Travels without a Plan #17

Cameron Highlands, Thaipusam and Taman Negarra Park
From KL, it’s a short five hour coach ride to the town of Tana Rata in the Cameron Highlands. As with all my journeys in South East Asia, this one was not the best, with a badly dubbed James Bond film and a driver who seemed not to notice that we were actually driving on some very narrow roads, with sheer drops at the other side. This was not helped when with screeching brakes (and smoke) we nearly smashed into a truck coming the other way.

Despite the far from perfect driving, the journey was stunning. Thick lush jungles, tea plantations and tiny ram-shackled villages nestled in the hill side. This was going to be a great few days. Tana Rata is a one street town, the first in Asia so far that was really unspoiled and unwesternised (no McDonald’s, ahh the bliss). I all of a sudden felt as if I had really arrived in Asia. Tana Rata is an ideal location to take in the numerous forest tracks and tea plantations that scatter the area.

I stayed at Father’s guest house, a great little place, 6RMB a night (£1.20!!), with great owners, friendly dogs and the most amazing cafe, with evening meals for 4Rmb 50, a real find. Another great thing about the highlands is its temperature. It never gets too hot or humid, it’s a real respite from the heat and the humidity of KL.

The scenery is stunning, lush forests and the most amazing patchwork tea plantations that grow on some amazingly steep hills, it truly is beautiful.

The main thing to do in the highlands is trek in the Forest. This I did a few times. The first walk everyone agreed was the hardest by far, a steep climb up the second highest mountain in Malaysia (highest on the Peninsula). The path was nowhere to be found at the top, and we were required to scramble up the roots of the huge trees to get to the top. Despite the sweat and the bruising from slipping over, the view was worth it. Standing at the top it was amazing, overlooking the hills, blanketed in thick trees that were shrouded in a fine mist.

The second walk, although no way as hard, was equally stunning, passing numerous waterfalls and then ending up in a whole area of fruit and vege farms, all harvested on tiers on the steep mountains. Amazing, just as I imagined Asia would be like.

It was also in Tana Rata that I experienced the worst nightclub ever. After a few beers in a local bar, a couple of us decided that we should investigate. The music was screeching Malay Techno, the one light was set at rapid strobe and the beer cost more than three nights stay in the hostel!! We, as the only three westerners to have probably entered the bar, were immediately looked on with interest, and as soon as I mentioned that I was English, they all started to go on about Manchester United Football club, and pour me more beer. I didn’t have the heart to say that I did not support Manchester United or that I came from nowhere near the place, oh well. After a dodgy dance, it was decided to cut our losses and leave for the hostel.

When travelling, backtracking is usually never good, but sometimes it needs to be done. Firstly it is impossible to get from the highlands to the National Park, and secondly KL is the largest gathering for the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, and from what could be gathered this festival was certainly worth seeing. Also in the highlands I met a Dutch couple and an American doing the same as me, so we all headed to KL together.

One of the joys of travelling is the opportunity to witness and experience things that are beyond your usual experiences, and for me this was the festival of Thaipusam. This festival is the most important of the Hindu festival and marks the day in which devotees ask for favours or beg for forgiveness of their sins, to Lord Subramaniam, the son of Shiva (the most powerful god) whilst some devotees complete a vow that they had taken the previous year.

The way in which these vows and favours are completed are totally bizarre, with people being put into trances, attaching Kavadis, large semicircular displays which have steel frames with bars for support on the shoulders, decorated with flowers and peacock feathers and are attached to the skin with a large number of hooks. Other devotees walk in sandals embedded with iron nails or stick small spears made of silver through their cheeks, tongues and bodies. Others have hooks imbedded into their back and pull carts or their followers, others hang fruit and feathers off their bodies. However, due to their tranced state they appear to be in no pain and very little blood is shed.

Press reports state that there were over a million and a half people at this event, which was held in the Batu caves. In my experience of travelling so far, this by far has to be the most amazing thing witnessed and words are very hard to do it justice. I will never forget standing in the trancing area where people are put under, then five seconds later they have huge spears put through their cheeks. The looks on their faces were amazing. Sometimes when seeing such things you have to remind yourself it’s 2001…..

After this event, myself and Khaled the American, headed to the Taman Negarra National Park. After a six hour journey, including a two and a half hour boat ride into the park, we arrived at the small village on the banks of the river that was to be our home. With a day exploring the local area, and doing the longest suspension forest walk in the world, it was time to take on some serious trekking, 2 nights 3 days in the jungle staying in very basic animal hides over night.

All in all we walked about 25kms with temperatures hovering on the 30 degree mark, 90% humidity, sweated tonnes, got attacked by leeches, mozzies, bed bugs and due to total disorganisation on our part, survived all that time on jam and peanut butter sandwiches (not good on the stomach). It was an amazing experience, sleeping in the forests at night, but it was even better getting hot food and comfortable beds once we returned to the village.

Later tonight I leave for the Perenthian Islands, for a week of sun, swimming and relaxing before arriving in Thailand, (apparently Time magazine voted the Perenthians in the top 10 of the world’s most beautiful tropical islands!!!)