I learnt a lot about myself in the Malaysian jungle. I conquered a few fears and got past a few hang ups. It all started with a visit to an Orang Asli village in Taman Negara in the Peninsular Interior of Malaysia. ”Orang” means jungle. There were no mistakes about where I was either. It was hot, it was humid and there were bugs.
A five-hour bus journey followed by a three-hour long-boat ride up the Sungai Tembling (river), finally ended at the jungle base camp of Kuala Tahan. There isn’t very much in Kuala Tahan, except for the floating restaurants. The restaurants are pontoons attached to the bank of the river with rope and a few planks of wood to walk across to go and have a feed. Otherwise the point of the place is to go and explore the jungle.
My travelling buddy, Jeremy and I headed upstream to visit an Orang Asli village. We arrived with 5-6 other long boats full of tourists and I started to wonder whether we would get the local experience we wanted or we were just going to get to see a circus version of village life – everyone performing for the crowd. We sat down with a group of 7-8 other people and started listening to a guide explain village life. One of the villagers was walking slowly behind the our group perched on wooden rails. The guide
introduced him as the chief and he nodded to the group, although he didn’t look at anyone else except Jeremy. Our guide continued talking, meanwhile the chief neglected to move on to the next group of tourists waiting to be introduced. He perched himself on the wooden rail between Jeremy and my self. He continued to look at Jeremy, occasionally turning to look at me, then down at the women by the river and then at Jeremy again.
It was a very strange feeling. And both Jeremy and I felt it. This old man, exuding wisdom, interest and contentment from every pore, sat amongst us, pondering some energy greater than either of us could identify. He introduced himself to Jeremy as the chief and as the village medicine man. Jeremy introduced himself back as a medicine man, a Doctor. The chief looked over at me, his eyes had a depth that lured you in, like magnets drawing you in to the vast wealth of knowledge and connection to the earth he had. He asked me if I was Jeremy’s wife. I said no and he turned to look at the women by the river again, babes in arms, spread out on a reed mat. He pointed to one of the women, it was his wife. He held up a hand, his ring finger home to a woven vine ring – his wedding ring to his wife.
The chief and Jeremy sank into their own world discussing all the medicinal plants in the jungle. How were they found, did they plant seeds to grow more, how were they applied, what medicinal properties did each plant have. This was no easy task either as the chief had very limited English and Jeremy very limited Malay and no local dialect knowledge. I watched them sign and come up with other words to describe ailments and flowers and plants. Even without the correct words or language, we all understood what was being talked about. But after 20 minutes, the chief pulled himself away from the conversation. He must go and greet the other guests to his village. He welcomed us to explore his village further.
We were buzzing with excitement. Jeremy took off to look around the village and I was invited to join in the games with a group of children. For a while we were both lost in time. Mingling amongst the villagers and absorbing all we could. I was playing chasing games with the children, when the tour guide came up and said it was time to go, they’d almost left with out us as everyone else had already gone back to the long boats. The chief and Jeremy appeared from the back of the village, still deep in conversation. I had three children running up to tug on my shirt, before racing away squealing, encouraging me to chase them again.
But time was up. Our brief interlude in the reality of their world was over. The chief invited us to come back and visit anytime, he liked us, he said. We made our way back down to the river and our long-boat, constantly looking back, to see the chief, and a giggling brood of children hide behind his legs, and watch us leave.