Monkeys may snigger but cold showers aren't really my thing. During one year at university, an unwisely chosen lodging turned out to lack a water heater. So on days when a shower could not be stolen from Kent Ridge Hall (then still located across the sports complex), a dry lather of soap helped to insulate frigid ducks from the chilling onslaught of shuddering drops.
Back at the hotel, I had to resort to the same trick as the heater in the nearest bathroom was broken. Joe wisely used the cubicle at the end of the corridor which proved functionable and made her chirpy for dinner. The sweet little boy we cuddled earlier was nowhere to be seen. But as we passed by the now-opened drinking hole with larger-than-life posters of pool-ladies, we saw that long bushy tails might be a recurring trait in the town's alleycats. This time, though, the feline was a mangy tom with a scowl to curdle eggnog, whom we declined to caress. The cluster of Chinese diners was now ready for business and we sat to order a plate of Malaysian-style Hokkien mee, pork ribs, stir-fried vegetables with garlic and a quart of Guinness Foreign Extra. Chunks of lard littered the noodles like slices of dark, unmelted butter. A family of mixed heritage occupied a nearby table, their daughters promising to grow up into beauties of Chindian bearing.
The recent bout of rain had run its course, but the cool air lingered as we sifted through what retailers were open after dark. Joe made a hit-and-run-away foray into a jamu specialist stocking tinctures of seahorse and ginseng. One little sundry shop was filled with Indonesian sing-song tones. And clearbagged bootleg cereals that resembled catfood more than breakfast snacks lined a local grocery.
The boat to Kuala Tahan on the following day would only depart at two, so we spent the morning at the Pasar Tani. Plates from the previous night's suppers were still uncleared, attended by flies and free-wheeling magpie robins. The weekend farmer's market occupies the town square, rimmed on one end by low shops and on the other by the regular market complex where fowl are plucked and seafood sold from permanent niches. Stallholders in neat rows peddled fruits, vegetables, forest produce, drinks, home-cooked food, poultry, fish, garments and gaudy knick-knacks. From a Hakka-speaking uncle, we bought warm soymilk to counter the morning damp. The hills overlooking Jerantut were still shrouded in thick mist pierced by small flocks of bright white birds.
Marine catch could be found quite readily, even so far inland. I mistook for a shark a fish-and-a-front-half that was labelled 'ikan duri', until Joe pointed out the barbels. Apparently, at least three marine Siluriforms bear that common name in Malaysia. Other catfishes seen include gasping Bagrus(?), buckets of live Clarias and basins of floundering Pangasius or patin. Together with hapless tilapia, the ikan sangkar (literally caged fish reared in aquaculture farms) were butchered alive, descaled, definned and gutted for weekend woks before they could catch a final breath. Some patin were offered cooked and crisp, appearing better charred than some of the birds on sale. A few large cyprinids of riverine stock were also spotted.
A stall run by two Malay ladies displayed a good variety of small batches. We were intrigued by a bunch of long stem-like strips that didn't appear appetising at all and queried the proprietors, who said these were 'daun palas' used to wrap ketupat (Malay rice dumplings). One makcik helpfully unravelled a strip, revealing even fan-like folds with a width that seems to fit the dimensions of a polyhedronal wrap. Regular ketupat uses coconut leaves, but this is a variant called ketupat daun palas that employs the foliage of a forest palm (Licuala sp.). Petai and plantain were other staples, along with the Clitoria-tinged grains of nasi kerabu. Another curiosity were splintered seeds of a hardened demeanour (lower left photo above). The stallholder said these were 'buah keras' and pointed to green pods on an adjacent plate. They are used in nasi ulam, she added. I found out that these are probably the seeds of candlenuts, which are so called on account of their high lipids content which some islandic peoples use as a source of light. The raw seeds are noted laxatives. Still unidentified are the brown pods in the lower right photo above.
After a canai breakfast at a nearby stall, we surveyed the market again. A freshly set-up table was drawing a gathering of hoary swanks who felt and discussed the rich array of strange woods, stones, crystals, gems, horn and keratin. The proprietor was engaged in trimming and carving the raw materials into beadlets that he would then set onto crude steel rings. Many local men (including some of the rangers at Taman Negara) sported these amulets which purportedly offer a catalogue of protection against venom and vicious spirits or the power to ward off maladies and misfortune. In a glass container, there was a fetus of a kijang. Joe pondered the source of a largish avian mandible that appeared neither Coraciiform nor Falconiform.
A Guanyin temple behind a columbarium gave a bird's eye view of Jerantut. Inside, swarthy gods lurked in dark corners and Joe noted an artisan's fondness for dwarfish warriors. A few mongrels snoozed by an airy wayang stage. The way down led to the railway station, where a train was idling. A goodly host was thronging the cantina and here peckish Joe discovered what could be claimed as the best ayam goreng in the Malay Archipelago. The crowd certainly knew it; the trays were kept restocked every so often with piping hot and succulent wings, legs, breasts and thighs soaked in an aromatic coating of savoury spices and bathed in oily crumbles of crispy flavour. Befuddled by a cryptic coffee advertisement on the canteen wall, I was more thirsty than rumbly (my loss) but hungry Joe bought a bagful and devoured her way back to the hotel, vowing to return some day for a second bite of the chicken.
There were plenty of insects by the trail from Venus Drive all the way to Bukit Timah but also a healthy holiday crowd of strollers to make their documentation a wee dodgy. The clearing that runs parallel to the golf course and its outcast host of shacks is rich in edge species, from fencehugging lizards to delicate blue butterflies. On the tall grasses and sensitive mimosa fringing the path between the forest and the feeder road there are day-flying moths, skippers, dragonflies, bees and fat-bodied flies.
Down from the tree tops, monkey droppings on the track to Rifle Range Road drew the sips of cruising nymphs. A girthal expansion of the track served as a pow-wow for striped flutterers, an insect so addicted to the lightness of air that it seems to regard a brief perch as too unbearable a moment of heaviness. The disproportionately long wings makes the animal appear squat but they offer a high loading that lifts the dragonfly into the air with an ease more akin to the lazy winging of butterflies. The waspish base stripes and dark wingtip markings serve as if to ward off midair collisions between the massed assembly as they hover like stiff yoyos suspended by celestial strings and dart about in search of in-flight meals.
On a tattered Dillenia leaf just before the expressway, a crab spider with a happy face on its centimetre-long abdomen lurked and permitted a single shot before perfoming a geronimo into the shrubbery. Further down on the Durian Loop, a pair of procreating micropezids, stockinged legs outstretched in ecstasy, defied my efforts to keep them in firm focus. I have not seen fireflies locally, though they are known to occur in spots undefiled by the fluorescent light of night. But there are other beetles to illuminate our path by day. The most frequently-seen species of tiger beetle typically haunts sandy clearings, scampering with fearsome speed and hugely protective of their personal space. Another species gets by without wings. This third discovery flitted before us, a glowing flicker of fairy blue that spiralled onto a wayside bush. It turned out to be a Cicindelid half the size of its commoner cousin and with double the iridescence. Beauty it may be, but outsized eyes and mandibles lined with rows of ripping teeth promises a fast and fatal end to slower crawlers that fail to escape its feasting fancy.
A mature Pulai and several Terentang trees tower over the suspension bridge of the HSBC Tree Top Walk. Distant smokestacks can be seen on the northern horizon at times, but there are spots on the 250m canopy trail that succeed in defying the city's looming presence. Most visitors tarry not, breezing over the walk and descending within a minute or two. If they'd stay a little stiller, they might have heard flowerpeckers fussing over fruiting mistletoe, forest bulbuls flushing each other from favoured perches and the chirrups of foraging slender squirrels.
Near the top of a dead tree trunk, a flying dragon basked. It seemed rather larger than the usual Draco volans seen closer to the ground. Halfway across, somebody uttered 'Snake!' and pointed to a slender body draped over branches close to the handrail. Probably 1.2 metres long, the animal appears to be a Kopstein's bronzeback, one of four Dendrelaphis species known to occur locally. These lithe snakes hunt lizards and frogs in trees, are non-venomous and are generally inoffensive. On a whim, the creature snaked itself around the trail's siderail, prompting me to ask evie to call the ranger, more out of fear for the snake than concern for fellow walkers. It glided with silent ease over the network of blue ropes for a little while, its head sashaying with consummate elegance to survey forward territory with large, keen eyes, before deciding that the tree offered a superior refuge. The ranger stood watch for a time, while a few troopers gawked or gah! until the painted serpent lurched its way to safer boughs.
The night train reached KL with us dozing upright in near vertical seats which we only learnt how to recline a week later in Butterworth. For all its scrapers, the city by a muddy confluence has never offered much of a skyline, for want of smog-free days and the lack of panoramic lookouts in the overbuilt periphery of this sprawling federal territory. But for the briefest of moments in the magic hour of a new dawn, the view from the carriage leapt between two copses to reveal a gauntlet of gleaming towers in warm gold and the vision of a metropole caught between the space age and wide open sewers.
We are now a mountain range and more from Jerantut, but many of the passengers who took the ride to KL probably had much further to go, no thanks to the floods that had shut down much of the rail route between Kota Baru and Bahau. This leg of the journey ended underground in a dimly lit passage, with none of the open air ambiance of a freshly minted destination and certainly a world away from the greying columns of Tanjong Pagar and baroque minarets of the old city station. For at KL Sentral, the long distance platforms are shuffled to the basement to accomodate a cavernous terminal above that resembles a shopping mall than a transport hub meant to link riders of the intercity services, commuter trains, airport connections and metropolitan light rail transit.
We fumbled in our pockets for change at the washrooms and grabbed the LRT to Masjid Jamek, walking past the Kapitan's road to Puduraya in a futile attempt to buy bus tickets to central Pahang. A helpful lady at the Transnational counter directed us to Pekeliling on the northern outskirts of town where another terminal hosts buses that head towards the interior. Another LRT ride brought us to Titiwangsa and a foray down the damp aisles. At the most promising booth, a grumpy Chinese man snorted at our request for tickets to Jerantut, wondering aloud why on earth would people want to go to the national park in this season of deluge? "To
catch see birds," my duck replied. He harumphed and handed us two RM14.60 tickets under the banner of S.E. Ekspres for 1045. The bus would not take the usual way via Raub but a longer route towards Mertabab and Temerloh, he warned.
There was over an hour to go, so we hunted for breakfast at a nearby cluster of stalls. A hakka family cooked up wonton mee in undersized plates and overwhelming lusciousness. Sodden coffee stained our oily stomachs as we pondered plan B in the wake of the night's long detour and ominous headlines of floods in Mertabab. Skinny cats clung to chairs and corners every few steps between the hawker centre and the bus lanes.
A bright blue and yellow bus marked "Aerobus" shuttled in a little belatedly and for all the uncle's complaints, the service was fully-booked. Seated and sated, Joe journalled a little before unleashing a potboiler of local thrillery for my browsing along the Karak Highway pass isolated and insecure outcrops of karst, patches of degraded forest sundered by miles of biofuels-in-waiting. Acacia line the wayside, narrow estates of feed for sawmills and fatal fodder for wildlife. The climb up the lower reaches of the Titiwangsa range was unpromisingly sluggish but we shook off mild misgivings about riding a bus evidently made for short hauls between the airport and the city.
Right after we passed by a slip road leading up to Genting Highlands, the bus halted and the driver went down to fiddle the rear. Helpfully, there was a large building on the other side of the road with numerous diners and even a MacDonald's, presumably to fuel the guts of gamers before their ascent to high hopes. But I think only a few took the chance to rush across the furious highway for a snack, preferring the empty tummy of foolish optimism. After stewing for an hour without air-conditioning, we got off to the news of "injin rosak". The radiator probably overheated, as the driver was struggling to fill up a jerrycan at a pelting hillside drain. Failing to persuade Joe to charm her way to a thumbed ride, we rotted for another hour exchanging insults (Calamity Joe vs. Disaster Duck) before the engine fired up again. The bus rumbled towards Bentong (though alas not in the direction of Joe's maternal glen) with the air-con down until it came to a pitstop by a workshop where coolant was apparently procured. A troop of macaques bounced about a tree opposite the garage.
As forecast, parts of the highway to Temerloh were inundated, along with broad swathes of palm plantations, some adjacent to vast hills of bare red earth. At 3 pm, we approached Jerantut, reaching the town some 18 hours after departing Singapore, bladders abursting and ducks apecking. We suspect the suburban monkey would have been aghast at our choice of a late lunch but in defence we licked our fingers off washable plates and the condiments were bottled. And the Colonel's secret recipe does taste much better in the land of kampung chicks.
We needed a room for the night as the ferry to Taman Negara had already left, and so traversed the little townlet in our packs, turning up our noses at shifty quarters above shoplots, holding out for a decent pad at a paydirt price. The area around the market square and bus drop-off point wasn't promising and a nice lady pointed us to the "old street" where rooms were to be had. The first premise we came across, Hotel Sri Emas, was a grande dame of four floors promising luxurious backpacker facilities to a guestload of ghosts. It turned out that this unoccupied building is a shell and the real McCoy was a stone's throw away in a more modest facility with a jolly operations manager and pretty counter boy. For RM15 we got a two bed room (sans blankets) on the fourth floor. There was no attached bathroom but that didn't matter as we had the entire floor to ourselves.
After tucking in at the KFC (where a Belgian (?) couple in cashmere sweater and beach shirt cosied around the counter, looking as if they had just stepped out of a ferry from Saint-Tropez), we scurried around, puzzling shopboys with socky requests and bemoaning the seeming lack of boozing joints in this frontier settlement. On the far side of the market arena, a bustling bakery displayed confections of blueberry and sachertorte. It was all too much cream and cookies for my soury duck but Joe took a fancy to a 50 sen Planta Choco Ball with pink racing stripes. On the edge of the town centre we tried the teh halia at a gathering of gerai, but this proved lacklustre. Just across, a still-shuttered row of tze-char joints beckoned but we decided to return to the hotel to freshen up before dinner.
The back lane near the railway station led to a row of single-storey shops. A seedy drinking hole with a pool table and salacious posters concluded the line-up that included a coconut milkery and the local basketball association. Weaving around the alley was a canal filled with reeds, aquatic plants and well-spaced egrets. A hornet's nest the size of a medium keg dangled from a Paraserianthes (Albizia) tree. Festering portside, a veritable swamp of turbid water and town trash lay guarded by noisy water hens and munias. As we emerged onto the old main road, a small tom crouched by the side. His tail was long, lush and coon-like and his fur as velvety and plush as a short-hair could ever get. He endured Joe's embraces with the mildest of protests and made as if to follow us all the way to the hotel. I'd have liked to take him home, but suspect Angel would throw a pussy fit at seeing a boy prettier than her. But we didn't get to see him again later that day, the next or on the day of our return to Jerantut. The sweetest of moments are sometimes the shortest.
The jittery side of my duck showed at Tanjong Pagar when Joe remarked on my anxiety to board the train before it had actually arrived, much less cleared for departure. It's perhaps a hangover from years of rushed flights and flighty connections when there was little time to linger and lose oneself in the pleasure of a long ride.
The railway station between the harbour and the high towers of Shenton Way is by right Malaysian territory. And it feels like it. From the messy pockets of grass that line the cracked asphalt of the car park to the dimly-lit interior that reeks of old world anticipation despite a recent coating of pale paint. The action-filled arena of the world's speediest port is unfelt beneath the hollow hall littered with loungers accustomed to schedules as rubbery as the trees depicted on the wall-to-wall series of murals overlooking the lobby. The only economic activity shown on these painted panels with a faint relevance to the present state of the station's locality is shipping, but even this harks back to an era of slow steamers and hefty travel boxes borne by porters for petty cash.
I should have discarded my Teutonic penchant for trains that start on time, for our 1815 Ekspres Timuran (Eastern Express) that ends in Tumpat on the Thai-Kelantan border was to take off only an hour-and-a-quarter later. If we'd known, we might have hopped out to get one for the road after dinner at the station. Earlier we had dallied at the supermarket across the Amara, eyeing
rednecks and raucous groups of girls from the hills of Duxton. With our bags propped by a table on the catering side of the station, I decided against the samizdat Ramly Burger and opted for an Indian rojak platter, while evie tried a
pair of prata couple of canai and Joe indulged in the comfort of mutton begedil soup while spotting a fig? wasp barely a third of a centimetre in body length but with an ovipositor 4-5 times longer than the rest of the animal.
The "Komputer Rosak" sign on the ticket counter was an apt augur, for our cabin was only half-lit (admittedly conducive for snoozing) and the air-conditioning failed at some point after Kulai, perhaps to offer us a taste of how things were like when third-class tickets commanded the roar of wide-open windows and the lashing of windswept gales. Unfortunately, most of the windows were affixed, save three on each side that permitted small openings to blow in the night breeze.
At Segamat, hordes of nocturnal lice hollered from the trackside, stirred by the train's injection of momentary drive into their world of listless pursuits. Near the station, the multi-storey carcass of an abandoned building festers in the finery of lush bushes and sapling figs. A gnat landed on my finger, its feathery antennae signalling its non-affinity with biting bloodsuckers and drawing the safety of my curious fascination. It perched on my pinky for a few minutes, shaking its hindmost legs with casual ease before relaunching itself to ward off my thoughts of keeping a pet fly that'd be called Gnat King Cole (Joe's royal suggestion).
At the Gemas changeover, the train halted for an unseemly period. After about an hour, most passengers got off and hung about the area, lending an early bustle to the terminal's coffeeshop. We sat by a couple of museum piece from days when locomotives lacked walls and sipped bags of milky tea in the shadowy glare of the station's washroom complex (for some reason, there is a tap and sink at the lady's section but not the men's). I gathered from the staff that floods upstate in Bahau had cut off access northwards. After another hour, a cheerful announcement asked us to abandon all hope and find alternative routes to our destinations. A good number took their bags and vanished into the night. The rest of us hopped back on for a free four-hour ride to Kuala Lumpur that started nearly an hour after our scheduled non-arrival at Jerantut.