Short Essays, Blogs, Stories

Jigokudani Yaen Koen, Japan
After walking through the snowy Japanese forest, I found myself at the entrance to Jigokudani Yaen Koen, Snow Monkey Park. I had devoted a good part of a week into piecing together the best way to find Japanese Macaques.​​​​​​​ Even thought there is no guarantee that you will find the monkeys here I was confident; the conditions were right, light snowfall dusted the tops of the trees, as a calm -10*C wind moved through the forest. Soon I arrived.
One of the most striking feelings you experience as a wildlife photographer is being looked at. It is almost ironic, your job, hobby, passion is to look at these animals, to try to see them in their natural environment, undisturbed. So when they look at you, and you can feel them looking at you, it is an incredibly special feeling. Primates in particular, so human in their appearance and actions, look at you with an intelligence that is truly stunning. 
As I observed these wonderful animals, my gaze reflected in theirs, I could not help but compare them to myself. Seeing these Japanese Macaques in their home, playing, arguing, grooming, and relaxing was like looking in a mirror of the human condition. 
When you think of Japan, your mind tends to gravitate towards the endless maze of Tokyo, its neomodern skyscrapers looking down on cyberpunk, neon-lit alleyways. From the izakayas to the Tsukiji outer market, Tokyo, and Japan's cohort of bustling cities can paint the country as the apex of activity, where sensory overload is routine, and relaxation scarce. 
While this vision is not incorrect, it’s certainly not the whole story. A mere few hours away are some of the most relaxed primates on planet earth, and they are not human.
Bukit Fraser, Malaysia
A wonderful part of traveling with no plans is that you mold your lack of plan into whatever you want. It leads you to do things upon the recommendation of others, often avoiding TripAdvisor’s overpopulated top destinations. That is why, one day while walking around the Perdana Botanical Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, I struck up a conversation with a man carrying a large telephoto camera, similar to mine. I asked him where the best location to go birding was, and a day later I was packed and ready to go to Bukit Fraser, a small town in the high mountain rainforests of Malaysia known for its cool climate and stunning biodiversity. On the Southeast Asian ride share app Grab, I booked a car to take me there. However, I soon discovered that it was not so enticing to drive an American 3 hours away from the business of the city on single lane jungle roads. After countless drivers rejected my bookings, even after I offered to pay extra, I eventually found someone willing to take me.
When he arrived, smiling, he reassured me in broken English that he knew where he was taking me. After insisting on loading my bag for me, we were off. About an hour and a half later, we left the smooth Malaysian highways and entered a true jungle. Malaysia is home to the oldest rainforests in the world, over 130 million years. As we drove higher up the mountain, and deeper into the rainforest, the trees became taller and the curves in the road sharper. More than once we passed troops of monkeys curiously perched on the safety barrier or sitting in the middle of the street. The further on we drove, with the trees darkening the sky above us, the more apprehensive I became; what had I gotten myself into? Finally, I saw a sign for Bukit Fraser, and after convincing my driver to follow the sign instead of his spotty navigation app, we made it to the town.
Five thousand feet up in the mountain rainforest, Bukit Fraser was laden with a heavy, wet fog. Over the next hour I spent discovering this small town, I was thrown deeper and deeper into a well of disbelief at what I was seeing. I had booked an airbnb, the cheapest of three possible places listed in the town. As we pulled up to the front gate I was thrown by the size of the complex I was staying in. The place I arrived at was not a quaint lodge in the jungle but a monster of white and beige walls akin to 1970’s brutalist architecture. It could have held 5000 people easily if fully occupied. But it was empty. Less than 10 cars filled the hundreds of parking spaces and the only noise came from the wind, birds, and monkeys who now laid claim to the small, darkened corners of the complex. Beginning to walk in search of my room, I was at a loss for words. There was no way I had just been in a Malay rainforest. If not for the thick, saturated layer of fog and the jungle sounds, you could have told me I was in eastern europe or the american midwest, in a hotel that had been forgotten by the owner and was just left to rot. If the next morning I woke up to find that the entire 5 building apartment complex had been teleported to another place in the world, I would not have batted an eye. The hallways were wet, lights flickered in the elevator, and even more eerie was the fact that there was not a single person around; had there ever been?
I came to learn that Bukit Fraser was originally a tin mine, founded by a Scottish trader in the late 19th century. Some years later in the early 20th century, the bishop of Singapore thought it a suitable location for a hill station due to the mild climate compared to most of lower elevation Malaysia. Through the years Bukit Fraser grew into a sort of holiday retreat for some, providing an escape into the prehistoric rainforest so rare in today's world. However, being there in early 2023, I found an area empty of life, business, and tourism. It was clear that COVID-19 had done a number on the local economy. Talking to a man at a bird watching shop, I discovered that many of its residents emigrated the 100 kilometers away to Kuala Lumpur to search for more bountiful work, leaving the mountain escape to the rainforest and the animals that have reclaimed it. 
I fell asleep that night in a state of disbelief and excitement, in a place I had never been, surrounded by an empty behemoth of a building, all with the plan of looking for birds in the rainforest the next morning. How lucky I was.​​​​​​​

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