Monday, 16 June 2014

3 Beautiful Places beyond the Theme Park of KL

While I usually crave for theme parks, this trip to Malaysia has exposed me to the wilder side of things. From farm visits through fireflies to cave exploration, I have seen attractions that can probably never be emulated at a theme park.

1) Rice plantations, Tanjong Karang

Located about 40km North West of Kuala Lumpur, this quiet seaside town is one of the key rice-growing regions of Malaysia. In fact, just the road there was quite an adventure - from Rawang, the road is similar to the "Advanced" level tracks you see on the arcade racing games, with sudden s-curves and tight turns mixed with erratic changes in elevation. Along the way, we passed by a couple of villages, and there are even cows walking along the road!

To be honest, the first sight of the farm did not excite me too much. The weather was really hot and there was obviously no shelter. We first stopped by at some of the outlying plantations, and even managed to catch sight of a combine harvester. What I was really surprised is the friendliness of the people - instead of simply shoving us off for "safety reasons" or giving us attitude, they even invited a member of our party up for a ride (which wasn't me).

This is a combine harvester. I think the Malaysian ones look a lot smaller than the ones I saw in American documentaries.

What really interests me was the rice-processing building. Basically, the material collected by the combine harvesters are fed into a hole where they are carried onto a vibrating panel via an Archimedes screw. There, any foreign debris is removed. The rice, with shells still on then moved on into some thermal chambers where the shells are forced open through expansion and contraction. This is my first true sight of an industrial facility, and the noise and especially the dust was really mind-numbing.

We also stopped by at the farm's wholesale shop. Apparently they actually turned that place into a visitor's center, and there were also several tour buses present. What really astounded me was the amount of product each one of the visitors bought (easily 2-3 big plastic bags per person). Another thing was the number of teenagers with their families among both the staff and visitors - something that I never seem to find in Singapore.

2) Firefly Cruise, Kuala Selangor

In the evening, we decided to head about 10km south to view the fireflies. My aunt said she had participated in similar cruises before and the trees were really lit up like it was Christmas. We arrived early so decided to head out to a nearly monkey park after purchasing tickets. Unfortunately, someone parked his car in a way that it obstructed our exit. It took us quite a while to find the owner.

[tip]You can buy the firefly cruise tickets from one of the restaurants

The detour to Bukit Malawati is worth a mention. It is actually also a World War II Colonial Fort, and commands relatively good (though distant) views of the sea. There, there are vendors selling long beans for feeding the monkeys. There are actually 2 main species present, one which is brown and with long tail (long tailed macaque?) and concentrates near the summit while the other is much darker and is concentrated at the broadcasting station.

There is also a lighthouse at the top of Bukit Malawati. I can see it very clearly later during the firefly cruise

The boat that we boarded is slightly smaller than the ones used at Pulau Ubin, open air, quite narrow body. As the boat departed, it is clear why - it easily hit speeds in excess of 30 knots. We arrived at the viewing spot several kilometers upstream in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, the fireflies are not as dense or bright as I expected. In fact, it took me more than 10 seconds to even realise that the dim LED like illusions are actually the fireflies. I could not see more than 10 flashes of light at any given time, so it hardly constituted a Christmas tree.

Later, my aunt told me that there are other tour services into more secluded areas of the river and there the fireflies were even more dense. Also, our choice of date was rather flawed as it was the 14th on the lunar calender and the moon outshines some of the fireflies. I will say this is a good experience you have to do once, but unlike roller coasters, I do not think repeat rides or visits are necessary.

3) Batu Caves

If there is one thing a geographer will know, it is that the Malayan Peninsular has large deposits of limestone. It is one of the crucial material of the central mountain spine that includes Genting and Cameroon Highlands. The most famous of these limestone features is Batu Caves, just 10km north of the city center and accessible by KTM Kommuter (commuter rail).

Most people remember Batu Caves for the Indian temple and pilgrimages into the temple cave. However, tucked away at a corner halfway up the main staircase is the Dark Cave, and this is where I will be exploring today.

The dark cave is actually a conservation site that also offers tours for visitors. Tickets are priced at RM35 for adults for the standard 45 minute tour. There is also a longer 3 hour tour into the more sensitive areas but that requires advanced reservations. Upon entry, the first thing I realised was that the cave was really cool. It was like a cold breeze. For the more fragile people, not to worry. This is a walking tour and the chances of spotting a cave snake are incredibly low.

Here is the entrance of the cave, about 20m high. It is so cavernous because the floor level has actually been lowered due to mining 

The tour guide told us that this was actually one of the most studied limestone caves in the world, and this was made possible because of some mining operations in the past which made the cave easily accessible. In fact, we can still see the scars of the demolition in the form of evened out surfaces. 

The ecosystem of the cave is powered by Guano, or bat droppings. The decomposed form of guano provides food for the animal species in the cave. This is important as there is no sunlight for photosynthesis in the cave. I also got to see several species of spiders, cockroaches and worms that are unique to the cave system. In fact, when a cave cockroach and the normal one (brought in accidentally by mining) came side by side, I think the cave one looks so much cuter. One thing to take note is that most cave insects have long antennae to help them to feel.

Some landscape features we saw include a flowrock, which is similar to stalactites but grows laterally instead of vertically. It is a depositional feature, it means that the water actually deposits calcium carbonate onto the existing rock face to form this feature. There also seemed to be more water emerging at the surface. Then, there is the wind tunnel, which is a very narrow section of cave that causes the airflow to accelerate. In the darkest sections of the tour area, it tunnel is so dark that I cannot even see my palm when I place it in front of my face.

This flowrock extends nearly the entire height of the cavern, but does not actually touch the ceiling. 

At the halfway mark, there is a spectacular skylight emanating from the ceiling of the cave. I can literally see the rays of light emerging like in the movies. This really gives new meaning to the phrase "light at the end of the tunnel". There, I took a picture with the other members of my tour group, including a couple from London.

I think this tour really gave me an insight into the fragile ecosystem of karst landscapes around the world. I still remembered by skepticism when the guide said - no flash photography above eye level. When it was my turn to have photos taken, I could really see why: When the flash is on, I am totally blinded and completely disoriented. There was nothing I can see except a bright light and pure black around it. It is actually quite scary to think how the bats would have reacted to this.

So, this is a unique opportunity for me to explore Malaysia beyond the theme parks I am familiar with. Of course, with the end of the tour, the next posts will be back to the parks. You can find out more about cave conservation at DarkCave's facebook page.  Also, if you like nature attractions, you can consider looking at Shilin in Yunnan, China!