Borneo – It’s Wild Man!

Hello Handsome!

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. 

Old Lady of the Jungle

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.

Old Kuching

And as with every town we’ve visited in Malaysia, street art thrives and brightens up the streetscape with vibrant colours and images:

Kuching is obsessed with cats!

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…

Now that is what I call a Town Hall!

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! 

On returning to the hotel I checked my collection of hats!

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.

Concrete Jungle v Jungle Jungle

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.

The lady on the right is almost certainly taking a selfie!

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 View From Our Villa Balcony

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 Pier at Manukan island

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.

Clowning Around

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. 

The Stunning Colours of Manukan Island: A View From the Pier

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. 

Looking Serene: The Site of the Sandakan WWII POW Camp

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. 

In Remembrance of Sandakan Death Marches

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.

Agnes Keith’s House

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!

Tea for Two

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. 

A Close Encounter: Orang-Utans can get very close at Sepilok

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.

Loving the Banana Feet Look

They are truly majestic creatures and it’s been an unforgettable honour to see firsthand in Borneo and in Sumatra.

The Old Man of the Jungle

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……

Well Hello There…

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! 

Male on the Left, Female on the Right

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.

Sun Bear – love the Batman logo!

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.

Snuffling Sun Bears

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.

Calmer Sumatra: Indonesia’s Mystical Western Isle.


Here’s Looking At You Kid

Poor old Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, the western-most island of the Indonesian archipelago. Wherever followed Singapore had drawn the short straw. To be honest, even if we had hated Singapore we would struggle to take Medan to our heart – it’s such an unlovable city.

Things started badly when we jumped in our taxi for the hour’s drive from the Airport to the city centre. We don’t know when our driver last rested but about twenty minutes into the journey an alarmed Sam turned to me and said “I think he’s falling asleep John!”

Instead of panicking I maintained a David Niven like calm and undertook discreet inspection of his eyes in the rear view mirror which confirmed that he was driving with approximately 2mm of vision in his left eye, while his right eye, having satisfied itself that its partner could take the load,  was completely shut.

Thankfully at this point we turned off the “motorway” and ground to a halt in Medan’s crippling, choking traffic – never have I been so happy to be crawling along at a few miles an hour. The worst that could happen if our driver nodded off would be a gentle kiss on the bumper on  the vehicle in front.

Bizarrely this seemed to wake the driver up and he started completing his own facial…..while driving. Selecting from a small selection of tweezers stored in the driver door handle recess he gamely plucked away at offending hairs. Some of these were in quite an awkward spot necessitating him craning his head backwards so that his drowsy eye(s) were squinting at the interior roof, while continuing to negotiate Medan’s crazy traffic. I was directly behind our driver so couldn’t see exactly what was going on. Sam, however, had a front row seat and seemed to be mesmerised and appalled in equal measure. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t look away.

The upside of an unappealing, traffic choked city are the hotel rates where you can get 5 star accommodation for under £50 a night. On entering our plush new home for the next three days we turned to each other and without saying anything telepathically agreed it was best if we didn’t leave this oasis of calm until check out.

Regular readers will have noted that by paragraph four or five of our blog we would have inserted quite a few photos bringing to life our words. Well, in this case if a picture speaks a thousand words, no picture speaks far more about the grottiness of Medan!

However, apart from the hotel it did have two redeeming features. Firstly the people are fantastically friendly – probably astonished to see tourists in their city – calling out “Hello’s” and “where you from?” Surprisingly none asked “why the hell are you here?”. As we clambered up and down pavements resembling bomb sites, dodging cars as we were forced into roads, a gentleman in uniform sidled up to us and with an apologetic smile said “Welcome to Medan” in perfect sarcastic English. Heartwarming.

As our travels in Sumatra unfolded we have discovered that they are amongst the warmest people we have met on our travels – which is saying a lot given how friendly people are in S/E Asia.

The other positive thing to report is Medan’s only tourist attraction – the home of a benevolent Chinese businessman that has been maintained and restored beautifully. Records show how he invested in local schools, education and welfare to develop Medan. We are glad he can’t see what’s become of his philanthropy.

Tjong A Fie Mansion

Things worked out quite well really as Medan’s lack of attractions gave us an opportunity to rest up after our hectic Singapore schedule.

If we can’t make any recommendations about Medan (other than “don’t go”), the rest of Sumatra has been fantastic, swapping an uninspiring City for some of the most wonderful wildlife we have ever seen.

We took a three hour car journey north to the small town of Bukit Lawang which sits on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. It was here on a one day trek into the jungle that we hoped to fulfil a lifetimes ambition – to see Orang-Utans in the wild.

All smiles…little did we know

Our guide was optimistic, but reminded us that there were no guarantees of seeing any, regardless of how long we searched. The heat and hilly terrain meant that we were certainly going to earn our sighting.

Rickety Jungle Bridge

After about three hours trekking we had fleetingly seen a giant squirrel (think dog in a tree and you’re 90% there) and two dullard peacocks who didn’t have the fancy feather display thing going on.

We came across three German trekkers and their guide who said they had no luck spotting our ape cousins either. Hot, bothered and disappointed we sat down and had some fruit, when something remarkably bad happened. One of the German trekkers pulled out a ukulele from her bag and started singing “Me and Bobby McGee”. Who in God’s name thinks “what shall I pack for the trek in the jungle today?  I know I’ll take my ukulele!” 

This was the most toe-curling exhibition of backpacker conceitedness we had encountered in five months of travelling. As we sat there, opened mouthed in horror and barely able to conceal our loathing, we have to confess that Sam wanted to stick the ukulele… can guess the next bit….and in deference to my own German heritage I longed to burst into a hearty out-of-tune rendition of “Deutchland Uber Alles”. I know that is wrong, but we were tired and fed up…..and we cant stand that song unless it’s sung by Janis.

Maybe if we had, karma would have dealt us a bad hand and we wouldn’t have achieved our ambition. As it was after a further couple of energy sapping hours and just at the point when I thought Sam was going to drop from exhaustion we came across a group of Kiwi’s (san ukulele) who were staring upward in awe. There about 20 feet above us in the trees were three Orang-Utans: a mother and baby, and a youngster (about 8 years old our guide judged).

What a beauty

This was a moment when we wanted time to stand still and savour the amazing creatures in front of us. The grace, power, dexterity and those eyes staring back at us, indifferent to our astonishment. Then slowly moving, next branch, next tree, onwards, carefully clutching her baby.

I really don’t know how long we spent with our necks craned upward, with crazy smiles on our faces, just wanting to say thank you to the Orang-utans for letting us briefly share their world. Our guide knew how much this meant to us and was thrilled to see us so happy.  There was an element of sadness in the encounter though as our guide said that the mother was trying to leave her eight year old daughter behind so that she would become independent, but the daughter continued to gamely follow her mother and baby sibling a few yards behind.

Having walked so far it was time to have lunch, but before we could sit down there was more commotion in the trees and our guide beckoned us up yet another hill, pointing to a family of white faced Gibbons swinging about in the treetops. Being much lighter than the Orang-utans, they can go far higher, and being more nimble they easily leapt from tree to tree. Orang-utans are a tough act to follow, but they were splendid, striking wonderful shapes high above us.

Hanging Around

Incredible body shapes

White Face and Hands

After seeing these funkiest of gibbons we sat down and had our much delayed lunch, overwhelmed, exhausted and very, very happy. We were told that our trek would end with a rafting trip down the river rather than a long hike home – music to our ears. On exiting the jungle and approaching the river bed a man greeted us with our “raft” – three large inner tubes lashed together with rope:

Your transport has arrived Sir!

Our guide said that it usually took about 30 minutes to float downstream back to Bukit Lawang, but in view of the recent heavy rain, the river was full, fast and it would be far quicker – he said this with a manic grin that didn’t leave his face for the next fifteen minutes. What followed was great fun as we careered down river, kangarooing up, down and over rapids with our pilots using just bamboo rods to steer us between rocks.


Stuck on Repeat

Our travel bible warned us that when travelling any distance in Sumatra you will usually experience a spine shattering journey at some point. So it was when we made the EIGHT hour journey by car from Bukit Lawang to Samosir Island on Lake Toba. To give you an idea of how bad the roads are in Sumatra the distance between the two is about 150 miles. You would think that meant we pootled along at 20mph – if only! Allowing for a couple of breaks we spent over 7 hours alternating between hurtling head-long towards oncoming traffic or bouncing up and down at 2mph over the most potholed surfaces (I can’t dignify what we were driving on with the term “road”). It’s hard to say which was worse, but this was a journey I wouldn’t wish on anybody with the possible exception of Indonesia’s Minister for Transport.

After a couple of hours our driver popped a CD on – a funny eclectic mix. As The Foundations “Build Me Up Buttercup” came on Sam said “oh I like this tune” – “you won’t in six hours” I replied. And so it proved as the CD was left on repeat replaying, I think, seven times. Whenever we hear any of those songs again it will remind us of that day. But you know what they say – no pain, no gain and as we neared our destination of Parapat, we got our first glimpse of Lake Toba and Samosir Island:


Samosir Island and Lake Toba

When we planned our trip to Lake Toba we were excited about the prospect of the stunning beauty of the volcanic countryside. However, we learned that as recently as June of this year a ferry sank on the lake with 190 lives lost. An appalling tragedy caused by overloading of passengers and sailing in bad weather. It’s the sort of avoidable disaster that seems to be too common in Indonesia. It was a sombre feeling crossing the lake on water that gently rippled beneath us.

The Ferry from Parapet

Lake Toba has a remarkable history. 75,000 years ago it was the site of a super-volcanic eruption that caused a mini-ice age, with ash being deposited as far as Africa. Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world measuring a staggering 100km long, up to 30km wide and depths reaching 500 meters. Sitting in the middle of the lake is Samosir Island with its own claim to fame being the worlds largest island on an island.

Approaching Tuk-Tuk, Samosir Island

It’s created a stunning rugged landscape that constantly reminds you of the latent power rumbling away beneath our feet – brought home to us more prosaically by the advice on “what to do in the event of an earthquake” in our lodgings. In these parts it isn’t a question of “if” but of “when”.

The best way to get about the Island is to either hire a scooter for a day to investigate and look at the scenery from different angles, or get on the lake itself with a kayak – we spent a couple of days doing both.

Sam sporting her “Hello Kitty” crash helmet!

After a day whizzing around on a 125cc scooter, it was lovely to clamber into the kayak and enjoy the peace and quiet of the lake with only the sound of our paddles breaking the silence.


More often than not Lake Toba sits calmly reflecting all that looks down on it, while in contrast on its shoulders sit terrifically steep mountain-sides, dark and broody.

Lake Toba

The indigenous Batak people have a history as interesting as the geology on which they live. Isolated from other communities for centuries they practised animism: the belief in spirits in flora, fauna, land and humans. The real elephant in the room when it comes to the Bataks culture was their practice of ritual cannibalism. We visited a place called the “Stone Chairs” where Batak elders had sat in judgement on wrong-doers, some of whom would be killed and eaten for punishment. In more recent centuries condescending Missionaries of various faiths became a staple in the Batak Cookbook, until Dutch Colonialism brought it to an end. Booo!

Batak Wood Carvings


Distinctive wood carvings can be found throughout the Island, as can the unique Batak houses with their striking roofs, which are still in use today.

Batak Village Green Preservation

There was something quite “Wicker Man” about Samosir Island – and we liked it all the more for that. After the excitement of orang-utans, gibbons, rafting and spine shattering car journeys, it was an oasis of calm, quiet reflection –  watching the mood of the lake change with the weather.

Reflections on Lake Toba


Top Travelling Tips – Talc

In the five months we have been travelling, with the exception of our time in the Vietnamese highlands of Dalat, there have probably been only a small hand full of days when the temperature hasn’t topped 30 degrees. The heat and humidity finally got to Sam in Singapore when she complained of an unpleasant and unrelenting chaffing sensation. She stomped into a pharmacy (as far as one can stomp while chaffing) and asked for talc. I was initially perplexed by this having not used talc for as long as I can remember – but I didn’t dare question Sam’s motivation. What a revelation talc has been in our daily battle to manage the perspiration that springs from our pores, and of course reduce chaffing! Now, we begin our day with a liberal dousing of talc, that produces small clouds as we walk through the streets. We have no idea what people must think, but we don’t care – it provides some small but lovely respite. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next Up: Our next Indonesian Island: Java