Published: September 19th 2008September 16th 2008
The biggest hassle I encountered on the Thai-Malay border was the frequent offer of cake.
We walked across at Sungai Kolok and found the usual assortment of over-eager taxi drivers and an unusual Malaysian cake/sweet stand. The cake-stand man gave us the impartial kind of advice that the taxi drivers wouldn't: the location of an ATM and how to get a bus to Kota Bharu.
We were with a Swiss guy called Patrick at this point and he and Paul went off in search of the ATM while I stayed with the bags. Cake-stand man (let's call him Edmund, 'cake-stand man' doesn't really have the gentlemanly connotations he deserves) immediately offered me a chair and I sat down gratefully. His English was impeccable and he kept up a conversation whilst serving a stream of customers who pulled up in cars and on motorcycles on their way between Thailand and Malaysia. I attracted a fair bit of attention sitting behind the cake-stand - I would surely seem to be an unlikely employee for such a business. Curiosity got the better of most people and they invariably ended up asking Edmund three questions whilst smiling shyly in my direction: 'Why is she sitting behind the cake-stand?'
'Where is she from?'
'Would she like a cake?'
I turned down three offers of cake until Edmund put one in a small plastic bag and handed it to me 'Please have a cake and then they will stop asking'
he said with a gentlemanly nod as if being offered cake was some kind of horrible inconvenience.
I accepted the offer and wished all border crossings would present their inconveniences in a sweet edible form. Now that's what I call a good Selamat Datang.
First stop the Perhentian Islands in an effort to meet up with Becky and Mike. They were heading north, we were heading south and not having seen each other since university we were fairly determined to collide. Meeting up in a foreign land without the use of mobiles or the application of any kind of plan is surprisingly easy. In fact, it's so easy you might as well meet up in style and find yourselves on the same speedboat, not bad considering we didn't even expect to arrive on the same day.
We spent a good deal of our time at the Perhentians in,
on or under water. We went on a snorkelling trip and found ourselves swimming with turtles and sharks, not something I'd ever thought possible mere metres from a beach with a humble snorkel. We were intrigued by the quality of the scuba diving and ignored the budget to pay for three dives. First up was the fantastic 'Temple of the Sea' where we saw the infamous hawksbill turtle, 'tripod', who only has three legs after being attacked by a shark. We also saw a huge moray eel the size of a rugby player’s thigh, snappers, bamboo sharks, pufferfish, blue-spotted stingrays, big bumphead parrotfish and so many more! We dived the 'Three Reefs' where the highlight was watching an orbicular batfish devouring a jellyfish. Our divemaster led us through swim-throughs where fish had gathered taking a break from the current. Then we dived Sugar wreck, a cargo ship which sits in 8-18m of water. All the cargo hold is pretty open so we could swim up through the hull to an air pocket inside - it was strange and a bit creepy to have our heads above water when we were at a depth of about 8 metres. The currents were
strong and plenty of interesting aquatics were hanging out, including schools of chevron barracuda, yellow snapper, trevally and yellow-backed fusilier. Whilst we were diving, Becky and Mike kayaked around the island and found what they reckoned was the perfect place to stay. We packed up and got a water taxi over to find a secluded bay with just a few huts and a beautiful little beach. We went snorkelling and found a yellow boxfish, a pufferfish, a moray eel and a blue-spotted ray living on small bits of reef in standing depth. We were hooked on all things underwater and decided there and then to get ourselves over to Borneo to dive at world-renowned Sipadan.
Before Borneo, we had a break from the water and went to the jungle. Taman Negara is around 130 million years old and home to tigers, rhinoceros and elephants. For the purposes of conservation all the big/dangerous/cool stuff hangs out in a protected part that people aren't allowed in. Undeterred we were eager to see what people-friendly animals were about in the part of the park we were allowed to tramp through. I can report that there were lots of ants, termites and a
smattering of leeches - all the kinds of things that humans aren't quite as effective at killing off. We also came across some wild hogs, which were pretty unimpressed by us and our predictable human ways.
Arguably Taman Negara's biggest draw is its 'Jungle Canopy', which was originally built by scientists to see what was happening in the tallest trees, but is now open to tourists. It's 510m long and 45m high and makes you feel like you're in a jungle gym or on a Malaysian tourist board advertisement; 'If you've not completed the canopy you've not completed Taman Negara'
the voiceover deadpans, managing to make it sound like some kind of boring task as opposed to a lot of fun.
We decided to spend a night in a hide in the hope of spying on some animals. Walking there was a bit of a challenge due to inappropriate footwear (no wonder the hogs weren't impressed), and the slippery leech-infested mud, but we made it there ok and settled in for a night of David-Attenborough-style animal watching. The hide itself was a little posher than we had been expecting - it had a western toilet so that ruled out
any close encounters whilst using the bush toilet. The hide was very open with big windows on all sides and the jungle all around. I wouldn't really have called it a 'hide.' 'Hide' suggests a certain amount of secrecy but this was more of an eyesore than a challenge to the eyes.
The jungle noises were incredible and at times pretty bizarre: frogs that sounded like they were laughing, creatures that sounded like they were screaming, insects banging drums and birds chattering. The noise didn't let up and got even louder at dusk and dawn. Unfortunately, our giant unhidden hide wasn't exactly a popular hangout spot and the closest encounter we had was with a leech on Becky's bunk that had apparently managed to hitchhike its way in on one of the bags.
The next morning we slipped and slid our way back to Kuala Tahan (the small town at the edge of Taman Negara) eager to get showered and sleep in a soft-bed. Our animal experience wasn't over just yet though and on going into the bathroom, I was horrified to find a rat swimming around in our toilet bowl. Spiders, cockroaches, any
creepy crawlies and I
have no problems. Rats, however, I have a big
problem with, especially ones that are using our squat toilet as a swimming pool.
We were pretty happy to leave the jungle and head to the civilisation of Kuala Lumpur, where the rats are doubtless out in far greater numbers but have the decency to keep out of your ensuite.
It was time for Becky and Mike to continue north and for us to head south... with a vague plan of trying to cross paths in the future. We took our first flight since the trip began and arrived into Sabah. We got multiple drive-by 'hellos'
whilst waiting on the main road to get a bus into Sandakan. We were there to see some ‘men of the forest’, more commonly known by their Malaysian name 'orangutan.' About 40 minutes from Sandakan, it's one of the world's only rehabilitation centres for orangutans who have been rescued from captivity and put back into the wild. The hairy primates have their confidence and skills built up so that they can gradually lose their dependency on humans, so that they can forage, climb and eventually go wild. In the early stages, they can go
back to the centre for bananas and milk twice a day, but as they get more confident they come back less and less, with some disappearing into the forest to become 100% wild again.
Twice a day, the guides climb up onto a feeding platform with some milk and bananas and the orangutans come swinging into view. It's incredible to watch them and near impossible not to whisper 'oh they're so much like us!'
as they munch on a banana and put their arms up for a hug. We stayed all day, and at the second feeding a troop of monkeys turned up, bickering noisily and trying to get some free food.
After Sandakan it was time for the main event - diving in the Celebes Sea and in particular, Sipadan. Frequently ranked as one of the top ten dive sites in the world, I was eager to get down there and find out for myself what made it so good. The hype raised the potential for disappointment, but we were delighted to find ourselves floating in Blue Planet Heaven.
Sipadan was formed from an extinct volcanic cone, and the coral walls plummet to depths
of up to 600m just 10m from the beach. We descended into the blue with our heads and eyes on pivots, exchanging 'oh my god, did you see that'
glances. Countless turtles cruised by or rested on inlets on the wall, calm, collected and not the least bit fazed by the bubble-making bipedals pausing to admire their serene style. The sharks were also out in force and caused schools of reef fish to dart and glimmer right in front of us. I found myself catching Paul's attention to point out a turtle whilst he simultaneously caught mine to point out a shark.
The smaller stuff fights for your attention too. Ugly frogfish and crocodilefish crouch on rocks, almost completely camouflaged and only given themselves away with a blink of the eye. We cruised along the wall finding colourful nudibranchs and flamboyant lionfish; we swam out into the blue and became the centrepiece of a school of barracuda's choreographed dance; we drifted in the current passed razorfish standing vertical in the water; we hovered over the shallow reefs watching brightly coloured reef fish, and so many different varieties of bannerfish, angelfish and butterflyfish gliding by in the current whilst bad-tempered
triggerfish stalked their territory. We found ourselves caught up in another large shoal, this time of trevally. We reluctantly ascended but kept our faces in the water, level with the aptly named trumpetfish, whilst we gazed down at the stunning coral and hoped the boat would be slow in coming to pick us up. We did six dives in total at Mabul and Kapalai as well as Sipadan and each one was utterly awe-inspiring. It was a pretty perfect way to finish our time in Asia.
I'm writing this from Bangkok - we'll be flying out of here to New Zealand tomorrow morning. We've been 17 months in Asia. 17 months of Asian sights, sounds and experiences. I'm looking forward to spending some time in a Western country; knowing what's going on, speaking the country's first language, blending into the crowd, eating western food, drinking wine, drinking tap water(!), hot showers, 'throne' toilets. But we won't be getting too comfortable... don't want to get too soft or let the wallet become too light before we head out to a brand new continent... South America here we come.
There are more photos below