The law of the jungle

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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. >20130412-191310.jpg

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.
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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.

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Cutting the ties that bind

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Crossing the new 13km bridge across the straits from Pulau Penang to the Malaysian mainland, we headed south to Ipoh. Unlike Kuala Lumpur and Batu Ferringhi and many other towns in Malaysia, Ipoh has quietly slipped under the radar of high rise development, becoming a millionaire’s paradise while keeping its own character. We forget that with the rise and rise of the Asian economy, tin mining brought riches to Malaya long before the Brits or any other colonials wafted through.

These days Ipoh cares not a jot for the Westerner. Our one day in the city before heading to our jungle retreat was spent sheltering from the rain and observing a typical Saturday in mid Malaysia. The culture we found was Starbucks and cinema in the kind of mall where most of the world lives on a Saturday afternoon these days. As we sat among the latte drinking iPadders before watching ‘The Host’ and monsoon season settled in outside, no one shouted ‘where you from?’ in that sing-song question that’s more about finding a way of making a few dollars from the white man than any real interest in the difference between Brighton or Berlin. Even as we wandered through the little lanes in search of my old home (and found a new office development on the site of 156 Gopeng Rd), the middle class neighbours showed no interest. We may have blagged our way into the Ipoh swimming club, once the domain of Australian and British Army wives and kids, but the mothers here today were far more interested in little Li Mei’s 25 yards front crawl than the giant white family sipping their Tiger beers and Lilts on the terrace.

I heard the whispers of my parents suggesting a pink gin at to The Ipoh Club, scene of many a glamorous expat party. Donning our least crumpled clothes, we headed into town. The receptionist and waiter looked as though they may have been there since 1965, and our drinks took almost as long to arrive but again the welcome was underwhelming. An Indian wedding took central stage while we gazed out across the Padang, sipping bad vodka and tonics, and imagined a time gone by. It was time to look for the Malaysia that wasn’t about the colonial past but about a new Asia, one that had cut its apron strings from the Empire and grown up with a more confident philosophy carved from ancient traditions and futuristic vision.

We left my parents wandering through the corridors of The Ipoh Club and the next morning headed to new Malaysia. They wouldn’t have been interested in The Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat, one of the new Eco-chic resorts selling the country’s ancient treasures to a moneyed, younger generation from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bejing. There’s no nod to colonialism here, just minerals from its underground springs and old fashioned Asian smiles that are more calming than any temporary rejuvenation session in the spa. This resort has been carved out of caves which had only been used by Japanese soldiers in WWII until three years ago when Malaysia’s own Richard Branson, Jeffrey Cheah developed it into an eco-retreat. Their etchings are still in the caves, now used for meditation, steam and a fabulous bar and cellar for Jeff’s wine habit. Sumptuous villas with their own pools and jacuzzis dot the cleared jungle landscape and mists rise from lakes of hot springs. The dipping pots of 40 degree mineral-rich springs vie with the garra rufa fish to heal the hard skinned, stressed-out guests. The fish win as a steady stream come to offer their feet for a free nibble.

Jed begins to fret at the offer of nothing but time for the next two days and looks for a way out, while the kids can’t believe that they have their own pool in their own villa. I interview the rather gorgeous French chef and ideas are buzzing for articles for Gourmet Traveller and a book on spa cuisine. Back in the villa, an email arrives from Monash university in KL inviting me to deliver a seminar next week on my academic research on TV chefs and the construction of taste. This is my world; food, chefs, journalism and academia – preferably global – and suddenly that little girl looking for her parents has gone. I can feel my apron strings coming loose and my hand finding a new one to hold as I turn 50 at Banjaran.

It’s been a big couple of years with the loss of both my parents. It’s been a big trip home to Malaysia, and as we leave Ipoh on the ‘ Ekspress bas’ to the east coast, and the terminal turns out to be opposite the site of our old home on Gopeng Rd, I hear those giggles again. I’ll leave my lovely old mum and dad to look around their old haunts and take my own family on an eight hour trip, traveller style, across the Genting Highlands to the crystal waters of Kuantan. Yes, it was where we went on holiday in the ’60s but as my own kids’ gap years come into focus and Jed and I talk about how to combine work with more travel, I’m going east with an eye on the future and less in the past. A bit like Malaysia, perhaps.

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