The word ‘jungle’ used to conjure for me images of sweaty adventurers macheting their way through the undergrowth to a secret temple, overgrown with lianas, while poisonous snakes dropped from trees and tigers lurked. I dreamed of being one of them some day as I was growing up in the concrete jungle of a socialist housing development in Slovakia. That’s why I looked forward to visiting jungles in national parks in southern Thailand and Penang Island, Malaysia.
Mu Koh Lanta National Park, Thailand
Lanta is a lovely island, balancing beautiful spacious beaches with minimal development compared to Thailand’s vacation hotspots. And at its southern tip is a small national park, which Lindsay and I visited on our scooter outing one day. The last few kilometers got tricky with a lot of curves and steep inclines. We paid the 400 baht (US$12.30) fee, parked the bike under the sign that said “Do not feed the monkey,” and walked to a lighthouse towering above a small, near-deserted beach.
I entered a real jungle for the first time in my life at the mouth of a nature trail. A paved path and many, many steps led us up and down ridge, beneath all manner of strange trees (mangroves, banyans) while cicadas shrieked so loud I couldn’t hear myself think.
The park extends to a scattering of islands south of Lanta, some of which are included on cruises offered by private operators. The Lanta portion is small—we spent less than two hours there—but definitely worth a visit for a change of scenery and to get away from the beachsters.
Drenched in sweat, we motored up the steep driveway out of the park and let the breeze dry us.
Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Through twists and turns of itinerary changes, Khao Sok National Park became our last stop in Thailand. A minibus from Ao Nang (350 baht/US$10.75 per person) deposited us at Nung House, where we stayed three nights in a rustic hut with a Little Pony mosquito net and a 7-legged huntsman spider (400baht/$12.25 per night; we’ve also heard praises for the Morning Mist Resort and Khao Sok Paradise).
Entry to the park is 200 baht. The park ranger was a funny lady. With my childhood image in mind, I asked her, “Are there any poisonous snake in the park?” “Maybe,” she said with a stoic expression and pointed to the check-in book.
Operators around Khao Sok village and at every resort offer a range of almost-identical tours with only minor price differences. We chose to do the jungle trek to Tong Kloi Waterfall by ourselves— missing out on a tour guide’s intimate knowledge of the forest saved us 600 baht (US$18.45) each. Through bamboo groves and past several swimming holes we reached a small waterfall where the dirt road changed to a narrow footpath through the thickets.
Sweat poured out of every pore as we clambered up and down hillsides using tree roots, lianas, and stairs cut into the earth. There seemed to be no end to the 7-kilometer trek. On the last distance marker someone had crossed out the meters remaining with a black marker, and soon we learned the vandal was correct: the final 200 meters was indeed more like 800. But the swim in the pool beneath the waterfall was more than worth it.
Half way back, we ran out of water because we’d underestimated the heat and humidity. You can imagine how delicious the Singha soda water and pineapple smoothies were back at the entrance.
The tour to the Chiao Lan Lake (1,500 baht/US$46.10 per person) is equally unforgettable—we highly recommend it. The ride at the back of the pickup took about an hour, the long-boat ride across the dam beneath the spectacular limestone cliffs another 45 minutes.
A swim, a canoe ride, and a luscious lunch awaited us in a restaurant at the Tone Tuey floating-cabin resort.
Nam Talu Cave is the park’s highlight for many visitors. After a few minutes’ walk through the jungle, we stepped into a creek and waded into the cave. The water went from ankle to knee to waist to chest high, turning from a nice little creek here to rapids there. And in one stretch we had to swim from rock to rock while rubbing elbows with the sharp cave walls. Giant spiders stretched between boulders, hundreds of fruit bats hung from the ceilings, and catfish slithered in the quiet waters. We emerged from the cave high on adrenalin and with no dry hair or thread.
Good thing the Thai Herb Restaurant back at the Khao Sok village was there to feed our tummies and souls.
Penang National Park, Malaysia
If you tire of George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage awesomeness, take the #101 bus to the terminus, and stroll to the Penang National Park. It’s free to enter but if you want to experience on the Canopy Walkway, pay RM5 (US$1.53) at the information desk and make sure you get there at the right time.
While the Canopy Walkway is worth it, my highlight was the jungle hike to Monkey Beach.
On the way, we spotted macaques, black giant squirrels, and monitor lizards. Like the beaches in nearby Batu Ferenggi, Monkey Beach does not inspire a swim or even a dip. We lounged on towels reading our books and drinking coconuts.
Jungle: A dream no more
The jungles of these three national parks in Southeast Asia require no machetes to navigate the relatively well-maintained paths. There are no poisonous snakes or big cats, not a single secret temple. All those beech and oak and pine-tree forests of my childhood look tame compared to the utter chaos of vegetation fighting for survival in the jungle. I’d never sweated so much in my entire life or swam through a cave.
Another childhood dream fulfilled.
If you’ve been to any of these national parks, what did you think? If you are planning to visit…
The nearest 7-11 is likely to be on a street corner within a few minutes’ walk. Buy a Magnum ice cream bar, because you deserve it for all your hard travel, and a can of 100 Plus, an isotonic drink, to replenish the fluids you lost sweating today. Dash to your air-conditioned AirBnB apartment, plop yourself on the couch, and watch a bad sci-fi movie. You can brush your teeth later. In the meantime…
Feel the spirit
Melaka is a ghost town with traffic. Its heyday passed 300 years ago, then the Brits blew a bunch of stuff up and Melaka waned until 1957 when Malaysia’s independence was proclaimed here. The historic decline makes the entire old town feel like it exists solely “for the benefit of the tourists,” who wade through hot streets like zombies.
Development, which intensified after UNESCO proclaimed the city a World Heritage site, has created odd pockets of emptiness. A grassy vacant field stretches behind the Dataran Pahlawan mall. The failed Melaka Monorail rusts along the river. When it’s windy the revolving cabin ascending the 110-meter Menara Taming Sari issues an eery wheeze reminiscent of ghost movies. Flood-lit construction sites of mixed-use developments resemble space colonies.
With few to no sidewalks, traffic whizzes by in weird patterns as you teeter on the non-existent shoulder between the road and the open sewer (make sure you breathe through your mouth). Grown men drive trishaws decked out in bright plastic flowers, Hello Kitty dolls, and neon lights while blasting Indian bhangra or European techno.
Here is the end-of-time, might as well go out with a sparkling grin.
Visit a museum
If old Melaka feels like a life-sized diorama, consider this: a poster board in the People’s Museum lists no fewer than 29 public museums. They are inexpensive and informative and you can get through them quickly. The private Chinese Jewelry Museum and the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum are pricier but well-executed and you get a guide. But if you can’t sleep visit the ruling party (UMNO) museum. The Maritime Museum could easily be called Mehritime. And at the Enduring Beauty Museum you can catch up on Axl Rose’s tattoos.
The place could use a dentistry museum.
Cover your ears
Earplugs or not, the pre-recorded call to prayer from a mosque awakens you at 6:00 a.m. An old Chinese man deep-throats himself with mucus and when he spits a juicy one out, it sends an appetite-destroying cartoon echo through town. Malaysian pop enlivens the near-freezing interior of the local bus and lodges the worst earworm in your brain. The weird sounds can drive you crazy. You could put in your headphones but wouldn’t you rather hear your fangs grit?
Buy junk on Jonker Street
Aside from tourist-watching, the only reason to visit Jalan Hang Jebat, or Jonker Street, is because it’s unavoidable. The best time to visit is Friday and Saturday after sundown when the night bazaar transforms the otherwise sleepy street into a flea market. Get your tacky jewelry, flip flops, or a corny t-shirt here, and when done, dislodge remains of various snacks sold here from between your ivories with your fingernails.
Worship in seven faiths in seventy minutes
The pointy spires of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church lean so much they seem to be toppling. Refrain from making parallels with the current state of the Church. Moving on. On the nearby ‘Dutch Square,’ the brick-red Christ Church is the oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia, built in 1741 as Dutch Reformed Christian, then converted by you-know-who to Anglican. Across the river on Jalan Tukang Emas, wave your one hand to Ganesha‘s four while you listen to the tavil-and-nadaswaram musical drone accompany two ministrants in the inner sanctum of the Sri Poyatha Moorthi Hindu Templedoing their thing with fire bowls.
With its mongrel architecture, the nearby Kampung Kapitan Kling Mosque is impressive, too, particularly the tiered minaret and pyramidal roof. Two rules: 1) Don’t make any Klingon jokes and, 2) if you aren’t Muslim, refrain from converting to Islam just to see the interior because it’s nearly impossible to convert back. Look through the window or at the photos instead. Split your final ten minutes among Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism at the Cheng Hoon Teng (Bright Clouds) Temple (1645), the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia and the most photogenic of Melaka’s houses of worship. Good thing you left it for the end.
But you must be hungry now.
Eat a hawker center
You’re never too far from a hawker center (food stalls surrounding a central seating area). Best come in the evening. Except some stalls close after 9 and some, especially nasi lemak, the Malaysian national dish, tend to be only open for breakfast and lunch. Some specialties are only available on weekends. And holidays like the Chinese New Year shut everything down, except the stalls that remain open but charge up to 20% extra for good luck. Oh, and Mondays are a day off for many stall owners. The whole system can very confusing to navigate, so if you see something you like get it now because you may not have a chance later.
Take a seat and wait for a drinks server. Order and pay for your beverage at the table. As for food, order at each selected stall with your table number, and pay COD at the table. You know what? Nevermind. Don’t even bother brushing your teeth in Melaka. You will eat all the time.
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