I thought I knew what Eco tourism meant. I thought it was about low impact on the environment, refilling water bottles and feeding the community, both with western money and English language. Choosing companies or individual hoteliers with the same values is a no-brainer these days; why not help a country develop its tourist economy with the kind of philosophy that ticks everyone’s boxes? Long haul travel once a year is way better for the environment than loads of short haul city breaks, and if my money’s going towards teaching village kids English so that they can grow their country’s economy by taking their place on the world stage, I’m happy to sip another beer for the cause.
But enough of Sri Lanka; this year, we’re in Malaysia and I’m rethinking the whole thing. Malaysia is busy selling itself to the world as the Eco destination of choice in 2014, and number one on its list of eco adventures is white-water rafting, Asia’s answer to getting trolleyed on the Sunset Strips of Majorca and Corfu; leave your inhibitions in the day job and get high as a kite as you tumble down ancient waterfalls before gliding through jungle-lined rivers. As a family, you’re not going to find the Novick-Smiths on either the Sunset Strips of Europe or the white waters of Asia, and between you and me, I can’t see this doing much for the economy. Sure the gappies, those modern day hippy-trailers carving a new path through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, will be there like a shot, but they’re not going to make much of a bulge in the government coffers. No, it’s the new Eco chic resorts like Banjaran Hot Springs in the caves above Ipoh and The Dusun hidden in the hills above Seramban that are the kind of places where people with money will fall in love with Malaysia. Even the old resorts like Club Med which has been geeing its guests into a hand clapping, side stepping euphoria on Cherating Beach in Kuantan since the early 80s is scooping up the Eco creds, with five Green Globe awards in the last five years. >
Tours to the local kampongs and markets are extra, as are the moonlit boat trips to see the fireflies which could teach the tourists more about Malaysia than the rest of the two weeks of sailing and circus skills put together. No-one stops the Chinese tourist trying to catch a curious firefly to take home to Bejing, but the rest of us are silenced by the beauty of the liquid mercury waters and the strange little creatures lighting up as we glide through the dark night of the jungle. I can’t decide whether it’s an episode of Star Trek that I’m reminded of, so alien are these tiny chemical reactions, or whether the gentle humming of the boat’s engine providing a threatening bass line to the chorus of the crickets is more Apocalypse Now.
Leaving the East coast, we head back towards KL, stopping in the hills above Seramban to spend just a little more time sitting before city life and then home. There’s plenty to watch from the verandah of one of the Dusun’s simple villas, perched almost on the tops of the durian and mangosteen trees in its 12 acre orchard but very little to be done. We toss up whether to swim in the salinated or ionised infinity pool and trek through the jungle with one of the country’s last orang asli guides, picking off leeches, spotting ancient medicinal plants and calming panicking teenage daughter before swimming again, this time in the cool, only slightly white watered river.
But the effect of it all is deeply relaxing; even the mosquitoes can’t be bothered to bite. Jed pops into Pantai, the little village from where their staff and produce comes, to pick up lunch with Cee, one of our hosts. They bring back several delicious curries of chicken, fish and squid with perfectly steamed rice, banana fritters and kuih koci, an unspeakably gorgeous toasted coconut and palm sugar pancake wrapped in banana leaf. The bill? 15 ringgit. That’s about £3. For Jed who wins most bread in our household, bills like this strip more layers of stress than even a Malay massage could do. If it means we contribute directly to the locals with no tour operator to be seen, he’s happy to tick that Eco box.
Psychologists might suggest to the Malaysian government that classical conditioning is the key to its success in Eco tourism. Instead of bringing a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts along with the sun cream and tiger balm, tourists experiencing for themselves the deep calm of the jungle will not only respect the environment but associate its motherland with the luxury of profoundly letting go. It’s the new wave of Eco tourism; it doesn’t replace the ‘refill’ philosophy but goes further, inviting the early hippy trailers and those they inspired to travel east to remember what they first loved about Asia – the undiscovered, profoundly exotic and utter beauty of the jungle.