Singapore, Malaysia, and Borneo
After Bali I enjoyed a steady stream of encounters with friends from home. From Bali I flew straight to Singapore, island nation of frenetic economic investment and churn, where I visited with Jen Doran. From Singapore I moved on to Malaysia where I met up with fellow world-stomper Than, on his way to Indonesia in the opposite direction, for some exploration of Malaysian Borneo where we bagged a mountain and bonded with the jungle and its diverse beasts such as orangutans. Together we headed back to the peninsula where we had a reunion with visiting friends from Houston: Rich and Sid, who along with Jen from Singapore met us in Kuala Lumpur. Together we enjoyed a taste of sanguine life on the tropical island Pulau Tioman punctuated by diving and snorkeling trips along with jungle outings. After this welcome stretch of old friend's company, I was off on my own once more on the way to Thailand.
In contrast to Indonesia, even relatively prosperous Bali, Singapore presents a dramatic contrast of wealth and order. Immediately such things as roads with indicated lanes, vehicles that actually seem to notice those lanes, and constant displays of economic prosperity such as landscaping on shoulders and medians. Yes, medians! Even though Singapore was not immune to the regional economic crisis, the country is vastly better off economically than Indonesia. Westernization has encroached steadily into the fabric of the island-city society, for better or worse, which made the place seem almost like home with its preponderance of western comforts, perks, and cancers embedded within more traditional areas such as Chinatown. The prosperity of Singapore was no accident. It's economic success is the result of a broad-scale top down plan of edict, from an "enlightened despot", that seems to have produced a fairly placid society in its wake, a population complacently accustomed to exact solutions from on high rather than chaotic roots below. This population is predominantly Chinese, followed by Malay and Indian. It is interesting to see such a smooth weave from such diverse threads as you walk down the streets.
Upon my arrival I immediately called upon my friend Jen Doran who has been working in Singapore for the last several years. Jen has a very nice high rise apartment overlooking a broad swath of the city where numerous construction cranes crouch atop buildings that will soon join their neighbors in the sky. Nearby are parks, theaters, shopping centers, restaurants, and all the perks one might expect in a modern city, especially along my favorite haunt of Orchard Road.
I don't think I ever fully appreciated the term 'unwound' until I arrived in Singapore. When I arrived I found oh-so lovely aircon, water I could drink from the taps, modern cinemas, great food of wide variety, and great company with Jen and her friends. No, perhaps 'unwound' is not quite the right term. More like 'exploded', like when you cut the tightly wound rubber bands beneath the rind of a golf ball. I got to Singapore and relaxed so hard I came to a dead stop. Jen, ever the kind and generous host, kept trying to stir me up and go see the sights, but she was hard pressed to dislodge me from my comfort-induced comatose sprawl on the couch bathed in cool, blessedly cool, aircon. Jen might have thought her friend was a stone gargoyle if it weren't for my occasional eyeblink.
Venture forth I eventually did, of course, but mostly to cinemas, restaurants, and any other air-conditioned biosphere in which I could comfortably ensconce myself while hiding from the humidity and mean rays of the sun. Mostly these stops were in between many of my "official" errands such as trips to the post office and stores for resupplies. During these "official" trips I somehow managed to see Shrek, Tomb Raider, and Pearl Harbor, the first movies I'd seen in months in a real theater rather than a pirated version on a cramped television in a bar. Shrek I found enormously funny and well done, Tomb Raider was satisfying in a roller coaster, eye candy kind of way since I was already a fan of both the game and Angelina Jolie, and Pearl Harbor was decent with some fantastically rendered battle scenes in the middle of a pretty sticky Hollywood Bermuda love triangle. The beautiful displays of Angkor Wat in Tomb Raider were particularly interesting, since I had already started thinking about visiting Cambodia -- the vivid cinemaphotography further inspired my plans. During one of my sedentary moments Jen and I rented Duets, with Gwennyth Paltrow and Huey Lewis. The movie was excellent, with more depth and dimension than I ever expected.
Despite my lump-like state, Jen did manage to show me around the town a bit. We investigated several outstanding eateries, including a set of hawker stalls where I was introduced to the tasty dish descriptively named "Chile Stingray," tasty white flesh we plucked straight from the flanks in a well-balanced sauce. These hawker stall areas are interesting places, the stalls surround general-seating tables. Your eventual meal is comprised of items from several different stalls; it eventually becomes clear that the various vendors keep meticulous track of who got what from where when it comes time to pay the bill. We enjoyed some awesome Indian food on the banks of the Singapore River; later we visited Arab Street in the Muslim quarter where I was thrilled to be introduced to the Indian Muslim dish murtabak, a sort of egg and flour pancake folded over with tasty lamb (or other delectables), onions and other seasonings. From that point on I was always on the lookout for murtabak and further along in Malaysia I enjoyed numerous examples, some fine and some bland, of that interesting dish. I think the one in Singapore was probably the best, though. For the first time in I don't know how many months I had a fantastic hamburger and fresh IPA at a brew pub (joy!) called Brewerks. Yes, the tasty food issue is well addressed in Singapore.
The nightlife was entertaining as well. A number of times we ended up out with Jen's friends and colleagues in various bars and had a great time joshing and socializing. One night I was amazed to see a very talented local band belting out some hard-edged blues, a treat for my ears. Despite one late night encounter with a vituperative and pugilistic "Buddhist" religious fanatic, the Singapore nightlife was favorable.
Most of the economic boom in Singapore was the result of programs placed by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew after Singapore achieved independence from Britain. In so doing they gained control over the strong trading and merchant economy the British built. With that to build on, Mr. Lee strengthened the economy further even though the government was rather strict. Mr. Lee handed over his office to new blood in 1990, though he still maintains the title of "Special Minister" and as far as I can tell still has a lot of influence over the government. The reason I bring all this up is that Mr. Lee's house (mansion?) is only a couple of blocks away from Jen's apartment and we walked by it several times. Out in front there are always two stoic guards. The guards are supposed to be Tibetan Gurkhas, a warrior class that gained Western renown during battles with the British during some Indian territorial disputes. The British were so impressed with their prowess that they began recruiting them into the British army. These Gurkha regiments still exist today. I'm not sure if it was their reputation or the automatic rifles they carried, but I always felt a little uneasy when walking by the Gurkha guards.
I ended up staying nearly a week in Singapore, partly due to my enjoying myself, and partly due to train schedules. Leave I did, eventually, grateful for Jen's hospitality and hopeful that I did not overstay my welcome. I hopped on a train straight for Kuala Lumpur, capitol of Malaysia, where I was scheduled to rendezvous with Than, on his way down from Thailand. Than, of course, was in the final phase of his own trip around the world with Chris and I had not seen him for ten or eleven months. Somewhere in Indochina Chris and Than parted ways so Than could wrap up his trip and head to grad school. So out of aircon comfort I emerged, hopped on the train, and set off to find Than.
The train ride was fairly uneventful. It was obvious that Malaysia had not prospered to the same extent as Singapore based on the condition of the towns I passed through, despite the fact that Malaysia has prospered far more than, say, Indonesia. I was shocked to see how much of the country was covered, I mean covered, with plantations of palm trees which are the source of palm oil. This appears to be a major segment of the agricultural-based segment of Malaysian economy; in the wake of logging, it is also the major reason behind the massive deforestation of the incredible jungle rainforest that used to cover the peninsula and Borneo.
In KL things are different, for it is a modern city on the move, buildings rising all around, though certainly not as squeaky clean as Singapore. I arrived and wandered around a bit before meeting up with Than. It was great to see Than; he had lost weight in his travels but appeared to be in good health. We dropped off our bags in our hovel and headed out immediately to catch up over beers. Relatively speaking, beer can be expensive in predominately Muslim Malaysia, but Than and I were enjoying the boon of a beer fund, a gift from Susan to Than and myself. The beer fund came with strings attatched, however -- I had to pass along a kiss from Susan to Than, on the lips. He squirmed a little, but I got him -- later he told Susan "Thanks for the kiss, but I wish you'd shaved first." With outstanding obligations summarily dispensed with, we talked well into the night, catching up on the times at the Reggae Bar in Chinatown.
Since we had a couple of days before our flight to Malaysian Borneo, we wandered around KL a bit. Mostly this was confined to Chinatown and vicinity, sniffing out tasty eating establishments. At one point we ventured up into Little India, which didn't really seem like a Little India, but was indeed heavily populated with Indians. On a lark we decided to go see a movie in this neighborhood, a movie that appeared to be some sort of action movie based on the imagery (we couldn't read the language) on the promotional posters. The movie was called (inexplicably in English) Citizen. Than later pointed out that it was a fine example of a formula "Tamilwood" flick from the Tamil Nadu region of India, heavily inspired by the "Hindi Films", or "Masala Movies", of the Mumbai region (i.e., "Bollywood"), as opposed to the art films that originally appeared in the Bengal region. The formula, as such, is bizarre. I have since seen a few more of its kind, but they seem to have several commonalties: a swashbuckling hero who simultaneously maintains some sort of underdog status and the ability to cry, elaborate fight scenes, some sort of social commentary, family bonding, a woman with pursuit and romance, and musical song and dance numbers. This last bit is the confounding one to Western eyes. It's not like what you would expect in, say, a musical. It's more like musical interludes, like a music video, sometimes woven meaningfully into the surrounding plot, but more often than not jarringly injected into the normal flow of the tale. Sometimes the entire wardrobes and set locations change for these gaudy musical interludes, which invariably seem like musical mating dances between the hero and the love interest who alternate pursuit with coy rejection, depending on who is singing at the time. The music is often pretty catchy stuff. These musical interludes are actually the core, the focus, of the movie around which everything else hangs. The fights are violent, and as in the case of Citizen, sometimes downright supernatural thanks to the use of wire work and instantaneous wardrobe changes. In between there is intrigue, dramatic emotional speeches, vindication, punctuated throughout with smoldering, manly gazes from the hero's lowered brow towards the love interest (who, by the way, does not have to have anything to do with the plot that produces all of the fights and conflict). There are also jarring transitions of genre in the movies, often going from comedy to romance to action to drama back to comedy, all in the same movie, but okay since it's really the musical numbers that are important. All in all, quite entertaining stuff but I'm not sure I could take a steady diet of it. I have heard that the key to enjoying the escapist Hindi films is to watch them on their own terms without any expectations based on Western cinematic tastes.
Than and I hopped on a jet plane to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, on Borneo. Here Malaysia is comprised of the states of Sabah and more southerly Sarawak, both of which wrap around the tiny two pieces of the country of Brunei (nyah, nyah, we got all the oy-ell!). To the south is Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. We had a primary goal to climb Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain between the mighty Himalayas and Irian Jaya. After fueling up on some fantastic Chinese food and grabbing a few supplies, we teamed up with an English guy named Mark and hopped on a bus to the base of the mountain where we lodged for the night.
The next morning we joined up with two Czech girls, three Danish women, and our "guide." We set off up the mountain itself under a steady drizzle of cold rain. Through much of this ascent we passed through lush rain forest which gradually changed the higher we went from tropical into temperate rain forest. From time to time the vegetation would thin out on a ridge and we could be be visited with swift winds which rapidly chilled the sweat and rain we accumulated on the way up. These winds were our first taste of why the region is known as "Land Beneath the Winds". We caught occasional glimpses of the craggy granite humps and spires above us whenever the clouds opened up. Eventually, after five hours or so, we made it to the park-maintained lodge from where we would head to the peak early the next morning. It was pretty chilly up in the lodge, except inside the heated dorm rooms, but the main dining area had large windows with some nice views of clouds rushing past the slopes in the wind, occasionally, but not often, offering glimpses down the the mountain. The mountain, weather permitting is fairly approachable and not very technical. For this reason it is popular; I'd say there were nearly 100 people in the lodge that night with hopes of making it to the top the next day. Weather was not on our side, though. It was cold and grim that night and looked no better when we arose around 2 a.m. for breakfast.
Many people braved the cold, wet, windy weather anyway, to their credit. I know I wasn't exactly feeling enthusiastic about conditions, and I know Than wasn't either since he was sporting a lot of cotton and not much synthetic or wool. We joined the pilgrimage, though, and Mark, Than, and myself eventually managed to separate ourselves from the initial horde. The beginning was not so bad. It was chilly and rainy, but not so windy since we were on the lee of a major ridge. When we crested that ridge, however, things became miserable. Most of the horde stopped to warm up at a hut on the way up, after which they turned back. We continued trudging across the exposed granite faces, many times tugging on a rope that marked the trail so we would not wander off the dark slopes. The wind was howling and the rain seemed near horizontal. It was an irritating sort of cold that seeped into us, because it wasn't like the ambient temperature was freezing, but rather the wet and wind was still managing to unceasingly suck the heat out of us. All of our hands were numb, beyond feeling. All three of us suffered battery failures in our flashlights -- Mark had no replacements so he had to stumble along between Than and myself, relying on charity light. Than had a light bulb fail -- in a MacGyveresque moment we actually got to use that little spare bulb stashed in the back end of a mag light...bonus! At one point I had the bright idea of trying to capture our misery on film, but soon discovered that the cold had killed my camera battery as well. We were on the verge of turning back, and would have had my failed flashlight turned out to be a problem other than dead batteries. In those conditions we were not willing to rely on a single light. Still, we kept going and the wind only got stronger. Eventually things started to lighten up a bit as the sun began to consider rising. At one point, soon after sheltering in the lee of a large granite boulder, we encountered a couple of people on the way back down who gave us the encouraging word that we were not far from the peak. In a renewed burst of energy we climbed up to the final section where we boulder hopped to the top. Than and I took rapid turns hopping up onto the tallest boulder, from where in the howling wind we could see all of about twenty feet due to the rushing clouds, even though it was now light. Than and I nearly immediately began descending. Mark, on a quest for a view and whom I'd been encouraging with the possibility of the clouds breaking before we got to the top (but not really believing it myself), was sort of looking around slightly confused and wondering whether we could shelter behind a boulder and wait for the clouds to break. Ahh! Regretfully, I informed him that there wasn't a chance in hell that the clouds were going to break and that he would have to familiarize himself with simply getting to the top as being a sufficient reward unto itself.
We got our reward. Mt. Kinabalu, 4101 m (13,455 feet), granite edifice cloaked in loud winds, rain and clouds. I was pleased, under the circumstances. We scurried back down the mountain to the lodge, marveling at how much longer it seemed on the way down (no doubt due our being even more cold than on the way up). Our reward was enhanced once we returned to the lodge, for it turned out that of the 100 or so people that tried that morning, only around eight, including us, actually persisted and made it to the top where their grand view of boulders twenty feet away awaited in that cold wind. This weather was not very typical for the mountain; normally grand views are to be found when the sun rises. It was our lot, though, and I feel like we made the best of it. Find your challenges where you can, I say.
When we got back to the lodge we ate some hot foods and dove back into bed for a rest and a nap. Later that day we descended, remarkably, without encountering any more rain. Part way down the mountain our "guide", in a very guide-like action, pointed out a pitcher plant to us. The slopes of Kinabalu are famous for the abundance of exotic plants, including several species of pitcher plants (one of the largest of these ever found on Kinabalu had a dead rat in it!). It was the first time I'd ever seen such a thing in the wild. Just before this amazing feat of guiding, I had been snacking on some chocolate-covered almonds and had proffered one to our guide. I sort of guiltily amused myself by speculating whether or not I should say "good guide" and offer him another treat in the hopes that we would get more sights pointed out to us. Heh heh. Well, we did pretty well on our own. Once we were below the clouds there were some fantastic views of the valleys below the mountain, which we dutifully admired.
After leaving the mountain we hopped on a bus to Ranau, from where we caught a ride to Poring Hot Springs. Along the way, somewhat irritatingly, the clouds completely dissipated from around Mt. Kinabalu and offered us clear views of all the spectacular granite features of the peak...I think we were being mocked. Poring is a popular weekend getaway for the Malays, a pretty area whose main attraction is hot baths fed by sulfur hot springs. The baths were built by the Japanese during WWII and offer both hot and cold feeds (from a nearby stream) directly into each bath. The hot springs were wonderful for our aching bones that had been battered, chilled, and abused on the slopes of the mountain. That night I slept extremely well.
Most of the next day we spent relaxing. Since we were feeling pretty sore, eventually we set off to inspect some of the other sights in the park in order to stretch our legs. The first of these was the "canopy walk," a network of suspended walkways that cuts back and forth high up in the trees of some of the surrounding virgin rainforest. I didn't exactly know what to expect when I heard about this, but it was astonishing. The walkways, built like thin suspension bridges maybe a foot wide on the walkway with surrounding side nets and ropes, were sometimes 40 m (135 feet) above the forest floor. I was nearly paralyzed with vertigo in some places. Eventually I pointed this out to Than and Mark, telling them that it was strange that no matter how hard I tried to steady myself I still felt disoriented as though I were moving around. Than pointed out that it wasn't my imagination, that up high in the trees we were no doubt moving to and fro along with the treetops in the breeze. A very useful observation, since once it was pointed out to me my mind could grasp the physical explanation and I immediately felt better and more steady on my feet. Part of the original struggle was that I thought it was my imagination. Nevertheless, staring straight down over 130 feet of tree trunk is a bewildering perspective.
After the canopy walk we set out in search of a couple of waterfalls that were rumored to be up on the surrounding slopes. Our legs were barking at such rude treatment so soon after Mt. Kinabalu, but with the exertion came some relief as our muscles loosened up (I can't say the same for the knees, however). First was a small but pretty waterfall, soon followed by some caves that were really gaps formed in the crevices of a pile of enormous boulders. There in the lush rainforest these green boulders lay, and we amused ourselves by climbing around in them for a while. They also serve as a home for a small bat colony, a few members of which we disturbed in our explorations.
We still had not made it to the main waterfalls and were beginning to wonder whether we would have enough daylight to actually make it to the falls and back. I was the only one with a flashlight and its battery life was dubious after the mountain. Mark turned back at this point, mostly because of fatigue I think, but also because he had no interest in walking back through the rainforest at night. Than and I kept going, setting for ourselves a deadline where we felt we could make it back while still light. We promptly ignored the deadline, of course, because we kept getting tempted by what seemed to be good waterfall terrain "just around the corner or over the rise." Alas, after eschewing one turnoff in favor of trying to bag the higher, but rumored to be more impressive, waterfall, we did not make it. Eventually we had to admit that there was no time left and we headed back down the mountain. We decided at that point, in light of the less-than-desirable conditions of Mt. Kinabalu that we made the best of, that we weren't in actuality going for a waterfall, but rather a beautiful walk through pristine rainforest. So after retroactively redefining our goal, we had a dazzlingly successful hike, making it back to the springs on the cusp of darkness.
Along the way I noticed an itch and discovered that I'd picked up a tiger leech on my abdomen, an interesting dark brown sort of leech with jagged yellow patterns rising on its sides. They are one of the few species of leech that, not only do you feel, but slightly hurt when they commence their grizzly feeding. Rather than strike at the ankles like most leeches, tiger leeches like to hang out on vegetation about waist level and hitch a ride from there. Since I had no leach removal kit (salt) I left my friend on until we finished descending. While Than was preparing a couple of the baths with hot spring water I detoured to the nearby restaurant to borrow some salt. The leech, by now, had grown quite fat. I gleefully doused him with salt and he plopped onto the ground where I buried him in a pile of the stuff. Pointing out the pile of salt covering the leach, I said to Than something along the lines of how it was fair to say the leech was suffering from a salty battering.
We spent a couple of nights there in Poring. I have to say, there appear to be two sorts of nights. "Big bug" nights, and "small bug" nights. The first night we were there we saw an astonishing array of enormous bugs, most of which were the flying variety. Beetles, with and without elaborate horns, buzzed around like alien hovercraft, frenetic wings supporting bodies that were as big, if not bigger, than an average humming bird. There were huge, exotic fat wasp-like things that looked like they could sting, one of which commenced to do to the hapless table cloth after we had trapped it beneath an upturned glass. Perhaps most interestingly was a huge relative of the cicada. Built exactly like our cicadas, except around five inches long with bright colorations of green, red, yellow, and black. This was an entertaining night for the naturalist in me. Mysteriously, though, the next night was strictly a "small bug" night. I didn't see a single oversized bug that night, but there were swarms of smaller bugs flying all around. Little moths, fly-like things, normal-sized praying mantises, as well as some sort of winged ants or termites who might have been relocating their colony or sending out a new generation of queens to fend for themselves in the lush, bountiful but unforgiving rainforest.
From Poring Than and I parted ways with Mark and headed to Sepilok. Here we visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. In an increasingly rare reserve of virgin rain forest, the center is a gathering spot for orangutans forced out of their habitat or orphaned by the encroachment of the ever-expanding palm oil plantations. When they get the baby orangutans they hand feed them and eventually put them with foster brothers and sisters during their rearing. Over time, they reacquaint the orangutans with the jungle in stages, taking them out to platforms set in the reserve. As they mature they go to farther and farther platforms until finally they are left at the farthest area. Here there are daily feedings, but the orangutans are free to come and go as they will. Some come back on a regular basis, some come back only sporadically. Oftentimes female orangutans that were raised at the center will come back with their babies for a quick bite and to show off their progeny. It is these feedings that also generate funds for the center by offering tourists the chance to see the primates in action.
We set out to see a morning feeding. To get to the platform you head out on a long boardwalk through the jungle. This walk offers some fine views of the surrounding trees and it eventually widens into an area where there are a few benches and wider spaces for standing. Near this area is a feeding platform set away from the boardwalk, and there are a series of ropes strung between trees leading to the feeding platform. We immediately spotted a couple of orangutans lazing around in the trees, no doubt waiting on their food. Also prevalent in the tree tops were big sleeping nests which orangutans build every night out of sticks, a woven platform of sorts in which they lounge at night. Eventually a ranger appears on the feeding platform with some bowls of milk and a bunch of bananas. The orangutans come from all over to get the goods. The youngest ones cling to their mothers all along, sometimes venturing out on their own but not for very long. The slightly older ones are more adventurous, but are still terrified of the largest menace around feeding time: the greedy macaques. The macaques are ever-present on the periphery, nicking bananas whenever they can. Sometimes it's just scraps, others it's the direct result of intimidating the smaller orangutans and stealing the food. They give a wide berth to the larger orangutans, who seem to barely notice the pesky scavengers.
The orangutans are amazing to watch. They are so human-like in many of their mannerisms that it can be disquieting. On the other hand, they regularly perform such graceful maneuvers while brachiating with those long arms from tree to tree and along those ropes, using their legs as often as arms, you can't help but notice how different they are. It was always endlessly amusing to me when one of the little ones would hang upside down with his feet, or one foot and one hand, and sort of idly look around, seemingly without a care in the world. They do, of course, have cares in the world. The macaques are not discouraged because it is part of the rehabilitation, learning how to deal with such things. There was one sad moment when a young orangutan was right below me on the edge of the boardwalk. She got shanghaied by a group of marauding macaques after she had darted away from the platform with a bundle of bananas for a little private feast. The macaques swiped the bananas and she started crying, like wailing, nearly human sounding but not quite. She continued the whining keen the whole time she scampered back to the platform in the hopes of getting more bananas. Unfortunately, at that point there were no more bananas so she had to content herself with finishing off a bowl of milk.
There were lots of tourists watching all of this. So many that it was sort of uncomfortable, but I think it was nevertheless worth it. Seeing those orangutans was one of my favorite bits of Malaysia; once you start watching them you hardly notice anyone around you anyway.
That night at our guest house, Than and I were invited to a birthday party of one of the long-term residents. Sepilok is host to researchers of all sorts, including a research center dedicated to entomology. The research centers, aside from the researchers themselves, also attract graduate students of all sorts. This crew was a group of such students and volunteers. They mostly were working the entomology angle, but some were soil specialists. As a group they were very interesting, certainly not they typical sort of crew you meet on the road. Over shots of homemade rice brew we had many interesting conversations about life, dirt, bugs, schools, and the tropics.
The next day Than and I set off for a "jungle camp," a featured attraction in the area, an activity that purports to give the traveler a real sense of what it's like to camp out in the deep jungle and spot native wildlife. We were going with long-time operator "Uncle Tan" who was one of the first to set up such excursions in the area. "Uncle Tan" is a real guy, an older round-bellied gregarious fellow who loves to talk. In town, at least, he delights in cramming you full of food as well. Uncle Tan has stories, many many stories, all of which he will eventually tell you, sometimes multiple times. They're not bad stories, they're actually pretty interesting, but there is also this sense of how he seems to toot his own horn. Anyway, Uncle Tan likes to characterize himself as a bit of an unconventional environmental activist; most of the stories typically involve this theme. When we met him he was apparently recovering from his second heart attack, so lately he has not been personally supervising the jungle camp itself. The camp is advertised as a bare-bones experience, out in the thick of it, and it is.
We headed out in a bus to a village on the bank of the Kinabatangan river, largest river in Sabah (second largest in Malaysia), which winds its way through a huge flood plain and forms numerous oxbow lakes which teem with jungle and wildlife. At the river we hopped into a boat and enjoyed late afternoon wildlife spottings along the banks as we cruised towards the camp. There is a lot of critters along the banks of the river. In part this is due to how much of the river is the only bits of jungle left, strips of jungle left over from the palm oil plantations. The wildlife gets pushed closer and more densely around the river. Along the way we spotted macaques, many varieties of hornbill, and perhaps most remarkably man sightings of troupes of endangered proboscis monkeys. The potbellied proboscis monkeys, males in particular, have these huge, dangling, bulbous, semi prehensile noses that are really quite improbable looking. Perhaps predictably, it is because of these protuberances that the monkeys are hunted an eaten because they are rumored to enhance the virility of he who consumes the monkey. This, combined with severe loss of habitat, are the two primary reasons the proboscis monkey is endangered, despite their being a protected species. All in all, it was a quite pleasant boat ride.
The camp was indeed basic, consisting of little more than a set of open-walled shacks with some sleeping pads and tattered mosquito netting. The camp is operated by a group of young guys who may or may not be various relations of Uncle Tan. It's hard to say. There were around fifteen or twenty guests staying there with us. Theoretically, guests are entertained by going on 'safari' walks and boat rides, all aiming to spot wildlife. In reality, especially with that many people stomping around, the walks are sort of noisy and any wildlife with any sense of self-preservation has long since vanished by the time people stomp into the vicinity. For this reason, Than and I avoided these walks and ventured out on our own a couple of times. Other than some monitor lizards, birds, and butterflies, we weren't much more successful. At night, though, we at least got to spot some curious beasts around the camp. First, the huge and comical looking bearded pigs. These look like big hogs, but with generous, bristly sideburns and jowl hair covering their faces. More rare, we saw a Malay civet nosing around, a sleek looking critter with round ears and marbled with white and black splotches. While lazing around camp we saw all sorts of insects and, delightfully, a couple of pygmy squirrels, no larger than my thumb, darting around on the trees, rumored to be one of the smallest mammals on Earth.
Unfortunately the camp was suffering a bit from lack of oversight, mismanagement, laziness, or all of the above. Things just weren't "together". There were no actual "guides" while we were there, who were supposed to lead the walks, things such as water were not provided as promised, there was typically not enough food, and the whole camp simply lacked any sense of order or anyone being in control of things. The situation was just sort of sad because it gave me a sense of Uncle Tan having completely lost his edge and his enterprise going to hell in a hand basket. He has plenty of competition, now, so the situation will either improve or Uncle Tan will fade.
Despite the operational glitches, I enjoyed myself, especially the occasional wildlife spottings and socializing with the other campers. We did manage to get another boat trip up the river, largely similar to the trip out but at dawn rather than dusk. We saw more examples of some of the wildlife I noted, as well as some impressive crocodile sightings. Than and I departed the camp that same day, passing by our friend Mark (from the mountain) who was on his way in. Later we heard from Mark that there was a big argument amongst the camp staff and the cook quit, and the one guide who returned from vacation as we were leaving was also considering quitting because of poor pay. C'mon, Uncle Tan.
All things I read about the area indicate that the wildlife we actually saw is a tiny slice of what actually exists. I personally talked to other people who spotted orangutans. There are persistent reports of rare elephants, rhinos, and otters. It's a bird watchers paradise -- I soon found myself envious of the binoculars some of the birders had brought out to the camp. Than and I returned to Uncle Tan's headquarters intending to impart all the problems his setup seemed to be suffering from, but as soon as we arrived he stuffed us full of so much tasty food and good stories that it took all the wind out of our sails. I think he's good at that. We decided to leave the complaints to a couple of ornery Australians we knew would be returning the next day from the camp.
So we left and headed back towards Mt. Kinabalu to a village that rests in the shadow of the mountain, where we stayed at a comfortable enough guest house run by, of all people, a redneck from Jackson County, Florida, who had gone native in a big way about eleven years earlier and was currently raising a family. The next day we embarked on a long series of bus rides, from Ranau to Tambunan to Keningau to Tenom. The most remarkable aspect of these rides was the countryside through which we passed -- for once, it appeared to be some large expanses of jungle (perhaps secondary, though, post-logging) rather than endless palm oil plantations or rubber trees.
Tenom was a relaxing town. Than and I splurged on a room with aircon and promptly headed out for some food and exploration. The next day we had to kill some time before catching our train north, so we headed to the Tenom Agricultural Center and Orchid Center for a few hours. This is a huge complex where they carry out all sorts of agricultural research and development in the region. The publicly visible portion of this takes the form of landscaped acreage distributed around large ponds. The gardens tended to be ornamental in nature and in many cases the gardens were dedicated to a specific species of plant. For example, there were gardens that specialized in beaugenvillas, lilies, hibiscus, cacti, and perhaps my favorite, carnivorous plants. All were well done. The cacti garden was a bit surprising, in the middle of the tropics, but the representative plants were diverse and apparently healthy. The carnivorous plant garden heavily featured pitcher plants, many species of which were found right there in the region, especially on the slopes of Mt. Kinabalu, as I mentioned earlier. Other plants on display with predilections for proteins included sundews, bladderworts, and venus flytraps. The ponds in between all of these gardens were interesting since many of them were filled with enormous lily pads around four feet wide. Each pad had an upturned lip around the border around two inches high. I saw no frogs on the beasts, but they seemed capable of supporting some monstrous frogs.
Orchids were the real specialty of the center. There were two Orchid centers, one for native species and one for hybrids. Unfortunately, the orchid centers were closed when we were there. Apparently visitations are by appointment only. No matter. Than and I at least managed to sneak into the native orchid center. Lushly landscaped around a moat with all sorts of overhanging green canopies, this center was nothing if not verdant. However, there were hardly any blooming orchids to be found. I don't know if it was out of season or what, but there just weren't too many in bloom. The ones we did find, however, were beautiful in that orchid kind of way. I don't know about you, but when I look at orchids I vacillate between admiring a pretty flower and suspecting it is the visage of some sort of alien organism. Orchids just seem so creature-like with eyes and expressions, sometimes, rather than just a flower.
We then hopped on the train back to Kota Kinabalu. Two trains, actually, with a change in Beaufort. The first leg of this journey is well known for its views of the jungle as it travels down a valley in between jungle-encrusted mountains. These days the jungle is perhaps not as lush as it once was, since a decade or so ago a big fire swept through the region. You can still see the bleached trunks of the old primary growth jutting up through the new, surprisingly established, greenery along the way. The river had several sections with some tasty looking rapids in it, making Than and I wish we had kayaked down. Most of these observations were from the back of an open, flatbed railcar since we were chased out of the first windowless car by a constant plume of diesel exhaust.
About midway to Beaufort the train stopped and we all had to hike about half a mile up the tracks to wait for another train. The reason for this was a derailment of another train from a couple of weeks earlier. The derailment occurred on a bridge over a shallow ravine, where we could see the engine mostly fallen off the bridge, near-vertically rammed into the ground at the bottom of the ravine. The back of the locomotive was resting up on the bridge, mostly sheared off of the rear wheel transom. The bridge itself was quite damaged and the tracks were extremely warped and twisted. There were large earth-movers on the scene, constructing an enormous earthen ramp from the top of the valley down to the ravine, presumably so they could eventually bring some cranes down to drag the heavily damaged locomotive out. The locals claimed it was the first such derailment to ever have happened on those mountain tracks, but I have to wonder considering the rough ride we had up to Beaufort. After sweating in the heat for over an hour, we caught the companion train. We then switched to a larger train in Beaufort and had a long, uneventful ride back to KK, where we promptly descended back on our favorite Chinese restaurant beneath Ang's Hotel.
The next day we flew back to KL for a rendezvous with old friends. In the bar below the quaint Coliseum hotel (nearby the theatre where Than and I saw the Hindi flick) we met up with Rich Garfield, Sid Jones, and Jen Doran, fresh up from Singapore. What a crew. That night was packed solid with catching-up, shooting the shit, drinking, eating fine Indian food, and stomping about KL. Than and I opted to crash on the floor of the posh abode of our friends that night, crusty backpackers enjoying the patronage of our gainfully employed friends.
The next day we rode out to Mersing, on the east coast, and caught the last ferry of the day out to Pulau Tioman, one of several tropical island getaways off of the Malaysian coast. The ferry was an extremely rough hour-long ride on a catamaran that left me a little woozy. The calm of the island village of Kampung Salang was a welcome relief.
The funny thing about these islands, full of slopes and jungle and surrounded by beautiful beaches, is the zone in between the beach and the jungle. Often times there are tidal creeks that drift lazily down from the foliage, without much native current at all. What current they have is easily overwhelmed by the actions of the tide, alternating between flowing outward and drifting back inward. The further inland these creeks go, the less dramatic the influence of the tide, and therefore the more stagnate the water gets. Our hotel was surrounded by such a creek. It was not ugly, not at all, nicely landscaped and clean. There was just this limp water surrounding the place, with a correspondingly limp aroma clinging to the air around it. I found the creek to be quite fascinating, because there was always something going on. The creek was host to some two dozen huge three or four foot monitor lizards that would lazily patrol the water with their heads held up above the surface (unlike a crocodile). Most of the time they would just patrol, but several other times I saw two lizards engaged in amorous synchronized swimming, sort of twisted side-by-side with heads up pointing in the same direction. In addition to the lizards there were numerous needle fish and mudskippers. Yes, there was always something going on in that creek.
Of course we did not spend most of our time hanging out by the creek. We spent it on the beaches and in the ocean. The first day we took a snorkeling trip out to some nearby satellite islands and rock formations. It was some choice snorkeling. Critters abounded, critters such as blue-spotted stingrays, sea cucumbers, anemones and clown fish, turtles, and perhaps most surprisingly, schools of young and juvenile cuttlefish. The green sea turtles were a pleasant sight. I saw at least two, one perhaps four feet in diameter whose shell had been nicked by a boat propeller, and one younger one around three feet in diameter. I dove down to get a closer look at the younger turtle and we just started spiraling around one another. Upside down I spiraled perhaps four or five revolutions around the turtle and it around me, as though we were tracing out a double helix. The turtle was inspecting me the whole time; at one point I reached out and touched his shell. Eventually, I ran out of breath and had to break away and surface from that wonderful experience. Rich saw the tail end of this episode and later accused me of "scaring away the turtles." Fie on he sayeth I!
We spent a lot of time merely relaxing and doing a lot of reading and book-swapping. Jen and Rich took it upon themselves to hike over the top of the island one day, and later that same day Than, Sid, and I hiked through the jungle over a nearby headland to a picturesque and deserted beach on Monkey Bay. The whole crew, except for Sid and myself who tagged along for snorkeling, went scuba diving one day as well. Nights were mostly spent, perhaps predictably, inspecting the fine offerings of the handful of area restaurants and bars.
All too soon, however, it was time to move along. The buds had run out of vacation time and it was time for Than to head South and for me to head North. It was a fantastic, lazy visit, just like vacation should be. Our friends with jobs were extremely generous with us poor backpackers, and it was much appreciated. I certainly feel indebted to their kindness.
After mumbling our goodbyes early the next morning, I headed back to the mainland and caught long bus ride north to Kota Bahru. In the heat and dust, I straightened my backpack and walked two or so miles and through various checkpoints while the sun blazed above. After passing through these checkpoints, abodes were suddenly more dilapidated and I could no longer read any signs, as they were in a strange script I'd never seen before.
I was in Thailand.
Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Almanac: Tiger tiger, burning bright. All through the region, Tiger beer reigns supreme, though it is not anything special, yet another SE Asian lager. There is ubiquitous San Miguel, YASEAL, from the Phillipines, as well as Stellar Artois, imported from Belgium which is not half bad. That last aside, all are unremarkable pilsners.
My dilapidated taste buds found an unexpected surprise in Singapore, at the Brewerks brew pub. They had a lovely IPA on tap; the oasis in the desert, my fountain of joy. I enjoyed a few along with the best hamburger I'd thus far experienced on the trip.
There was an amusing quote on the wall of the brew pub, next to a comical drawing of a gnarled, hairy-knuckled hand (shadow puppets are a regional performance art specialty):
The Hand that Makes the Brew
knows no manicure
but is beautiful.
The Hand That Makes the Brew
knows no shadow puppets,
but is wise.
The Hand That Makes the Brew
knows lewd hand gestures,
but is kind.
Till next time, where this kind hand will detail adventures in Indochina,