Belum - Temengor rainforest

Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Tasik Belum, Perak, Malaysia
Our last couple of days in the Cameron highlands were spent recovering from a massive hangover after watching the Sunderland v Leicester match.(We still hadn't learned our lesson about drinking 16% beer and cheep Thai Rum despite my tooth chipping incident) and trying to decide where to head next. I'd dropped Narelle, the lady who runs the animal shelter in Langawi an email to see if there were any opportunities for work at her various places in George Town, Penang and also we were desperately chasing up a guy named Steve who runs a place up at Royal Belum NationalPark rainforest near the Thai border. I heard back from Narelle to say she would check it out with her manager in Penang and then nothing after
that . Steve hadn't checked the request on Workaway and I know his placeis really remote on a lake in the Jungle without any wifi and minimal phone coverage so we didn't hold much hope for that option. It was looking like a quick trip to check out Ipoh then on to Penang anyway with or without work. As a last attempt I tried looking up Steve's placeon the internet and hit lucky with a phone number to ring via his website I rang and got through to a lad whose English was a bit sketchy at best but was given a number for Steve's wife Sue. Sue then gave me Steve's number and eventually after following the number chain and a few calls and texts later Steve said we were more than welcome to go to his resortand help out. We sorted out staying another couple of nights in the Cameron Highlands before moving onto Ipoh for a day and then the following day Steve said he would be in Ipoh anyway and would drive us up to his place in Perak. Winner I thought!

Two days later and we were up at the crack of dawn and hurrying down to Tanah Rata bus station to catch the 8am bus to Ipoh . With a few minutes to spare we had two tickets clutched in our hands and were throwing our bags in the underneath storage. The bus down to Ipoh was a memorable one. Not for the beautiful scenery and rolling hills as we descended through the tea valleys but for the fact that the driver seemed determined to set a new record for Tanah Rata to Ipoh. On top of this there was a very obvious problem with the front right wheel. It made a horrible sound with every left hand hair pin he slung the bus round, and when we briefly stopped off not far from where we had set off he was out of the bus and looking at the said front wheel and discussing it with some bloke at a random village. Nothing was done however and we continued to descend to flat terrain in Malaysias first bus drift challenge. A couple of hours later and slightly disorientated and nauseas, but very very relieved we pulled into Aman Jaya bus station in Ipoh. We had a local guys house to stay at for one night through AirBnB and another local bus ride followed by a taxi and we were finally there . It was a nice enough place and really cheap as well. A kitchen, fridge, TV Bathroom, Aircon, the full works for less than the cheap digs we had in Tanah Rata.

With only one day to spend in Ipoh we headed straight out to explore, opting to walk the 40 minutes into Ipoh towards the old town where there was some street art I wanted to check out. Starving as well we hoped there would be plenty of the great Ipoh food we had read about dotted around the old town amongst the multitude of murals. The walk in was draining Ipoh was easily the hottest place we have been to so far. Temperature wise itwas no hptter than Bali at around 36 degrees, however the air was completely still, not a breath of wind and comletely dry. It was a killer of a walk, combined with various stray dogs that seemed very intent in tucking into our ankles for their next meal. As we hit the old town it was clear there was very little food to be had. It was now early afternoon and we had not eaten all day so a quick check of my map and we wandered for another 20 minutes towards the centre and somewhere to grab a drink and bite to eat . Dani was starting to really struggle so we dove into a McDonalds that we spotted and shared a quick meal with a drink before heading on to look for more substantial food.

Ipoh is a strange town for a foreigner to be in, at least a Westerner that is. I say this because we appeared to be the only Westerners in town that day and we certainly seemed to stand out to the locals, attracting stares and open mouths from most folk wherever we went. After checking out a couple of places to eat that I had quickly looked up it was clear we were in the wrong and very expensive end of town so off we headed yetagain in the crazy heat. Two scorched dripping westerners in a town of dry comfortable Malay. We hit lucky however and found a great cheap Chinese place to eat at. Ipoh certainly lived up to it's reputation for culinary delights providing some of the best food so far on this trip. A Penang Curry and Pork rib in sauce was gratefuly consumed, all washed down with some icy water. At last we started to feel a bit more human and normal again and headed back to a shopping centre we had passed through earlier to get our supplies in for our trip into the Jungle . With enough Mozzie repelant and lotions and potions to half Africas malaria problems and some bread and cheese for tea and breakfast the next day we decided to head back to our digs and recouperate. We had aimlessly wandered Ipoh for hours and nothing massively stood out of any interest other than the food. An average Malaysian town that is very much locals only. That never really bothers me. I love being in places where you see few westerners. Some of my best adventures have been like this, China, some parts of Mongolia, riding through the mountians of Vietnam on our Scooter, but there has to be something of interest or it's just a foreign city in a foreign country with a bunch of locals constantly eyeing you up, I don't like those places one bit and it makesme appreciate how tough a job some journalists and documentary makers have producing the work they do. So a quick taxi ride back to Edmunds house avoiding the local strays that were trying to attack people in their cars as they drove past and we were settled in for the night .

When we got back and I charged my phone I had a text from Steve saying that he would be stuck in Ipoh for another couple of nights and we had a choice to either catch the bus up the next morning and make our own way there or hang around Ipoh ourselves and get a lift up with him when he was sorted. Dani wasn't the best and her eye had bulged out with a nasty sty so was feeling under the weather. We couldn't decide what to do. We didn't want to stay in Ipoh any longer facing a battle with the local canine population any time we headed out of Edmund's place, plus there wasn't much else to do there either anyway. Taking the bus up would be a challenge as per Steve's instructions we had to hop off somewhere random that isn't even a bus stop and somehow meet up with his non English speaking lad who works for him at some jetty in the middle of nowhere. Decisions, decisions. Dani was really unsure and looked like she needed a bit of R&R and we looked at all possibilities. Even to the extent of hopping into Thailand for a few days to enjoy in the festivities of Songkran, the water festival New Year that we loved so much last time . But after checking out every concievable way of doing it, it came down to cost so Songkran was struck off the list of possibilities. We were down to either waiting for Steve, heading off on our own to the rainforest or catching a bus to Penang and taking a different direction with our travels.

Eventually we went with the standard Wilderness Explorer option of heading to Royal Belum National Park on our own and hoping that Dani's eye didn't get any worse once we landed in the middle of nowhere. Hopefully it was the right choice. The following morning we were up at the crack of dawn yet again and off in aTaxi back to Aman Jaya bus station to buy two tickets for the express bus bound for Kota Bahru with the intention of asking the driver over lunch if he could drop us at the fishing complex near the jetty in Pula Pisang a good 150km before the scheduled stop at Kota Bahru. A couple of hours into the bus ride and we hit a small town called Gerik where sure enough we stopped for lunch . Under Steve's instructions we asked the driver to stop at Pula Pisang and thankfully the guy knew where we meant and dropped us at the road side in the middle of nowhere with only a fishing complex behind us and a small dirt track further back down the road on the opposite side that hopefully took us to the jetty and hopefully to our non English speaking dude who would then ferry us by boat to Steve's island in the heart of the national park. As the bus pulled away every single local on the bus looked out of the window at us with a bewildered face, obviously wondering what we were doing and why we had disembarked in the middle of nowhere. So off we went. Down the small dirt track and sure enough to a ramshackle jetty at the waters edge with less than half a dozen locals dotted around. We looked and smiled at them all in the hope one was our transport to the island and although we got some smiles and nods back nobody moved an inch or appeared to be our boat to the wilderness. A few locals came and went in their small boats, some very indigenous looking locals at that and we sat and waited a while, then waited some more, and then a wee bit more after that . Eventually I checked if I could get any signal and gave Steve a quick call. He said he would try and get hold of his lad and get him to come pick us up.

Around half an hour later a little boat appeared in the distance and sure enough a small Bangladeshi boy appeared and through some very broken English mentioned Steve's name, obviously his well rehearsed routine when picking up people for the island and Steve's Eco resort. Result! With our bags thrown inside the boat we hopped in expecting to move off to pastures new. Instead we sat in the boat for over an hour as the lad was also waiting for a delivery of ice coming from Gerik where we stopped earlier for lunch. I think that pretty much sums up the remoteness of where we had arrived. Eventually though with the half dozen bags of ice on board we were zipping through the emerald green waters of the lake nestled between high rising jungle all around. This was great. It felt like we were in some kind of BBC documentary, off in search of some random un filmed animal that has only been spotted a hand full of times . After around 20 minutes we could see a boat house and a few huts on an island in the middle of the lake appear in the distance, surrounded by a cluster of green roofed fish farms. We had made it Belum Eco Resort. Now I wouldn't really call it a resort as such. When I found a way to contact Steve on the internet we obviously took a look at what his place was like. It looked really interesting, the thing striking me the most was the remoteness of it and the unbelievable green tint to the water in the lake due to the algae there along with the fact it costs $70 a night to stay. When we hopped off onto the boat house and were shown round the place your $70 gets you the equivalent of a $5 hut on a Thailand beach. I've later found out that is due to the ridiculous park permit and fees that Steve has to pay to the government to keep his place on the island. There are only two resorts on a lake that is about 75-80km long and the government milks it for all they can.

The first thing that hits you is how remote and quiet the place is . You can sit for hours on end and not hear anything other than the birds and wildlife around you. Maybe two or three times a day a small local boat from the indigenous population will go past in the distance but that is all. The only time I have felt this remote is probably in Mongolia out on the steppe but this felt even more secluded and cut off from the world than that. Once settled in we realised there were only us two and Bohan the young lad who does anything and everything and Uncle (that's the name he goes by) the cook for the resort on the island. Oh and 3 dogs named Obama, Gordon and Donut and a cat called Hilary, they all get on amazingly well together. There is no internet here, hardly any phone signal and only electricity from 7pm until 11pm via a generator. For the first 2 days until Steve arrived the only people we saw were Bohan and Uncle. No distance noise of traffic, no other tourists, nobody. Just beautiful peaceful nature. The sounds of exotic birds hiding in the jungle, the very occasional trumpet of wild Elephants off in the distance and the barking of the dogs as they headed off as a squadron together to scare away the monkeys on the island that get too close to the resort . Hilary takes care of the smaller rodent population to great effect.

So this was a Workaway placement and obviously we have had to earn our keep while staying here. The first full day was a busy sweaty affair. Up at 7am to sweep the winding paths around the island linking the huts and the rest spent cleaning both House boats that are moored together. It was a long one, around 8-9 hours work in the baking heat and I now have the distinct impression that Bohan made the most of our arrival combined with the absence of Steve to take take full advantage of us in helping with his chores. Can't blame the lad though really. The next day, and every day since then we are up and sweeping at 7am. It's become routine now and feels like we have been here a lot longer than we really have. After doing yet more cleaning the next day Steve and his son Tom finally arrived mid afternoon and suddenly our work dried up. He's a really nice bloke and we can't fault the hospitality of the people we have met here . We get three really great meals a day cooked up by Uncle who was a chef in Singapore for 30 years. Now retired he was a neighbour of Steve's back in Ipoh and was enticed out of retirement to come and live permanently on the island as the resident cook. We have rarely had two meals the same and the quality of food has been incredible. Easily up there with the food of Ipoh or Penang, so some of the best we have had in Malaysia. On the third day we actually had guests arrive. Just for a day trip but if felt strange for the usual peace and tranquility to be broken, nice at the same time though in a strange way. A large local family who came for lunch and various trips out on the boat around the lake. One lad is from Penang and he left his details and said to give a ring when we hit there to go out for lunch so I'm sure we will take him up on the offer.

The fourth day was back to some long hard work. Standard 7am sweeping before breakfast followed by helping Steve and Bohan build some moulds to put around one of the steel structures up in the eating area that will be filled to create a round column. A full days work again but nice to get involved with some practical work with my hands other than sweeping and cleaning. Dani helped Tom get the huts ready for another party of guests, again locals this stayed one night.

The locals arrived the following day and weren't your standard guests as such. It was a group of 10 and they have a resort themselves about 100km away in Taiping. Steve has been talking with them around sharing and promoting each others resort and facilities to drive a bit more business for each other so they had come along for a day to see what Steve's place is all about. It was good for us as we got to go out on a day trip with them,probably just in time before island fever started to kick in. It was a good day but nothing spectacular. A visit to a local village then a trip through the jungle to a small waterfall. Unfortunately we didn't get to see much wildlife but that's just mother nature for you, nothing is guaranteed in the wild. What is interesting though is the set up of the villages and the conversations I had with Steve and some of the other group around politics in Malaysia. The village we visited is a community of Christians. The government has funded their facilities and development of their village and only a stones throw away on the opposite bank of the lake there is another village this time a local Muslim community, again their facilities funded by the Malay government.The Christian village is really basic, standard ramshackle bamboo huts,no electricty just a couple of tiny solar panels on the ground to run acouple of light bulbs on a night, an old struggling water filtration system etc. The Muslim side that we could see is brand new modern brick whitewashed houses, a new state of the art filtration system, a world away from what the Christians have. Through the conversations I had there is a massive amount of negativity currently in Malaysia towards the Governernment and the Muslim community. The Government is apparently very corrupt (as you expect in Asia) and seems to only care for the Muslim population and does not give equal rights or funding to those outside of that community. Malaysia is made up of many backgrounds dating back to the British occupancy here. When we took over Malaysia many years ago we exploited the natural resources such as Tin mining, timber, chalk etc. and during the days of the Empire we brought in workers primarily from India and China. When the British handed it back to the people in 1957 with the exception of Singapore which was expelled they granted all those communties they had brought in for work permanent residency and made them Malay nationals. What I didn't realise and was told by Steve is that since that handover there has only ever been one political party in power. Supposedly democratic, it appears that is far from the truth. They do not allow anyone outside of the Muslim community into any of the higher ranking political positions, the other communities are treated with less regard and the current system seems rotten to the core. Since talking to Steve I have spoke with many others and the same noises are being made everywhere by the Non Muslim Malay. Take Steve's resort as an example. Steve is of Cantonese descent.He has to jump through constant hoops to keep his resort. Pays ridiculous fees to the government. Two years ago the government spent 9 million pounds installing fish farms on the lake. 80km of lake they could build these on and they parked them all around 50m in front of Steve's island. They have never been used once, no fish in them, not maintained, but they are now an eye sore in front of Steve's place for the foreseeable future. I spoke with the group, a lady named Rachel who is non Muslim and they face similar issues with their facilities. I did not realise all of these underlying issues in the Malay system. The mass deforestation and rape of the countries Rainforests in both Malay Borneo and the mainland Peninsular is disgusting and obviously evident but the coruption and involvement of the Government behind it is not something I was aware of. The lack of investment in infrastructure and facilities outside of the Muslim communities is now something I can see all around now that I a aware of it. I am not racist these are simply of facts of what is currently happening in Malaysia.

So back to the Jungle. It has been an amazing experience for a week. Total escapism that is unlike anything else I have experienced so far on my travels. Amazing warm people that I got to know well in a short space of time. I think summed by when we left the place. We got on well with everyone including the group from Taiping. They were exceptionally kind and gave us a lift back from the jetty to Taiping. They paid for our lunch at an amazing Chinese restaurant on the way back, refusing to accept any money towards it. Once at Taiping we were then given another lift on to our next destination in Penang over 100km away. Heart warming hospitality and support from the people here who feel isolated and unheard in their own country. We have experienced a very different side to Malaysia this time around and I really hope things can change for the better of the whole country and all it's people no matter which group or cultural background they are from, it's just very hard to see where the change will come from when the Democracy is so blatantly corrupt.

On a positive note for ourselves we have now heard back from Alyson, Narelle's manager in Penang and it looks as though we have another weeks work whilst here again in return for accomodation. There are some dogs that need daily walks and also a property that needs arranging and the finishing touches added before Narelle makes it available as one of her properties. Let's see what the next week brings and where it takes us.
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