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It’s February 2018. The depths of winter; the coldest month of the year. In Russia, we’d have been bundling up in layer after layer to stay warm. In Utah, we’d have been scraping ice off the Volvo windshield before we could go anywhere. In the hills of Malaysia, on the other hand, we are sporting T-shirts and we have hoodies and rain jackets, just in case it rains. The Cameron Highlands reach almost a mile in elevation above sea level in some places. It may not be icy like Russia or Utah, but it is relatively cool here, especially in contrast to the sweltering heat of Singapore where we were less than a week ago.
We’re staying at a neat B’n’B in Tanah Rata, north up twisting ribbons of pavement from the small town of Brinchang. This region is as multicultural as the rest of Malaysia–there are lots of Indians here, ethnic Malaysians, and Chinese. The guy who runs our B’n’B is named Troji, and he is of mixed Chinese and Japanese descent. He and his family raise flowers, many of which they export to Singapore. This area is Malaysia’s agricultural heart. When Troji welcomed us the night before, he immediately introduced us to “Your new friends,” and sure enough, we hit it off really well with an Australian couple who are also staying at Troji’s place. They’re named Milli and Pasquale, and they’re taking a year to explore the world before settling in Canada. They’re travelers after our own hearts, so it’s great fun to visit with them.
Anyhow, we’ve been wanting to get out and explore the Mossy Forest, and today’s the day. Our host has been telling us that it’s easy to get a lift from random strangers. “It’s safe,” he says. “People here will be interested in you; they’ll like to talk to you, so they’ll usually be happy to give you a ride.” We aren’t quite sure about hitchhiking, but after listening to Troji make the case for it repeatedly and hearing from others that it is indeed okay, we figure we’ll give it a try.
“I can take you part way to the Mossy Forest,” Troji says. “You can hitchhike from there. No problem.” He drives us in his black, double cab Toyota pickup down the hills into Brinchang, a 15 minute journey, dropping us off at the foot of the deeply potholed lane which branches off and leads up steeply to the Mossy Forest. We’re a bit skeptical of actually getting a ride, and further diminishing our chances of actually getting a lift, Milli and Pasquale are also with us–so whoever would be willing to pick us up has to carry six people. Actually, we are probably the ones diminishing their chances, since there’s only two of them.
We stand at the foot of the road watching car after car go motoring past. It’s the Chinese New Year holiday, and tons of folks are on vacation now. A family packed into a Proton sedan smile and wave as we stand with our thumbs lamely sticking in the air. Their car is full of holiday goers, just like all the others. We’re having no luck with this hitchhiking thing. I’m on the verge of saying, “Ok, let’s just walk,” even though it’s a long way up to the Forest. Finally, traffic up the road comes to a halt, so Pasquale goes and asks a pickup truck driver if he can take us all in his truck. He says “Yes,” and we all hop in the bed.
Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea.
It’s a jouncy ride up the narrow roadway, and speeds are slow. The driver comes to a stop about half way to our destination. “I’ll go this way,” he says, gesturing down a long gravel driveway to a farm. We jump down and wend our way up the paved road toward the Mossy Forest.
Every time a car goes past, we stick out our thumbs. It doesn’t do any good. But that’s alright–we are enjoying chatting with Milli and Pasquale as we go. At one point it starts to sprinkle, so we pull on our jackets. Those make us hot.
To one side the mountain rises up, green, verdant. To the other, the hillside falls away and disappears in trees and mist. We walk under an incredible, lush canopy of banana leaves. Huge vines hang down, and Jenia hangs on one to pose for a photo. The drizzle has stopped, so we take our jackets off, and we’re comfortable again, despite being a bit damp around the edges.
I end up carrying both Turtle, our 4 year old, and Princess, our 2 year old. She’s in the trusty toddler carrier, so she’s easy. Turtle’s just tired of walking, and so I throw him up on top of my shoulders. From time to time a passing car slows and the occupants ogle us and wave.
Our journey eventually takes us over some level land, past row after row of greenhouses. Heads of lettuce grow in raised beds. Men are working in the plants, and they acknowledge us with waves. We pause to get our breath. Princess is ready to walk, so I put her down and after that we all walk a bit slower.
A few cars drive past, but nobody stops.
We arrive at the park’s entrance and do what all good parents do: feed our kids a snack. Truthfully, we’re all ready for a bite at that point. Refueled on bananas, we continue. The first part of the Mossy Forest trail is an easy hike along boardwalks with railings.
Mist hangs in the air and we’re damp before long. The forest is aptly named, for there are many kinds of moss, all of different shapes and textures. There are large clumps of moss hanging from skinny vines, and the air smells good.
“Look at the flytrap,” Pasquale says. There is a Venus flytrap, rather an ugly shade of brown, growing from the side of a heavily mossed tree. A bit higher up the trunk there’s a couple more of the exotic flowers.
We exchange words with other random tourists along the way, most of whom it turns out are from Malaysia, but who’ve never been to the Mossy Forest. “We saw you walking,” one couple says. “Sorry, our car was full!”
There is an observation tower that we climb. From up there, it’s obvious that we’re on a ridge, the mountains rolling away to either side. Greenhouses speckle the valley to one side, and the other is uninterrupted foliage.
Before long, we’ve reached the end of the board walk. Signs warn it’ll be slippery from here. We meet some British tourists returning. “It’s not worth it,” one guy proclaims. “Just more of the same.”
We exchange glances with our new friends and continue on, not at all convinced. Soon we have to go down a slick hillside, over rocks, around puddles, hanging onto roots so we don’t tumble. We’ve descended into the rain forest. As far as we’re concerned, it’s delightful. We’re careful where we put our hands and feet, for there must be some nasty critters native to the region. This is a popular route, though, and with lots of people hoofing it through here, chances are good any venomous snakes or evil insects have cleared off by now. Plus, our party of six isn’t exactly quiet, what with the kids in tow.
The scenery in here is fantastic. It’s awash with greens of all hues and textures, and of course, moss. The sky is overcast, but that’s common up here.
Turtle gets a bit nervous when he suddenly has to urinate. “Oh, daddy, I don’t like this!” I lead him to a place he can relieve himself at the side of the trail, and he is not at all pleased–but he also doesn’t want to wet his pants, so he makes do.
Before long, even though the forest beckons further, we decide it’s best for us to turn around, as Turtle and Princess are getting tired. We say bye to Pasquale and Milli, and head back. We are able to observe at least ten different types of moss, even with our non-botanist eyes. We rinse the mud from our shoes the best we can when we get back to the board walk (there is a station set up for this). Turtle isn’t cool with getting wet, but there’s not much we can do about it.
This time, back on the lane going downhill, we are having no luck hitching a ride, despite thumbing for one whenever a car rumbles past.
“Daddy, why won’t anyone stop to give us a ride?” Turtle asks, his eyebrows furrowed. He’s fussy about having to walk so much. We find a pebble to kick along the pavement for a while, and that does the trick. He’s happy. When the rock gets old, we start tracking objects. “How many can we count?” Eventually he’s on my shoulders, of course, and with Princess in the carrier, I’ll have calves the size of boulders before long.
The sun has come out, and it’s hot and we’re drying off quickly. The hoodies are off and it’s beautiful weather for photographs now, with blue skies. We had no idea what we were missing on our way up–the mist has evaporated and we can see stunning scenery that was hidden before.
We’re more than half way back to Brinchang when a guy in a pickup hauling produce stops and offers us a ride.
“You are going to town?” I ask him. “Can we ride with you?”
“Yes,” he says agreeably.
“Yay!” Turtle cries.
We clamber inside and immediately start rolling.
“Can you drop us off at BOH Tea Plantation?” We ask. It isn’t far; it’s one of the highlights of the area, and we are looking forward to going there.
He says “Okay!” and a moment later he cordially drives right past it.
I try telling him again, pointing.
“Tea,” he says, “Okay,” continuing to putter downhill.
Jenia and I frown at each other. Neither of us feels like walking any distance if we can help it, and the idea of going backward, for BOH is receding in the rearview mirror, is unappealing. Turtle is happy to be in the truck. I shrug and Jenia agrees we can go back to BOH another day.
We stop where the lane intersects the main road in Brinchang, where we hopped in a pickup truck earlier, and we tell the farmer he can let us out anywhere here. “Market,” he says with a nod, pointing to the right, the opposite direction from our B’n’B, and then we lurch onto the roadway.
We haven’t explored the town, so I don’t mind going that way, but Jenia doesn’t want to go far. Then we come to a halt in traffic. Brinchang’s two-lane road is easily jammed.
“You can just let us out here,” we tell the farmer. “Thanks for the ride.”
He smiles and says, “One minute. Market,” gesturing vaguely ahead. Jenia and I exchange glances, but we’re in motion again momentarily. He drives us completely to the other side of town, where there is, indeed, a sprawling market. This is where he’s delivering his veggies. We jump out and I offer to help him unload the cartons, but he smiles and waves us away.
Jenia’s nonplussed. We’ve ended up much farther down the road than we wanted, never mind entirely missing the tea plantation. Turtle’s not sure what to think, but the sights intrigue him, and Princess is blithely care free in her carrier.
The market turns out to be bustling, with lots of interesting goods for sale, ranging from durian to long, skinny green “stink beans” to boxes of tea, and everything in between. It’s the homemade strawberry ice cream popsicles that get everyone smiling again, though.
We leave the market and stroll the sidewalk back toward town, stopping in various shops along the way. Since we’re punctuating our way into Brinchang with frequent stops, it goes reasonably easily, though our feet are feeling it by now. We’ve covered a lot of distance on them.
There’s no way we can walk all the way to Tanah Rata.
“Let’s get a taxi,” Jenia says.
“Sure,” I agree.
None come along. However, with nary a taxi to be seen, we reluctantly decide to try our luck hitchhiking again. We spend 20 minutes with thumbs out to no avail, although it seems like longer. Then it starts raining. Hard. So we give up and retreat to cover under the porch of a closed restaurant. There’s no way a car is going to stop for us now. We persist a bit longer, a bedraggled family with thumbs protruding from under a porch, before phoning Troji to plead for help.
As we’re on the phone with him, he asks us where we are. I read the name of the restaurant on the sign, and describe the curve in the road, and as he says he’ll have someone come get us, a dark colored Toyota pulls into the parking lot and comes toward us.
“Just our luck,” I tell Jenia. “Now someone stops!”
The Toyota pulls up, and there’s Troji, big smile on his face. “You’ll have to ride in back,” he says, “if that’s ok!”
Even though it’s raining, we are so tuckered out that we’re delighted by this turn of events, and Turtle is laughing as he and Jenia huddle against the cab to try to stay out of the rain. Princess is pleased because everyone else is, and proceeds to sing “The Wheels on the Bus” all the way back.
When we get back, we find Milli and Pasquale have already returned. They had no trouble getting a ride. Troji acts genuinely surprised that family hitchhiking didn’t work out so well for us.
How can one travel with kids? We write about it here.