Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Taman Negara Malaysia, one of the world's oldest rainforests

After a bus ride that made me wish I were wearing a sports bra, and three hours in a motorized wooden canoe traveling upriver past monkeys playing in the tree branches and water buffalo cooling themselves in the river, I arrived in Taman Negara, which, at over 130 million years of age, is said to be the world's oldest primary rain forest. Planning to do some hiking, I bought a cigarette lighter which I was told was necessary to remove leeches which are of the huge biting variety that can fall from trees and begin to suck blood on any part of one's body. I also bought some long socks and rented a pair of high topped leech resistant hiking boots. And a man in a camera store cleaned my smeared lens for no charge.

One might think it's lonely traveling alone, but actually I am seldom by myself. At least once a day I tend to be joined for a meal,either by a local or by another traveler. On the way to Taman Negara I was joined by Tom, an 18-year-old Englishman who I met on the bumpy bus ride. Tom has been traveling alone for the past six months, in New Zealand and Asia. We shared a delicious meal of roti canai, a flat bread dipped in tasty curry sauce, for U.S. $1.50.
In Melacca I ate dinner at an outdoor riverside table with the cafe owner, a Malaysian named Bert who had worked for JR Reynolds Tobacco Company in Borneo for many years before returning to Melacca to open a restaurant. I ate lunch with another Malaysian, who explained that he was the son of a Seek father and Indian mother, and had spent several years in Japan while training to be a Christian missionary. He lives in southern Malaysia but returned to Melacca for the Chinese New Year holiday.Above: Me with Ming Wei
On the boat ride to Taman Negara I met Ming Wei, a banker from Malaysia's capital, who, along with 20 friends, was visiting Taman Negara for the first time in her life. I mentioned to Ming Wei that years ago I had made my first backpacking trip with my good friend Eileen, who is Malaysian, and that in Mexico Eileen had tried to teach me to bargain (I wasn't at all good at it!), and had introduced me to my first mango. As we parted, Ming Wei gave me a wonderful fresh persimmon, one of my favorite fruits. Although persimmons are now grown primarily in Asia, the word persimmon comes from the Powhatan language, and persimmons were first cultivated by Native Americans. What a global world we live in!

In Taman Negara I shared several meals with Tim, an American investment banker who quit his job a couple of years ago and has been traveling ever since. He visit every country in South America before heading to Southeast Asia, and plans to travel for yet another year!
On my first night in Taman Negara I joined a guided night walk in the rain forest, during which I learned to spot spiders at night by aligning my flashlight with my eyes, which enabled me to see the spiders' eyes glowing. There were thousands of them on the trees and on the ground, and I saw several huge hunter spiders waiting for their prey. Rather than using a web, hunter spiders use the style of hunting dogs.The rain forest is alive and vibrant at night, and I saw stick insects, a cricket, a cockroach on a tree, giant ants, a huge millipede, scorpions hiding in nooks, sleeping birds (from the bottom), a wild pig, and deer. Best of all, I saw a slow loris slowly crossing a wire above my head. Although it seemed scared when everyone was looking it it, it continued to cross the wire, very slowly.Above: Slow loris
Upon returning to my bungalow, the Durian Chalet, I sat outside in the dark for 30 minutes listening to the beautiful medley of jungle sounds, which seemed to include crickets, cicadas, birds, frogs, and many more sounds that I couldn't identify. I chose the Durian Chalet in part because it's next to a durian field, and I really want to try that odorous fruit, but alas it was not in season. The other reason I chose the Durian Chalet is because it's a fifteen minute walk outside of town, which I detested when I was lugging my heavy backpacks in the humidity and heat but which I loved during the night when I heard all of the jungle noises through the open window of my room, including a wild screaming at two a.m., which I first thought was cats, and later thought was children, and hoped might be jungle wildlife.

Later during the night I heard an animal inside my room, jumping. I could hear it as it hit the floor, making a suction cup sound, and I immediately guessed that it was a frog. I turned on the light and removed a small and very scared frog from my room. And before dawn as I walked fifteen minutes in the dark past a rubber and durian field to town I heard a startled rustling and snorting in the brambles, most likely a wild boar.
Above: tapped rubber tree
Trying to get an early breakfast I walked to one of the floating restaurants on the edge of the river, but found the restaurant closed and the staff sleeping on the floor. Most of the workers in the village come from the surrounding area to work in the tourist industry. I had a nice chat with Aiyu, a 25-year-old Malay woman who works at one of the travel agencies in Taman Negara. She is from a village two hours away. Her parents work as rubber tappers in the rain forest, and care for Aiyu's five-year-old daughter while Aiyu and her husband work 12 or 13 hour days for the travel agency. Aiyu goes back to her village to visit her daughter a few times a year. She speaks English well, and told me that she completed one year of university but couldn't afford to continue.
Above: floating restaurants
When I walk through the rain forest, I can hear leaves falling from the canopy high above. I hear them as they reach the lower forest levels, like the sound of raindrops, and occasionally they tumble down further, finally reaching the jungle floor. Although I didn't see any leeches, my morning hike in the rain forest proved to be harder than I had expected, due to the heat and humidity, but I managed to reach the canopy walkway, a hanging rope bridge made of wooden planks and ladders which allowed me to see different levels of the rain forest up to 45 meters above the ground.
On the way back, I sat under a tree to eat my lunch and listen to the jungle sounds, some coming from high above in the canopy and others right around me.
I didn't see many of the larger animals that live in Taman Negara, such as the Asian elephant (endangered), the serow, the Malayan Tiger (endangered), the black panther, Malayan Tapir, civet, the wild cattle-like gaur (protected), yellow-throated marten, Asiatic golden cat, red dog or dhole, or the mouse deer. And of course I didn't see the Sumatran rhino, which is extinct.

Scientists believe that Taman Negara, now a national park, is the oldest rain forest in the world. Taman Negara is protected, but many of Malaysia's other rain forests, especially, those in Borneo, are threatened by logging, agriculture and urban encroachment. According to the United Nations, Malaysia's deforestation rate is accelerating faster than that of any other tropical country in the world. Malaysia's annual deforestation rate jumped almost 86 percent between the 1990-2000 period and 2000-2005. In total, Malaysia lost an average of 140,200 hectares—0.65 percent of its forest area—per year since 2000.

Sitting in the rain forest, a recurring thought that I first had while visiting the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest came to me. Life must have been more comfortable before humans built cities, which trap and reflect the heat and destroy the natural shade. In the rain forest there is no need for sunscreen or a hat, as only a few speckles of sunlight reach my skin. The rain is not really bothersome, since it is filtered by the trees, down to their roots. However, journal writing in the rain forest is definitely not easier. None of my pens worked in Taman Negara, whether due to the humidity of the pages in my journal or the stickiness of my hand I don't know. My notes consist of barely legible scribbles on my journal pages.
Children walking to school

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