I don’t think you need to be a western fan to guess that this blog has two more parts, however I will be grouping together The Bad and The Ugly as I don’t want to focus any more on the negatives than I feel I have to.
This two-part series will cover the main part of our stay in Malaysia. The main reason for our travel to Malaysia was to take part in the Fuze Ecoteer volunteering program (which despite this being the good blog I would definitely NOT recommend), to help with the conservation of tigers, or at least that is what we thought before we got there. Before we got to the volenteering project in Merapoh we flew from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur, however we mostly had a respite in KL as we had been to the city and done most touristy things before on our way to New Zealand for our honeymoon so I wont be covering that in this blog.
When we arrived at the project we found out it was more of a rainforest conservation, than anything specific to tigers but as the name of this blog suggests I am going to concentrate on the good parts of this experience, so lets leave that to the subsequent blog.
The first good experience we had been a night safari, where essentially we sat in the back of the pick-up truck while we were driven around the edge of the jungle as well as some plantations. I with my amazing powers of observation managed to spot a rather large moth on a swinging branch which I had thought was a snake and get very excited about some cows which I had thought were some kind of large creature, like a big cat. To be fair cows in the dark look pretty spooky with their glowing blue eyes staring at you.
The more observant members of the group managed to spot a few civets, including a palm civet and a ground civet as well as a few leopard cats (basically a wild cat the size of a house cat but with leopard markings) and some wild boar which we saw much closer than anything else. Apart from the bore, these were mostly just eyes glowing in the dark, but the experts we had with us could tell the animal from the size and colour of the eye reflection. I didn’t get many photos because they were mostly quite far away and moved quite quickly.
It was also quite exciting being in the back of the truck at night and the night itself was beautiful with a full or nearly full moon in the sky.
The next day we went caving, which was one of my favourite activities we did during the week. We made our way to an external company that runs caving tours, the idea is that it shows the government that the caves can be valuable rather than being flattened for housing, it also creates employment for the locals.
As we made our way to the cave I was slightly concerned at first that we had not been presented with harnesses only helmets and head torches, and I knew that there were a few climbs and absails involved. Since I am scared of heights this did not bode well.
The first climb to get into the cave was really more of a scramble and we had a rope to help us, although I slipped a couple of times (I had funny welly things on which stopped at the ankle) I didn’t really have a lot of trouble. Once we were up, we explored the cave which was very spacious and flat at this point. There were a lot of beautiful views and some sparkly rocks. We saw a few bats here and there but at that stage there weren’t many other creepy crawlies.
After being shown around the first level, we made our way to our first abseil. If I am honest, despite being the only person in the group who had expressed a fear of heights before hand, I was probably one of the people who had the least trouble getting down (with the exception of my husband the rock climber of course). We did not have harness and basically had to hold onto a rope which was anchored at the top, then lean back as if abseiling normally, and pass the rope through your hands as your walked your feet down the rock face.
The abseil was not far, perhaps just about double my height and once we reached the bottom I had more issue as we had to travel along edges with what seemed like bottomless pits next to them. I was as usual worried that I would fall to my doom especially in those slippery shoes. There were a few slippery moments and the guide had to help me out a few times, but eventually we made it down onto a relatively flat floor of guano.
There was a reason for all the guano and our guide revealed it by telling us to close our mouths, turn our light our and look up. When we did our guide turned his light on and all we could see was hundreds of pairs of eyes above us. There were a lot of bats collected together in a bell-shaped hole in the ceiling. Our guide explained to us that the bell shape was formed millions of year ago when that part of Malaysia was under the sea and these karst hills were islands, it was created by waves coming in and crashing inside the cave.
As we moved on we continued along the flat, there were many more creepy crawlies on this level, there were bugs living in the guano itself, these resembled what we would call slaters in Scotland, I think they are referred to as rolly pollies in America. We also saw a number of spiders, scorpions and tail-less scorpions on the rocks.
Eventually we made our way to a rock formation we had to climb, this was somewhat higher than what we had had to conquer so far. My husband has been training me up in rock climbing and it definitely came in handy here, as I will not deny that this was a challenge but with some direction I made it to the top. What had me worried was when we would be coming back that way.
We walked along a bit and saw what the guide was calling the two towers, to mimic the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, which were basically two columns of rock where the stalacmight and tight had joined next to each other, it was however on the other side of a crevice from where we were.
We made our way along and down until we reached a water way, while this waterway was quite deep; it was crystal clear with little to no current and very narrow. There were a couple of members of the group who couldn’t swim including the person in charge of the entire project. At this point I started to wonder if those scared of water felt how I do about being on the edge of a cliff if they are on the edge of a deep pool.
As I am quite a competent swimmer I offered to go in the pool on the other side of those who couldn’t swim than our guide as they basically pushed off one side to get to the other. As I mentioned it was very narrow and swimming wasn’t really required, but I feel that my presence there helped the confidence of those who were worried, especially as our guide was male and the leader of the project was muslim, so due to her beliefs I felt she would be more comfortable with a female who could help her to safety as well. I am pleased to report that everyone made it across and back without incident.
After getting across the waterway, we climbed a little to get next to the two towers, for a nice photo opportunity, unfortunately the light was not in our favour.
We then made our way back across the water and had to abseil down that larger rock face. I was quite nervous, especially as half way down I realised that if I just let go of the rope I would fall, but I made it down, without even slipping or ending up in the muddy guano puddle at the bottom.
To my surprise on the way out, we didn’t go the same way we came but instead found a much murkier waterway and followed it basically the whole way out. Some of this involved clambering over rocks next to the waterway, some involved squeezing through narrow spaces in the water. The water was never more than knee-deep, so those who couldn’t swim had no more problems.
I was told that there wasn’t really anything living in the water, so I was much more comfortable than I had been with scaling the rocks and the heights, unfortunately my husband is much less comfortable with tight spaces than heights so I don’t think he enjoyed this portion quite so much. We did at one point come face to face with a pair of massive toads. Most of the group seemed worried that the toads would jump on top of them, I have to say that didn’t really cross my mind and I thought it was quite cool to see them.
Eventually after one squeeze that I was slightly worried I wouldn’t make it through as everyone else in the group was somewhat slimmer than myself, we emerged straight into the rain forest. The plants were enormous and it almost felt like we had shrunk like Alice in wonderland.
One of the most interesting activities we took part in was the bushcraft activity. I am not sure I would call it bushcraft myself as it was limited to one activity which was making darts for a blowpipe and then learning how to fire them. We learned this from one of the Batek men. I will talk more about the Batek in my other blog, but all you really need to know for now is that the Malays are not actually native to the jungle region in Malaysia, the Batek people are, they are a tribal people who live off the jungle and they have a very turbulent past with the Malays.
We trekked for about 10-15 minutes into the jungle till we came to a spot near a river. Our instructor, then went off with a machete to gather some large leaves for us to sit on, my husband and the other man in the group were allowed to help carry the leaves back. Next our instructor produced some wood and basically started making them, I say instructor but there wasn’t a lot of instruction we just had to watch what he did and try to copy, the task wasn’t even really split into stages.
We were armed with essentially blunt kitchen knives, which after a bit of struggling with my husband decided to go down to the river to find a stone which he could use to sharpen the knives, which worked a bit.
I am not entirely sure what the wood we used was, but it seemed to have a hard outer surface and a white softer inner surface. We cut a sliver off the edge, cut all the white stuff away and then worked on making the remaining wood thinner and sharper on both ends. This seemed to take me a lot longer than everyone else and I made about four in the time it took everyone else to make about ten.
Next we had to take a different type of wood that kind of reminded me of cork and stab our pointed sticks into the centre of it and then whittle down the outside of it until it was thinner but also in a triangular shape with the apex of the triangle where the pointed stick was coming from.
Next came the fun bit. We were given a blow pipe, we put the dart in the end closest to the mouth piece and then packed it with a bit of moss to create an air seal, then take aim at a tree and give it a big huff. My husband of course was successful first time, while I took a few tries to get it right, but I did in the end. It was a bit hard to keep track of where you hit as my eyes kept following the moss packing rather than the dart itself.
After hitting a few trees, I and a couple of the others from the group decided we were hot and weren’t going to get any better from practising and went for a swim in the river which was lovely and cool. It had also been an aim of mine on this trip to swim in a random crystal clear river in the middle of the jungle so I got to do that. I ended up just floating around on my back and watching the canopy, it was a very relaxing way to end the activity, although it did mean I was wet for our trek back.
There was a night market which was held in the nearby town every Thursday and we were taken to check it out. It would also be the source of our dinner for the evening. We arrived to the usual scenes of a market although it was still light, it seemed to be in full flow.
We walked passed a number of clothing stalls until my husband decided he wanted to go into a shop which had nothing to do with the market at all. He had spotted a hardware shop and decided that he wanted to buy a bit of pipe for the calligraphy I had done in China.
We eventually came to the food stalls, and the first thing we bought was a mango shake which had been highly recommended to us. The shake did not disappoint, it was delicious, sweet and creamy, a definite mango flavour and cold to help us recover from the heat of the day.
We bought a few other things such including satay, rambutan and a Malaysian sandwich thing, but these we waited till returning to the house to eat with everyone else. This is also the market where the durian was purchased, but that also fits into the other blog.
We continued around the market and eventually came to livestock, followed by pets, both of which I am afraid to say showed the animals in terrible living conditions, jammed into cages or tied up. We even saw that one woman had bought a chicken and while it was still alive she was carrying it tied into a sack with only its head poking out.
I would have thought the pets were for food too, but one of the guys from our group who was Malay corrected me. He actually ended up buying a Siamese fighting fish from one of the stalls as he said it was impossible to find those colours in Kuala Lumpur (where he was from) and was a keen fish keeper, not unlike my husband so you can guess the two of them got on like a house on fire.
On our last day at the project we had the task of taking an English class for the local Malay children. We had an age group of about four to six and they were already much better at English than I can boast of speaking any other language.
We had had a lot of spare time the previous day and spent it preparing our lesson. There were a number of materials at the project house including flash cards, but we knew they had already covered numbers, colours, animals and body parts. One of the only remaining flash cards were a set of vegetables. Unfortunately some of the vegetables were overly complicated, like lady fingers and oyster mushrooms (mushroom was also there) so we decided to cut down the number of them and simplify a bit.
There was probably actually slightly too much in our lesson plan for one and a half hour lesson, but it meant that we didn’t run out of things to do during the lesson. We were also lucky enough to have the help of the guy I mentioned earlier who is Malay but also speaks very good English, he helped translate a lot of our lesson.
We arrived at the “internet centre” with the rest of the group from the project, the project leader had a young adult class and one of the interns had a class for the between age so it was not immediately obvious where our class would be held or which children would be in it. However we were soon introduced to our class which would be held in the middle of the floor.
As the lesson began most of the children were very shy, we held up the flash cards and asked them first of all if they knew what the vegetable was in Malay, and then in English. If they didn’t know the word in English we told them this time and wrote the word on our white board, one of the kids was very on the ball and he knew most of the vegetables.
Next we revised their colours, by asking them to write down all the vegetables that were one colour, for example we would say which vegetables are red, and they would respond tomato (yes I know that isn’t a vegetable, but for the purposes of teaching that day it was). They sometimes didn’t remember the vegetable name but they always got the colour right.
Obviously there is a big difference between repeating the words and spelling them, so once they correctly identified the words we turned the flash cards around and let them copy the word. That being said there was one little girl who really impressed me by knowing the spelling of almost all of the words and helping her friends to spell them.
This actually took the majority of the time and we were lucky because one of the other intern’s students hadn’t turned up so two of the boys who had been causing a bit of a distraction were distracted by him. They dynamic of the class was very interesting too as they had split very clearly into girls and boys and the girls were sat nearer me and didn’t offer answers freely (although I could see from what they were writing that they clearly knew the answer). I guess this is probably due to the culture.
Once we were finished writing down the words we announced that we had a puzzle, which made all of the kids very excited and they all clamoured even closer to us (they had gradually been getting closer during the lesson so far anyway). We had made a crossword puzzle and the clues to the crossword were the colours.
Unintentionally the crossword actually helped to revise their numbers as well, as we chose one across for example and then all counted together the number of letters in one across, then looked at the words under the appropriate colour heading and counted each of those letters until we had a match, then one of the kids would write it in the space. Luckily there were just the right number of words for the number of children so each one got to write one of the words.
We had intended to use the words in a game of pictionary as well but we ran out of time. The kids were almost sat on our knee by the end of the lesson and they had all come out of their shells entirely and after the class was over the lady who seemed to be in charge came over to us and said that the children had been the most engaged she had seen them at our class, I am not sure how much that was to do with the fact they had a translator, but I think it was at least in part because we had an awesome lesson plan.
As all the children were leaving each one came up to us and gave us the traditional Malaysian hand shake, which basically involves taking your hand and putting it to their forehead as they lower their head, and said thank you. It was the cutest way possible to end our week in Merrapoh.