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Published: April 23rd 2013
Borneo, just the name itself sounds exotic and exciting. Pictures of immense jungles, untamed rivers, wild animals and primitive tribes of headhunters living in longhouses decorated with shrunken human heads flashed through our minds as we left the safety of our quiet suburban house in Melaka, Malaysia and made our way to the bus station to begin our journey to the “wild” part of Malaysia-the island of Borneo.
We said goodbye to the wonderful 67 year old lady who owned the house that we had been living in for the last two weeks. We had spent a good portion of our last 2 days driving around the streets of Melaka with her, eating at her favorite restaurants and enjoying some of the outskirts of town that otherwise would have been out of our reach by foot. She was funny and probably one of the nicest people we had met on our travels throughout the world.
We rented the house from her son, and since he was out of town during our visit she stopped by daily to check on us and make sure we had everything we needed. We generally like to be pretty independent and make our own
way, but after walking the sweaty streets of Melaka for a better part of two weeks, it was enjoyable to ride in her air conditioned Prius and visit the quiet Kampungs (villages) and sandy beachside that runs along the Malacca Straits enjoying Coconut shakes from roadside stands and watching families having picnics and flying kites and enjoying the beautiful sunsets over the blue waters.
We enjoyed her stories of her life in Melaka and appreciated her insight into Malaysia from a local point of view that was so much different than how we had imagined it as we walked the streets and visited the museums of the more touristy parts of the downtown area. She had a sense of humor and joy of life that was contagious and made our last couple of days very enjoyable. She was in excellent health and while most of her friends are getting a little older, she spends a good portion of her day driving the streets and giving rides to people who call her on her cell phone. Once while we were driving with her, she was stopped by police for not wearing her seatbelt correctly and with her warm smile and
cheery personality she charmed the policeman to the point that he was apologizing for stopping her. She seemed to know everyone we passed on the streets and frequently stopped to chat through the car window or give someone a ride who she saw walking.
We left her at the huge Melaka bus station and caught our bus for the 2 ½ hour ride to the Kuala Lumpur airport. We had plenty of time to catch our 4:30 flight to Kuching and as it turned out we were glad we did. When we bought the express bus ticket to the airport we didn’t realize there were 2 airports in KL, LCCT and KLIA. Naturally we took the bus to the wrong one and after walking around looking for the Malaysia Air counters for 20 minutes were told that they were indeed in another airport. Luckily there was a cheap bus that connected the 2 airports and we easily made the connection with plenty of time to spare.
Our first views of Borneo were quite beautiful. We arrived just before nightfall and enjoyed watching the sun set over the vast jungle laced with countless small rivers. It was quite a
spectacular introduction to the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. The Kuching airport is quite small compared to Bangkok or KL and was easy to navigate. We were surprised to have to pass through immigration and get a new visa even though we were still in Malaysia. We caught a taxi to the hostel that will be our home for our 2 week visit to Sarawak.
We spent our first day finding our way around town and getting familiar with our portion of the city. Despite our visions of jungles, Kuching is quite a modern city of 600,000, although it seems much smaller. Many new high rise hotels line the banks of the Sangai Sarawak River that winds its way through the center of town. A new boardwalk follows the riverbank on the more touristy south side of the river where we live. A small Chinatown with older shop houses gives a good reflections of the bygone days of the White Rajah rulers who founded the city long ago.
We visited the Sarawak Museum which had good displays of the wildlife of Sarawak state and told the story of the many tribes that made up the population before the city
was founded by the original White Rajah, James Brookes. The town has several old British era buildings surrounded by large trees that give some sense of what things must have been like when Kuching was the trading center for Borneo in the 1800’s.
We have been somewhat happy that the skies have been generally overcast and there have been some scattered thunderstorms during our stay. When the midday sun is at full strength, it is oppressively hot and makes walking aimlessly through the streets quite challenging. Stopping in one of the nice air conditioned restaurants for a leisurely lunch provides a welcomed break from the sun. While we hate to admit it, after living on a diet of almost entirely Malay food in Penang and Melaka, we have enjoyed that Kuching has many fast food outlets and hotels that offer menus that include some western food options.
While I would never recommend KFC to someone visiting Malaysia for a shorter visit, we did have quite an interesting experience while getting our fast food fix in downtown Kuching. We are quite used to struggling to be understood while ordering in almost every restaurant we go in while travelling, but
we were surprised by the panicked look on the girl’s face when we ordered our Korean BBQ chicken special which was clearly displayed on many posters throughout the store. She quickly made her way to find a manager and while we were waiting to find out what went wrong, we noticed everyone the store was signing to communicate. We quickly realized that all the workers in the store (and a good number of the customers) were deaf. We pointed to what we wanted on the menu and enjoyed watching everyone communicate with their hands while we ate. With no loud pop music blaring in the background and no annoying loud conversations from nearby tables it was quite an enjoyable lunch. After spending the last 2 years struggling to communicate, it made us reflect on the challenge the hearing impaired have every day and how nice it was to spend a short period of time in their world.
Of course everyone visiting Borneo is excited to see the Orangutans. We made our way to the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Center which has about 25 Orangutans living in the small reserve. They have 2 feedings daily and it was an easy bus ride
from Kuching to reach the site. We enjoyed seeing the Orangutans coming out of forest through the trees to the platform where they are fed. The most famous of the Orangutans is the huge male who unfortunately did not come while we visited, but we were entertained by the many mothers with babies and the younger males acrobatic ability as they made their way through the dense forest. I will mention that while we appreciated the opportunity to share an hour with these interesting animals, there were a few too many other tourists there to really get an authentic wild animal experience. With more than 200 people pointing cameras it felt a little like we were visiting a zoo rather than animals in the wild.
Back in town the next day we rented a boat and took a nice ride down the Sangai Sarawak for a couple of hours. The river provided a nice view of the town and gave us a chance to go far enough along the river to get a feeling of what the early days of Kuching must have been like.
The biggest adventure we have had in our first 6 days in Kuching
was our trip to Bako National Park which is located about 25 km north of Kuching on the South China Sea. We got up before sunrise and made our way to the Petra Jaya bus station in downtown. We caught our bumpy, old style bus for our 45 minute ride to the town of Bako where we would catch our boat to the park. It was nice to watch the sun rise on the large Mosque that dominates the area near the bus station.
Our ride to the boats took us through many rural roads and past some small villages giving us an opportunity to see some of the surrounding area outside of Kuching. We had hoped to share a boat (and the cost) with some fellow tourists, but we were the first to arrive in Bako and were the only people headed out this early. The boat was still inexpensive and actually gave us an opportunity to get a little more freedom to explore the waterway and view the local fisherman tending their shrimp nets set in the channel leading to the sea and view the small boats overflowing with large jellyfish which provide a living for the
We were lucky to see large schools of Irrawaddy dolphins, apparently not commonly seen by most people who visit the park. We followed them for several minutes and got some good views quite close to the boat. The dolphins only breach the surface for about 1 second and it is difficult to photograph and made us wish we had a video camera.
Besides the large amount of well-marked trails in the park, the main attraction is the Proboscis monkeys. Again we were happy to have gotten an early start because just as we arrived at the beach there were many groups of monkeys enjoying their breakfast in the trees that line the beach. We had them to ourselves for the better part of 2 hours before lots of other visitors arrived in their boats. In addition to the fruit in some of the trees, we found they like to eat the soft leaves of a certain type of bush that grows along the beach. By moving ahead of the monkeys and getting near the best leaves we found we could sit and watch the monkeys from just a few feet away. Almost all of them were
males which are easily distinguished by their large noses.
As it was now getting quite hot, we decided to hike one of the easier trails following the limestone coastline to a hidden beach which was quite breezy and refreshing after the hot walk through the jungle. We saw some Macaque monkeys along the trail and some beautiful kingfisher birds along the way. Butterflies were abundant and giant spiders bigger than our hands made the trail fun despite the heat. We were happy to return to the beachside restaurant and enjoy a couple of beers and a nice plate of local food before finding our boat driver for our return to civilization.
There are several more adventures we hope to have while we are here. Caves, beaches and perhaps a visit to see the famous Rafflesia flowers (the largest in the world) if they decide to bloom while we are here.
We are enjoying our visit to Kuching so far, although we are definitely feeling our age during the heat of the day. We have adjusted to admitting we cannot keep up with the young backpackers we share breakfast with in the mornings. We enjoy their stories of
exciting trips to waterfalls or interesting trips to secret dive locations or going to get another tattoo from the local artists. For today we are enjoying sitting in the air conditioning and calling out for pizza while they make their way out for another day of excitement in the jungles of Borneo.
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