My semi-rational fear of falling to my death when at great heights was on display during this zip lining, treetop bridge walking, and abseiling adventure. At no time was this fear higher than when we had to jump off a platform with the rope connected to a carabiner on our backs. Although only a short distance, the free fall period before feeling the harness catch me had my heart racing. That all said, looking down on the trees of the forest while zipping above let me see this piece of Thailand from new perspectives. The mix of having an adrenaline rush, seeing and hearing the gibbons, and appreciating the forest from a canopy level all made this a highlight.
I came to Ubud because it is touted as a Balinese cultural hub, and not just because it received such positive reviews from Elizabeth Gilbert. Bali is such a culture-filled destination because as the Hindu states fell all around Bali, many of the intelligentsia fled here along with artists, dancers, musicians, and actors. As the only surviving Hindu island, the Balinese show intense pride for the culture and enjoy sharing it with the outside world. Having so many tourists leave their homes for theirs must reinforce their confidence in their unique and creative culture. In addition, throughout this Hindu rice-farming society, I saw daily offerings made using Banana leaves outside of homes, hotels, shops, and as far reaching as the top of the Batur Volcano.
Ubud is full of live music and dance performances both modern and traditional. I enjoyed sitting in cafes in the evening listening to drum-heavy music as well as attending two traditional Balinese dance performances. The Legong Dance, performed at the Ubud Palace, included gamelan music and ritual dance. The Legong Dance also included a mask dance, contemporary dance, and sacred dance. Another evening, I attended the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance where I will never forget the last scene of a dancer kicking flaming coconuts around the stage from what used to be a coconut bonfire.
Ubud is home to many shops, but unlike most other places I’ve visited, there were less knock-off sunglasses and the like, and instead, many shops sold artwork and other cultural handmade Balinese craft. Window shopping became an enjoyable experience when simply walking through the store taught me about Balinese art. Unfortunately, Ubud is swarming with tourists who can make it hard to find an authentic Balinese experience, but I did meet some great people. Lauren from England and I went to one of the evening dances together, three German friends joined me on the sunrise volcano hike, Bruce and Carol from Vancouver who I had also sat next to on the plane bumped into me and we recapped our Bali adventures together, and Made, the driver to the sunrise volcano trek. His English was far from perfect, but his energy was high and he exuded such an optimistic vibe, that while helping him improve his English, I continued to learn about Balinese culture through his stories. Ubud, the people I met while staying there, and the places I visited in its surrounding areas are the ingredients that made for the hard-to-leave feeling I now have.
Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter. Take it from me. Up on the shore they work all day. Out in the sun they slave away. While we devotin’ full time to floatin’ under the sea. Down here all the fish is happy, as off through the waves they roll. We got no troubles, life is the bubbles under the sea. Since life is sweet here, we got the beat here, naturally. We got the spirit. You got to hear it under the sea. The newt play the flute, the carp play the harp, the paice play the bass, and they soundin’ sharp. The bass play the brass, the chub play the tub, the fluke is the duke of soul. The ray he can play, the lings on the strings, the trout rockin’ out. The blackfish she sings the smelt and the sprat, they know where it’s at an’ oh that blowfish blow. Each little snail here know how to wail here. That’s why it’s hotter under the water. Ya we in luck here down in the muck here under the sea!
Sebastian’s version is quite accurate, but how would I describe being under the sea? It would be easier to stay in the abstract and describe it as unreal, as a sense of freedom, and as both calming and exhilarating. When the most prevalent sound is that coming from my own breath, my visibility only reaches about 15m, and I am completely weightless, it is both an empowering and frightening experience.
It is my first day diving. At 9am, I’m greeted by my dive instructor, Wayan, whose streaks of long gray hair immediately make me feel more confident. I am soon fitted with gear, which is no small task with Scuba after accounting for the suit, the booties, belt, flippers, mask, snorkel, buoyancy control device (BCD), regulator, pressure gauge, and a tank of air. Although SCUBA is short for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, I am not sure what part of this list accounts for said apparatus or if its the whole outfit. The humidity and warmth of the Balinese air makes this fitting a bit sweaty, which only heightens the anticipation of submerging into water. We learn what attaches where, twists how, and is needed when, and then we climb into the pool relieving us of the weight of the “apparatus.” After some scuba practice, we file out of the pool careful not to fall backwards as we remember what’s on our backs, we then have a quick snack, and its off to the sea.
We grab our fins and masks, and let people half our size and twice our age carry the tank and BCD’s down. Some of the women balance the tanks on their heads, sometimes with no hands and then walk down a less than even path. Quite humbling. After waddling out over small rocks into the water, we check all the equipment one more time, and start to deflate our BCD’s. Initially, I start to hyperventilate because it is unnatural to breathe underwater, but I force myself to take long breaths and eventually calm down. I look around, realize I am in fact breathing fine, and begin to follow the instructor around a ship wreck of a sunken US ship, the USAT Liberty. The coral formations on almost every available ship surface and the life swimming through it completely distract me from the fact that I’m 15m underwater and breathing out of a tank. Fish come up to my mask and almost seem to run into me. That said, I did learn that objects may appear closer than they are because of light refraction through the water, the plastic, and then the air inside the mask.
Later in the dive, the guide makes his hand flat and places it perpendicularly in the middle of his forward. During most of our training, Wayan performs an action and we repeat, but I am unsure what I am supposed to do at this point. He repeats the forehead chop motion and then points off into the distance. At the end of a line created by extending his pointing finger, I see a shark. Again, this is frightening and calming all at once. No one including the shark is in any rush; however, we do turn around at this point and head back in the opposite direction. The forehead chop is not a chop, and instead it is a shark fin. Good to know.
Other than for running out of air, I feel I could stay underwater indefinitely, and when this dive concludes, I am excited and ready for the next one after lunch.
The destination was Rafflesia, and the journey was wet. Rafflesia isn’t a town, it isn’t a historic site, and it isn’t the name of a river or peak. Rafflesia is a parasitic flowering plant found in southeast Asia on the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Philippines, and the only part of the plant that is visible outside of its host is the five-petaled flower. I came to Malaysia looking for quality jungle time, and the opportunity to witness a rare flower presented a novel destination for a jungle hike.
With the sun still shining, I get picked up from Father’s Guest House in the Cameron Highlands. While most other trekkers leaving from my hostel are getting picked up by 10-seater mini-buses, coming up the hill to the hostel, I see a what looks like a military grade transport vehicle ready to go over any terrain. This presents two options: one is that the truck is for the effect, which it clearly had on me, and two is that we might actually need something so robust. I jump in the back and am greeted by who would end up being my Cameron Highlands family. There is such a strong group camaraderie from the very beginning that we only reluctantly take the front seat and leave the conversation happening in back.
After visiting an Orang Asli village and receiving a blowpipe demonstration, we pile back into our beast truck and soon learn why it is in fact such a beast. We begin to drive up a dirt road with bamboo obstacles, pot holes, and grooves so big that even this truck finds difficulty advancing from time to time. Because the back is set up as two sideways facing benches, there is a lot of sliding, bouncing, and nudging that happens. If the group hadn’t bonded before, this undoubtedly would have brought us both literally and figuratively closer together. We arrive at the trail head, are given headbands made from leaves, apply a little extra bug repellent, and naively start on our way with the driver’s departing words being to remember to smell the Rafflesia flower.
The weather is still comfortable although a little less sunny, and the path is relatively wide with the occasional puddle to hop and tree to duck under. Conversations remain vibrant as I learn worrying tips about my upcoming Himalayan Mountain Trek from a pair who just came from Nepal. Soon, it starts to drizzle, but because of the humidity and the exertion needed for the hike, the water feels great. We heard about a stream crossing that we would encounter, and pass over it relatively easily with a lot of assistance from our two guides. Afterwards, the rain starts to pick up a little, and our leaf headbands are replaced by ponchos and rain jackets. The views from the trail are stunning as they include dense rain forest, occasional waterfalls, and vast Malaysian landscapes. Meanwhile, the rain can no longer be called a drizzle as it continues to gain. The rhythm the rain creates hitting the top canopy of the forest and then eventually my head sets a beat for me as I walk. Just when I’m getting used to the rain, we learn that our first stream crossing was only practice for a later river crossing. The rocks through the river are only slightly visible above the rush of the current, and again with the help of the guides, I make it over with little issue. The group, however, did experience a couple slips and splashes. At this point, the beads of water falling down the side of my face may be sweat or rain.
Not long after the river, the guides lead us off the trail and up a steep hill, which only feels steeper because the rain has made the mud challengingly slick. Always reaching for the next tree trunk, branch, or rock to hold on, we slowly transverse our way up while slipping more than occasionally. Finally, with our clothes wet and muddy, our hands soar from gripping on whatever was available, and our expectations about this flower growing, we see for what we traveled all this way. We find the famous Rafflesia flower, which blooms for only about 5 days and can be as large as a meter in diameter. We made it. We create an assembly line of walking up near the flower, taking a photo of it, asking the next person to take another photo of us with the flower, smelling the flower, and then grabbing our cameras back to take a close-up shot. I was glad the guide reminded us to smell, because the fragrance was that of rotting flesh, which I later learned is where the flower gets its local names.
For the return journey, the rain is letting up some, but everything including our clothes, the forest, and river crossings are wetter than they were before. We slip back down the hill, get to our big river crossing, and realize that the rain has angered the flow of water. Many of the rocks, although still there, are no longer visible underneath the water. On this crossing, I’m not as lucky and my waterproof shoes get attacked from above and my socks feel the wrath of the river. Then on the rest of the journey, I am not sure if I am listening to frogs or to the croak of my shoes as water sloshes around. The rain comes and goes a couple more times, and we eventually get back to our transport beast to navigate us down the rest of the road.
The ends may not have justified the means on this trek, but I was only using the ends as an excuse for the means. With this philosophy, the day and my Malaysian Jungle adventure were a success. And as a plus, my Cameron Highlands family and I spent the rest of the afternoon together, found dinner, and then grabbed a couple drinks before exhaustion got the best of us.