(191 days in)
“So,” I asked, “What was your favourite part of Borneo?”
“Picking a favourite part is hard,” she answered, looking up from her kindle as we sped down a motorway towards the airport. “I quite liked the six seconds where I saw those elephants by the side of the road.”
“When the driver wouldn’t stop? The ones that I didn’t see at all in the dark?”
“Yeah, that was great. Still annoyed that he didn’t go back though.” We’d spent a few hours on a boat in the pouring rain trying to spot wildlife along the banks of the Kinabatangan River. Having seen a few species of monkeys and birds we were happy with our lot. However, ten minutes into the two-hour drive back to our hotel, Megan had spotted a small herd of the extremely elusive Pygmy Elephants. Elated, she signalled the driver and said that they were right there. Right by the sign. The sign he just drove past. She was met with only silence after she asked if we could go back.
“That was frustrating. I would have liked to see them, but I did want to get back to the hotel ASAP,” I admitted. For the two hours we spent on the boat, we had spent about 6 hours in the minibus being ferried from point to point. “Ok,” I continued, “What didn’t you like about it? Apart from that driver. Anything about the accommodation?”
“Well the Sandakan place was very basic, loved the- wait a minute.” She was staring at me now. “You’re doing another one of those blog posts, aren’t you? You’re trying to get me to write it for you!”
I had nothing but silence and a guilty pair of eyes.
“I JUST WROTE AN ENTIRE ONE MYSELF!”
“Again, thank you, it was great.”
“No. Do it yourself, you’ve done so many. You can do them fine.” Her eyes turned back to her kindle. It was the last she said to me on that particular journey…
(M: This makes it sound like I was a lot more affronted than I was… just sayin’.)
Our last blog post took you all through our holiday from the holiday, Bali. It was the first step out of the westernised world and my first true step out of my comfort zone. Turns out, it’s rather good. It’s now time to bring you up to speed on the next section, Malaysian Borneo. This means we’re actually back in the Northern hemisphere and the closest to the equator I’ve ever been. Before we arrived I was promised rainforest, wildlife and heat and that promise came through in abundance.
Back To Nature
With the first two of four Malaysian Airlines flights down I was starting to think I didn’t need to look into having my will in order. We landed at Kota Kinabalu, referred to as KK by the locals, and hopped into the airport shuttle to the Chaya Hotel. In regards to messing up bookings, it was now Megan’s turn to look embarrassed. She had booked just the one night here initially but had then decided that we would want two later on. What she didn’t do was cancel the first booking before making the second and we found a rather confused gentleman on reception when we first arrived at around 1am. Luckily, he didn’t seem too bothered that we now didn’t want the first booking and let us into our king suite. Much like Bali, the difference in currency was making us feel pretty flush and we really didn’t want to stay in hostel rooms anymore. By the time we had made it into the rooms, it was all I could muster to pull my bag straps off my shoulders and fall onto the mattress (which in hindsight, should have been checked for firmness first. Pretty much gave myself concussion with that one).
I wish I could tell you that the next morning we awoke refreshed and ready for our further foray into the wonderful country around us. Instead we woke up far too early for some people who went to bed far too late, threw open the curtains to the large ‘SEAFOOD RESTAURANT’ signage opposite us and resigned to spending the day getting over the night before (which, I will reiterate, had no alcohol involved and barely any activity at all). At this stage Megan had been feeling quite nauseous since the first of those two flights, about 24 hours previously, so she needed little convincing of this day’s vigorous nothingness. We eagerly set about logging into Netflix, catching up with the British news (a mistake) and finishing up the admin for our previous leg. I also got a chance to order room service for the first time and, granted it wasn’t in the sparkling Vegas setting I had imagined, it was as magical as I had dreamed – a phone call, a knock on the door, dinner served. Perfection.
The next day it was then back to the airport as we had booked two nights in Sandakan, a city 300-odd kilometres away. A 10 hour bus ride didn’t sound all that appealing and we’ve gotten used to this airport malarkey now so a short 45 minute flight later, we were in Sandakan. Another brash taxi ride took us into the steaming hot belly of the city. It wasn’t quite what I imagined when I thought of Borneo, with its typical street market, youths hanging around in shop doorways and the oppressive heat, but we checked into our room and I was assured that there would be much more of the nature stuff over the next few days.
The room we were in was incredibly basic. It had a double bed, 2 towels and an air-conditioning unit, that was it. But if there’s anything we’ve learned by now, that is pretty much all we need (as long as there is also WiFi). This had all now taken us into the early afternoon, arguably the hottest time of the day. And, after the A/C kicked in and we cooled back down, we went in search of dinner. This worthy quest saw us stumble into a KFC, which I understand is a bit of a cop-out when you’re in a new country but I was hungry for chicken and I found myself intimidated by the other shop-keeps, what with their welcoming smiles and charmingly accented English. (Side note: This was the best KFC I’ve ever had, as the chicken actually looked like it was chicken and the addition of the area’s spices were a pleasant surprise.) Megan was still feeling quite sick and I don’t think being dragged into a chicken shop had helped matters. Once I was done we were back and into bed, as we had a long day ahead of us… (M: Well, Pete was at least. I spent the night sitting on the floor of the toilet, throwing up. I managed to make it back to bed at around 3am, only for a tuneless busker to start singing in Malay at 4 – I have absolutely no idea why!)
The Long Day (warning: frustration ahead)
The Kinabatangan River is the second longest in Malaysia, being 350 miles end-to-end. Every year after monsoon season, the river overflows its banks by a surprising degree, creating a huge floodplain and an explosion in animal and plant life – making it arguably the best place in the whole of Southeast Asia for wildlife spotters. It is now a wildlife conservation area and has, along its banks, innumerable lodges and hostels that each offer their own version of a nature river cruise. It was one of these that was our destination for the day – Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. They offer a two-hour cruise twice a day at 5:30am and 3:30pm and they also offer a pick-up and drop off service for anyone who isn’t staying at the resort itself. Perfect, we thought.
We were up and outside the hostel waiting for the minibus at 10:30am. It was scheduled to get us and then drive the two hours to the lodge. We were aware that this would be a bit of a long trek, but we’re used to longer drives now and we weren’t even driving so could even take a nap if need be. A few minutes into the bus ride and I realised that sleep of any kind would be a distant dream as the vehicle had no suspension and the government had no care for potholes. We then had to stop to get some petrol, a task which seemed to confuse the driver as it took him a few attempts to get the petrol cap in reach of the petrol pump.
But no bother, we were soon on our way again, traversing the worsening road conditions (seriously, I’m pretty sure Megan bruised her arm from the window frames). And only 20 minutes later we were deposited at a restaurant, urged inside by the driver who explained that we would continue the journey in an hour and a half’s time. This meant that it was now 11:30am and we were sat in an open walled restaurant with one 3-course set menu. I was not hungry, and Megan was still nauseous, so this meant that the mosquitoes were the only thing getting fed. We both sat with noses in eBooks until the allotted time was up and emerged – the driver had just been sitting in the van from the looks of it so we’ve no idea whether we actually had to go through the process at all. Two Malaysian women joined us in the bus and we set off again, for another two hours according to our driver – who had now also been joined by our ‘tour guide’. I use this term loosely as he did absolutely no guiding whatsoever, he was just another member of staff from the lodge.
Maybe another hour down the road and we pulled into a small market area for a ‘rest stop’, even after we all confirmed that we were fed and watered just fine. We were told that another person was joining us and we had to wait and meet him here. This added another 30 minutes to our journey as a dishevelled man turned up, greeted the other two fondly and the three of them stood around outside the van for as long as they wanted. Once we were all finally back in the van (the newbie getting relegated to the backseat, furthest from his friends) we set off yet again, next stop: Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. This had all taken our travelling time for the day so far up to 5 hours and we knew the whole time that after the boat ride we would have the same journey back.
So at around 2:30pm we parked up on the wrong side of the river and had a brief wait until the skipper from the lodge noticed we needed a lift over. It was then 3:00pm, when we ‘checked-in’ to the lodge (even though we were not spending a night there) and had been informed that it would now be ‘tea-break’ time until the cruise got under way as close to 3:30pm as it could. As we sat waiting, staring at the milkless tea tray and contemplating whether this was all really worth it (not for the first time I might add), the heavens decided that what this day really needed was a torrential downpour. Great. It was now called into question whether the boat ride would go ahead at all as the river flow would be faster, visibility would be nil and the boat would be full of water (the opposite of what you want from a boat, in case you weren’t aware).
During this time we met another guy who would be coming on the boat ride with us – a British gentleman who was currently the only resident staying at the lodge itself (M: who lives a mile away from my parents – small world and all that). Apparently there had been about 18 others that morning but had all shipped out during the day, leaving him and roughly 20 staff as the only people there. He also informed us that he had got up super early and gone on the morning boat ride where they had managed to catch a glimpse of the elusive Pygmy Elephant. There are estimated to be less than 1000 of these beasts left in the wild and it had been apparently quite some years since anyone had seen one on this river safari. This did renew our enthusiasm a little, but we still weren’t sure whether the cruise would go ahead – we damn well wanted to see some elephants though. Shortly after this the rain started to slow – we could now see the other bank of the river again – and with that, the gong was sounded for the start of the tour.
The five of us brave wildlife enthusiasts donned our rain ponchos and each took an incredibly wet seat on the small, open topped boat. Just as I had my hood adjusted to stop my hair getting wet (ha), the skipper accelerated and laughed as the rain then came at us head-on, causing somewhat of an issue for my glasses. But this is where it all changed – I no longer cared that I was getting wet because I was now completely soaked. I no longer cared that we had had the bumpiest, longest bus ride of my life because we were now on the boat tour. I looked at Megan, she looked at me and in our matching and mutually flattering ponchos, and we burst out laughing.
It was excellent. We sped along on the river, trying to get a selfie or any photographic proof without water flooding the lens. And, to make it even better, we then reached the edge of the rain and continued upstream in the dry (though we were still absolutely sodden, obviously). We also passed a few other boats doing the same thing as, full of the same tourists; poncho’d, soaked and smiling. It wasn’t long until we caught our first glimpse of wildlife as well. An orangutan, right in the wild of Borneo – we were due to see a lot more of them over the next few days, but Megan’s face lit up as we caught it moving between the dense branches with a younger one in tow. I was still struggling with both short-sightedness and a pair of very smudged, steamed-up glasses but I just managed to make out its silhouette before it retreated, and we were on our way again.
Next up was a troop of proboscis monkeys, or a ‘harem’ of them as our skipper described. Led by an alpha male with a lot of ‘wives’, these guys were in no rush to go anywhere and were happy to just chill in the trees as we approached and took as many photos as possible. It seemed our skipper wasn’t the best at spotting things himself and each discovery was made by just pitching up next to another tour boat looking at something in the bush, but this didn’t matter as long as we got to see what they did. And, shortly after that we saw another species making a tree its home: the long-tailed macaque. Being a lot more vocal and in a more playful mood these were a fun bunch to watch, even if one made a death-defying leap to a low hanging branch after being kicked out of his spot. After this though, we were bereft of enchanting creatures and the rest of the cruise was spent fruitlessly searching for the mysterious elephants that had made an appearance earlier that day.
Before long, with the sun just managing a last hoorah before it set, we were dropped back at the lodge for dinner, before our bus ride home. This was hastily devoured by the four of us (M: three – no way was I risking eating after the previous night) that wanted to get the said bus back as soon as we could, and we bid the loner adieu and headed out. I made the admittedly poor choice of sitting right at the back, forgetting this would be where the bumps hit hardest and I’m now sure that I managed to damage my spine. But worst of all, as you’ve heard above, was that the other three caught the briefest of looks at a small herd of elephants as we pulled out of the driveway. The driver seemed to not care at all at this development and continued on his merry way, much to Megan’s dismay.
A Different Look at the Rainforest
After a night where I think I could have been pronounced legally dead, we had to check out of the hostel and get a taxi ride to our next destination: Sepilok Forest Edge Resort. Much as the name would describe it’s built right on the edge of the rainforest. But it also finds itself a 15-minute walk from both an orangutan rehabilitation centre AND a sun bear conservation area. But first, as we are ever so British, tea.
There is a lovely English Tea House within the city of Sandakan which finds itself on the top of a hill looking out over a small section of the bay. Here we had an incredibly civilised ‘Royal High Tea’ with scones, cream, jam, pastries, finger sandwiches and some damn-decent tea. This was only slightly spoiled somewhat by my starting the anti-malarial pills that morning (M: on an inadvisably empty stomach) and finding that they had made me feel the same as Megan had been feeling for a few days now – nauseous. But we got through it – an expected side effect of starting the course of the pills was that the feeling faded rather abruptly and I managed to eat all of the food available to me (you’re relieved to hear, I’m sure).
A short walk back to grab our belongings preceded a wonderfully informative taxi ride with an Uber driver (who was an ex-banker having studied economics, but had given it up to start a palm oil plantation/Uber gig), and then we checked in in Sepilok. The resort was a lot swankier than our previous digs and we had our own chalet with its own balcony overlooking the rainforest and an outdoor shower (which in reality was just a bucket under a tap, so I stuck with the indoor one that had heating).
The next morning we woke up, went to breakfast (mostly for the internet connection but also to help stomach the pills) and then had a short walk to the orangutans. My mother had been to Borneo previously and had been lucky enough to feed a baby orangutan (an experience she likely won’t forget until she goes into that ‘home’ I’ve been looking at…). She also described the gentle creatures as ‘little old men’ which sounds a little odd until you watch them in action. With the thin tufts of hair, gangly limbs with skin stretched over pronounced bones, they do indeed look like incredibly old people, pottering around or sitting eating fruit. As we were at a rehabilitation centre we were not allowed to touch any of them, indeed we weren’t even given the chance, always observing them from a safe distance or from behind glass. We were fine with this though, understanding completely the need for human separation for these creatures to stand a chance in the wild (M: and not catch any of our nasty human diseases).
Our first port of call was the ‘nursery’, which is an unenclosed play area for the younger apes. We watched from behind one-way glass as they climbed and played and ate (and tormented each other in the case of one incredibly melodramatic orangutan). We didn’t stay too long though as the building’s A/C had broken down – you know it’s bad when you walk back out into an equatorial rainforest sighing with relief at the temperature difference (M: just to reiterate, I was still spending all of my waking moments trying not to vomit at this stage, and the temperature didn’t really help!).
After an hour or two marvelling at our distant relatives in both the nursery and at a feeding platform, we headed straight over the road to the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Much like with the orangutans, this facility tries to keep human interaction to a minimum with the animals, having a large elevated walkway around the fenced area from which we could observe these small bears. The only downside of this is that, being rather small (about the size of sheepdog), from an elevated area it’s a bit tricky to get a good look at them. Luckily for us however, toward the end of the walk one of them had taken to a having a nap on some fallen branches right by the perimeter fence. This meant we got a good few minutes of staring at him until the he gave up trying to sleep and moved on.
Sadly, after our time with these creatures came to a close we were also near the end of Borneo as a whole. We had another night in our lovely villa with the rain helping (Megan) and hindering (me) our efforts of sleep. The next day we had a short flight back to KK where we checked back into the hotel we stayed at the first time around (another call for room service as well, bliss). Following that we caught an airport shuttle for our next two Malaysian Airlines flights (spoiler alert: we survived those as well), which was only briefly interrupted by my having a more severe reaction to the malaria pills (M: he took them on an empty stomach again) and insisting rather forcefully that we pull over on the side of a motorway.
Done! Next up Indochina, with a flight into Bangkok and then a bus straight out to Cambodia.