Monday, October 3, 2011

Taman Negara National Park

Boat ride to Kuala Tahan
Ann Marie on the canopy walkway

Ryan and I on the walkway
Looking down, 45 meters above the ground
Blow gun demonstration

Aiming at the teddy bear

Quivers full of darts for the toy blowguns

It's finally time to sit down and blog about the final part of our trip. Things have been a little crazy since we got home - adjusting to the time difference, going back to school and work, starting to train for the Dawg Dash 5K at the end of the month, buying all sorts of cheap/in season produce and madly canning or freezing it, and being sick from the anti-malarial medication I have to take for a month after leaving the jungle - oh joy! And then there's the fact that Ryan left for a job in St. Louis on Saturday night with a full three hours notice. Never a dull moment!

If there is one place I could pick to go back to in Malaysia, it would definitely be Taman Negara National Park. We really only had one full day there, but I am glad we went. Just getting there was an adventure. After a death-defying minibus ride from KL to Kuala Tembeling, we boarded a long dug-out riverboat (with sideboards just for the comfort of the tourists) and headed upstream for three hours to Kuala Tahan, a small town full of guest-houses and hotels that serves as the jumping-off point for Taman Negara. We got there too late in the day to head into the park (across the river) but we signed up for a "night safari" which consisted of driving around palm oil plantations in the back of a pickup truck (with a padded seat) looking for wildlife with a spotlight. We did see an amazingly beautiful little jungle cat, a snake, a flying squirrel (very cool, even if far away), and lots of birds. But it was really about the experience. =)

The main tourist attraction IN the National Park is the canopy walkway - 400 meters of hanging walkways 30-45 meters above the forest floor. We had read that it fills up with tour groups by 10am, so we headed out early and were there when it opened at 9. We had the entire thing to ourselves (well, besides the park employee who hurried past us with a hammer to nail in some boards before we got to them - don't worry, he said it was fine, lol) - lucky because only four people are allowed on each span of walkway at a time, and everyone has to stay at least 5 m apart. As you can imagine, that means very limited stopping to look around and take photos when there are hoards of tourists waiting for their turn.

Walking through the forest canopy was very cool. And a lot scarier than I imagined it to be. I like to think I'm not scared of heights, but I have to admit, I hung on to the (rope) railings for dear life. Forty-five meters is a long ways up.

We hiked up to a (not very high) vantage point after the walkway. Hiking in 90 degree weather with 90% humidity is not my forte. I don't know if I've ever been that sweaty. It didn't help that I took the leech warnings very seriously and was wearing wool socks, shoes, pants, and a long shirt. I'm glad I did though because Ryan got a leech on his sock, luckily he caught it before it got through to his foot! Thank goodness our hotel had a pool to cool off in when we got back!

In the afternoon we went on a guided trip to an Orang Asli village (a group of hunter-gatherers). I'd read about these tours in the guidebook and had seen the advertisements at the tour offices. As an anthropologists, I was VERY intrigued by the opportunity to visit real, live hunter-gatherers. But I also didn't know what the tour would be like. Would it be good ecotourism or the kind where native people were rounded up, dressed in clothes that look authentic and thrown into posed photos with tourists? It was hard to tell. My curiosity got the better of me though. There are few people in the world today who still live as hunter-gatherers and I may not have the opportunity again to visit one such group.

I am really glad we went. While the guidebook said that a little of the money from the tours goes to the Orang Asli, most of the it goes to the tour group. I did like our guide though. He seemed well-educated, respectful, and he seemed to actually be friends with people in the village. We watched an Orang Asli man start a fire (see video) and then he taught us how to shoot a dart out of a blow gun. Blow guns are used to hunt animals that live in trees. Poison is used on the darts. However, the poison usually isn't strong enough to kill an animal. The hunters have to follow the wounded animals until they fall out of the trees and this can take hours. Everyone in our tour group got to try shooting a dart out of the blow gun at a teddy bear target. I am quite proud to say that I am the only one who hit the teddy bear (beginners luck of course). I didn't try again - I'd like to leave it at one perfect shot.

This group of Orang Asli have been living at this village location for about six months. At some point, they will decide to move on. They might come back to the same location eventually, they might not. Sometimes they live inside the national park, sometimes (like now) they live just outside. Right now they are close enough to Kuala Tahan that they can go in to the market to sell products from the jungle (primarily honey) and buy clothes and other goods. But they don't always live so close. Visiting the village was definitely a cool experience. These Orang Asli are open and welcoming to tourists, they even invite people to stay with them for days on end - something we would have done if we'd had more time.

There are between 500 and 600 Orang Asli living in and around Taman Negara all together. Some groups are more isolated than this one and live deep within the park. Others live closer to towns and have more permanent houses and their children go to school. This group seemed to be somewhere in between. Our guide told us they are interested in "learning things" from people who come visit their village, but they're not interested in moving into a permanent town and sending their kids to school. They all speak Malay (in addition to their own language) and the chief even speaks some English. This groups still subsists almost entirely as hunter-gatherers though. It appeared that rice was the only food product they bought at the markets in town.

If you're an anthropologist, you can probably guess that our guide HEAVILY emphasized their hunting techniques, weapons, the animals they hunt, the time of day, etc. without mentioning plant foods at all. So after the whole spiel, I asked what sorts of plants they eat. He listed a bunch of plants they gather, including some sort of wild yam (I think). He then added that the yams make up the majority of their diet (I KNEW IT!!). This is amusing to me, because Anthropologists now recognize that generally, gathered plant foods (collected by WOMEN) make up the majority of most hunter-gatherer diets. Not meat. However, hunting is more sexy. Would you rather shoot a blow gun or dig up a yam? Yep, that's why.

I also got a bit of nerdy amusement out of finding out that this group of Orang Asli cultivates tapioca (which involves planting a tree, pulling it up 7 months later and using the roots). This was funny to me because the national park claims that there has never been ANY cultivation in the park. You know, it's natural. Pristine. That's what people want to hear. And it's an easy way to pretend that indigenous people didn't have any noticeable impact on the landscape. But you can bet that if they cultivate tapioca on one side of the river, they do it on the other side too.

Okay, phew. That's the longest blog post I've ever written but I wanted to get that done because Taman Negara was so dang cool. Back to real life. If you can call you're sixth year of grad school real life.

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