The journey to Brinchang in the highlands was trouble free, almost as soon as we left Penang, the rain began to fall. It intensified the higher we got and by the time we reached Ipoh, it had flooded the streets and brought all but the trucks and buses to a standstill. As a wave of rain passed we got a glimpse of the surrounding countryside, it was green, mountainous and extraordinarily beautiful. The rain water poured off the mountainside down stepped cascades carved through terraced fields. The rivers ran high, most looking like the banks were about to be breached by the orange-mudded waters.
A couple of hours later we arrived in Brinchang, the rain had eased and the hotel was a short walk from the drop off. The town resembled a hamlet in the Lake District crossed with an alpine ski village. Many of the buildings had a dry-stone facade, topped with wooden struts that supported the scallop-tiled roof. The difference of course was what was in the buildings, many were restaurants, where a throng of friends and families sat around huge circular tables where a 'steamboat' simmered some kind of meat stock into which a variety of delicious morsels were placed according to the diners' wont. The other buildings were a mixture of budget hotels, minimarts and shops set in the backdrop of tropical forests, rolling hills and shrouded in clouds.
There are numerous trails that can be taken to explore the surrounding mountains, they're numbered and vary greatly in their difficulty, we went out rather naively thinking that we'd go and take whichever path we first came to and see where it took us. The first path we came to began about a kilometre out of town, three steps in and the jungle closed around us. The temperature was a little cooler out of the direct sunlight, but the humidity had cranked up a few notches too, making it uncomfortable but not unbearable.
Bright green moss covered the rocks and tree trunks, the root systems were equally above ground as below and our feet slipped across their slick surface like we were on sheet ice (note to selves: Don't tread on the tree roots). The climb was steady, occasionally we had to clamber over rocks or up into ledges just wide enough for a foot to be placed. Every so often there was a clearing in the trees through which we could see our progress across the ridge and a sweeping view across the valley below. Huge poly-tunnelled vegetable farms had replaced swathes of forest, the ugly corrugated plastic arches were a blot on the landscape and the sad truth of things to come.
Our path continued upwards, birds and insects chirped away as we approached their territory and piped down as we passed through and on to the next, creating a beautiful and harmonic tessitura.
We reached a crossing of two paths, one would lead us further across the ridge towards the nearest peak, the other led back to town via a remote Chinese temple. Overhead, the clouds had thickened and in the distance the rumbles of thunder could be heard growling at the surrounding hills. We decided to take the loop back to town and hope that the storm was blowing in the other direction. 10 minutes later we found out why the rainforest is so-called. Tumultuous rain, thunder that sounded like our heads were being whacked with a tin tray and lightening that lit up the surrounding forest was upon us. The route back was somewhat trickier than the track up to this point, the muddy steps down were quickly becoming a series of miniature waterfalls, the tree roots snagged round our feet and ankles slowing our progress to a crawling speed. We took shelter under a fern to wring out our shirts, as we stood there wiping ourselves down we heard a some voices behind us. We looked up to see a couple coming bounding down the trail in shorts and pumps, like a pair of mountain goats navigating a cliff face. We took a look at ourselves in our sturdy walking boots, weatherproof trousers and cotton shirts and wondered how the hell did we get this sensible? When did we get so OLD?
We had a quick chat with the couple (who were actually quite envious of our attire) and they skipped off and were out of sight in under a minute.
The trail took us down and up so many times we lost count, every time we thought we'd reached the final peak another descent followed, there was another stream to cross and yet another hill to climb. The 3 kilometre round trip took us 4 hours to complete, we were soaked to the bone, exhausted and extraordinarily happy. Standing amid the trees, with the warm rain pouring onto our upturned faces, we'd never felt so alive, every ache and pain for the next couple of days was so worth it and we agreed we'd do it all again in a blink of an eye.
That night we hobbled a couple of hundred metres up the road to the market, the array of food on offer was amazing, the smells of barbecued chicken, corn on the cob, curries and sweet, sugary things was superb. We chose a few small dishes, a bag of short, thin sweet potatoes, grilled corn, chicken and rice and a selection of vegetable filled pastries.
All were delicious, so fresh and cost a fraction of any restaurant meal we'd had so far in Malaysia.
We'd had pre booked our train tickets back to KL, the downside was that a taxi (no buses) to the train station was going to cost more than two bus tickets to KL from Brinchang. We sacrificed the train tickets and booked ourselves on an early bus back to the capital.