Entry back into Malaysia was a sobering experience. Halfway through our flight I was handed the usual arrival card and customs gumf, attached to which was a bright yellow slip of paper that mentioned the extremely high probability of a premature death should you be found bringing any drugs into the country. It goes without saying that we were not carrying any illegal substances, nonetheless that slip of paper seems to weigh you up with a cold gaze and say “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.” And then it winks and says “So did you pack your bags yourself then? And no one tampered with it at all did they?” Upon arrival in the airport terminal a couple of hours later a large video camera surveys you, and if you are not already panicked enough, another piece of brightly coloured, cautionary literature is thrust at you. It tells you that H1N1 is alive and well and living in these parts of Asia. Furthermore if you have a temperature or flu like symptoms you are probably going to die unless you repair to a doctor post haste. If the illegal substances and our in- house executioner doesn’t get you, then thebird flu will seems to be the message.
We made it through customs unscathed and in record time, then jumped onto the shuttle bus into KL, dozing along the way whilst incandescent neon lights and high rise buildings silently slid past. By the time we got to Sentral it was midnight, which was kind of bad news as we had not booked any accommodation. On account of the hour we took the first place that had vacancies, right above the reggae bar . Alas there was to be no “kinky reggae,” for it appears that the Reggae Bar actually plays drum and bass. It plays drum and bass of the crap variety furthermore and the room itself was as clammy as a steam bath. The bedroom walls were grim, dirty and stained and smeared with blood along one wall (suicide!?). Never a good sign for a comfortable nights sleep. Still, we were exhausted. We jumped into the sorry-looking steel framed single beds and then tried to sleep. For about two minutes or so this seemed to be going well. And then the DJ downstairs began to holler into his microphone. The beds vibrated, the window (facing out into a public corridor) rattled and the bedbugs awoke from their fitful slumber. It started off with a couple of twitches, then both of us systematically slapping ourselves. When the light went on a little later Nipun was sitting up in bed fully dressed, a pair of long blue and black socks rolled up each arm and a set of air plugs protruding from each auditory canal. If we were not so bad tempered by this stage it would have been funny, though as it was the hysteria was confined to the type of tears and out pourings of rage. I battled on trying to sleep, Nipun left the room and reappeared three hours later having taken to the streets for a feverish walk rather than endure the confines of our room. We checked out of the guesthouse at five o’clock the next morning, the Indian caretaker good humouredly admitting that he would rather sleep in a ditch than one of the rooms in that place. By this stage our lassitude was such that we just smiled wanly, scratched our wounds and disappeared into the soft light of morning, the streets empty save clutches of lady boys making their way home and the first denizens of the new day.
In “Little Dorrit” Dickens remarks that “One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.” I would have been quite keen to have put him up in the KL Backpackers Travellers Inn for an evening and seen if he revised this line. And indeed KL in general. The first time we were there I loved it for it’s architecture, the steel and glass skyline and the trains that hurtle overhead, banking left and right as they bend their way through the city. The second time around though I found the city oppressive. Little India was authentically filthy and China Town seemed to be a giant flee market catering for tourists. There were an abundance of homeless souls on the streets and the number of beggars we saw was depressing. In some cities you expect to see poverty, but in KL for all it's wealth and glitz, it is a nasty surprise. In Petaling Street (the pedestrianised drag of China Town) we saw an old homeless man assaulted by a gang of bullying shop keepers. The shop keepers, healthy young and muscled slapped the old pariah across his face with a wooden cane before sending him hurtling with a kick to his stomach. No doubt he transgressed some line (petty thefy maybe?) and this was just rough justice, but on your second day in a new town this kind of thing does little to make you love a place. Various other manifestations of pent up anger (a young woman, her foot bloodied and smeared, kicking her boyfriends motor cycle to pieces, an aggressive verbal confrontation between two passers by) made me feel that KL was just too claustrophobic for us. On the plus side some of the Malaysians we met in KL was supremely affable, in fact a casual encounter with a stranger can leave you chatting away for a half an hour. And of course the food in KL is wonderful, be it from the street markets or some of the restaurants where an ambrosial feast for two will set you back a mere £4.00. It was a relief however when David and Yolanda, our friends from Holland, sent us an email mentioning that they were thinking of heading out to Teman Negara, one of Malaysia’s national parks. We got the next bus out of town and headed straight there.
Taman Negara covers over 4300 square kilometers, which twice the size of Luxemborg or triple the size of Surrey, depending on your preference. It is a swathe of primordial jungle, dating back 130 million years. Given it’s geographical location the jungle in Taman Negara has eluded the ice ages and volcanoes. The trees and natural growth are so thick as to be impenetrable in places, the ants look as if they were raised on anabolic steroids and the leeches that abound the jungle floor are quicker than an Olympic sprinter when they detect you moving towards them. The journey into Taman Negara took the form of a bus as far as Jerantut (three hours from KL) and then a boat ride up river for three hours in a small dugout powered by a 40 HP outboard engine. The journey upstream is wonderful, verdant jungle climbs the valleys on either side whilst occasional water buffalo’s drink from the river and monkeys make whatever noise monkeys make in the trees. Wiki answers was not this much help on this particular one: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_do_you_describe_the_sound_a_monkey_makes
We spent four days in the jungle with David and Yolanda, trekking and walking the jungle canopy by day and watching a box set of Heroes by night, the four of us crouched around our laptop whilst the night exploded with jungle sounds around us. On about the third day three of us developed a dodgy stomach which must have been down to the food as they don’t sell beer, a matter of some considerable consternation at the time (the beer that is). It was really good to see them again, and then we were on our way once more, bound this time for the Cameron Highlands, famous for it’s tea, forests and the great explorer Jim Thomson, who went for a stroll in the Highlands and never returned.