Jungle Walk in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
After I moved to Kuala Lumpur a year ago, I hopped on a bus to the Cameron Highlands to go hiking. As a forest fire haze had descended on Kuala Lumpur because Indonesian palm plantation owners were burning down the forest, I was looking forward to some raw country and clean air. I was expecting a leftover British haven with rolling tea plantations and a full dose of nature. But the Cameron Highlands are not exactly that. They are a beautiful place, but they do not have the necessary infrastructure to support the massive tourism industry that has spread its roots into the shrinking jungle.
I thought I could just charge into the wilderness like I usually do. I am used to people being shocked to see a woman, old enough to be called Auntie, travelling without a man or a tourist group. When people told me not to hike alone in the jungle, I ignored them. Two steps into the jungle, I knew they were right.
Tucked behind a Buddhist temple, the trail slithered into the jungle. The entrance reminded me of a tropical version of the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland. I peered through tangled thorns and roots into a dark, green, mossy jungle. Cicadas screeched, monkeys chattered and I imagined slithering boa constrictors in every tree. I admitted defeat and spent the next two days hiking in the jungle with Jason Chin, a botanist who knows everything about the Cameron Highlands jungle.
When people told me not to hike alone in the jungle, I ignored them. Two steps into the jungle, I knew they were right.
Since hiking with Jason last year, I started regularly hiking with the Happy Hikers in the local Kuala Lumper jungle – Gasing Hills. Now, I spend my Sunday mornings tromping about the jungle with them. On Saturdays, we venture farther into peninsular Malaysia.
Last week, in preparation for our hike to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal, I found myself in the Cameron Highlands again. Our goal was to climb three mountains in two days, to test our endurance. The Happy Hikers are by no means a lightweight group, so we scaled the first mountain like spiders. The next day, six of us started our 6,666 foot climb. We climbed the second mountain of the trip before dawn, to give us time to reach the summit of Guning IRAU.
Tourists drive to the Mossy Forest entrance, where trash overflows from trash cans and spreads as far as the eye can see. Buses line the parking lot and people pour onto the boardwalk into the jungle. Most of the tourists turn back when the boardwalk ends, but a few hearty ones actually attempt the trail, which immediately turns into a mud bath. It becomes a bottleneck of selfie-taking tourists trying to figure out how to keep their new sneakers clean.
Once we broke through the tourist jam, climbing through the Mossy Forest was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. We wound our way through the roots of giant trees that loomed over and under us. The moss muffled the silence and the mud sucked us down to our shins before it released us with a loud pop. It wasn’t mountain climbing; it was root climbing. There were frayed ropes to help us with our ascent, but mostly we relied on our hands and quads to lift, pull and contort our bodies up the mountain.
Most of the tourists turn back when the boardwalk ends, but a few hearty ones actually attempt the trail, which immediately turns into a mud bath. It becomes a bottleneck of selfie-taking tourists trying to figure out how to keep their new sneakers clean.
At the summit, the clouds parted and shared a spectacular view of the mountainous forest and Brinchang below. Five hours into our hike, we began our two-hour descent. Covered with mud and sweat, we reached the tourist mecca at the end of the trail. We opted not to descend the small mountain that we had climbed in the darkness of the morning. Many of us are going to Nepal in two weeks and thought it would invite injury, given our fatigue and the slippery descent.
We drifted lazily down the mountain road the way that people who think their journey is over do — not paying much attention to anything. As we drifted apart, someone got a call that a jeep was on its way to take us home. Some chose to wait, but I continued down the never-ending road. When the downpour started, I flagged down a truck and hopped into the back with three Australians while the rain washed off the mud and sweat encrusting us. The road ended six kilometers later, in what we thought was the town of Brinchang. But not quite — another three-kilometer walk to go. Finally, we reunited with our compadres at a Chinese restaurant before we gorged again, regrouped, and prepared for the three-hour drive home.
Next week, a week before we leave for Nepal, we will do this hike again. If there is one thing I have learned from my travels, it is that it is a privilege to enjoy the Mossy Forests, waterfalls, lakes, mountains and all that is natural in the world. I also know that I need to see it while I can because it is disappearing fast.
Jungle Walk in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia photo credit: pexels.com