Into the Jungle – Taman Negara/Melaka, Malaysia

I sat on the ground of my mud hut, my gaze alternating between the blood stains on the cement floor and the five leeches hanging out of my legs and ankles.  My socks were rolled down to my muddy shoes and stained with my own blood.  My shirt was yellowed with sweat and saturated with the contents of a sunscreen an exploded sunscreen bottle.  The tropic heat was heavy and the moisture was tangible in the thick jungle air.   Spiders scurried around me as I attempted to remove the leeches by burning them off with a lighter.

Why had I left the clean streets of Singapore again?

A man need only to spend a night camping in the jungles of Malaysia to remind himself why mankind decided to relegate loincloths to the realm of costumes and form civilizations.

I was smack dab in the middle of Peninsular Malaysia, in the depths of Taman Negara National Park trying to spend the night in the wild trying to spot wildlife.

Wildlife?  I had heard talk of tapirs, monkeys, flying squirrels, and even the elusive tigers, yet the only wildlife I had seen were currently sucking the blood out of my legs.

By the time I had removed the leeches it was dark and the jungle started screaaaaaaaming at the top of its lungs.  There was nothing in the Boy Scout manual about the jungle, and for a moment I felt completely unprepared for whatever lurked outside my little shabby hut.  What man-eating beasts could smell my crackers?  What wild-eyed primates were hanging from the vines above me, ready to descend from their perches and rip my neck out with their fangs?

I barely slept that night – even the ear plugs could not block out the awesome sounds of the jungle: chirps, ribbits, growls, a few growls, meows, and the occasional human shriek pierced through the thin walls of my shelter and reminded me of how little separated me from the nature in its purest and most menacing form.

Finally dawn broke and I heard the familiar mezzanine spreading from the nearby mosques into the jungle.  A reminder from Allah that I was not really that far removed from civilization – I was in just in Malaysia.

Before coming to this national park I had spent two days in the southern port town of Melaka during the Chinese New Year celebrations, an interesting way to become acquainted with this multicultural nation.

Malaysia is a mixed community of the native Malay people, the Chinese and Southern Indians, similar to Singapore.  The majority of people here are Malay Muslims and Malaysia is officially a Muslim state, though all religions are free to practice here and all communities have coexisted peacefully with the exception of a brief period of interracial strife in 1969.

I had never been to an Islamic state before, and I did not know what to expect.  I was very pleasantly surprised by Malaysia.

To be honest I had not put too much thought into my visit to Malaysia, I had only wanted to take the famous Jungle Railway up the coast from Singapore into Southern Thailand.  But after some research I decided to throw in visits to a handful of places instead of just pushing through the country – turned out to be a great decision.

First stop was Melaka.

Melaka has been a prosperous port for many centuries because it is ideally located at the terminus of both the easterly and westerly monsoons, allowing ancient traders to conduct business while they waited for the next monsoon to carry them home.  Melaka’s strategic location on the narrow Straights of Melaka (the narrow passageway between Malaysia and Sumatra) allowed it’s governors to control the lucrative spice trade.  It was originally controlled by the Malays but was heavily influenced by the Sumatrans, Chinese, and Indians before the arrival of the Europeans.

The Portuguese came in 1511, starting a trend of invading Melaka, destroying the previous settlements, and re-establishing control, which would be subsequently copied by the Dutch, British and Japanese before the UN officially declared colonialism passé.  In the 1950s, Melaka and the rest of Malaysia were given their independence from their colonial overlords, yet the city still retains the occasional Dutch windmill.

Melaka was a great place to witness Chinese New Year.  Chinatown was lined with red lanterns to usher in the Year of the Ox, while old men stood in the street singing Karaoke to non-existent audiences…a strange sight.

I stayed in a interesting guesthouse-cum-pub that had the ambiance of a dingy fraternity house – live music complete with drunk guitarist and an absolutely hammered singer who mumbled his way through a litany of songs, the only comprehensible words being the occasional chorus “blah blah blah…blue suede shoes…ain’t nothin’ but a hound doggy…DO THE LIMBO!”  Priceless.

Midnight rolled around and we lit fireworks to drive off the evil spirits, but apparently we did not light enough because I got punched in the face by an evil-spirited Canadian who could not hold in his anger towards Americans.  The funny thing is that he bought me a beer and talked with me for an hour before deciding that he loathed my country enough to sucker-punch me in the jaw.  I guess the old adage from the Trojan War is right after all: Timeo Danaos, et dona ferentes – Never trust the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts.

Despite the wild night preceding Chinese New Year, the next two days were quite uneventful because almost every Chinese business was closed down.  Considering the Chinese own a lion’s share of the businesses, it meant the entire city was dead.  One local put it like this: the Muslims control the culture and the Chinese control the businesses.

But let’s hop back to Islam and Malaysian culture.  I find Islam fascinating, and the Muslims here defied many stereotypes of the Islamic world.  Sure the women here wear headscarves, but I sense it is more a facet of individual expression than a mandated uniform.  When you walk into a bus station there a score of shops selling scarves in every imaginable color and with many different patterns of embroidery.  The scarves do not cover the face: they simply wrap under the chin, come up over the ears, create a visor over the forehead and drape over the shoulders and upper back.

I was uncertain of the terms of inter-sexual interactions so I did not make idle conversation with the local ladyfolk, but to my surprise I was often approached by giggling groups of girls curious about where I was from etc.  Young women walk around hand-in-hand with their boyfriends, who dress like they could be from any city in America.

The Mosques stand prominently on the main boulevards, and all seem to be relatively new.  They are grandiose structures, beautifully decorated but not ostentatious.

Other mosques are nestled in the jungles, their spires protruding from the canopy and broadcasting the muezzein, the call to prayer, over the land.  The juxtaposition of the Mosques and the tropical jungle threw me off at first – I always picture mosques being ornaments of the desert and did not expect them in the middle of the jungle.

The level of economic development here also surprised me.  The country is actually quite well developed with smooth roads, prosperous cities and a well-educated population.  In addition to its bountiful petroleum reserves, Malaysia’s economy is buoyed by exports in electronics, chemicals and palm oil.  In 2007, exports made up over 90% of Malaysia’s GDP, though exports have fallen sharply in the current economic downturn, exposing a potentially crippling vulnerability in the country’s economy.

You can learn a lot about a country by its farms, and Malaysia is no different.  In the US, our farms are mechanized and operated efficiently with economies of scale.  India, by contrast, has many small plots of land with a far higher proportion of manual labor to capital.  Malaysia falls somewhere in between – as I rode on the bus from Melaka to Teman Negara National Park, I passed plantation-style farms of palm and rubber trees.  The rubber trees have deep cuts in their bark, allowing the rubber sap to spiral down these canals to be collected at the bottom of the tree in a jug.

I hereby conclude your economics lesson for the day.

The jungle was my favorite part about Malaysia.  From Melaka, I took a combination of buses, mini-vans and boats to the world-famous Taman Negara National Park.  After a few days of hiking through the jungle and a few nights pulling leeches from my legs, I left the park and caught the Jungle Railway north to Kota Baru.

Though I could have taken a quick overnight train, I decided to spend a full day on the train so I could take in the Malaysian countryside.  We passed through dense jungles, large rubber plantations, small villages, and deep valleys surrounded by giant cliffs.  The cliffs here protrude from the jungle and drop off precipitously for hundreds of feet.  I swear I spent half of the ride gazing at the scenery and hanging off the side of the train, wind in my face.

After arriving late in Kota Baru, I woke up the next morning and headed for the Perhentian Islands.  As I embarked towards the islands, I was unsure if the journey would be safe – or even if it would be possible – because many people said the island was closed due to the monsoon.

We arrived at the dock and the sea she was a-stormin’.   It didn’t look good, and right as we got off the bus we were accosted by a pushy ferry driver who was trying to give us the usual BS: You must get on this boat, it is the only way to the island, and although we are attempting to charge you double the normal rate, you must jump on right now because the boat is about to leave and there are no other boats until tomorrow.

I called his bluff.

After about half an hour of moving around the docks offering fishermen money for a ride to the islands, I finally got a taker.  I found a ride to the island for half the original price, and I spent three very enjoyable days enjoying the Perhentian Islands.

The island was covered in jungle – it was as if God took a slice of Taman Negara’s wild jungle, slapped it right in the Gulf of Thailand, and swapped the leeches for beaches.  Huge three-foot iguanas wandered the beach, and I practically had the island to myself.  The island had not officially opened yet, so only a few places offered accommodation and even fewer had electricity.

I swam, I snorkeled and I hiked.

Three days later, I was ready to start my journey into Thailand.

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