One of my weekly, self-imposed “jobs” is to find things to do on the weekends. We like hiking and outdoor activities in general, and one thing we’ve looked forward to experiencing in Malaysia is jungle trekking. This past Monday was another holiday, Hari Raya Haji, to celebrate the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca, so Micah had a 3 day weekend. This seemed like an ideal time to take a day trip out of the city and find some jungle to trek in! Jungle trekking in the highlands around KL is a really popular activity, so we knew it wouldn’t be very hard to find a place to trek and we knew that there would be opportunities within a reasonable distance from the city. The hard part was going to be finding transportation. Armed with my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, I started investigating options. (Side note: I love Lonely Planet. I’ve never used them much before, but their KL and Malaysia books have been wonderful. They suggest great things to do on a budget and include a lot of self-guided activities. Lonely Planet has earned my undying love and affection.)
I found one or two that we could take public transportation to and some that we would need to rent a car. There were some that would be best as an overnight trip due to the time it takes to get there. Some were guided and some were “on your own.” One of the treks that Lonely Planet recommends as an easy day trip from KL and an easy hike is a trek to Chiling Falls. The book said you could do it on your own, but recommended hiring a guide. Since we are rookie trekkers, we thought hiring a guide would be a good idea to take some of the pressure off of finding our way and being safe on the river crossings. In particular, the book recommended Happy Yen. Lonely Planet said Happy would come pick us up at our hotel, take care of all of our food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack), and of course be our guide on the trail. Sounded good to us! In fact, the tour package included much more than just the trek. Happy calls his tour package “Self Awareness in the Rainforest Tour.” In addition to transportation, food, and the trek itself, he talked about the history of Malaysia, he told us about Buddhism and Taoism, he pointed out local flora and fauna on the trek, brought us to a hot spring, and did some mental training about “mind over matter” at the hot springs pool. It sounded like a lot to pack in to one day, but it all sounded great. (Spoiler alert: the day was awesome, Happy was awesome, and we can’t wait to do another trek- hopefully with Happy!)
Happy picked us up at our hotel and took us outside of KL to have breakfast at a local Indian restaurant. When I made the reservation, he let us know that we would be going with another small party, a woman who runs a local tour and travel agency who was going to help him with marketing. We got to meet Peggy, her two staffers, and her daughter at breakfast. It was nice to get to know them before we started trekking together. After breakfast, we began the day’s adventure by visiting a Buddhist temple and learning about different major world religions. Actually, it was more like we learned about some big similarities between several major world religions. (Happy was very clear about his own opinions, but never proselytized to us or otherwise advocated for a specific religion.) It was interesting to have this discussion, and Happy worked to engage all of us in it. Visiting the temple was a really nice start to the day. It put me in a reflective mindset, ready to appreciate the world around me, before we started our trek.
We left the temple and drove to Kuala Kubu Bharu where we would start the trek, about 70 kilometers from KL. Happy pointed out several different styles of local homes on the way, including homes on stilts, and pointed out the ways in which people utilize their space. All of the homes we saw were one story and none of them were very big. Many of them also had a commercial endeavor on the property, whether it was a food stall or something else, like a car repair business. Happy told us that many of the residents commute to KL for work. (I wouldn’t call the town a suburb in any way though. It felt like a town that just happened to be in reasonably close proximity to a major city.) Life outside of the city looks very different from life inside the city- it was very rural, the only reminder of urban living was the commuter rail on the outskirt of the town.
We parked and loaded all of our valuables into a waterproof bag that one of our fellow trekkers carried in a back pack. Happy told us to keep our cameras out, so I hiked with it around my neck for a bit, though it would end up in the waterproof bag before long. After a short while, we came to a clearing with a map and some pavilions for picnics. There was also a ranger hut/info booth. I’m unclear if we had to pay a fee to enter the park or use the trail, or if Happy was just announcing his presence, or saying hi to a friend, or what actually happened there. One of the benefits of hiring a guide- all of the minutiae of bureaucracy are taken care of and you can just take pictures. There was a small suspension bridge over the river, only 4 people allowed at a time, and then we were on our way into the jungle!
The trail to Chiling Falls was about 3km and 90 minutes of trekking time. On the way to the waterfall, Happy stopped us at several places to point out local plants or tells us about different animals he has seen along the trail. We did not see anything larger than some dragonflies, but that was OK since some of the things he has seen include large snakes and wild boars. Between the parking lot and the clearing, the trail was wide enough for two or three people to walk side by side. After we crossed the suspension bridge into the jungle, the trail was really only wide enough for one person and ran through a stream bed in several places. It was tricky when we passed other groups returning from the falls. One group would have to stop and move to the side so the other group could pass. We hiked along the river sometimes and at times we were farther away, but we could always hear the roar of it as it moved downstream. I knew there would be 5 crossings, and I assumed they would be in places where the river was calm and/or shallow. Hearing how fast the river was moving, on top of following this narrow trail that wasn’t totally clear in places, made me very glad we decided to hire a guide and not do it on our own.
At some point before the first river crossing we decided to put the camera away. It had started raining and we elected to be safe and add the camera to the waterproof bag. This was good, because the camera didn’t get ruined, but also unfortunate because we couldn’t take pictures of any of the river crossings. I guess we could have stopped everyone, pulled out the camera, snapped a few shots, and repacked the waterproof bag. But that seemed like a lot of hassle. Plus, neither Micah nor I was carrying the bag, so that added another level of hassle to it. (First lesson learned: If we are going to do more treks, get our own waterproof bag.) What I pictured about the river crossings (shallow places and/or slow moving water) was completely inaccurate. We have had some good rainstorms in the week before our trek, so the river was moving very fast and perhaps it was a little higher than normal. Happy said it wasn’t much different from normal, but I think he was probably trying to encourage us. Most of the crossings were at least knee-deep, several of them were more like waist-deep. He handled each crossing like he was crossing the street, but the rest of us struggled a bit. You couldn’t see where you were placing your feet, so we often kicked boulders or stumbled over them or slipped on them or otherwise lost our balance in the current. I don’t think anyone went all the way under, but we all got very, very wet. It was really exciting, actually, and it added a fun level of adventure to the trek. We also got to verify that Micah’s new watch is waterproof, so that was good.
Most of the trail went gently uphill, but it wasn’t very steep. After the last river crossing, you had to carefully step over some large above-ground tree roots and scramble over some fallen trees. Most of us were watching the path and our feet and all of a sudden, there were the Falls. There was a small clearing with some large boulders and rocks to sit on, and a sort of beach where you could wade into the pool at the base of the waterfall. Micah and our buddy Rick swam out to the rocks and jumped off. I waded a little bit, but felt plenty wet already so I chose not to swim. We ate our lunch, Happy made us coffee, we fed the fish, and then packed up and headed back down the trail. On the trek down, we didn’t stop to learn about plants or discuss Tao philosophy like we did on the trek up, we just kept moving.
At this point, I could have happily ended the day, but we weren’t done! We got back to the car, soaking wet. We thought we would change into our dry clothes for the next stop. Instead, Happy pulled out some plastic mats and we sat on those in our sopping clothes. The next item on the itinerary was a visit to the local hot springs. They are a natural hot springs, so the science nerds/enthusiasts in the car discussed the source of heat (geothermal) and then discussed whether there are any volcanoes in Malaysia (there aren’t). Happy told us about the health benefits of the hot springs and he also told us that last week they were around 50C (122F). I like a jacuzzi or hot tub as much as the next person, but that seemed really hot to me!
We get to the springs and he brought us over to a small pool, close to the source of the springs. He asked us to line up our feet, then he filled a bucket and dumped the hot water over our legs. It was really hot! Later, we found out it was 53C (127F). At this point, he brought us over to the larger pool, where we could wade and sit. It felt a little cooler, probably because the nerve endings in my leg hadn’t regenerated yet. I sat down and as my body acclimated to the temperature it actually felt really nice. Turns out it was about 47C (116F). We sat here for 10 or 15 minutes and Happy brought us back to the smaller pool. He pulled out a bucket and helped us to use “mind over matter” techniques to acclimate to it and eventually we all dumped bucketfuls of the super hot water over our heads, chests, and backs. It was still really hot, but it felt OK. If the point of the hot springs is to help your circulation, that definitely got our blood moving!
By this point we are all thoroughly soaked. We changed in the less-than-pristine bathrooms, carefully avoiding the standing water (hopefully from the bidet hose rather than from the toilet) on the floor of the stalls. I also had my first “fully Malaysian” toilet experience! A hole in the floor and no TP. Mind over matter was the theme of the day! Dry and clean-ish from the sulfury water of the hot springs, we went down the road for dinner. Happy is a regular at this this restaurant, so he called in our order on the way and we had steaming hot, delicious food minutes after we sat down. Curry pot prawns, fish curry, vegetable (cabbage, I think), and pork trotters. It was all fantastic but the pork trotters were my favorite. They were very tender and juicy with a delicious sauce. He dropped us back at the hotel around 6pm, and I think we were in bed by 8:30.
For a first jungle trek experience, I was thrilled. Happy Yen’s Self Awareness tour was a great day. Happy is a really nice guy and a very knowledgeable guide. We really loved this adventure. We will likely hire him for a future jungle trek!
More pictures can be found here.