Taman Negara, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, has been on this earth for 130 million years. It has watched all of human history unfold, has seen the world change and grow and burn, and through it all it has remained: timeless, still.
These days, a tiny village that has grown up alongside it, with guesthouses and floating restaurants for the tourists. You get there by floating serenely away from civilisation for five hours, housed within a tiny wooden longboat.
Shack-like hostels lean drunkenly along the waterfront, but a more upmarket experience can be had by checking into the Woodlands Resort, a place of gorgeous wooden stilt-chalets and semi-private swimming pools. After spending your mornings sticky and sweating in the insect-buzz of the rainforest, it is almost orgasmic to be able to return home at midday and slide into the icy blueness.
Our days spent in the rainforest were exhilarating. Heading into the trees you can soon find yourself completely alone, pleasantly lost within the swaying green branches and hum of ancient life. A sudden turn, and you find yourself unexpectedly at the canopy walkway. Rope bridges suspended high above the rainforest swing precariously under your weight, anyone with a fear of height may find themselves caught terrified but spellbound as the forest rolls away beneath your feet. You can also climb Buttress Hill, weaving through tour groups to enjoy the rolling-landscape view at the summit.
On another day we went rapid shooting. The aim of our tour leader seemed to be to get us all as soaking wet as possible, and afterwards we relaxed in the shallows of the river, wallowing in the mud like buffalo. Locals ran down to the banks, catching tree vines effortlessly in their hands to swing themselves, squealing with laughter, into the stream. Of course we joined them, plunging ourselves headfirst into a million-year-old rainforest river.
We visited Orang Asli, the jungle tribe, and practised blowing poisoned darts on their homemade blow-pipes. The villagers watched us, amused, before heading off to the local market to stock up on the washing powder and coca-cola and other modern things they try to hide from tourists under faded blankets at the back of their huts. A people caught between worlds, the stories of their tribe are fascinating. To them, death is such bad luck that when it touches their people the whole village moves, and the body is lain to rest in a tree for the animals and the elements to devour, a gift back to the forest which nurtured them throughout their life.
You eat in floating restaurants, which sway in time to the river’s ebb and flow. Or you can eat in the rainforest itself, where we were joined at our table by an extraordinary, bumbling, snout-nosed animal I’d never seen before: a black-and-white tapir. Or you can head out on a ‘night jungle safari’, bumping along under the night-sky in a 4WD and trying your luck to catch the local wildlife within the beam of your tourguide’s flashlight.
Even more magical was a night spent on our chalet balcony during a village blackout. Looking out beyond our rooftop we saw the sky lit up, Star-Wars style, with a million billion pricks of light. Enchanted, we went to lie on the ground beneath it, gazing up at the heavens and reflecting on our world, other worlds, and our place, our tiny insignificant little place, in the gigantic universe we belong to.
There are few things more beautiful or more powerful than starry skies when everything around you is dark. There are few things more wonderful, more awesomely, terrifyingly, awe-inspiring, than to see not just your own world but all the others stretched out before you and know that no matter how hard you try, no matter who you are, you can never see, never touch, and never understand anything more than the tiniest fraction of everything that exists around you.
And then you blink, and the lights come back on.