Saying goodbye to Evan at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, I felt for the first time in a while that shiver of excitement and apprehension that you only understand if you've ever headed off on your own into an unknown place with no plans. Much as I love travelling with Evan and I miss him terribly when we go our separate ways, I do miss the different experiences you tend to have when you travel alone too. After sitting on the tarmac for over an hour after the scheduled take-off time due to a fault with the air conditioning that they seemed to struggle to fix, I was finally on my way to Borneo.
Borneo has always been on my bucket list (if of course I had one and I don't, because if I did, there'd be more than a lifetime's worth of places on it) so I was excited to find out how it corresponded with the picture I had of it in my mind. When I travel, island locations are rarely on my radar, mostly because they tend to be expensive to get to in comparison to their mainland counterparts. In the case of Borneo I had always assumed that it would be extortionately expensive not just to get there but to be able to do anything while I was there. I was pleasantly surprised to find both these things untrue. My flight from KL cost me a mere $21 with the delightful AirAsia and upon arrival at Kuching airport, I hovered near the taxi queue to pick a likely suspect who might want to share a taxi into the city with me. As luck would have it I arrived at exactly the same time as Manuela, a German lady on a two week trip to Borneo from her home in Portugal. During the taxi ride, after telling her I didn't have a bed booked for that night, she very generously offered me use of one of the three beds in a private room she'd booked at the beautiful Singgahsana Lodge in the centre of the city.
Kuching, which is Malay for 'cat', is located in Sarawak, one of two regions that make up Malaysian Borneo. A diverse, colonial city full of old buildings and Chinese shophouses, Kuching was the perfect base for me to start exploring Borneo. It quickly became clear that there were so many places I wanted to see that even if I stayed another six months it wouldn't be long enough. Eager to jump straight in and start seeing what Borneo had to offer I reverted to my old rule of never saying no without good reason and when Manuela asked me to accompany her to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre to (hopefully) see orangutans that afternoon, I agreed.
I feel like I should pause here to address my feelings about wild vs 'rehabilitated' animals. Throughout Thailand there exist 'sanctuaries' for domesticated elephants, retired from a life of slavery in either the logging or tourism industries. For years these places allowed tourists to visit and ride, bathe and feed the elephants before watching them play football or paint or put on other demeaning circus act performances. Billed as a fun experience for all, many tourists flocked to these places, paid their money and took their selfies, oblivious to the suffering they were supporting. Of course the elephants had no choice in the matter, they were prodded with bull hooks and pushed to do as required and the money rolled in. Locals quickly caught on and more and more of these businesses popped up, seemingly a solution to the problem of how to feed and house all the elephants now no longer required following the ban of their use in the logging industry in 1989. In recent years however, the plight of these poor creatures has been much publicised and several 'sanctuaries' have ceased the shows and elephant rides, instead re-inventing themselves as the ethical option, places to see elephants in their natural environment in response to consumer demand. More and more have followed suit, although in many places the elephant shows still exist.
It's a difficult dilemma though. Whilst in an ideal world these magnificent creatures would be living in the wild, because of the widespread human destruction of their habitat, they do have to earn their keep in some way. Elephants aren't cheap to feed and care for and at least by allowing tourists to visit them in these places a compromise is struck, even if it isn't ideal. Recently though I've noticed that many of these operations are advertising their new additions of baby elephants, clearly bred for the purposes of drawing in the punters. And so the cycle continues...
I've digressed a little, but for orangutans it's not so different. The undisputed kings of the ape world, there are doubtless few people who wouldn't jump at the chance to observe them in the wild. Over the past few decades there have been a number of organisations set up to care for orphaned and rescued orangutans displaced by the destruction of the Bornean rainforest as it has slowly been swallowed up by palm oil industry. Originally it was believed that orphaned and domesticated orangutans could be rehabilitated and released back into the wild, eventually to integrate with wild populations. In reality this hasn't worked out as planned. After the first animals were released, it quickly became clear that once-captive orangutans can pass diseases they have been exposed to through their contact with humans on to their wild relatives and few have the ability to truly survive a wild existence once they have been reliant on humans for their food. This has resulted in the vast majority of the 'rehabilitation' centres admitting that their purpose is questionable. Some still exist as viewing centres, not dissimilar to zoos, where tourists can see the rescued animals up close. Other places maintain populations of semi-wild orangutans that have been released into reserves by providing supplementary food for the animals each day and at some sites, allowing visitors to attend for a short period each day to observe any apes that choose to come down to the feeding platform. Semenggoh is one of these places.
Still a little suspicious of what I was going to find there, we took the shuttle bus from the hostel to the afternoon feeding session. Once on site, a ranger explained that we should not expect to see any orangutans that day as they had chosen not to come down to feed that morning, something that can only be a good thing as this means they are finding their own food in the forest. After waiting quietly for about half an hour there was a rustle in the trees above us and slowly a mother orangutan with her baby clutching her side made her way down to the pile of fruit on the platform. Excited that we'd seen any at all, gradually more and more appeared until seven in total were hanging in the surrounding trees eyeing us curiously. As we watched them feed from a distance, squabbling occasionally over the best pieces of fruit, a ranger quietly announced that Richie, the large male and leader of the group, had been sighted a short distance away. As we quietly moved closer to where he had been seen he came ambling through the undergrowth, across a bridge nearby, and sat about thirty feet away. The rangers were very strict to enforce that no-one was allowed to get any closer to the animals, requesting that people move away to give him space, but this was plenty close enough. Not exactly wild orangutans, but a magical experience all the same and one which made me even more keen to trek and search for them in the forest if I got the chance.
Later on back at the hostel talking with Manuela she told me of her plans to visit an Iban longhouse. Her problem was that all trips required a minimum of two people or else she would still have to pay for two if she wanted to take the trip alone. She asked me if I would consider going with her. After some further research I agreed that it did look interesting, however even the cheapest prices we could find were way above my budget. Also, I'm just not a fan of organised tours. I imagined arriving there and having to sit through a series of kitsch cultural performances put on for the 'paying people'. However, she was very persuasive and I later found myself at a tour agency with two pairs of pleading eyes fixed upon me, Manuela's and also the agent wanting their cut of course. After explaining firmly that it was just too much money for me, my new friend suggested that one solution would be that I paid what I felt I could afford and she would pay the rest, as otherwise she would be paying for two places anyway. With nothing much to lose, I still somewhat hesitantly agreed. As it turned out, in hindsight, it would be one of the highlights of my time in Borneo.
The following day we were picked up by Musa, our Iban guide, who drove us the six hours it took to reach Batang Ai National Park. Along the way he explained the landscape we travelled through, the palm oil and deforestation, about the rubber and pepper plantations. He explained that in comparison to Kalimantan where the situation was far worse, 65% of the land in Malaysian Borneo was still forest. He told us of the conflicts that exist between the government of peninsula Malaysia and that of Sarawak over returns they are due on petroleum sales and the effect this has on local communities. Along the length of the road were dozens of abandoned, derelict houses which he explained were empty because the road was being widened into a dual carriageway. He assured us this was much needed as it was the main route through to the east coast in Sabah, despite the fact we only passed maybe twenty other vehicles during the entire journey.
As promised, after stops at a local market which sold amongst the usual fayre, shark fins, monitor lizards and pythons (alive or already butchered, despite being illegal to catch and sell), we arrived at the edge of a lake where a longboat was awaiting us. The boat ride across the lake and down the Engkari River to the longhouse reminded me of the trip we took along the river to Livingston in Guatemala. Beautiful, lush shades of green all around us that rivalled Honduras, we arrived an hour later at the home of the 30 or so families that make up the Nanga Mengkak community.
Longhouses are traditional houses built of natural materials and house entire extended families side by side. Still working on the land in the same way that they have done for generations, the Iban people grow pepper, tap rubber and, more recently, grow palms for oil. They are virtually self-sufficient, hunting in the forest and collecting edible plants, raising pigs and chickens and growing vegetables. We were to spend a few days with them witnessing, and participating in, their way of life. The welcome we received was warm, although a little shy from some people. Musa explained that this particular longhouse had not been receiving guests for very long and therefore we were still very much a curiosity to many of the people. Each time people visit the house they are hosted by one of the families living there. We were there as guests of the Chief of the community himself and he greeted us warmly, telling us to make ourselves at home.
Having watched Bruce Parry's Tribe some years ago, I was curious to see just how tradition and hierarchy played their parts in the community, and was surprised to find out that the Iban are extremely laid back people. They have no particular rules over and above common etiquette and specific things that you should and shouldn't do seemed to be limited to minor things such as not pointing your feet at anyone. There are no male and female work roles as such, with the women doing a fair share of the farming and gathering and the men often caring for the children. Far from there being any awkwardness and silences because of the lack of a common language, we laughed and mimed and played charades, easily managing to get our points across in both directions.
One thing the Iban people love to do is drink. Soon after we arrived a plastic bottle full of a clear liquid appeared with a communal shot glass to boot and Tuak or 'rice whiskey' was poured and passed around as though it were water. Everyone bar the children drank and you could see the joy on the communities face when we happily accepted our turns. Later we sat on the kitchen floor of our host’s house and shared dinner - chicken feet and pig offal along with a variety of jungle greens. Whilst perhaps not what I'd choose off a menu, neither were so bad that they couldn't be made more palatable by washing them down with some more rice whiskey. We laughed and ate and drank well into the night, answering questions about our lives and countries, teaching each other to count and learning about the traditional dances and music of the Iban people. When everyone had drunk as much as they dared, we retired to our beds - mattresses underneath mosquito nets strung up in the communal living area.
The following day both Manuela and I rose early feeling surprisingly good given the amount we had drunk the night before. A little later Musa appeared looking as though he could happily have stayed in bed for another couple of hours. He was happy though and told us that the Chief was very pleased that we were there. He explained that many visitors who come on these trips treat the community like a human zoo, wanting only to take the perfect photos and leave again. Many, he said, don't want to share the food they bring or to eat communally with their hosts or try the things the community have made for them, much less drink and chat and dance and have fun. Therefore the community was very happy to have us there.
Our plan for the day was to trek through the jungle and learn about which plants were edible, collecting ingredients along the way before preparing and cooking lunch. We walked for a couple of hours, with some difficulty I might add as my shoulder was still far from fixed which made it very hard to steady myself when the trail was steep and slippery. Along the way the villagers hiking with us collected food - palm hearts, jungle greens, wild ginger and garlic - adding it to the basket containing the chicken they had killed that morning. We also gathered some long lengths of thick bamboo which would become our cooking vessels. Upon arrival at a flowing stream in the middle of the jungle we struck camp and began to prepare our lunch. A fire was built, ingredients washed in the running water and packed into the bamboo tubes before being set in the fire. As lunch was cooking the rice whiskey came out and we passed the ubiquitous bamboo shot glass around again to the sound of ‘Ooo Haa’, the Iban equivalent of cheers. As a special honour the Chief of the village and his wife came to join us bringing with them fish they had caught on the way. Over lunch we talked about the local traditions and beliefs of the Iban people, one of which is that there are two Gods, one ruling above the ground and one below. The Chief laughed as he reminded us to ask quietly for the God below’s permission if we wished to duck behind a tree and pee.
With full bellies and after enough shots of Tuak to have stopped counting we were relieved to hear that the Chief had come to join us by boat and that if we wished we could ride back with him rather than trek back through the jungle. As we climbed aboard our skipper tried to start the engine, but all it did was cough and splutter. Twenty minutes later we were still not moving. Through a combination of swimming next to the boat and pushing it, and towing it with the second boat they had brought we eventually made it back to within sight of the longhouse jetty. We could see in the distance the children from the village were jumping and diving into the cool water, laughing and screaming as they saw us coming. The sun was burning down so we applied logic, jumped straight in and swam the rest of the way. That night we slept well ahead of our long ride home the next day.
Back in Kuching Manuela and I said our goodbyes as she headed back to Portugal and I started to think about what I wanted to do next. I didn’t have time for much thinking though as I was quickly talked into a trip to Bako National Park the next day with one of my new dorm mates, Premila. First though, with an afternoon to fill, we decided to visit the Cat Museum across town. We’d heard from others who had been there that it was an experience not to be missed so we set off with some high expectations. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so much. The ‘cat museum’ occupies a purpose built building and consists of an eccentric old man’s cat collection. Literally thousands of items with often only the loosest of connection to cats. I don’t know if you’ve ever collected anything, but if you have you’ll know that as soon as it becomes common knowledge that you collect something, every person you know will insist on buying you items to add to your collection and no matter how tacky they are, you smile politely and thank them. I’m pretty sure that’s what has happened here. The collection contains stuffed cats, cat photos, cat books and items with pictures of cats on. It has a display of cat food, cat litter, cat ornaments, movies that feature cats and cartoon cats. It has cat flip flops. It even goes as far as to explain catfish and catwalks, things that have nothing whatsoever to do with cats. For a couple of hours we giggled our way around the huge site and used our camera permits for which we had to pay 30p to their fullest. Later on, we sampled fresh fish at Top Spot, a seafood food court on the top floor of a multi-storey car park.
Bako National Park is a rarity in Borneo in that you can visit it and hike within it without employing the services of a guide or tour company. The following morning we rose early, caught the local bus to the boat dock and soon were arriving at one of the most stunning beaches I think I’ve ever seen. Huge rocky cliffs surround a small, sandy bay with paths leading into the jungle beyond. As we walked up the beach we passed a horseshoe crab laying on the sand, birds flew overhead and a wild pig snuffled through a pile of driftwood, turning over the debris searching for tasty morsels underneath.
We spent the day hiking the various trails through the park, stopping to watch the proboscis monkeys and macaques swinging through the trees. At one point, after arriving at the end of a trail on a secluded beach, we took up an offer of a boat ride to the next bay, past some rock stacks. We were a little confused at one point when our boatman suddenly about turned and headed out to sea, but it turned out he had spotted the rare Irrawaddy dolphins just offshore which he took us out to see. By midday the heat had built to the point where almost all the wildlife had retreated into the cool of the forest. After one last hike up to a viewpoint we also retired to the cool of the canteen for a cold drink.
Back in Kuching that evening I was ready to drop, suffering a little from a long day in the sun. Planning on heading to bed early, even I was surprised to find myself agreeing to go on a sunset boat trip down the river with an Austrian girl who had just arrived. Like I said, never no for no good reason.
Despite only having seen a small fraction of the things I’d love to have seen in Sarawak, my finances and therefore my time in SE Asia at this point was coming to a close. It’s easy to want to try and fit everything in, but I realised at this point that Borneo was somewhere I definitely want to return to and that on this visit I couldn’t possibly see everything. Despite the usual game of hide and seek with the wind, Evan had at this point managed to get a few days out on the water in Hua Hin and so we decided to rendezvous in Kota Kinabalu a couple of days later.
Kota Kinabalu is a city that I often see people recommend as a base in Borneo, but to be honest I don’t understand why. Almost all the popular spots are close to either Kuching in Sarawak and Sandakan or Semporna in Sabah. KK, as it is known, is on the coast and not particularly near to anything. Even the places closest to the city are still quite a way away, for example Brunei and Mulu National Park, and are not easy to travel to. Waiting for Evan to arrive I was suddenly unsure exactly why we’d decided to meet there and what we would do next. I needn’t have worried though because less than 24 hours after he arrived he developed an allergic reaction to either the sun or sulphites in some dried mangoes he had eaten at the airport and came out in huge, red, itchy welts all over his body which made for a fraught few days while we figured out how best to treat it.
Whilst flicking through various literature over breakfast at the hostel one morning we came across an offer for a trip to a lodge on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah. Not a fan of tours or organised trips at all, I had to do a double-take when I saw the price of this particular one; it was less than a third of the cost of the trip to Batang Ai and this included transport from KK to the lodge which was eight hours drive away. After asking the girl on reception for more details and with a little scepticism about exactly what we’d get for such a low price, we found ourselves booked on a trip leaving the following day.
The Kinabatangan River runs for 540km through Sabah, Borneo. Originally surrounded by hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime jungle, sadly this has now all but gone, cleared and replanted with oil palms as is the story with so much of this once beautiful land. Along the river banks run narrow forest corridors connecting a number of reserves which are home to one of the most diverse wildlife populations in the world. Bornean orangutans, pygmy elephants and leopard cats, along with thousands of birds, it really is a wildlife lovers paradise. The sad part of course is that a large part of the reason you can potentially see so many creatures is that they’ve been forced into the small areas along the river banks. Some may feel that visiting such an area is morally questionable, but in reality it is the presence of tourism is a big factor in preserving what little is left of the jungle. If people do not come and there is no income for local people from tourism, there is little reason to believe that palm oil production won’t claim all that is left of the forest.
Upon arrival at the Borneo Natural Sukau Billit Resort we were greeted by Aloi, an affable local guide with a bit of a chip on his shoulder who showed us to our rather fancy dorms. Or rather they would have been if the power hadn’t gone off at that point leaving us without light or AC, a situation that wasn’t resolved until well into the following day. The schedule for our three days on the river consisted of a series of boats trips and jungle hikes that would give us the best possible chance of seeing a range of wildlife. On the first afternoon, just before dusk, we were lucky enough to spot a large troop of fabulously weird proboscis monkeys, hornbills and many other monkeys. Later that night on a night jungle walk we saw lots of sleeping birds and weird and wonderful insects. Early the following morning we were lucky enough to see a wild orangutan in its treetop nest!
By morning two Evan wasn’t feeling good at all. Still struggling to fight off the allergic reaction, a driver from the lodge kindly agreed to go to the pharmacy to pick up some steroids when he went to pick up some other guests in the town three hours away. As luck would have it another guest at the lodge happened to be a nurse practitioner and had written down what he should take and the dosage. While he stayed back at the camp, I went on a trek through the jungle to an ox-bow lake. While I was secretly hopeful that we’d see elephants, it wasn’t to be. We found fresh footprints and piles of dung, but the animals themselves remained elusive. Later at lunch time we got talking to two girls who the previous day had chosen to pay a little extra to hire a private boat for a trip further down the river to search for elephants. They had been lucky and found a group on the river bank some distance away from the lodge. Deciding that this would be a better use of our time than another trip in a boat with 20 other people to look at monkeys, Evan and I, along with one other guy arranged to take a boat trip that afternoon to see what we could find.
An hour or so passed and just as I was starting to fear we’d be out of luck, our guide suddenly became excitedly animated, pointing to the horizon and exclaiming ‘Elephants!’ As we got closer, we could see that there were three elephants on the riverbank, slowly eating their way through the vegetation. They were much smaller than we’d been led to believe after a guide had told us that they weren’t really that small. Our guide estimated that these were around 9 or 10 years old. We watched in silence for a while as they ate and tussled with each other before one by one they slipped down into the water and began swimming along the edge of the river, pausing at intervals to snatch another mouthful of grass from the river bank. I could have watched them all day. There we were, watching critically endangered wild elephants in their natural environment going about their business. It was magical.
Later, back at the camp, others who had ummed and ahhed and decided the additional £10 each we had spent for the trip was not worth the cost were clearly gutted. Several I noted spent at least that much on beers that evening. If I had any criticism of the trip it would only be that there were too many people in each group, but this is of course the trade-off for paying such a low price. Otherwise, the accommodation at lodge itself was top notch. The guides disappointed me a little, they were clearly all about providing a tourist experience and most were more enthusiastic about the money they were making than the wildlife that is supposed to be their passion. There was very little explanation given about any of the creatures we saw or the conservation situation in the region. In summary, it was totally worth going, but clearly there was still room for improvement.
The following morning after a last river trip in the heavy early morning mist and some breakfast we were dropped off in Sandakan, an infamous city on the east coast of Borneo where a higher than average number of people have gone missing in recent years at the hands of kidnappers connected to a terrorist group from the nearby Philippines. Whilst now considered safe enough, there was a definite edge to Sandakan. A strongly Islamic area, very different to the west of Malaysian Borneo, the city shows clear signs of poverty with areas that we commented we’d not be so keen to walk around late at night. That said, we met only wonderfully friendly locals during our stay. While walking back from the laundrette with our freshly clean clothes a young Muslim woman wearing a full face veil caught me up and struck up a conversation. Who was I, where was I from? She then grabbed my hand tightly and smiled with her eyes and said warmly ‘Welcome to Sandakan, you are very welcome!’
At this point we really weren’t sure what to do next. We considered going to Semporna to go snorkelling at Sipadan Island, but we knew this would be costly. We had about a month left and our plan had been to head to Laos next, but while talking about options one evening we discovered that we had both individually been questioning this plan. My shoulder still wasn’t great and we were both feeling the need to go somewhere very different to everywhere we had been so far, our concern being that Laos would be a lot like the north of Vietnam and whilst beautiful, this wasn’t what we were seeking at this point. We spent a long time staring at a map of the region and looking into different options. As a first step we decided to head back west and endured another long bus ride through the stunning Mount Kinabalu National Park back to KK. From here we considered a side trip to Brunei but again this would cost more than our depleted budget allowed at this point. Having narrowed our options down we picked the only one that seemed to fit our new criteria. The following day we took three consecutive flights and late that evening, very tired from the journey, we landed in Medan, Sumatra.