Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Call of the Wild in Sandakan, Borneo

I arrived in Sandakan after a rainy bus ride across the countryside. I had found out that most of the Sabah region was fully booked or unsafe for tourist travel. Since this was a last minute trip, I had not done any research, just booked an air line ticket and I was off. When I talked to Sharif and a few people in Kota Kinabalu, I found out that there were issues near Sapidan and I was advised not to go to the islands. I assumed that people were over reacting or trying to get me to stay in Kota Kinabalu. I checked the USA State Department and found out there was a warning due to a terrorist activity in Feb 2013 involving the Philippines. Huh! (Also found out they did not recommend US citizens travel overland from Thailand to Malaysia- did that too!) I assumed the US government was over reacting so I checked with Australia and UK governments. All of them advised not to travel to the east coast of Sabah and here I am! Oops! I decided to skip Sapidan rather than risk that area too much. The prices were really high for the islands and I was advised if I went to stay somewhere with good security. Security was high in the Sandakan area, as the bus arrived 30 km outside the city, it was searched by the police. Three police officers entered the bus with machine guns. Two of them stood guard at the front of the bus while the third went down the isle asking everyone to show their passport. I also had to show my visa stamp. It was a very uncomfortable situation but I don't like guns and really did not like that much ammunition so close to me. It made me very uneasy. I was ready to hit the floor of the bus if needed! Luckily, there were no issues. After this incident, I was happy to be staying 5 km outside of town. I had booked Borneo Cove Hotel which was cheap, had a pool and was a teaching school for hospitality. I thought my odds of terrorist activity was better staying with the locals. The staff at the hotel were fantastic and arranged all of the tours I wanted with reasonable prices. I was going to Sepilok first to see the orangutans and Probiscus monkey sanctuaries. The second day to the Kinabatangan Safari and a third day at Turtle Island snorkeling. That left me a few days to relax, explore town and rest before I head to China.   
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center's goal is to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back into the wild. There were currently 200 at the center but we were told that only a few will come into the feeding area because it was fruiting season. The orangutans that can find enough food will stay away and only those that need more food come to the feeding platforms. The center is in the forest and has beautiful walking trails through the jungle. The animals are free to roam in the jungle with no fences separating humans. 

The first wild animal I found was this little lizard. He was sitting below the viewing platform waiting to see the orangutans also!  
After a short wait, a worker arrived with a basket of melons. He shook the ropes and an 8 year old orangutan appeared. He was adorable! I fell in love immediately! The orangutans are the most endangered animal in Borneo. This is due to deforestation for palm trees (palm oil) and poaching. Many of these orangutans were pets which is illegal.

After taking a bite out of each piece of fruit, he decided to give us a little show of his swinging and hanging abilities. He liked hanging around. He decided to leave when the  long tailed macaques came too clean up the food.

One of the volunteers saw the macaques coming down the path and warned everyone to back away...they were mean! She said they bully the little orangutans for food.

When she said they were mean, she meant it! I was glad I did! Check out this angry guy! Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed!! I was standing right where this macaque wanted to take a rest. He came towards us and the volunteer yelled at us to all stand back. I know monkeys can be mean and followed directions.

My next stop was Labuk Bay to see the feeding of the Probiscus monkeys. I saw a few on the Klias River cruise but not up close. The Probiscus monkey is only found in Borneo. The males have a big, long, hanging nose where the females have a smaller pointy nose (like Pinocchio). The male calls are described as deep and nasal, strongly reminiscent of the bass viol. Supposedly, the females like to listen to it. The sanctuary is amongst a palm oil plantation to maintain the wildlife. They supplement food for the monkeys to ensure they continue to thrive in their habitat.

The male was more interested in the tourists and came up to check us out. He is a funny looking guy.

Silver Leaf monkeys are also at the sanctuary. They were very friendly and not afraid of tourists. The babies were playful and loved to entertain the crowd. I liked his mohawk!

When the monkeys were finished eating their bread and asparagus, they went back to the forest. I laughed as they swung through the trees. Several stopped to sit in a tree and watch the tourists.

My last stop of the day was the Rainforest Discovery Center. I walked through the forest on the tree-top canopy walk. It was amazing walking through the tree-tops and looking up to see large trees hovering.
 It was a peaceful and relaxing walk. I had time to search for monkeys and appreciate the calls of the local birds

The next afternoon I left for the Kinabatangun Safari. Our first stop was the Gomantong Cave. I arrived at the cave after a short walk through the jungle. My guide looked at me and told me he was not going into the cave. I asked why. He said it stinks to bad. I could smell the cave as we stood outside talking. It smelled awful...and only got worse! It is famous for the swiftlet birds edible nests which are harvested to make the bird's nest soup. The most valuable nests can sell for very high prices.

It is an amazing natural wonder ....of bird poop, bat poop and cockroaches EVERYWHERE! It was the most disgusting sight I have seen.  The bird, bat and rat poop is everywhere. I was walking very tentatively the whole way trying not to slip on it. The hand rail and walk paths are covered in poop which makes it slippery. I kept telling myself not to fall but I just wanted out. When I looked up I could see birds and bats but I freaked out a little as I saw 2 inch cockroaches on every step. This "wonder" is one I would have preferred to have stuck with as a vicarious experience. ICK!

We continued on to the Kinabatangun River for a safari. We boarded the boat and went searching for the monkeys, birds and pygmy elephants in the late afternoon. I expected to see monkeys but not an orangutan. We had been forewarned that it is rare to find them in the wild. And her was our first animal...a large orangutan in a durian tree.

There were numerous monkeys throughout the jungle.

And the Probiscus monkeys were around every corner. They swung from tree to tree. It was easy to find them if you just listened and watched for leaves moving.
Another successful trip down the river. Unfortunately, the closest I came to seeing the Borneo Pygmy Elephant was tracks next to the river. I was sad but you never know what will happen in the wild. The sun was setting on the river and it was time to drive back to Sandakan.

The next morning I left for Turtle Island, to spend the day relaxing on the beach and snorkeling. I was hoping to swim with a few sea turtles. As we arrived on the island we noticed the turtle tracks in the sand. They looked like tractor tire tracks.
The turtles crawl out of the ocean at night, dig holes and lay their eggs. The eggs are collected and placed in the hatchery. When the turtles hatch, they are released back to the sea in the early morning. I spent the afternoon on the beach reading, napping and snorkeling.

I returned to Sandakan and enjoyed a few days relaxing by the pool. My trip to Borneo was beautiful and filled with adorable monkeys and orangutans. I am happy I got to see this beautiful land.

I returned to Kuala Lumpur for overnight. I am leaving for China in a few hours. I am not certain I will be able to blog while I am in China. I will keep writing and upload everything when I get to Bali. Until then, peace and love to you all! 

Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

I met several people that raved about their time in the Sabah region of Borneo. I was lured in by orangutans & the rare pygmy elephants. Add in the beautiful beaches and snorkeling in Sapidan and I bought a ticket and was Borneo bound!
I arrived in Kota Kinabalu in the evening. Oh, what to do tomorrow. I decided to explore the city on foot. I walked down to the harbor and met Sharif. He arranges boat trips to nearby islands. He had finished his work and I told him I would return in the morning for a snorkel trip. As we talked about travel, he offered to take me across the bay to his island and see where he lives. You know me, I love these opportunities! We went to the port and he arranged a boat. The boats bow was sitting facing a corner. He told me to follow him. We crawled through the fence and jumped onto the bow of the boat. He made it look graceful and easy. Me...that was a different story. I stepped onto the bow and the boat started floating away from the dock. I had one leg in each direction and was staring down at the water between my legs. Oh no! I  am going to fall in! Sharif grabbed my hand and pulled me toward him. I ignored my fear and just jumped....luckily I landed on the bow as it rocked back and forth. Whew! I safely made it to a seat before we raced across the bay. The captain weaved close to fishing boats. I really thought we were going to have an accident. He was going full speed towards the rickety dock. I am not sure how we did not hit anything.

I crawled onto the dock/sidewalk as it weaved and creaked. I was not sure about this. The planks were not nailed down and many were broken. The planks creaked and bend with each step. I was not safe yet! I had to make my way across this rickety sidewalk to shore.
Rickety sidewalks throughout the village.

The village was poor. Three to four families lived together in each of these homes. No furniture and no electricity. I could hear a few generators running. The floors were covered in pieces of linoleum and a few plastic stools were sitting on the porches. Laundry was hung to dry and children were running from home to home. The villagers were headed to the mosque for prayer. Sharif asked if I minded if he went. I said it was fine and sat down on his front porch. His wife insisted I come into their home out if the heat. I played with his children and niece. Tic-tac-toe is a game known worldwide and requires no English to play.

A woman walking through the village on stilts.

Sharif returned from the temple with lunch. I declined his offer knowing most Muslims are fasting for Ramadan. He told me he had eaten today and insisted I try the food. We had grilled fish, tapioca and collagen. It was interesting but not something I enjoyed. I was happy when he poured me a glass of juice. After lunch, we walked to the shoreline. Children were playing volleyball, soccer and swimming in the bay.
What shocked me the most was the amount of garbage floating in the ocean. As we had walked towards the shore, I was almost hit by a flying used diaper. A woman threw it out her window and into the ocean. Obviously this was a common occurrence. And all of the garbage collected at shore. 

Most if it is plastic bottles, plastic bags, take-away containers and diapers. I was disgusted and sickened. I have seen this throughout SE Asia but this was my breaking point. No more plastic bottles for me. I bought a reusable bottle and Steripen to purify my own water going forward. I asked Sharif about the garbage and he said the government does not provide any assistance with garbage disposal so they let it pile up and eventually burn it when it gets to be too much. They do not recycle and it is what it is. I asked about the pollution and he said there are many other issues to worry about when you are this poor. 

We walked through the jungle and over a hill to another village. At this village I came across a goat with gold horns. I asked why his horns were gold and was told that the village drunk does it. He said sometimes he gives him cigars to smoke also.
The next morning I was sick, food poisoning! I wondered about eating at the village yesterday. No snorkeling for me! I was sick for 2 days. I finally forced myself to go in an evening tour of the jungle before I left for Sandakan. I took the Riverboat cruise on Klias River to see the Probiscus monkeys and fireflies. 
Klias River Cruise
There were many boats on the river and we spotted several groups of monkeys in the trees. I was keeping a watchful eye on the storm that was rolling into the jungle. When it started raining it was a downpour! We hovered under the overhang trying to remain dry. The monkeys seemed to like the rain and came out for a bath.
Probiscus monkeys enjoying the rain

The fireflies were beautiful. They lit up the trees like Christmas. A few of us started singing "O' Christmas Tree" as the fireflies twinkled. It was a fun evening in the river and some great memories!

Kuala Lumpur - A Visa for China

Petronas Towers light up the Kuala Lumpur skyline
I arrived in Kuala Lumpur with one thing I had to do...I needed to get a China visa. As I started reading the application form I realized I needed to do more planning than normal. I had to provide copies of my flights and hotel rooms for each night I would be in China. Ugh! I have to decide when I wanted to go, what cities to visit and book hotels. I decided to get everything planned in the next 36 hours so I would be at the Chinese Visa Application Center on Monday morning at 9:00 AM. My first stop was a book store for a China travel book. I knew I wanted to go to Beijing and Xian. Amy (a friend from Myanmar) suggested I fly to Chengdu or Kunming and travel towards Beijing. I decided to take her advice. I planned my trip and bought a ticket to Kunming for July 24 and leaving Beijing on August 20. Then I booked hotels. I now had a travel itinerary and could complete my application. All of this took hours and research to plan. I was exhausted when I finally went to bed at 2:00 AM!

The Kuala Lumpur service center was efficient. I arrived at 8:50 am and was at the counter at 9:15am. It would have been fast if I had everything needed. I got sent to the copier room for a second copy of my passport, got back in line and sent back for a copy of my Malaysia visa stamp, back in line and was told my hotel reservations list was insufficient because it did not have my full name on it. Ugh! I pulled up a copy of an email confirmation and asked if it would work. I was told yes which was opposite the information I had found online. Oh well. I was told to go to a local computer shop and print the information and return before 3 PM. I found the Internet store but it was not opening until 11:00. I decided to have tea and relax. I finally got it all printed and was back at the counter at 11:20. 

I turned in my paperwork and was told I would have an interview Tuesday morning at 10:00AM and if all went well I would get my visa on Thursday.

My interview Tuesday morning was quick. I arrived at 9:50 AM and was on my way home by 9:54AM. Not bad for a 10:00Am appointment! I am not sure why they conduct an interview. I was asked questions that were on my application: Purpose of travel? Are you going alone? Wow! Do you have friends in China? What cities will you be visiting? Do you have confirmation of hotels and flights? Any questions? They only concern I had was if my unemployed job status required proof of funds. I had read online that you had to provide a financial statement. I was told that was not required but the woman returned my bank statement. I was instructed to return on Thursday to collect my passport and pay the fee, $164. 

I visited a few tourist sites but spent my time relaxing and enjoying the city. I visited the Kings Palace, Petronas Towers, KLCC, Chinatown and tea tasting. 

Tea tasting in Kuala Lumpur
I also decided where to go before my trip to China. I did not have time to see everything before I left for China. I decided to go to Borneo before China. Afterwards I will go to Bali and Gilli Islands in Indonesia for 2 weeks. Then, on to Eastern Europe. 

On Thursday morning, I returned to pick-up my passport. I was the 6th person in line and was in and out in 5 minutes. I got my visa! Yippee! I returned to the hotel, grabbed my backpack and headed to the airport for my flight to Kota Kinabalu, Borneo! I was Borneo bound! 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

It was time to go back to the islands. I left Georgetown and headed east across northern Malaysia to the island of Pulau Perhentian Kecil. No art, museums or fantastic street hawkers here. All of the sights are on the sandy beach or underwater.
The view of Coral Bay from Ombak Resort
I arrived at the island in the late afternoon, only to check into Ombak Resort and realize there was no water in my bathroom. Not a single drop!  I was nice about it the first evening. They gave me a bucket to use to rinse the toilet and wash up. I am understanding and realize there are small issues on an island from time to time. These things happen. I was promised I would have water before morning. Right behind Ombak Resort is Ewan's Bungalows and Restaurant. I went for dinner and met Ewan. He was horrified when I told him what I was paying for no water at Ombak Resort. Ewan loved that I could laugh through it and encouraged my happy spirit to stay positive. He became a good friend over my 4 day stay.

In the morning, I decided to walk through the jungle to the other side of the island to Long Beach. It was a short hike, maybe 10 minutes. I had my eyes out for snakes and was lucky....not a single one! Yay!
Long Beach

Beautiful water at Long Beach
Long Beach was a beautiful white sand beach with crystal clear water. The water is clear, just like a pool. It was beautiful! I spent the day lounging on the beach with some travelers from Ireland. At the end of the day, I was ready for a nice warm shower. I got back to my room to find no water. Now, I was angry and went to complain. For the cost of the room and no water for a second day...it was ridiculous. I was told the government shut down the water to the island and told them I knew it was a lie. Nobody else on the island was having an issue, I had asked around. I asked for my money back and was told no because it was not the resorts fault. I explained my position but was told there were no options because the island was fully booked. I knew they had me because I had checked on available rooms.  I told them I would be writing a negative review of their resort on all travel sites. They told me they didn't care. I refused to let this ruin my trip to the islands! The only thing they did for me was let me use the shower in the dive shop. At least I would be clean! 

The next morning I was going snorkeling. Another thing I had pre-paid at Ombak Resort. I was excited because they advertised the guide brings an underwater camera and takes photos. I was not surprised after waiting for an hour to find out the guide was "sick". Eight of us had waited and were irritated that it took an hour for Ombak to tell us the trip was cancelled. It did not make sense, why couldn't another guide have taken us? (Another example of poor customer service at Ombak Resort.) Five of us decided to go anyway and the other 3 went back to their hotel. We were taken to the Shari-La Resort to hire a boat and guide. We got a great guide and a fun group. There was a father- daughter from Spain and a brother and sister from Korea with me.

Swimming and snorkeling at Fish Bay.
Our first stop on the trip was to Fish Bay. The fish were beautiful colors. we saw many clown fish, tiger fish and barracuda. 
After I looked at the pictures from Fish Bay, I noticed a surprise....see the reef shark in the photo. Our guide was shocked when Antonio (Spanish father) said he saw one. We had a photo to prove it! Our next stop was Shark Bay where we were looking for the docile, vegetarian black-tip reef sharks. We got really lucky and saw five!  It was fantastic! Our guide was patient and made certain we all had the opportunity to see them. Before lunch we stopped at Turtle Bay. The boat pulled up and look what we could see as we prepared to jump in the water. It was a sea turtle waiting for us! Yay!
Sea Turtle munching on the ocean floor


We went to Fisherman Village for a delicious lunch and a rest before heading on to the Lighthouse. The Perhentian Islands was the best snorkeling I had experienced to date. The visibility was fantastic and our guide got us to places before all of the other boats arrived. We had 2 underwater cameras and  took photos throughout the day. In the evening, we all got together at Ewan's Place for dinner and to share the photos with one another.

The Perhentian Islands are beautiful. I loved the snorkeling and would have liked to do a second day but I needed to get moving towards China. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Food and Street Art in Georgetown, Malaysia

I left the beautiful island of Koh Lipe and headed to Georgetown, Penang an island in northwest Malaysia. Ever time you mention Georgetown to a traveler they respond with "Oh, the food is soooo good!" I arrived in Georgetown in the evening and the aromas of the street hawkers food was enticing. I wanted to check into a guesthouse and eat my way through the city! The proprietor of my guesthouse told me the people of Penang love to eat.  And as the saying goes, when in Rome do as the Romans do! I was planning to try it all. The proprietor of my guesthouse marked a map with the hawker stalls I needed to indulge in. His last suggestion was "find a stand with a line of locals and whatever they are serving up will be delicious!" My dinner was delicious....I was going to enjoy a couple of days eating in Georgetown.

The street food encompasses Chinese, Malay and Indian food all served in a matter of minutes! I joined the locals eating by the roadside stalls and coffee shops is an experience second to none. I joined the locals in their favorite past time....food!

Georgetown has everything you would expect from an old colonial city- a fort, grand buildings, stately homes and assembly buildings.
Georgetown has traditional temples and Colonial buildings. 
Fort Cornwallis is the largest standing fort in Malaysia.
But the one thing that makes it stand out from other cities is the street art. I wandered the city, enjoying the art work and lost time exploring the cafes and art galleries for 2 days. Across the city were wirework artwork which told the history of the neighborhoods.

The murals, which I loved the most,  are by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic who brought color to the city as part of a project called "Mirrors George Town"

The street art was spread throughout the city, with some more hidden more than others, it was a great way of seeing the main sights. At times, I stumbled upon parts of city I may not have otherwise visited. On my last night, I stop at an Unique Penang Art Gallery on Love Lane and met Clovis and Jolie. Clovis was standing on the front porch playing a ukulele. Obviously, I had to go in. I was interested in where a he had learned to play the ukulele and to see the artwork. As I entered, he told me they teach art to 160 children. Along one wall was a display of postcards. The children draw the postcards but what I loved was you could write the postcard and they would mail it anytime in the future....2 months, a year or 5 years. The cards were beautiful and I liked that it supported teaching art to children.

Clovis invited me to have tea with him. We talked about travel and life. As we talked, he asked me to join them for dinner. We walked down to a street hawker on Chulia Lane that sold the most delicious Wan Tan Mee. We sat on their porch laughing and singing until 11 pm.

When I left, Jolie gave me a set of chopsticks she had made. She explained they were knotted with a prosperity and she wished me a long and prosperous life.  I thanked her for her kindness and told them goodbye.
I enjoyed exploring the quaint nooks and crannies of Georgetown. I feasted on delicacies from hawker street stalls, shopped at the many quaint night markets and browsed the art galleries. Georgetown was a relaxing, delicious and enjoyable introduction to the tastes and culture of Malaysia.