Halfway into our week-long trip, which we had planned to make happen around my birthday, we decided to do separate things that morning. It had been nearly four years since I’d seen my Malaysian friend, even then it was only the second time we’d met. For 6 years we’d pretty much existed as a friendship over Facebook, so it was really nice to finally be meeting up for more than a couple of hours.
We’d talk about it too much, always promising that I’d drop by when I was in Malaysia for more than a layover, but we finally made it happen this time. Meeting in the middle, Jep had flown in a couple of days earlier to Penang. We rented a bike, booked a hostel, and began exploring.
So far I’d taught him how to make his own Gin, ridden half of the island and back in one go, and ripped my trousers open in the worst possible place at a museum. Queue the awkward walk and desperate dive into the nearest clothing shop for an emergency outfit.
Today, it was my birthday. I wimped out of joining Jep on his hike into the national park, up to Monkey Beach, instead desperate to just get back to my favourite place on the island, the Tropical Spice Gardens. After visiting last year I could think of nothing better than wandering around lush jungles, camera in tow. Nature and creativity were pretty much all I needed to keep me happy. I was easily pleased this year.
Dropping me off at the entrance I wished him luck on his hour-plus hike, and a little too eagerly stepped through the entrance, up to the quiet front desk. Getting my ticket, I doused myself in citronella, made fresh that week from the trees on site, knowing full well I’d have sweated it all off in 15 minutes time. Penang is the definition of no wind; Being by the coast means more wind. But being inside a tropical jungle means 110% humidity. I’d done myself zero favours on that front.
Getting my camera ready, I walked through the bushes to the large pond right by the entrance. Apart from the person behind me, it was silent. I was here early this time and wasted no time in retaking the photos I’d lost a year earlier. That was pretty much the sole reason I wanted to come back here one day; last year my camera overheated and I watched as my memory card erased pretty much all of my images one by one, from my entire trip. F*** you technology, I’m back.
It was still early, the sun was illuminating the plumes of evaporation clouds in the air, forming shafts of light down the canopy, into the jungle ahead.
As I pointed my camera upwards, I marvelled at the beauty of the mature emergent Alstonia tree in front of me. So tall I had to crouch on the ground to fit it into the frame, it towered into the emerging layer, cresting the sky with all of its ferns, bromeliads, vines and creepers growing off of the sides of its trunk. The mist swirled in the sunlight, birds chirped in the distance and the faint noise from the road was muffled with each step I took further into this wonderland.
Narrow paths spun me up wooden sleeper steps, to small trickling pools of water, verdant with tiny tiny fish and lush ferns growing on its edges. Small stepping stones led me onwards, up, along and back down to secret clearings, trails verging off in all directions. This place was the Alice in Wonderland of forests. Hobbiton would’ve fitted right in. From any single spot, you would find something new to see at all angles. At one point I caught sight of a giant swinging hunk of wood, accompanied by the sound of chatter above. I knew I had to find that later on.
The map takes you through bromeliad gardens, up the terraces of every spice plant you can imagine, and on to the plantations of vanilla and —. Heading left I followed the road deeper into the trees, passing others who had slipped off their shoes, and begun the climb at micro speed along the massaging stone path. This was the most open clearing in to entire 6 acre site.
I merrily spent over two hours wandering through the walls of greenery and experimenting with my camera. The midday sun was rising, and so were the visitors; it became harder to dodge the clusters of people in all of my shots, so I had no choice but to incorporate them. Most of the images on my site, if they contain people, 90% of the time they are strangers, unintentionally being beautiful additions to my photos.
As I climbed through the dripping vines, and back out onto the road I’d done the complete circuit. Following the map, I took myself up the large hill leading to the cafe and gift shop. A short, break under the air conditioning refreshed me enough to make my way back down along the hairpin trail along the exit. This was the much quieter side, almost hidden.
Coming down the last turn my feet left the mud and met the boardwalk again, this time I was the other side of the steep bank I’d seen on my left when I arrived. I lent on the railings, pausing for a moment to listen to the trickle of water below whilst watching the crowds filter through reception, amused by the odd glance in my direction as they stood puzzled as to how I was all the way over here, and where was this on the map.
Following the boardwalk, through the Chinese gate with heavy wooden doors and brass flower knockers I tailed the contours of the stream, until it crossed under my path, cascading from somewhere above. I stopped to douse myself in the cool water and left my camera on a long exposure, almost tempted to take off my shoes and dip under the waterfall. The thought of having the dozens of extra-large mosquitos come at me afterwards was enough of a deterrent though.
Winding my way back to a familiar point, I thought I better try and see how jep was getting on. To my surprise, he had fallen down. My outdoorsy, fit, adventurous friend had fallen over the rocks - and his own feet, causing enough of a bang to draw blood. I sighed as he sent me a photo of his leg. Oh Jep, I can’t take you anywhere can I? I lamented him for being a Malaysian who lives in this terrain, and which is every locals' go-to day out; a trip into the jungle, trekking to waterfalls and hidden beaches, and naturally, I expected better. I laughed, mostly because that should’ve been something I’d have done had I have been there.
Jep was insistent on coming to pick me back up on the bike when I said I was about done here, and made me wait “30 minutes max. I’m on my way”.
Despite me trying to bring him back down to earth by mentioning “it was over an hour’s walk to get to Monkey Beach, you can’t get back down that fast”.
He simply replied, as if he does this all the time; “It’s ok, I’ll run”. I just sat there speechless for a moment when the message came through.
“I’m sorry what? Are you mad?” I guffawed. As nonchalantly as the first text he shot back “don’t worry, I will run fast”. And with that it was settled, I had been given my birthday orders to sit tight and wait for my chariot.
For once, I was in no hurry to be on my way, or at a loss for how to fill my time. I headed back to the swing, intent on spending my last 20 minutes here idling away life in the best possible way.
Earlier I’d stumbled upon the path leading to people, noise, and a wooden deck. In front of them was the reality of a child’s dream.. suspended by metal wires along a central pole, an oversized, wooden bench come seat gentle swung backwards and forwards, supported by two of those Alstonia trees I marvelled at earlier. I was silently doing a little happy dance inside.
Swaying forward the swing rose above the jungle below, a sheer drop from the edge of the deck into a carpet of bushy greenery. This was amazing. Like any oversized everyday object, it seemed bizarre, intriguing, and slightly out of place.
Waiting until it was quiet, I took my chance; dropping my bag onto the swing I sat down, taking off my shoes for fear of losing them below, I released my legs and let the momentum propel me to the edge of the deck. The longer I sat there, the more confident I became, pushing further back for a higher swing, completely going over the edge. What a rebel. That is about my limit for adrenaline-inducing activities though.
I swayed happily until the last five minutes where I had the mental debate about tearing myself away and finally leaving. Every now and again I’d check my phone for the time, relieved that I’d not been there for 40 minutes while Jep sweats and bleeds outside the entrance.
A few people trailed past, but I looked away, insistent on not moving until I wanted to. Last year I’d not been brave enough to try this out, well not this year. I floated more deeply into my own world the longer I sat. My mind wandered as I listened to the sounds of the jungle and the road below, and I had a moment with myself as I realised how content I was in that moment. Well, how content I’d been all morning really. My birthday wish was to wander around a jungle and take photos of it. Add in a giant swing and it popped its own cherry on top of the cake.
I felt so at ease with life and remembered that this is why I love to travel so much. I wasn’t at home, getting stressed about the hours of back bending work I’d be doing later that day, sweating it out cleaning classrooms with a nagging not good enough boss in my ear. I was in paradise, on an island I’d fallen for, enjoying the simplest pleasures of life. Just sitting (or swinging) here, feeling it do it’s thing, without worrying about anything, or feeling pressed to be somewhere.
After a few moments, I smiled to myself as I put my shoes back on and reached for my bag. It was time to go and find my friend and see what the next few hours of the day could offer.