Borneo was never really on our itinerary, it seemed too remote and to be completely honest we didn’t know much about the island and the peculiar boundaries between Malaysia in the north, Indonesia in the south, with Brunei adding a very small punctuation on the north coast.
However, Borneo does have a certain mystique about it. What is more we don’t know anyone who has been there, so it would give us marvellous bragging rights. Sam and I have rehearsed the ways in which in future conversations in company, regardless of the subject matter, we could interject with the line “yesss, that reminds me of our time in Borneo…“
Of course it would be churlish to say that was our sole motivation…but it is an added bonus. The real reason for our visit was the prospect of seeing the Old Man of the Jungle again. Experiencing Orang-Utans in the wild in Sumatra had whetted our appetite and the chance to see more in Borneo was irresistible. Plus it’s the only place to see the Cyrano De Bergerac of the ape world in the wild: the Proboscis Monkey.
First stop was Kuching, the capital of Sarawak province, in north west Borneo. Kuching has a real charm to it. Unlike other parts of Malaysian Borneo it didn’t suffer from too much Allied bombing during the Japanese occupation in WWII and as a result it has retained much of its colonial architecture. In fact it reminded us of one of our favourite destinations so far (also in Malaysia) George Town in Penang.
And as with every town we’ve visited in Malaysia, street art thrives and brightens up the streetscape with vibrant colours and images:
Food options are plentiful, and we had some of the best meals of our journey here in upbeat atmospheric bars and restaurants, one of which was the original Courthouse, converted into a really cool eatery.
Running through the centre of town is the Sarawak River with a backdrop of mountains in the distance that further adds to the beauty of the city. Almost as remarkable is the local Parliament which is a real statement building – quite what the statement is, wasn’t clear to us, but subtle it is not. See if you can spot it in the photo below…
But as much as we like the city, the real draw is the fun in the jungle. We had read about a fabulous kayaking trip down the Semadang River which we duly booked. As it’s low season we were the only visitors and had the guide to ourselves. After a bit of a dodgy start on quite a rapid section we got into our “stride” and quietly paddled downstream with the current, enjoying the sights and sounds of dense jungle from river level. It was a beautiful experience.
Although you can do this as a Kayaking novice, the tuition we received on the distinctly un-jungle like River Adur in Sussex before we set off on our trip certainly paid off. Just look at this technique….
It was time for another haircut to follow the excellent ones in Vietnam, Loas and Thailand. I wandered into Kuching’s Chinatown area and came across a very small barbers shop. The rather elderly hairdresser had a dashing hairstyle so I thought I was in safe hands. After some rudimentary sign language he went to work. I should have known better as the only English word he knew was “short”…and that is what I got. On reflection I should have found the barber who cut his Barnet!
From Kuching we made the short hop eastward by air to Kota Kinabalu further up the coast, although we very nearly refused to board the plane for obvious reasons. I’m pleased to report that it performs better than the team…..and stayed up for longer.
Like a lot of the developments on the north coast of Borneo, KK is a strip wedged between the sea and the jungle. It only ever takes a short walk to be back in the encroaching overgrowth with the soundtrack of cicadas as we found when we took the Heritage Trail around KK and looked down on the City from a hilltop.
We’ve had some wonderful day trips on our travels, usually as a result of careful planning and thorough reading. But we finally came a cropper in KK when, due to tiredness and hunger, we lazily booked a tour from our Hotel without doing some proper research. On paper it looked good: a visit to see Proboscis Monkeys and Fireflies, having first stopped in to see KK’s picturesque Mosque by a lake. We were assured numbers would be low, due to it being rainy season, and we wouldn’t spend ages on the coach collecting other passengers. Things started to go a bit pear-shaped when we shot past the Mosque without so much as a glance towards it. We picked up a nice group of Filipinos and headed for a short lunch stop of 20 minutes. An hour or so later Sam & I found ourselves picking large chunks of chicken out of our veggie fried rice, wondering when the journey would resume. We eventually got to our destination where we were joined by a couple of dozen Chinese tourists and then crammed onto a boat to go in search of the Monkeys. As we weaved around other boats on the river it was noticeable that we were the only boat of passengers not wearing life jackets. The search was fruitless – not surprising given the number of outboard motors roaring up and down the river chasing any sign of movement in the jungle and the noise of all the tourists on our boat. We did briefly see a distant Proboscis Monkey shape on a tree, but it didn’t really feel like a proper sighting. At least a Sea-Otter prevented the boat trip being a complete washout.
The time taken searching in vain for Monkeys meant that we had a headlong dash to see the “magical sunset” alongside several other coach loads, just arriving in time to see the sun slip away.
It was pleasant enough, but our spirits were getting lower by the minute as we were herded back onto the coach and taken back to the river for dinner, which resembled a school canteen with everyone pushing and shoving to get to the food. After another prolonged period of time-wasting, we began our 45 minute trip to see the fireflies. The seats on our boat were too low to see out, so we were told to put our feet on the seats and sit on the hard back of the seats. Not only was this intensely uncomfortable, but being a good foot taller than most of the other passengers, my head was rammed onto the roof of our boat. Crammed onto a boat with a bunch of screaming Chinese tourists wasn’t quite how we planned to witness the remarkable phenomenon of watching fireflies lighting up the pitch-black like a sea of magical moving Christmas lights. Worse still our guide encouraged them to scream louder (the Chinese tourists that is, not the fireflies). After just 20 minutes we headed back to the quay. Normally we would have complained about being sold short on time, but on this occasion it was a blessed relief. The final insult on a fairly disastrous day was an interminable meandering two hour coach drive back, where we dropped off just about every other passenger before reaching our hotel. On our travels we have developed a stoic outlook to life and we agreed that rather than be irritated and let it fester we would learn from the experience and never book that sort of trip again. A decision that paid dividends a week later.
From KK we decided to treat ourselves to a couple of days on the beautiful Manukan Island, just 20 minutes by boat. Our trip over was delayed by an hour but we were handsomely compensated with a wonderful room upgrade, taking a Villa on the hill overlooking one of the secluded beaches.
The island gets quite busy with day trippers until mid-afternoon when the last boat back to KK departs the pier and you have the Island to just yourself and the handful of other hotel guests.
The beaches are stunning and the waters full of fascinating life, including the largest Sea-Urchins we’ve ever seen. Apparently Reef Sharks are common as well but we didn’t encounter any while snorkelling, but we did come across a family of Clown Fish, with their beautiful distinctive markings.
Manukan also boasts “Sunset Point” where you can get an uninterrupted view of the sun going down over the South China Sea. It was a 1.5km walk along a good path through the jungle and was really worth the effort, revealing wonderful changing colours and shades. The walk back afterwards was more of a challenge, as this had to be done in the pitch black with just a torch to guide us safely along the pathway.
With it being Wet Season the Island was sparsely populated and in the evening the restaurant was very quiet. As soon as we arrived a musical trio spotted us and were quickly at our table side singing to us. Normally we find this a bit cringey, but these guys were great, asking us where we were from before launching into a tribute to The Beatles. In fact, they were a bit of a Jukebox, name a band or singer & they always seemed to have it covered! On our second night at the restaurant, having cornered us again and in deference to our nationality they announced that they would now play a song by Pink Floyd. “This will be interesting” I said to Sam, but they proceeded to fire off an unexpectedly fine acoustic version of “Wish You Were Here”. Possibly not the most romantic of tunes to serenade us with, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Onward our journey across Borneo went, to east coast and the fascinating town of Sandakan where we enjoyed two very different but hugely satisfying days. Sandakan itself is not an especially pretty town having been thoroughly bombed by the Allies during the tail end of Japanese occupation. In fact it was the WWII history of the town that led us to discover more about the Sandakan Death Marches and visit the Sandakan Memorial Park that commemorates fallen Allies and civilian victims. The Sandakan Death Marches have been overshadowed by other Japanese atrocities such as the Death Railway on the River Kwai and Changi Prison in Singapore. However, it’s a story that really deserves more awareness and the Memorial Park is a fine monument to the tragic events that took so many lives.
Allied Prisoners of War were moved to Sandakan to construct an airstrip for the Japanese Army. Living in squalid conditions and as defeat loomed the Japanese forced the 2,500+ malnourished, sick and dying prisoners on a number of forced marches: 140 miles through the Borneo jungle. Of the 1,793 Australian and 641 British prisoners only six survived.
There is an excellent App that acts as a guide to the site, detailing conditions, escape attempts, the torture of prisoners and the Death Marches themselves. Regardless of whether you visit Sandakan you can download an App from the usual places and learn more about this shocking episode – search for “Sandakan Memorial Park”. It’s well worth listening to and looking at the images provided with the App. Having recently visited Kanchanaburi it made us realise how little we know about the conflict in the Pacific in WWII and given us an appetite to learn more.
We popped by the beautiful colonial house of the American author Agnes Keith who wrote a few books about her life in Borneo, including her years as a prisoner detained by the Japanese on an island with fellow civilians. The house was gorgeous and judging by the photos on display retained many original features and furniture.
After wandering around the house we strolled across to the garden and treated ourselves to an English Afternoon Tea that included rather splendid scones with cream and jam!
Most tourists to Sandakan use it as a base to visit the jungle and three local sanctuaries that protect endangered species: Orang-Utans, Proboscis Monkeys, and Sun Bears. After our problems in KK we planned this much more carefully and were rewarded with one of the best days of our trip.
As the natural habitat of Orang-Utans has been lost to the growth in the cultivation of palm oil, the Sepilok Sanctuary has been protecting and nurturing for decades, including orphaned Orang-Utans who can enjoy the safety of a nursery area before joining the adolescents and adults in the neighbouring jungle. We watched them as they played and frolicked, looking full of joy, curiosity……and bananas!
What is wonderful about the Sanctuary is that other than the nursery area there are no boundaries, no fences. There is a feeding time and if Orang-Utans turn up that is lovely to see, but it’s not guaranteed, and if none arrive, well that is just fine, they are out there in the jungle looking after themselves.
They are truly majestic creatures and it’s been an unforgettable honour to see firsthand in Borneo and in Sumatra.
It’s a similar story a few miles up the road where the Proboscis Monkeys face the same threats – particularly from Palm Oil. Having failed miserably to see some in KK we were lucky enough to see an Alpha Male and his harem right in front of us….and what a sight he is……
Apparently male Proboscis Monkeys are permanently erect, although we did see some evidence from the fellow above to question. I imagine it would be hugely inconvenient swinging through the trees having to constantly watch out for branches that might damage your manhood!
We were very close to these bizarre monkeys – the largest Monkey species and the only one that boasts two stomachs to deal with the poisonous vegetation they can eat. And as for that nose – it’s truly mesmerising ….although the other male protuberance does tend to distract you from it!
Sun Bears are the smallest of the Bear species and their sanctuary, although in a large area of jungle, does have fencing, more for their own protection than anything.
Poachers have been a particular problem for Sun Bears and we saw one that had rough markings around its belly that was probably caused by being chained.
It was a sad sight on a such a fabulous creature. But as with the other sanctuaries there is a real sense of optimism that work is being done not only to protect these marvellous animals, but to see them thrive in their natural environments. As we’ve said before in the blogs, you really do run out of superlatives to try to properly describe the pure joy and exhilaration you feel seeing unadulterated beauty.
The final word on Borneo must go to the jungle, always there, ever present with its wild sounds and lush shades of green. It’s both a beautiful and intimidating presence constantly reminding you that its the boss in Borneo. I think it’s that sense of the untamed that makes Borneo feel so special and makes its protection more important than ever. If you get the chance, go, you wont regret it and you will never forget it.
Next: Bali – Our Final Stop After Six Months of Travelling Through S/E Asia.