The world’s largest flowers are not particularly pretty. At least, not after their first two days in bloom. And some of them smell like decaying flesh. Yet people pay guides to lead them through jungles to see them. Last week, in the Cameron Highlands of peninsular Malaysia, I was one such person. Squeezing as much as I could into one day, I joined a tour that covered most of the area’s highlights.
The Rafflesia grows in parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines and while those in peninsular Malaysia don’t give off any odor, rumor has it that in Malaysian Borneo, parts of Indonesia, and the Philippines, these plants are truly offensive to the nose. The flowers only bloom for 5-7 days and after the first two, the color starts fading to brown. Guides in the Cameron Highlands track the flowers so I knew I’d be seeing only one and that it would be its fifth day in bloom. These are the oddest flowers I’ve ever seen – they’re parisitic, living entirely off other plants so there are no leaves, stems, or roots, just buds and flowers.
A bud can take 9 months to bloom and when it does, it unfolds one petal at a time. These things can weigh up to 10 kg (22 lbs) and the flowers can have a diameter greater than 1 meter (around 3.5ft). The petals feel a bit spongy and the number of tiny insects swarming inside the bloom I saw must have been in the hundreds. Although I’m glad I saw both a living and a dead flower as well as many buds, the three hour jungle trek was really the better part of the experience.
Trekking to see the Rafflesia was the first part of the day. But we also had a lesson in using a blow pipe (surprisingly easy), wandered around a tea plantation and then toured the factory of BOH, Malaysia’s largest tea producer, checked out the view 2,032 meters (6,667 ft) above sea level at Gunung Brinchang, and walked through a mossy forest.
The final event of the day was my favorite: a walk in the aptly named Mossy Forest. This area sits juts below the summit of Gunung Brinchang and the slightly higher Gunung Irau. At that altitude the clouds sit low, constantly keeping the ground and flora moist. The ground squished beneath my feet as layers of compost have built up over the years. Moss grows everywhere, including atop tree branches, creating a green canopy over the rainforest. With mist hanging about, it’s a beautiful sight, the likes of which many compare to the forests of Avatar. Our guide pointed out wild orchids and pitcher plants – the latter being an insectivorous plant that lures insects with a sweet nectar. The inside of the pitcher is lined with a slippery mucus so the bugs can’t get out and eventually the plant digests the decomposing remains. Those we saw were so small I could have held one in my hand but they grow large enough to hold 2.5 liters of water.
I did my tour with Hill Top but, because of a bit of tourist shuffling, wound up spending the final bit with Eco Cameron. I have no complaints with Hill Top but the Eco Cameron guide was far more knowledgeable and informative about the local wildlife. As a result, that’s the company I’d recommend to anyone headed that way. Although a tour is the only way to find the Rafflesia, if you have time and don’t care about having a guide, there’s a hiking path up to Gunung Brinchang and from there it’s easy to explore the mossy forest, walk or hitchhike to the tea plantation, stop at strawberry and butterfly farms, and return to your lodging (likely in Tanah Rata) in about 7 hours. I’d have preferred to do this than join a tour but despite my presence there for 9 days, my time for exploring the Cameron Highlands was limited. Why that is remains a subject for another day.