These curly cork screw vines can be seen in any forest in Malaysia. Well, at least in any of the forests we have been in. They are opportunistic, growing around another plant and reaching their way to the canopy and towards the sun. Eventually, they smother their host and the original plant rots away while the vine retains the whorled shape.
Micah had a four-day weekend for Chinese New Year. Our original plan was to go to Cambodia to see the temples at Angkor Wat. But we waited too long to buy the tickets, and everything was much more expensive…so we booked that trip for March, instead! Our next plan was to rent a car and drive to Melaka to see what we could see there, but because of the holiday weekend we decided we didn’t want to pay for exorbitant hotel fees. So Plan C was to rent a car for two days and see some places near KL that were outside the reaches of public transportation and/or not convenient for a cab.
This seemed like an awesome plan, but then we realized we didn’t really know anything about renting a car in Malaysia. Is there a more reputable service? Is there one near us, or will we have to go to the airport to pick it up? Will we get taken advantage of, because we don’t know what we should ask for in terms of price and extra services? So Micah asked Daneal, who appears to be the head concierge guy. (He might have an official title, but I don’t know it.) Micah asked for a recommendation on a place to call, assuming that we would then make the arrangements. Instead, Daneal said he would take care of it and call us in 15 minutes to confirm the details. The perks of living at a hotel! Do you remember that scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy introduces himself to Red and says, “I hear you’re a man who knows how to get things.” Daneal is certainly a man who knows how to get things! It worked out perfectly. The price was right, we got a GPS included, AND they dropped it off to us at the hotel and picked it up again.
On Saturday we went to FRIM, which is the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, but everyone here just calls it by the acronym. It is about 30 minutes away from our hotel, still within KL but outside the main metropolitan area. The cost is pretty reasonable, too, but we did feel nickel and dimed. The entrance fee was RM5 per person, plus a RM5 car fee, and then they asked if we had a camera. Bringing a camera is another RM5. The Canopy Walkway is an additional ticket at RM10 each. All in all, it cost us RM40 or about $11 USD. FRIM is a working research facility, so there are labs and work buildings around the grounds. For tourists, it has several hiking trails, a café and picnic area, as well as a campground and mountain biking trails. The main tourist draw, though, is the Canopy Walkway. You are encouraged to book tickets in advance, as they only allow 250 people per day on the walkway. Of this, they reserve 50 tickets for walk in customers. The park itself opened at 5:30am, and the walkway opened at 9:30am. I assume they start selling tickets as soon as the park opens. By the time we arrived, around 10:30am, they were just selling out of tickets…glad I emailed for a reservation! Tickets in hand, we happily followed the park signs to the walkway.
I wouldn’t say that we are really experienced hikers, but we enjoy hiking in general and try to take every opportunity to hike somewhere. We weren’t sure what kind of trails to expect, so we prepared for basically anything. We wore wicking shirts and UV-blocking pants…though to be honest, this is just a smart policy in Malaysia in general. We didn’t know what the terrain was going to be like, so we decided on our hiking boots instead of Tevas/Keens, and we prepped our Camelbaks the night before. I also packed our waterproof bag with snacks and a few “just in case” items like bandaids. Since the trails were basically a tourist area, I was pretty certain we could forego a full first aid kit and survival rations. At first, it seemed like we had over prepped. The trails were really wide, like almost wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and were graveled. Everyone else we saw looked like they were out for a casual walk in the park, many people wore flip-flops and it didn’t seem like many people were carrying packs or even water bottles of any kind. And here we are in our full hiking gear! As we left the main trail to take the trail to the Canopy Walk, however, we were glad we had worn our boots and brought Camelbaks! The trail got very steep, very narrow, and had a lot of switchbacks. It also became a more “natural” trail- it was still clearly marked and very well maintained, but it felt more like “real” jungle trekking over roots and rocks and things as opposed to walking along a gravel walking path.
The walkway itself was amazing. I am not typically afraid of heights and I used to enjoy doing ropes courses and “adventure” stuff, but my legs were more shaky than I thought I’d be! Micah, who doesn’t enjoy heights, was fine. It was a great experience, and we agree that we would do it again if one of his colleagues wanted to go or if we had visitors. The views were phenomenal. The sense of being that high in the trees was really unique and just very cool.
We knew from the website that we wouldn’t be able to take pictures while we were on the walkway itself. And what kind of blogger would I be without pictures of it? (Pics, or it didn’t happen!) So we talked about buying a Go Pro video camera. We have toyed with it before, and decided we would have enough opportunities to use it, between the canopy walkway, the Cambodia trip, and a few other things we have planned. So we bought one the day before. I really liked using it, it was pretty lightweight to wear on a head strap, but after hiking with it for a while felt like the strap was trying to burrow into my scalp and I took it off. I don’t have a lot of patience for editing videos, either, so that will take a long time to learn the best ways to do it. Other than that, the Go Pro gets my endorsement!
Here is the video from the first leg of the walk. (It’s also available on our YouTube channel.) According to this, it took about 3 minutes, but it really felt longer. I think the whole thing probably took us about 15 minutes, including time to enjoy the scenery at the platforms, but it felt like we were in the canopy for a really long time! I highly recommend doing this particular walk, or one like it, if you ever have the opportunity.
After acclimating to driving on Saturday, on Sunday we went far outside the city – to a different state, even – to check out the National Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah. According to Google Maps, it should have taken us about 1.5 hours to get there. We made it there in 2 hours, thanks to the GPS not being speedy enough about which turns to take. Overall, it was not too bad of a trip. Their website is a government run site, and the information was pretty minimal. Lonely Planet talked about it a little, but it didn’t get a rave review or anything, so we weren’t too sure what we were getting ourselves into. The drive there was really beautiful though, through the mountains and some palm plantations, and we kept saying things like, “Well, even if the elephant thing sucks, this is a nice drive!”
We finally arrived and parked easily, which was nice because FRIM’s parking isn’t well marked and was a free for all. We found the visitor’s center, also clearly marked and easy to find, and filled out our registration form releasing the center of all liability. The entrance is by donation, whatever amount you want to pay. This is really nice because it makes visiting the center affordable for everyone. We elected to pay extra for tickets for the baby elephant “bath time” which also included a guide and some behind the scenes stuff. For two adults, this cost RM50, or about $15 USD.
After we registered, there was still time to feed the elephants before the suggested/required introductory video, so we went down to do that. For RM3 you could buy a bundle of about 10 pieces of sugar cane to feed the elephants. At first we just watched the elephants, but then we couldn’t resist feeding them. These elephants are kept in what appeared to be pretty small paddocks, and both of us were a little surprised. We expected it to be more “free range,” since it was a conservation center and all. But it was fun to feed them, so we did that for a bit, then had lunch and went to watch the video. The video was actually really interesting, and detailed how the center rescues rogue elephants that are endangering villages or plantations. There’s an argument here about “maybe people shouldn’t be encroaching on the elephants’ habitat, and there would be less rogue elephant behavior.” That’s certainly true, but outside the scope of my tourist expertise. And, quite frankly, it’s hard to tell people they can’t make a living or live in the jungle because an elephant might want that part of the jungle. I think the center takes the view of “Unfortunately this is inevitable, so what can we do to help the elephants given that these are the circumstances?” So that’s the view I will take here as well.
After the video, we met up with our tour guide. Kamil was amazing, very knowledgeable and patient with all of our questions. We first learned more about the elephants in the paddocks. They are there in the afternoons for the visitors to see, but in the mornings they get “free roaming” time in the jungle surrounding the center to acclimate them to being independent. They also get some “free play” time with toys for stimulation. The elephants in the paddocks are being rehabilitated to be reintroduced to the wild in various national and state parks; they are at the center while they are getting medical treatment and/or growing up to where they can be released. Some of the elephants will also be trained to be rescue elephants. The rescue elephants go along to help with the rogue elephants. Obviously, being captured and relocated is very stressful for an elephant, so the rescue elephants help the rogue elephant calm down and feel better because elephants are very social animals. They called the rescue elephants the Big Elephants, and they were big!
After a ranger told us more about what kind of work the Big Elephants do, and after we saw the Big Elephant bath time, it was time for the baby elephant bath time. Our guide got us in the first group to participate, which was cool. There were two baby elephants in the river and about 5 people would help bathe the elephant at a time, along with 3 or 4 guides. We scrubbed his back and head with a brush and played and splashed water around. It was really fun for us, and it seemed like the elephant enjoyed the playtime also. After our turn was over, walking out of the river, Micah and I agreed that those few minutes were amazing and well worth the trip there. (It also completely validated the purchase of the Go Pro as we now have an awesome video!) If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Conservation Centre, pay the extra money for bath time, you won’t be disappointed. And bring a change of clothes and some towels.
After we changed into our newly purchased t-shirts and toweled off with our newly purchased towel, we met up with our guide again because it was time for more behind the scenes stuff. The center has three babies. The two bigger ones, 2-3 years old, were the ones we bathed in the river. The third one was about 6-9 months and was about the size of a motorcycle. This baby, Lanchang, is the one we got to play with. He came trotting out with his “Uncle,” that’s how the handler was introduced to us, and looked so happy to be out for a walk. He was really curious about everything, trying to find things to pick up with his trunk. Lanchang was really interested in walking around, so when it was our turn for playtime, we basically just walked around with him. It was surprisingly fun! The other people on the behind the scenes tour had two little girls, so we reluctantly finished our playtime so the girls could play.
Kamil told us more about some of the other elephants, including one that lost a foot. Selendang was caught in a trap and was so injured that her foot had to be amputated. Not to worry though, they designed a prosthetic leg for her so she can go out in the jungle for her free roaming time still. She shares a paddock with another elephant, and they figured out how to remove her prosthetic and play with it. So while she is in the paddock, the handlers take the prosthetic off because it is too expensive to be used as a toy. Because of her injury, her other leg is bowed out since it does all of the front weight bearing. Kamil said a vet was coming in soon to design a brace to help support that leg. She will likely have a shorter life span than the other elephants and won’t be able to be rehabilitated to go back to the jungle or to become a rescue elephant. If she were in the wild though, she would have already died from her wound most likely.
The behind the scenes tour also includes doing some “chores.” Some of the families cut up fruit for elephant snack time, some made milk for the baby elephants, and Micah was handed a shovel. Fortunately for me, Kamil just told me where to stand and to get my camera ready. I’ll take the light duty over the poop shoveling any day!
After this, it was sadly time to go. We really enjoyed the day, and I think having access to a private tour made it worthwhile. We learned so much more and came away with a much different impression of the centre and the work they do than we would have otherwise.
The drive back was awful, by the way. What should have been a 1.5-hour drive took 5 hours. Including about 30 minutes at a rest stop, 28 of which I spent in line for the bathroom. I’d characterize the traffic as “stop and go” but it was really much more “stop” than “go.” Micah did an amazing job navigating the traffic and the unfamiliar road rules…apparently it is OK to make an extra lane in the breakdown lane…when this happens, all the cars shift over to accommodate the extra lane, meaning that the far lane is really close to the center divider and the middle lane is basically on the lane divider. Oh, and it also rained the entire way through the mountains. It was really stressful to be a passenger, I am very thankful I didn’t have to drive in those conditions!
To end on a happy note, please enjoy the video of highlights of feeding the elephants, playing with the baby, and bath time. (Also available on our YouTube channel.)