15th - 17th Feb 2005
Arrived Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the early hours. Went up the 41st floor of the Petronas Towers (where the bridge is). Saw some old mosques and chanced across a Chinese New Year lion dance celebration not far from where we were staying. We were impressed with the friendliness of Malaysians and how hassle-free it is here.
17th - 19th Feb
Took a bus to Melaka (formerly Malacca) - an important trading town between India & China before the Portuguese, Dutch then British controlled it and reduced its importance (by exporting all the skilled people to Singapore).
20th Feb - 1st Mar
Flew to Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo where we explored several surrounding national parks (Bako - for bearded pigs and monkeys (including Proboscis Monkeys), Kubah - apparently reknown for leeches, Gunung Gading - for Rafflesia (2nd largest flower in the world) and barking deer. We were highly impressed with the size of plants, insects and other creepy-crawlies there. Some seriously big flowers, leaves, millipedes, centipedes, palms, vines and nice waterfalls and natural pools for swimming in. Throw in a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Sanctuary with its rehabilitated Orangutans, and it's been a pretty nature-driven week or so. Also discovered Orang is Malay for man/person Utan for forest - Orang Utan -> man of the forest. (There are also Orang Ulu here - men of the river, but they are Homo Sapiens!).
By now we were starting to wonder why all the cats in Malaysia have deformed tails - either stumpy or bent at right-angles. Contrary to our suspicions, several locals convinced us that they did not chop the tails at birth. Apparently genetics is at work. The first cats must have been mutants! Whilst in Kuching we enjoyed the tasty local delicacy "Ais Krim Goreng" ("Goreng" = fried, we leave the rest for you to work out!).
3rd Mar - 6th Mar
Went to Lalang longhouse on the Skrang river, after 4 hours by car and 1.5 hours upriver by longboat. There we lived with the a native Iban people, in their 23-family wooden, long, house on stilts where each family has an entrance door onto the long communal veranda. Entalai, our host and guide, showed us how well a 60-year old can carry an outboard engine for his longboat up and down a hill to the river shore.
We helped harvest some black pepper, their cash crop along with rubber and rice, and watched them dry in the hot sun. We also trekked to see their old longhouse (abandoned 1980), where we stayed overnight, and sampled some traditional bamboo cooking, and were surprised from our rest by the riverside by a hunter returning from a successful trip, gun dangling from one shoulder, and the head of a wild boar carried on his back poking out of his ratan basket.
6th Mar - 10th Mar
On leaving the longhouse, we stayed a night at Sarikei before catching an express boat (long, narrow, powerful) to Sibu. Locals tend to sit inside in the chilled air-con, whereas we went for the open-air roof option, with free sunburn (narrowly avoided!), for the best views. In between boats, we made a flying visit to the 7-storey Chinese Temple with a lightning run-down of Yin & Yang by the temple curator (even the dollar sign comes from Yin/Yang... apparently!). Our next express boat spent 4 hours going up the Rajang river to Kapit past lots of logs floating downriver or awaiting collection on the banks, and numerous longhouse communities. After overnighting at Kapit, and declining the guiding services of an over-ambitious teenager wanting to take us to Kalimantan, we carried on up past the Pelagus Rapids to Belaga - a major settlement of 3000 in the middle of nowhere. Here, we declined the services of a middle-aged drunken chap wanting to be our guide, but not seeming to like tourists - a bit of a contradiction! For evening entertainment, we watched the local kids catching hundreds of noisy cicadas with nets and fingers. They then proudly paraded their buzzing bags along the streets, giving them a tap whenever the bag went quieter - then taking them home for later consumption (fried, less wings).
The internet is marching on - we met a couple of guys installing a satellite dish for the local school's broadband connection. We left Belaga by land via 4WD along the logging roads, arriving at the coastal town of Bintulu 4 hours later.
11th Mar - 13th Mar
Went to Similajau N.P. with its mangroves, beaches (had a quick dip in the South China Sea), forests, and lots of mudskippers (fish that can hop and have lungs so can breath air), staying overnight, then back to Bintulu for a local festival then on to Batu Niah caves where we saw the rickety structures used by people collecting swiftlets' nests, eaten by the Chinese as a delicacy. Saw some ancient cave paintings and the excavation site of 40,000 years old human remains. The skies failed to darken as the millions of resident bats failed to show for us by sunset.
14th Mar - 20th Mar
A quick stop in Miri, an oil town, before flying to Gunung Mulu N.P. where we saw part of a complex of 107km interconnecting caves - a river still flows through. Deer Cave, the longest cave passage in SE Asia, is home to a few million bats which finally turned up after our 3rd evening of waiting! For a bit more exercise we did "The Pinnacles" trek - consisting of jumping in and out of a boat to help push up shallow parts of the river, an 8km trek through the forest to "Camp 5". Next day was climbing up 1.1km (to 1175m) over distance of 2km (i.e. it was pretty steep!)... to say we were dripping with sweat would be no understatement in the 98% humid, hot, steamy climb up and down. Borneo's biggest butterfly, the "Rajah Brooke birdwing" named after - you guessed it - an English Rajah by the name of Brooke, was relatively common here. It's black with shiny green wings and a bright red head. And big.
21st Mar - 7th Apr
After a couple of days recuperating in Miri, we headed off to the Highlands near to the border with Kalimantan, Indonesia. More precisely, we took an 18-seater to the metropolis of Bario - 800 people - accessible by plane or by foot (if you're a keen walker). Bario, 1000m up, nestled in a valley between jungle-covered hills, is the main town of the Kelabit people, who are even friendlier than the average friendly Malaysian. Being the place where the best rice in the world is grown (Bario rice), we had rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and, yes, rice for dinner - apparently it's also exported to Italy, but it beats us how they have any left to export! Our planned week in Bario got somewhat extended partly due to weather and partly because we enjoyed it so much. It rained heavily overnight for three days, before drying a little at which point we trekked to the peaceful village of Pa Lungan (pop 80). We were caught by surprise by the rumbling of a water buffalo, en route to the village - it turned out to be Mado and his buffalo Bill Clinton. He took us to his home and was our guide for the next few days exploring the local jungle. Dora, his wife, cooked us delicious fresh jungle produce (ginger flowers, mushrooms, ferns, tapioca leaves, and other green things) accompanied by, erm, rice.
On return to Bario (which, in fact, has six 4WD vehicles - airlifted in pieces) we began a longer, six day trek from village to village along paths beaten by the villagers through the jungle. Along the way we had many discussions with Florence, the only female Kelabit guide, whose fluent English enabled us to gain an insight in to the issues surrounding the Kelabits at the moment (e.g. nearby forest - last remaining primary forest in Sarawak - will be logged in 18 months time unless it can somehow be stopped!). We stayed overnight in Pa Main, now just a hunting shelter, in Andreas', the chief's son's, house overlooking a bend in the river at Pa Dalih, and in a longhouse in Pa Mada, where we tried all sorts of fruits.
Andreas took us to see some old burial sites and some primary rainforest, bringing us to within two more hours trek uphill to the Kalimantan border before we turned back. Along the treks we saw orchids, rhododendrons, all kinds of wild ginger, enormous mushrooms, heard gibbons, hornbills, various other birds, saw a monkey, and several colourful caterpillars - one of which even the bemused Andreas was impressed with. We became experts at flicking leeches off our shoes, and at applying DEET to the ones that managed to get us before we got them!
At Ramudu, Roger experienced the "Upub Boah Teru Bakah" - one of the Rambutan (like a WWII naval mine) literally exploded as he tried to open it! The phrase is Kelabit for "Exploding Boar's Testicle Fruit" - OK, so naval mine was a more polite description! Ramudu now has a logging road leading to it - an ominous sign of things to come. The rivers already run brown with sediment from logging upstream.
On return to Bario, somehow all the masses of food put in front of us for the next couple of days simply vanished!
Finally bid farewell to Sarawak and flew back to Miri then on to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
8 Apr - 11 Apr
Headed for Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in South-east asia at 4095m, to test our climbing prowess. From the starting point at about 1800m, we trudged our way up to 3323m for our night's rest, past impressive pitcher plants, more rhododendrons, and watched the trees and leaves decreasing in size as we ascended towards alpine forest. After a short night's nap we rose at 1:45am ready for the final ascent to the summit for dawn. Once our group of 8 was ready the ascent began (3am). Two hours later we found that we'd overtaken everyone and were way ahead of schedule and nearly at the summit. Despite a dramatic slowing of pace we still summitted 45 mins before sunrise. At 4095m, it's cold, even with 2 layers of thermals, shirt, fleece, windproof jacket, woolly hat and gloves. After enjoying the sunrise and the long shadow cast by Mount Kinabalu across the land and sea, we sadly had to begin the long descent - back to base in 1 day... By 1pm we were back at park HQ with tired legs, and wobbly knees.
12 Apr - 17 Apr
Having tired of walking it was time for some diving, so we headed down to Semporna, via Sepilok and Sandakan (where we had tea & scones and a quick game of croquet at the English Tea House). Scuba Junkie took us for some excellent dives at Sipadan island and Mabul island (where we blockaded our room against the resident rats). Sipadan had more turtles (hawksbill & green) than you can shake a stick at (at least 15 per dive), white-tip reef sharks, a huge school of jacks and apparently a leopard shark along its dramatic drop-off to the ocean floor 600m below. In between dive days we watched the annual Semporna water festival with colourfully decorated boats and dancers and as almost the only westerners, were interviewed by the Sabah News Agency!
18 Apr - 20 Apr
Having left Semporna and passed endless hours of palm oil plantations we decided to check out some of the last remaining jungle in Sabah, at Uncle Tan's (basic) Jungle Camp along the wildlife-rich Kinabatangan River. There we saw orangutans, many proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, silver leaf monkeys, hornbills, owls, otters, crocodiles, scorpions and the smallest frog in the world. Having heard from others that pygmy elephants were in the area, we arranged an extra-curricular trip 1.5 hours downriver to see them. Even though they only reach 3m high when fully grown, a mock charge soon sent us running when they'd had enough of our presence! At camp, we shockingly discovered that we are now officially 'adults' following a comment from Katie, an 18-year old from Hastings: "I think it's really cool when adults leave their jobs and go travelling". We returned, stunned and older, feeling the weight of responsibility on our shoulders, to Sandakan and the May Fair hotel for , at last, a nice clean shower with transparent water and even a DVD player in the room!
Took a flight to Kudat, on the northern tip of Borneo. In Kudat, we walked past the harbour where the local fishermen where unloading their fish and sorting out their catches. A few quick snaps on the digital camera and Roger became a tourist attraction for the locals - with half of the fishermen leaving their boats to see what was on the screen, while the younger ones posed for the photos! We bet they don't use the ubiquitous whitening facial cream (Susana is still desperately hunting for one without whitener - she's white enough already thanks!).
22nd April - 26th April
Attended the inaugural concert at the Tip of Borneo, by the KK Philharmonic Orchestra, to the delights of "The Sound of Music", "Phantom of the Opera and some Malaysian Music. On hearing about a big Sunday market in Kota Belud, there was no stopping Susana, so Roger guarded the bags whilst supping Milo and chatting to the locals in a cafe, and Susana ran off to spend money while he wasn't looking. Armed with suitable purchases, we headed back to Kota Kinabalu to check out the diving at Sapi and Sulu islands. The next day, we boarded an afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur back on the mainland (having hastily posted said purchases back home to avoid paying excess baggage to Air Asia!).
27th April - 2nd May
Headed up to the cool nights of the Cameron Highlands to have a look at some tea plantations and do some more trekking. We decided to go for the trails labelled as 'for the die-hard trekkers', including an unmarked path. We duly followed an unmarked path through the jungle - so unmarked in fact, that it wasn't there! After scrambling downhill for an hour, disentangling spikey 'Hairy Mary' creepers from hair, T-shirts, trousers and backpack, using our highly tuned jungle skills to follow a few old knife marks on the bark of trees, and the odd sliced plant, we crossed a stream to find signs of habitation. We eventually arrived at the Tea Plantation we were aiming for, and hitched a lift back to town.
2nd May - 5th May
A visit to Malaysia wouldn't be complete without seeing Taman Negara, Malaysia's biggest national park (in fact the name Taman Negara simply means "National Park"!), so off we went, staying at Nusa camp just outside the park since, unlike the parks in Sarawak, the cost of staying inside this park was ridiculous. A couple of trips into the park and along its trails and we were rewarded the sight of a lemur up a tree and tried the busy, but rickety, canopy walk strung together from old ladders and rope. A hill climb later and, once we'd outrun the bees that were after our tasty, salty sweat, the loud whoosh-whoosh noise from some large wings alerted us to the presence of rare rhinoceros hornbills flying overhead and not a leech in sight. Back downriver we caught the 'Jungle train' up the middle of Malaysia to Kota Bharu at the north-eastern tip.
6th May - 11th May
We caught a ferry to the idyllic Perhentian Islands for a few days of relaxation and diving. An interesting variety of marine life, from the potentially deadly stonefish (if you get it to stab you), big puffer fish and the smallest shark we've seen - the bamboo shark at about half a metre long (or short!) and lots of nudibranchs (small, colourful sea-slugs). The Perhentians are also home to the titan triggerfish, which as its name sugests, grows quite big (one was about 70cm) and has an array of sharp teeth that it normally uses for crunching up hard coral. In nesting season they get very territorial and can be aggressive. One diver (neither of us) in our dive group foolishly decided to photograph it close-up, which seemed to agitate it intensely but nothing untoward seemed to happen. At the time. With Roger busy photographing some vertically-swimming razorfish, Susana felt a sharp pain in her calf and looked round to see one rather large titan triggerfish clamped onto her calf. The triggerfish retreated, happy with the speed at which the intruders were now leaving. Roger was impressed with the neat, fish-shaped bite mark from the teeth and contemplated a quick photo, but Susana seemed less than amused and, with his own safety in mind, decided not to risk it. Artist's impression available only. And thus concludes the Malaysian epic.
12th May - 15th May
With one day before our 3-month visa expired, we waved goodbye to Malaysia and said "Sawadee-khrap/kha" (depending on whether male/female is speaking) to Thailand.