Being Intrepid – some successes and a failure

A perfect night to head off into the jungle to see fireflies –

“In a minute, you will see like Christmas tree,” our guide said.  And she wasn’t wrong – all the mangrove trees lining the river were filled with tiny twinkling lights.

I tried to photograph them, but just got a completely black picture.

Then, a man sitting cross-legged at the front of the boat began waving a lamp, making complicated patterns in the air which mimic the queen, apparently.  And all the fireflies left their trees and flew across the water like a cloud of tiny stars, towards our boat.

If you manage to catch a firefly, you can hold it in your hand and make a wish before letting it go.  Obviously I can’t reveal my wish, but do come and visit me at my villa on Lake Como once I’ve won the lottery.

Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in SE Asia, but it was romantically shrouded in mist the day I went trekking there –

In the National Park surrounding the mountain I saw the world’s smallest orchid –

I was rather surprised when I saw it, as it’s only the flower that’s small and not the leaves – I was expecting a sort of dolls’ house orchid.

Then at the other end of the scale we saw the world’s largest flower – the rafflesia.  But I was rather underwhelmed by it –

– it didn’t look much like a flower at all.  I thought it looked a lot better in the advertising material, where it had made a bit more of an effort to scrub up for the photos –

But being an exotic bloom called Keith is enough to make anyone stop caring, I suppose.

I had two fruit-related successes on my trip.

Firstly, I saw red pomelo in the market and wanted to buy one to try it.  But how could I peel it if I bought it, as the skin is as thick as rhinoceros hide?

This is the sort of knife the professionals use to tackle the job –

And my hotel had no restaurant, so I couldn’t even borrow a knife.

Well, I have to report that it is perfectly possible to peel a pomelo using a pair of nail scissors –

– and it was delicious, definitely worth the struggle.

I also ate my first proper durian, fresh from the pod, not just a tiny shrink-wrapped piece sold to tourists who want to show how fearless they are, in central KL.

I bought it at the Sunday market, and the stallholder assured me it was a small one, perfect for one person

She removed all the seeds and put them onto a tray –

– and I carried them around as if I was holding a time bomb, very aware of the terrible smell emanating from the bag.  Finally, I found a secluded bench –

– where I sat and ate it – having asked for an extra plastic bag so I wouldn’t have to touch the fruit – the smell can linger for days, so I’m told.

The verdict?

… I do like durian, but a whole one – even a small one – is a bit too much.

The waters of the South China Sea are beautifully clear and full of tropical fish, so perfect for an intrepid snorkelling expedition.

I went out on a trip to a remote bay –

With beautiful clear water –

– and I’m happy to be able to reassure you that Nemo is alive and well and living with hundreds of his relatives in the coral reefs off the coast of Borneo.

Not my photo – bizarrely, I found this pic on the wall of the ladies’ loo at KL airport.

My failure to be intrepid involved yet another attempt to complete a circuit along a treetop walkway without sweats and palpitations and an urge to whimper pathetically all the way round.

Here I am, clinging on in terror as I’m about to launch off onto a swaying plank forty metres in the air, with only a bit of netting on each side as a barrier between me and instant death –

The blurb says you can “enjoy the spectacular wildness of Borneo’s ancient rainforest”, but I can truthfully say that I didn’t enjoy a single second of it.

I’m determined to carry on being intrepid and expanding my comfort zone, but from now on I’ll concentrate on expanding it horizontally rather than vertically.

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When my heart nearly stopped in Borneo

I’ve been on a jungle trekking expedition in Sabah – the furthest outpost of Malaysia, way out on the eastern edge of Borneo.

We spent our time either cruising down the river looking for wildlife, or manfully hacking our way through the jungle on what was euphemistically termed ‘jungle walks’.  I managed to rip two pairs of trousers to shreds and slide down a jungle-covered slope at high speed, rather than the slow and dignified descent that I’d planned.

The river cuts through the jungle with wildlife coming right up to the water’s edge, and we soon got to know the drill – when you see another boat that’s stopped, with everyone looking and pointing in the same direction –

– make a beeline for them, barge their boat out of the way and try to see what they’ve spotted.

Using this method, along with the phenomenal spotting skills of our cool dude guide –

– we managed to see proboscis monkeys, hornbills, pig-tailed macaques –

– not as elegant as the long-tailed macaques, but then they don’t seem to have the same thuggish tendencies either.

We saw a civet feeding in a tree on a night cruise, and even spotted a couple of wild orang utans, who are notoriously shy and difficult to see.  But one of them was apparently building a nest high up in a tree, so I think it must have been having an identity crisis – or else there’s a chronic housing shortage in the jungle.

It’s rather difficult to photograph the animals as they’re small and keep moving, but I did take a picture of a blue-eared kingfisher, as it was fast asleep  just a metre or so from our boat.

The sky changed constantly … from blue and serene –

to romantic –

to downright dramatic –

– I half expected the Angel Gabriel to appear from this cloud, wreathed in fire.  And if he had appeared, I would have sent him off to deal with a boatload of Russians, rocking precariously on the edges of their boat as they sat and smoked, ignoring the seats, which obviously weren’t macho enough for them, and who launched a drone at an orang utan.  Then when they were told it wasn’t allowed, they sent it whizzing off at top speed down the river, frightening everything within earshot.  If Gabriel had hurled fire and brimstone down on the drone and its owners, singeing them around their pot-bellied edges, justice would have been served.

This huge crocodile swam alongside our boat for a while –

– it’s apparently a caiman, and according to my new American friend Blyth, they make excellent handbags.

On our night hike the guide caught a firefly and it sat quite happily on my hand, glowing away –

It’s a female, I learnt, as it was flashing twice a second, whilst males only flash once a second.  Typical, I thought, the women working twice as hard as the men, but just getting on with it with no fuss.

And now to my heart-stopping moment, which didn’t involve crocodiles, poisonous millipedes or any of the other venomous creatures we came across.  It happened when I got out of bed in my little jungle cabin yesterday morning.  I was just adjusting to being vertical, when I noticed an ominous brown shape on the sheet where I’d been lying –

I shrieked and leapt into the farthest corner of the room.  How long had it been there?  Had I slept with a cockroach in my bed all night?

I knew I’d have to trap it before I did anything else – I draw the line at having free-range cockroaches in my bedroom.  I inched forwards with a cup to slam over it, but ready to take off like a gazelle again if need be … those things can really move.

But as I got within cup slamming distance, it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t a cockroach after all … it was in fact an Australian smoked almond –

I thought almonds had all kinds of health-giving properties designed to prevent heart attacks – but now I’m not so sure.

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East is East …

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …

… Well, Rudyard Kipling had obviously never been to Malaysia, is all I can say.

One of the things I shall miss most – OK, the one thing that I will miss the most – when I leave KL is the food.  There is everything here – not just the Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines of the local population – but anything else you could wish for too, and East most definitely met West for me last week.

On Sunday we went to a celebrity chef’s restaurant.  Chef Ismail has a Malay restaurant in town, and there are videos of his TV programmes on a constant loop outside the dining room –

So, of course I recognised him instantly when I saw him in the dining room, and asked for a photo for my blog –

Rather excitingly, the co-owner of the restaurant is Malaysia’s first astronaut, a very handsome man who is also an orthopedic surgeon –

Disappointingly, he wasn’t at the restaurant, he was probably in orbit or saving the life of a small child in an operating theatre somewhere.

Malay food is delicious, but it’s all fried and not very healthy.  This woman is making roti jala, a sort of lacy pancake that you eat with curry –

and there’s a plate of popia – Malaysian spring rolls covered in a sweet and spicy sauce – on the table too.  We also ate the best satay I’ve had so far, and an amazing beef rendang where you could really taste the fresh lemongrass and all the other spices.

Conseqently, we had to breathe in for our photo opportunity with Chef Ismail after dinner –

And then yesterday – about 100 metres from work – I came across this …

– a Swiss restaurant serving genuine raclette – and I was very excited –

For me, Malaysia is the ultimate example of East and West living side by side in perfect culinary harmony.

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On a journey to enlightenment, also involving chicken feet

One astonishing fact about Malaysia is that there’s only one place in the whole country where it’s legal to gamble.  It’s astonishing because this is a country with 6.6 million Chinese inhabitants, and the Chinese love to gamble.  So why the government isn’t cashing in on this and setting up casinos in every town, I don’t know – but it may have something to do with the fact that gambling is banned for Muslims, so they can’t be seen to be actively promoting something which is prohibited for over 50% of the population.

Malaysia’s Las Vegas, as it’s known informally, is the Genting Highlands, and it’s about an hour’s drive from KL – high up in the wonderfully-named Titiwangsa Mountains, where the temperature is a refreshing 15 degrees; a world away from the 30-plus degrees of stickiness of the lowlands.

The cable car takes you up through the clouds

with some beautiful jungle views on the way up –

until you reach the summit, which is an area of built-up hideousness, with ugly hotels –

and an unfinished 20th Century Fox theme park, which has been 12 years in the building already, and is still nowhere near finished –

The whole place is intended to be appreciated from indoors rather than outdoors, and the windowless casinos, hotels and shopping malls all lead into each other with no walking trails to enjoy the views (‘eat can, gamble can, walk cannot’ as the locals say).

I’ve never been a gambler – I feel that I have enough vices already, without acquiring another one – so just enjoyed the understated decor inside the casino hotels, where you can see leopards –

and snakes –

dangling from fairy-lit trees – presumably to give the illusion of being outdoors, without any of the inconvenience of actually having to go outdoors.

Far more interesting was the Chinese temple, halfway up the mountain, where I went on a journey of enlightenment to learn about the Ten Courts, or Chambers, of Hell in Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.

The temple has a spectacular setting –

with all the views that are missing at the top of the mountain –

The Ten Courts of Hell are similar to Dante’s Circles of Hell, and ironically the Second Court includes all the gamblers, who are frozen into blocks of ice for eternity –

– obviously not a very effective deterrent in these parts.

There is also a special Court, or chamber, in Hell for children who show disrepect for their parents –

These ungrateful offspring are wedged inside a couple of giant stones and squashed –

– like a non-vegetarian Bourbon biscuit.

I shall be sharing these images with my children, to serve as a dire warning.

The second phase of my enlightenment that day took place at lunchtime, when I decided to try my first ever chicken feet –

– and I acquired the wisdom to understand that these gelatinous, bony extremities are not the most palatable part of the chicken.  When the Cockneys decided to refer to feet as ‘plates of meat’ they obviously didn’t have chicken feet in mind.


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