So maybe you’ve been wondering what we’ve been up to. Maybe not.
There were some setbacks for Riki as its not possible to buy many things in Switzerland that he uses for his art. However, after much trial and error, and some importing thanks to family and friends in the States, he has found a combination that he likes enough and is now able to finish some of his pieces. All are on wood that we found or were given, which was also a tough task, as there is no abundance of dumpsters here as there is in New Orleans.
Here are some of the latest pieces, mostly by Riki. Most are incomplete, either lacking the final coat, or completely in progress. Enjoy!
People are always asking what our favorite part of the trip was. That is an impossible question and I usually follow it up with asking for a category, like best nature, or best cave, or best food. We’ve seen too many amazing things to narrow it down to one.
We started this list somewhere along the way and have updated it as we go. There is a story behind every one, many of which are somewhere in our blog. For the most part, Riki and I agree on these – but I’ve noted where we don’t. There are a lot of ties. This is by no means exhaustive as we could find a best and worst of all 275 days, but I’ll spare you. Here are the highlights, and lowlights:
Best Meal: Hanoi, Vietnam – sautéed pork with thick strips of coconut
Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons
Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water
Best snack: Fried fish powder & Broad beans
Weirdest food: Wood meat balls in Myanmar, Hue clams in Vietnam & tarantulas
Best coffee: Vietnam
Friendliest locals: Myanmar, but if you want just kids, then Laos
Most annoying tourists: Chinese in tour groups
Best outfits: Men – Monks with umbrellas in Laos & Myanmar (longyi – skirts), Women in Vietnam with their day pajamas
Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair
Cheapest meal: Pho in Vietnam
Best new vegetable: Morning glory
Best beer: Bia Hoi in Hanoi
Worst tuktuks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – all just scams
Most painful moment: Sun/wind burn on my hands while motobiking the Thakek Loop in Laos
Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man
Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos
Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum
Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore
Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali
Ugliest building: Government view tower in Bagan, Myanmar (so ugly it’s not pictured)
Best attraction: The Himalayas & Orangutans
Best Rice Terraces: Annapurna, Nepal (most impressive) & Ubud, Bali (most beautiful)
Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee
Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places
Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam
Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & Mrauk-U, Myanmar
Worst dogs: Kathmandu’s gangs who bark all night
Most touristy thing we did: Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam & the bamboo train in Battambong, Cambodia
Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand
Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia
Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, Indonesia
Best bike ride: Vang Vieng, Laos (though our butts hurt for a week later) & Lonely Planet city tour of Mandalay, Myanmar
Worst bike ride: Julie’s flat tires at Inle Lake, Myanmar (though I got to ride in a dump truck)
Dirtiest place: The river in Kathmandu, Nepal
Cleanest place: Downtown Singapore
Only place with a shopping mall on their currency: Brunei (also the strangest city we’ve been to)
Best skyline: Singapore because its variegated
Best land-based wildlife: Chitwan National Park in Nepal & Sukau in Borneo, Malaysia
Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia
Most interesting city: Kathmandu
Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)
Best propaganda: Vietnam
Coolest flag: Nepal
Safest street food: Thailand
Best night markets: Thailand
Best music: Nepal
Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival
Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)
Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them
Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia
Best public buses: Bangkok (and cheapest)
Biggest mistake: To be determined (though we are out of the incubation period for malaria so not taking those pills long enough is off the list)
Best decision: Halong Bay, Vietnam timing (going in October instead of December)
Biggest regret: Phu Quoc, Vietnam (over-priced)
Best Street Art: Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Best art purchase: Nepalese & Balinese paintings
Most useful purchase: sink stopper for laundry
Most useful item acquired: free wet wipes on buses
Best local quirk: Kissing noise in Myanmar(when ordering at bar/restaurant) & kids waving (all over)
Worst local quirk: Betel nut chewing and spitting noises
Hardest thing to find: sunscreen without whitening
Most used items: Travel pillow & electronics
Best item b(r)ought: Riki pants, tablet, umbrella
Most useless item: umbrella
Wish we had: Swiss army knife & variety of shirts
Best new game/time passer: Jenga & podcasts
Crazy things we are used to now:
trash in streets, long bus rides, motorbikes without helmets, bottled water, using a fork & spoon to eat, being stared at, being generally unclean, carrying tissues, crossing the street amidst hectic scenarios, walking on the left side of the sidewalk/escalator, never understanding the language
Things we missed:
Food – bread with flavor, Clothing – variety, Culture – western toilets & real showers
I still catch myself hesitating before using tap water to brush my teeth. I am tempted to head left when approaching people, walking up stairs, and standing on an escalator. Luckily, we aren’t driving anywhere, so the awkwardness is just that, not dangerous. I can’t shake the feeling that I should be out walking around all day. I want to eat chicken and noodles, not sausage and pretzels. I can’t buy food from a stall and I can’t get anyone to smile back at me on the street. But Zurich’s not all that bad. It has all you can drink water in fountains on every block and there’s no chance of finding a critter in the toilet bowl.
According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans. And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far. We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend. Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news. We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases. I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures. For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen. This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted. We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions. These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash. The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip. We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages. For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).
First, the average accommodation prices. Keep in mind these are double occupancy. Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost. Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.
We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.
Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries. However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw. In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food. Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants. Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu. These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal. Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning). My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time. Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.
Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries. This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking. Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.
Some tips for planning:
We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia). These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers. It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently. Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive. We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided). Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+. We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us. It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles. For a long trip like this, it was worth it. For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.
Nepal is a tough one to write. We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died. It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete. However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (email@example.com). It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.
In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked. The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort. Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.
Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive. While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours. We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia. Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.
As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia. For this was the place to do it. By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal. And it was so worth it. Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month. You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam. Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.
In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything. Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive. There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.
MONEY. Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar). We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs. Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills. Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards. We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving). Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards. With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.
To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply. Estimate accommodation according to above numbers. Spend $3-8 on food per day. Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar. Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40. We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service. Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop. For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab. Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.
Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination. They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet. If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do. Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here. Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way. Our recommendations will be in the next post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our border crossing from Brunei into Sarawak, Malaysia was as breezy as could be. Besides stopping us to ask if we had been to Korea, we were barely questioned and our luggage never even had to leave the bus. Presumably, this is because Brunei is so strict about what comes into its borders (ie our customs form for a bottle of rum) and Malaysia must assume we couldn’t possibly have gotten anything past Brunei security on the way in.
Our next two stops in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia were Miri and Sibu – stopovers on the journey across the island to the much larger Kuching, and our final stop in Asia. Yes, that’s it. At this point we had just two weeks left. Our plan was to slowly make our way to Kuching, but this was not to be for a few reasons. One, these towns had little to offer in the way of attractions and two, well, we’re just plain tired of moving around. And three, it just rained and rained and rained.
So our first stop, Miri was supposed to be a party city, so we booked two nights ahead of time. We probably didn’t need both. We did find some interesting handicraft stores and a bookstore with bargain books in English. Otherwise, we avoided our hostel room, which was the size of a queen bed plus three feet on one side so the door could open (not exagerating – too small to even photograph how small it was). The bed hit three walls and there was no window. We decided the party reference we had heard must refer to the two or three bars along one of the main roads that serve up expensive imported beer. We did find a “historic” area that was run down and covered in advertisements and banners. Here are the 8 pictures Riki took.
An 8 hour bus ride later and we arrived in Sibu, which was worse. This is a jumping off point for people going upriver a few hours by boat to some villages with traditional longhouses. But we didn’t know that was the only reason people stayed in Sibu. When we arrived in Sibu we took the public bus to the city center and walked around looking for a cheap place to stay. We had looked online for options, found little information and decided to wing it, like we have in so many other instances. The first 5 or 6 places we looked were so bare and grim that is was confusing. Not a single worthy place to stay – and we are used to basic. And then Riki figured it out – its strictly a port town for sailors. These places were meant for hourly guests – not overnighters like ourselves. Brothels as we later read in the guide book. So we sucked it up and walked into a much more expensive place (about $20) and found a huge room with tons of windows and a spotless floor. It even had a separate shower that didn’t spray the toilet – a rarity over here. All this walking around, we did in the pouring rain, with our big bags.
We did our usual exploratory walk around town that night and came to the conclusion that we didn’t want to stay any longer. It took some research, but we found a boat to Kuching the next day. We left in a hurry, but not before trying konpia – Sibu’s version of the bagel. Our hotel receptionist walked us a few minutes through some hectic streets to a shop where they were freshly made. Probably the best part of our stay. A great replacement for our normal fare – chicken and rice. There are no pictures from Sibu – a first.
Our 5 hour ferry ride to Kuching was rainy the whole way, but the boat had movies and we were grateful for the change of pace from bumpy buses.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Next stop – one day back in Kota Kinabalu to pick up our stored bag before heading to Brunei to spend Riki’s thirtieth birthday.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
After a four hour bus ride from the west coast of Malaysia to the east coast, we bought boat tickets for the next ferry to Tioman Island. We still had a few hours to spare and we spent them buying supplies and enjoying the air-conditioning and free wifi at the local KFC (perhaps my first KFC encounter ever). We eventually boarded the ferry, after a chaotic check-in and completely confusing process (no queueing here). We spent the next two hours in the frigid boat hold, so cold the windows were completely fogged on the outside.
Luckily, the end justifies the means, and we arrived on Salang Beach just before dark. Having called ahead, we found our beach front bungalow to be simple, but just our style. This being the “party beach” we were at the end and it was pretty quiet.
We spent the next few days before our friends arrived reading, swimming and relaxing in the hammocks along the sand. Cats are everywhere on the island, and our place had particularly friendly and well cared for kittens. Great fun watching them attempt to climb palm trees and run around in the sand (aka giant litter box). We also glimpsed a giant black squirrel, which I have been hunting since Penang and some monkeys clamoring along the shoreline.
We hung out with some people from our hotel and went to a “party” where Riki sang Taylor Swift with some German girls. The party scene was pretty low-key, though on the weekend, people from Singapore flocked to the island. And so did our friends.
We were delighted to meet up with our New Orleans friends, this being the first time we’ve had visitors, though really we were crashing their family vacation. Same, same. Tioman Island is duty-free, so the alcohol and chocolate are relatively cheap. Duty-free makes it sound fancy, but I don’t think there was even an ATM on our beach, there was no cell service and wifi was only available in a few spots. Rustic, right?
We went on a snorkeling trip with our friends, and 20 other tourists. On a boat made for 12 (there was a sign). We made a few stops and saw some beautiful coral. And lots of colorful fish. I managed not to get burnt, courtesy of snorkeling in my t-shirt, though if I were like most on our boat, I could have just worn a life jacket for sun protection.
For lunch, we stopped at a white sand beach, where we were discarded while the captain drove off to fix the engine. Shortly after our arrival, three giant monitor lizards must have smelled our food and came to harass us from the forest. They must get fed here regularly, as they were not afraid of us and our guide threw chicken bones and sausage at them. Same guide who was feeding the fish loaves of bread. It’s not something I like to see. I’d rather the wildlife stay wild.
The next day we all boarded the ferry back to Mersing, where we caught the bus to Singapore and the others went back west for a day before meeting up with us again.
It took us way more than the 7 hours we were told to get from Penang to Malacca. More like 10. But the seats were big and we had plenty of NPR podcasts. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the bus station, the last local bus had already left and we had to take a taxi to our hostel. We encountered one of the best run hostels on our trip. They thought of everything – library, large kitchen, lots of information provided, and even light breakfast (see Hotels List page for info). Such a contrast to the last few months.
Although it was late, we had been sitting all day on a bus and decided to check out the night market on Jonker St. It was completely packed with people and even had a stage set up for karaoke – a big draw apparently.
Malacca, or Melaka is a UNESCO site with loads of historic buildings and diverse cuisine. So on our first day, we went to the movies. I know, classy, but it was raining. Pouring really. And first we stopped at the free Customs Museum – which was really just a collection of illegal items collected over the years – including bottles of ordinary alcohol and “pornographic” Bali statues (prudently clothed in scarves). Avengers 2 was showing, in English and we sat in a giant auditorium for a few hours waiting for the weather to clear. Much cheaper than the States, though the concessions selection was limited to caramel popcorn.
After, we walked in the stifling post-rain humidity up to St. Paul’s Hill, a Portuguese church with a Dutch graveyard. One thing that makes Malaysia so interesting is the combination of so many influences. There is a large number of Chinese descendents, as well as Indian, and even a smaller Portuguese population. Most importantly, of course, that means great food. We haven’t eaten so well in ages (besides Penang). Fried rice has been far too long our staple of choice. Now its naan and noodles.
We spent a lot of time just wandering around the small, colonial streets. The buildings have loads of character, which makes for great photos (and lots of them). We even visited a free architecture museum, which had wonderful models of different building styles and way more text than we could bring ourselves to absorb.
We probably spent more time here than most people, but as I like to say, “all we have is time.” Though, it’s no longer true. We have a flight booked at the end of June to return to Europe, so our Asia trip is coming to an end.
We then booked another bus across the country to Mersing, the gateway of Tioman Island, to meet up with some friends and spend a few days in the sun (or shade).