10 June – 25 June 2015
The sixth entry in my Southeast Asia journal.
Note: It’s strange how different this leg of the journey feels from the first. I always think of them as distinct, as though we went on two long holidays one after another. I suppose that is what we did. But other factors may explain this, such as the cultural differences compared to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Malaysia and Indonesia are predominately Muslim, after all…
Willenhall/Kuala Lumpur – Day 56/57
Similar to our journey down the elephant’s trunk of Thailand, our first two days sort of blurred together, hence days 56 and 57 being one entry. It started with an early rise in Sophie’s hometown of Willenhall. We drove to her brother’s and he took us to the airport. There was no problem checking in, and the long-haul flight to the Dubai stopover was uneventful. We slept mostly on the flight connecting Dubai to Kuala Lumpur, although I did see something cool from on the way: we were flying east – from dawn toward the sunrise, and you could actually see the divide of light and day from the window. We landed at 3: 15pm in Kuala Lumpur airport and had the choice to take either a one hour taxi or a 25 minute train to the city center. The train was the fastest and cheapest option so we went with that. Then, at the train station, we jumped a cheap taxi to our hotel. The hotel wasn’t great. For starters, it had no windows. (At first we thought this was just an unlucky one off, but windowless hotel rooms were a feature all over Malaysia and Indonesia.) We showered and brushed our teeth, then slept for an hour. After that we took a walk into Chinatown, which was practically outside our hotel at the end of the street, and browsed the night market, grabbing some mediocre street food in a dirty looking – but busy – eatery, where the tables were manky and there were puddles beneath our feet. We walked around, knackered, deliberately fighting the urge to sleep so we could reset our body clocks. We found a 7/11, Nandos, KFC, and a McDonald’s all in close proximity to each other. When we decided it was late enough, we headed back, but to my great annoyance I actually woke up again before 4am, unable to sleep. When we first arrived in Bangkok, my jet lag was so slight it hardly inconvenienced me. This time round, it would be much harder to overcome. Sophie on the other hand looked delighted. She actually kept smiling at me in her sleep, taunting me.
We never actually left the hotel till around 2pm. By that time I was in a bad mood, resentful our exhaustion had stolen much of the day. I showered in a cold and unpleasant cubical at the end of the hall (the showers were communal). Eventually we left to a monorail station up the road, finding our way to Times Square – the busy, fancy bit with a cinema and shopping malls. The whole monorail process was similar to the Metro system in Paris, easy and quick to get around on. We took a mental note of the name of our station for getting back later: it’s called Bukit Bintang. I found it was hot but not too hot. In fact, it was probably one of the cooler Asian countries we’d visited. We opted for cheaper food at a little St John’s Market-type shopping mall that’s over the road from the mega one, the Pavilion shopping mall, with the fancy shops. I think we just had rice and chicken in soy sauce, but it was very cheap. After that we headed over to the big mall, which is absolutely huge and very wealthy, featuring brands like Givenchy, and even ones from back home that you mightn’t have thought would’ve made it out here, such as Topshop.
Digression: Today is a special day because Jurassic World, the latest installment to the Jurassic Park franchise, opened in cinemas! Although everything from the look of the film to the plot details that had leaked made me think the worst, I was still really excited to buy cinema tickets. And they only cost £3 each (probably would have cost closer to £15 back in England). The film was as it was, in English, with subtitles in Malay, but you quickly forgot about their existence. In the end I thought it was a good movie but a bad Jurassic Park one. But I could kind of let it slide given that it was more like a soft reboot than a genuine sequel.
After the rebirth of my inner child we went to a Nandos in the mall before taking the monorail to the Petronas Towers. They’re huge and well illuminated, almost not looking real, like I’m staring at an old Dreamcast game on someone’s TV screen with the cel-shaded graphics. We don’t go up to the tops of the towers because we narrowly missed the opening hours (they closed at 9pm). But we did stand at the foot of them and take a hundred selfies, till we managed to get one with us and them in appropriately. After what turned out to be quite an exciting day we headed back to the hotel, our jet lag again taking its toll. But after a break in the room we decided to explore Chinatown again. We went to the 7/11 for a toastie and – there is no God – discover the Malaysian stores don’t do them, that the cheese toastie must be something exclusive to Thailand. Instead they have a kettle so you can make a pot noodle. Walking back to the hotel again, we conclude that Chinatown is kind of creepy at night. It’s dirty and smelly, and strange men are just standing about. There are still food stalls open though, and people are eating, despite it being very late. We see the occasional backpacker/westerner, but nothing like the numbers we saw in Thai/Laos/Vietnam/Cambodia. In fact, from my impressions the majority of backpackers don’t seem to make it this far. This edgy walk reminded me of our first night in Bangkok a bit, and how we seemed alone and vulnerable on the new continent. But we were better equipped mentally this time.
I slept badly again, the consequence being another late start. We look at the map our hotel provided us with, finding plenty of sight-seeing to do. Mederka Square, the colonial district, and the bird park to name a few. We then wandered about, still exhausted and disorientated, through Chinatown for food. We decided to eat in Nandos only because it was already quite late and we just wanted to fill our stomachs and get moving. We’re both too hot and grumpy to really fumble about searching for the sights. Besides, what we’ve seen of Kuala Lumpur so far has little in the way of traveler allure. There seems nowhere particularly nice to eat, there are no appealing bars. I can’t help but appreciate the grand skyscrapers of the city. There seem to be dozens of bank HQs: Maybank, HSBC, Bank Islam, and so on. And there are banks everywhere. It reminded me of London, quite intimidating actually. Like the mall, I got the impression it was a very wealthy city. We look for Mederka Square but can’t seem to find the damn thing, even with the map. It’s odd how our first few days here have mirrored our first few days in Bangkok, as we’re wandering around, threatening to get lost. But it’s still a clear few hours before it goes dark so we’re not nearly as worried as we were that scary second night in Thailand. Eventually we find the Square and spot an English-style house which is actually a cathedral. The Square itself is unimpressive: a large field that colonial Englishmen once used as a cricket ground. A building adjacent to the former ground looks like the Parliament building in London but with a funky Islamic makeover. We don’t find the colonial district. It seems everywhere is blocked off by construction-sites and we’re both still tired and grumpy. We stop at a cafe for some water and the mercy of the air-conditioning, then jump a taxi. The taxi driver refused to turn on his meter, so we have to haggle for 12 ringgit (Malaysian currency, hereby referred to with a capital ‘R’) for him to take us to the bird park. It’s a short journey and it’s about £9 each for us to enter the bird park. Supposedly it’s the largest free-roaming aviary in the world. It’s fun and we enjoy what we see, despite the fatigue and the heat. My favorite part was the area where they presented the chicken as though it were some sort of exotic animal. I suppose it is, but it was just hilarious after seeing so many bright and colourful birds to turn the corner and find chickens roaming about. After exploring for a few hours another taxi takes us back to the Pavilion mall and we walk to an area called Jalon Alor – praised by the Book as a gorgeous area with tasty food. In reality it was dire. We find a nice restaurant but spend a whopping (for Asia) £17 between the two of us. Tired and unimpressed with the city, I now start fixating on money. I realise that the budget has to be a lot tighter if I’m to go home with any money at all, I might even have to borrow some. Eventually we find a bar strip, but it’s expensive and not backpacker friendly. I can’t help feeling sad. We find a pool table, the first one we’ve seen traveling that isn’t free to use, and play our first game since coming back out. We were supposed to meet Cath, who was now down from Cambodia, but for some reason we don’t, so we go back to the hotel. We agree to meet Cath tomorrow instead and, thanks to jet lag, I still can’t sleep. I spent most of the night worrying about money.
Kuala Lumpur/Forest Institute Research Malaysia – Day 60
We’ve arranged to meet Cath in Chinatown and so we’re up and out early. We’ve also a renewed sense of positive thinking. Last night Sophie and I came up with a plan to cut our spending by a third. Austerity travelling, or, as we like to look at it, travelling like we’re supposed to do. The main way to save money, we find, is to stick with street food and avoid the gravity of the fancy restaurants. If we save just ten pounds each then that’s a massive £140 a week. We start immediately by eating rice and vegetables at a food court; the two of us come away well fed for a grand total of £3. We walk with Cath to the monorail and take it to KL Central, the train station. Like the mall it’s stuffed with designer shops and very posh. From there we take a train out of the city, to a suburban town where the Forest Institute Research Malaysia (FRIM) is. A tour of the Institute is a staggering £40 – I can’t remember if that’s each or together, still, it’s expensive, so we decide to just go in and take a look around for ourselves. (That’s another thing we’ve discovered about Malaysia. All of the tourist-ey day trips are very expensive compared to Thailand and co. confirming our suspicion that not many backpackers venture this far south.)
There’s a taxi rank outside of the station. People are waiting and there are taxis but no taxi drivers. We’re told they’re either asleep or just not here. We stand idling in the quiet sunshine for about twenty minutes until one finally shows and the driver has never heard of FRIM despite it being a popular tourist attraction in the area. He just wasn’t interested and instead a young Malay boy forces his way into the taxi. Fortunately, another arrived and it was only a short drive to the gates. Sophie and I are still exhausted from jet lag. It’s 5R in where the taxi drops us, but it’s and still a ten minute walk to the visitor center. The center is actually closed but we still manage to hire bikes for 8R. FRIM is unremarkable; there didn’t seem to be any tourists about at all. It’s possible we weren’t at the right part of it, I guess, or maybe we just came on the wrong day. It’s fun to ride about on the bikes; the breeze waking me up while simultaneously cooling me down. We stop to watch some primates scavenging through a rubbish skip. They look so human as they eat with their hands. We pass a trickling waterfall and spot a giant lizard ascending a tree on the way. The chain dropped on my bike so I had to get another bike from the hire center. My luck with bikes continues and I have to swap with Sophie who doesn’t seem to mind it as much as me. Cath’s is even worse and she struggles for a good part of the journey.
We return the bikes and walk back to the entrance; I’m literally falling asleep as we walk. A man at the gate rings us a taxi but recommends we hail one from the road to avoid extortionate rates. We do hail one, a nice man who for 20R takes us straight to the centre of Kuala Lumpar. From there we take the monorail to our neck of the woods, Cath getting off at her stop on the way. At the hotel I collapse on the bed and sleep for an hour-and-a-half. Afterwards, Sophie gets in touch with Cath and we head for Nandos AGAIN. I know what you’re thinking – what happened to the masterplan, Neil? But Nandos is cheap here, doesn’t look or smell bad like most of the eateries in the area, and we still keep it under budget so it’s fine.
Kuala Lumpar/Cameron Highlands (Tanah Rata) – Day 61
It’s finally time for us to leave Kuala Lumpar behind. We have the familiar fatigue we had of Bangkok, and not even the excuse of waiting for Sophie’s dad to stay us this time. After meandering through Chinatown to the bus station, a building with the most confusing lay-out of all time, we get an opportunity to eat. The food court is cheap and cheerful, we have lukewarm chicken slices with steamed rice and soy sauce but even with a second helping it still costs under £4 for the two of us. The bus we were due to leave on was cancelled for whatever reason and so we’re left waiting for half an hour in the shade, though it’s still searing hot. It’s a no smoking bus station, yet two backpackers (yes, there are still some) start brazenly smoking right there under the no smoking sign. The fine is astronomical, too. I worked out that the total cost translated into £1, 700. After I pointed this out to them, they then put out their cigarettes. But the reason they’d started was because some of the Malaysian men were already smoking, still, it wasn’t worth the risk in my opinion. (Also – did I mention almost every traveler we’ve encountered seems to smoke? What’s up with that?)
The coach itself is fantastic: large chairs with plenty of leg room. But it does smell of sweat. The journey to the Cameron Highlands takes four hours in total, where the climate is cool and the sky overcast. I even fished a hoodie out of my bag to put on. The bus drops us a short walk from our guest house, Father’s Guest House. The lounge is cosy and inviting and the staff (two ladyboys) are courteous. We befriend several travelers here, everyone is really friendly. In fact it seems what few travelers there are in Malaysia have accumulated here. It doesn’t take us five minutes to book a tour for tomorrow morning, though I’m disappointed not to find the Rafflesia arnoldii here. The Raffesia arnoldii is a flower with the largest bloom in the world, though it blooms unpredictably, which could explain why we weren’t able to see it, despite the Lonely Planet book getting us excited. The flower is also supposed to smell like rotting flesh in order to attract insects. Anyway, the explanation we got for not being able to see it was bizarre. I’m not sure whether it was the woman’s command of English that was the problem, but she said men ‘cut’ the plant to move it round the countryside, and because of this it died. A thousand questions were raised, none were answered. After that we headed to a nice Indian restaurant where I ate affordable lamb chops. This budgeting thing was easier than we though it’d be, especially on those days where you spend long hours travelling. It frees up your day’s allowance to use on a hearty meal. After dinner it started to rain heavily, resembling a November day in England more than on the Malaya peninsula. We sit on nice sofas and read/tried the internet in the lounge of our guest house; other travelers do the same. The rain then lifted and we walked to a corner shop, purchasing shower gel. It was getting dark at this point. Back in the lounge we were offered free cups of tea, so we helped ourselves when the rain started again, it drumming soothingly on the roof.
We wake early, about 7: 30am, and wrestle over the bathroom with the adjoining room. Evidently everyone has the same idea in mind, the same early rise, the same tour to go on, so it’s a bit of an arms race getting ready in time. We enjoy a nice breakfast with real bacon, and are off in a 4v4 land rover through the highlands, stopping on the side of a road to overlook a bizarre pattern of hedges that are actually bushes that produce tea. Our tour guide, a Malayan-Indian man with flawless English, explains that the ‘fields’ need pruning every 3 – 4 weeks and Malaysia doesn’t even export any because they drink tea at the same rate the English do back home. There are what look like Malay laborers crouching in the fields, collecting the best leaves. The guide then says the laborers are actually immigrants – that no one in Malaysia wants to do the job so they get Bangladeshis to do it instead. Our guide is brilliant, humorous and friendly, along with his partner. Next we drive to the highest point in the Highlands, but it’s overcast so we don’t see much except for a lot of fog. Weather-wise the whole place resembles an outing on a cloudy summer’s day in England but, being the massive gimp that I am, the whole scene reminds me of Jurassic Park. The fog barely reveals the jungle, wire-electric fences that warn of danger, with the land rovers parked behind us topping it all off.
We walk into the foliage and our guide informs us that it’s actually an ancient forest, many millions of years old, with trees many thousands of years old. It’s called the Mossy Forest because the moss has grown every where and over every thing. It looks a little like something out of The Lord of the Rings and has been described as such in the Book and more. Drinking water comes from the forest. Our guide squeezes a small bit of moss and lots of water pours out. Pitcher plants grow here and their ‘jugs’ can be spotted everywhere. Unlike other jungles we’ve trekked through on our Asian adventure, it’s cool here and easy to navigate. The moss is spongy underfoot, like walking on “chocolate cake” (our guide’s description). Clouds blanket the mountain tops as we emerge from the forest. We’re dropped off in Brinchang, a nearby town as the tour ends (thinking back now I’m not sure why they didn’t return us to our town). From there we taxied back to the guest house and ate dinner. We check our money and are pleased to find we’re still successfully under-spending. After booking a bus to George Town in Penang we meet a nice British couple. After a talk and laugh, Sophie and I went back to the Indian restaurant for dinner. Then we returned to Father’s Guest House, nice and chilled.
Cameron Highlands/George Town (Penang) – Day 63
Another early start and another nice breakfast. After walking to the travel/tourism shop where we’re due to depart for George Town, we are pleased to find our coach is already waiting for us and has great leg-room, but it’s a step down from the one we rode in on. We set off on a journey we were warned would last six hours but only took four, being treated to some spectacular sights of mountain peaks along the way. And, given our elevation, there’s no need for the air-con to even be turned on. We pass through Butterworth, a town on the mainland that connects with the island of Penang (where George Town is). Butterworth, however, looks really dreary. There’s a massive bridge. We ride over it and into our (thankfully) more appealing destination. At the bus station we share a taxi with two Dutch travelers and head to Love Lane, the destination of choice for most backpackers. Our guesthouse is okay, but it has another shared bathroom and windowless room. We quickly dump our things and head out on to the baking streets, where it’s hard to explore simply because it’s so hot. I had a lot of romantic ideas about George Town, based on what I’d heard and what limited images I’d seen. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, after all. Although I was expecting a gorgeous colonial town, in reality it looked like a place that belonged in Latin America. All the buildings were white, and a little villa-esque. A Dutch man agreed with our observations. There’s hippy, modern-art not unlike Banksy that vandalizes/decorates the white paint – it’s all over the place. If George Town were in England, it would have beaten Liverpool for Capital of Culture status I’d bet. There is also an abundance of trendy coffee shops with London prices and nobody in them – perhaps that’s the reason. It’s as if George Town is Malaysia’s ‘cute town’, fitting the tradition of every country we’ve visited so far, though it’s much bigger than the other ones – and I’m not sure it’s quite as nice. There are some grotty bits, but there are also some gorgeous bits.
We grab a pizza and visit a launderette. It’s cheaper than paying 5R a kilo and hello, have you not been following? It’s austerity traveling, now! Unfortunately the dryer swallows my money so we have to pay twice, but it still works out cheaper. Back at the hotel Sophie receives a text from a friend telling her to enjoy ‘ladies night’ while we’re there. Turns out it’s tonight. We soon find out what it is. We stop at a place called Reggae Mansion bar, it looks expensive but if you happen to have two X chromosomes you’re allowed a drink for free (sorry non-gender-conforming and transgender women, I don’t think Malaysia is quite there yet). There’s no catch, either. You simply get free drinks all night if you’re a woman. We’re disbelieving at first until two girls we recognize from the Cameron Highlands run over, drunk, and ask us to join them. We’re invited to a table with a German couple, a Swiss girl, another German girl, and the two we already knew prior: Jess (Canadian) and Sammy (English). The girls are all drinking heavily, and I can’t say I blame them. As the night progresses they even jump behind the bar, helping themselves and concocting their own drinks. The place is empty of men who aren’t in some form of companionship with a woman, meaning the place probably made next to nothing all night. I buy the odd drink every now and then to look inconspicuous, but Sophie plies me with loads of freebies. It’s a great afternoon talking to other people and sharing stories. Sammy had already visited Indonesia and so knew all sorts about Bromo – the legendary volcano I’d heard so much about and Ijen, another volcano that, rumour has it, erupts blue lava (the reality is not quite as magical or mysterious but it’s still cool nonetheless). She also saw the komodo dragons, giant lizards that can kill you with a single bite on an island with beaches of pink sand. I’m excited. Eventually the bar decides to close and we head back. We can hardly believe it, we’ve hardly spent a penny all day. We sit at a food stall by the side of the road and eat some rice as a late night snack.
I think I’m finally over the jet lag. After a massive lie-in, partially to catch up on sleep and to rid ourselves of any potential hangover, we head out. It’s around 2pm and baking hot again. I’ve not felt so hot as I have today, I swear! I get another bloody pizza (Penang is named for its rich cuisine) and we impulsively purchase plane tickets to fly us over to Borneo, an island half-claimed by Indonesia. This was not planned, but the reason behind our decision was simple: we have a good number of days between here and our flight from Singapore (the city-state at the end of the Malay peninsula) to Bali, Indonesia. And there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot to do with our time. We know we don’t want to stay too long in George Town. Aside from a gathering of backpackers last night, there don’t seem to be any about. At the risk of repeating myself, it only seems there are any at all because they are drawn to the most popular attractions at similar times – aside from that you feel like the only backpackers in town. We drew up an unconvincing list of things to do on the peninsula: we could go north to see what’s supposed to be a lovely island chain with hardly any electricity, a bit like Koh Rong. Or we could work our way south towards Singapore, and try a little unknown resort out for size. Or we could gorge over the beautiful claims of Borneo in Lonely Planet. It’s a no-brainer. The flight also allows us to by-pass any awkward border crossings between Malaysia and Singapore, we can just fly into the airport instead.
After booking tickets we head to George Town’s 3D art museum and pose stupidly numerous times, taking plenty of pictures. Then we – at my request – walk to the ruins of Fort Cornwallis, named after the British commander who lost the American colonies and surrendered to the United States at the battle of Yorktown. The outer wall is all that remains. We don’t go in because it’s expensive and, according to the Book, ‘unimpressive’. Back at the guesthouse we shower and cool off. Then we head to the Red Garden food court, supposedly a gorgeous place but it just seems like a normal Asian food hall to us. The food is cheap, though. Afterwards, we head back to Reggae to see everyone from the previous night. We talk mainly to Jess and Sammy – though Sammy is really drunk and playing best mates with a German. The free drinks (yes, more free drinks for some reason) end at 10 and we play one game of pool doubles, but Sammy is far too drunk to play – and she’s on my team! So it’s 1 – 0 to Sophie and Jess. The group decide to head to another bar, but Sophie and I have just bought plane tickets. It’s time to scrimp again. We head back to the guesthouse but instead of sensibly getting an early night we’re on the WiFi till 3am, down the YouTube hole. There’s also a traveler from Eastern Europe who asks me where about in Europe I’m from, not believing me when I say I’m English. Must be the Scouse.
It’s another lie-in and one even later than yesterday’s. Shameful, I know. A slog in the blistering heat to Red Garden for our first meal of the day. It’s closed. Thanks Lonely Planet who claimed it was open! Fortuitously, there’s a nearby cafe where we enjoy some toasties. After that, we go on a half-hearted search for street art. We know there’s supposed to be a location where the bulk of them are, but it’s just too damned hot to go marching off anywhere. We only end up seeing a few, although some of them are pretty good. I buy a cool little notebook with some of the street art printed on it for 1R. Then we walked to the shopping center, mostly because it’s on the other side of the town giving us a chance to see what’s over there, but also mostly because I want to give Jurassic World a second chance and see if it’s actually any good. The shopping center is like a slightly less shitty version of St John’s Market in Liverpool, it’s not a scratch on Kuala Lumpur’s. The cinema is okay though, again it’s cheap. About £2 each to go see the film. Surprisingly though, the air conditioning inside is freezing cold. I have to rub mine and Sophie’s arms to keep warm! It’s nearly sunset by the time we leave the building (and I’m still not convinced with the film). Back at the guesthouse we take turns to shower, then spend about forty minutes – genuinely about forty minutes – searching our minuscule room for Sophie’s phone. She’d lost it in the bed and we couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally we get our second chance to dine at Red Garden, where local musicians sing Justin Bieber and other western songs. Then, again, we head back to Reggae Mansion because it’s one of the few places we know of that has a pool table. This time, our friends are not waiting for us. We share a drink that we must pay for (the cheek!) and play six games of pool, ending with a tie draw. Then we went to bed.
George Town (Penang)/ Kuching (Malaysian Borneo) – Day 66
The only reason we can drag ourselves out of bed today is because our 11am check-out time dictated how appropriately we set our alarms the previous night. We are ready and downstairs to collect our deposit when a nice old lady offers us tea and toast. We get talking to a Swedish girl who has traveled Asia before. She gives us a map of Singapore with pointers and tells us stories. She hated Cambodia. Apparently, she was chased by a young child to her hotel with a knife! Anyway, we say our goodbyes and walk to the bus station. From there it’s 45 minutes on the bus to Penang’s airport. We get – and thoroughly enjoy – a Maccie D’s before we check in at the Air Asia desk. After going through security and waiting by the gate, we find the plane is delayed 15 minutes. I didn’t even know flights could be delayed so slightly. On board Sophie starts to panic. [Well it is an Asian flight in Asia, after all, and this coming in 2015 when a Malaysian airliner disappeared in the ocean, and when another Malaysian airliner traveling from Singapore to somewhere in Indonesia crashed – it also didn’t help that at the time we thought we were flying with the same airliner. It wasn’t until later that we did some research and found our Air Asia airliner to be relatively death-free.] During the flight I can’t help but notice we are the only two white people on the plane. A thought flashed through my mind, what the newspapers could be like tomorrow; a little story on page four of a red top or something: ‘Two Brits Die in Asian Plane Crash’. I don’t tell Sophie though. Hysterics aside, the journey was short and fine, and we landed and collected our luggage incredibly easily. And it’s a cheap taxi that takes us to our guesthouse on the waterfront of Old China Town, Kuching. The guesthouse looks nice. The woman at the desk shows us round and gives us a room key. I find a price listing for local tours in the area and cannot believe how expensive they are, they’re pretty much prices you’d expect to pay for a tour in the UK. We go for a stroll down the waterfront which has a small night market, illuminated and bright with fairy lights. But it’s late and everywhere is pretty much closed. Weirdly, a Pizza Hut is still open. Back at the hotel I look again at the ludicrous tour prices. Bako National Park, for example, wants £40 each from us. We decide to go it alone to save money, but it means we’ll have to be up incredibly early, so we get to sleep as quick as we can.
Bako National Park (Kuching) – Day 67
Note: The following days in Borneo are in contention for the best five consecutive days of the entire trip. Are you ready? Is the door closed? The phone on silent? Read on…
Despite my deep cries of lazing in bed so late well into mid-afternoon, we’ve not really caught up on sleep. I’m never normally not well, but if I’m sleep deprived I’m almost always attacked by some sort of opportunistic virus. Well it happened. It’s a very early start and I’m feeling fatigued, unwell, and grumpy. Our early rise is motivated by our finding out that the last boat from Bako National Park leaves at either 4 – 4: 30pm or 5 – 5:30pm (depending on what sources you read). Meaning we need to get there, explore, and be ready to leave at that time. Considering we’ve not been getting up ’till around approximately 2pm, that meant a shake up of the old sleeping pattern.
We leave the guesthouse and walk in the direction of the bus station. It’s a hot, bright morning and we are the only westerners about. Groups of men and women stare at Sophie as if they’ve never seen a western woman before, it’s unnerving. We find our bus easily enough, it’s bright red with ‘Bako 1’ on the front. We haven’t eaten breakfast and luckily there is a buffet next to the bus and time to get some. We end up with rice (what else?) fried egg, and green beans with little fish mixed in. In my opinion, Asian food is just inedible before 3pm and it’s this little dish that probably contributed to my feeling even worse. (A bit like hungover.) I take a moment to actually look at the food I’m eating and discover the fish are intact, you can see their eyeballs and everything. No thanks. I was impressed with the layout of Borneo, though. After paying 3.5R each, the bus takes us away from the city, down spacious roads and traffic lights that makes one almost think you’re in Canada or the US. We reach Bako after not too long and it’s 20R each to enter the place and 20R one-way for the boat. We’re informed Bako is “mega diverse”, boasting a large number of animals, and it’s a peninsular. You need the boat to swing out to the tip of the park, where you then dock and head to Park HQ. The boat ride is pleasant, though, and has us smiling, lifting my grumpiness and fatigue. Santubong mountain looks a picture, far off in the distance. There are hidden beaches amid the rocks. As we begin to dock hundreds of little fish like creatures, silver with legs, sunbathe on the waterline of the shore. They hop up and down excitedly as the boat approaches. We walk a wooden path into some jungle, headed towards the HQ. Pools of stagnant water where the sand meets the treeline. In the still moist sand little bugs scramble into their respective holes. The bugs crawl, though they look as though they could fly and are bizarrely coloured and shaped. In fact, they looked a little like Duracell batteries with wings. Crickets sing from the darkness of the jungle floor. We pass some lodgings (you can stay here overnight, something that does not look appealing) and an overgrown path leading to a now defunct general store. Tourists are taking snaps of Macaque monkeys sitting in the trees. We sign in at HQ and let the rangers know we’re heading on a particular trail, then head back on ourselves to the start of our trail, which is past where we docked. On the way more tourists are gathered around one of the rangers, who has spotted a poisonous green snake wrapped around a branch. It’s only little; the ranger informs us that there would “be still time” to get to a hospital if one of us were bitten. It looks really cool though and, I think, is the same species we were warned about in the Cameron Highlands.
The trail seems okay, but it’s tremendously humid. I’m soaked through with sweat and it’s uncomfortable even in just a tee shirt. There are spider webs on the sides of the path but the homeowners are away. Branches snap and fall around us but we turn to see that whatever felled them has gone. We’re completely alone. After walking approximately half the trail we decided to turn back. We didn’t even bring much water with us. We can see the eyes of the rangers and other tourists coming up behind us either thinking we’d done the trail exceptionally fast or given up. On the way back we overhear another ranger: there’s a beehive in a tree which looks, frankly, like a vagina. Bees buzz harmlessly around it, the ranger explains to his group. Apparently, they produce very expensive honey that requires uprooting the entire host tree to get it. Back at the shore plenty of crabs are scuttling about on the sand, and we conclude the mischievous Macaque monkeys are behind the rustling leaves and the felling twigs we heard so often alone on the trail.
At Park HQ we sign out to show we’ve made it back alive and grab a drink, where we then slump into some chairs feeling sorry for ourselves. I go for a little walk as we wait for the boat to return to take us back to Kuching. A little white spider with red stripes stands on its hind-legs aggressively as I get close with my phone-camera.. A big, bright red, dragonfly lands near me then takes off. Then, back at HQ, a jungle hog or boar just wanders on to the grounds, lying down a bit, and snooping round on all the tourists, before disappearing back into the trees. We were told Park HQ is actually the best place to see the wildlife, and I left Bako suspecting that was correct. We walk back to the shore, get on the boat, and find that we must wait 40 minutes for the bus. Luckily we agree with five other people to share a taxi back instead. Back in Kuching, we eat in a trendy cafe, then drink cider in a trendy bar adjacent. We head to a tourist center, thinking that after today we wouldn’t like to do any more trips independently. But they’re all so expensive, so we basically just pick the cheapest ones. There’s a trip going to another national park, where it’s possible the Rafflesia arnoldii could be in bloom, but the salesman basically tells us it’s not a guarantee and, after a few days of bloom, the thing loses it’s photogenic appeal anyway. The trip is also extraordinarily expensive, so we book to see the orangutans tomorrow instead. We head back to the guesthouse for a massive sleep.
Addendum: Although we saw a lot of great things in Bako, most of them came from the trained eyes of the rangers that we just happened to overhear/see walking past. If you’re considering Bako, fork out for an accompanied guide. You’ll see a lot more and have a less stressful time.
Today was a good day. I woke feeling much better and, even with our tour booked and paid for, we were still able to sleep in till about 11am. Getting ready, I notice our guesthouse is always mysteriously quiet. We’re the only ones here, not even the receptionist is about. It’s pretty though, and clean. But again, the showers are communal – at the end of the hall, and the room we’re in is windowless. But the weirdest thing is I felt like we were minding somebody’s house. Anyway, we set out down Carpenter street, which is the road our guesthouse is situated, in Chinatown, to a cafe known as the Wrong Place for breakfast. Then we were picked up in a mini-van. Our driver, Suresh, is very funny, likeable, and relatable. He even watches the same YouTubers as we do (FunForLouis, etc.). We pick up a Swiss man and the four of us drive to see the “semi-wild” orangutans at the local conservation center. Apparently we picked the right time of year, when berries and fruit are uncommon in the jungle, meaning they’re likely to be drawn to the center and fed by the rangers. Suresh tells us on the way we’d be lucky just to see one, much to our disappointment, and that only one was there at the morning feed (an earlier tour we were much too lazy to get up for).
My eyes roll when we arrive, because dozens of tourists are stomping around, chatting and making noise. Suresh tells me orangutans don’t like noise. But we’re lucky. Straight off we see a big male named Edwin, who’s the beta-“next in line” male to the “throne” (meaning he’ll probably challenge the alpha when he’s big enough – or when the alpha is weak enough, for leadership). Then an adorable baby, Ruby, attached to her mother, and then a fourth. The big male was hanging from the ropes almost as if he enjoyed the attention – there were plenty of loud tourists taking pictures. But he also looked a little bored. We watch as he cracks a coconut against a tree, releasing a surprising amount of water. Then one of the rangers offloads a bucket of bananas to the floor and he jumps down to eat them. Ruby explores on her own before climbing and holding on to her mother tightly. All of this before the actual feeding ceremony was due to start! The beta-male jumps down to the ground and wanders briefly on the public footpath, where we stood earlier. Everyone wisely keeps their distance as he wanders into jungle. We’re forbidden to follow for a good while, but it turns out he’s just taken the public footpath through to the official feeding point. Eventually we follow and discover the best part of the show is over. Although there’s some pretty cool scenery of the gorgeous jungle, most of the orangutans are hidden in the dense foliage. We see bits of orange and hear the cracking of coconuts and the crunching of teeth. Nearby, there’s a small information center on each of the orangutans, a breakdown of their personalities and character, as well as a slightly random pen with some crocodiles hemmed in. Then the “grandmother” orangutan turns up, and at this point we’ve actually taken enough photographs. The drive back to Kuching includes topics on the English Premier League, politics, and religion. (Suresh doesn’t like Muslims on Borneo because, he claims, they try to force Sharia on his fellow Christians. One time they told him to “eat in the toilet” because he wasn’t a Muslim, in school.) At the guesthouse we shower again and book a shuttle to Damai beach for tomorrow, snack again in a trendy cafe, play cards, and drink in the trendy bar.
Kuching/Damai/Kuching – Day 69
We sleep in as late as possible before catching the shuttle bus, where we sit and take in the beautiful landscape for 45 minutes as we’re transported to the beach resort of Damai. We were warned beforehand that the resort is “dated” from TripAdvisor, and they’re right. The resort looked like it might have been spectacular in the 90s. We eat at the only place around, a dated in-hotel restaurant that’s also very expensive. We’re high up though, eating, and the view is lovely over the South China Sea. It was 5R each to access the beach from the hotel, but what we really wanted was the pool. The receptionist kindly gives us a pass to say we are pool users from another hotel. The place is quiet, anyway. The mountains, covered in jungle, and dimmed occasionally by drifting clouds, look stunning as they tower over us on the beach. We splash about in the pool until 3:15pm, and play in the sand and the hot sea water, and sunbathe until we are ready to be picked up again. Back in Kuching, we book two more tours, the two second-cheapest ones there is, then shower before going to Pizza Hut. The idea of drinking titillates us, but we’re both a little too full and decide against it. So we head back to the guesthouse and feed our internet addiction. Sophie gets a Diet Coke on the way back. Diet Coke is uncommon in Borneo and overpriced where you find it – 7R for a can! I notice she has a red, glowing suntan in the artificial light of the room [in the physical edition, she’d scribbled over my description of “red” and wrote “brown” instead]. So she’s pleased.
Today was a great treat. We explored two caves, the Fairy Cave and the Wind Cave, respectively. I didn’t have much anticipation for either of them, we’d simply booked the tour because it was cheap and a day-filler. The tour also set off late, meaning we could sleep in.
Suresh was there to greet us again, picking us up in his car instead of a mini van. Turns out, it’s only the two of us and Suresh on the trip. It’s here that he goes into more detail about his Christian faith, reiterating again the cultural war with the dominant Muslim theocracy and their attempts to imposition Sharia in Borneo (East Malaysia is much less Muslim than the West). Jobs and opportunities are limited he says, for non-Muslims. We talk about YouTubers, his surprising love for McFly, and how he hates Malaysia’s corrupt government. He really is a laugh to be around, though. We end up being stuck behind several quarry trucks and he worries about the time, but we reach the first cave alright. We pull over at what is essentially a big cliff-face, jungle enveloping it. Crickets are singing loudly, and it’s very hot and humid. After walking up a wooden set of stairs to the mouth of the cave, we’re given torches and turn them on. It’s not that dark. We bow our heads low, because the cave ceiling is low. Spiders, not too big, weave webs as we perambulate. After some more steps, we enter the main ‘hall’ of the cave. It really is majestic; as Tomb Raider-esque as the Angkor temples, in my opinion, with daylight flooding in through a giant natural skylight. Looking up, you can see the blue of the sky and some clouds, and contrast it with the black and the shadows of the cave walls. This gives it an almost angelic halo of light, an aura around the skylight. Ferns and shrubbery grow where the light is. Spider webs carpet the floor and, weirdly, there are butterfly wings everywhere. Just the wings. What ate them? [In the physical edition Sophie has confidently scribbled ‘BATS’ above my quasi-rhetorical question.] It’s cooler inside the cave than outside but still very hot. I can’t help but continue marveling at the vast chamber we’re in, rich with the natural light, and how tiny we are in comparison. On our way out, we spot a bright orange spider with horns.
After the Fairy Cave we headed to the Wind Cave, which wasn’t very far. We definitely needed our torches this time, though. It’s black as night inside. Immediately we hear the rabble of what sounds like hundreds of mice squawking. We shine our torches to the ceiling to reveal hundreds of bats either hanging nonchalantly upside down or swarming about like rubbish spiraling in the wind. The tourist boards are covered in guano, which makes me nervous because some of the worst diseases imaginable are spread through guano contamination, such as Ebola or Marburg. Freshwater appears to be condensing on the ceiling and dropping on our heads. Either that or the bats are weeing on us. (Though the same thing did happen in the Fairy Cave. Suresh told us ancient rain forest was above the cave, with water soaking its way through the rock, providing steady showers of drinking water to the inhabitants.) Once I got over the whole Ebola-guano connection, I entered an almost nirvana-like state hearing the rain droplets falling. Shining the torch about meant we were met with the crimson eyes of many bats in the darkness. We got to a point where we depended entirely on our torches. Bats flurried about whenever our torches found them. It also began to smell like ‘pet’. Perhaps it was the guano, but it smelled uncannily like wet bedding in a rabbit hutch. A type of bird (swifts?) nested in little holes in the ceiling, with the bats. We could see them sitting on the nests. We learned the cave was home to two different species: those that ate insects and those that ate fruit. The latter nesting near the entrance. They look the same to my amateur eyes. There’s an underground stream running through the cave that’s supposed to feed into a tributary, but the water looks green and stagnant. We’re also being bitten alive by mosquitoes, which shine in the light like dust specks. Maybe they’re laying eggs in the water. Eventually we see the light, and head out into more jungle and to the soothing music of the insects. It’s quiet as we head back to the car, the sun going down now. Such a strange feeling that it was just us three in the cave the whole time. Back in Kuching, we found a Finnish run cafe full of Europeans. It serves actual mash. It’s also opposite what looks like a lively backpacker hostel that we never new existed, to our disappointment. We might have made new friends here. We continue walking across town, exploring. Eventually we find a bar with fantastic Asian singers, again all singing western songs. We have a drink, play some cards, and head back.
Today was one of the greatest days of the entire trip – of my life, perhaps. Because of our tendency to stay up late, and because we just love sleep, and because the latest tour we’ve booked, the ‘Wetlands River Wildlife Cruise’ – is at 4pm, we don’t get up till late. We eat at the trendy cafe again (adventurous I know) and wait for Suresh. Only he doesn’t turn up this time, it’s some other bloke. The new guy meets us at the entrance of our guesthouse and walks us to his minivan by the side of the road. There, a traffic police officer is ticketing his van (which to the traffic police officer’s credit, is parked on faded double yellow lines). Our guide grumbles at the officer, takes the ticket and sort of shakes it in disgust. We move on, driving down to a river near the coast, not too far from the resort we visited the other day. The sun is low in the sky, and very warm. We hop on a little motorboat on the river, and find it’s just me and Sophie who are the only guests. There are three other motorboats on the river, presumably operating under other tour companies that share the same experience, except they’re all really crowded. We feel lucky.
We set off with the minivan driver and the boat-driver. Our boat-driver is superb, as is his eyesight. He’d point far off into the bleary sunlight excitedly, shout something like “over there!” and then rag the boat accordingly in whatever direction, and he’d always be the first to spot the wildlife. The other boats would rush over after we’d already nabbed the best view. The first thing we see is a baby crocodile “drying it’s skin” (although half of it’s body was still submerged), on a muddy shore. There are huge mud-skippers like we saw in Bako, hopping about in large numbers. Another, bigger crocodile, is basking downstream, completely still. A jellyfish lies on the mud, dying, drying out in the sun, and little bright blue crabs scuttle around and into tiny holes. On the other side, we spot an absolutely massive crocodile at rest. Our boat-driver gives us binoculars to examine it because, as he correctly predicts, the waves generated in the ensuing excitement of the boats forces it to vanish underwater. Gradually we make our way down stream, blasting out into almost open sea. It’s windy and the waves are quite tempestuous. We try unsuccessfully to find what are known as the irwaddy dolphins that swim here, but our guide tells us the water needs to be still and, really, the best time to see them is on the morning cruise. We aren’t too disappointed because we never expected to see them anyway. They don’t even leap into the air as you’d expect, either. Even if you were lucky, we’re told, you’d probably just catch a glimpse of their beaks before they submerged again. If they were there at all, the choppiness of the water kept them sequestered well away.
At this point the sun was starting to set, giving us a splendid view over the river, and bathing the landscape in a golden-orange hue. I cannot state how lovely our boat-driver and van driver were. We make pleasant conversation as we cruise alongside the riverbank, now looking for the bizarre proboscis monkeys in the trees. Apparently the monkeys are best seen in early morning, but they’re also known to come out in the afternoon as the temperature declines. The Indonesians refer to the monkeys in a derogatory sense as “Dutchmen” because they have fat bellies and red noses, presumably the Dutch colonial authorities of the last century drank a lot of whiskey. Thankfully we do find them, swinging from the trees and making quite a racket. They aren’t trying to avoid us. There’s an alpha male surveying the landscape from the tree tops. With the aid of binoculars, we get a fantastic glimpse of their orange fur and weird, red noses. We pull over and serenely watch them snap twigs, forage about, before returning to the depths of the jungle. Night descends on us quickly, so the driver opens a little compartment in the boat and pulls out a pre-arranged rice lunch and a soft drink for us. Being the nerd I am, I spring up a conversation about astronomy, because I can see two planets: Venus and Jupiter, shining brightly in the twilight. Our guides talk about their affection for John Lennon, and how they’d love to see snow. That’s two groups of Malaysian guides we’ve had so far that have expressed their interest in seeing snow, it was a humbling conversation.
After dinner the sky was darkening rapidly, particularly in the south, in face of an approaching storm. I see a flash of lightning. We drive down a tributary, hoping to see what I really came here to see – fireflies – before the storm gets us. As we float down our boat-driver shines his torch into the reeds, where two red eyes shine back at us: a young crocodile with its head above water. Then comes the truly magical bit. We see what look like fairy lights, as though someone had strung them out all along the sides of the river. Greenish-white lights twinkling on the leaves. Our boat-driver pulls us up, alongside the bank, so we can get a good look. Here we can clearly see the fireflies, crawling slowly over the leaves. Our guide explains that the females “flash” slower than the males; he picks one up and puts it in my hand. Apparently they aren’t disturbed by humans. Then he shines a torch on it, which the bug doesn’t like. In the brightness of the torch it looks mundane: with an orange body and black head, you can’t see the glow. He then takes a plastic bottle and scoops some into it, and the bottle starts to twinkle with little green lights. They only live for two or three days, he tells us. I ask lots of questions about the fireflies, eventually forcing our guide to submit, shrugging, laughing, saying “God just made them that way”. We feel the push of the storm as it edges closer, and decide to speed off. As we rush back upstream, retracing our steps, the entire bank twinkles, completely alive thanks to the fireflies, a sight I will never forget.