Want the full story? Click here to start with Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG! – the post that started this little travel adventure.
Where’s the adventure?
The way into the forest is no joyride to begin with. The van we get to the park entrance is driven by a maniac. I manage to sleep (because I fall asleep like nothing in moving vehicles), but the girls on board actually yell at the driver several times to drive more slowly and safely.
When I arrive: bad news.
The trips through the jungle are more expensive then anticipated. Also, it’s too late to do one today, so we have to wait until the next day. There’s not really a way out of the forest after the second day either, that means two more days in the forest than anticipated and there’s no cash machines or credit cards in the village. So it’s a taxi to the next town to get more cash before we get on the boat an hour later. So far, the traveler checks have been a blessing, but I’ve never actually used a real bank. They’re bureaucratic! We are just back in time to grab some ice cream (that melts immediately) and hop on the boat. The adventure commences!
We get onto a long boat, nicely balanced out for weight and soar upstream for the coming three hours. The river does not actually have a name, neither for me nor on a local map. It’s muddy waters are flanked by mangroves and trees in abundance. There is no point where one could decide to disembark, it is too overgrown.
Just when I’m about to jubilate about the fact that we are actually gone from civilization, I see a radio tower and a caterpillar forming some stairs. This is, after all, only a commercialized version of “Into the Wild,” I just hope it is an eco-friendly one. We pass one or two boats along the shore that belong to the native people around called Orang Atli (which means “original people” as we learn later on the track). Finally, we reach the village that is the starting point for most of the tracks. We dock at a floating restaurant in the floating part of the village.
This all feels pretty remote, including the huge insects that fly around the lamps in the restaurant. The feeling disappears once the sales pitch starts. I don’t listen, because we’ve already booked our trip ahead, instead I watch the people returning from a trip who are wet and soaked and dirty. That’s going to be us in two days. Off the restaurant we get onto the mainland and take quarter in a little room. The mood between Susu and me (you’ve met her as “Sahar” in my adventures from the Cameron Highlands) has become a bit agitated, although I can’t really tell why. She gets agitated that nobody speaks English where we have our accommodation and is angry at me for the strong smell of my insect repellent. The place is full of mosquitoes. Oh, this is going to be fun spending a night in the jungle together, I can tell.
I get up early the next morning. Most of my stuff I have crammed in my laundry bag and my photo backpack, because I will need the big pack for supplies, sleeping bag and mattress. We’ve all received plates, cups, tin cans, instant noodles, water and bring a minimum of clothes, a light, plus ourselves. I take the camera, too. My other luggage including laptop, passport and that kind of stuff, I leave in a big plastic bag that I tie up at the top and put it at the “front desk” of the restaurant, on the water, in the river, in the middle of the jungle.
That’s what backpack traveling does to you. It increases your sense of who you can trust and who you cannot. Or maybe it just helps you to let go, deep inside of you, of the idea of possessing anything, so the thought of you leaving all material possessions you have in a black plastic bag with some strangers on the water does not actually bother you. If it all drowns, it all drowns, if it gets stolen, you’ll either make sure hell’s lose and the entire village never receives any tourists ever again or – more likely: if it gets stolen, it gets stolen. It’s almost liberating to think of having an excuse not to take any clothes or other stuff with you: “It got stolen, so all I have right now is the set of clothes I’m wearing…but that’s OK, I don’t need more…” With this feeling of the bare necessities and my camera in hand, I get into another long boat up the river and consider myself disconnected from it all, from everything. Everything.
Into the wild
I haven’t told anyone but Caro that I’m actually going that deep into the forest and I get a feeling it’s better that way. Nobody needs to know about my little Mowglie adventure, they would just worry. Caro will be meeting me most likely on the tenth next month in Bangkok. We refer to our status as “stable, yet flexible,” sort of making fun of ourselves and the fact that we don’t know if we are actually going to travel the entire way together. I’ll be looking for flights to Thailand as soon as I’m back and have a “day off”.
Some official checks how much plastic we bring into the forest and lets us know there is a fee if we return with less. We continue up the river that has no name in a boat for several hours. Nobody is up for too much conversation. We’ve briefly introduced ourselves last night. I climb to the front of the boat, stretch out and enjoy the ride. After all, I’m free, ready to live in the forest and write my own jungle book story.
I’ve actually realized that the way I think about my future has changed. I am less concerned about what kind of job I want to do and think more about what kind of life and lifestyle I want to live. That is a big shift in my mind. Of course, the lifestyle will allow for certain jobs and certain jobs come with a certain lifestyle. However, I think more along the lines of “what can I do that allows me…?” or “in this form of existence, how can I?” Either way, I feel the structures of Western society breaking away from me, and I am disentangling from the claws of “should” and “must” in our capitalistic system.
All we see is forest and a steady brown stream up to the next bent, after which we encounter the same sight once again. Funny enough, it reminds me of the Rhine River a tiny bit, but maybe that’s just because it’s the first river I have encountered in weeks and the tree tops are similarly low above the surface of the water. What would it mean to actually live in the jungle like this? I’m only going for an overnight trek, but how would it be to live so remote?
Money would hardly be an issue, since food and shelter would be provided by the rainforest. But it would require a lot of knowledge about the forest to make it livable. Safety would be an entirely different issue. Although animal sightings near the trails are rare, there are panthers, tigers and elephants in these woods, not to mention the snakes, spiders and worst of all: mosquitoes! On up side, no hurries, no stress, only figuring out what to eat and not to get eaten, then do whatever you want: clim, swim, walk, build a shelter against the rain, watch the animals and study their ways. Perfect for any biologist. Hm, maybe It could be a way to stay in the jungle! If one was seriously going to do some study, either biologically or anthropologically, that could be an “excuse” to come and live here. If definitely beats the busy and hectic life I lived before, without time to stop and think. By far!
After a few weeks one would probably have a huge craving for vegetables and decent food, but for a while, it might be really nice! Caro and I would have to get some scientific training of course. Then it would be perfect to get to know each other up close and learn the character traits of the other person. It’s incredible how much you learn about somebody when traveling with them. Sahar for example, the German-Iranian girl I’m traveling with, is a rather quiet type, but she gets angry very fast and has no patience. None. She is pragmatic enough, however, to go on the jungle trip together, although our ways will surely part thereafter. She is pretty good at willfully ignoring things that are a nuisance to her.
We arrive at a point as random as any other along the stream and get off. Greeted by giant ants and mosquitoes, we have a last briefing, then follow a trail over a shaky bamboo bridge, into the heart of the jungle.
Inside the forest
Taman Negara is a rainforest. Why is it called a rainforest? Because you are soaking wet after you’ve spent half an hour walking through it. The humidity from the air mixes with the sweat of our bodies and soon our clothes have joined an unholy union with our skin. Taman Negara is also a jungle, because in parts the vegetation is so thick, that there is no direct sunlight that can hit the ground.
We follow an old elephant trail that about twenty people pass each day. We are five. For the first hour, we try to at least keep our feet dry, but once we’ve stepped into one of the streams we need to cross, we don’t even care about the water running out of our shoes anymore. Our guide Keg stops every once in a while to show and explain to us the wonders of the jungle: wild ginger blossoms, strange insects, which lianas contain drinkable water and which are poisonous? He picks up a giant solitary ant, grabs it by its legs and points out the juicy abdomen. Then he takes a small bite and smiles. At the next chance I find out that jungle ant tastes a bit like lime, with a hint of Avocado. I’m hungry and so I could eat an entire army of these, literally.
One of the jungle inhabitants we most frequently encounter stick with us and hitch a ride for a while. When you look closely, you can see how the leeches wind up their bodies from the forest floor to catch anything that walks by, then grab the lace of your shoe and slowly find their way up your foot. Although I try to avoid them, I’m not too bothered by the little blood suckers. They don’t carry any diseases and are not too unpleasant except for the bloodstains they leave on you and your clothes. But these clothes are beyond saving already anyway!
The first day of walking actually passes rather quickly. So far, we’ve nearly accidentally stepped on a cobra, which freaks out our guide as I’ve only seen the Muslim population freak out about stray dogs in the village before (dogs are dirty animals in Islam). Otherwise it was nice chatting along the way getting muddy and sweaty and soaked on the hike that is strenuous, but fun. We come by two circular holes in the ground and Keg explains “this is how the Orang Atli catch porcupine.” The holes are nearby a nest. One of the holes is filled with fire, the other is where the animal will try to escape. “One hole is where they dig for roots, two holes is for porcupine.”
Now, for the last hour of our day’s trip, we wrap our backpacks into the one giant black plastic bag we’ve been provided: it has started to actually rain. The rain is not so bad, but the wind that comes with it makes it quite scary: “If you hear a cracking sound, don’t run right away. You have about two to three seconds. Look where the tree is falling, then…” – “then what?” we reply back to Keg’s warning. “Then I hope you make good decision!”. Very consoling.
We do make it to the cave safely, however. Here, we are going to spend our night. About an hour later, another group arrives that we have passed early on the trail. We wash in a nearby river and change our soaking stinking clothes for the night. What a comfort! Then we cook a wonderful dinner with the vegetables and other supplies that we have brought, wait for the porcupine that lives around the cave to come and munch away at the leftovers, then go to sleep. The stone floor is not exactly comfortable, but it’s alright and at least it is dry while it pours like no tomorrow outside and a little river forms through the cave in a lower place.
Jungle, level 2!
It seems the forest has decided we are ready for Jungle level 2! What a night of rainfall means in the jungle becomes very clear (although actually rather muddy) when we hit the first of what used to be a tiny creek yesterday. It no longer spans more or less a meter, it is more than 4 meters wide and when Keg walks ahead, we realize it is also fairly deep. He has once again wrapped his backpack in a plastic bag and wades through the muddy water up to his chin. There’s no “dry shoes” from here.
We come across three or four of these fun little rivers that have appeared over night. One we avoid by walking over a slippery fallen tree. Several trees have blocked our way so far so that we have had to cut out a new trail around them – if we found a way around. With one, we just had to climb through the thorny branches to get anywhere.
Finally, we stop in front of a dirty moving mass we can tell will be a challenge. When the top of Keg’s head disappears under the water in an attempt to wade through, it is finally time for swimming. I didn’t know you could make your backpack float in a plastic bag! I stuff my glasses in my pocket and continue walking the trail until there is no more support for my feet, dive in and paddle to the other side, holding my backpack bundle in the right. I’m really glad I am well-trained and have swum with clothes before. When I emerge and the streams are running from all over my body, I realize my glasses have chosen to “do the Mowglie” and stay in the jungle forever. I’m not going back to search the swampy water for them. Time to let go off things.
Not only the results from the storm or the increasing smell of human sweat make our second day more intense than the first. We also run into more wildlife than we anticipated or asked for. The “old elephant trail” is still used by those who carved it into the jungle, but nonetheless, we are startled by what sounds like a tank shooting through the thick forest. We don’t actually get close enough to see the elephant, though. The same is true for the source of the sounds we hear about half an hour later. But really, nobody is too keen to get too close to the pack of wolves that howl through the forest. Our speed noticeably increases.
The thickness of the forest declines as we walk down a small hill in what looks like an old river bed. It smells like rotten crab and fish and flies are buzzing all around us. “I heard that the chief of a village nearby died some time ago. Look up, he might be somewhere around,” Keg says with a slight smile at our disgust. Out in the jungle, you cannot bury people, because the animals would dig out the corpse. So they hang up their dead in the trees for their “final rest”.
Can I stay in the Jungle, Balu?
Finally, we arrive at our drop-off point, an hour before the scheduled pickup. So we clean our shoes from mood and count the dead. We’ve lost one hat, one pair of glasses, liters and liters of human sweat and some blood to the leeches. But no bigger damage. After a little wild water ride, we arrive at the last stop for today: a local village.
Other than in the last local village, we actually stay here for a bit. There’s a blow-pipe demonstration and we sit down and chat and have some non-verbal communication with the locals while asking Keg questions about their way of life. The girls, wrapped in their Sarongs carrying what should be their small siblings but are most likely their own children, look and laugh at us. They marry when they are around 14, usually boys from nearby villages. In order to be ready to marry, a boy must be able to hunt with the blow-pipe, although it is no longer the main weapon used in hunting today.
Once again I wonder how it would be to live with them. “Do they accept strangers to live with them?” I ask. “If you want to, you can stay here for a month, of course, but you will have to take care of yourself,” our guide replies a little surprised. “No, I mean to live with them?” Now, the little Malay is seriously confused: Why would you want that? You don’t even speak their language?”. “Challenge accepted,” I think in my head, but decide not to push the matter further and lecture him about language learning and cultural anthropology. Instead, I retort to being a good tourist and go home with the others.
Although we’ve picked up several pieces of trash, we decide not to get our bags checked again. Way to keep the jungle clean! The bag with my electronics and everything else is still where I left it. I’m almost a little sad about that, but I don’t have too much time for sorrow. The hostel we stayed at has given away our room and we need to find new accommodation. Sahar yells at the woman who does not understand English, then she grabs her things (she did not want to leave them at the restaurant) and brushes off. We’ve both outgrown the pleasure of each other’s company and haven’t talked in hours. While I try to maintain common courtesy, however, she rushes off to the next place and snatches the last room right before me. I feel reminded of my teenage days when I used to hate people (none in particular, just in general) and wish myself back to the noisy yet quiet huzzle and buzz of insects and animals in the jungle.
I finally find a new place to stay, go to an internet café and decide to go to a quiet place: under the surface of the ocean. I book a plane ticket to Koh Samui in Thailand from where I will go to Ko Tao to learn diving before I meet Caro in Bangkok.