I am ashamed to admit that I was afraid before I travelled to Malaysia last July. I was so afraid that I nearly cancelled my flight from Don Muang airport in Bangkok in favour of ending my holiday early and going back to Beijing. I was arriving in Kuala Lumpur during Eid-al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, and in the last few weeks there had been a few high profile attacks in both Europe and Asia. My friends in Thailand warned me to be careful, and I was seeing “official” lists of places to avoid in Kuala Lumpur to ensure safety.
My plan had been to take a train from KL airport directly to the bus station, and then the bus to a hostel in the Cameron Highlands. I can blame my delayed flight for why this didn’t happen, but in reality it was nothing but paranoia. With the help of a stern email from a well-travelled high school friend I realised what an idiot I was being and re-booked my bus for the next morning. Thank goodness I did.
The hostel I stayed in was called the “Orchid Haven” and the stairwell was lined with plants. Before I had the chance to step in the door I was told to leave my shoes in the rack outside, which is probably the only time I was talked to in an anything less than friendly way the entire time I was in the highland town of Tanah Rata. The owner was Malay-Indian and was around all day aside from when he was praying and a young Egyptian volunteer would take over. They were two of the most talkative people I have ever met. I hadn’t set my bags down before being convinced to sign up to a trip to the tea plantations the following day, although I had planned on walking everywhere myself.
The next morning, still hyper-aware of being a solo female, I found myself in a van with three other girls travelling alone – in fact that was the majority of travellers at the hostel. We first drove to the Cameron tea plantations. Our guide, Appu, was the first in his family not to work at the Scottish owned farms, and was keen to tell us the conditions his family have worked in over the decades. Not a bitter man, but not afraid to let us know that the plantations we were marvelling over, almost glowing in the morning sun, were still the product of something just short of slavery. He took us to the plantation café afterwards, admittedly a beautiful setting, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that he told us his stories right before we were sat on a balcony, looking over the fields of people working for cents, ‘enjoying’ our tea and scones.
It didn’t take the four of us long to realise Appu took being a tour guide as more of a responsibility than a job, especially when he suggested we skip the butterfly garden (where he takes commissions) as it’s sad to see all the animals in captivity. We drove up to the Mossy Forest, to the highest peak in the Highlands and looked over what appeared to us as infinite mountains and forest, which Appu told us was quickly changing, due to encroaching farming projects. As we started our walk through the rainforest he pointed out broken trees and dying plants where tourists before us had cared more about a photo than the environment, and other tour guides turned a blind eye.
This is not to say Appu was a negative person, it was strange to stand in a forest that reminded me so much of New Zealand (in particular the walk up Mt. Cargill in Dunedin) to hear someone that reminded me so much of my dad. He picked plants for us to eat, and for others he just listed their medicinal properties. To our untrained eyes, he bent down to pluck an insignificant leaf from a homogenous-looking bush and proceeded to tell us it was the deadliest poison in the forest. Misa from the Czech Republic almost cried when he showed us Venus flytraps and pitcher plants! We stopped at a strawberry farm on the way back to town, and he made us all strawberry milkshakes. He was hopeful that we would take in what he said, and grateful that the Malaysian government would soon close the area to tourists to re-evaluate their policies on conservation even though it might mean his business would slow to a halt.
It’s a cliché to say it I suppose, but I was so afraid of the slightest hostility when travelling I forgot that most people are kind, and many go above and beyond, just wanting to make sure you do what makes you happy, and that nothing or no one gets hurt in the mean time.
I intended to include more about the sights, the crisp air of the high altitudes, the bright blue sky next to the near-fluorescent tea plants, and the soft green light in the forest in this post. I wanted to write about the Indian breakfasts and the confidence I built meeting the other single girls, but the more I wrote the more I remembered Appu, the other details will have to wait.