Exploring the Malaysian Jungle With Someone Who Hates the Malaysian Jungle

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


So you want to explore the Malaysian jungle? Let me start by saying this is a terrible idea. If you’re from a temperate country, this isn’t like the charming forests you know; these aren’t woods lovely, dark and deep; Malaysia is a tropical country, which means the wilderness is horribly uncomfortable.


First of all, there’s the heat. Here the sun beats down like an infernal hammer, and, even if the rainforest canopy filters out most of it, the fingers of heat still reach everywhere, touch everything, such that the air beneath the canopy steams and condenses into a thick soup. The air is also alive with all manner of wasps and hornets and flies and swarms of mosquitoes and moths that fly into your face. The ground is constantly muddy and sucks at your feet with each step. And it’s teeming with biting ants and leeches! Basically almost everything here will try to bite you, sting you, or suck your blood. The trees here aren’t dry and clean like the ones you might be accustomed to, but are often disturbingly wet, covered with ants and other strange bugs, and bristling with thorns and spines. Oh, and it smells, by the way. Not of the pleasant wood-and-moss forest scent, but of mud and muck and animal shit. Everything here is at war with you. Here is nature, red in tooth and claw.

Oh well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you really want to go, here’s a few things you’ll need:

Mosquito repellant

A machete

A first aid kit

2 liters of water

A pocket knife

A phone

A mask with someone’s face on it

A lighter

A whistle

Alright, first thing you do upon arriving at the edge of the jungle is to cover yourself in mosquito repellent. Go on, just lather it on, there’s like a zillion of them out there. Next, take the mask and put it over the back of your head. This is to confuse any tigers that might be out there, who always try to attack you from behind.

Many of these jungles have a path running through them, so just find one and start there. Bring out your machete so you can slash at any vines and thorny branches in your way. If you trip or lose your balance, DO NOT grab a nearby tree for support, because, as I mentioned before, many of them are covered with thorns, so if you do you’ll spike your hand. And if you get tired, you can’t sit on the ground cos it’s too muddy, or lean against a tree because it’s too thorny, and, in any case, both are crawling with insects. Oh, and if you feel something strange suddenly land on you, don’t just smack it. It might be one of those disgusting hairy caterpillars falling on you from above, and doing so will splat their juice all over you and you could end up with a rash, swelling, and a fever because some of them are poisonous. That happened to my grandma once.

The first thing you’ll notice is how goddamn hot it is. Already, you’ll feel tired and irritated, that your mind is muddied and sluggish, that your energy and vitality are leaking out of your body with your sweat, the sweat that’s seeping out of your pores in sticky rivulets and pasting your clothes to your body like a film. Take out some of your water and drink; it’s important to stay hydrated.

Picture Credit: Benny Weyara Diendasaputra

Oh, see that giant red thing that looks like an alien spore? That’s a Rafflesia. It’s the biggest flower in the world, and native only to Southeast Asia. Another name for it is “stinking corpse lily,” because it smells of rotting meat. This attracts flies, which pollinate it. Charming.


Look at that plant shaped like a pitcher. It lures insects inside it by secreting nectar. Its insides are very smooth, so the insects slip and fall into a pool of liquid at its base and drown, and the plant digests them.


Take a break and drink some water. Since we’ve been tromping through the undergrowth for a while now, we should check our legs to see how many leeches have latched themselves onto us. Some people recommend removing them by pouring salt on them, since salt draws the water out of their slimy little bodies, causing them to drop off and die, but who wants to be fiddling with a container of salt when they’re trekking? Salt is for losers. I once knew someone who brought a big bag of salt with him jungle trekking and who’d scream and throw a handful of salt at everything he thought looked like a leech. What a nerd. No, the way to do it is to take out your lighter and burn them off. Don’t be squeamish about it: the leech is more sensitive to the heat than you and will drop off before you burn yourself. Burn them all off. Alright, now start walking again before any more of them start to crawl up your legs.

Picture Credit: Maks Karochkin

Look over there, that’s a monitor lizard. They actually look pretty cool, but they can be quite dangerous cos their saliva is filled with bacteria. Once, a monitor lizard bit my dog’s tail, and it became gangrenous and dropped off.


On that note, you know the drill about nature’s warning colors, so avoid anything that’s bright red or yellow, whether it’s a reptile or insect, cos it’s probably venomous.


Are you bored yet? Can we go home?


Yes, yes, those are monkeys; as if you’ve never seen one before. Don’t go near them: they’re vicious little bastards and their teeth are sharp and they’re quicker than you think. You think you could take one just cos you’ve got a machete? You can’t. It’ll slip past your blade and sink its fangs into your jugular.


Oh, and before you ask, no, we’re probably not gonna see an orangutan. You only find them in the deep jungle. In any case, I don’t see what the hype is about. I’ve never understood why so many people seem to think orangutans are so cute, such that they always use them in conservation materials. Tigers and tapirs and elephants are cute, and whilst I hate the Malaysian jungle, I still feel sad at the thought of them losing their habitat, but orangutans don’t do it for me at all. Show me pictures of those other animals and I’ll sympathize. Show me pictures of orangutans and I’ll become one of the bad guys from Captain Planet. Maybe it’s the whole uncanny valley thing, which postulates that something that looks like a human but isn’t one ends up provoking a feeling of revulsion. Many other animals are cute because they look like animals: orangutans just look like fat, stupid, ugly, hairy, orange humans.


And over there is a tree with buttress roots that looks much the same as the dozens of other trees with buttress roots we’ve already seen. Alright, that concludes our tour of the Malaysian jungle. We’re hot, tired, dirty, and stinky, and even though we’ve only been here an hour we’ve already drunk, like, three-quarters of our water. Time to head back. You do remember the way we came, right? Well, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out…

Ok, this tree. You remember this tree, right? How it leans just so? Up ahead there should be a fork in the path, and I think we came from the right, so if we turn right after this we should be fine.


That’s the thing about the jungle: most parts of it look the same as other parts, and it’s hard to find any landmarks. Good thing there weren’t that many branches in our path. God, it’s hot here. I really need a shower…

Uh oh.


How did we end up back here?


I guess we should have turned left at the fork instead of right, so let’s do that. Man, it sucks being lost in the jungle. Going round in circles like this is stressing me out. And the constant whine of the cicadas or whatever they are is giving me a headache. And, for some reason, that stupid Boney M song “Brown Girl in the Ring” is now playing in my head on repeat. I hate that song! Being lost here is making me delirious. Wait, no, we’re not lost. Let’s think about it logically. There are only a few possible paths we could have taken. Ok, do you remember this other fork in the path? Neither do I, but it definitely doesn’t look like we came from the path with that funny-looking stump on the side, so let’s take the other one, and yes! That rock over there looks familiar, so if we keep going we should be-



How the hell are we here again? We went left at the fork!


Ok, take out your phone and open Maps and let’s see if we can get our bearings. In the worst-case scenario, we can always call for help and send our GPS location to someone. What? There’s no data or signal here? What kind of shitty jungle is this??


What works without data or signal? How about the compass? But do you know which direction is out – north, south, east, west? Um, no, I don’t know either!


Ok, we are lost. We are well and truly lost, and dusk is falling. Take out your whistle and blow on it; hopefully someone will hear it and come help. Blow, dammit, BLOW!

I guess no one’s around to hear us, and it’s getting really dark now. I hate to say this, but I think we’re gonna have to stay the night here. We don’t have a torch, apart from the little one on your phone, and, in any case, we don’t want to drain its battery cos we might need it later. We don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark here, and who knows what animals we might chance upon.


First thing you should do is turn off your phone to conserve the battery. Next, let’s find a tree in a clearing somewhere that has less bugs and mud around it. We can also lean a long branch against the tree, lean shorter sticks against that branch and then cover them with big leaves to make a makeshift shelter. We should gather a bunch of wood and dead leaves and scrub and use it to make a fire. We should pile up lots of wood too, so we can keep it burning all night – hopefully that will keep the wild animals away. Whilst we’re at it, find me a long branch I can whittle into a makeshift spear. The machete and knife are decent weapons, but they don’t have much reach. No, not that branch, that’s too wet! No, not that one, that’s covered in ants!


Now that we’ve got that sorted, we should settle in for the night. We’ll sleep in shifts so the other can watch out for danger. Reapply your mosquito repellent. Don’t drink any more water, by the way; we should conserve what little we have.


The jungle is pretty scary at night. Some people would say – not me, cos I don’t believe in that stuff – but some people would say that if you go piss, you should be careful where you do it, and don’t piss on termite mounds or strange looking trees or rocks or whatever because they could have spirits residing inside, and that whenever you relieve yourself you should “ask permission” before doing so to appease any spirits that might be out there. I’ve heard a story of some guy who pissed on the wrong thing or something whilst he was camping and was then possessed by a spirit. He went crazy and ran off and was found dead a few days later, clad only in his underwear. In this other story, another guy got possessed by a “tiger spirit” for the same reason and ended up killing and eating his friends.


Oh, and if you hear anyone calling you from the jungle in the middle of the night, you should think twice before following it.


You know, I always used to laugh at those stories, but for some reason they don’t seem so funny now.

Morning. Did you sleep at all? I sure didn’t. Between being smoked by the fire, bitten by random insects, covered in dew, and worrying about being eaten by wild beasts or possessed by ghosts, I couldn’t sleep a wink. And there were those monkeys and their damnable hooting! I can’t believe there are people who actually buy “Sounds of the Rainforest” CDs to play when they go to bed to help them sleep. What a bunch of idiots! They should come here and hear how relaxing it really is!


Oh well, might as well start out early. At least it’s pretty cool now. I say we head back to the fork in the path after that leaning tree, head left and then try other paths from there on, starting with that path with that funny-looking stump on the side. We’ll favor the more travelled-looking paths, of course. We can take photos at each branching to remind ourselves where we went and use that leaning tree as a point of reference, since we think we passed it on the way in. Remember to wear your anti-tiger mask.


By the way, I found like six leeches on me this morning and burned them off, you ought to check yourself too.


Ok, here we are at that path with the funny-looking stump. Let’s just go down it and see-

Picture Credit: mandleicious

Whoa, those are wild boar. It’s alright, don’t panic, just don’t make any sudden moves. Aww, and it’s got a little piglet in tow, too. That’s quite cute. The adults can be dangerous if provoked, but just leave them alone and don’t get in between them and their piglets and you’ll be fine.


Man, I’m hungry. Let’s look out for any recognizable fruits. Or any fruits at all for that matter. But we have to make sure they’re not poisonous. I heard somewhere that one way to do that is to find some fruit that’s been half-eaten and discarded by a monkey or something, cos that will probably be safe to eat, but that always seemed like bad advice to me. First of all, who knows what happened to that monkey after taking a bite out of it? What if it dropped dead after? Second, who wants to eat something that’s been half-eaten by a monkey? Who knows what germs are in a monkey’s saliva!


Yeah, I’m not sure about that fruit – I have no idea what it is. Oh, wait, a native guide once told me a way to test if a strange fruit is safe to eat. First, put some juice from the fruit on the skin of your arm. Then, if you don’t feel anything weird after a few minutes, put some juice on your cheek. Then, if you don’t feel anything weird after a few minutes, put a drop of juice on the tip of your tongue. If you don’t feel anything weird after a few minutes, it’s probably safe to eat.


…or you could just start eating it straightaway and hope for the best, like you’re doing. Just don’t blame me if you start frothing at the mouth later.

Hey, hear that? There’s a stream nearby, and there, on that tree by its banks, are those…papayas? Pluck one of them down and let’s cut it open and see. Yeah, they are! They’re so juicy! Oh man, that’s good! Let’s rest here and eat all of them; who knows when we’re gonna eat next.


I guess this spot isn’t so bad. Look over there, that’s a kingfisher. And over there, that’s a hornbill. They’re really quite beautiful.

Ok, here comes a troop of monkeys. Damn, how many of them are there, like 20? Just don’t do anything to provoke them or attract their attention. Don’t offer them food. Keep a tight hold on your backpack, cos sometimes monkeys will snatch it for, like, no reason. Don’t smile at them because they might perceive bared teeth as a sign of aggression. Don’t make eye contact with them because they might perceive it as a challenge.


Oh god, look how far we’ve fallen. Being afraid to make eye contact with monkeys. Feels like we’re slipping down the evolutionary ladder.


This is why I fucking hate monkeys, by the way. Monkeys are like the hoodlums of the animal kingdom, the kind who will rob you at the drop of a hat or attack you for “disrespecting” them. Do you know that monkeys are so stupid and greedy that one way to trap them is to cut a hole in a coconut, big enough so a monkey’s paw can fit through, but small enough that a monkey’s clenched fist can’t? The monkey will reach into the coconut and seize a handful of the succulent coconut flesh within, and then find it’s unable to pull its fist out. They’re so incredibly greedy that they’ll refuse to release the handful of coconut flesh, even if that means having their paw trapped in the coconut for hours or days! What morons!


Uh oh, they’re coming closer, and they’re eyeing the papayas we’re eating. No, we’re not gonna give them any! That’ll just make things worse. In any case, I don’t believe in appeasement. Some people advise throwing your food in the opposite direction and running away, but I refuse to do that as a matter of principle. I might avoid eye contact, but I draw the line at surrendering our food to these little bastards and fleeing.


The big one – I guess he must be the alpha male – is now just a few feet away, and looks to be smiling at us nastily. That, by the way, is a monkey signal of aggression. And the others are now staring at us menacingly too. Well, screw them! Pick up that rock and throw it at the alpha. That’ll teach him. And once you’ve smote down their leader the rest will slink away! Go on, throw it now!

Aaahh, ok, that wasn’t such a good idea. I think that just pissed them off. Now they’re all baring their teeth and stalking closer. We should run. Run. RUN!!!


Oh shit, they’re chasing, they’re chasing! Run! If they catch us, we’re dead! Runrunrunrunrunrunrun! Quick, into the stream! JUMP!

Fuck, it’s cold! Are they following us in? No, thank god, they’ve just taken to snarling at us from the banks. What really gets me, though, is that they’re now helping themselves to our papayas. Curse you all, you damn dirty apes!


Let the current bear us to safety. But watch out for sharp rocks!


What is it? Are you mad at me? I feel like you’re mad at me. Look, it’s not my fault I can run faster than you! Not like I’d’ve been able to do anything if the monkeys got you anyway! At least if I survived I could’ve stacked a cairn over your mangled corpse after. Well, this is what happens when you skip leg day.


I think we’re downstream enough now. We ought to wade ashore and try to find the path again, maybe try to continue along that route if those wretched monkeys are gone by now.

Man, this sucks. We’re soaking. We’ve been attacked and robbed by monkeys. We lost our spear. And what is up with these stupid flies that keep buzzing around us? Ughhh!!!


And why is it so fricking hot? This stupid jungle is sweltering! I’m thirsty as hell too, and we’re out of water.


Do you know that some people call the rainforest “the green hell?” Now you know why!

But you know what? We’re gonna soldier on. Because we have no choice but to soldier on. Everywhere is hot, dirty, and incredibly uncomfortable, and if we even stop for a few minutes, we’ll be swarmed by a whole bunch of insects. And I sure as hell don’t want to spend another night here.


Let’s go with this path; it looks more travelled. It’s curving upwards, but that might not be a bad thing; if it takes us to the top of this hill, we might be able to use the view to get our bearings.


Oh for god’s sake, can you get over that monkey thing? What else was I supposed to do? Anyone being chased by a troop of rabid monkeys will run away as fast as he can! You’re being really unreasonable!


Fine, keep sulking, see if I care.


Think about it: if you keep being mad at me, the monkeys win. This is their way of sowing discord between us humans.


Man, uphill’s the worst! But come on, as I said, if we get to the top of the hill we can use the vantage point to survey the terrain, maybe spot a road somewhere in the distance, or some structures, or some sign of human-

That’s a pylon.


There’s a fucking pylon on top of this hill. And if we follow its descending wires and look through the undergrowth…Ok, there’s literally a highway on the other side of this hill, and the path leading down from here will probably lead us there. You can actually see cars whizzing along it. Haha, well, that’s embarrassing! I don’t think we were ever very far from civilization at all; we just wandered around in circles like idiots.


Well, that concludes our tour of the Malaysian jungle. Let’s never fucking do this again. Come on, let’s get out of this hellscape.


Follow the path down from the pylon and feel the power returning to you: your puny hands with their feeble fingernails, so poorly adapted to survival in the wild, now able to type out stuff in exchange for sustenance, the useless pieces of paper and plastic in your wallet now translatable to food, drink, and comfort, your phone suddenly blaring to life and connecting you to the rest of the world. Emerge from the jungle’s edge and see the cars zooming past and know that you’ve made it back to civilization. Recall your time in the rainforest and realize the truth of that old Malaysian wisdom: Stay indoors at all times, because, if you go out, bad things will happen.

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