Tag Archives: Borneo

Our final days, Part 2….Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia

Here is part 2 of our time in Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia. We have a flight tomorrow from Kuala Lumpur to Zurich, via Istanbul. But first we have to fly from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur – a short flight we booked on a budget airline. Rather than go to KL early, we decided to stay in Kuching until the last possible day as our flight to Zurich is not until almost midnight. We did this partly because its cheaper to stay in Kuching, but also because just the thought of having to take the bus one hour to downtown KL and then the monorail to a hostel and then back to the airport is exhausting. That’s how tired we are.

We need a break. Some might scoff at this and say we’ve been on vacation for the last 275 days. And while they are right, it is a vacation, it is also mentally and physically exhausting. We are both as skinny as we’ve ever been in our adult lives and even getting these blogs done can be grueling (but that’s mostly due to electronic issues and the incredible amount of time it can take to get pictures uploaded, in the right place and then captioned – oh, and that doesn’t count the edits I promptly receive from my father).

But that has not stopped us from enjoying the last few days we have in Kuching. We have wandered the streets: shopping, eating and soaking it all in. It’s a great small city, with friendly people, good food and free museums.

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Kuching is known as “Cat City” – so there are quite a few statues
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More cats
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Big elephant ears

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Mosque
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On ice

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Big & tiny bananas

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Mosque again
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Kuching Assembly Building

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Top of a temple

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On a whim, we decided to bus out to a crocodile farm. On the bus, we were the main attraction. Everyone wanted to know where we were going, and why. Good thing I brought the brochure. They very kindly guided us to the right stop, which we probably would have missed. Not realizing the bus would take over an hour, we arrived a bit late, but just in time for the afternoon feeding. Which was incredible. I have never seen reptiles this large, and while they are in captivity, many of them have large habitats. We watched as two brave men tied chicken pieces to a pulley system and hung them out over the water. Then we waited as salt water crocodiles from every direction started emerging from sunning themselves. The quick and agile ones were able to jump up for the meat, which was promptly replaced for the next croc.

A miss
A miss
Success!
Success!
Fighting crocodiles
Fighting crocodiles

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Camo-croc
Camo-croc

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Baby saltwater crocodiles
Baby saltwater crocodiles

Then we saw a mega-croc waddle up out of the water and begin harassing the men for chicken. This guy could have swallowed me whole and maybe Riki too. He was so big he couldn’t jump very high but the loud thomp as he smacked his mouth closed was incredibly impressive.

Mega-croc
Mega-croc
Mega-croc & brave men
Mega-croc & brave men

The crocodile feeding was followed by an Arapaima feeding, in another pond. Arapaimas are the largest freshwater fish and they can be up to 6.5 feet. They were eating chicken heads whole. I really wanted to ask somebody how many chickens they go through in day.

Arapaimas
Arapaimas

There were a few other animals there as well: bearded pigs, owls, macaques, eagles, deer, peacocks and porcupines, as well as some smaller lizards and birds. We had to rush back to ensure we caught the last bus back to town, as we didn’t want to get stuck an hour away.

Pretty bird
Pretty bird
Posing with the peacock
Posing with the peacock
Porcupine
Porcupine
Freshwater crocodile
Freshwater crocodile – note the skinnier nose compared to the saltwater ones
Buffy fish owl (formerly known to us as puffy faced owl - lost in translation)
Buffy fish owl (formerly known to us as puffy faced owl – lost in translation)

The rest of our days were spent shopping, comparing steam bun places and discovering Ramadan bazaars. Ramadan, a month of fasting for Muslims, has just begun. As Malaysia is a largely Muslim country, we have seen signs popping up in the past few days advertising food and bazaars. The vendors have brought out their tupperware and sell everything from curry to vegetables to a number of jello-esque bars we have yet to taste. Muslims are not supposed to eat from sunrise to sunset, but the food is for sale most of the day and we have delighted in getting curry puffs by the half-dozen for take away. The most I have experienced Ramadan before was working at a Mediterranean place in New Orleans and preparing for the large groups who would come in and order everything off the menu. Which is what you’d expect from someone who hasn’t eaten all day. Seeing it here, firsthand is just another thing we have been lucky enough to experience.

This is my last Asia post, but don’t worry, there is more to come. We have been preparing some final thoughts and wrap up posts. And since we still don’t know what we’re really doing with our lives, I’m sure there will be more adventures to report. Suggestions are being taken, as are job offers and life coaching.

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Last City of Asia & Bako National Park, Part 1….Kuching, Malaysia

Spoiler: Monkey pictures near the bottom

Because of our swift progress through Sarawak, we ended up having a little over a week to spend in Kuching. A 5 hour boat trip in the rain from Sibu left us at a ferry terminal far outside the main city. With no bus option and no information on further transport, besides the conveniently located taxis. This has been my biggest pet peeve about Borneo, the lack of adequate public transportation or the lack of info about it. In Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Penang, the buses had schedules, routes and posted fares. Buses could be booked online for long distances and everything was straight forward. The complete opposite appears to be the case over here. We have a tough time even figuring out if there is even a bus, and if there is, when it runs and where to get it. In Kota Kinabalu, there is bus to the airport, but it stops at 8 pm and appears to be privately run (not sure about this as we couldn’t take it because our flights were too late). In the state of Sabah, we found outrageous price ranges for the same journey and no particular schedule. We’ve waited an hour along the side of the road, in the blazing heat because we had no other option. And then there’s just the lack of options. Everyone must drive because the public transit is failing, or maybe the public transit is failing because everyone drives. We’ve never been so clueless about how to get around, as even the locals don’t always know the system. Anyway, I ramble.

Long story short – we had to take an expensive taxi from the ferry terminal to town (I didn’t even get to rant about how the taxis refuse to use meters and you have to just negotiate ahead of time, though they often refuse to as everything is “fixed price” or so they say). We split it with an Australian woman though from our boat, who was just as outraged at the system.

Kuching is in Sarawak, which belonged to the Sultan of Brunei 200 years ago. It was then ceded to a British explorer whose family ruled until the Japanese took over in 1941. It was part of the Japanese empire for a little over 3 years before being returned to the British and then ultimately becoming independent as part of Malaysia in 1963. Kuching is one of the most multi-racial places in Malaysia – with many Chinese descendants, as well as Indian and native Malays. The signs are in many languages, usually Mandarin (but also other Chinese dialects), Malay and English, but also some Arabic, as Islam is the primary religion here.

That first evening, we walked to the waterfront in search of food. This being Friday, we expected people out and shops open. Well, that was not the case. Saturday evening proved to be more lively, but everything on Friday was pretty much closed by the time we got there (8 pm). Saturday we walked to the Sarawak Museum, where they have amusing taxidermied animals, as well as good displays of local architecture and cultural exhibits. There’s a giant hairball (basketball size) that came out of the stomach of a crocodile, as well as a watch. (Sorry – no pictures allowed) The animals on Borneo are biologically diverse as it’s an island with a variety of isolated habitats where evolution took a different course, if you believe in that. Kuching is the gateway to some good national parks we intended to check out.

Saturday afternoon we boarded a bus for the weekend market, which we had heard was huge and a cheaper place to buy souvenirs and food. It was pretty big, but compared to Bangkok’s, it was tiny. We walked around for less than half an hour before settling in the market’s food court to eat and watch a band play some country songs we recognized (see Instagram video).

That evening we went to the waterfront to watch a street performer’s competition we had seen signs for. We sat down at 7:15 for the 7:30 show, next to one of the performers. He chatted us up and explained the selection process and what it was like to perform around town. There are not a lot of bars and the restaurants are not really set up for music, so gigs tend to be few and far between, or only for established bands. They went first (though not for another hour, as there appeared to be something wrong with the sound system), were very good and we stayed for a few more acts, including a very talented kid who had dance moves like I’ve never seen before (another Instagram video).

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Sunday we went to a megamall, to see Pitch Perfect 2. We laughed at completely different times than the rest of the audience, but oddly, it made us a bit nostalgic for America. The mall was more crowded than the streets downtown, as there was a rattanball tournament and a car show going on that day.

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These guys had some crazy moves

You can’t go more than a few minutes without seeing a mall in all the major cities we’ve been to in Malaysia. And yet, we can’t seem to find many decently fitting clothes – our body types and styles are not exactly their target audience (head scarves and short sleeved button downs not exactly being our thing). The malls are air conditioned and packed with every amenity you could need, which I suppose is because it’s really hot and rains so much. We don’t mind though, as all our rain gear is finally getting used.

Probably the most popular place to visit near Kuching is Bako National Park. It is a 40 minute bus trip to the coast, where you check in and buy a boat ticket for the 15 minute journey to the park’s headquarters. We opted to stay overnight as we heard the evening is the best time to see animals, and the night walk is good. There are many trails you can do, but half the park is currently closed, so we were limited to just the short ones. We first went to one of the beaches, where we walked up through rainforest to a flat rock, grassy topography like I’ve never seen before and then to a cliff overlooking the beach, where we met three German girls we had seen at the street performer’s competition. They were delighted that we were Americans as they had not brought enough money for the trip and only had US dollars on them. Though we don’t have much use for dollars either, we had plenty of ringgit with us. We saw three kinds of monkeys that afternoon – the mischievous long-tailed macaques, who hang around the headquarters to steal food from tourists, the silvered langurs, who tried to pee on us, and three groups of Proboscis monkeys.

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Tide was way low where we got the boat to go to the park
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Note monkeys above my head
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Langur monkey – the first time we saw this type
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Baby langur
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This mom tried to pee on me
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Kind of like the pug version of monkeys
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A lot of the trail was just hiking over tree roots
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Small pitcher plant
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My hand would have fit inside this one, up to my wrist

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Cool rocks overlooking the beach
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End of the trail
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The German girls took our photo

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Spiky tree covered in ants
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More spikes
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Hermit crab, but far from water

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Dew
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Proboscis monkey
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Its pretty dark in the rain forest
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There are some boardwalks, which were precariously maintained at times

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Male Proboscis up close – note the droopy nose.  They make a strange call like a snore
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Borneo bearded pig near the park’s headquarters
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Young macaque
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Infant macaque
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Another male Proboscis

We signed up for the night trek that evening, silently hoping we would spot some rare mammals, like the flying lemurs. No such luck, but we saw tons of insects and a few birds.

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Scorpion the size of my hand – this picture is actually upside down to make it easier to look at
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Spiky tree
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Tarantula
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Poisonous frog
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Kingfisher
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There are a lot more bug pictures, but I’ll spare you.

The next day, we woke early and did a 3.5 hour loop trail that went by mangroves, up a steep climb in the rainforest, to another grassy zone. There are 7 separate ecosystems here and its tough to distinguish between them, but the contrast between rainforest and the highest ecosystem is very discernible. We saw few animals and were incredibly hot and tired by the time we returned to headquarters for our boat back.

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Low tide
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Ants or termites?
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Horned spider

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Looking for saltwater crocodiles (we didn’t see any)

The rest of the day we spent relaxing at our hostel, enjoying the hot shower and air conditioning after two days of being drenched in sweat. I felt sorry for the other people on the bus, as we were quite fragrant.

Part 2 of Kuching, complete with city pictures, coming soon.

Orang utan Rehab….Sepilok, Borneo, Malaysia

Sepilok is a small town located close to Sandakan (so many S-towns in Sabah) and on our way back to Kota Kinabalu in East Malaysia/Borneo. Sepilok is home to a couple rehabilitation centers and sanctuaries. The most popular is for orang utans, but there is also one for Proboscis monkeys and sun bears, as well as a rainforest center.  It is also surrounded by palm oil plantations, like most of Sabah.

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Palm oil trees

Upon our arrival in Sepilok, we ate lunch at our B&B and then napped while we waited for the heat to dissipate. That afternoon we headed to the Rainforest Discovery Center to do some short treks and a canopy walk. We were a bit disappointed by the lack of wildlife, birds included, but maybe it was still too hot for anything to be out. The center is really nice though – the canopy walkway has great views and the Pitta Path takes you up on a ridge so you can see the tops of the trees. On our way out, we stopped at the garden and while admiring a strange red fruit with giant black seeds, we spotted a pygmy squirrel hiding in plain sight. Otherwise, we spotted a few common brown birds and some ants.

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Pygmy squirrel – about the size of a tangerine (without the tail)
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Large black squirrel – watermelon size
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Heliconia

The second day was for the orang utans. The rehab center has two feeding times, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We planned to do both, as we heard the morning can be crowded with groups and spottings can be sporadic at both times. There is also an outdoor nursery for young orang utans, which can be viewed from inside an air-conditioned building. We started here and watched the young ones eat fruit and play on the ropes and platforms. It was very different than seeing them in the wild, but cool to see them interact so close.

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Adolescent orang utan
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Young orang utans at the nursery get in trouble for walking on the ground, so the staff comes out and drags them away to “timeout”
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Young orang utan at the nursery
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Showing off
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Fighting a bit

We waited patiently at the outdoor viewing platform for the morning feeding of the adult orang utans. These guys live in the reserve and unlike the adolescents, have little to no human contact. They may have been raised here, but they are supposed to fend for themselves, except for the twice daily snack provided for the benefit of the tourists. But our luck had run out, and the only one who showed up after half an hour was promptly scared off by some aggressive pig-tailed macaques who were gorging themselves on the provided bananas and papayas. No worries, we had all day.

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Staff and macaque monkey waiting patiently for an orang utan to show up
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Facing off
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Mean pig-tailed macaque

We went back to our B&B for lunch and a rest. A heavy rain shower threatened our afternoon trip back to the sanctuary, but it tapered off in time to leave us traipsing back in the stifling heat and humidity. Maybe that’s what the orang utans like though, as we were treated to two mothers with tiny babies and another orang utan feasting at the outdoor viewing platform. One of the babies was so young that the mother was pre-chewing some of the food for it before spitting it into its mouth (not as gross as it sounds – it looked like they were kissing). And the pig-tailed macaques kept their distance for the most part this time.

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Getting along with a long tailed macaque
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Mom & baby orang utan
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Still too young to let go of mom

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Mother on the left is pre-chewing food for her baby

It was a great way to end the wildlife portion of our trip (for now). I have been looking forward to Borneo ever since we decided to come here, which was only a few weeks ago. The big cities, like KL and Singapore were cool, but it was nice to get out into nature and see some green (and blow through some green too – its not as cheap over here).

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Giant praying mantis
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“Ginger” snoozing
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“Ginger” – 2 seconds later

Next stop – one day back in Kota Kinabalu to pick up our stored bag before heading to Brunei to spend Riki’s thirtieth birthday.

Luck on a river safari….Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia

Sabah is the eastern most state of Malaysian Borneo. It is set up very well for package tour groups. Lots of companies offering transport, lodging and attractions for exorbitant prices. Since that is not really our style, we had a bit more of a challenge to figure everything out in the cheapest possible way from Semporna to Sukau.

We eventually found a reasonably priced bus from Semporna to “the junction”, which is a fancy name for an intersection with a couple of signs and a covered bench. The buses in East Malaysia are not the fancy three-across reclining ones like we encountered around KL and Singapore. They aren’t the worst though and the only hiccup on our 4 hour trip was the family of seven (yes, five children) attempting to buy just the two seats behind us (yes, only two). This resulted in a long delay when a large group boarded the bus an hour into our trip. The children were exiled to the aisle, slightly reminiscent of our hell-on-wheels Myanmar journey, except the person with their head on Riki’s seat was a cute, polite little girl, not a smelly, dirty, rude man.

When we were dropped at “the junction”, we walked in the appointed direction to find a minibus to Sakau. Except there was no minibus, at least according the man at the covered bench, who conveniently could take us the 45 minutes to “town”. Our driver loaded us into the most rickety little sedan I’ve encountered and sped off through 40 some kilometers of palm oil plantations.

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Sukau has a small slice of protected forest that boasts easy to spot wildlife along the Lower Kinabatangan River. The reason wildlife is easy to spot along the river: the palm oil plantations have pushed all the animals into a narrow strip of land. They congregate along the water, making boat trips popular up and down the river. We were there to spot the elusive orang utan (man of the forest). And if that failed, our backup was to hit up Sepilok Nature Reserve, where they have an orang utan rehabilitation center with a popular feeding program.

But we were incredibly lucky. On our first afternoon boat trip, we spotted an orang utan with her baby high in the trees along the river.

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Mother orang utan and baby
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Close up of the baby orang utan

We also saw many black hornbills, a small eagle, two types of macaque (long and pig tailed), AND the funny-nosed Proboscis monkey. These were my favorite, as they were very active and the females have cute pointy noses, while the males have fat, floppy ones. There are two types of Proboscis monkey groups – a male with his harem of “wives” and the bachelors. We only encountered the first group type, but were able to make out one of the shy males.

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Pig tailed macaque
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Lower Kinabatangan River
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Proboscis monkey – males have long, droopy noses but are very shy and we didn’t get a good photo
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Definitely a female Proboscis – between the pointy nose and the nursing baby, its a dead giveaway

 

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Black hornbill

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Eagle of some sort

Returning from our afternoon boat trip, we saw a small fishing boat on the side of the river with a man making a rather funny gesture. His hands were fanned and wiggling by his ears. This could only mean one thing – pygmy elephant. What luck!

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Pygmy means small, but other than his ears, this guy was pretty big
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Pygmy elephant

The fact that it is lucky to see one is very sad. According to our guide, there used to be many, many more animals along the river. The palm oil plantations have taken over and the wildlife has died or migrated elsewhere.

Later that evening, we went on a night cruise. Its much harder to spot anything at night, but our guide had a strong flashlight and wasn’t afraid to blind the wildlife. We saw some nesting swiftlets, who attach small nests to the side of the rock right over the water – a rather precarious situation.

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Swiftlets

We also saw the eyes of a baby crocodile. a puffy faced owl and some sleeping Proboscis monkeys. It was much tamer than our eventful afternoon.

The next day, we hit the water at 6 am for our combo river cruise and short trek. The monkeys must have been hiding, but we spotted another puffy faced owl and a crested serpent eagle, as well as a few other birds.

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“Puffy faced owl” though it must have another name
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Python
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Big monitor lizard
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Another python
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Lots of sticks and logs in the water
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The ferry

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As we entered the small creek leading to the start of our trek, we realized a large tree had fallen across the water and completely blocked the way.

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We backtracked and found another path, which connected to the other one. I was about to write the morning off, thinking we had used up all of our luck the day before – the guide was getting excited about common butterflies and cicada shells – when Riki spotted a lone orang utan headed our way. You know its good when the guide, who does this everyday, whips out his phone and starts taking photos. The orang utan made its way right over our path and stopped to eat some leaves about 10 meters above us. It made the most incredible sound – best described as a kiss squeak/grunt – which Riki has been mimicking ever since.

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Little orange bugs
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Green lizard
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Orang utan – means “man of the forest”
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Thorns

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Water hyacinth perhaps?
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Cicada shell

And our luck had not run out. On our final afternoon boat trip, we were spotting monkeys left and right along a small river. A mama kingfisher was guarding her nest, and when we got too close she flew off, revealing tiny chirping mouths.

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Other boats

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Macaque
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Baby macaque

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Another baby macaque
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Mother Kingfisher

 

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Baby Kingfishers

 

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But the climax of the day, and the final animal on our Sakau checklist was yet to come. While taking endless photos of monkeys grooming and playing right along the shore, we heard a loud crash just across the creek. Another loud crash and we saw the tail of a giant crocodile come down hard on the water, breaking a large branch.

We followed slowly as this 4-5m croc swam across the river with a bloody carcass, which our guide said was probably a monkey caught drinking at the water’s edge. Can’t get much cooler than that.

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Giant crocodile
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Back of the crocodile’s head – the pink part is the carcass

Despite seeing the orang utans in the wild, we decided to continue on to the rehabilitation center to see some more. We took a shuttle with a neighboring lodge to Sepilok, while stopping on the way at the only ATM in the area (and everybody and their mom was there to use it).

 

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Snake neck crane
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Kingfisher

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We got a bit too close for this guy

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World class diving….Sipadan Island & Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia

 One month in Borneo. And then its over. After 275 days in Asia, we will be flying back to Zurich. It’s nice to have an end date – gives us more structure, but having talked to many people on similar trips, it will be weird to leave. Reverse culture shock we think it’s called. And then what? Good question. We’re taking suggestions.

We flew from Singapore to Borneo, arriving in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia late evening. We checked into our hotel and then went in search of food at the waterfront night market. But first, we were summoned to a Carlsberg beer festival of some sort, where we watched a lady in skimpy clothes sing at the top of her lungs under flashing lights and lasers. Not exactly how we expected to find Borneo, a rather conservative place.

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We spent the next few days holed up in the Hyatt, taking advantage of the free cocktail hour and breakfast spread, as well as the bathtub. Why so excited about a bathtub? Well, we haven’t even seen a bathtub since December. And they make it infinitely more easy to wash our backpacks. Riki’s backpack in particular had become quite foul-smelling. After a long soak, and probably some strange comments from the cleaning crew, we were smelling fresh and ready for our next stop, Semporna, to do some diving on the famous Sipadan Island. Sort of a Clampett’s moment.

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Amazing cheesecake bc yes, its kind of our honey moon
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Fishing boat in KK
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Kota Kinabalu

(You’ll notice there’s not much info on Kota Kinabalu. Because there’s not much to do. I got my hair cut. We did a little shopping. But mostly we went to the hotel gym and pool, and watched movies. It was nice not to be moving around for a few days. Oh, and they called us Sir Richard and Miss Catherine – they get confused by middle names everywhere we go – it was lovely.)

We took an hour flight from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau for $21.89 (for both of us). Plus $7.50 for a bag. So much better than the 12+ hours we would have endured on the bus. Tawau is about an hour and a half from Semporna, the gateway to Sipadan Island. We ended up in a shared car with a speed demon driver. The drive was primarily through palm oil plantations, which this area is full of. Unfortunately, it is very detrimental to the wildlife and rather unnerving to see just miles and miles of palm trees in straight lines.

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Palm plantations as far as the eye can see
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More palms

We had scheduled a buffer day in before our dives, as we had to book a package deal with a company that has a very strict “no refund” policy. We didn’t want our cheap flight being delayed to cost us a whole day of diving. I woke up with a bad headache anyway, so luckily we had a whole day to explore Semporna and blog.

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Semporna fish market
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Massive fish fresh off the boat

Semporna is a s**thole. Sorry, no other way to put it. It is dirty, crowded and dismal. And not just because it rained. There’s a couple of restaurants near the port, which were ok. Most people who come to dive the islands don’t stay more than night before catching a boat out. We opted to save a lot of money and dive from town, avoiding the all-inclusive packages we found on the islands. Plus, we were gone all day diving and didn’t have to spend much time in the town.  We had to book ahead to secure a permit for Sipadan, as only 120 people can snorkel or dive each day and each company only gets a certain amount of permits. We were lucky enough to get permits for both days we wanted to dive.

Our first day, we rented a camera from the dive shop so we have some great pictures of numerous sharks, turtles and a plethora of other fish we spotted. Riki took all the photos, of course. GoPro cameras seem to be the popular choice among divers, but we have not jumped on that bandwagon. Our underwater camera is a few years old and only goes to 10 meters. So renting for a day was a great option.

We saw too many things to list, but the highlights included a brief encounter with a hammerhead shark (not pictured as he was too fast and the visibility wasn’t great), tons of reef sharks, white & black tipped sharks, green turtles, puffer fish, school of large barracuda, bumphead parrotfish and a giant clam.

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Trigger fish which later terrorized members of our group

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Our surface intervals were spent on Sipadan Island, watching monitor lizards. There is no accommodation on the island anymore – it is protected, and the permit system keeps the number of visitors down. To dive here, you must be an advanced diver or completed 20 dives. I don’t think that’s because the area is difficult to dive, but to keep people from messing with the coral. Though we did see someone standing on the coral, oblivious to the woman yelling obscenities at them to get off it.

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As much as I love having pictures, I am glad we only took the camera for one day. I prefer my dive buddy to be close to me rather than chasing sharks off into the distance for the perfect shot. I’m still pretty nervous in the water and the equipment wasn’t in the best shape. I am very glad we were able to get 6 dives in on Sipadan. It is supposed to be one of the best dive sites in the world. The visibility wasn’t great and the water was sometimes very chilly, but the amount of fauna we spotted was amazing. It was like: oh a shark (turn head) and a turtle (turn head) shark, turtle, turtle, shark, puffer fish, shark, and so on and so on.

Next stop: Sukau to see orang utans in the wild.