Malaysia offers much more than the fast-paced thrills available in the bigger cities. Polly Szantor had a taste of rural life by spending two nights in a village, dancing with the locals, and being impressed by the work of NGOs to improve the lives of the needy.
I was startled by a yelp from the trail behind me and turned to find 15-year-old Azreen gesticulating madly at a leech, which was dancing the hula on her leg. I was glad to be wearing leech-resistant socks even though I felt like a wimp. The path was teeming with the little critters, awakened by the previous night’s rain.
I was in Ulu Geroh, 12km east of Gopeng and 30km south of Ipoh, a place I’d heard of through the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) who have supported a conservation project there for the past 10 years. The MNS partnered with MENGO, a group of Malaysian Environmental NGOs, to promote tourism in the area.
Into the forests
Thanks to the work of MNS and MENGO, many of the local Semai tribe have trained to become nature guides and they lead small groups of visitors into the jungle to see rafflesias in bloom and colonies of Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing butterflies, the national butterfly of Malaysia.
Sadly, there were no flowers blooming when I visited the area, so we trekked to a waterfall about an hour from the village. My guide, Saripah, didn’t speak English. Azreen joined us as an interpreter, confessing that she never comes to the jungle, hence her fear of leeches. Hidden deep in the rainforest, the waterfall is lovely in its pristine isolation.
I thought of swimming, but the rocks were slippery and the water turbulent, so I was content to sit and enjoy the peace of the place. Indeed, it is always wonderful to escape the concrete jungle of the city and just slow down a bit.
On the way back we took a detour to a site close to the village in the hope of seeing butterflies. There are a few of these distinctive beauties on the wing, but it was only when I returned later in the afternoon that I saw them taking the waters. They were on the ground, feeding on mineral-rich spring water trickling across the path.
The sight of fifteen male Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing butterflies is mesmerising: their zigzagged black and neon yellow-green wings wide open, a good hand span across.
A few of them stood with wings trembling in ecstasy as they sipped the salty elixir. It’s a spot I returned to often during my visit, and I never tired of this remarkable manifestation.
Visiting the village
I arranged my visit by text message.
There’s no phone reception in the village, so if you want to go it’s important to book a few days in advance. Transport can be arranged. The access road is rough in places and if you drive in yourself you need a four-wheel-drive. Azreen’s father, Sami, met me in Gopeng and I followed him to the village. I would probably have got lost on my own – there’s a maze of dirt roads through the sprawling oil palm plantations.
Although it’s possible to visit Ulu Geroh for a day trip, I chose to stay for two nights. My accommodation was the whole upstairs room of the village hall. There was enough bedding for twenty people, but the mattresses were very thin and I was grateful for my Thermarest. I had a mosquito net, but most of the mozzies seemed to congregate in the loo (squat style with attached shower, the water refreshingly cool).
Food and entertainment
Throughout my stay I enjoyed delicious food cooked by Sami’s wife, Long, in the community kitchen. In addition to the usual fried rice and chicken curry, I tucked into boiled and fried tapioca root and leaves, eggs in spicy coconut milk, and fried river fish.
There was a festive air each time Long started cooking. Meals were communal affairs and there were always friends to help out. I had the impression that having visitors was an exciting event for the Semai. They bought special treats for us all to share – cake, bread, peanut butter, and jam.The kids were especially happy when I found the frozen chicken burgers unappealing, but I must say that the rest of the food was delicious.
In the evening we shared songs and I had a chance to practice traditional Semai dancing. My antics created great entertainment for the locals. Three of the ladies were eager to sleep alongside me, but I managed to politely decline the offer.
I think it was part of their hospitality, ensuring that every guest is treated with great care and the utmost respect. It’s certainly endearing, and underlined the desire of the villagers I met to make me feel comfortable and at home with them.
The next day, Saripah showed me some fancy new huts, which will house members of MENGO for their next project. They will join with the villagers to create a plantation of rubber trees and gaharu, also known as agarwood, an exotic and threatened hardwood highly valued for its distinctive fragrance. The resin is used to make perfumes and incense. Sami was quick to reassure me that this would create greater biodiversity, unlike the limited habitat provided by palm oil plantations. This is very encouraging, and the future looks bright for the Semai of Ulu Geroh.