agricultural museum in Tanah Rata. Since we arrived close to closing time, we didn’t have to pay admission. Despite the face that we arrived closed to closing time, we continued to wander the gardens long after the fact. Yay us! We saw many kinds of flowers, herbs, strawberries, and other fruits. We found a rose garden and literally stopped to smell the roses. Life is good when you have time to do things like that.

That night, the three of us visited some of the shops in town and bought liquors and mixes to drink. I was disappointed my the poor selection and high costs of beers in Malaysia. I know it’s a Moslem country and they frown on alcohol, but why punish little old me?

May 16, 2008

Ow. Head hurt a bit in the morning. Too much vodka, rum, and tequila the night before. I blame the low quality of Malaysian liquor, not the quantity that I drank (which I feel really wasn’t that much). I learned that in Malaysia there is a knock-off product for nearly anything. Why buy Absolut Vodka when you can buy the Malaysian made Privilege Vodka. The bottle even has the same distinctive shape. Why buy Captan Morgan’s Rum when you can have Stanley Morgan’s Rum for one third the price. The most personally insulting product was the Polska Vodka — NOT made in Poland, but in Malaysia. The bottle even sported the Russian national symbol (a double headed eagle), not the Polish one (a white single headed eagle). As if!

Anyways, the weather in Cameron Highlands was chilly. In the day, it probably wasn’t more than 25 degrees. In the night, it wasn’t more than 15 degrees. Yes, that’s cold (especially after being in places where the average temperature is like 30 degrees for the past two months). I didn’t need air conditioning or a fan in the Cameron Highlands. Instead, I slept under three blankets to keep warm. I made myself a cozy burrow in my bed and was loathe to leave it. So what if my head felt wonky. I’d just stay in my warm bed longer.

My ambitions today were very minor. I spent much of the day in the internet cafe talking to people on MSN Messenger. I intended to write a blog entry, but I didn’t write a single word. It had been a long time since I had chatted on MSN Messenger, and it was good to catch up with people.

I did go for a small hike, though, in the afternoon. I caught up with David and a Welsh girl, Kayley (this David guy always seemed to be talking to different girls! How does he do it?) after lunch at the same Indian street vendor. We walked on the same hiking path that I had gone on the day I arrived in Tanah Ratah and climbed the same lookout tower. Since it was the first time on the path for David and Kayley, I got to play the tour guide.

May 17, 2008

Another quiet day. I really enjoyed Tanah Rata. It was one of the good places on my trip. I remember the wise words of one Nick Taylor, whom I had met up with in Bangkok more than two months before. He said that if you like a place, then stay there longer. The next place you go might not be so nice. Enjoy a place while you can. That’s exactly what I was doing in Tanah Rata. I was thinking of going to Melaka (a touristy city with colonial buildings — probably similiar to Georgetown) or Taman Negara (a tourist jungle — probably similar to Tanah Rata). In the end, I opted to skip both of those other places in favour of staying longer in Tanah Rata and Kuala Lumpur (KL).

However, tonight would be my fifth night here. It was time to move on tomorrow. Alex (the French girl I had been hanging out with in Tanah Rata) and I decided to move on to KL tomorrow. We went to the bus station and bought bus tickets. We would be leaving at 8 AM in the morning.

In the meanwhile, while walking the streets of Tanah Rata, I saw a guy walking around wearing a Roots T-Shirt. A sure sign of a Canadian. I struck up a conversation with the guy, who’s name was Alex Spring (what is with me always meeting people named Alex? Nothing wrong with Alexes though, they seem to be nice people). When he said that he had studied engineering at Queen University in Kingston, Ontario, I jokingly asked him if he knew Jake Kaupp. He did, in fact, know Jake! Jake was his TA in some class. Wierd. Later, I emailed Jake. Jake remembered Alex, too. It’s certainly a small world!

That night, Alex, Alex, Edwet (some random Dutch board game enthusiast) sat around the common room of the guesthouse and played San Juan, a card game that I had brought from home. I had picked up some Indian sweets the day before from a restaurant in town and we snacked on them. I won all three games, but Alex (the Canadian dude, not the French girl) came pretty close the second time.

There was more drinking in the guesthouse that night, but no one got that drunk. It would be an early morning tomorrow. Alex and I were off to Kuala Lumpur!

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