Thursday, 12 March 2015

N 01.33.22 E 110.21.23 Exploring Malaysian Borneo from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu

We spent just over three weeks in February and March 2015 exploring the two Malaysian states, Sarawak and Sabah, that share the island of Borneo with Brunei and Indonesian Kalimantan.  It was a mysterious place that I really knew nothing about, which seemed a good enough reason to end our year of travel with one more adventure.  The island of Borneo straddles the equator, but our travels finally brought us back into the northern hemisphere.

Unlike Indonesia with its influence from the Dutch, Sarawak and Sabah have a strong British presence.  The Sultan of Brunei was an Anglophile and he actually gifted the lands of Sarawak to James Brooke, a Brit whose family ruled as “the White Rajahs” until independence in the 1960s.  Sabah was run by the British North Borneo Company, very much like the East India Company (or the Hudson’s Bay Company).  Missionaries brought Christianity to local native groups and it was interesting to see churches on every corner with only the occasional mosque used by the Malay population who have come over from the peninsula.

The parts of Sarawak and Sabah we saw had an almost western infrastructure.  Roads were wide and well paved, there were modern shops and products and only a few Asian type markets.  Malaysia’s oil and gas industry started in Miri (just outside Kuching) in 1910. The other major contribution to the economy is palm oil (35% of Sabah is under cultivation with palm oil and Indonesian Kalimantan is actually higher than that)


The itinerary for the first ten days included visiting three of the main national parks in Sarawak.  Not all of them had the same level of infrastructure which I found surprising.  Bako NP, a short drive from Kuching, was dishevelled, moldy, had limited food available and staff seemed uncaring about the message they were sending to tourists.  On the other hand, Mulu NP which is only accessible by air, was clean, well developed and provided a variety of well maintained accommodation and choices of food as well as the option of Wifi.

Despite the accommodations, we got to see a lot of the wildlife that Borneo is noted for.  Our local guides were excellent at finding the bugs and beasties amongst the jungle greenery and then explaining clearly what they were.  As it turns out, our guide at Mulu had studied in North America and was always enthusiastically telling us why whatever we were seeing was his favourite part.  He also was the local guide for the Bat Cave section of BBC’s Planet Earth (and yes, we got to tour the cave as well as watch the bats leave in waves as night fell).  He chose to hike in with us to Camp 5 which gave him an excuse to climb the mountain – truly comfortable with the environment.

Kuching, strong Chinese influence

Kuching means cat - so all sorts of cool statues around the city.

State parliament.  Malaysia is a federation of independent states.
You even go through passport control and the international terminal
from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching.

Chinese New Year.  Four or five days of businesses closed
and spending time with family.  And lion dances to
bless the new year.

Boatman on the river at Kuching. The trading route from the
interior to the ocean.  All the rivers in Borneo are winding
and muddy.

Decorations for Chinese New Year - hmmm perhaps
next year a will add more red and gold to the Christmas tree?

Sign at the dock heading to Bako NP.  There ARE crocodiles.
Not, there might be.

Proboscis monkeys.  They eat nothing but mangrove
leaves which are mildly poisonous.  Think spaced out like
koalas on eucalyptus.

One of many different pitcher plants we saw.  Yes, those are
teeth at the top of the pitcher.

And fluorescent almost plastic looking mushrooms

Heading down to the beach.  Looking cool despite temperatures in
the mid 30s and humidity over 80%

And a macaque
When you see these sand balls on the beach, it is this wee
little crab rolling it up and kicking it out of his burrow
after he has eaten the good bits.  Thanks to Cal for this one.

And fiddler crabs

A not very wild boar.  She and her family lived around the NP townsite.

Scorpion in the puddle

Back in Kuching and it is our hotel's turn to have its lion dance

In Vietnam, the lion dancers were paid to perform.
Here the hotel provides an offering and the lions "eat" it and create
this type of display.  Apparently in the olden days, headhunters provided
heads as offerings for the new year.

Funeral pool for a beloved daughter.  Designs are
different, but the idea is very similar to the Haida.

Occasionally the food was great.  This was at an Indian street market
(anything Chinese was closed) and was a type of stuffed roti.  Meat
was mutton (probably goat) and sauce was like a chutney.

Orangutan sanctuary.  Mum and juvenile playing.

After they noticed the alpha male arriving and had made a fast
trip through the viewing area to be as far away from him as possible.

Here he comes
Nobody was disputing his right to eat.  First time he had been here
in over a month as he had been fending for himself in the

Meanwhile, this wee baby was playing with his mum.

What is the arrow on the ceiling?  Why, of course it is the direction
to Mecca for prayers.
Poster at our long house. No there was not any netting.
The bedroom had screens, sort of.  And I was taking
antimalarial medications faithfully.

Sarawak - we visited caves, caves and more caves.  This one is still
used (not legally) to harvest birds nests.

The ladies getting ready to play gongs for us

The gentleman in red on the left also played the bass sounds on
a bucket.

Embellished with coins - reminded me of the
jingle dancers.

Male dancer. His hat was woven bamboo with bat hawk feathers.

Getting into the spirit.

Ladies too.  I think we provided great entertainment to the

Our host.  

And hostess.  She had cooked dozens of local snackies and
kept feeding us...
She also took our very sick guide and found a bed for him as well
as fussing over him.

This wee girl knew all about the gongs.  She also knew the ladies
dance AND made the rounds of some very scary strangers to give her greetings.

The laundry room.  Everybody roots plants in the laundry room, right?
These are palms.  Our family was very well off due to palm oil
plantations.  Most had very new SUVs or trucks parked under the longhouse.

Mulu airport.  Beautiful traditional carved design

Wee frog

Lizard in camo.

When a tree falls in the forest, it takes out everything in
its path - the bridge was in the way.

When you see these moths, always in pairs, it is a lychee tree

Cool long legged centipede

Entrance to deer cave with the bats leaving for night feeding.
Our guide pointed out that this also looks like a lady with her
knee bent.

Pygmy squirrel.  About mouse sized.  On a morning walk we
saw dozens of them flitting about and Cal
finally captured this fellow.

Walking in the canopy or through the jungle, I got surprisingly
comfortable with tipsy rope bridges.

Jiminey Cricket?

This snail was about 5 cm in diameter

Scarab (dung) beetle just hanging out on our veranda.

Lychee tree.  Pair of moths emerging.  Tree should be upright.

Ongoing Carcassone game.  This one at Camp 5.  Interesting
how personality of the players affects how the game happens.

Ohh, there was a mountain behind the mist!

11.7 km through the jungle.  Very basic trail.  Felt like we were hiking
totally on our own as even if someone was 100 meters ahead you
didn't see or hear them.

The end of the trail.  And almost the end of my faithful
hiking boots.  Worn, frayed, a couple of holes.  Starting to give
me blisters.  Gee, I've only been wearing them since 2008.

KFC at Labuon Island.  It was air conditioned. Cool thing was
the sink for everybody to wash hands at.

Our guide for Sarawak, Roes.


Our first half of the trip ended with our arrival in Kota Kinabalu where we met our new guide and some new travellers as well.  It surprised me how different Sabah is – although there is jungle, the area is much dryer and also mountainous.  Our time was spent going up or down mountain roads and the base camp for Mt. Kinabalu was at 1500 meters. Instead of exploring caves, our time has been more on the wildlife you see along the river systems or along the ocean.

We chose to not climb Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in south east Asia.  I’m not a big fan of steep down hills and this involved climbing from the 1500 meter base camp to the 4000 meter summit over two days then descending as well on the second day.  If we had come directly to Malaysia from Canada, I might have considered it, but the reality is that almost a year of travel has affected my level of fitness.  Instead, we spent the two days relaxing, walking a bit, and relaxing as well as trying to get rid of a persistent respiratory infection that has been plaguing me since our first night at Bako National Park.

Hmm.  Better than India, but Malaysia still needs to give
public health messages about Cholera - wash you hands, drink bottled water...

Yup, still celebrating Chinese New Year

On the wharf at Kota Kinabalu

Back in the day, the British built a "temporary" bridge.
Locals couldn't pronounce it, so it became "Tamparuli"
Then the town decided to change its name...

So, the reason why this bridge on the main road to Mt. Kinabalu is only one lane.
When it was first built, it kept being washed away.  The local
medicine man said it was because no offering had been made to
the spirits of the river.  Headhunters were set out to get some heads
(in the 1980s) and they were buried under the foundation.
Locals aren't willing to let the government build a new
bridge unless an offering is made... Better a narrow bridge than
no bridge at all.

Another homestay and another local dance performance.

Lousy photo, but this man sat on his wooden drum and beat out the rhythm
for over 15 minutes without stop.  Impressive, very.

The village has their own miniature Mt. Kinabalu
And Mt. Kinabalu itself.

We visited a memorial to the Sandakan Death Marches.


These beetles are attracted to the sugar cane and won't move from
them.  Yes they are alive.

Our guide, Edwin, with Durian fruit.  Not as bad smelling
as its reputation.  Mind you, I was struggling with a horrid cold.
Taste and texture was interesting (not horrid, just different)

Fruit and vegetable market.  These are fresh from the garden.
After three days here, they are sent to the market in
Kota Kinabalu.  Lots of folks make the trip up her
for fresh fresh vegetables.  

Strawberries come in size tiny

Empty mangosteen.  White flesh on a seed like lychee, but yes,
it tastes like mango.

This belongs to the raspberry family

Mt. Kinabalu

Our hostel room with the direction to Mecca.

Sabah national flower, the hibiscus

Canopy walk.  Not the worst bridge I crossed in our travels.

Poring Hot Springs were not that fantastic but this waterfall was
worth the walk.

Fish massage for free.

Cal getting in on the action.  Edwin on the phone
organizing the next bit of our trip.

Paid 20 MR for the privilege of viewing a rafflesia in

It was almost more fun figuring out how to get a photo.

Proof I was there and didn't find the photo on the

This one should bloom in about 6 months.
Oh, yes, they aren't even flowers, they are mushrooms.

Kanabatangan River.  There is no such thing as too many

Actually, the small monkey is grooming the bigger one.  Lots
of lovely bugs to eat, apparently.


Smallish monitor lizard

Large monitor lizard having his way with a smaller lady
while several boats of humans watch

And a python is watching from overhead.

The lady had had enough of the viewing and escaped.

The end of the story.  We heard a loud screeching and
a group of monkeys swinging from the tops of the
trees toward the river.  One fell/jumped in and swam to
the other side while these fellows stood guard.

Pig tail macaque crossing the orangutan bridge.

Heading out at 0600 in search of the pygmy elephants 


And yes, the elephants were having an early morning
drink at the river.

Trust me on this, the blog is an orangutan.  Wild, not in
any sanctuary.  Fending for himself.

The jungle doesn't take very long to start taking over.

Possibly my first successful photo of a butterfly.

And another one

Heading to Turtle Islands.  This rooster seemed to live on one
of the boats.

River people.  Houses on stilts in the river.

Artistic photos with my Canon.  Discovered "multiple shots"

Our island for the night

Monitor lizard searching for turtle eggs

Turtle tracks.

Unburied turtle egg.  Some of the eggs are protected at the hatchery,
but others are allowed to be natural.

My camera at extreme zoom catching some early morning poses.

These barnacles are very much like what we saw at Haida Gwaii

Our turtle laying her eggs.  The rangers will harvest most of them
and replant them in the hatchery where they will be protected.

Here she is.

Getting measured.  Note she has only one front flipper.
Rangers said it was either an injury or congenital.

First time mum (or at least first time being tagged)

Reburying the eggs in the hatchery

94 eggs and 257 nest this year

These little guys were hatching all day, being kept in cool water.
By releasing them together at night it increases their chances of

Early the next morning, This mum was finishing her
job of covering her eggs

8 landings, 4 nestings last night.
Pigtailed macaque.  More aggressive than the others.
We walked very quickly and carefully past him.

I think of this as the "sprawl on the couch watching TV" position

They call these fellows "Golums" as in the Lord of the Rings character.
Almost bald, very low muscle mass.  Caused by psychological turmoil of
being captured as a baby and kept in a small cage where they can't move.
Ongoing problems, probably won't be able to be released into the wild.

All babies are cute.

Not the first time I've seen these signs.  Directed at the Chinese
who have no experience with western toilets.

Sun bears at a sanctuary across the road from the orangutans

This fellow actually was visiting the sun bears

Then came back to the main office searching the bins for
chocolate wrappers. We watched him for half an hour while
he ignored the staff's attempts to move him back to the trees. 

Group photo leaving Sepilok

Sandakan Death March.  Incredible atrocities by
the Japanese.  Australian inteligence reported there were
no prisoners at the camp (there were).  Only six Aussies survived by
escaping and being assisted by local people.
Borneo was repeatedly bombed by Allies in an attempt
to remove the Japanese.

Interesting that the phrase "lest we forget" is from
a Rudyard Kipling poem.  The poppies, Australian, would
have been placed here by someone visiting the

Bureaucratic craziness at the front gate.  All the things that might hurt you
(including "miscreants") and that Tourism Sabah will not be held
responsible if you get yourself hurt.

Typical Asian bathroom.

Manual shower equipment if the running water doesn't

Hand woven cotton ikat.  Beautiful.  4 meters suitable for a very
formal ladies sarong.

Bob and his monkey trying out the background for
Sabah's travel square.

From the islands.  You can just see Mt. Kinabalu peeping out of the mist.

The park person said this was a coconut mint ?

Responsible seashell hunting

Limpets growing on the rocks.  "Chinese hats" are
probably my favorite shells.

The fish were so close to the surface that snorkel
was not needed!

Went for a hike down the "jungle trek". Quite the scramble over
deadfall and palm branches.  40 minutes to do 1.5 km.

Then we came onto the path that we should have taken.
20 minutes back.

What I wish to remember about our time in Malaysia

Some great young travelers that included Cal and I even though we were old enough to be their parents.
Excellent guides that were knowledgeable and willing to share their enthusiasm for their country.  They truly worked 24 hours a day.
The local people who seem to be able to live in harmony despite their religious differences. The friendliness of local people we met on our travels.
The beautiful headscarves worn by Islamic ladies.  Brightly coloured, layered, folded, draped, pleated, embellished with ruffles or fringe or lace or beads or jewels. Not only a head covering demanded by their religion but an individual expression of beauty.
The overabundance of fascinating animals that seem to have little fear of humans.  Not only the orang-utans and elephants and turtles, but also the birds and even the bugs and beasties.
Getting up close and personal with the jungle – even though it was hot and humid and muddy ...
Finally finding a shop with truly local handicrafts.  Malaysia’s economy seems to be such that they can mass produce cheap trinkets in a central location and then distribute them to every souvenir shop in the country.  It was a pleasure to know that there are local artisans using traditional skills to create high quality items.
Learning about the Sandakan death marches and Borneo’s part in the Second World War.  Not a pleasant memory, but one I shall remember. Apparently Japanese tourists do come here, but only on group tours and they avoid all the sites of the death march so they do not need to admit to the atrocities that happened.
The saga of Bob the Banana.  Read more about him here. Photos to come, I promise.

What I will work hard at forgetting about our time in Malaysia

The food.  Rice and noodles.  Oily and bland.  Limited vegetables.  Limited fruits.  No milk or yogurt. Limited meats.  Poor coffee (how can that be when we had fantastic Malaysian coffee on the peninsula?).  Not hot.  The occasional hot tasty meal was a cause for celebration.
The endless add on expenses that Malaysia tourism adds to everything – tourists pay three to four times what locals do, then there is the camera fee, and the extra fees for part of the walk.  The reality is that even the food and drinks in tourist areas cost almost what you would expect in a western country.
The heat and humidity – really it wasn’t that bad, you just have to get into the zen of it and go with the flow.  The funny thing will be to reacclimatize to Canadian temperatures.  At the moment, the air con in the room is set at a very cool 25 degrees and I haven’t needed moisturizer since we left New Zealand.
Public toilets.  Only slightly better than we found in China (about a 4.5 out of 10 for my fellow Odyssey travelers) AND you are usually required to pay 30 sen for the privilege.

Next stop:  Hong Kong for a bit of the big city glamour and then home after almost a year of travel.

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