It’s early, maybe 9am so it’s not too hot yet and there’s a nice breeze coming down from the ceiling fan in the terracotta-tiled café where I’m eating a breakfast of noodles and Muslim-friendly beef bacon. I’m in Taman Negara in Malaysia, the world’s oldest rainforest and yesterday I turned thirty years old.
I say I’m in the rainforest but in fact I’m in a resort on the very edge of the rainforest. We – ‘we’ being my boyfriend, my brother and me – managed to haggle down the price of a bed each in a cobwebbed, insect-infested hostel dorm that looked like it had been derelict for the last few years. Even the school groups, hyperactive kids from affluent families in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, have better accommodation than we do but at least this way we get to sleep in the rainforest, technically, and also take showers and sleep in a bed.
So, I’m thirty years old now and as I drink my super sweet milky iced coffee I’m making a conscious effort not to think about this fact. The fact that I’m thirty. I’m refusing to ‘take stock’ of my life, to come to any big realisations or make plans to change anything. Anything I know today I already knew yesterday and the day before. My thirtieth is a non-event. There will be no epiphanies. There will be no bucket list. Of this I am adamant.
To mark my 30th birthday in a rainforest that is 130 million years old, 129,999,970 years older than me, I took a ‘rapid’s boat trip that turned out to be more like a canoe ride down a shallow river. Still, though, it was surprisingly fun to be water-boarded in a dirty river for a while. After about half an hour the borderline hostile boat driver got bored of trying to flip us out of his canoe and stopped at a deserted, muddy stretch of river and motioned for us to swim. The water was cloudy and full of tiny fish and although we were all secretly scared that we might catch cholera or that curious tiny fish might somehow find their way into an orifice we got in and splashed around, screaming only half-jokingly every time we felt something unidentifiable on the riverbed.
There was nobody around, apart from the boat driver who looked at me like he’d like to put his cigarette out on my face, and I sat on the riverbank entertaining myself with a brief fantasy that we were castaways, stranded with only our swimming costumes and our wits. We wouldn’t have lasted an hour and, in fact, after about half an hour I started to feel itchy from sitting on the silty riverbank and a bit hungry so we had the boat driver take us back to our hostel where we could shower and eat.
After dinner we took a night safari. Ten tourists crammed into a 4 x 4, 7 in the back and 3 perched, white-knuckled, on the roof. It was raining and we were sticking to each other in our damp plastic ponchos, squinting to see where the driver was pointing with his torch and not hearing a word of his explanation of what we were supposed to be looking at. I saw a few snakes, monkeys, wild cats, bizarrely, cows and pigs, and a number of Slow Loris, adorable little monkey things that, I think if you gave most women the choice, they would choose to have instead of a baby.
I could have been at the pub with my friends, one of the nice ones that do good cocktails, or out having dinner somewhere with my family but instead I was in the back of a perilously overloaded Jeep, flying through a wild palm oil plantation in the blackest night trying to organize a surprise photo shoot with wild animals that were seriously not into it.
I wanted to have a birthday completely unlike any I had ever had before and on that score I definitely succeeded. Not just because I was in the rainforest but because I was completely cut off from my friends, my family and the rest of the world. Only two people said happy birthday to me and only two people gave me gifts but they were two of the people I love most in this world.
I was so adamant that my thirtieth had to be a non-event, no party, no fuss, no skypes or phonecalls that I managed to make sure it was the most special and unforgettable birthday of my life so far.
Hotel – We stayed at the Mutiara Resort, the only accomodation on the edge of Taman Negara. The rest of the hotels and guesthouses are in the small town on the other side of the river. We booked a hotel bed for around £10 a night but a two-person chalet ordinarily costs around £40-£45 (approx RM260-300). Super pricey by Malaysian standards but it is a really, really nice place. (MAP) (Mutiara Resort Trip Advisor)
Transport – How you get there depends entirely on where you’re starting from but for my entire trip in Malaysia I used the public bus network. There is a train line that runs through central Malaysia, close to Taman Negara but in September 2015 the line was closed due to flood damage and had been for some time. There are a number of bus companies in operation, most of which have little information online and are very creative with their departure and journey times. The information we found on www.backpackingmalaysia.com was pretty accurate but my best advice is to get to Kuala Lumpur’s Pekeliling bus station early in the morning and take the next bus to Jerantut. From Jerantut catch the next bus to Kuala Tahan. We checked departure times at various websites on the day and none of them matched up but there are about 5-6 buses per day. It is possible to take a long boat ride from Jerantut but it seemed like a lot of hassle to get to the jetty and you’ll spend a lot of time on rivers during your stay at Taman Negara anyway.