When we stepped out of the national park, we found ourselves on a well maintained road with two small huts lined up at a corner to serve food and drinks to the passers by. We gobbled down another bowl of Nasi Goreng and two cups of warm coffee to re-energize ourselves on a narrow wooden bench. Next to us was a group of middle aged men who relaxed and smoked on a straw bed; they let their bodies sink deep into a cross-legged position and didn’t seem to be bothered by the flow of time.
After our meal we started our journey again, not sure where to go with the scarcity of traffic and lack of people to ask for directions. Soon we came upon a gate to a waterfall, where a man guarded the entrance and demanded a small fee for visit. There was also a campground inside, so we decided to explore around for a while more and spend our night there if no other options availed.
Just as we walked away, we met a group of tourists who offered us a ride to another waterfall. We stepped our muddy feet into their SUV and observed the strange combination of ethnicity among the passengers with suppressed curiosity. It turned out that they consisted of a French couple on their honeymoon, the newly-wed wife’s student – a little girl who had a French father and an Indonesian mother, her pregnant Indonesian mother and a local driver. It would be impossible to guess out such intricate relationship if they never explained to us! They also showed us a paper ticket with a hand sketched map of the whole area with many waterfalls and scenic spots. So we had come upon a local resort unknowingly!
We stopped at the entrance of the other waterfall, where this time, a group of men guarded the entrance and wanted to charge an astronomical price (approx. SGD 2 per person) on us foreigners. A long argument ensued between the Indonesian mother and the guards, and the French guy almost threatened to walk away if the price could not be reduced. Finally they settled for approx. SGD 5 for all of us (a 50% discount since the Indonesian mother and driver did not join) and let us in. We walked down a long flight of stairs past various shops selling toys, food and swimsuits. At the bottom was a square with even more shops though most of them were closed due to the late hour. Directly in front of the square was the waterfall with a muddy pond. In contrast to the quietness at the entrance, there were quite a number of local tourists relaxing on the boulders, taking selfies and feeding monkeys, who scavenged greedily from the plastic snack wrappings scattered around.
Figure 1: our kind friends who gave us a lift
On our way back up, we stopped at a fish spa for pedicure. The French girl and I became really excited because the price was amazingly cheap (SGD 2 per person for one time entry) and both of us had wanted to experience being bitten by those small creatures for a long time. We walked into the hut and sat down on the straw mats which surrounded a small pool with dark shadows of hungry fish. The moment my feet touched the cold water, swarms of fish shot out from all directions and started attacking my feet. I had to lift up my feet immediately because it was painful and ticklish at the same time. The French girl was more calm and sank her feet deeper into the pool, and I followed suit after a few struggles. It could be my imagination, but I actually felt the sharp teeth of the fish and heard the clamping of their jaws on my sensitive skin.
All this time Toni excused himself in the toilet for a long time, and after he joined us, all the fish abandoned my feet and rushed to his. He screamed in pain and told us that the fish here were so much more aggressive than the ones in Thailand (sometimes I believe he knows how to enjoy life so much more than me). I thought the fish would come back to me after they had enough of Toni’s skin, but they never returned…
Figure 3: Toni’s popular feet
After the fish spa, we said bye to our friends. As Toni became more and more silent, I sensed that something was amiss (hopefully not because of his decision to propose to me in the morning) and found out that he had diarrhea! The news exploded in my head like a shell and brought my memory back to the many instances of Toni’s moodiness whenever he was unwell, no matter if it was diarrhea, fever, sunburn, shoulder pain or neck sprain. So we abandoned our plan to camp at the first waterfall and decided to find a proper shelter for the night. By this time some motorcyclists had gathered at the entrance and tried to take us to different destinations. We bargained with them and finally agreed to settle for SGD 20 at one of the village huts. Our happy driver carried both of us (together with our bulky backpacks) on his small scooter and drove down hills after hills, turns after turns to a remote village called “Air Panas”. I was almost worried about our safety when we finally stopped in front of a hut built on a fish pond. There were two spacious bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a toilet. The living room was covered with two huge straw mats and upon lifting them up, the whole village with other small huts, fish ponds and rice fields came into my view. The floors, ceilings and lamps were also covered with netted straws, which gave me an illusion of a luxurious resort after so many days of hard core camping.
Figure 4: our cozy hut
While I allowed myself to relax and recharge in our lovely hut, Toni went straight to the toilet and came back lying exhausted on the mattress. We rested for a while and to my relief, he agreed to go out for dinner so that I would not be too starved. It was hard to find any “real” food (the only store next to our hut only sold snacks and coffee), but we discovered yet another ticket counter to “Air Panas” a few meters away from our hut. We paid our entrance fee (SGD 1) and walked inside, cautious not to make any speculations. There was again a long row of shopping huts lined up at the river bank but they were all empty by this time. We walked for a considerable distance and finally saw a gate to two swimming pools. The bigger pool was all drained up and we could see a layer of dark slime at the bottom. A stream of water poured in from a plastic pipe and generated big bubbles as it splashed to the ground. A few men sat around the pool and observed us from the thick smoke of their cigarettes. One of them was the security guard of the hot spring, and he urged us to stay and enjoy ourselves in the pool. We looked at him with some confusion, but he kept gesticulating for us to go down and wash ourselves up below the pipe. I told Toni it might be good for his stomach, so he agreed to give it a try and went into the toilet for another round of business. I sat at the edge of the pool and all the men came over to snap selfies with me. But once Toni came back, they quickly dispersed and pretended nothing had happened.
Toni hopped into the pool and I joined him after some unsuccessful resistance. The water was hot, greasy and smelt of iron, but we were convinced of its healing power and stayed below the pipe for a considerable time until all the other men had left except for the security guard, who looked at us intently with some satisfaction. All of a sudden the sky turned grey and heavy rain drops poured down hard on us, but the guard forced us to stay in the pool with his gestures. We listened to him and let the cold and hot water splash onto our bodies like some wild animals. Then the guard took off his clothes and joined us, asking us to follow him in a variety of weird positions, such as lying flat on our bellies or putting the navel of our stomach, shoulders and head directly beneath the pipe for natural point massages. He had a pair of glistening eyes and a strong built despite his small size. He spoke fragmented English (only “I”, “you”, “guard” and numeric numbers “1 to 10” except for “six” and “eight”) but this did not prevent him from talking to us in sounds and gestures. As we obeyed his instructions, the guard became bolder and started massaging for Toni’s feet. He then moved to me and waited for my permission to let him massage with absolute confidence. I nodded half-heartedly and he started rubbing my feet with his muscular hands immediately. So he took turns to massage us from our feet to our back and to our neck. I couldn’t remember much of his massage because I was deep in shock of his boldness and wondered about his strange personality. There was a funny and scary moment when he gave Toni’s neck a sudden shovel and twist to one side, at which point Toni knitted his brows with anger and resisted the movement resolutely as if he was defending himself against a murderer. But the guard ignored Toni’s aggression and moved on to twist my neck, where Toni shouted “stop” and extended out his arm to stop the guard. I was relieved that my neck was still securely hanging on my head after all.
Despite the small row, the massage ended peacefully with both of us feeling less tense on our muscles, and the guard led us to the smaller pool where there was still plenty of water. He asked us to dive deep and swim, and disappeared in the pool for at least half a minute, emerging from the other side of the pool. After a few rounds of swim, he led us out to the river. By this time the sky was totally dark, and our curiosity battled against our fear. There was no one else at all, we were at the mercy of the guard, but we decided to follow through his rituals. We walked down a slippery slope in the moonlight and jumped into the cold water stream. After the extended hot bath, the cold water felt exceptionally refreshing. We dived our heads inside a few times, and walked back to the river bank where an even hotter water stream flew down from a pipe. It was so hot that I couldn’t even bring myself near the splash, but the guard forced us to place our heads and shoulders directly underneath the water. I screamed a few times and jumped away, but Toni stayed on and made lots of grimaces on his face. He brought us back to the entrance of the gate, where we had to bathe under four different shower heads in a certain sequence. At last we stepped into a modest jacuzzi and walked on the sharp stones to massage our feet.
When the ritual was finally over, we were in a state of trance and only wanted to go back to our hut to “digest” our impressions of the day. But the guard had not had enough of us, and invited us to his hut for a small chat. We followed him to a small hut a few meters away from the pools and sat on the straw mat with him. He started smoking and put the butt of his cigarette on a wooden stick for praying. He mumbled and prayed to the sky a few times, and suddenly looked possessed and started scratching the mat with his fingertips. Just then I noticed his fingertips for the first time, which were grotesquely long and curved up like claws. Noticing our shock, he pointed to himself and the jungle behind us, and flexed his muscles with great emotion. Even though we could not make sense of a single word he said, we understood his story that he was a tiger in his previous life and all other animals were scared of him. He continued to scrape on the mat with his fingers quickly, and roared to us with ferocity in his eyes. I had a mortal fear that he would turn into a tiger at any time (Hmm, in that case I might turn into a rabbit and Toni might turn into a wolf with sheep skin) and started shivering in the cold wind. Finally he agreed to let us go and volunteered to bring us back to our hut with his small torchlight. As we climbed up the flight of stairs, we kept some distance from his so that he would not spring back and attack us.
It was such a solace to see the first ray of lights from the village. We thanked the guard profusely but did not let him come into our hut or pay him anything for his “service”. We felt rude afterwards and decided to look for him again in the next day. Sometimes you only know how crazy you are when you make such decisions!
Figure 7: taking a hot bath under the command of our instructor
Figure 8: photo with the tiger man