Jette and a very old tree in the rainforest
From Medan, we took a minivan to Bukit Lawang, a small tourist village on the Bohorok River at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. Bukit Lawang has been a popular stop for tourists in Northern Sumatra for at least a couple of decades.
It’s a trekking base for those wanting to explore the rainforest of the park and see what’s left of the endangered Sumatran Orangutans at the nearby orangutan rehabilitation center. Bukit Lawang is set up 100% for tourists, but for a tourist trap, it’s a very laid back place. Locals say “hello” and “good morning” when they pass you on the trails and unlike most of Indonesia, there aren’t any aggressive touts. There are dozens of little guesthouses and restaurants, and each night as the sun goes down it is hard NOT to find a bunch of happy-go-lucky locals sharing a few beers and singing songs with the young backpackers who are the main visitors to the area. If you visit, I guarantee that you will hear the “Bukit Lawang Song” (aka the “Jungle Trek Song”) at least ten thousand times!
Bukit Lawang is inland, far from the coasts of Sumatra, so it was not affected by the 2004 earthquake and tsunami.
Ironically though, hundreds of people were killed and the village devastated by a flood in 2003. Here’s a photo and a snippet from a BBC news report at the time:
Another 100 people are missing after the disaster, which is thought to have been made worse by extensive logging removing cover that once retained rain.
The minister, Nabiel Makarim, blamed corrupt officials and business people for the practice.
The search for bodies continues around the worst-hit village of Bukit Lawang.
“These illegal loggers are like terrorists,” said Mr Makarim, after talks with the Indonesian President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, in Jakarta.
But he said: “It is difficult to combat illegal logging because we must face financial backers and their shameless protectors both from the Indonesian armed forces and police, and from other government agencies.”
Not only did the illegal logging exacerbate the flooding of the river by creating massive run-off, but there were also thousands of logs which came crashing downriver, smashing into homes and bridges, destroying much in their path. Horrible, but sadly, typical.
One of the reasons we came to Sumatra was to see firsthand the rainforest ecosystem, how people live with it, and the effects of man’s actions on it. In Singapore we choked on a smokey haze blowing over from the fires in Sumatra – fires which were started to clear land for palm oil plantations. On the drive from Medan to Bukit Lawang we saw, yet again, just how massive the palm oil plantations are and how little natural rainforest is left. In this area it was slashed and burned years ago and replaced with thousands and thousands of neat rows of oil palms, and in some cases, rubber trees. It would appear that about the only rainforest left in the area is the park itself.
When the rainforest is cleared, long drainage trenches are cut. This dries out the soil of the forest floor, killing or weakening the plants and making it easier to burn and clear the land. Once cleared, young oil palms are planted in neat rows between the trenches. They will mature and produce oil bearing fruit for about 30 years. Don’t ask what happens to the thousands of species of plants and animals that lived in the rainforest.
One of the old drainage trenches between the oil palm rows.
Endless rows of oil palms
I won’t go on about deforestation and its effects here. Suffice it to say that it is shocking what has been lost, how much (and in some ways, how little) things have changed since I was last here 23 years ago. According to this recent study, primary forest has declined by 40% in the past twenty years and 92% of Sumatra has lost its virgin forest. Nothing good can come of this in the long run, and the local people have profited little from this great loss. Quite the contrary.
Anyway, we arrived in Bukit Lawang and checked into a nice little guesthouse along the river in the main part of the village. It was one of the cheaper places, but quite comfortable, and their little restaurant had great food. To Jette’s delight the family that owned the place had a couple of kids, and a new puppy.
Our little cabin
Homework on the porch
Our home in Bukit Lawang
Bruno – the guesthouse puppy
I didn’t get any photos of them, but there were mischievous macaque monkeys around who would swing down from the surrounding trees and steal food and other things. One afternoon I was sitting on the porch reading. There was a plastic bag with some fruit sitting on the table in front of me. As I was reading, I saw a movement in my peripheral vision. I looked up from my book and there was a monkey hanging from the side of the building at the edge of the patio about 10 feet in front of me. We locked eyes for a moment and then he suddenly leapt from the wall to a nearby column and from the column to the edge of the table in front of me. Still making eye contact I leaned forward and hissed loudly, fully expecting to scare him away. Instead he opened his mouth and showed me his teeth, calmly reached over and lifted a star fruit from the bag on the table, and stuck it in his mouth. He paused for half a second to glare at me, then leaped back, bouncing off the column up to the wall, disappearing up and over the edge of the roof. One of the ladies that works at the guesthouse appeared with a slingshot and started shooting pebbles at the monkey, who was sitting at the peak of the roof enjoyed my fresh starfruit. Lesson learned. Stupid humans making hissing noises doesn’t frighten Sumatran monkeys. If anything it just amuses them.
Slingshot for chasing away mischievous monkeys
The locals in the village told us that the orangutan rehabilitation center was now permanently closed. We asked why and were told that all of the orangutans had been “successfully rehabilitated” and so there was no longer a need for the center. Hmmmm… We booked an overnight “jungle trek” through our guesthouse. The next morning we threw a few things in a backpack and headed out with our guide. We walked through the village, along the river, and into the forest.
Beginning our trek
Welcome to the jungle
We followed narrow, but well traveled paths through the forest. It was quite hilly with some very steep and slippery sections. There was no technical climbing, but we were sometimes forced to climb or descend especially steep or muddy sections on all fours.
Full moon on this hill
Over the mossy log
Up a muddy embankment
It was hot and so humid. We were sweating like crazy. As we hiked through some of the wet valley areas there were swarms of mosquitoes, but on the hilltops there were very few. There were some really fantastic, giant old trees, lots of vines that tempted me to play Tarzan, and some critters along the way.
A friendly turtle says, “Hey jerk, put me down!”
This is a “small” female ant. Only the big males bite.
Great old tree and vines
Look at this twisty vine!
After a few hours, we stopped for a snack of fruit. It was quite a spread.
After the snack we pressed on, and came upon another lady and her guide feeding a Thomas Leaf Monkey, a species found only in Northern Sumatra.
Local guide feeding a Thomas Leaf Monkey
Sadly, this was a scene that was to be repeated throughout the day. Now we understood why the guides had brought so much fruit – they were feeding the animals! Before we left on our trek we made very clear that while we were eager to see orangutan and other wildlife, we wanted to see them from a distance. We did NOT want to get too close. Alas, that was not to be. We had read that some of the orangutans could be quite aggressive, particularly an adult female named Minah. Throughout the day we crossed paths with other groups and guides, and in every instance they were feeding the orangutan and monkeys. Quite clearly this was standard practice. The animals had learned that humans on the trail meant a yummy snack of fruit. They showed no fear of people, on the contrary, they approached people knowing full well that they would be rewarded with food. We can only assume that the rehabilitation center was closed so that the tourists could feed the animals on their “jungle treks.” Yep, it appeared that we were now part of the problem.
Down the path
One we went, and before long we saw our first orangutans, up towards the top of some nearby trees.
Seeing our first orangutans
Orangutans in a tree. Can you see them up there?
We hiked a bit more. We followed the trail up a hill and emerged into a small clearing at the top. The trail continued on the other side of the clearing. Standing on the far side by the path was one of the orangutans, Minah, with a baby on her back. Another tourist and guide were standing in the clearing and the guide was getting fruit out of his bag to feed Minah. Our guide urged us closer, but we refused, reiterating that we did NOT want to get close to the animals, especially the orangutans, and we certainly didn’t want to feed them. He said that we had to go past her to follow the trail, and again we refused. Clearly frustrated with us, he had the second guide lead us down a smaller trail to the side of the clearing, allowing us to keep our distance from Minah.
Local guide feeding Minah as we head for the side trail.
When he rejoined us down the trail, we told him again that we did NOT want to get close to the orangutans, and we questioned the wisdom of feeding them. He told us that they had to feed them, otherwise they will get aggressive, especially Minah. He showed us some fresh scars on his forearm and told us how, about 5 weeks ago he had encountered Minah on the trail. He was reaching into his bag to get some fruit for her, but apparently she got impatient, grabbed his arm, and bit it. He said that while he was punching her three other guides were able to pull him from her grasp. He seemed quite proud of this, and told us with a smile that the treks were boring if they didn’t see Minah, and that the local guides had a saying: “No Minah, no fun. No Minah, no run!” So much for rehabilitation, eh?
These guys can really climb
We hiked some more and again as we crested a hill, we crossed paths with another orangutan – one of Minah’s older children. Mila was a minute or so behind us, and I don’t think she realized that the orangutan was there as she came up the path.
Looking at Mila as she comes up the path
Regardless, the guides led her behind the orangutan as one of them made an offering of fruit.
A little too close for comfort
We hiked on…
On one narrow, sloped section of trail we encountered Jackie, another orangutan.
Thankfully, that was our last encounter with orangutans. This was just too close, and the conditions too sad. We came to see and understand their plight, and ended up feeling like we were contributing to the problem. Guides feeding them for the entertainment of tourists simply seems to create dependencies and encourage interactions which are risky for both sides. On the other hand, without the tourist dollars and interest, I also wonder if they would still exist in this area at all. No doubt orangutans are beautiful creatures, but they face a dim future. Their habitat will continue to be destroyed and they will likely continue to be under threat. “Critically endangered” is not a good thing to be, and from what we saw, I doubt conditions will ever improve for our sad cousins the Sumatran Orangutans.
So, with those cheery thoughts, on with our story. We hiked on and before long the river came into view. Our campsite was on the bank of the river and other groups and guides were arriving too. Those who were not spending the night were wrapping their bags in plastic and getting into tubes to go back down river.
The river comes into view
Tubin’ Sumatra style
While the guides prepared dinner, we cooled off in the river with a group of noisy French, Moroccans, and Algerians.
Time to swim
Our jungle bath complete, we dried off and went into our shelter for dinner. Jette was not feeling well. All of our bottled water was gone, and the guides were boiling and serving smokey tasting, slightly cloudy river water. Jette took a sip, but no more. She was exhausted and I think dehydrated. She didn’t want to eat, and laid down on her pallet. Mila and I ate a little bit and laid down too. We were tired and with Jette not feeling well, we wanted to keep a close eye on her. I talked for an hour or so with our guide then we all tried to sleep. The French group in the shelter next to us were sitting around a fire playing drinking games and singing. I tired to listen to the sound of the jungle, but they were drowned out by their shouts, songs and antics. This continued for almost SIX HOURS until the last couple of them stumbled off to bed around 3:30 a.m.
Extremely loud French drinking games
In the morning, Jette was feeling better. We had a good time watching the water monitors swim in the river, and troupes of monkeys along the banks. Some of the monkeys were quite aggressive and would come into camp to try and steal things. We had fun throwing rocks at them to scare them off. Of course we never hit them, but when a throw got close the monkeys would scamper away.
Throwing a rock at a monkey
I don’t have photos as the camera was stuffed in a waterproof bag, but after a while it was time to pile into a raft made of inner tubes lashed together and float down the river and back to our guesthouse.
We spent another day in Bukit Lawang, and since we had been eating all of our meals and spending most of our time at our guesthouse, we walked a little further down the main path to explore a bit and had lunch at the Jungle Inn. The guys there were really nice, and it looks like it would be a fun place to stay too. They have one “cabin” that is two stories with a balcony overlooking a private waterfall. Nice.
Walking down to the Jungle Inn
In Bukit Lawang
On one of our days in Bukit Lawang, we walked from the main tourist area along the river, back through the palm oil plantations to the market area of the village. One day a week, Friday if I remember correctly, is market day and folks from all around come to stock up on what ever they might need – chickens, fish, produce, clothing, soap, you name it. Goods are laid out on the ground, or in simple stalls, and the sometimes muddy paths between them have a constant stream of local shoppers.
The weekly market at Bukit Lawang
At one end of the market, there is a large, open area that was filled with men making deals and large, rectangular bundles of what looked like big mushroom tops. The smell – a rancid, earthy, fermented odor – was intense.
Every once in awhile a man would pull out a parang (machete), chop into a bundle and inspect it. We couldn’t figure out what these things were, and my gosh the smell! I walked over and asked one of the men, “Apa ini?” (“What is this?). “Karet” was his answer. Rubber. Of course! To harvest the natural latex sap from rubber trees, strips of bark are cut forming a channel, and half a coconut is hung to collect the latex sap which oozes out. These odd bundles of mushroom-shaped things, were the half-coconut shaped lumps of latex all pressed together! Recently, rubber prices have dropped by 50% so what was once profitable is now not so much. One of our taxi drivers started driving taxis because he could not longer make a living with rubber.
Here’s a video that shows the rubber tapping and processing as it is done in Thailand. At this market the raw rubber is just bundled and sold, presumably the later stages of processing are done elsewhere.
Alas it was time to move on, so from Bukit Lawang and took a minibus to Berastagi. But that’s another blog post…
On the road to Berastagi
Still playing catch-up, so this post is a “flashback” to more than a month ago and our visit to the Cameron Highlands area in Malaysia.
Tea plantation gymnastics
From Taman Negara, we took a “minibus” to the Cameron Highlands area in central Malaysia. It is mountainous, highlands area and the “breadbasket” of Malaysia. In colonial times it was a hill-station for the British ruling class – a cool retreat from the unending heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown. The British established tea plantations. It’s climate is excellent both for tea and other produce and it remains one of the most productive agricultural areas in Malaysia, with many vegetable farms, orchards, apiaries, and of course tea plantations. One of the most popular activities besides scenic walks through the tea plantations is picking strawberries. Yum!
There are a number of small towns or villages sprinkled through the area. Tanah Rata is the biggest and really the commercial center. All of the towns are a bit on the grungy side – they are working agricultural towns – and many of the smaller towns or villages are really nothing more than a collection of agricultural and industrial suppliers. The “supply chain” here is quite visible, in a way that you would never see in the West. The open storefronts have truck tires, pipes, concrete, gravel, lumber, and all kinds of supplies and equipment spilling out onto the street. The narrow roads are jammed not just with tour busses and cars, but also with giant, overloaded, under-maintained trucks and heavy equipment. As you drive through the mountain roads you see vast tea plantations, terraced vegetable farms, orchards, and miles and miles of plastic sheets in the form of greenhouses. In a couple of areas, there are quarries – whole mountainsides that have been blasted raw, and once pristine, now shockingly polluted lakes. You have the sense that the earth all around is being torn, ripped, and molded to man’s will in a fairly brutal way and you are right in the middle of the chaos. At the same time, there are many areas of untouched forest. From distance it is all quite beautiful. Up close sometimes less so.
There are four main ethnic groups in Malaysia: muslim Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the aboriginal people – called “Orang Asli.” The Orang Asli are jungle dwellers and the original inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. Like many native peoples, they have fallen victim to conquering peoples and more recently, “modern” life. Here’s a snippet of Orang Asli history from Wikipedia:
Slave raids into Orang Asli settlements were also quite common feature back in the 18th and 19th centuries. These slave-raiders were mainly local Malays and Bataks, who considered the Orang Asli as ‘kafirs’, ‘non-humans’, ‘savages’ and ‘jungle-beasts. The modus operandi was basically to swoop down a settlement and then kill off all the adult men. Women and children were captured alive as they are ‘easier to tame.’ The captives Orang Asli slaves were sold off or given to local rulers and chieftains to gain their favour. Slaves trade soon developed and even continued into the present century despite the official abolition of all forms of slavery in 1884. The derogatory term “Sakai” is used to refer to the Orang Asli until the middle of the 20th century meant slave or dependent.
Today, the forests that have housed and fed them for generations have largely been destroyed or repurposed, and they have been pushed to limited tracts of land and the margins of a new society.
When we looked for accommodation online we found a place called the Rain Forest Inn that had really good reviews. We booked it and it turned out to be a fantastic experience. It was started by two partners – an Orang Asli man named John and his Chinese friend. It is on Orang Asli lands, and is a series of mostly-traditional bamboo huts built on a hillside, next to a beautiful stream with a waterfall.
View across the valley at the base of the property
Testing the bed
Exploring the stream
Navigating the rocks
Up to the waterfall
The lower falls
Bamboo pipes make for a fun shower in the stream
The lower part of the stream is wide and calm and feeds into a nearby creek
Exploring the adjoining creek
Hey! What’s this?
We had lots of fun playing in the stream, exploring the creek, and climbing the waterfall – there’s a upper falls area with a small pool that is perfect for a relaxing soak. But watch out! The rocks are slippery. At dinner, we were treated to a big spread of traditional Orang Asli cooking. It was simple but very delicious and many of the things we ate were grown or gathered on the property.
Dinner being prepared
The dining room
Traditional dishes at dinner
That night Jette got really sick. She had a headache and was vomiting. After throwing up a few times she fell asleep. She slept through the night and in the morning she felt fine. We think it may have been something she ate at lunch, but we’re not sure. It could have been something at dinner, but no one else was sick, and we ate a similar dinner on our second night with no ill effects. Both Mila and Jette have had similar episodes a couple of times on our travels – a sudden headache followed by vomiting, then a quick recovery. We’re thinking that they are allergic or sensitive to some ingredient we have yet to identify, perhaps MSG. We’ve found that we all get headaches if there is too much MSG in our food. Luckily we’ve been very healthy overall and have managed to avoid the typical “travellers tummy” that has struck so many of our fellow travellers.
John, one of the owners of Rain Forest Inn, is quite a character and has interesting background. Unlike most Orang Asli, he is educated. He studied mechanical engineering and joined the military. He was “Seal” in the Malaysian Special Forces and saw combat in places like the Philippines and Somalia. He lost part of one foot to a mine, and has a large, vertical scar down one cheek where a islamic extremist in the Southern Philippines stabbed him with a knife. After 15 years, he retired from the service and came back to his village. He spent a couple of years lobbying the local government to build a road to the village (it was a two-day walk to the nearest town). After he succeeded in getting the road built, he built a grocery store in the village. He had the idea for the guesthouse, and the Rain Forest Inn was born.
A traditional puzzle made from rattan and string
John showing us how to solve the puzzle
After breakfast one day, John and the village chief showed us how to make a variety of traditional snare traps, and also how to shoot a blowgun. The Orang Asli hunt and fight with blowguns and poison darts. Different poisons are used for hunting different animals (they eat everything, even the local monkeys) and there are special poisons for dispatching people. Firearms are not easy to get in Malaysia, so the Orang Asli still use blowguns for self-defense. Given John’s past line of work, he is very security conscious. I would hate to be the hapless criminal who happens to look for mischief in this village. Let’s just say that the Rain Forest Inn is a very safe place to stay, LOL.
Jette and the blowgun
At least I didn’t swallow the dart. Also, Look at how big I am compared to the village chief!
John and the village chief showing us how to make snare traps
Detail of the snare on one of the traps. The rattan is actually quite stiff and has a sharp edge by design. It is connected to a small tree bent over as a powerful spring.
There is always time for a swing in a hammock
We did a day tour of the tea plantations and various sights around Cameron Highlands. My photos are rotten and really don’t do justice to the beautiful, undulating hills covered in tea bushes.
Tea bushes and the valley
Climbing up to a scenic overlook
Walking through the BOH tea plantation
We also toured the BOH factory where tea is processed. To make black tea, the tea leaves are rolled, fermented, dried and sorted in a very simple process using equipment that dates back to 1928.
The BOH tea factory
The sorting machine sorts leaves by size and drops them into large sacks.
Different grades of tea
More tea bushes
Note the people in the scene for scale
Am I really doing this?!
Pretty place for gymnastics
Visit to a bee farm
Looking for the queen in the hive
Hives on the hillside
Photos in the shop
The highest view point in Cameron Highlands
Climbing the rusty old tower
View from the tower
Jette with a kid at a local farm
At a strawberry farm
The guys working at this farm were from Bangladesh. They obviously get a lot of tourists, as they really had their schtick down. One of them insisted on taking photos of us, so Mila gave him her phone. He proceeded to pose Jette and snap some hilariously cheesy photos.
The crazy photo session begins. Note the pose and the strawberry in the foreground.
The resulting photo
It went on, and on. Mila and I were called in to pose too.
Clearly, this was our moment of glory.The bangladeshi with the camera wanted us to do more kissing and his pose suggestions got more and more “interesting.” I think he was trying to recreate Bollywood movie posters with posed gringos and fruit. We’d had enough and called it quits. We do have our limits.
All in all, our visit to Cameron Highlands was great. Staying at Rain Forest Inn and getting a peek into Orang Asli life was definitely the highlight.
We continue with a bit of internet luck, so another update! Today, we’re at Danau Toba (Lake Toba), a peaceful and absolutely beautiful natural lake surrounding a volcanic island, here in Sumatra. This post is about our trip to Taman Negara, Malaysia some weeks ago. Taman Negara National Park is one of the oldest rainforest ecosystems on earth. It is older than the Amazon.
Before sunrise, we boarded a minivan in Kuala Lumpur with a small group of other travellers and drove a few hours to Kuala Tembeling jetty on the Sungai Pahang River. Kuala Tembeling was the transfer point where we all had to fill out paperwork for rainforest permits and board the longboat for a two and a half hour ride down the river to the park. The scene below is quite representative typical lack of order we have come to enjoy.
Queue? What queue?
We were sent across the street to a strangely empty building to pay for our park permits
There was a cafe a few feet from the ticketing area, ready to monopolize on all passing through the area. Jette enjoyed some of their noodle soup.
Tasty, but we think there was too much MSG in the food here.
Local cats getting Jette’s attention
Welcome to the jungle
After some lunch, we walked another short distance down to the river to board our boat.
Boarding the boat
Away we go…
Blue skies & muddy waters
It was relaxing to be on a boat in these calm, if polluted, waters
The vegetation and puffy clouds were so nice
Most travellers were couples; since we are 3, we were a bit squished in our seats
Our co-passengers were kind enough to get this shot of us on the boat
The area was quite peaceful and a welcome break away from the craziness and traffic in Kuala Lumpur.
The ride was quite lovely and peaceful, but really cramped and we were all happy to “disembark” into this little floating restaurant cum information station.
So happy to be off the boat
This was poor Jette trying to catch some “zzz’s” on the boat just before we landed
Our guesthouse was a little out-of-the-way place called Park Lodge, run by a former park ranger with a vast knowledge of the population of rhinoceros. He and his brother were running a fledgling little place, while care-taking for their elderly mother.
Entry to Park Lodge
Our host gave us a warm welcome and walked us through his property, showing us an amazing variety of plants and trees that his mother had planted decades earlier.
Our host cutting open a cacao pod that had dropped
Excited to see the inside of a cacao pod for the first time
The source of all things chocolate
A pretty lemongrass plant
Picking a kaffir lime leaf
Coconut palms everywhere
Another lovely little flowering plant
Partially constructed building being overtaken by the jungle on site
Our little cabin was through the left side door
Abandoned steps at Park Lodge
The beautiful environment next to the river involved a sweaty hike of a few kilometers into and back out of town up and down some pretty steep hills.
Walking into town
You’d get fit walking this every day
Most people had cars or scooters; we had our feet
A view of the countryside along our walk to town
Downhill from here
The road to town with a frozen treat to cool off
Hot sun, lush plants and lots and lots of trash
Getting lost in a little village
Walking down to dinner
This is a view from Taman Negara looking towards town
Floating restaurants on the river with Taman Negara about a minute boat ride just across the river
Another view from town down to the river
The floating restaurant dining choices were simple
Walking home after dinner catching this sunset was great
Sun setting as we walked back to Park Lodge
The day we decided to explore Taman Negara started off great. We crossed the river and found the walkway in, crossing massive jungle vines along our way. The entrance to the Taman Negara national park is through a resort hotel called Mutiara.
Entry to the Mutiara resort property
More of the Mutiara property
Mutiara resort, simple, yet the most developed spot in town
Look at the scale of this vine!
Nice walkway path into the jungle
Always looking up
An oldie and a goodie
Such plant variety
We love these old roots
As we continued to walk and walk, we were having a great, carefree time (foreshadowing).
So much energy
It was hot, hot, hot and humid, humid, humid. We were sweaty within minutes, but the rainforest was so green, so lush and so beautiful. We continued on, admiring our green environment as we walked and walked and walked.
Notice anything besides the massive bamboo stand? Red faces and sweaty people.
Another bamboo stand that dwarfs mere humans
The path felt longer and longer
I offered to carry Waco’s heavy, heavy bag for a bit so he could stretch
Is there really a forest canopy walk somewhere around here?
Wait up, guys!
Oldest rainforest in the world
Intense sunlight filtering through
Jette taking the lead
The walkway system was extensive
Finally, finally, finally, we made it to the beginning of the forest canopy walkway. We had no idea that it would take us so long to get there. It was one of those instances where we had underestimated the power of the heat and humidity; the few kilometers to the walkway nearly depleted our energy. We were ecstatic to see the walkway.
We are delirious (and possibly have heat exhaustion)
So high up there
Worth the hike to get here
Way way up
Hello up there
Skinny suspended path in the treetops
Please be careful!!!
The walkway is 45 meters high above the 130 million year old rainforest, and constructed quite simply. It’s actually several long sections of walkways that wind this way and that, under the jungle canopy for 510 meters. We took photos on several sections of the walkway while it swung and swayed. After we finished walking across, we decided that it would be fun to continue our hike up to the highest part of the rainforest, where we were told there was a nice viewing area. We were already hot, tired and thirsty, so what could possibly go wrong?
On we journeyed, making a few friends along the way.
He/she was relaxing on a stair railing
We also found mass groups of ants that we could hear as they crunched and worked.
We walked and walked seeing some signs here and there to help us navigate a bit. The quality of way-finding signage varies greatly from country to country and place to place. Let’s just say that we have a bit of constructive criticism for Taman Negara in this regard.
Leaving the shade for intense sun
Admiring huge vines
Impressive old trees
Yes, there were signs
We were happiest to see this one back to “town” just 600 meters
Note the handwritten distance
Hmmm, 1km or are there some missing zeros?
If the trail is missing, does it count in the km hiked?
This one isn’t completely obscured by foliage
Watch out for missing handrails!
Fallen tree? Just chainsaw a hunk out of it and move along
We had to sit down several times on our hike up to the viewing area
But, after several hours and bucketfuls of sweat (and one poor tired girl on the verge of tears), we made it.
Can we please get some water now?
Fluffy clouds and green mountains
We were all so happy to have made it. We were all also dehydrated and tired and hot and oh, so sweaty. Have I mentioned we were sweaty? The only thing we could think of was water. Precious water. We had run out of water hours into our foray and desperately needed more. We got downhill as fast as we could with the little energy we had left. We made a beeline for the Mutiara Hotel Restaurant that was conveniently located adjacent to the National Park.
We had been to the restaurant on another occasion and others in town. They all seemed to share one characteristic, sloth-like service. We decided that slow service was just something to chalk up to cultural differences and had accrued patience points for dealing with it. But today was different. Today, we needed water and we needed it now.
We must have looked pretty rough when we made our way into the poshest place around for miles. Rather than the usual calm, collected game of waiting for someone to bring us menus, we sat down and immediately gave hand gestures and motions to the group of disinterested waiters and busboys standing around chatting. We need water (pouring water hand signs), water please (drinking out of a pretend glass), water (more gestures). To our surprise, we received action!
Oh, you precious glass of ice, cold life-giving water. We love you so so much.
This young lady is a tough sweetie!
Jette enjoyed a “fancy” re-energyzing salmon lunch after hydrating
We love the round banana leaf plating aesthetic at Mutiara’s restaurant
Mutiara resort restaurant
The jungle is not to be underestimated; it will zap every ounce of energy and moisture from your body. We all recovered just fine, and walked back to our little cabin for a restful sleep that night.
Jette was wanting more though, so on our last day, we walked a different direction, to a calm, little swimming spot.
Willing to hike again if it means swimming, too!
Getting toes nibbled by fish
Pure nature (and some litter of course)
This was such a picturesque spot and we’re really glad we made the effort to see it. We arrived in the late afternoon, enjoyed dusk here and then a very dark, early evening walk back through the jungle, just coming to life with nocturnal sounds and sights. A beautiful bat made his way across our path; he was illuminated by our phone light as he flew in and out of a hollowed log. We stood still in the darkness for a while to observe and reflect how very far and away from home we were.
Our final treat of the evening came in the form of a tapir that wandered up to the Mutiara Resort’s restaurant, where we had decided to have dinner again. When the restaurant manager saw the tapir, he brought out watermelon rinds and other fruit peelings for him. The vegetarian tapir was happy and so were all of the restaurant guests who came out with their cameras and snapped away as the tapir feasted. We were thrilled to be able to see the beautiful animal, but of course, saddened simultaneously. The fact that this tapir was dependent upon the food provided by the restaurant could only mean he does not have enough food in the remaining bit of his natural jungle, or that he has lost the ability to forage for his own sustenance. It possibly means some combination of both; either way, it is disheartening, indeed.
This dinner was happily interrupted by a tapir
This curry was really good, but checking out a giant tapir was better
Well, hello there
I think I’ll wander a bit
Jette thought the tapir was “adorable”
The next morning, we were back on the road, passing through Kuala Tembeling and its MSG-packed cafe.
Time for an elephant bath
Any visitor to Chiang Mai will be utterly bombarded with offers for jungle treks, zip line adventures, visits to hill tribe villages, and elephant rides. This place is tourist central and there a dozens if not hundreds of folks offering all of these things and more. We’re not particularly interested in these tourist experiences, but we did want to see some elephants. We took a day trip out to Elephant Nature Park, an elephant (and dog) rescue operation that seemed to be the most ethical way to see and support our big cousins. It is quite a tourist operation, but hopefully our money and time went to a good cause.
As you might expect, the story of the elephant in Northern Thailand, and SE Asia in general, is a sad one. Humans have encroached on their natural habitat and there are very few elephants left in the wild. For many decades elephants have been captured or bred in captivity and used as beasts of burden, especially in the logging industry. In the 1980’s the Thai government cracked down on logging and most of the elephants who were previously used for logging were “out of work.” Wild elephants are now a protected species. But “tame” elephants exist in a sort of legal grey area and are often considered unprotected livestock. Thus many elephants have been put to work carrying tourists around, performing on the street, and generally being used for entertainment. In other parts of SE Asia, they are still used in logging, and in the areas along the Thai-Burmese (Myanmar) border many elephants are still casualties of land mines. Two or three of the elephants we saw at Elephant Nature Park were rescued after stepping on land mines and had feet and legs deformed with injuries from the blasts.
A poster showing photos of one of the elephant’s injuries from a land mine.
You can see more about Elephant Nature Park and it’s rescue mission here on National Geographic.
The Elephant Nature Park facility is tucked into a very pretty valley with a river running through it. The river is essential, as the elephants like to bathe regularly. They wash themselves (or we wash them!) and then cover themselves with dirt. The dirt is a natural sunscreen and also acts as a barrier against insects. In Africa, I’ve seen birds which sit on elephants and groom them, eating insects and enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the big guys. I didn’t see that here and the staff at the sanctuary said that there were no such birds in Thailand. One of our activities as visitors was to walk down to the river and toss buckets of water on the elephants, “helping” them bathe. I don’t think they needed the help, but it was lots of fun for us!
Wash that baby!
You go girl!
I don’t remember her name, but this elephant was one of the older ones. If I recall correctly, she was in her 70’s. See the big tummy? She’s not pregnant, just fat!
Let’s shake on it.
We’re all enjoying the cool water.
I’m getting ahead of myself. When we first arrived, we had a bit of an ice-breaker feeding the elephants:
Elephants love watermelon
POP QUIZ: How much do Asian elephants eat in a day?
Most of the day is spent eating and they consume an astonishing 150-300 kg of jungle fodder per day. They enjoy bamboo shoots, grass and all sorts of greens. They sometimes become intoxicated after eating over-ripe fruit. In addition to this massive diet, which only about 50% of which is digested they drink about 150 litres of water daily. Learn more: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/about/about-elephants/
After the meet-and-greet, we walked around the property and met the elephants. All of the elephants we interacted with are female. The males are more aggressive and are kept in another area.
We met a pig along the way.
Oh, look at the piggy!
She(?) was actually quite aggressive. I poked a piece of green grass through the fence and she nearly got my finger in a surprise attack!
There were also hundreds of rescued dogs. Though we didn’t get to see many of them, some of the less aggressive ones were lounging about, and even “working” with the elephants handlers. As you may know, Jette loves dogs.
Making new friends
It was a great day. We learned a lot about Asian elephants, the plight of elephants in Thailand, and got to see what one rescue operation is doing to try to make a difference.
Resting on the ride back to our hotel
Bangkok Snake Farm
Yesterday we went to the Snake Farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute. It is a Red Cross facility that breeds and houses snakes – particularly venomous snakes – indigenous to Thailand. They extract venom, conduct research, and produce anti-venom.
There is also an educational “snake farm” open to the public, which is essentially a snake zoo and learning center. They had fantastic exhibits on the evolution and anatomy of snakes, reproduction, the role of snakes in the local ecosystem, different types of venom and their effects in humans and other animals, and more. There were live snakes, preserved specimens, example dissections, scale models of snake anatomy, and multimedia presentations. It was fantastic.
Great exhibits at the Snake Farm
They also had a snake show where staff members brought out a variety of snakes – both venomous and non-venomous – for up close viewing. The snakes were neither defanged, nor recently milked of venom, so watching the handlers with them was a bit nerve-racking!
There was a set of bleachers and low wall separating the audience from a walkway. As you can see in the video below, the snakes were presented by the handlers in the walkway, sometimes held, sometimes placed on the floor. The only protective gear the handlers wore were simple rubber boots. Yikes!
The first snake they brought out was a large King Cobra. Well, since King Cobras can grow to more than 18 feet, I guess this one wasn’t too large, but it was certainly big enough!
Did you know that the venom of the King Cobra is neurotoxic? Or that the venom of the Siamese Cobra is 5 times more powerful than the venom of the King Cobra? Now you do.
If you are wondering how you pick up a deadly king cobra when you are finished teasing it, it’s really easy. Here’s how:
After the cobra, they brought out about a dozen other snakes commonly found in Thailand. Most they held in their hands or set on the floor, but they brought out the pit vipers curled around branch-like sticks.
Pit viper on a stick
Because the pit vipers have heat receptors (their “pits”) they are much more likely to strike the warm flesh of the handlers if held by hand. Fun. The snake was not just sitting still on the stick, it was constantly moving. So the handler did a sort of slow-motion juggling routine shifting the stick from hand to hand and moving his grip on the stick to avoid provoking a strike.
Here is an interesting snake found in Thailand – the Copperhead Racer.
Aggressive little fella, huh? Thankfully he is non-venomous. Copperhead Racers typically eat small rodents and other small animals, so they are beneficial in controlling the populations of rats and mice. Cobras like to eat Copperhead Racers.
At one point the M.C. of the show asked the audience what snakes are doing when they stick out their tongues. Jette raised her hand and he called on her for the answer. She knew it. That was cool!
Even cooler, at the end of the show he asked for a volunteer from the audience. Once again, Jette was the one chosen.
When we walked through the exhibit later, a couple of Thai ladies smiled at Jette and said she was a “hero”! We crowned her the “Queen of Snakes.”
Needless to say we had a fun, educational experience at the snake farm. It was a good day.