On the Road with the Tourist Mafia: Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

With a knife into the jungle

Equipped like Indiana Jones, my blade and I followed the others on the “trek” to the “Giant Rafflesia”

Want the full story? Click here to start with Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG! – the post that started this little travel adventure.

Organizing a trip to the Highlands has a bit of the feel of dealing with the Mafia…

And it’s probably true,  I’m dealing with the tourist mafia, most likely. Louis, who works at the front desk of my hostel in Kuala Lumpur, has a friend called “Moon” (seriously?), who works in the Highlands. So Louis calls to arrange a pickup for me the next day as well as accomodation, but cannot reach him, leaves a message on the voice mail. Later that day, I meet Louis’s Dad who used to own the No. 8 Guest House, but sold it to a Pakistani investor with a Japanese passport who used to resell Japanese used cars. The PJ-dude and now owner of No.8 tells me the place used to have trouble in the dorms because people brought in drugs, So he rebuilt and turned the dorms into double rooms.

Next to Louis’s Dad sits a guy with long hair called “Moon”. Oh, I’ve heard that name before today. When he realizes who I am, he tells me a van is going to pick me up in front of the hostel the next day at 10, so I can party until sunrise and still get sleep. It’s all arranged. Aha. He has arranged accommodation, too, he tells me. “Does the room have a window?” I ask since I’ve just had several days of windowless existence. He gets on the phone, laughs. “Do you want to kill yourself?” he throws as a reply at me, “Yes, it has a window.” A couple of hours later he will call Louis to tell him that the van is full and I have to catch my own bus from the station at 8.15 in the morning. What? What about the big partying I had lined up? Not.

Mapping out the next destination in the Lonely Planet

For once I arrive at a bus station relaxed. No anxiousness about taxi drivers trying to get in the bus to be the first to offer me their unsolicited services, no “how am I going to get to my hostel?” I know not only is it off-season and touts are rare when I get off the bus, I also know that if I find the guy associated with the place I am looking for, he will bring me there. All the more am I disappointed when the place where he takes me with the van is not located on some sweet spot on a mountain or even atop of it, but in a dead end street with no view at all, just around the corner from the bus stop.

A British explorer named Cameron mapped out the Highlands in 1885, which is why the roads are seamed by tea and strawberry plantations

On the way here I saw the famous tea plantations and I had gotten my hopes up to chill out in this environment for the next few days. Now it appears all tea plantations are actually several kilometers away. Bummer. Oh yes, you’re right, more advance research could’ve saved me from the disappointment, but I couldn’t be bothered with more research than absolutely necessary. Not only does it run counter the idea of reIaxation, it also usually just gets your hopes up higher only to disappoint you even more. I had heard many good things about this place, though. Maybe I had asked the wrong people.

I scratch relaxation off the list for a start and decide to book the full program tour of “everything” there is to see in the Cameron Highlands for the next day. Not before I and the receptionist have given my entire luggage a sunshine cure and some spraying, however. This is to make sure all the bed bugs stay out of the room, the room that has no window. Arghs.

People at my hostel in the Cameron Highlands have their own opinions about what’s hot and what’s not…

When all is set up and down I go to explore the town. There is a little sports festival going on, which is why the town is pretty full right now. While the regular food in town isn’t very impressive, the festival market amazes me. They have Takoyaki, squid balls from Japan which I haven’t had in forever, and of course I have to have some. I munch away watching a ridiculous presentation by the police in order to recruit people. The robbers they have hired, however, are actually more well-trained than the police officers and so the show is a big laugh.

In India I had discovered Metal (https://twitter.com/pcbritz/status/145181038946160640), in Malaysia, Classic Rock seemed to be big!

More than “vegetarian” fried rice with chicken pieces and parts of bones: Japanese snack food is a welcome change from Malaysian cuisine!

join the Force: Police demonstrates its uum… skills…

Walking on I hear guitar riffs and beats and realize that I haven’t consciously listened to music in weeks. And I haven’t heard any rock music since Tioman, leave alone live music. I sit down next to a dude who looks like Jimmy Hendrix (and uses that to push his image) and sing “Wish You Were Here,” while he is playing the song on his guitar, supported by music from a record. It’s an incredibly calming feeling. I miss the music.

Traveling with the pack

The tour the next day is great. While most people from the group skip the butterfly farm for an extra five Ringgit, I want to see what the local fauna has to offer and despite a rush (“we have half an hour”), it pays. The butterflies are already an incredible spectacle, but the fact that one of the dudes (apparently the guy Moon called the other day) picks up a scorpion and puts it on the hands of anybody who dares makes the visit a worthwhile adventure.

Big Bug

A stag beetle in the butterfly park. Obviously, I didn’t have a hand free to take a picture when the scorpion was on my hand😉

And off we are to the jungle. It’s a well trodden-path that leads us to the Giant Rafflesia, a plant, no sorry, it’s actually a fungus that looks like a flower, that grows very large here. The thing has a very strong smell attracting animals for semination and in it’s last phase is called “elephant dung” for both its form and smell. Use your imagination.

Giant Rafflesia

The giant rafflesia is a fungus that only exists in seven different places in the world.

While this is one of the main attractions and is pretty cool, I admit, I have even more fun on the way back. While I had been caught in serious thought on the way in, a little rest at a river suddenly has calmed me down and I socialize with some of the others. There’s an Iraqi-German girl by name of Sahar (or Susu) who is about as lost in her quest to find herself and about as sick of young backpackers with their stupid ever-repeating chit chat and search for the cheapest beer as I am. And there is a girl who is pondering over investing in a hostel in Indonesia, becoming it’s owner.

After the Rafflesia we hit a small aboriginal village – yes, hitting is indeed the right term as we spend about five minutes there, watching halfdressed women sitting in front of their houses with their undressed children – and then go to see the tea plantations. I don’t ever want to do this again. Is there a worse image or ignorance about people’s lives than this? Why not relocate them into a museum right away?

The plantation is actually quite fun and after a ridiculous “explanation” of the tea making process, I get some tea souvenirs and we chill out with some chai on the terrace, overlooking the plantations. I’m bummed when I don’t get seconds because they close at 4 o’ clock sharp, I’m even more bummed when we have to leave the place ten minutes earlier. I hate group travel.

tea plantation

On these steep hills, the tea of Malaysia is grown and harvested on each plant about every six weeks.

hilltop view

Just a minute before the hill top became covered in clouds

Yet, this must be the first time I am actually socializing beyond hostel owners and since we get along, we decide to meet up for another hike nearby tomorrow. The trek turns out to be an actual trek that gets us a little bit exhausted and provides us with wonderful views over the mountains and later on a wonderful view of the clouds that encapsulate the top completely.

On the way down, Sahar and I purposefully I lose the group of young travelers that had joined us and then tortured us with their repetitive travel stories of full moon parties and cheap beer. We find a place in the tea fields to chill, both in separate places, because we both have our own expectations of a perfect spot. Just when I’m about to relax and accept that there won’t be any hammock lying here but that I can still enjoy it, when I get out my prepared black tea and biscuits, it starts to rain; to pour, actually. We meet up again and hitch a ride on the back of an Indian’s pick-up back to town, where I use the rest of the daylight to practice some Aikido on the porch.

Wet

The Cameron Highlands produce most of the vegetables for Malaysia. One friendly veggy farmer gave us a ride back to town.

The night I spend pondering options. Where should I go next? I feel like I am done with Malaysia. It is nice enough, but I can tell that the culture is not quite for me and I want to see other things as well. I liked the Indian influence in the country, but most of the time I do not experience openness from Malaysians, which I partly explain by the Muslim influences of the country. Either way, I’ve already spent longer in Malaysia than anticipated. I also talk to Caro for quite a long time. She gets me out of the dead end that I have once again managed to maneuver myself into, trying to decide what’s up next.

Hammock feet

Quest fulfilled, I can move on to the next place.

Caro brings me down and I manage to relax. We do more planning in terms of our meeting. She will probably join me in Thailand in about two weeks. Strike! Things can go on! We also talk about what expectations we have and really, I don’t have any. It’s an experiment and we will have to see how it works. For now, we will be trying a travel together and if we get sick of it, we’ll be honest about it. That’s basically it. And it soothes me. I calm down and suddenly I know what I want to do:

I will go to Taman Negara with Susu and do an overnight jungle track, staying in a cave for a night. It’s basically the thing to do in Taman Negara, the national rainforest reserve. I don’t know if I would be doing it this way by myself, but for now I want to go to the jungle and get lost. All gone from civilization. So I hire a van with the tourist Mafia to the jungle and they provide us with flyers and cards on where to go and what to do.

We’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow, so I use my last day to finally fulfill my quest. I get my hammock out and walk around town. In a little apartment resort village spot, I find two trees and a semi-nice view of the valley. This is it, it won’t get much better. In the sun I read up on the history of Malaysia, think of how this hammock will soon be carrying two people and fall asleep to a pleasant nap in the sunshine. Life is good!

  1. August 30th, 2012

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