Farming in the Malaysian Jungle

Trip Start Nov 30, 2009
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of Malaysia  , Perak,
Saturday, June 5, 2010

It's been months since we’ve done any work so we decided the time had come to knuckle down and do something constructive, albeit for only a week. We’d arranged, via HelpX, to stay on a Permaculture farm outside a small town called Lenggong.  Definitely off the main tourist trail, requiring a ferry, 2 buses and then a ride in the biggest heap of a land rover I’ve ever seen to get there.  Things didn’t look well from the offset when our 'farmer’ Ladia came to collect us from the bus station and turned out to be exactly the dreadlocked ‘swampy’ Kev usually gives a wide berth to.  The land rover he collected us in had holes in the floor, windows missing and stank of a heady mix of goat poo and petrol.  The ride up into the hills to reach the farm was a real challenge – with the car conking out on the dual carriage way and then three times on the crest of a big hill, leaving us rolling backwards at a rather scary speed down towards the main road before having to attempt it over and over again.  The farm itself was more of a small holding really, in what used to be a small tea plantation and processing plant.  It was remote to say the least, with a very bumpy off road section before we finally reached a small clearing in the jungle where the house and small factory building sat.  Our bedroom for the week was in a small room attached to the factory, no mains electricity and just a couple of beds and a small table for furniture.  Being the Malaysian jungle there was also a steady stream of ants making their way round the room.  Not great for my ant phobia, so made Kev get busy with the deet to get rid of them. 

Thankfully we weren’t the only volunteers; a Scottish couple Karis and Adam had arrived the previous night and were old hands at Helpxing as had worked in India before arriving in Malaysia.  The four of us got on really well and it was good to have some company while we were working and someone to hang out with in our free time.

The work was pretty varied, if a little unorganised and badly planned.  My main duties consisted of weeding and planting in the various vegetable patches, which were all under constant attack from jungle weeds.  The first bed we tackled had weeds waist height, many of which looked pretty familiar as houseplants in the UK.  I was amazed to find out that this bed had only been done three weeks ago – the weeds sure do grow thick and fast in this climate.   Not easy trying to decipher the weeds from the plants, especially as some of what we were supposed to be keeping were native jungle plants used as herbs and salad.  Added to the mix were some pretty lethal spiky mimosa plants, with spines that would detach themselves into your skin if you got caught against them – and of course ANTS.  Millions of them, in every size and colour, and with 2 varieties that gave you a nasty nip.  Large red fire ants that launched themselves onto you on purpose and horrible little tiny miniature ants that would run into your boots and gloves by the dozen and bite you.  Perhaps this farming in the jungle thing was a big mistake for an ant phobic like me.  After months of learning to tolerate them, suddenly finding myself being attacked from every angle and bitten by them has definitely set me back. 

Each morning we would have to feed the chickens, ducks, rabbits and turkeys and help let the goats out.  Most of the animals were very cute, but there was one big male goat that was pure evil, and would try and butt us whenever we got too near.  I’d always considered goats to be pretty hardy animals, but whenever it started to spit with rain there was a big panic to get the goats inside as apparently they can get ill very quickly if they get wet.  They also hate to eat their food off the ground inside their pen, so we would have to make sure we raised it up onto a platform for them to eat whenever they were inside. 

On Kev’s birthday we were joined by two more volunteers, a Italian called Paulo and a French guy called Louis, who Ladia had found wandering the market in town.  They were passing through Lenggong by bike and after chatting for a short while decided to take a detour up to the farm and stay for a couple of days.  Really cool guys, who are working their way around Asia by bike.  Paulo has been travelling for 8 years, he left Italy when he was 18 and has been travelling and working his way round the world ever since.   He had so many amazing stories to tell and has just allowed himself to move from place to place, stay with whoever will offer him a bed for the night.  He once walked his way round Mozambique, with just a spare t-shirt to his name.  Having avoided the trappings of a conventional life in the western world and living with very little material possessions he had a really refreshing outlook and has been fortunate to experience the kindness and generosity of people.  It’s strange how the people who have the least are always the ones who are most willing to share.  The two of them kept us very entertained over dinner with tales of their travels.  Very inspiring, sorry to see them go, cycling off down the hill on their bikes with the homemade rice basket panniers!

 For his birthday Hana our host, asked if Kev had any special requests for dinner.  With Kev not one to hold back and potentially miss an opportunity he got straight in with his request for Goulash (Our hosts were from the Czech Republic) and baked jam roll and custard!  Not exactly authentic Malaysian fare, but he likes what he likes!  Amazingly Hana managed to rustle these up, using water buffalo for the goulash and with me assisting, a Jam Roll with a little help from the internet.  Considering this is Kevs favourite dessert it’s a bit shameful that in 13 years together I’ve never bothered to cook it before.  Why would I when Tesco sell a perfectly good readymade one?  However, I think I’m likely to hear ‘if you cooked it in the jungle you can cook it anywhere’ when we get back home.   Hana proved to be a fantastic cook, especially considering the conditions, rustling up muffins, homemade bread and fantastic soups in the smallest of kitchens and with only intermittent electricity from the generator and a tiny portable plug in electric stove.   

To accompany the birthday meal we were also treated to some fresh fish, which the boys all assisted with catching from the farms pond.  Very complicated arrangement involving 4 of them wading in and dragging a net across the pond.  Very effective though with 7 big Talapia for dinner as a result.  Paulo and Louis were happy to be the ones to kill the fish, while Kev and I scraped off the scales.  Only trouble was despite breaking their necks and removing all their internal organs the fish were still flapping around while we tried to de-scale them!  Horrible.

With me on gardening duties Kev was tasked with helping to pick limes, do some tiling and in the last couple of days start with the building of a brick fish pond.  Lime picking was a horrible job, with the trees surrounded by spiky weeds, covered in biting fire ants and covered in thorns.  Seems this volunteering should come with danger money!  Tiling was a bit more up Kev’s street, indoors and not too physical.  Building a brick pond on the last couple of days was entertaining to watch, but very pleased we’ll be in another country when it comes to them filling it up with water!  

All in all our Malaysian farming experience was OK, although a bit chaotic and unorganised at times.  It was however interesting to be living on the edge of the jungle, with giant hornbills flying overhead and waking up every morning to the sound of Gibbons calling.  A pity we didn’t get to see the Tiger that apparently passes through once a month, although to be honest I’m sure that would have scared me even more than the ants did!  At least I now know how to plant Papaya trees, what to feed goats and at long last have discovered which way up you plant ginger!
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