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Among a truly ecological forest community

·1768 words

Arriving #

In February we spent 3 weeks volunteering at the Rainforest Tree House (RTH) community in southern Malaysia, which runs a school, homestay and cafe, all inside a forest on the edge of a national park with a strong focus on being ecological and connected to nature. It all got started about 10 years ago when A Yao found a suitable piece of land to embark on the journey of reconnecting people with nature through fostering a community in the forest. The focus in the beginning was on building all natural treehouses and provide a raw homestay experience, but over the years the project has evolved into a larger, more holistic community. Arranging our volunteering stay with them took some time and effort due to uncertainty when a current ongoing construction project would be finished, they were already at capacity with a big group of volunteers involved. They were building a new stage specifically for the graduation ceremony of the forest school and we arrived just 2 days before the ceremony, witnessed the completion of the stage and met all the volunteers involved. What an atmosphere! The weeks before must have been intense, everyone was exhausted and excited, the group of people involved obviously had developed quite a deep bond. We were a bit intimidated by the effort they had put in, especially since it was not yet clear what our contributions would be. Nonetheless, it was a good time to arrive, the vibe was energetic and festive, we immediately hit it off with the core group revolving around the volunteer activities.

The school #

Attending the graduation ceremony was wonderful, it was the most lively day we had at the project, the whole school including parents of all the kids, staff for cafe and homestay and a record total of 7 volunteers were there. The ceremony itself consisted of various performances of every grade’s students and video recaps of their activities such as building, cooking, handcrafting, throughout the year. Although we did not see the stage being built with our own eyes, the sense of a great achievement was imminent, the atmosphere made us feel like being part of something meaningful even though we had just arrived. I can only imagine how fulfilling it must have been for the other volunteers that had poured themselves into achieving the completion of the stage on a hard deadline and then see it be the centerpiece of the biggest ceremony of the year.

The school is inspired by the Waldorf education concept and started with a single teacher and a small class, evolving to a total of 4 grades starting from kindergarten up to age 12 which are taught today at Rainforest Treehouse Wonderland, the “forest school”. Basically the whole community is of Chinese Malaysian ethnicity with only the building team being dominantly indigenous, so Mandarin is the commonly spoken language at the school and among the staff. The Chinese Malaysians make up a significant portion of the population in Malaysia and in our (limited) impression the three main ethnic groups; Malays, Chinese and Indians form their own communities and are quite separated.

After the graduation ceremony the school would only operate 3 more days before a long vacation around the Chinese new year period. Within those 3 days we joined a few classes from different grades, sometimes just tagging along for activities such as a morning hike to a big waterfall close by or a brush painting class where everyone painted their own dragon. Another time we took over a 2 hour time slot to share some particularities of Dutch and German culture and afterwards organized a portrait painting session in Van Gogh style. It was incredibly fun to interact with the kids who are all so hands-on and full of energy. After the 3 days were over, we were quite sad to only have such short time of participation in the school, the timing of our stay seemed quite unfortunate to us in that moment.

Forest and treehouses #

As the other volunteers were leaving one by one after the graduation ceremony we gradually familiarized ourselves more and more with the surroundings and all the people involved in the community. Early on we joined one of the tours for homestay guests lead by Chi, who is one of the people managing homestay and volunteers. She introduced us to the surrounding forest and to the earliest of the treehouses further up the mountain which were built completely with natural materials sourced from the forest. Maintenance was of these buildings was very time consuming, especially the fully wooden scaffolding proved to not be long-lasting and was usually eroded by ants and termites within a few years. A Yao, who had started the project as an eco homestay, told us of his evolution in mindset and building style from “radically” ecological (his words) to a slightly more pragmatic approach allowing for some non-eco components. The newer generations of buildings do make use of some metal for scaffolding and even acrylic for windows (all second-hand), which makes them more sturdy and longer-lasting with lower maintenance required. Together with the building team led by John, who brings experience as an architect (and an impressive work ethic), they are working towards a building style that is ecological, cheap and fast that can be used as a template for more forest communities.

The volunteers get to choose where to sleep, we could set up camp in any of the homestay’s treehouses (when not booked), the school’s buildings and the cafe. In the beginning we got set up in the kindergarten together with one of the teachers, so while classes where still running we had to be up early every day and clear our things before everyone arrived for class. Later, we ended up staying a lot in the kindergarten building which we loved for its spacious and beautiful interiors, in the holiday period we could also leave our beds and mosquito nets in place. During the quiet period over Chinese New Years we had tried the more isolated treehouses, which are incredible, but also more inconveniently located and we spent too many years living the Dutch lifestyle that values convenience above all 😃.

There are 4 kind of monkeys in the forest around the community and the most daring of them are the short and long-tailed Macaques who were always hanging out close by and running on top of the buildings. So the biggest trouble with sleeping in any of the treehouses were actually the Macaques who are very keen to search your belongings for food when you are not around (mostly during the day). So wherever you are, it is essential to store bags in unaccessible places or you run the risk of a monkey making a mess of them. A few times they came to go through our beds and even tried to take a mosquito net (but failed to untie it). The other two kinds of monkeys, Dusky Leaf Monkeys and Gibbons, are more shy and we only spotted a few Dusky Leaf Monkeys twice when staying in one of the more isolated treehouses.

Being a part #

The last few days before the start of the school vacation it was decided that the best way for us to make a meaningful contribution was to build a website for the community as a whole. This was not really what we expected from our stay, but there was not much going on that we actually would be able to help out with. In fact, as the school closed down for the next 3 weeks, the homestay and cafe also closed for almost a week and all the Chinese staff went home to their families for the Chinese new year. This meant that for 5 days there was no one besides us and a few indigenous guys that are the core of the building team and they also took off some days to fully relax.

There is not much interesting to be said about building the website, it was a good learning project and we did really enjoy sitting together with A Yao to learn more about the history and discuss how to present the core information of the project. Besides this main project, we also took on some other interesting activities, in particular we ran a basic English class for 3 of the Indigenous; Zul, Asi and Sidie, every few days. Although it was difficult to come up with ways to teach, we eventually had a lot of fun with them, they are a funny bunch and there was much laughter. It was a great way to connect and overcome the language barrier that kept them from interacting with volunteers in the usual day to day.

Throughout our stay we got to know more deeply some of the people we were most involved with and heard many interesting perspectives. Everyone had such mixed backgrounds ranging from former farmers to architects, long time teachers and recent graduates. A big portion of the people we interacted with most closely are drawn to Buddhism and have done meditation retreats similar to the one we did in Thailand just a month before arriving, so it was a fun topic that came up often. In particular we loved listening to stories from A Zhong, a farmer-turned-teacher/musician with great artistic talents. He also took us around to have breakfast/lunch at some local places and did two trips with us to some interesting places in the area, thank you teacher A Zhong! For our last week we were joined again by a new volunteer, Zi Chong, who described herself as currently being a “full-time Workawayer” (Workaway is the platform we also use to find volunteering opportunities). She brought a great energy and tons of stories of her adventures and we were happy to share at least a week together (and sad too that she only arrived so late). The three of us were fortunate make a visit to the pineapple farm of Ha Ling, the supplier of pineapples for the cafe with a sweet and humble personality, when he invited us spontaneously. Afterwards we were lucky again to have Ha Ling choose the best Durians at a stand next to the road on the way back, it made our day (well, at least Shiwen’s).

All in all, our time at the RTH community was an incredible nature experience, but first and foremost the people we met and got to know left a deep impression and we admire their dedication to an alternative lifestyle, be it as a teacher, cafe/homestay staff, builder, farmer, traveller.