Published: November 29th 2009November 25th 2009
We left Cambodia after two days in Phnom Penh with four haircuts for $8, our third muffler burn (sustained after Mitchy got a lift on a moto with someone we’ll call ‘Kev from Canberra’, got his hand stuck in the back of the motor bike seat then burnt his leg trying to untangle his finger before heading off to meet with the advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister (apparently the next leader in the making) of Hun Sen’s government all the time acting as if he hadn’t nearly dislocated his finger or sizzled his leg; but that is a whole other story!) and heavy hearts.
When we arrived in Borneo it was still a bit of an unknown entity for us but it has proved to be as magical as other places we have visited. (For anyone considering a trip we found it more expensive and challenging for independent travelers than other Asian destinations although definitely worth the time and money).
The island is ruled by three different countries; Indonesia has Kalimantan, Brunei is self governed by the Sultan and Malaysia has two states, Sarawak and Sabah. We spent our time in Sabah, famous for the animals and jungle,
especially the orangutans, although it offers a hugely diverse range of wildlife and plantlife on land and in the sea. Borneo is also infamous for habitat destruction on land and sea with deforestation and dynamite fishing leaving major long term issues for the world to live with.
The capital of Sabah is Kota Kinabalu a two and a half hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. We spent a few days getting to know the city and working out an itinerary.
Our first two days were spent a little outside Kota Kinabalu city in a hotel within a huge new shopping centre, Number One Borneo. This first impression of Kota Kinabalu proved to be a real contrast to the centre of the city when we moved hotels, it is definitely very Western unlike the city centre. During our stay at the hotel Grace, Finn and I accidentally ended up on the red carpet, surrounded by press photographers, it turned out that it wasn’t to welcome us but for the ex prime minister Dr Mahathir who was giving a speech to a major Islamic gathering at the hotel. From all of the pomp it is apparent that he is still very much
Islam is the religion of the majority of Malay people and this is very obvious with the mosques that appear frequently on the landscape in Sabah, we made a brief visit to the enormous and stunning City Mosque near Kota Kinabalu which has room for 12 000 people. There are also many Christian Churches in Sabah, a site we haven’t seen in other countries.
The Sabahans are friendly and hospitable, probably a little more outgoing than the Khmer which makes for very interesting times. The night food market on the waterfront in town gave us our first taste of the theatrics that they employ in trying to get a sale; rows of fish stalls with the proprietors shouting and singing prices as you puddle (literally) down the row. Undeterred by the fact that we are very obviously tourists we were offered all sorts of bargains on amazing fish and other sea life.
The night market also sells fruit and bbq food which was very tempting. Finn, Olivia and I were keen on the chicken satay sticks but weren’t quite sure of what the other satay sticks on offer were, almost identical heart shaped pieces of
Tropical Fish To Eat
Kota Kinabalu Wet Market
meat skewered onto the sticks. The guy at the stall answered our query by telling us (several times) that it was chicken ‘ess’. Thinking of myself as quite familiar with some of the more unusual ingredients in Asian cuisine I tried to work out what chicken ess could possibly mean while trying to work out by sight whether the meat could be chicken kidneys, or maybe hearts. A Chinese guy next to us tried to help us out and slowly it became clear, it was satay chicken ‘arse’! Sticks and sticks of roasted ‘chicken bottoms’, 30cents a stick!
We took a boat out from KK to Manukan Island, apparently renowned as a great place to snorkel which the kids were keen to do after practicing on Rabbit Island. We are unsure as whether it was a combination of slightly inclement weather, the very obvious signs of dynamite fishing and high expectations that we didn’t really have a great experience, although the speed boat trip out did provide a laugh and some excitement due to big waves and splashes.
A visit to the orangutans was high on our list of things to see in Borneo and we took
a public bus to Sepilok, six hours east of the capital through the Borneo landscape, how lucky could you get? It was soon obvious that the answer was ‘not very’! Six seats right at the back next to the toilet, which smelt like the local monkeys were on the same bus. We missed the first couple of hours of beautiful Borneo jungle with our heads stuck in plastic bags and just as we all started to feel better we were in time to see the palm oil plantations that cover 65% of Sabah relentlessly rolling on for the next four hours. Luckily what awaited us what definitely worth the trip!
We stayed at Paganakan Dii (Malaysian for family) a guest house in the Sepilok jungle with amazing rooms in the forest with walls that open out onto balconies to enjoy the treetop view. At dawn and dusk we were able to watch squirrels playing in the trees and listen to the beautiful sounds of the jungle which was a fabulous introduction to the wilderness of Borneo. Our trip to the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre wasn’t fruitful as far as wildlife spotting but it was a great way to see
more of the forest including the canopy walk. The Plant Discovery Garden area was really interesting with a huge variety of edible plants and some of the more unique rainforest plants. The kids were all very keen to see the Pitcher Plants especially after they sorted out whether or not the plants ate humans! Luckily it was a good day and we weren’t tempted to try out this theory.
Sepilok is famous for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and this was definitely the attraction for us (although a visit to Paganakan Dii would now also be an attraction). The centre takes in orphaned orangutans with the aim of rehabilitating them back to the wild. The viewings of the orangutans are based on luck as some of the released orangutans come back to viewing platforms to feed, if and when they choose. The centre now boasts that they have had a grand baby orangutan (born from one of the daughters of an original orphan). While it may take up to ten years to rehabilitate one orphan (at a cost of about fifteen thousand dollars each orangutan) many of the rehabilitated orangutans are never seen again as they choose to spend their
Sepilok Orangutang Rehab Centre
And Not a Sign Of Robbie Williams
time in the outer parts of the forest which is 4500 hectares of protected area.
We were in luck on both of our visits and were able to see the orangutans at the morning and afternoon feeds. At our first visit we saw two orangutans and the initial sight of them was priceless, it is hard to understand that such a beautiful creature could possibly be endangered. We were also treated to a real show from the Macaque monkeys who are far more inquisitive and cheeky than the orangutans, trying to sneak a hand from under the platform to steal peoples bags.
The afternoon brought the rain but also around seven orangutans, one with a small baby clutching her belly, a big male who decided to walk the railing along the viewing platform and a young one who climbed into a tree just near us and then had a cuddle with one of the staff at the centre. Although we were soaked to the bone we felt very lucky to be able to see these amazing animals.
We also spent a day in the city of Sandakan, which has a population of almost 500 000 and was
the original capital of the state. Our first stop was at the Australian War Memorial where around 2500 Australian and British soldiers were kept at the site as Prisoners of War by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in the Second World War. The area is sadly known as the site of the commencement of the ‘Death Marches’. Japanese soldiers marched the POW’s 250 kilometers into the jungle to avoid capture by the Allied Forces. Many prisoners lay down on the marches when they could not go on any further from exhaustion, malnutrition and illness and died on the track, others were killed by an increasingly desperate and ruthless Japanese Army.
The Memorial was built by the Australian Government and is a lovely tribute to the men who died here and a message of gratitude for the support that they received from some of the local people, including one nine year old girl who was later praised for her bravery and effort in supplying food to some of the POW’s. Only six men survived imprisonment in Borneo. The ongoing pain of Australian families remains evident in a beautiful book at the memorial that has copies of photos, letters
and cards from floral tributes from ANZAC day 2008. The memorial is definitely worthy of a visit.
After catching a hilarious public bus to the city centre (we were a bit concerned that we were on the wrong bus but when I asked the conductor where the bus was going half way along our journey he asked me “where you going?” I had to hold back from replying “I was hoping that you could tell me”) we had a quick look around the city centre and then headed out for lunch at the Sim Sim Stilt Village. We were expecting to go to a home style café on the village but ended up by accident at the local ‘food hall’ (we usually know when we are in a local spot by the hush that descends upon the place and the stares and cameras that accompany us as we walk about!). It was a real stroke of luck that we ended up at the wrong place because we were treated to a fantastically authentic Malaysian sea food lunch and were able to experience the local lunch time rush. The food was magnificent with BBQ fish and squid accompanied by Malaysian
style vegetables and salads. We even braved the shrimp paste, very popular in Asia but something which we had managed to avoid so far on our travels. Having now tried it we will probably go back to the avoidance tactic! Also on our table was curried soya beans, tempura vegetables, roasted eggplants and other delicious offerings, it was one of the best meals we have had!
After our meal we were lined up for several photo shoots by the staff of the stalls (one lady wanted more than a photo and asked if she could ‘borrow’ my husband) and then headed for a walk through the Sim Sim Stilt Fishing Village. It was great to see another way of life and as always the local people were friendly and welcoming.
After several great days at Paganakan Dii we decided that we would head to the Kingabantan River to do a cruise in search of the famous Proboscis Monkey, only found in Borneo and a true marvel of creation! There is a
Proboscis Sanctuary at Sepilok which is apparently fantastic but we thought that we would try our luck in the wild and then go back to the sanctuary
if we needed to. The trip to the river, (while expensive) was fantastic. After a two hour drive in a car decked out in synthetic animal skins, (including the indicator levers and the guide/driver/animal noise impersonator extraordinaire Mr Aji), we made it to the Sukau township on the banks of the river. Macaque monkeys played on the road and a hornbill was looking out of a tree for our arrival. The anticipation of the cruise was increased by the news that the World Wild Life fund had spotted a herd of Borneo Pygmy Elephants on the banks of the river in the morning, apparently unusual at this time of the year as it is now the wet season and they usually only come to the river in the dry when water is not as plentiful.
Our three hour trip on the river gave us a real experience of the magnificence of the Borneo jungle. The yellow and black mangrove snake curled up in the branches of a tree overhanging the river was our first sighting, Mitchy whispered that he thought that it was a planted rubber snake, getting a glare from me. At dinner afterwards we found out that
the exact same scenario was played out by the lovely English couple that were also on our boat!
Soon after, and amidst much excitement (mostly from Mr Aji who looked like he was about to bounce out of the boat) we caught a glimpse of the elephants through the wild sugar cane on the banks of the river. When booking our tour we had not considered that we might see elephants so this was a very exciting surprise. Apparently the Borneo Pygmy species of elephant is less aggressive than the Asian and African and while giving clear signals if they are unhappy they then turn around and poke their bottom at you, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all employed this tactic!
Mac found the watching and waiting all a little tiresome and just as I was about to tip him overboard to get a bit closer to nature he casually made our first sighting of the Proboscis monkeys. It was almost surreal seeing the small colony of Proboscis bachelors in the trees. They have to be right up there as the funniest looking animals on the planet with a huge nose of up to
seven inches, (girl inches that is) and pot bellies, sound familiar?
Olivia was desperately hoping to see the Rhinoceros Hornbill, one of the eight species of Hornbill birds that are found in Borneo, all of which can be spotted at the river. While we saw some beautiful Kingfishers we weren’t in luck for the hornbills. We did however get to watch a dominant male Proboscis and his harem of girlfriends and babies, lots of macaques, herons, and the amazing site of a herd of about 20 elephants right on the riverbank quite happy to have several boat loads of people admiring them. Our river trip was amazing and I am sure with more time we would have spent longer there.
Not wanting to sound like a travel floosy but we left Kingabatan and headed off to paradise, who knew that there were more than one? After leaving Sukau we took the public bus four and a half hours (although it seemed longer with AC only just ticking over and miles and miles of palm oil plantations) to Semporna to stay at the Singamata Reef Lodge. The lodge had been recommended to us by an Aussie girl at Sepilok.
We checked it out on the web and booked over the phone but until we reached the lodge neither of us realized that it wasn’t actually part of the mainland or an island but is actually in the sea, we were literally sleeping with the fishes! Singamata was originally a fish farm but now provides accommodation in stilt houses with a huge netted natural aquarium to swim in full of tropical fish, some as big as me. The area around the resort is a reef and while the coral is not so colorful the sea life is plentiful and amazing.
The aquarium allowed the kids to really practice their snorkeling and the three older ones have definitely become confident little ‘underwater’ babes. They have done well, having to contend with an aquarium full of fish and staff (and family members) throwing bread at the kids to attract a huge feeding frenzy. There is a diverse range of fish in the aquarium including Napoleon Wrase , Clown Fish (aka Nemo), Angel fish, Ramorae’s, Gropers, Gobies and lots of crabs and small shrimps. There are also many sea plants and corals which kept the kids entertained, snapping closed as they
swum past. We have spent hours from dawn to dusk each day snorkeling in the aquarium as well as around the lodge.
Singamata also has Padi dive courses (which the girls are now very keen to do) and takes daily snorkel and dive trips out to the surrounding islands. The area is famous for its islands and coral reefs most notably Sipadan Island. We spent a morning at Mantubuan Island, a forty minute trip in a speedboat. On the way out we were treated to a brief but beautiful display from a big turtle who poked his head out of the water and then rolled over giving what looked like a huge wave to us with his flippers. Montabuan is a tiny island with a beautiful beach, a couple of local families and a little drift wood hut where the army guys keep a lookout for the Philipino pirates. We had a great time snorkeling out to the reef and then took a boat ride off shore to a huge reef where we could dive deep among the corals. We were on the lookout for turtles and just as we were all about to head back to Singamata someone
Lightning At Singamata Reef Lodge
spotted one so it was a quick jump off the boat for five of us, (while Mac kept guard), to get a glimpse of a huge turtle who was resting (or maybe hiding) on the bottom of the sea.
We took a flight back to KK from Tawau, an hour from Semporna not fancying the ten hour bus trip, ready to head to KL.
In one last effort to find the Hornbill we went to the Lok Kawi Zoo, half an hour out of KK city as we had been assured that we would find the bird there. Things did not look good when we walked through the gates and to the first large enclosure to see two hamsters, not really the animals that we were expecting. The zoo did give us a chance to see some more of the wildlife of Borneo such as the rhinoceros and gibbons (not the funky variety) as well as orangutans and elephants. The wildlife show got us up close with a beautiful orangutan as well as our shrinking violets up on stage, Grace with a reticulated python wrapped around her neck and Finn trying to outsmart a South American macaw in
Lok Kawi Wildlife Park
a game hiding a ball under one of three pots, I won’t let on who won! We were however unable to find the elusive Rhinocerous Hornbill.
Grace was very keen to see the Rafflesia (corpse) flower while in KK. It is the worlds largest flower and blooms for only five days a year but although November is the best time to see them there had been no recent sightings. I am sure that the girls will use their disappointment with Rafflesia and Hornbill spotting to persuade us to head back to Borneo at some stage, especially as they now have scuba diving in their sights!
We are now back in Kuala Lumpur awaiting our flight back to Australia and then onto New Zealand, this time staying amongst the madness of Chinatown, a chance for a little sightseeing and to catch up with our Malay friend that we saw last visit. It is really nice to be shown around by a local person and Jason has been a great host. He took us out for a visit to the Batu Caves, about half an hour from the city centre, a limestone cave with many of the Hindu gods immortalized
in statues. Apparently the shrine is one of the most popular outside India. There are three hundred steps to the top and luckily the weather had cooled down for us to make the climb. Inside the enormous caves there were two Hindi ceremonies with music, bell ringing and roosters which we were lucky to see. The monkeys that live in the cave were also in fine form, scaling the huge cliffs of the cave in the hope of a snack from visitors to the cave.
There is so much to do in Kuala Lumpur, we plan to head up the Petronas towers and perhaps do a spot of shopping but at the moment the excitement of heading back to family and friends is our main thought.
So for now we prepare to head home, earn some money and decide where it is that we go mad next…
(PS: We do plan to do one last blog with some practical advice on how to plan a trip with kids through Asia like ours, we are happy to answer any questions before we get to this.)
There are more photos below