Category Archives: Malaysia

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

Development Mercenary

kacang-2.JPGWell, that’s how Nina described herself.

We’ve only seen, let alone met, one American in Malaysian Borneo. But she is more interesting than a few dozen backpackers combined.

Nina is about our age and hails from San Francisco. She works as a freelance, um, development mercenary, that is, she works as a contractor for large development organizations (e.g. US AID) who pay her to implement, evaluate and/or monitor international projects. She has worked as an election observer (the sort of thing you hear about Jimmy Carter doing) in Peru and most recently just came from evaluating an A.I.D.S. program in East Timor. (Laura, Amanda, we want to lock you in a room with her for a couple of hours. This is the sort of stuff we think you may want to do someday.)

Over the past 20 years or so she has worked and/or lived for an extended period in Angola, Burma, Cambodia, Haiti, Malaysia, Madagascar, El Salvador, Bolivia (yes, she’s fluent in Spanish) and countries we’re too embarassed to admit we couldn’t locate on a map. (Deb, Karen, don’t worry, she also claims she could never live in Peace Corp conditions and recently hung out in the most opulent digs with a good friend in Brunei working for the Australian ambassador.)

In addition to giving us great insight into international development issues, Nina introduced us to iced kacang (pronounced ka-chong). The ingredient list: soft gelatinous gummy worm-like things in green and red, white pearls of some other tapioca (maybe) sort of stuff, beans (not unlike your basic pintos), yellow corn (not S&W, but definitely out of a can). Then you heap on a bunch of shaved iced (Hawaiian style) and shape it into a cone, pour a half can of evaporated milk over one half and a brown sugar syrup mixture over the other half, and then dig in. Sounds (and looks) pretty disgusting. Sort of a chunky, milky snow cone that quickly melts into a sweet soup. It was pretty weird at first. Then we got hooked.

For those of you joining us for Thanksgiving, I’m afraid without a shaved ice machine we won’t be able to make this the year’s special beverage. Sorry.

We will definitely stay in touch with Nina. She is a gem.

Next up: Into the Jungle


malaysia-map.gifAlan (Dry, instructional component):

We have been in Kuching, the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. [CORRECTED 9 Nov] In 1957, the Malay peninsula formed a federation made up of newly independent colonies. In 1963, Sarawak and Sabah (also former English colonies) joined Malaya, along with Singapore, to create the modern country of Malaysia. In 1965, Singapore left the federation to become an independent country. In 2007, Malaysia is gearing up for a huge celebration of the 50th anniversay of the creation of Malaysia – a good time to think about visiting (hint-senior niece, Janice & Colin, Debbie & Tom, and anyone else looking for a wonderful, EASY, and tasty trip).

Borneo (the island) has 3 countries. Malaysia (the other half is on the Thai peninsla), Indonesia (distributed over several islands), and Brunei (exclusively on Borneo).

I now return you to the way more interesting part of the blog.


img_1664.jpgimg_1735.jpgimg_1736.jpgimg_1730.jpgimg_1725.jpgHistory… yes, yes, all very interesting. I’ll share a few other tidbits and those of you who would prefer a more in-depth study of the geo-political-historical aspects can write directly to Alan.

Kuching is a very pleasant, walkable city. There are a fair number of conferences happening and a number of Malay tourists are enjoying the town. There are very, very few “round eyes” and, with the exception of Nina (more on her later), we haven’t seen any Americans. The Brits and other northern Europeans are here escaping the cold, but primarily, we’re seeing Malays, some Japanese and Chinese.

We visited several spectacular museums and usually had them all to ourselves. (And they were all free.) We explored the open air markets bursting with fresh produce, meat, fish, plants, hardware, clothing and food stalls so we could keep up our shopping energy.

In addition to the traditional, “exotic” markets, Kuching is full of high-rise shopping malls selling EVERYTHING for stunningly low prices. (Anyone need a watch for $2?) The big U.S. chains are here. 7-11 is everywhere (Alan is very happy). KFC is everywhere. Burger King is around as are Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Famous Amos, and my favorite, the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (yes, THAT CB&TL headquartered in Camarillo).

In the evenings, we usually stroll along the waterfront and eat fabulous, cheap food. Our breakfasts have been typically Malaysian and taken in one of the nearby food stalls. A basic breakfast is usually a noodle soup or fried noodles (wheat or rice, different widths) with any combination of meats, sprouts, veggies, egg. Malaysian Borneo has so many culinary influences, it’s difficult to have something purely Malay. Breakfast, including Alan’s morning cola, for the two of us averages about $2.50.

Our lunches and dinners have been truly “fusion” in nature –Thai, Chinese, Indian as well as Malay. And then there’s the snacking: waffles with chocolate or peanut butter, little cupcake-like things, steamed pork buns and other dim sum sorts of dumplings, roti (Indian crepe), baked peanut butter buns, lots of ice cream (Nestle’s drumsticks) spicy chicken puffs, fried bananas, little buttery English muffin sorts of things (see photo), satay everywhere, and, thankfully, Pepsi and Coca Cola for you know who.

img_1656.jpgimg_1660.jpgimg_1734.jpgimg_1733.jpgOne night, we took ourselves to a large, open seafood restaurant next to the river. It took us awhile to figure out we needed to select our own fish and negotiate its preparation. We ordered snapper, prawns, an oyster pancake (see photo) and some vegetables. We didn’t have a clue as to the volume that would appear at our table. There was a family of at least a dozen people nearby. Evidently, we ordered enough food for them as well. (The photo shows Harriet with the remnants of our meal.)

There was a basket of prawn crackers to snack on until the huge dishes started arriving. The fish was an entire, huge Red Snapper; the oyster pancake was easily 12″ across and stuffed with small oysters; the gigantic garlic prawns numbered more than a dozen; the spicy fried noodles had shrimp, calamari, beef, bbq pork and vegetables; then came the platters of baby bok choy and mixed vegetables. It was all good, but frankly, we were so overwhelmed by the volume we barely made a dent and felt like disgusting pigs.

The whole tab came to $21.

Our other stupidly expensive meal was a traditional “Steamboat” at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. It’s basically shabu-shabu. They schlep a propane tank to your table and hook it up to a combination soup pot and grill. Then you help yourself to the raw fish/meat/veggie buffet and cook your own meal at the table. It’s a fun idea and because we were hanging out with a new friend it was nice setting. But really, did we fly half way around to globe to cook our own food? I think not.

Total tab for the 3 of us: $37 (including tax and drinks). Outrageous expense.

img_1683.jpgimg_1709.jpgimg_1717.jpgimg_1775.jpgimg_1747.jpgBetween meals, we took a day trip to the Sarawak Cultural Center. It’s a sort of Disney-like approach to learning about the different tribes and cultures of Borneo, but the setting is spectacular and it was really quite interesting. Between our visits to the different tribal houses, we enjoyed the staged show of music and dancing. Ornate costumes, graceful dances, native music (gamelan, drumming, some string music) and a blowpipe dance/demonstration where the dancer blew darts 50 feet or so, over the crowd, to pop balloons.

At the end of the show, they invite the audience to come up and join in the dancing. So a couple dozen people (certainly not us) just hopped up on the stage and started gyrating around to the music. (Santa Barbararians might equate this to “Dance-Away” with a camera-toting audience.)

Our other outskirts-of-town outing was to see the famous Kuching Cat Museum. “Kuching” means cat in Bahasa Malaysia and there are several stories about how the city came to be so named. There are hokey cat statues all over the place. And then there are the awful souvenirs with cats…

 Anyway, we went to the museum because we thought it would be a mildly bizarre thing to do… and it was.

First off, it’s housed in an enormous mosque-like center that serves as North Kuching City Hall and it takes up half of the first floor. The guards didn’t look armed, but they were there to protect the museum as well as City offices.

The entrance was wonderfully tacky. The first exhibits were a combination of bad taxidermy (stuffed cats suitable for bad horror movie sets) and odd commercial collections of all things feline (keychains, mugs, painted rocks, purses, and a lovely photo opportunity). The subsequent exhibit halls were divided into cultural/historical references — the history of cats in different cultures (Egypt, Japan, China, etc.). Then came the rooms of cats in the movies (or movie titles), cats in porcelain, cats in paintings, cats in advertising, cats on plates, cats in cartoons, cats in poetry and literature, famous cat lovers (did you know that Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat door?), cat proverbs, cat food, cat fish (yes, an entire wall devoted to the very, very distant piscean cousin) — it just kept going.

Did I mention the huge glass case devoted to cat burglars?

Of course there was a room devoted to explaining EVERY fricken breed of domesticated cat and homage to the Malaysian organization that hosted the Cat World Cup or whatever the hell they called it.

There was a cat cave but the lights weren’t working, so we listened to various cat calls/growls/screeches coming from shadowy sculptures of, we presume, cats.

Admittedly, the whole thing was amazingly well done. And we feel that, as dog people, we have more than bent over backwards to show our respect, admiration and appreciation for our feline counterparts.

Next up: The Development Mercenary