The night sky dispersed after a few hours of walking into the radiant sunrise. A revitalizing breeze cooled my skin in this time, but shortly after the sunrise I sought refuge in the shade, stopping at a small food shack in a village outside of Muar, on my way to Pagoh. An old, Malaysian gentleman stepped out from behind the counter offering me a stool to sit in as he plopped down onto a bench. His chubby cheeks drooped as he looked down into his box of cigarettes, the red and gold capturing my eyes. They read, “Gudang Garam” an Indonesian brand he exclaimed. My olfactory glands reminisced in the plumes of smoke. The aroma reminded me of Cloves with their sugary, herbal fragrance. He pushed one towards me and from that day forward I became a social smoker in Southeast Asia seeking out the sweet taste of these cigarettes, but always falling short. We talked about Malaysia and its friendly, outgoing people I met along my journey south. I told him how I loved the food, the coffee and trekking through the jungle seeing new wildlife foreign to the Americas. He reached over and grabbed the keys to his motorbike looking me in the eye with a sparkle about him. His gray parted hair waved below the brim of his helmet tickling his eyes and then he handed me a spare helmet. The muffler buzzed like a loud chainsaw as we cruised down the back roads perpendicular to Route 1. I did not know our destination, but held on tight until we stopped in a driveway at the bottom of the hill. Coconut trees flourished in the man’s back yard and he leaned over asking me if I ever ate a fresh coconut straight from the tree. Before the words exited my mouth he pulled out his knife, stripping one of the many trees. He carved out a square hole in the thick, hard exterior shell and handed it to me. I tilted my head back tasting its sweet nectar in every gulp, and cooling my body off substantially as it gathered in my belly. He mentioned the benefits of Coconuts on my travels. As I researched more, I found they were ideal in oral dehydration and rich in nutrients acting like carbohydrate-electrolyte infused drinks. He handed me a spoon to eat the endosperm along the walls of the coconut and once finished I felt more full than I ever imagined. But surprisingly it regained my vigor and endurance unlike the sluggish feeling I normally feel upon overeating.
For the first time on my trip I scrutinized the Malaysian architecture of his home. Culturally it maintained its own traditional values separating it from Western influence while maintaining its indigenous roots. Aside from its decorative intricacies that adorned the exterior giving it its own uniqueness, the house built on stilts, took elevated stairs to reach its interior. It sported a gabled roof with enticing colors which caught my eye. I recall several colors pinks, light blues, and yellows fitting into Rumah Limas type architecture. The interior reminded me of America with separate bedrooms and partitioned walls separating the living room from the kitchen, with a traditional bathroom. He offered me a shower which I quickly accepted using soap and a bucket of cold water to scrub the dust and dirt off my skin and grease from my clumpy hair. Then we set off on our way back to his peaceful paradise, the roadside convenient store.
He learned of my destination. As I strapped up my pack to head south towards Pagoh he stopped me to meet his friend, Agem. I hitched a 9-mile ride closer to the city with him in his dump truck. We sat awkwardly trying to comprehend each other but I did not speak Malay and he did not speak English. He pointed at the, “No Trespassing” sign for Sime Darby indicating he needed to make a stop to dump a stone load there. We entered the plantation driving on dirt roadways falling deeper into the jungle through a blanket of rubber trees until reaching an open patch of industrialization. Dump trucks ran rampant throughout the plantation dumping stone loads as we waited in line for the weight scale ahead.
Sime Darby did business in five core sectors: plantations, property, industrial, motors and energy & utilities. I remembered seeing signs all along Route 1 stating private property: No Trespassing Sime Darby. With over 900,000 hectares of land they destroy jungle every minute of the day through their rubber and palm oil plantations which account for 5% of the world’s supply. From hitchhiking it appeared they owned the majority of land in Malaysia, meaning they influenced much of political decisions involved with government.
Hitchhiking Pagoh – Meeting Chewbacca
Agem dropped me off shortly after his stop and I walked down the 1 towards Pagoh fully aware of Sime Darby all around me like Big Brother. The sun sweltered away at my skin as I boiled in its dense rays with nowhere to run for shade. My two liters of hot water tasted the least bit refreshing, guzzling them down as drops of sweat poured down my face, making my eyes flicker with irritation. No one drove by for miles and it felt the hottest day of the summer so far. My soles baked against the asphalt and just as I nearly fell over from suffocation another dump truck driver pulled over. His name, Alan, the long lost brother of Chewbacca with a husky frame, long nappy black hair, a puffy nose and brown skin reflecting both Malaysian and Indian roots. He became my personal chauffeur for the rest of the day taking interest in my Western heritage as I sat along for the ride. The leopard skin interior of his rice burner Honda suited his style perfectly as he waddled about with flip flops and a plaid collared shirt from the early 90s. We cruised around Pagoh, which did not interest me much at first, but he enlightened me with the wisdom of his hometown. I wanted to see more monkey’s since I only caught a glimpse of a few knuckle-walking across Route 1 into the depths of the jungle.
Alan knew of just the spot, “The Cave of Natural Statues (Nagamalai Alaiyam)” or as he called it, “The Cave Temple.” We chugged down windy dirt roads through the lush tropical rainforest. My eyes saw every shade of green as we putted along going deeper into the jungle. My heart raced, palms perspired and fear overtook my thoughts contemplating the worst possible scenario, ending up in the jungle with no gear and no idea where I was at to get back to civilization. He looked goofy and harmless in his weird getup, with his dorky smile, full cheeks and keen resemblance to Chewbacca. So I put all my trust in him and ended up climbing the stairs to a rural, miraculous secret, hidden in the depths of the jungle. Alan told me this holy place held many tales of unexplained phenomena. He claimed the temple held secret powers and he came there often to pray away sickness, disease and personal problems. Locals visited from all over for prayer at the holy cave. He prayed to, “NAGA AMMA” the Mother and Queen of all the snake gods, but others prayed to Supreme Mother Naga Amma, Lord Ganesha, Lord Shiva, Lord Maha Vishnu, Lord Muniswaran and Seven Kannigal, being the more popular gods, known as the Seven Fairies. The rock which sat above the small temple for prayer at The Cave of Natural Statues held more interesting wonders as people claimed it to grow in size over the years, one of them, Alan. He claimed it nearly doubled in size since his early childhood. Maybe it had, I did not question it; but instead I took in the natural wonders of supernatural creation with full interest listening to his every word (Source).
After a long climb up the stairwell to the holy cave we stopped and Alan prayed to Naga Amma for my safe travels leaving a food offering at the small temple devoted to the Hindu deities. No sooner he placed the food on the idol monkeys swung from the tree limbs above snagging it between their little hands. I stood there in amazement as they entered my vision like a flock of seagulls fighting over bread scraps. The monkeys, known as Long-tailed Macaques, huddled around us begging for food like stray dogs. Alan warned me of their dangerous behavior and advised me to put my jacket back on since any items held in my hand they deemed as potential food. They looked cute and harmless to tourists, but to homeowners and the Malaysian Government they deemed them as pests and in recent years killed them off by the hundreds of thousands. For me, it made my experience all worthwhile as I never saw quite as many monkeys on the rest of my trip.
We walked back from the cave and I tried to locate my shoes while Alan tried to find his jacket. The monkeys took both of them for ransom. Annoyed we yelled at the little pests, who held out for food, but we showed our hands and our pockets and they quickly scurried back into the jungle. They wandered back to their friends near the holy cave where they feasted on food offerings. I slid my rough feet into my shoes and pranced towards the passenger side, but Alan through me the keys and said, “Drive.” I knew shit about driving manual, let alone in a Malaysian car where the driver sat on the right side of the vehicle, but I gave it a whirl. My foot barely reached the pedal even with the seat moved all the way up. The gears grinded making him cringe as I tried switching into 2nd and then 3rd easing off the clutch with little success. After a few kilometers we stopped in the dirt road and he swapped into the driver’s seat to take command of his leopard shag wagon.
I figured he would drop me off somewhere in Pagoh to start walking further south, but the fun continued. We drove by the Muar River and he asked me if I ever saw a rice farm before. I thought about it and only remembered seeing wheat, corn, sorghum and soybeans on my journey through Kansas years prior. He smiled with a giddy expression and sped off down the road for one last venture.
We approached a dirt road, and on both sides, an endless sea of lime green rice cascaded off into oblivion. I loved every second of it admiring the picture perfect blue sky and yellow beams shooting off the horizon. He sensed my passion for nature and mentioned one last stop for my travels, Puteri Waterfalls, where we departed ways.
This took me further east, going inland, and I knew little of my whereabouts except knowing Segamat was the next town south. Despite the uproar I heard of Puteri Waterfall it did not live up to the expectation Alan ranted about. I hiked for an hour or so climbing the many steps and obstacles in the park to reach a waterfall without flowing water. I wanted to climb further, but I needed to sign in with the office to acquire permits and pay for a guide, which dissuaded me from anymore elevation gain. My hands swatted about at the horseflies following me through every inch of the trail. The rubbish blown through all parts of the jungle made me furious at the tourists who littered and the staff whom did not clean it up. I quickly retraced my footsteps down Gunung Ledang and sought out shelter, finding an area between two food carts in the vacant parking lot where I tied my tarp between.