Back To Nature
07.08.2012 - 09.08.2012
After a night of hustle and bustle in Malaysia’s capital city, I find myself escaping to the vast jungle wilderness that is Taman Negara National Park. I enjoy cities, and I enjoyed Kuala Lumpar – in particular the Batu Caves, which must be the only place on Earth where monkeys and chickens live side by side – but I always find myself needing to escape. Ironically, as I am travelling alone, the loneliness of rural life also makes me yearn for the city in just the same way at times. But I had been to 4 cities in the last 7 days and so needed to return to nature; and what better way than, officially, the oldest rainforest in the world! (I should note that Malaysian tourism is about as well informed and practical as eating a doughnut through a straw… so that fact could well be false).
It takes an unjustifiably long time to reach the jungle; 2 buses (3 in my case) and a 3 hour boat ride through the dense wooded land to get somewhere that any map of Malaysia will tell you is really not that far away. Thanks to what must have been 4 toilet breaks, a 1 hour lunch break and another stop in order to purchase a park permit at the outrageous cost of 1 ringee (about 20 pence), it took us the best part of 9 hours to reach our destination. Thankfully, it was worth every second. Even the journey, through the querky neighbouring town, past the brilliantly named ‘Happy Fried Chicken’, and onto the long-tail boat, was stunning. Sat in the boat next to my new Chinese friend Lee (unusual name I know), we cruise up stream through the gorgeous jungle greenery that stoops up on either side. The brown mucky water almost adds to the rugged, beauty of the place. It reminds me of old war films set in Thailand or Vietnam, where the wooden boats and soldiers parade through the rivers into the depths of the jungle in search of the enemy. No crazy Yanks in these trees though; they’d have built a Walmart by now, or just blown the whole place up in the name of democracy… oh and God of course.
3 hours is a long time on a boat, and I’ve never been one to just lay back and relax, so I think of ingenius ways to make Happy Fried Chicken a world leader in the Fast Food industry. I picture Colonel Sanders making way for a new smiley, more handsome, younger model – every dog (or chicken) has its day – and the time soon flies by. As the river sprays into the boat from both sides, knocking over the rocks that hide beneath the water, I look up into the vast forest and feel right where I need to be. It’s an amazing thing when you feel such a connection to a place when travelling, particularly after being on the move for such a long time. It’s almost like I’ve arrived home.
I arrive at the village in shock, and joy, at how backwards the place is. Half a dozen small shacks float in the river with wooden planks hanging off the edge as the only means of entrance, and perhaps a dozen or so more run-down buildings make up the rest of the town. Strangely there is still a school here, which must be teaching primates because there is probably more species of monkey than there are children in this place. Oh, and a shop selling musical instruments! No room for a bank or a supermarket though… nice to see Malaysian tourism agencies are still on form.
What’s even stranger though is that I like it. ‘Asian countries are a bit like Eminem lyrics’ I tell myself… ‘they’re far more enjoyable when you don’t take them too seriously’. I think of countless other examples of humorous Asian incompetence as I’m wandering around the village, soaking in the beautiful surroundings: terrible English on shop windows (with hilarious accidental meanings that you couldn’t write if you tried – ‘full body and racial massage’ being my favourite so far); the way in which your waiter is either way too friendly and committed to making sure your every itch is scratched to perfection or he’s the Asian equivalent of Manuel from Fawlty Towers; and, of course, Asian men’s gawping at anything that resembles blonde hair or a breast. God I love Asia.
As it is almost dark when I arrive, I have the most surprisingly delicious pancake (breakfast-related items are not Malaysia’s strong point) and get to know my new roommates. They tell me that they hiked into the jungle yesterday, camped overnight and returned this evening. This makes me insanely jealous and incredibly excited to explore in the morning. We share some Malaysian chocolate cookies which don’t taste like chocolate, or cookies, but are also surprisingly nice. Wow, this place is amazing. It appears to be doing the impossible. When I hear 2 of the local workers singing U2 I tell myself: ‘this is the real test’. If they can actually sing - a feat that no Malaysian, or Asian as a matter of fact, has managed to accomplish so far on my travels - then there truly is a heaven on earth. Thankfully, I’m still an atheist… he couldn’t sing to save his life.
By complete chance, my two housemates and I all grab our harmonicas out of our rucksacks – an instrument that, also by complete chance, none of us can actually play – and head over to join them. We all sit on worn out stools and broken deck chairs, arranged in a circle. 2 French girls then join us from the room next door and we play the worst, most out of tune and mistimed version of 'Three Little Birds' you will never get to hear. The 2 Malaysian men played simple chords and sung horribly (as did the French girls), while our harmonica orchestra attacked the song with sharp high pitched notes that probably woke up every animal in the jungle, sending them on an angry assault towards our gathering. I then explain to our lead guitarist that my harmonica is in the key of C and ask kindly for his next choice of song to follow suit; disguising the more relevant fact that I barely know how to play the thing. Then, the monkeys and tigers paused on the fringes of the nearby forest, withholding their attack, as Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ echoed around the park (ironic song title right?). The doorway to Heaven had once again been opened and, now, I was truly there. As the guitarist and I played in harmony, he changed octave and improvised over my simple melody, I then, somehow, managed the same, gaining in confidence with an instrument I had dabbled with on perhaps only 4 occasions, when out hiking every now and again. Every member of the circle joined in; singing, clapping, humming, anyway they possibly could. The song ended and my hands thrived with energy as my face was soaked with an undefeatable smile. It was a minor miracle and a truly wonderful occasion, sat by the river’s edge as the sun finally dropped below the hills.
I think music is an amazing thing. It can bring people together in ways that almost nothing else can. As I say good night to my fellow orchestrees (a new word I’ve invented) and clamber into bed, I think about how the special things in life are those rooted in our basic human nature, and those that offer no need to adjust and keep in time with our rapidly developing world; music, games, family, friends, food, drink. For all of our science and wisdom, our civilisation and invention, a handful of people and a simple song is all we need. I realise that I never want to see acoustic guitars disappear, nor do I want to stop seeing children playing in the street or their local park; and I definitely don’t want such natural miracles as this jungle being tarnished, or destroyed. I make a promise to myself that, if they do ever build a bank here, I’ll buy 50 harmonicas and return to raise a musical riot for all that is true and decent in the world. And that if, when I arrive, there’s a Mcdonalds too, I’ll trade the harmonicas for grenades and blow the whole place up in the name of democracy... oh, and God of course.
Part 2 coming soon...