In the early 1960s, global rainforests spread over 11% of earth's land mass, nowadays the remaining rainforests alltogether cover not more than 6 percent of it. That is a thin belt along the equator, mostly below the 10th degree of latitude. A hundred years or more ago the size of the old forests was much larger. Nevertheless, between 50% to 70% of the known species are living in these richest biotopes. That's a total amount of estimated 30 million plants and animals. And there are many more who are yet undiscovered.
Tropical Rainforest is covering the Cameron Highlands on the Malay Peninsula. It's the oldest rainforest on earth. Geologists estimate it's age of 130 million years.
A Chinese/Malaysian acquaintance told me how he got lost here once in the 1960s with his boyscout group. The group, consisting of 20 teenagers and kids, ned seven days to find their way out of the jungle.
In our days the forest is cut more and more. Civilization is making it's way first into the valleys; after road construction, buildings of all kind follows. Then the urbanization is creeping up the slopes. The last remaining aborigines (Orang Asli) are forced to live in new settlements.
Many slopes in the Cameron Highlands were logged already decades ago. They are now covered by the large Boh tea plantations.
Image by Asienreisender, 2005
The last remaining tropical rainforests are located in the Amazon catchment area in South America, the Congo basin in Africa and in parts of Southeast Asia. Since the rainforests of south America (the world's largest) and the ones in Africa are based on mainland, most of the Southeast Asian rainforests are spread over ten thousands of islands in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
It is the year-round warm temperatures, the not much changing climate conditions and the plenty of monsoonal rain and humidity who keep a stable environment and grant so many different animals and plants a habitate. Evolution had one of it's best playgrounds in areas like the Malayan rainforest, which is counted as the oldest forest on earth. The Malay peninsula and the great Sunda islands are uninterruptedly forested since more than a hundred million of years already. That's why so many species could evolve particularly here. Not on chance got Alfred Russel Wallace his igniting idea of the theory of evolution, driven by natural selection, in the rich rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Bird songs in the rainforest at the slopes of Phnom Kran (1,563m) in the Cardamom Mountains. Audio by Asienreisender, Veal Veng, 2/2016
What's actually the difference between rainforest and jungle? Well, jungle is a more common expression for all wild vegetation which is growing in the tropes and subtropes, including bushes and dense vegetation of all kind. Fast growing green wilderness, so to say. Rainforest means real forest, old trees and it's a vegetation form which needs ages to develop.
Koh Tonsay / Cambodia
Tropical rainforest is covering the many islands at the long, long shores of Southeast Asia. The shores are protected by mangrove forests. Here we see the southeast beach of Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) in Cambodia with it's hilly, forested inland.
Image by Asienreisender, 5/2014
Batak Karo Highlands / Sumatra
Tropical Rainforest in the Batak Karo Highlands in north Sumatra around Gunung Sibayak. The protected areas in Gunung Leuser National Park are threatened by annual forest fires (arson), illegal logging and the loss of protected areas who are officially sold out to the ruthless timber companies.
In the tropical rainforest of Pangandaran. A first approach, leaving the paths, turning into the green. The jungle appears chaotic, sometimes hostile. The struggle for survival shaped the species. Only those who always were best adapted made a career over 4,000,000,000 years. The first exception from that in the history of earth's life is homo sapiens. Since recently this single species reversed the development and started more and more to shape the natural environment. In it's blind success man is in the advanced process of destroying the global biosphere. In the not so far future he will, without doubt, fall.
What we see here is secondary rainforest (1). All the trees have thin trunks, what gives witness of their young age. Only twenty percent of Pangandaran's jungle is primary rainforest. It's great to go early, for there are fewest people and most animals around. It's great to go alone. After a rain shower the air is humid and it smells for nature.
So, have a look around the scenery here (still 1). Where do you go? Left is the fallen trunk, the glade is surrounded by bushes; no path to see. Where to go now? Keeping orientation up is crucial in the nature. The brightness in the background comes from the early morning sun and indicates an eastern direction.
A large map at the park's entrance gives some information about the geography (2). What the map doesn't show is the hills on the peninsula. Hiking into the forest means climbing and descending. The yellow part is still the entrance area which is pretty much designed like a park now; there are still paved walkways. The green part is the actual jungle.
A jungle path, leading deeper into the green (3). The leaves are still covered with a layer of water from the last shower.
Many trees of the ficus family grow in the jungle. This one is still pretty young, but seems to have a future here (4). It looks strong and healthy.
Well, it's not easy to find a blooming rafflesia arnoldii, the grand superstar of the scene. Their flowering time is just two or three days, so far I am informed. If you don't find one, you can draw your own, as I did (5).
Another ficus (6). They grow in many different shapes, sometimes very impressing ones. Climbing up a slope... (7).
Millipedes (8) and centipedes (9) live in the rotting leaves and wood of the forest ground. While millipedes are completely harmless for hikers, centipedes can cause a great harm! For more on these guys I wrote an extra article on them... By the way: the centipede is the only photo which wasn't made in Pangandaran; it was shot in 1/2015 in Kampot.
Trees, trees, trees - that's where the rainforest, in combination with the monsoon, got it's name from, right? Treetops, large roots, covering mostly the soil's surface (10, 11, 12). There is a place in the deep forest where flying foxes, large bats, live in a certain tree. In 1996 I approached the place by a distance of some 100 meters and watched the bats hanging in the tree in daytime. Not much to see, actually, and it wasn't possible to further approach. However, their time is dusk, when they all leave the grand tree and chase along the coastline and partially the inland on the search for food. Many farmers in the wider surrounding try to kill them, because the bats have the tendency to feed from orchards. And, moreover, the locals can eat them (left of 12).
And suddenly deer, inmiddle of the green (13). They grow an overpopulation for they get extensively fed by tourists and have no natural enemies here anymore. The last tigers on Java extinct, if I remember that right, around 1930.
High trees with long lianas. Mosquitoes are a problem in the tropes, and particularly in the forested areas. Malaria is a jungle disease, and the only positive aspekt of the clearance of the tropical rainforest is, in a way, the lowering of the malaria rates (14).
Mighty roots are covering the ground. However, they don't reach deep. The soil of the tropical rainforest is a thin layer, and once destroyed it needs a very long time to recover slowly again. If it can (15, 16).
Leaving the forest, one comes back to the park before the entrance; the ways are paved again, and walking is suddenly very easy again, while it was in the nature step by step what someone has to care for. And then one meets one of the many groups. Indonesians often gather in large groups and join activities (17). And, not far away, one of the dubious guides in the park is feeding the macaques to promote their overpopulation and throwing the plastic rubbish without hesitating into the green. On my inquiry he comforted me with the suggestion he would burn the [plastic] rubbish. And he did. Great nature protection, they have here. No doubt that many animals get hunted here and sold on the pet markets in Java's bigger towns and cities.
All photos taken in May 2012 by Asienreisender, except the centipede as mentioned above, who was photographed in Kampot, 1/2015. It's not too easy to make a good photo of a centipede, for they are rather seldom and disappear often quickly.
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2012, 2015
Bukit Pangkor, the peak of the biggest hill or mountain of Pangkor Island, is in the background left (1), here seen from the small tao temple at the northern edge of Teluk Nipah.
Most of the island is still covered with tropical rainforest. That's more and more exceptional - most of the lowland rainforests on the Malay Peninsula fell already victim to the ever hungry and growing oil palm and rubber plantations. The steep slopes of Pangkor's mountains are not good for plantation economy, and the logging industries haven't butchered the nature here yet, for it's probably easier to butcher first elsewhere. Logging in the mountains of an island is more expensive and less profitable than logging the plains in the mainland, so they go into the mountains when the plains are all done. But also without the grand logging companies the rainforest is cut more and more, and urbanization is eating it's way into the green (27, 28). The village on image 28 has occupied a valley which lies at the foot of Fu Ling Kung Temple, who is built already into the slope of a formerly forested mountain.
When entering the tropical rainforest with it's humidity one encounters another tease, who attacks in great number: leeches. Although it's always said they were completely harmless, I was so lucky to catch a secondary infection, probably directly transferred by the insect. It got worse every day and I had to treat it (with hydrogen peroxide).
A method to protect oneself from them is to pour salt into the socks. It's just that salt goes with the water, where they live in. Wearing long pants in the forest is anyway recommendable; to pack the trouser legs into the socks works well. However, in rainy days they crouch quickly over the whole body and find their way under the clothes... To get rid of them is possible with burning them with a lighter (they let go then) or scratch them away with a straw directly after they bit and are not firm yet.
Image and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2009, 2015
From Teluk Nipah are two paths leading into the jungle. At the edge of the jungle the peak is still to see (2). Once being inside the green, orientation is a problem and a compass can help a lot.
Huge trees indicate the age of the forest. These are older trees, while further south there is a part of the forest where only thin, young trees are growing. That's clearly secondary forest. The tall trees have a huge crown but no branches below. They are specialized to absorb the sunlight and form the top layer of the tropical rainforest (4,5,7,9). Lianas appear very often in the jungle; they are parasitic plants who use the jungle giants as an access to reach the sunlight high above. In some cases the parasites strangulate the old trees and eventually kill them.
Big spiders appeare here and there, more often at the edge of the forest than inside. They prefer glades for their nets, because there is the chance higher to catch prey.
The yellow sign inmiddle of the forest tells that the forest is under protection and asks hikers to take care for the nature.
When hiking in the jungle, one starts sweating pretty much. The heat, the humidity, the strain of walking on a ground where one has permanently to watch out... Plenty of water is required for any even very short walk into the forest. Mosquitoes are attracted by the smell of sweat. Sometimes whole swarms approach the hiker, and one can't get rid of them anymore. They fly around the whole body and check where they can bite. Some are permanently buzzing around the head. The mosquitoes around image 8 are aedes albopictus, the notorious 'asian tiger mosquito', which is the vector for dengue fever. Plenty of them live at the long west coasts of the Malay Peninsula. Aedes albopictus is day-active.
The mosquitoes around image 18 are of the kind anopheles. Anopheles mosquitoes can transfer malaria, a classic tropical disease.
As well as mosquitoes there are also masses of ants in the forest. Many of the fallen trunks (12) in the jungle fall victim then to termits (11).
Jungle tracks (13 - 18) - very seldom someone comes along here. They are from time to time cleared by officials who observe the nature; maybe there are also sometimes locals hunting in the forest - hunting means meat for free. The tracks are narrow and at many spots overgrown, so then one has to crawl for a few meters or to use a machete (19) to clear the path. The machete probably saved my life when I used it to lift a few twists under where was a pretty viper hidden (20). The picture is (not only) so shaky for I was trembling but because it's pretty dark on the ground of the tropical rainforest. For the plants it's a permanent struggle for light. Image 21 shows a part of a track which is overgrown with fern. Because of some more poisonous animals like cobras, centipedes, scorpions it's recommendable not to pass through here. One has to clear the path first.
Suddenly, in the mud, the footprints of boars (22). Continuing slowly and silently, the group of wild pigs didn't notice me before I saw them (23). Wild boars are certainly a reason for hunters to poach. One would think that's an activity for the Chinese then, because the muslim majority doesn't eat pork. But, hunting and eating are two different things, and a poached boar can be sold for 'good money'.
Orchids grow on branches, they are parasites as well (24). Hiking in the jungle requires a good sense for orientation, and an orchid like this is like a sign one should keep in mind for the way back. Fallen trees serve for the same purpose (25). And, after walking, walking, walking, eventually a stone indicates that the peak of the mountain is very close (26).
Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015
The images show mountain forest at the slopes of Phnom Kran (1.563m) around Veal Veng, highland forest at the shores of Lake Atai at Ou Soum and lowland forest close to the Gulf of Thailand at Koh Kong. Images by Asienreisender, 2/2016
Typically for the ecosystem of the tropical rainforest are the different vertical layers (it's stratification), where fauna and flora evolved particular habitates.
Phongsali / Laos
The forested mountains of Phongsali in north Laos. Here the climate is cooler than in the tropes around the equator, but also in the subtropical forests there is no vegetation break in winter time and no frost, although it could happen to snow here a bit in cold winter nights. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
Life in the rainforest means, at least for the vegetation, a struggle for sunlight. The canopy is the highest layer, formed of the crowns of the great trees. It's height is varying between 30m to 45m. The canopy is also home for a rich secondary flora which lives in the top of the large trees: orchids, ferns, mosses, lichens, lianas and others, some of them of a parasitic nature. Additionally a great number of insects, lizards and snakes, birds and some mammals inhabit the canopy.
Have also a look for the description of the canopy walkway in Trang!
Partially there grows another layer which even reaches above the canopy layer. It's called the emergent layer and it is formed by remarkable large trees, overreaching 45m in height, sometimes 55m, in spectacular cases even up to 70m to 80m.
A middle layer is called the understory layer. It's home to another great variety of plants and animals.
The foot of a diospyros rhodocalyx. Trees of this size are nowadays extremely seldom. They bring a few thousand dollars on the market, and that's a stronger argument than natural protection. Often are special tracks hewn into the jungle just to reach and log such a single tree. Image by Asienreisender, Krabi, 2005
Hiking in the rainforest means moving on the forest floor. Here only a fraction of the sunlight arrives anymore. That's why so few green plants are growing down here. Since the vegetation density isn't that high here, the bigger animals can move well: the tapir, the rhinoceros, the so much scared tiger and many other cats as leopards, the Asian wild cat etc., elephants, the grant constrictor serpents, some great apes (although the Southeast Asian orangutan prefares to stay in the trees), crocodiles at the riverbanks, and, occasionally, homo sapiens. Some of Southeast Asia's 'hill tribes' are permanent inhabitants of tropical rainforests. Tragically, most of them are meanwhile bereaved of their natural habitat or they became alienated to it due to the distorting influence of modern civilization.
Remarkable is in general the high humidity and the amount of rainfall. Not only in the monsoon time it's frequently raining, but also often in the times of the year who are considered being dry season.
Layers of the Tropical Rainforest
The layers of the tropical rainforest. The soil is nutrient only on a small layer on top of the ground. Below there is usually degraded red clay with stones and rocks which comes to the sunlight only after deforestation. One can see it frequently at all the many building sites and road constructions in Southeast Asia.
The undergrowth reaches a height of around 5m. It consists of a number of bushes and trees who are often yet small but still growing and are on the way to reach the sunlight.
The understory goes up to 17m. It's about the height of casuarines and coconut palms. Large oconut palms can reach a height of more than 25m.
The canopy is in a height of around 30m. That's pretty high already. Walking along a canopy walkway like the one in Trang's Botanical Garden, which is only 18m high, makes one think to be much higher than that.
The emergent layer is about 40m high, but can in some parts of the rainforest reach much higher. That's the tops of the huge forest giants, who are the main target for the logging industries. Such a huge tree brings several thousand dollars. Sometimes there are tracks built deep into the forests just to cut only these certain giant trees.
Sketch by Asienreisender, 2014
Fragility of the Ecosystem
The complexity of the rainforest's ecosystem has it's drawback. It's a fragile interdependence of many factors. If the climate is changing, landscapes getting destroyed or certain species disappear, the whole is affected.
Fire clearing is the cheapest, quickest, easiest way to get rid of the jungle and to gain new land for settlements and plantations. Soon later the land is changed into farmland or, as it happens often in the Cardamom Mountains, into banana plantations. At the southern slopes of the Cardamoms near Koh Kong appear also still young rubbber plantations. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2/2016
Tropical rainforest grows on a surprising thin layer of topsoil, which is underlayed by another layer of red, nutrient poor subsoil. This red layer is to see so often everywhere around in Southeast Asia, where building construction happens. Is the topsoil once removed, rainforest can no more recover there. It would take aeons to regenerate. Where logging happens, the topsoil is soon washed out by the heavy tropical rains and washed away into the next rivers; from there it's getting driven into the sea and is lost forever.
People who cleared the forest for growing crops are not successfull for long. After the fertile topsoil is eroded, because the trees roots who kept it are no more, the remaining, often sandy subsoil is no more good enough. After two to five years the soil is exhausted and more rainforest get's cleared to repeat the pattern.
Much more than half of the global tropical rainforests have already been removed under the impact of modern industries. And the human pressure on the remaining parts is increasing. Large-scale plantation economy, industrial logging, population growth, the extension of agriculture and a loss of tradition among the hill tribes who live since long in the forests are some of the reasons. Advanced technologies make logging much more effective as it ever was before in history. Capitalism is a socialeconomic order which is based on never-ending economic growth by all means. Utilization of the 'unused land', as it is sometimes said, makes short-term profit. That counts! That eternal growth in a limited system, as the globe is one, is logically impossible, seems to bother surprisingly few people.
Worldwide every second rainforest of the size of two football fields are destroyed. The equivalent of 18 million football fields are destroyed every year (a size of the European country of Belgium).
Soil Degradation of Rainforest and Secondary Vegetation
The Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountains was once widely, probably completely covered with tropical rainforest. Some centuries ago some people entered the valley and started slash-and-burn agriculture. Over the generations more and more land was cleared and couldn't fully recover. Population growth since the 20th century increased the need for land. Although the valley is large and the population does not extend 2,000 people, most of the valley's forests have disappeared. The secondary vegetation is much poorer. Particularly the grassland is very poor in nutrients anymore.
The slash-and-burn activities are going increasingly on, now the secondary forest falls victim. Additionally illegal logging and poaching (Areng Valley is part of the 'Central Cardamom Protected Area') do a great harm to the remaining nature. Tropical rainforest grows mostly only in the steep mountain slopes who border the valley to all sides. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 2/3/2016
Once the rainforest is removed, the temperatures rise. The green canopy of the grand forests changed sunlight into organic growth and the leaves evaporated moisture into the air which was coming down as dew or rain again. Now the sunlight enhances the temperature instead. One can see the local climate differences at areas where tropical rainforest borders to eroded land. Already a mere dirt road through the jungle heats up the microclimate considerably. NASA observations show a clear correlation between deforestation in Southeast Asia and large-scale climate change in the Middle East. They show also similar relations between deforestation in the Kongo Basin and increased droughts in Europe and deforestation in the Amazon catchment area and droughts in North America.
In a shrinking rainforest, science can less and less find out how ecology is configured. It's getting lost before it is fully understood. Nature and natural patterns are a scale for reality. Human civilization and culture are merely our second nature, but they run wrong and lead astray.
Not to mention the suffering and the loss of animals and whole species in great style. A species once extinct will never reappear on earth.
Forest is being considered free land in most Southeast Asian countries. Everyone, means local people or companies, can gain plots and clear them with slash and burn. That is also so in so called 'protected areas', because the protection is not executed and exists only on the paper. Usually clearing happens after an oral agreement with the local authorities, who receive some 'compensation' under the table. That is what happens every year in Sumatra and Borneo and lead to the '2015 haze air pollution crisis'. Reports claim that children in the affected areas died on the way to school, for the haze was so thick. Animals are berieved of their habitat and witnesses tell stories of panicking oranguntans who flee the fires. States and businesses complain and - next year, after the annual rainy season, the destruction goes on in the same or worse manner.
Deforestation in Cambodia
Cambodia has the highest deforestation rate in the world. Where was primary forest just a couple of years before, there is either plantation economy, urbanisation or savannah nowadays. Dirt roads are eating into the landscapes; some of them served the logging industries in the past, some are the next step in the process of transforming the land.
Just 200m away, not to see on the picture, are a couple of bigger, new stables for industrial hog breeding established. More are under construction.
It's grotesque to see in such surroundings the meaningless remains of protection: 'Permanent Forest Reserve Boundary'. Images by Asienreisender, Kampot, 2/2014
The Murder on Rainforest
Jakarta / Java
Tropical wood in large amounts, piled up and ready to be loaded onto the ships for export in the port of Jakarta. Indonesia is meanwhile 'world champion' in deforestation, Brasil is no. 2. Image by Asienreisender, 1996, photocomposition 2014
Jungle and primary rainforest was in the past the most widespread vegetation form in Southeast Asia. In 1960 for example Thailand was covered by 80% with primary forest. Due to slash and burn, logging for the furniture and paper industries, urbanization and agricultural monocultures (palmoil plantations, rubber plantations, sugar cane, cassava, cashew nuts (like in Ratanakiri) and other cash crops), primary forest is rare nowadays. The last remains are to find in the mountains, particularly in the higher parts, on steep slopes where it is extremely difficult to cut the big, not seldom several centuries old trees. In the plains there is not much primary forest left, it's almost all cut and replaced by agriculture or urbanized.
Bokor National Park in Cambodia is a sad example for a tropical highland forest, a cloud forest. The article on Bokor also describes the threats of this remaining nature refuge in mostly deforested Cambodia.
Partially, after the logging of rainforest, the green wilderness is coming back. It's growing up as secondary jungle then, much poorer in biodiversity as it was before. Even after several decades it's not what it was before. On Sumatra wide parts of Gunung Leuser National Park are secondary forest. It has been logged in the years around 1920 and regrows since. Still, the trees are smaller, but, at least, it's connected to yet untouched last remains of primary rainforest, so that some retreated species can come back. For example the orangutan.
Nevertheless, news on Sumatra (mid 2013) tell that the government gave concessions for logging 50% of the Gunung Leuser Nationalpark. That means the end of the Sumatra tiger, the orangutan and the elephants living there, only to mention three very prominent species.
Indonesia is covered with the second biggest tropical rainforests on earth, following the South American area around the Amazon River.
The extension of the roadnet and the rapid growth of the Cambodian population and towns and villages lead to a seemingly endless expansion of housings, industries and plantations into the rainforests of the Cardamom Mountains. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, Veal Veng, 2/2016
There is a drama going on since decades, in the long run since the 19th century, which led to the destruction of already a great amount of it. Annually fires eat it up piece for piece. That's so mostly on Sumatra and Borneo (Kalimantan), but also on all the other islands of Indonesia. Java's rainforest is almost completely gone, only very small pockets remain under official protection, but the protection means in fact very little. Poachers enter the National Parks and hunt out what they want to sell. There are animal markets in all bigger cities. Jakarta is said would have the biggest 'black animal market' in Southeast Asia. For one of the last remains of tropical rainforest on Java check the article on Pangandaran at Java's south coast.
Due to the massive burning of rainforest is Indonesia in fact the biggest issuer of CO2 in the world, even topping the notorious USA; but forest fires are not counted in the most statistics. Only industrial emissions are. In 1997 there was a record fire on Sumatra, destroying a big part of the rainforest in Gunung Leuser National Park. In 2006 I saw smoke and dirt in the air at Prachuap Khiri Khan, in the south of Thailand. It was coming from burning forest areas in Borneo, more than a thousand kilometers away. In the plains the rainforest is replaced then by palmoil plantations and rubber trees. Big international companies gain huge profits by this development being accompanied by the state, who considers it as a mean of development. Not to speak about corrupt affairs in the background - the press frequently reports about them. Global Witnesses brought out a report on the affairs in Cambodia ('Rubber Barons' May 2013), naming also western financiers (e.g. Deutsche Bank, and a branch of the World Bank).
In March 2013 I got news that there are plans to give a great deal of rainforest free for industrial use in Banda Aceh, north Sumatra, including great parts of Gunung Leuser National Park. International companies played out their influences in politics and get what they want. Against the opposition of the local population, by the way, who lives with the forest since generations and have to suffer very much the disadvantages of the destruction.
Ko Chang, Thailand
Arubber plantation. The tree's bark is cut in it's length, and caoutchouc is running down, dropping into the small beakers hanging at the side. Working in these plantations is tough and dangerous. The cuts have to be renewed every morning between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. At 6 a.m. the white, kind of milk-like looking rubber has to be harvested. Many poisonous snakes including the cobra and scorpions are nocturnal and around in the green on the search for prey. Additionally the mosquitoes are a permanent plague for the workers. Malaria is a disease appearing mostly in the forests. Image by Asienreisender, 2010, Ko Chang, Thailand
The Malay Peninsula is covered with the oldest forests on the globe. Scientists claim it's 130 million years old. Due to it's closeness to the equator it has never experienced an interruption in development by an ice age. These forests are disappearing in a quick speed. The industrial hunger for palmoil is too big, and the forest has no lobby.
Prachuap Khiri Khan / Thailand
A coconut tree plantation south of Prachuap Khiri Khan in the south of Thailand. The east coast of Thailands southern peninsula is widely covered with this kind of monoculture. Not too long ago the whole area was covered with rainforest. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
A recent Example
One evening in late 2012 I was sitting with some aquaintances in their place in Satun. Western/Thai, who are living there since twenty years already. Urbanization made progress in Satun in the last few months. This evening was a particular one. The neighbours were going to implement a few new shrimp farms for making business with seafood. The surrounding was mostly bushland, secondary forest and partially mangrove forest. Soon after sunset, only thirty meters away, under bright spotlights two caterpillars did their destructive work. They torn out all the trees and bushes around. An ecological desaster for all the animals in the area.
While Asian People mostly seem to be totally ignorant and do not care for nature and animals at all, some Westerners do more or less. We all were apparently nervous and annoyed by what was going on. But my western compagnions were in their way ignorant as well. They came up with silly stories that the animals would flee the machines and would settle down in the neighbouring forests, bushlands and mangrove forests. Contemporary, 'postmodern' people never think a bit deeper or anticipate the (even nearer) future anymore. Wish-thinking and easy comforting oneself dominates realistic views.
In fact the verymost animals have no chance. If they are not nocturnal, they get very surprised by the harsh attack of the machines. It's getting very quick and they loose orientation. If they can flee, they enter partially the urban areas and can not find a place to live. They die. If they escape and find a comparable place in the surrounding green, they face the competition with the animals who live there already. There won't be enough resources for all of them to live. Most of the newcomers die, or they cause the death of others who were there first. If they are nocturnal, they have a better chance to escape, but the verymost of them will die as well in the next few days. Some may flee one site of destruction and enter another one.
Because the same process of destruction was going on all around in the wider neighbourhood, along all the roads outside Satun. There is a cry for business and development in the air. And the plants die anyway - plants never run away.
Hiking in the Jungle
Bohorok River / Sumatra
Bohorok River above Bukit Lawang, curving through tropical rainforest on Sumatra, Indonesia. When getting lost in the jungle it's recommendable to follow streams and rivers downwards - sooner or later there will be settlements at the banks or it will reach the open sea. Image by Asienreisender, 2009
A good place for hiking the jungle on Sumatra is Bukit Lawang. It's possible to make a one week hike from there to the north, coming out in Banda Aceh. There is still a shrinking chance to see wild orangutans and elephants in the jungle. But also there, much of what I saw what was rainforest in 1995 and 1996, is now palmoil plantation, and now the hike leads for three, four days through plantations before entering the natural forest. And also this is mostly secondary forest.
The hike is accompanied by mostly self declared local 'jungle guides', who's professionality one can really question. In Bukit Lawang almost every man between sixteen and fourty is a 'jungle guide'. There is even an by the government authorized organization which certificates 'qualified' guides, but their qualification is still questionable. If one has an accident in the deep jungle, days away from the next village, road, hospital, mobile phone tower, it's really necessary to have someone in company who knows what to do. I personally never met a guide there whome I would really dare to trust. Although there might be some ones.
Besides, in Bukit Lawang one gets a great demonstration why these forests are called 'rain' forests. I have never seen heavier rainfalls than here. Every afternoon at around four o'clock rain starts, and one can barely see a meter ahead anymore.
More great tours on Sumatra are trips up to Mount Leuser (Gunung Leuser, 3,404 m) or Mount Kemiri (Gunung Kemiri, 3,314 m). That's really big hikes, takes fourteen days, including harder climbing, overcoming several thousand meters altitude. On the way one can see again, if lucky, orangutans or wild elephants. Climbing over hills and mountains without any ways, crossing streams, rivers and canyons by finding a suitable passover is a challenge for the physical strength. Being deep in the jungle far apart from the next settlement, sitting or walking in the pouring rain provides a real stoneage feeling. Slippery, muddy grounds become a real challenge. Food and tents and other equipment has to be carried. It requires a small expedition of not only two or three local guides but also other guys who help carrying equipment.
A curiosity of these tours is that the tours include a 100 gramm marihuana parcel. I first didn't know why the guides do that - but obviously it's because they themselves smoke frequently. I would consider it rather as weakening the physical strength one really needs and avoid it. However, that's really tours for experienced and advanced travellers who know what they do.
Mt. Sibayak / Sumatra
Mount Sibayak (2,094m), in the Batak Karo Highlands near Berastagi, north Sumatra. A volcano caldera, surrounded by dense tropical rainforest. Image by Asienreisender, 2009
Nevertheless, Sumatra is great for jungle trekking of any kind. For an easier approach one can do one-day-trips or two-day-trips around Bukit Lawang. Also the area around Berastagi in the Batak Karo mountains is phantastic for day trips. Berastagi is a mountaneous little town with good air and a moderate, not too hot climate. The Dutch colonialists used it in the past for relaxation from the plains. One can climb the Sibayak volcano and come back via a small village having a bath in the hot, volcanic springs before walking the rest back to Berastagi. Or, alternatively, climbing mount Sinabung. The first trip one can do without a guide, the second one is not easy to find and further away. A guide for this trip is therefore recommendable, except one knows the way already.
Though it's not without danger. There is a long list of people who got lost in the huge, mountainous and still widely wild surroundings. The way at the top of the Sibayak splits up in all directions. There are only two leading back to Berastagi; the one one came and a second one. It's crucial to take the right one. In the 1990s there were also reports about banditry. Westerners got killed and robbed by a certain gang. In the mid 1990s I had in the caldera of mount Sibayak an encounter with a group of younger Indonesian men and found their behaviour extremely suspicious. It seemed to me if they would check what to do with us, if a raid would be worth the risk. Fortunately I wasn't alone that time and nothing happened. As I said, there is a long list of people who disappeared there and were never found again. Some of them might have lost their way and died in the jungle, others might have been murdered by certain local people and been hidden into wherever.
Well, Sumatra is a great place for naturalists. Another phantastic hiking trip is to start at Lake Toba and hiking westwards toward the pacific coast to the town of Barut. The forests are phantastic, still tigers are living here. Therefore it's not without danger. The forests are huge, the trails are hidden, it's extremely difficult to get a good map and the local Batak People live so back in time that few Westerners could ever imagine. Rumours say some communities would still practice cannibalism, as they did in the 'old' times. That was the case until the 1880s, but who knows...?!
Great for easier day tours is Pangkor Island on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula. There is a circuit road surrounding most of the island; the inland is mountainous and therefore mostly untouched. Some real primary rainforest is left there. There are several tracks leading up into the forest mountains. It's sometimes hard to find them, because almost nobody goes there. If, then they are probably forest officials, keeping the tracks a bit free and checking around. A bit. It's dense and sometimes the tracks end up in dense bushes and impassable green. One track leads from Teluk Nipah upwards a small stream and splits up to the right and to the left. The left turn leads over a hilltop and splits up again. The right way then ends up in the green. The other way leads down to the airstrip of Pangkor Island. Once down one can climb over the fence and cross the airstripe to come back to the circuit road. Takes some three to four hours. Take plenty of water, it's steep and hot and humid. One needs two liters or more. I saw 'flying' lizards there and a group of wild pigs.
For somebody unexperienced the jungle is quite a mess. Civilized people are used to straight lines, buildings, roads, asphalt and concret and many other people around. In other words to a completely artificial environment. The jungle therefore provides nothing a civilized person is used to. There are only plants, animals (mostly insects) soil, water sometimes. It's all strange for civilized people. It needs quite a time to get used to it.
Cameron Hlds. / Malaysia
Humans are a pattern seeking species. The patterns which modern man is used to don't exist in the rainforest. The first impression is total chaos. It takes a time to get used to it and to find orientation. Image by Asienreisender, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, 2005
If you have a romantic idea about jungle tracking, then forget it. It's not romantic. It's a strain. One has to care for every step he or she goes. Avoid touching trees, bushes, leaves and so on if possible. Usually jungle tracking means climbing up or down steep slopes. That costs strength and requires concentration. Sometimes one has to creep through dense bushes. It's not without danger. One can slip out not only when the ground is wet, but also on dry leaves, who can be very slippery. The most animals one gets to see are mosquitoes. They are attracted by the human smell, particularly when sweating. And one sweats a great deal in the jungle. The sweat is washing off the repellent. Mosquitoes tend then to fly around one's head and face in great amounts, and that's quite irritating. Tiger balm can help to keep the mosquitoes away, but don't get it in your eyes - it burns for long and you can't see anymore!
Other animals one encounters frequently in the rainy season (but not only then), especially when crossing streams or rivers, are leeches. The bloodsuckers creep on the skin until they find a save place and then they take their meal. They don't cause pain; one just sees them here and there or feels a strange feeling of that there is what, what does not belong there, in the shoes or under the trousers, and finds more when starting to search. On a hike in Khao Sok National Park in Thailand they once appeared in masses, because it was pouring the whole day and everything was totally wet. I removed them with a big plastic straw. If it is dry around you can get rid of them by approaching them carefully with a lighter flame - they will release immediately. Another good tip to avoid them is to put salt in the shoes and socks (if you wear socks). But, at wet days the salt would be washed out and therefore prove useless. In contradiction to what some travel guides write (e.g. Lonely Planet) they are not always harmless. On Pangkor Island I caught two inflammations. They got big and bigger every day. Finally I found out that they can be treated with hydrogen peroxide (5 or 6 percent solution, available in most pharmacies). Took more than a year to get rid of the scares then.
A jungle path in the Malayan rain forest. Here it's still wide and well to walk. Soon it get's thinner and is over parts barely to recognize. One has always to be carefull not to lose the track. Not seldom such tracks end inmiddle of the dense green. Image by Asienreisender, Cameron Highlands, 2005
It's not easy to see interesting animals in the jungle. In fact, although I have been many times in the jungle already, I saw very few there. Wild cats, wild pigs, deer, even snakes and lizards are very shy and try their best to keep hidden. Birds anyway, but there are bigger birds to see sometimes, as eagles and kites, but mostely from a distance. Bats in the evening or the early morning. In the National Park at Pangandaran on Java there is a big tree inhabitated by really big bats. They are a seldom species and hang there all day head down. The place is deep in the jungle at an impassable spot at the steep coastline. One can not come very close to the tree (that's why they are still there) but can watch them with a binuclear. In the evening they start flying out and partially eating from fruit plantations and orchards. That makes them hated and hunted by the locals.
Most important in the jungle is to make sure to find the way back. Be aware of the fact, that a way in the jungle looks completely different, when you walk it in reverse. Turn and look back again and again, particularly at spots where the way splits up. Remember remarkable details like big stones, trees, bushes, trunks and so on. Make your mind up, use a compass and prove your orientation whenever you can. Particularly if you suffer a poor ability for orientation, make sure that you always find your way back!
Once I met a Thai guy on quiet Ko Chang Island (in Ranong Province, not in Trat Province near the Cambodian border) who sometimes made up his hammock in the jungle. He had a rifle with him and hung out all night to shoot a boar if seeing one. That's an exclusive idea for travellers - I mean not to shoot animals, but to experience a night in the jungle. A hammock is a great place to stay for a night. No harm from animals is to expect. It only requires an extra amount of mosquito repellent, two good torches and strong nerves.