The meals I had during three days I spent in and travelling to and from Tanah Rata remain my most craved meals, and the food is a reason I want to go back to Malaysia for a longer trip.
When our 4×4 dropped us off at Orchid Haven after a day of postcard pretty views and harsh truths, the three other girls and I were instantly greeted by the owner of the hostel pulling us into the common room. He told us another guide had contacted him and that if we wanted to see the endangered rafflesia flower we could go tomorrow. You may know of this flower as it’s well known for it’s odour of rotting flesh. Only Misa, who had a lifelong dream to see carnivorous plants, and I took up the offer and committed to the next day’s early morning – but not before eating.
The majority of restaurants in Tanah Rata were Indian-Malay, and for a small town it was surprising that almost all were open 24 hours a day. Dinner was easy, tofu paneer and naan was something I recognised, though the naan was completely different to Little India or the Taj Mahal $10 curry lunch naans. They were cooked in a tandoor oven, a little tougher without the garlic butter and/or tin-foil condensation, but enough sauce to compensate – as if I’m in any position to judge a naan.
I had no idea what anything was called, especially at breakfast, and when I thought I knew what something was it would turn out to be something else completely. The restaurant below the hostel was busy at 6am and the glass cases in the morning were filled with white pillows, green tubes, and what I found out were roti. The tables were stacked high with pyramids wrapped in brown paper. I had no idea what to do.
The first morning I went to the wrong cashier. Roti? Yes. Egg? Yes. Coffee? Black.
I went to sit down and it became clear I had gone to the takeaway counter. I suppose the employees were used to hostel guests being useless and brought my food over regardless, along with cutlery (even though everyone else was eating with their hands). For someone with a boring and irrational aversion to calories before lunch back home, the oily, eggy roti with mild gravy tasted like luxury.
Puri and dahl the next day when I found the right counter and ignored the cutlery, bright sour idli with chutneys and kuih dadar (pandan crepes filled with coconut and palm sugar) the next – it sounds like a lot but it was unexpectedly useful for the near adventure tourism that was to come.
So, on to the rafflesia hunt. Misa and I were joined by three Chinese girls, picked up by a car decorated with bullhorns and a down-to-earth guide. We drove out of the town and pulled over by the side of the road. A topless man climbed in with a huge knife at his side. Everyone exchanged glances, wondering for a second if we were going to be the next cautionary tale for girls on the road. In the end, of course, we weren’t. A rollercoaster of a drive up a mountainous track later and we were faced with a dirt path. Only then did we find out the man who had climbed in was from an indigenous Malay community who worked in the area and reported to guides when the flower is in bloom – which happens for a couple of days once every few years.
Call us naïve, but none of us were dressed or prepared as we scaled the rainforest hill while our guides hacked steps into the mud, pausing only while we pick off leeches. It doesn’t matter though, because when we find it, the rafflesia was huge, buzzing with flies and somehow resiliently beautiful.