Christmas with Orangutans

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January 6th 2014
Published: January 15th 2014
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Rain Forest Trip

After starting my holiday vacation out with a few days in Melbourne (see "The Great Ocean Road" for background), I fly to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia (on the island of Borneo) to meet up with Nimarta, who is already there and has been there for a few days now. We are staying with one of her friends from college, Alex, who happens to live right by the airport so it's quite convenient. They meet me at the airport and I hop in his truck, because everyone in Malaysia drives a pickup truck. It's about 10:00 at night, so it's late, but not to worry. Restaurants in Malaysia are open all night. We roll into a little seafood joint and it's packed with people eating dinner, or whatever you call a 10:00 meal. Nimarta had caught a fish on Alex's fish farm earlier in the day so the restaurant takes it to cook. BYOF. Bring your own fish. Other than that, we let Alex do all the ordering since everything is in Malaysian and he knows what to do.

At about 10:30 a big family comes in to the restaurant, which is basically just a covered patio with some plastic lawn furniture. 10:30 and people are still going out to dinner! I learn that there's not really a set breakfast, lunch, or dinner in Malaysia for most people. People just eat whenever they feel like it. Guess these folks were hungry for some 4th meal. Our food comes and I have no idea what to expect. Looks like we got some beef, squid, veggies, and of course the fish. After chowing down on those some steamed crabs land on the table. Two big trays of them. Now I remember Alex pointing at the bucket of live crabs while talking to the server. Talk about fresh. It's been quite an experience for my first meal in Asia, but I'm exhausted and we have a 7 AM flight tomorrow so it's time to go to bed.

Alex and his wife Daphne live on the water and we sit out in the back yard and watch a few planes land after dinner. They only have one room in the house with air conditioning and they've let us stay in it, which is good because humidity and me do not get along and I can't sleep when I'm sweating. Luckily the room cools off during the night and I'm able to sleep pleasantly without overheating (I know, first world problems...). Alex drops us off at the airport just after 5:30 in the morning and we say goodbye. We have a 7:00 flight to Sandakan, a small coastal city that serves as the gateway to the Borneo rain forests.

We have a booked a two day tour with the Borneo Nature Lodge ( and our guide picks us up at the airport right on time. We would have liked to go on a longer adventure but due to my limited time in Malaysia before heading to Indonesia this is the best we can do. Our guide is Kurt (short for something Malaysian), born and raised in Sandakan. We also have a driver chauffeuring us around in a sweet white van. Kurt and the driver will be our personalized guides for the next two days. Not bad!

Our first stop is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center ( The sanctuary was set up by a British woman and 1964 and now is the most important orangutan rehabilitation center in the world. The goal of Sepilok is to nurse injured orangutans back to health and slowly prepare them for life in the wild. It takes a few years for the process to complete but eventually, if the orangutan is deemed fit, it will be released into the wild. Technically there are no fences for the sanctuary. The animals can leave whenever they want. But why would they leave when they get fed delicious fruit twice a day?

We are here a bit early so we get some breakfast at the cafe. I get a traditional Malaysian breakfast, which means noodles and egg. It's not what I think of when I think of breakfast food but it's not bad. The first orangutan feeding is at 10:00. It's only about 9:15 but Kurt recommends we head into the sanctuary to get a good viewing point for the feeding. It's not a very big place, but very dense. Who knows how many orangutans are in these trees. We are parked on the boardwalk when we hear something in the trees right above us. We look up to see our first orangutan, breaking branches and dropping leaves all over us.

Orangutans are interesting creatures. DNA wise, they are the closest animal to humans, sharing something like 97% of our DNA (honestly I have no idea what that really means). They are also the only primate that sleeps in nests, like a bird. They spend most of their days breaking branches and erecting their nests. Apparently they sometimes make up to three nests per day. Why? I don't know. They also like to swing around branches and ropes in funny positions. No position is too uncomfortable for an orangutan. One of the most interesting facts I learn is that they are only native to Borneo Island, which is part Malaysia, part Indonesia, part Brunei. I also learn that it's the third largest island in the world. Can you name #1 and #2?

By 10:00 the boardwalk is packed with people, mostly European and American, waiting for the feeding. One little orangutan has also arrived a bit early in anticipation of chow time. A man appears with a big sack of fruit he dumps out on a deck attached to a big tree. At first no one makes a move, like they are waiting for the guy to look the other way. Eventually the little one swoops in and picks up a banana. A few minutes later another little guy dances over to the deck and picks up some food. He swings off eating a papaya in some crazy positions. Next a bigger female approaches the deck. She's been around a while and doesn't mess around. She sits right by the sack of fruit and starts chowing down on papaya.

In total, 4 orangutans eat this morning. After they are satisfied they all swing off to the right and have a meeting at a different tree. I want to know what they're talking about but alas I don't speak ape. The guy with the food leaves and the crowd starts to disappear. We decide to head off and finish the short walk around the sanctuary, where we spot a green viper in the bushes. Very poisonous. Do not want to mess with that guy. After a quick stop at the visitor's center to watch a short film on Sepilok's mission we load back in the van. Our next stop is the Borneo Nature Lodge.

Our drive takes us through rolling hills of palm trees. These trees are farmed for their oil and there isn't an end in sight. Everywhere you look is palm farms. This scene lasts almost two hours before we eventually transition to a natural rain forest. This is more like what I was expecting. Soon after entering the rain forest we stop at a small village on the Kinabatangan River. This is the end of the road. From here it's a short boat ride to the lodge. We say goodbye to our driver and load our stuff into the boat. It's not a very long ride down the river and in a few minutes we arrive at the Borneo Nature Lodge.

Before checking into our room and exploring the property they feed us lunch, which is fine with us because we are starving. Lunch buffet-style so I already love it. There are some Malaysian/Indian dishes and a few western dishes as well as soup and a collection of tropical fruits. I grab some pineapple, papaya, and some other yellow fruit that I don't recognize. After finishing off two plates of the main courses I start on the the fruit. I decide to give this strange yellow fruit a try first. I bite into it and my mind is immediately blown. It's watermelon. But... but it's yellow. It's yellow watermelon! Who knew that watermelon didn't have to be red? I guess I shouldn't be surprised after eating green oranges in the Peruvian rain forest. I haven't had watermelon in a long time, since it's unbelievably expensive in New Zealand, so I chow down on as much yellow watermelon as they have to offer before lunch is over.

After lunch we are shown to our room. There are thirteen rooms at the lodge, two rooms to each building. The buildings are wooden, built from local materials, and are connected to each other through a series of wooden decks. Since there is only one other family at the lodge the room next to us is empty. Now, this isn't the Ritz Carlton, but for the middle of the Malaysian jungle this room is pretty damn nice. It's even got air conditioning! It's a far cry from the "lodge" in Peru, which was just a bed with a mosquito net. They even have hot water, not that I need it. Cold showers are all I can think about after walking around in the equatorial humidity.

After getting settled in we have some time to rest and relax before our afternoon boat ride down the river. I walk around the property to check it out. There is an electric fence surrounding the property - not to keep you in but to keep elephants out. Pygmy elephants live in this part of the world. They are the smallest species of elephant and are often seen drinking from the river. There is a small outdoor lobby area and a living quarters for the employees but other than that it's just the guest rooms, save an observation deck up a few flights of stairs that is closed for some reason. All in all, a pretty nice place considering the surroundings.

At 4:00 we are whisked away for our afternoon boat ride. This is the main wildlife viewing event of our tour so we are pretty excited. There's bound to be some orangutans in this jungle! We load into the boat with the American family and their guide so there are ten of us total, including the boat driver. That makes 20 eyes searching the trees for wildlife. Well, make that 18 eyes since the oldest daughter in the family clearly doesn't want to be here and never takes her eyes off of the book she's reading. We set off down the river in search of monkeys, orangutans, elephants, crocodiles, and whatever else might make an appearance.

We're not cruising long before our driver kills the engine. He's spotted a monitor lizard on a tree overhanging the river. We move in for a closer look. It's a pretty big guy, just laying out on the branch. We snap a few pictures and head on down the river. Lizards are not the main attraction here. A few minutes later we hear something in the trees. It's a family of proboscis monkeys! This species of monkey only lives in Borneo and is known for having really long tails. On top of that the males have a huge nose, big belly - like a pregnant woman - and a constant erection. Yes, the male proboscis monkey hops around with a hard on all day every day. Apparently evolution says he's never gonna know when he's gonna need it.

We watch the proboscis monkeys swing around for a little and get some decent pictures before moving on. It's not long before we meet a family of macaque monkeys, the most common primate in these forests. They are very curious creatures and stare at us from the trees like they've never seen a boat of humans before. We stop at an area with about 50 of these little monkeys swinging around. They are literally everywhere. Our boat is right at the edge of the river. Trees overhang from the shore and two young monkeys venture out onto the overhanging branches to get a closer look at us. They come within a few feet of us and just stare straight at us. I guess that's why Curious George was a monkey. It's almost like they're posing for our cameras.

As we move further down the river hundreds of these little guys come into view. They are absolutely everywhere - on the ground, in the trees, jumping branches. It's like a macaque monkey party. I just can't believe how many of them there are. One thing we notice right away is that they like to clean each other. One monkey will lie still while another one picks debris out of its fur. They must spend multiple hours a day doing this. These guys like to be clean. As we're finally about to move on a pair of monkeys moons us, their butts right up in the air facing out boat. I'll get you back next time monkeys. Just you wait.

After about an hour and half floating down the river we turn around to head back to the lodge. We've seen plenty of proboscis and macaque monkeys but no wild orangutans or elephants. Oh well, I'll see a wild elephant one day. Back at the lodge, we head back to the room to shower before dinner. For dinner we are told to wear a sarong they have set out for us, a Malaysian tradition for dinner (or so we are told). It's basically a small tablecloth sized piece of fabric worn around the waist that covers your legs. Rocking our Malaysian sarongs we head to dinner - another buffet style dinner with exotic fruits.

It's Christmas eve. This isn't the first Christmas I've spent away from my family but it's definitely the farthest I've ever been from home during the holidays. Washington DC is a world away from Malaysia. I am not homesick though. It is exciting to be here in the middle of the jungle for Christmas, especially with Nimarta. There won't be any presents next to a tree in the morning but I've got everything I want right here. Except for a Slingbox. I really want one of those so I can watch American TV. That won't be here tomorrow but I'm sure I'll have a good Christmas anyways.

On Christmas morning we awake around 8 AM for breakfast. The American family has done an early morning boat ride and seen a family of orangutans! Merry Christmas to them. I told Nimarta I was going to give here a baby orangutan for Christmas and I've blown my first opportunity. I remain optimistic though. The day is not over. After breakfast we pack up our stuff and check out of the lodge. It's been a great stay at the Borneo Nature lodge and I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to visit the Borneo rain forest.

After a quick boat ride we meet back up with our driver. Who knows what he's been doing the last 20 hours but he's here again to meet us. We load our stuff in the van and head off. Our first stop is the Gomantong Cave, not too far down the road from the river. Gomantong is a huge cave in a hill in the middle of the rain forest. But it isn't just any cave. Gomantong is known for being a prime place to harvest edible birds nests. This might sound gross, but bird nest soup is a delicacy in China and some other places. Harvesters live in and around the cave and collect the bird nests for export. On top of this, the cave is usually full of bats, whose droppings form large mounds of poo at the base of the cave. Not surprisingly, the cave is known to smell pretty bad.

We arrive at Gomantong at about 10 in the morning. We have a short walk through the jungle to reach the cave, but before we even set off we see some red leaf monkeys in the trees. This is one of the species we haven't seen yet. There are four of them just eating away right by the visitors center. We can't get a very good look at them but they have reddish-orange fur and very hairy faces. After watching them for a few minutes we head on into the rain forest. The walk leads us through some deep brush. It's pretty dark in here. Eventually we a reach a clearing and someone else's guide says something to Kurt in Malaysian. "Up there," says Kurt. "Orangutan." We hurry to the spot where two American tourists are relentlessly snapping photos. In the tree right in front of us is a female orangutan with a baby.

"See babe," I say. "I promised you a baby orangutan on Christmas and I delivered!" The baby is in mama's arms. She is just sitting still, not really doing anything, unphased by the humans and their cameras. They are basically on the edge of the forest, as we are standing in a clearing right next to the cave. We try to be as quiet as possible as we snap photos of this rare encounter with a wild orangutan. Eventually the baby eases from her mother's arm and takes hold of a branch above her. The baby stretches out his little legs and arms and decides to hang for a while. Nimarta is loving this. I take a few pictures and decide to let the orangutans relax in peace. Don't want to disturb them too much.

As we approach the cave my first thought is "damn that's a big cave." The opening must be 50 meters high. It's not like a typical underground cave, it's more of just a big hole in a hill. There is a boardwalk that goes around the cave so you don't have to walk on the bat poop mounds, but even the boardwalk is covered in a layer of bird poop. Either way, you're walking on poop. "Don't touch the railing" Kurt says. They're covered in poop too. As we enter the cave Kurt picks up a birds nest that is sitting on the handrail. This is the edible bird's nest, what they harvest in this cave. I take a look at it but don't want to touch it. It looks disgusting. People eat this thing!? Gross.

Soon after entering the cave I see what appears to be a wooden shack. It has no walls - just a roof and a bed. Kurt tells me that during harvesting season a harvester will sleep here. In the cave. On a mound of poop with bats and birds pooping more all around him. Not for me. I clearly do not have what it takes to be a bird nest harvester. There are two other huts in the cave making a total of three people who live in the cave. The boardwalk next brings us to a clearing where we can see right up to the sky through a hole in the hill. This is the other entrance to the cave. But getting in this way seems a bit dangerous. I'll stick with the way we came in.

We manage not to slip on anything and come out of the cave unscathed. We pass the orangutans again on the way back to the visitor's center. They have not moved from their spot. They must really like it there. The leaf monkeys are gone when we get back but that's okay. We've seen a hell of a lot of monkeys in the past 2 days. We hop in the van and get comfortable. The next stop is Sandakan city center for lunch. Back through the palm farms we go!

We arrive at the Hotel Sandakan just before 1:00 to catch the end of their lunch. Surprise, surprise, the lunch is buffet style. Unfortunately most of the main courses are just about out but there is no lack of desert. In fact, there are so many deserts I feel like I'm at the desert table at the Rio buffet in Vegas. No wonder Malaysia is the fattest country in Southeast Asia. After lunch Kurt takes us on a tour of the city. First we head down to the water where there is a community built right on the water. Literally on the water. The houses are all built on wooden planks that are anchored in the ocean floor. We walk around some of the houses. Some of them are actually really nice looking and it looks like some decently rich people live here. The sidewalks are concrete and Kurt tells us that the government builds them for the houses. I've never seen anything like this before so it is very interesting to me. Don't think I could ever live on a house on water, but it would be cool to stay in one for a few nights.

After the city on the water we head to some temples of different religions. We first check out the oldest Christian church in Sandakan, then a small Buddhist temple and a huge Buddhist temple. We don't make it to any mosques, though we see one in the distance. Malaysia is a Muslim country, but non-Muslims are free to worship at their own temples/churches. The larger of the Buddhist temples is impressive. Built on a hill it overlooks the whole city. All across the grounds the swastika symbol is shown. It takes me a moment to remember that the swastika was originally used in ancient Asian religions before Hitler ruined it's meaning for eternity. The Buddhists prefer not to let Hitler get the best of them, however, and still use the symbol openly.

The tour ends around 4:00 and we head back to the airport. A few weeks before the trip Air Asia changed our flight from 5:30 to 7:50. It's an unfortunate change, as now we have to wait over two extra hours at the Sandakan airport, which isn't really an airport but more of a small building with a few seats and a door that leads out to a runway. There is one shop and nothing to eat except Famous Amos Cookies (these are everywhere at airports in Malaysia). Of course there is no air conditioning. We find a spot in front of a big fan and sit down to read. About 3 hours later we finally board our plane back to Kota Kinabalu.

Our plan for tonight is to meet up with my friend Bryce then have a late Christmas dinner. He has been traveling around southeast Asia for over a month now and has about a year left to go on his trip. We meet up at the hostel downtown and he becomes the first of my American friends to meet Nimarta. After catching up for a few we head out for a late dinner, which is fine because like I said people eat at weird hours here. We end up at the Kota Kinabalu Night Market. This place is a parking lot by day, crazy food court by night. There are all sorts of different restaurants to choose from, all offering basically the same thing. Bryce and I decide that we want to try some stingray so we choose a place that has a good cut of stingray on display. Along with the stingray, we order an array of other plates and drinks.

The stingray is good. It tastes similar to fish. Actually, I can't really tell the difference. Everything we have is good. And cheap. It's really cheap. The entire dinner comes to about $18 total. And that's including the weird deserts Nimarta and I get. They're like a snow cone covered with all sorts of weird gummy candies. It's impossible to describe what it tastes like. By the time we leave dinner Christmas is almost over. It's definitely been a unique Christmas day. It's about midnight when we get back tot he hostel. We have just about a full day to explore tomorrow before flying to Bali for four days.

Thursday, the day after Christmas. We sleep in for a bit then spend the rest of the morning wandering aimlessly around Kota Kinabalu trying to not get hit by cars and trucks. It's harder than it sounds. As we walk around town we pass no fewer than 8000 KFCs. That might be a bit of an exaggeration. But there were a lot of them. And they were all PACKED. I shed a single tear with each one that I pass. We also walk right by a place called "Texas Grill." I really want to go in and get a steak but Bryce, a fellow University of Texas grad, talks me out of it. I'll just have to go to a Texas steakhouse in some other country I suppose.

Kota Kinabalu is, for the most part, a pretty unremarkable city. That isn't to say that it's a bad place. There just not a lot to see from a tourist perspective. It's really just a starting point for a rain forest or Kinabalu Mountain adventure. We spend a decent amount of time walking around the city though, trying to see all that we can. It's the first Asian city I've ever been in, so the lack of road rules and the vehicular chaos is exciting (and terrifying... mostly terrifying) to me. I wonder what the industry is here as I walk around. There aren't really office buildings. The only thing I can think of is seafood exporting. Everyone must either work in that industry or own a shop or restaurant. As we wander around the waterfront we pass tanks of giant prawns and other oversized sea creatures. Definitely seafood exporting.

As the afternoon wanes on we settle into a little food joint for some soup and a beer. Nimarta has also bought 7 mangoes that we need to eat since we can't bring them to Indonesia. Yes, 7 mangoes. It's a lot of mango. We chow down on mango and soup and sip cold Tiger beer as the afternoon rain comes in. Apparently it rains every afternoon. Literally every afternoon. And when it rains it pours. Next thing we know it's a complete downpour outside. We could just sit in this little restaurant and wait it out, but we kind of have to get to the airport. So we battle the rain back to the hostel. We're soaked when we get back but oh well, that's just the way it is. The hostel gives us a ride to the airport and by the time we arrive the rain has stopped completely. The tropics...

But an evening free of rain was not meant to be. By the time we check in for our flight to Bali it's pouring again. It's so dark out it it looks like the middle of the night. Not good when you're at an incompetent airport. There are 4 gates at the international terminal. And by gates I mean doors. Everyone is jammed into a little area with not nearly enough seats. There is a flight going to Hong Kong, Bali (ours), and Kuala Lumpur. Why the hell is Kuala Lumpur in the international terminal? I wonder to myself. But I'll never know. Asian airports do what they want.

The airport is chaotic to say the least. No one works here so none of the passengers have any idea what's going on. All we know is that the flight to Bali is delayed because it's 5:30 and we haven't been called to board yet. Kuala Lumpur has been called. Who knows what happened to Hong Kong. Most of the people in the airport are now waiting for this flight to Bali. The lone television screen says our flight is boarding. I quickly realize that the screens are preset to the schedule flight and board times. OK, so those are useless. Finally someone from Air Asia appears and makes an announcement. No one has any idea what she says but it turns out it's for a flight to somewhere else in Malaysia. Again, isn't this the international terminal? I ask her about Bali and all she says is Bali is coming soon.

The announcement is made at around 6:30, an hour after we are supposed to take off. The crowd is thrilled. We are finally getting out of this airport. As expected, the weather has delayed the flight. But it is ready to go now. We board the plane for the 2 hour flight and sit back and relax. Next stop: Bali.

See "Bali: Indonesia's Landfill" for the continuation of this trip.

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