Air is Water: From Penang Island to Cameron Highlands

In Malay “air,” pronounced ‘aye-er,’ means “water.”  Somehow seems fitting, considering the constant state of high humidity and the billowing clouds that roll over the jungles and mountains in Malaysia.

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Third photo: credit to Husni Che Ngah, professional insect photographer, durian procurer, and tool man

One day, we heard the sweet sound of birdsong…more than usual…drifting over the farm complex.  Turned out there was a competition for bird singing, a competitive event here and in Indonesia (photo credits for the birds also go to Husni Che Ngah).  A few days later, while harvesting bamboo for building roofs and floors, we found enormous bamboo shoots and the guys inadvertently discovered a hive of stingless bees.  On our day off, we searched out the vegan sushi place we had heard about and took a very short afternoon foray into Georgetown.

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On Saturday, Meishy treated us to a road trip to the mainland, joining up with a group of her friends.  We crossed the 18km Penang 1 Bridge and wove our way up the steep slopes to Sungai Lembu, a Malay Chinese village tucked away in its own jungle paradise.  As we sat down to lunch, we were greeted by the chief elder of the village…and treated to fresh durian and mangosteen as his honored guests!  The man who had brought the mangosteens herded us off for a comprehensive tour of the village.  First we drove the short distance to a ruin of a Catholic church, built in 1882.  Whatever befell the church, we know the final priest was a Frenchman and that the cemetery is still in very active use.

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Next, we were taken on a whirlwind tour through the village itself.  We walked into a traditional candle workshop, where the workers hand dip, color, and mold thousands of candles with no kind of automation.  It so happened that we were there they day they were making red devotional tapers for the temples…but we saw tables showing their lotus candles and other designs, as well.  The smell of wax, the heat, and the lazy puppy welcome committee all added to the mellow atmosphere.  Next, we were led to a beekeeper…and they were the stingless bees again!  While the others tasted the honey, I chatted with a tour group passing through from Kuala Lumpur…the honey here is that famous!  Meandering up and down side streets, we learned more about the town’s history as an internment village for Communist sympathizers when the British government still controlled Malaysia.  After the village was reopened, they stayed a tight community, though, proud of the strong identity their isolation had given them.

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The beekeeper, who also owns a farm and orchard high up at the top of the highlands that back the village offered to show us his land and treat us to a fruit feast.  After a very bumpy and twisty ride to the top in his truck, we hiked up through his beehives and wild plantings to the virgin rainforest that still occupies the peak of the mountain.  Descending, we were treated to Malay blueberries, rambutan, passion fruit, dragon fruit, coconut, durian, nutmeg, ginger flower, and samples from several of the hives.  Talk about fruit gluttony!  We were stuffed by the time we headed for home.

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Our final day on the farm, we accomplished a few more projects…mainly digging the hole for a new pond and weeding the corn.  Meishy made a feast, and we said our goodbyes before leaving very early Monday morning for Cameron Highlands.  In total, we had spent 4 weeks farming on Penang, and we leave with new friendships and muscles to show for out wonderful time there.

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I was overjoyed to take the winding bus ride high up into the Cameron Highlands to the small burg of Tanah Rata.  Three years ago, I spent a mere 24 hours here, and I was eager to do more discovering in this area of perpetual spring.  Due to its high elevation, the highlands are much chillier than the rest of the Malay peninsula…for that reason, this area became a respite and a playground for the British who lived and worked here back in the colonial days.  The area maintains a strong European influence in its architecture and its penchant for tea, strawberries, and manicured flower gardens.

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On our first morning and afternoon, we explored the town of Tanah Rata (all five streets) and took a scamper along one of the many jungle paths that snake through the montane rainforest that still dominates the area.  Coming out in a strawberry village on the other side, we walked back along the main road, stopping to admire The Smokehouse, the oldest hotel in Cameron Highlands, dating back to 1937.  One step into the lobby and you would swear you were back in England…they even serve full cream teas!

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We indulged ourselves in all manner of curry in the evening, dawning sweaters and jackets to fight off the chill!  The next morning, we joined a tour with a lovely Australian woman we had met our first day.  Our first stop was the rolling hills of the Sungai Palas BOH tea plantation.  The little group of us took a decidedly longer hike through the fields than planned…but we got to see harvesting up close and even found some blueberries growing wild.  Next, we went to the highest local point, the tower at Gunung Brinchang, before taking another hike through the mysterious moss forest that is located on the same mountainside.  Like nearby Teman Negara, this rainforest shares the title of oldest in the world at a whopping 130 million years old.  The ground sinks beneath each step, because it is made of millions of years of compacted moss!  The moss hushes sound and literally hangs from the trees, looking like a coral reef in the sky.  We were also lucky to see a very rare cobra lily blooming wild, spotted by the sharp eyes of our guide.

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We carried on to the factory and tea room on the tea estate, still owned by the granddaughter of the original Scottish owner.  There is something very satisfying about sipping tea high on a balcony, looking at the very bushes it has been harvested from.  Needing more refreshments, our next stop was a strawberry farm, which also grew herbs and cacti, of all things.  Our final stop was a butterfly garden and reptile and insect zoo, showing local breeds that populate the rainforests.  Of course, I made friends with one of the green whip snakes, to the delight of all the passing children.

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After the tour, we had time for a final meal before running to catch the bus for the capital, Kuala Lumpur and our next leg of the journey.

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