Monthly Archives: November 2006

It’s a Jungle Out There: Orang Utans

River 1Hanging FlowersYellow FlowerTurtleRed FlowerWalkwayOrang Utan 1Orang Utan 2Pod FlowerAfter our decadent island stay, we steeled ourselves for our flight to Sandakan and the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary. (By “steeled” we mean we ate more good, cheap food and cooled off by strolling the air-con shopping malls before returning to our tenth floor hotel room.)

Note to budget travellers: We discovered the Ryan Air (or Southwest) of Asia. We flew 4 times on Air Asia, the Malaysia-based, no-frills, budget airline. Three out of four times we left EARLY — as soon as they load the flight, they take off, damn any stragglers. The fourth time, we left 10 minutes late and arrived only 5 minutes late. The average fllight cost about $20. We immediately lost any desire to “travel with the locals” on 6-14 hour sweltering bus rides.

A van picked us up at the Sandakan airport and we drove straight to the Sepilok Jungle Resort where we checked into a very ratty room (but only $12), dumped our bags and dashed out to the orang (man) utan (of the forest) sanctuary.

The Sepilok Resort sits in a semi-wild, manicured, multi-hectre portion of jungle. There are Disneyland-like walkways over murky river waters (except there really IS scarey stuff in these waters) and the stiffling heat and 99% humidity make it the perfect nursery for all kinds of riotously colorful flowers and gigantic palms, pandans and trees that look like they could eat you for breakfast.

The Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary rescues sick, abandoned and abused (kept as domestic pets) orang utans, gives them medical care, and strives to gradually reintroduce them into the wild. We’re sure it is a better fate than dieing from disease or stravation, but we’re not certain as to the success of the program and have some questions about the seemingly overexposure to humans during the “rehabilitation.” In addition to the twice daily exposure to tourists like us, they spend massive amounts of time with their human “mentors.” We need to do a little research…

We took a short hike into the sanctuary and, like clockwork, the orang utans came swinging in for the 3 o’clock feeding at the feeding platform. And, also like clockwork, a few dozen tourists — ourselved included — started snapping pictures. The orang utans had no fear of us and we can only hope that they enjoyed the show we put on. They certainly weren’t learning to fend for themselves or be wary of humans.

Tame and zoolike as is was, it was still very cool to see the “men of the forest” in one of only two places in the world where they exist in the wild (Borneo and Sumatra). Orang utans are supposed to be 96.4% similar to humans. I suppose the remaining 3.6% is about more advanced language skills and the desire for iPods.

On our return to the “resort” we stumbled upon the new(er) accommodations and immediately upgraded to the $25 air-con, tiled room with CNN and a view of the grounds. At this point, we probably would have paid anything to escape the steaming jungle heat; it was well over 100 degrees and we were totally wrung out.

True confession: The next day, we lingered in our air-con room watching a very bad Keanu Reeves movie until check-out time. Then we ventured into Sandakan, explored the market, searched for more air-con and wished we had booked an earlier flight back to Kota Kinabalu.

Next up: Looking for Michael Jackson: Negara Brunei Darussalam (Brunei, the Abode of Peace)


AccomodationsCoralLizardWaterAlan (boring technical note):

Okay, I think I have the thumbnails working on this post so that you can click on the tiny images and get a larger view. I know the image sizes have been inconsistent from post to post and I’ll use the excuse that I’m trying to work the technical issues from frikken’ BORNEO. <>


Admit it. Some of you have seen an episode or two of “Survivor.” Maybe you even watched “Survivor – Borneo”, you know, a reality soap opera that takes place on some exotic, humid island where buff dudes and buxom babes annoy the heck out of each other and the viewer.

We decided we had to visit one of the islands of Borneo. There is indeed a tour to Palau Tiga (“Survivor Island”), but we opted for the closer Manukan instead.

Again, assuming some of you have seen the show, you know when Jeff Probst comes zooming in on some hot yacht and takes the winners of a “reward challenge” to some buccolic little island get-away? Well, we stayed at one of those places.

We took a speed boat (not as swanky as Jeff’s, but fast enough) to the island where we were greeted by a young woman who introduced herself as our personal butler. After lunch, she escorted us to our “room” so that she could explain a few things. Because Manukan is managed by the national parks service (like Kinabalu Park) we knew our room would be fine.

Oh yes. It was just fine. It was similar to our “cabin” at Kinabalu except that it was TWO STORIES (think condo/chalet) with two wrap-around, ocean view balconies, satellite TV (our first look at CNN and BBC World), a separate “sitting room” with armoire and dressing table (again with the Q-tips and make-up remover pads), and did we mention OCEAN VIEW? Our butler showed us around and then presented us with welcome drinks and cold towels from our refrigerator.

We finally dragged ourself out of this exhorbitantly-priced ($50) hovel to explore a bit of the island: almost NO people on one very long stretch of beach but a couple of 3-foot long monitor lizards to keep us company, crystal clear warm water that was perfect for snorkeling, psychadelic tropical fish swimming through coral reefs, clear blue skies, dramatic sunset. A perfect two days.

Next up: It’s a Jungle Out There: Orang Utans

FAQs, Health, Hygiene and Other Trivia

A few observations and random thoughts about Malaysian Borneo:

  • Heat and humidity: high 90s, except in Sepilok where it must have exceeded 100 degrees and, though meteorologically impossible, 120 percent humidity. (Note to Marylanders: by comparison, you have arrid summers.)
  • Speaking of Maryland, twice we’ve seen “Maryland Chicken” on menus. Something breaded, I think. Didn’t realize they were so aware of your largest industry. 
  • Language: almost everyone speaks “Manglish.” We rarely have difficulty communicating.
  • Cars drive on the left-hand side of the road. Consequently, we’re usually looking the wrong way when we cross the street.
  • People instinctively walk on the left-hand side of the sidewalk. Consequently, we’re often doing a little dodging dance.
  • As in most of the world, men rarely “give way” on the sidewalk, so even when Harriet comes face-to-face with a male on the sidewalk, it is she who gives way in order to avoid a collision.
  • There are very few motorcycles around. Very little deisel too. The most popular vehicle of choice is the Toyota Land Cruiser.
  • There are almost no Americans here. We’ve mentioned Nina. We saw a family of 3 at Kinabalu. And there’s some guy from Arizona whose name keeps appearing a week before ours in different guest books.
  • Music: Aside from the shows for tourists where traditional dances are performed, the music is mixed – Asian and U.S. rock, rap and a lot of 70’s classics. Gordon Lightfoot tunes are alive and well here; we hear that big hit by Kelly Clarkson almost every day (and speaking of her, there IS a Malaysian Idol show); and tonight on the plane we listened to Dionne Warwick and Willy Nelson. 
  • We’ve been staying in fairly nice places and they all provide bathroom amenities. They all have towels and little soaps or soap dispensers (think industrial wall-mount models). They’re all big on shower caps (which, after 30 years of travel, I have discovered make great shoe protectors — that is, they keep my muddy shoes away from my sweaty clothes). Most have little bottles of shampoo. But the oddest little thing is that the national parks accommodations are very proud of their decorative pots of Q-tips and… drum roll… puffy cotton make-up remover pads. (Damn, I could have brought my mascara.)
  • Water: perfectly potable in Singapore. Pretty good in Malaysian Borneo. We haven’t been as careful as usual, but we’ve been just fine. All the hotels supply thermoses of boiled water too.
  • Internet: Internet cafes aren’t as plentiful as we had thought. Some are dark and hot and worst of all, many are crowded with pre-teen and teen boys playing deafening, violent net games. However, the cafe we’re using tonight is probably our favorite — decent music, fast machines, good screens, AIR CON, nice staff, 7-Eleven next door with Diet Coke for Alan, and best of all, the computers are on coin-operated timers that when you’re down to 60 seconds play an electronic version of that old standard “Be It Ever So Humble, There’s No Place Like Home” . (Did you know there’s a second verse?) … We’re hearing it now.

Next up: (Not quite) Survivor Borneo  — The Island


Satay Food Squid Durian Christmas Mosque Pink Plant MtK 2 MtK 1 MtK 3 Part Satu (1): Kota Kinabalu

We expected Kota Kinabalu to be a dusty little town at the base of Mt. Kinabalu. Okay, well, nothing is dusty here in the tropics, but we did expect a small town. Though smaller than Kuching, KK is another mostly modern, bustling city complete with Hyatt Regency and spankin’ new Le Meridien hotels, and it is the capital of Sabah state.

There are plenty of air-con shopping malls that provide a cool respite from the heat of the intense fish market, produce markets, Filipino craft market, various outdoor night markets, central market, pearl markets, stuff we don’t understand market, etc…

We’ve been enjoying dim sum from a little food stall/restaurant close to our hotel and made friends with the owners, whose son is getting his masters in electrical engineering from Purdue (U of Indiana). As always, the satay is good and cheap, and we finally learned to order it with a steamed, coconut rice dumpling so we can soak up all the spicy peanut sauce. Alan continues to sample the baked/fried goodies. Aside from the fact that it was dripping with oil, the martabak, a sort of gigantic flat egg roll folded over cabbage and meat was great. He’s still sold on the chocolate and peanut butter filled waffle and the peanut butter filled pancakes. (Sensing a trend here?)

We braved the bustling night food market a couple times. One night, we had a skewer of large prawns (about $1.50) and a skewer of squids the size of shoes ($1.25). Another evening, we went for the noodles and chicken parts. Two wings, two skewers of chicken meat and two skewers of chicken… hmmm.. these little heart shaped things that turned out to be chicken, uh, tails ($1.25).

We took in a few museums including one that happened to have a showing Sabah’s most famous women artists. The historical museum was fairly interesting. Best of all, it was sponsored by Shell Oil so the take on the industry’s “contributions” was a bit skewed to say the least. The city mosque is the second largest in Malaysia (room for 5,000 male worshippers and 500 female worshippers) and would probably be stunning inside when thousands of colorful prayer rugs are unfurled. Unfortunately, we were there between prayer times so it was rather stark and gray. The exterior, without its gold domes and minarets, would look very similar to a multi-level parking lot.



After a rocky start (no pun intended) — miscommunication with a taxi driver, new bus station that even the tourist office failed to mention, and a shorter-than-expected ride to park headquarters (which had us a bit confused), we arrived in Kinabalu National Park.

It was not a good sign when we were greeted by the friendly park “rangers” — all lovely, young women — in their kacky blouses, skirts and PARKAS. The mountain was completely enshrouded in heavy clouds

We took a mediocre breakfast in the overpriced “canteen”, changed into slightly warmer clothing, and proceeded to take the self-guided hike through the botanical garden. Our cabin wasn’t ready so we signed up for a guided 50-minute hike staffed by a knowledgable young guy.

The little hike proved to be a real treat with lots of information including the difference between bamboo and rattan, a sighting of the world’s smallest orchid (the “Pinhead”) and hints on how to distinguish between vines that discharge water and those giving jungle tranquilizer cocktails. Helpful information, I suppose, if we were ever on “Survivor.”

We proceeded to take another hike on our own. The weather warmed up but everything was still very drippy and wet. No doubt we were in a rainforest.

After a fortifying meal outside the park, we returned to headquarters to collect our bags and hike up the hill to our cabin. There we were greeted by one of the lovely young rangers (who had hiked up in her ranger pumps — honest to god — 1 1/2″ heels) whose job it was to give us a little orientation to be sure we knew how to work everything. (We didn’t think we’re were going to have to learn how to make fire or forage for food, but we were a little concerned that we would need to know how to “work” anything.)

And then she opend the door. Oh my. This was the kind of place where, as our friend Sue Benasso and I would say, “our parents would stay here.” Immaculate, huge, beautiful, polished wooden floors, rattan furniture and built-in furnishings to match. Beautiful woven ceiling, recessed lighting, brand new bathroom with “amenities” (more on those later), and the entire arrangment, whether intentional or not, had very good feng shui.

We rested up and then decided to bypass the less expensive canteen for the restaurant. Gorgeous. A bit like the upper-crust safari lodges in Tanzania, but with impeccable service and MUCH, much better food. I’m not usually willing to pay much extra for ambiance, but this place was worth every ringit. Even in Santa Barbara, this would be the sort of place you’d have to dress up a bit.

Alan decided to supplement his Pepsi with a bottle of their best local Lihing for a whopping 15 ringit (less than $4). Here, at this very classy restaurant, Kinabalu’s rice wine comes in a plastic 500 milliliter bottle with an Avery label probably fresh off the ink-jet. It’s cloudy yellow. Smells like it would strip the paint off your walls. I swear there were fumes. I knew Alan would love it.

We’ve been searching for it in the markets ever since. It’s wonderful. Sort of a fruity sake. We almost forgot our disappointment at not seeing Kinabalu. After dinner we saw a good video about the great granite giant and feared that would be our only viewing of the earth’s newest non-volcanic mountain.

Next morning, 5:30 a.m., video documentarian, Alan Irwin, rises to greet the pre-dawn light. And there it was before him: Gunung Kinabalu — right outside our front door. Reason enough to roust Harriet out of bed at this ungodly hour.

Not unlike other great mountains – Kilimanjaro, Fuji, Rushmore (sorry) — Kinabalu is easy to recognize by its shape. But unlike other more symetrical mountains or even more “average” looking mountains, Kinabalu is a wild, mishapen, mismatched collection of weird thrusts and peaks and juts — like a mammoth half jaw of jagged, crooked, granite teeth.

Totally cool.

The two-day climb to the 4,095 meter summit is supposed to be only moderately difficult — and we could have done it — but frankly, it remains enshrouded in clouds almost the entire climb this time of year. We were happy to view it from the base. And by 8:30 a.m., the entire mountain had disappeared for another day.

Breakfast at the exquisite restaurant, another hike in light rain, and then we headed back to KK.

 Next up: FAQs, Health, Hygiene and other Trivia

Into the Jungle

alan-jungle.JPGmacaq-5.JPGsnake.JPGspikey-bamboo.JPGmacaq-2.JPGmacaq-3.JPGjungle-beach.JPGcrab.JPGpicher-1.JPGmillipede.JPGIt was time. We had to get into the wilds of Borneo. Okay, well, nothing seems to be too wild here. (Alan observed that this is one of the few places we’ve visited where we haven’t been awakened by roosters.)

We booked two days at Bako National Park. (Think Yosemite with no cars and rainforest instead of redwoods and granite.)

We hopped the bus to the small village of Bako. Side note: this was a nice, clean bus that drove along beautiful, landscaped highway. No chickens. No goats. No women with 30 kilos of something heaped on their heads.

From Bako we hired a boat to take us to the park headquarters. It was low tide so the 20-minute ride ended and we hiked to shore in warm, shin-deep water for another 15 minutes or so. 

We dumped our bags in our perfectly acceptable cabin (think Yosemite again, but not the Awahnee), and took our first hike into what finally felt like BORNEO.

The paths are relatively well marked (with a swatch of color on a tree every hundred meters or so). Our Teva’s were adequate but a decent pair of hiking boots would have made the scrambling up root-carpeted trails much easier.

Early on, we came across our first proboscis monkeys, the ones with those Jimmy Durante noses. (Alan has good video; I couldn’t shoot stills fast enough.)

We also stumbled, literally, upon a huge hermit crab. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that one, it was the size of a small fist, and two, it was at the top of a mountain! (This critter must have racked up some very, very bad karma in its last life.)

We hauled ourselves up trails (and I use the term loosely) lined with bamboo, rattan, ferns, orchids, lichens, pandans, and towering trees with corkscrew roots hanging from the sky and shooting upward from the moss and leaf-padded ground. There were at least another dozen people in the park but we saw no one on the trails.

Our first hike took us through the rainforest to a stunning, deserted beach with rough, young boulders the size of our house on Spring St. A second hike later in the day took us through a very dark patch of jungle to an impassable swamp of mangroves. But we were rewarded with another sighting of proboscis monkeys which more than made up for the hundreds of mosquito (or other insect) bites we’re still scratching.

Alan was great at sighting several pitcher plants, a few millipedes and some wild looking fungi. (We won’t be ordering the cream of mushroom soup that seems to be on a lot of menus.)

Sounds. Wow. This is a bit difficult to describe. Imagine some bad jungle movie on television. You hear lots of crickets and cicadias and hissing, maybe some rushing water, right? Okay, now, imagine you’ve just cranked up the volume as high as it can go, started a blender, and then put on a shrill, whistling tea kettle. You’re there. It was just that loud.

The monkeys in the photos here are macaques. They’re all over the place and travel in large troops. Those of you who will be joining us for Thanksgiving will hear the tale of Alan (a.k.a. Tarzan, but on another continent) rescuing Harriet from one angry male macaque in his most manly, quick thinking, could’ve-been-an-Eagle- Scout manner by shouting “Harriet, move.” (He is soooooo brave. – H) 

There’s also a hairy boar (not to be confused with some people we need not mention here) that wanders around the camp canteen, and a couple of vipers that snooze in the branches on the way to our cabin.

The viper, (species: Runaway Fastus) is the second deadliest snake on the planet. The king cobra is first. Evidently there are a few of those in Bako and I would prefer to believe it was just a tale to keep hikers on the paths and in their cabins at night. (It worked.) It takes 3 minutes for the viper venom to kill. I don’t know how long it would take a cobra to kill you — 2 minutes, 30 seconds, who cares — but it seems like 3 minutes to death is enough for a close second in the snake bite olympics.

We eventually headed back to Kuching for iced kacangs, a quick visit with Nina to hear about her experience at a longhouse (she brought a soccer ball for all the village children to enjoy; her German counterpart brought the equivalent of a toy aisle at Wal-Mart), loaded up on lots of satay and Thai rice, and prepared for our flight to Kota Kinabalu the next morning.

Next up: Gunung Kinabalu