Straits ahead: Malacca in Mint

Iam trying hard not to laugh at my guide. He has been very friendly, chatting in Tamil on the bus to Malacca. He has also organized a vegetarian lunch for me, after he’s recovered from the shock of encountering someone who doesn’t eat meat. The reason I am having trouble is, talking about the history of Malacca, he keeps mentioning the Chineast and the Portugueast. Finally when he says, “After this, you all get into the bust”, a giggle escapes; I hastily turn it into a cough and end up choking.

Malacca (or Melaka as locals call it) is one of Malaysia’s few Unesco world heritage sites. There is a lot of dispute over when the city was founded but my guide authoritatively says it was in the early 15th century. It flourished as a trading port, attracting the attention of invaders. In many ways, Malacca reminds me of Fort Kochi: Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese influences are scattered around the city.

The walls of Malacca

Prayer

Say hi to Bob!

More here on Mint – this appeared a few weeks ago – forgot to post it here… Have a nice day, lah!

Malaysia window dressing

Multicutural

Covered heads and bare legs – the paradox that is Malaysia.

I love such cultures which have space for contradictions to exist peacefully together, even if not such extremes. I saw this in Turkey as well – Asian and European, modern and traditional, the hijab and the mini-skirt side by side. Whatever the tension simmering under the surface, on the streets, there is a sense of these elements coming together like pieces of a puzzle.

Non-sightings at the night safari

We reached the resort at Taman Negara by 3 p.m. – late starts, rainy mornings and pit-stops for middle-of-the-road photography notwithstanding. One of the first things we did on arrival was to check out the possible activities for the next 24 hours – and signed up for a night safari.

And we spent the rest of the evening napping, walking in and around the resort, looking for food (which my meat-eating friends found at a village home where we were welcomed warmly for a Hari Raya / Ramzan meal – and where the aged matriarch smiled sweetly and smoked beedi non-stop) and then vegetarian food (which we finally found at the resort having sent the kitchen staff into a tizzy).

The safari was to begin at 8.30 p.m. and we stood crisply by the open van a good ten minutes earlier, visions of night-time experiences in the jungle (that included spotting wild animals and exotic insects, among other things) crowding for space in our heads. Four others from a Singapore family joined us and we clambered up into the jeep – two of the group literally, since they were sent to sit up on the rooftop on an open, flat wooden seat. Don’t worry, very safe, said the guide looking at our apprehensive faces. I’ve only fallen off twice. Heh, he didn’t say that last bit. What he did say was, you guys on the roof are the lucky ones, you get to spot the animals first. And what he certainly should have added was, in any case, any animal we do see will be an herbivore.

For we did spot animals in the safari – three plump and indifferent cows, a terrified leopard cat and a void in the distance high up on a tree that the guide promised us was a flying squirrel. Wait and watch, he fly now. Er, no, he didn’t fly, if there was indeed any he up there. And if you are wondering about cows and cats inside a 300 million year-old rainforest, it turns out that the resort forgot to mention that the night safari is inside a palm plantation just off the highway, in the opposite direction to the rainforest.

Well, well. We all live and learn. Sometimes.

Not that the night was without excitement. Just as we were turning back towards the main road, the front wheel of our jeep got stuck in a ditch. And there we were, eight tired and sleepy people, a guide trying to be reassuring and not at all succeeding (it may have helped if he did not look so close to tears) and a thoroughly perplexed driver on a mud path in the midst of pitch-dark palm trees. What to do, lah?. No signal on any mobile phone, no further ideas from anyone. And on the positive side, the knowledge that there was nothing more dangerous in the vicinity than a disgruntled cow.

And so we stood, a small bunch of us exchanging ‘what is the worst that could happen’ ideas, during which friend and I kept dissolving into hysterical giggles (we were tired. No? not good enough?). Anyway. At the end of an hour, someone came up with a brainwave – and the jeep came unstuck and we finally headed back to the comfort of the resort and a roof over our heads.

That apart, Taman Negara is a fabulous place, a must-visit on your trip to Malaysia. And here are some tips for getting the best out of Taman Negara:

~ Em, avoid the night safari. Oh, you’ve thought of it already by now, have you? Try a night walk instead – you may still spot nothing but atleast they take you into the forest…

~ The adventure activities on offer at Taman Negara include – river rafting and fishing, a visit to the Orang Asli settlement (original inhabitants of the forest), visits to old caves, treks and hikes into the jungle… All this requires you to spend a minimum of three days – unfortunately we were there just for a night and had to miss most of it. Your resort / guesthouse will usually be able to make arrangements for these activities. Ideally, take a package from the resort that includes food and activities.

~ That said, there was no guide available for the forest canopy walk for the morning but it turned out to be not a problem. You do not really need a guide for this – ask around to see if you really need a guide for all the activities (that just means extra charge from the resorts).

~ Taman Negara is accessed easily by road from Kuala Lumpur – a comfortable 4-hour drive. Or, you can take a bus or cab to Jerantut and take a 3-hour boat ride from Kuala Tembeling to Kuala Tahan (on the other side of the river from Taman Negara, a minute by boat). Most of the resorts / guesthouses are located in Kuala Tahan – there is only one resort, the Mutiara which claims to be inside the rainforest – but this too is on the periphery. It just is on the right side of the river – and if your budget does not stretch so much, stay in Kuala Tahan – we stayed at the Rainforest Resort.

Also read about the canopy walkway inside the rainforest: A walk above the woods

A walk above the woods

The Ramzan holiday was a long weekend in Malaysia and a friend from Jakarta had also come down to Kuala Lumpur. And so, bright and early on Friday morning, the four of us set off for Taman Negara.

Not so bright really, since the morning dawned rainy and gray, prompting this status message from me on facebook – ‘I know it is called rainforest but does it have to rain the morning I am headed there?’. Luckily the rain let up by the time we headed out of Kuala Lumpur and the weather felt just right for a long drive – sunny and cool, with misty clouds swirling over Genting Highlands in the distance.

Now Taman Negara was entirely my decision – each time I saw an ad for Malaysia Tourism, it was the canopy walkway over the forest that caught my attention – imagine, a walk on a rickety bridge over tall trees! I had no idea where this canopy was exactly in Malaysia – I found out when I was researching travel options just before I headed to that country. I also found out that Taman Negara is one of the world’s oldest rainforest – 130 million years old. And so my insistence on heading to Taman Negara – my local friends (who were driving and guiding us) were hoping for a shorter and easier trip to Malacca but I would have none of it.

A bit about the name – Taman Negara literally translates as ‘National Park’ – so much for creative names – a forest as ancient and venerable as this surely deserves something spicier? But then, it was called King George V National Park before the Malay government changed its name after independence in 1957. And anyway, who am I to crib? In India, we would have renamed it the Rajiv / Indira / Rahul Gandhi National Park – in comparison, Taman Negara surely sounds zingier.

The road to Taman Negara was beautiful – two hours on the broad divided highway, followed by two hours on narrow village roads.

Cows clearly had priority here, judging by the signboards all over – in any case, the roads were mostly empty (it was Ramzan day); no cars, no cows. And on these long, winding country roads, I did one of the craziest and funnest things ever.

The next morning, we walked to the jetty at Kuala Tahan and crossed the muddy Sungai Tahan in a minute on a longtail boat. We were immediately inside the National Park area, where we bought our tickets and headed towards the canopy walkway. It was a hot day; during parts of the walk, the sky was hardly visible thanks to the cover provided by the tall, wide trees but the humidity levels were enough to leave us all puddles of sweat by the first twenty minutes. The few hundred meters have wooden steps – heh, what kind of jungle walk is this? And then the fun starts!

It is about 2 kilometers to the canopy, not a tough walk, even for soft city types like me. If you walk without stopping (and that would have been a good idea, as we found out later – even if it sounds pointless now), it should not take more than 45 minutes. We took close to two hours! It was just the heat (it is as good an excuse as any!) combined with a path full of booby traps (read: winding tree roots) for people like me to trip and fall on (which I did, bruising my knees a pretty purple). And the fact that we had to stop every 3 minutes for a photograph – the trees, the ominous-looking tree roots, us under the trees in various combinations, mushrooms of all shapes and colours (my hands were so shaky from the heat and tiredness that I barely managed any good shots of these), ditto for leaves and flowers.

Bad idea. The canopy walkway is open from 9.30 a.m. – we reached by 11.30 a.m. – to find half of Malaysia, and a significant proportion of other nations (damn these tourists!) already waiting in line, patiently wilting under the midday heat, especially after the last 200 meters of climb up those wooden steps (I know it doesn’t sound like much – wait till you try it). Long holiday weekend, people.

And so we registered our names and waited. And waited. And waited. For two hours (only a limited number of people are allowed up at a time for safety reasons). Too tired to even talk among ourselves for the first thirty minutes. So we sat in quiet desperation, watching the large tour groups talk in rapid-fire Japanese (signs of a reviving economy?) and munch on snacks and cold drinks incessantly. My sympathies were with the other snackless souls like us, all trying to make themselves as comfortable as they could, looking up longingly at the walkway.

Finally, we heard our names being called and we made our way up to the canopy and started walking along the wobbly bridge. It was initially scary, and all our energies were focused on just holding on to the sides. By the time we reached the first bridge point, we were used to it and comfortable enough to take photographs; look ma, no hands! The canopy meanders close to a 100 feet above the ground, over the forest, through the middle of tall trees – I looked up to see them stretch on a hundred feet higher! The sounds of the jungle were all around us; birds chirping, leaves rustling, crickets and insects humming, even the flow of the river at a distance…

A word about the canopy itself. It is a narrow walkway, stretching for over 400 meters on top of the trees. Only 280 meters of the walk was open to public that day due to some repair-work on the remaining path. We had walked for two kilometers and waited for two hours on a hot day to walk a 280 meters above the trees? Well, all I can say is, it was totally worth it.

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(More on Taman Negara, including travel and stay information coming up soon – watch this space!)

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