Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Quick Stop in Kuala Lumpur

Hi again,

So where we left off, we were just about to fly back to Kuala Lumpur to spend a week on Peninsular Malaysia i.e. the mainland. We opted to spend 3 nights in KL exploring the capital followed by 4 nights in Penang, a large island off the Northern Coast renowned for its food and colonial history and architecture. The flight back was fairly uneventful although landing at 12am made it fun and much more expensive to get a transfer to our hostel. 

Our hostel, Fernloft, was in Chinatown and this seemed to be the perfect location to explore the central area of KL. We were right next to Central Market so this was our first stop touring the city the next day. We have been to a central market in nearly every major city we have visited in SE Asia so it takes a lot to stand out. KL's was probably the best so far- undercover, air-conditioned, two storeys, excellent selection of souvenirs and hawkers who didn't hassle, chase or try to con you! The stalls were all crazily colourful with jam-packed shelves, often playing loud local music so it was a bit of an attack on your senses....

After getting a few Christmas presents bought to take home with us and having at least an hours wander round the market, our stomachs started to growl. We found the BEST stall selling stuffed parathas which were amazing and cheap. 

After another look around the market we headed into Chinatown to check out the open air market there (nowhere near as good with knockoffs and terrible t-shirts being the main trade)

Chinatown is pretty much focused around Petaling Street but it's hard to miss with the huge number of red lanterns everywhere. There were also a number of food stalls selling all types of Chinese delicacies- some of which looked more appetising than others! Rob had to steer clear of the multiple stalls with baking hot ovens filled with roasting chestnuts due to his allergies as we dodged our way through the narrow bustling streets and the army of aggressive hawkers. 

Reaching the other end of Chinatown, we were greeted by a random Christmas shop which was totally out of place. 

Right next door to this was a Taiwanese Tea Shop called Chatime which did the best smoothies in the world and they were only £1.30! We've since discovered its a chain throughout Asia so we're on the lookout! Rob stopped for a quick haircut at a local barbers (he no longer looks like a vagrant thankfully) and after this we headed back to Central Market for another quick paratha stop (yes, they were that good) before heading back to the hostel. 

The next day, we headed out to see one of Kuala Lumpurs few tourist attractions, the Petronas Towers. A really iconic landmark, most people opt to go to the top, however for the £16.00 price tag, we couldn't really justify this. We had read that the first 400 visitors get a free entry, but apparently people queue each day from 6am and we didn't really feel it was worth it. Instead, we satisfied ourselves with going to the bottom to take some photos and simply seeing the building. 

We got the LRT to KLCC, our first metro since Hong Kong, and it was really quick and efficient plus it only cost about 20p. KLCC is mall adjacent to Petronas Towers and it is HUGE. Spanning about 8 storeys with every brand name under the sun, there was plenty here to do for the more luxurious traveller, however, even on a tight budget we still managed to spend a whole day here. 

There is a seriously amazing food court on the third floor where you can eat super cheap- we both got large burritos (not very authentic) for less than a fiver for both of us. After this we had a wander spying some familiar names from home-

We also took some ridiculous photos, much to the amusement of the other shoppers-

After this, we finally headed outside to see the towers which are very impressive. Standing in this district in KL you could easily be somewhere like New York or Tokyo (apart from the palm trees and tropical humidity!)

After this, we went back into the mall as we had discovered a cinema screening English-language films and we thought we would try our luck to see what was out. We had obviously been film-deprived as we bought tickets to see both Gravity and Prisoners. We thought the gap between the films would give us chance to see the Petronas Towers at night when they are meant to be more spectacular, and grab a quick dinner from one of the other stalls in the food court!

The first film, Gravity, was really good. The only downside was that the screen was freezing cold and a rather generously-sized Malaysian man fell asleep directly behind us after the first five minutes continuing to snore at a ridiculous volume for the proceeding 90 minutes. It was nice to do something normal though rather than sightseeing for one day! After this film we had some black pepper chicken (amazing) and a cupcake (even more amazing) before heading out to see the towers which were definitely more impressive against the night sky.

After our viewing we then returned for the second film. Seeing both films along with buying drinks for the second only cost us £5.00 each- take note British cinemas!!! We took the LRT back to the hostel ready to leave for Penang early the next day. Kuala Lumpur is a lovely city and we had a good time there, but perhaps as this blog has shown, it doesn't offer a huge amount in the way of tourist attractions. Two full days is definitely enough to explore the city and we were glad we could take it at a leisurely pace while enjoying some home comforts!! 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Sightseeing in Sabah

Upon leaving the Kinabatangan we were ready to head back to civilisation and see some more of what Sabah has to offer. As part of our tour, we had a city tour of Sandakan included, again with Wassil to accompany us. On the way back to the city we made a brief stop off at Gormantong Caves which is one of the largest providers of edible birds nests in the world, used by the Chinese for a variety of medicinal purposes and in birds nest soup. 

Upon arrival, we were fitted with flattering hard hats and equipped with a torch to take into the gloomy caves. Walking from the entrance of the attraction to the mouth of the cave along a boardwalk, we passed under the forest canopy, keenly watching for any more wildlife along the way. On the way we were also shown one of the birds nests which can sell for anywhere up to $50- not bad for something made out of saliva. We reached the huge mouth of the cave and were greeted by one of the vilest smells either of us have ever encountered. A combination of bird poo, bat poo, cockroaches and ammonia made it decidedly unpleasant.

Walking into the cave we saw a whole host of creepy crawlies- long-legged centipedes, cockroaches and spiders. One of my pet hates is cockroaches and having millions of them scuttling around my feet in a smelly cave did not equate to a happy experience for me, so I decided to go and sit outside after a few minutes inside. Rob continued the tour and saw rats (even more of a reason for me to leave), birds droppings, bats (including dead bats being eaten by cockroaches) and swiftlets who are the producers of the birds nests. Here are a few photos he took of these lovely things....

When he emerged from the cave, we waited a little while in case we could spot one of the orangutans who reside in the area. We couldn't see one so we made our way back to the van thinking there was nothing else to see. However, on the way we saw a flash of orange and thought our luck had changed! We went to further investigate, but discovered instead of an orangutan a red-leaf monkey (another primate indigenous to the region) perched on one of the trees. Their fur is very similar to orangutans although they are much smaller and have very long tails. Taking a closer look, we could see that their faces were far different to other monkeys, almost resembling that of a little old man.

We got back to the coach and made the two-hour drive back to Sandakan which turned into a bit of a road trip with the driver cracking out the Bon Jovi and various car snacks which him and Wassil seemed way too excited about. We stopped for another buffet lunch on the way, then went on to our first stop- the War Memorial Park. Another aspect of history which Rob and I were previously unaware of is the Japanese Occupation of Sabah during the latter half of World War II. The memorial park is dedicated to the thousands of Australian and British POWs who perished during the death marches of the time, along with the thousands of Sabah people who died as a result of the poor conditions in Borneo at the time of the occupation. 

The museum explained the history of the Japanese Occupation. When the Japanese occupied the area, they planned to use the land to build an airstrip. Contrary to the Geneva Convention, they shipped thousands of Australian and British POWs from Singapore to build it. The conditions that these soldiers were kept in were atrocious and it is hard to believe that this was the case in such recent years. Many died from tropical illnesses including malaria, and those that survived their years in the camp were forced in 1944 to march with supplies to Randau or be killed. The walk was nearly 300km and most were equipped only with loin clothes, already severely weakened by their time in the camps. Most died on the way and those that didn't were then forced to march back. Only 6 survived- all Australian- and they were all escapees. 

Sabah is now an independently governed state, although it is owned by Malaysia. Wassil provided us with some more information about the history of the region as a colony for various countries across the years. The other state which forms Malaysian Borneo is Sarawak and this has had an equally tumultuous history on its road to independence.

 After a thought-provoking visit, we made our way to the next stop on our tour- the Puu Jih Shih Temple. A modern Chinese Buddhist temple on the top of a hill this affords a gorgeous view over the harbour. Swastikas were seen all over the temple, the symbol of peace in Buddhism, pointing in the opposite direction to the Nazi symbol. One was even planted in flowers in the gardens. The temple had cost $5 million to build and is one of the most notable temples of the region.

After the temple we headed to our final destination, the local water village- Buli Sim Sim. The village is made up of houses and shops which are on stilts above the shallow sea water below, and which are all painted in bright colours. It seems to be something of a status symbol to live in the region and it apparently has some of the highest property prices in Sandakan. The locals obviously take pride in their houses and the fronts of the houses are very well maintained. 

Walking to the end of the jetty granted us an excellent view of some of the smaller islands off the Bornean Coast. One of the islands was where some of the 6 survivors of the death marches escaped to, and this tied the history of the region together in our minds.

Reaching the end of our tour, we were ready for some time to relax during our remaining few days in Sandakan. Recovering from a virus (which I think I accidentally transmitted to Wassil and Rob, oops) we did very little except have a few lie ins, watch too many DVDs, cook some food, indulge in some junk food and do a little bit of shopping. This all prepared us for our week in Peninsular Malaysia which we are currently enjoying...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Wonderful Wildlife on the Kinabatangan Part Two

The morning after our night walk we rose bright and early (5.30am ouch) and headed straight out to the boats to try and glimpse some wildlife in the early morning light. Clearly weather was not on our side with a large amount of morning mist, but we persevered and managed to spot some more proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques and plenty more hornbills. We also saw two species of eagles- serpent-crested which feeds predominantly on snakes and insects and the black-crested eagle which eats fish. A rarer species of macaque also appeared- a pig-tailed variety which was facing towards the river so we were able to see its outline, showing how much hairier it's face was than other species. 

After the cruise we had a good breakfast (including a rarity- baked beans!) and with our early morning catching up on us we went for a quick disco nap. After this, we got back into our attractive leech socks and welly combo and prepared for a daytime jungle walk making a 4km round trip to the nearby ox-bow lake. It was obviously much easier to spot wildlife in the daytime and we saw quite a few different species to those we had already encountered.

Insects were incredibly common in the jungle and we saw some HUGE millipedes one of which the guide kindly placed onto me. We also saw some ant hills with large biting ants, some pretty lantern insects which are normally nocturnal, a cricket, more spiders and various species of butterflies including an amazing black and white paper butterfly. Insects are pretty difficult to photograph but here are some of our best efforts...

Among the insects, we also spotted a tiny yet dangerous tree frog which looked very unassuming perched calmly on a leaf, but apparently touching it would make you ill for the next week.

There was also a snake scare as we saw a serpent-crested eagle swoop down into the trees but return empty-beaked. Wassil went to investigate further and firmly warned us to stay back as some deadly snakes reside in this part of the jungle. He couldn't find anything in the end and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Two of the species which we were most excited to see- wild orangutans and Bornean pygmy elephants were still proving elusive although we did find traces which indicated they weren't far away. Firstly we found a second orangutan nest above us and recently eaten fruit remnants on the ground, although without any sign of the ape. Secondly we found a number of elephant footprints imprinted deeply into the forest floor, although Wassil told us they hadn't been in the vicinity for the last two months. 

There were a huge number of different plant species within the jungle unsurprisingly. There were some cool fungi including one solitary mushroom growing out of some solidified elephant dung. There was also a tree which had served a fairly unique purpose. In the 19th century there was a tribe called the Headhunters in Borneo who had played a fairly gory role in the regions history. They would behead enemies and hang their heads on this, and other, trees as a deterrent and an offering to their god. It was also known that they did the same thing within their own homes. The bottom part of the tree also looked remarkably like a gorillas head...

We reached the oxbow lake after a 2 hour walk (2km in 2 hours is pathetic but trying to find a path through the jungle certainly isn't easy!). We did a quick leech check and found at least 6 on each of us which had obviously crawled up when we were walking through the deep mud which made up a significant part of the trail. Thankfully we got them all off quickly. 

We walked down a vertical plank onto the deck (thankfully not falling off into the crocodile filled lake beneath us) to appreciate the lovely view. Wassil also showed us a cool trick with some bread which attracted an insane number of white piranhas to him. They aren't flesh-eating but they do love dry skin so if you put your hand on the surface of the water they would come and nibble it. 

Before we left, we sat and applied some more insect repellent to try and ward off the mozzies, but it didn't work on one insect as a giant butterfly came and landed directly on my forehead (obviously attracted to my colourful headband). It stayed there for a while before fluttering off at which point Wassil declared that it has blessed me with good luck and fortune! Unfortunately there was nowhere nearby to purchase a lottery ticket in the hopes of this paying off. 

Walking back, apart from picking up a few more leeches, we didn't see a huge amount more. We were starving so powered through the walk in anticipation of lunch and after being fed and watered we had some more free time to take yet another shower and prepare ourselves for a final river cruise. Setting off the sky looked remarkably bright and clear and there was high optimism within the boat.

Embarking on the cruise, Wassil greeted us with an announcement that he had good news! Knowing that this was probably about the location of pygmy elephants (as we had pestered him about this continuously for three days) we were super excited!! He told us that he couldn't guarantee anything but we could tell from his face that he was more than hopeful. The herd hadn't been sighted in the area for the last 7 months and there are only 270 elephants living on the banks of the Kinabatangan. Elephants are a migrant species who move around a lot so we knew we would have to be very lucky to experience a sighting. There are only 3000 pygmy elephants across Borneo and this is the only place where they live in the world, so spotting them would doubtlessly be the highlight of our trip. Our hopes started to build as we set off upstream while the other boats set off downstream obviously not wanting to take the risk that they wouldn't be there.

We powered up the river not stopping for any other animal sightings. Wassil looked nervous after about half an hour and pulled over to the banks of the river. A combination of heavy rain and another announcement from Wassil quickly changed the mood in the boat. We had used almost half of a tank of petrol and reached the boundary of where he was authorised to take us. The elephants were nowhere to be seen and we were the only boat in sight. We were informed that the best course of action would be to wait for a boat coming around the bend in the distance and to ask whether they knew of the elephants' location.

We sat nervously in our rain ponchos for a good 10 minutes before finally spotting a boat coming towards us from upstream. Wassil shouted in Malay to the guide and we saw a huge grin cross his face. We started moving again, rounded the next meander in the river and spotted the herd. Over 50 elephants were congregated around the grassy banks. Wassil punched the air and leant in for a high five and a shoulder pat. We approached the animals in utter amazement passing a few who were cooling off in the river (yes, the sun had also reappeared too). 

We couldn't have been more than 5 metres away from the closest members of the herd and were able to watch them splash water, drink, feed and play with each other. They are much smaller than other species ranging in size from about 3 feet for the babies and between 1.5 and 3 metres for the adults. They were spread out with some on the flat land and some further into the jungle, some of which couldn't be seen although you could hear the rustling of trees and deafening trumpeting coming from a short distance away. We sat for a good 45 minutes watching their natural behaviours in awe. One of the babies started backing towards us at one point obviously aware of our presence, and as this is the first sign of aggression, we had to back up before his large father came to protect him. 

One of the elephants seemed to find it incredibly difficult to get from the river up to the bank and he struggled to shift his massive weight. Watching the monumental effort it took was staggering but he did eventually make it to terra firma! 

With dusk encroaching quickly, we unfortunately had to leave the herd and what had most certainly been a once in a lifetime experience. The journey back was uneventful apart from spotting a huge proboscis monkey in the trees above which was quite orange making us hopeful for an orangutan. I think even with my butterfly blessing, this would have been greedy to hope for! Wassil asked us to keep the elephant spotting a secret from the other guests on the tour who had travelled in the opposite direction. He had gone outside of his authorised limit to take us there and would be unable to do the same again and wanted to save himself a headache I think! To be honest we were happy to do this as had the roles been reversed, we probably would rather not have known what we missed out on. 

After dinner, we had another early night worn out from the excitement of the day and wanting to fully appreciate our last opportunity to be woken by the call of birds and monkeys living wild in the tropical jungle. We waved goodbye to the lodge in the morning sad to be leaving what had been one of our most memorable travelling experiences to date....

Wonderful Wildlife on the Kinabatangan Part One

So after leaving our island paradise, we were due to travel the two hours to the Kinabatangan River where we would be staying for two nights in a jungle lodge in order to further explore the natural wonders of Sabah. The Kinabatangan is the largest river in Sabah stretching approximately 300km, predominantly through the remaining rainforest of the island in the East. It is host to many different mammal, bird, reptile, insect and plant species, several of which are endemic to Borneo.

Before heading there, we made a brief stop back at Sepilok in order to see the rescued Orangutans one last time. We saw a total of 7 orangutans which is a high number as normally only a couple show up. They were all different to our previous visit except from one small juvenile who is obviously more reliant on the free food. Again we saw an alpha male, a mother with baby and some smaller apes although they were of slightly different colouration to our previous visits with darker fur. One highlight of this visit was when one bold orangutan came onto the boardwalk and was less than 30cm in front of us. He looked quite lazy at first with his back to us but then started to get quite feisty moving towards us and trying to snatch belongings so the ranger took him by the hand and led him away like a naughty schoolchild. 

The orangutans visit to the feeding platform was much shorter than on our previous trip- they came, ate and then left. Most of the tourists left with them, so we had a great opportunity to observe the many macaque monkeys two of whom even treated us to a display of monkey affection. They were quite happy to continue this while others fought for scraps around them, seemingly undisturbed.

We continued to watch the monkeys for a while longer before heading to a nearby restaurant for lunch. This was the start of many buffets to come and the concept of sweet and sour fish sounded quite odd, although it was surprisingly nice! After this we made the two hour trip to the Kinabatangan and it was shocking to discover the true extent of palm oil plantations which are now present in Sabah. Although the palm tree is not native to Borneo, it was shipped from the Americas in the mid 19th century, and the plantations now provide a huge revenue stream into Sabah. It's really sad to think of the habitats which have been lost to the soulless rows of palm trees now found. On a more positive note however, the increase in tourism is encouraging the local authorities to replant a significant amount of forest and remove some of the plantations, hopefully bringing Borneo back to its former natural glory.

We finally reached the rainforest and the river, which was certainly a welcome sight, and after a quick boat ride (the first of many) across to our lodge we were greeted warmly with afternoon tea. We checked into our log cabin which was basic but offered amazing views of the jungle (including our first wild monkey spottings only a few metres away from the cabin). 

The lodge is situated right on the banks of the river offering a highly convenient location from which to start river cruises. We had three scheduled within our itinerary to look forward to, comprising of two late afternoon cruises and one early morning one (the best times to spot wild animals). We rented binoculars in order to see some of the creatures which usually reside high in the tree canopy and hopped onto the speed boat after navigating one of the most dangerous jettys in the world. Even in the early moments down the river, we could see trees rustling and hear the calls of birds and monkeys. The anticipation made us super excited.

Thankfully, our new ranger Wassil had amazing vision and could spot things from hundreds of metres away, even if only a fraction of the animal was visible. Obviously the natural world is so unpredictable that we were never fully sure which animals would appear, so each time he asked the driver to slow down we got a new wave of excitement approaching the forest. His focus normally went to a certain area and you could tell by his demeanour that he had spotted something. Not knowing whether it was a common sight such as a hornbill or macaque, or the more elusive wild orangutan, we all immediately froze with silence and waited for him to tell us what it was he had seen. 

We were incredibly lucky in our first wildlife spottings. We saw the endemic hornbill (both white and black). These birds would normally be spotted at the highest point of trees but we spotted several gliding low over the water and even saw several catch their dinner from the river. 

Following this, we saw a huge number of macaques which are the most common primate of the region. There are two main species- the long-tailed and the black macaque. They tend to stay in large groups as a defence mechanism and if you spotted one there was bound to be a troop not far away. On some trees there were 20 monkeys of varying ages and sizes.

The next thing that we saw was a crocodile which we would NEVER have spotted. All that was visible were its eyes peering out of the surface of the water. Wassil pointed him out but before we could get a picture he had fully submerged himself. It was unnerving to think how many crocodiles were beneath us which we didn't know about and we were careful to follow instructions and keep our limbs well inside the boat.

Wassil then mentioned the word orangutan making us look up sharply but he quickly followed it with the word nest, pointing out a black shape in the highest tree around. Who knew that orangutans build nests? No spotting of the orangutan but we keep an even keener lookout from this point onwards.

The next thing Wassil managed to spot was a snake which was wound around a tree trunk in a spot of bushy leaves! It was a reasonably large mangrove snake however with the yellow and black colouration it was well camouflaged. Wassil drew quite a crowd of other boats with his sighting and it took us five minutes with binoculars to even find what he was pointing at!!

The next animal sighting was exciting- we spotted a troop of proboscis monkeys which are again endemic to Borneo. With their 'child-catcher' noses and huge bellies they are very easy to distinguish from other species. They leap from branch to branch at incredible heights and sit dangling from branches stooped over like little old men. 

A few more bird sightings including the colourful kingfisher, the red ibis standing on the river banks and a large number of storks then we made our way back to the lodge. 

We had a shower (which would later prove completely redundant) and had some dinner before embarking on our next adventure- a night walk through the jungle to spot nocturnal animals. We suited up renting leech socks and wellies to protect ourselves from the blood sucking pests. This was a much more practical outfit than it was fashionable as can be seen from the picture below.

We also took a torch although it was still very difficult to navigate the tree roots, low branches and muddy pathways in the pitch black. We could soon tell entering the jungle that watching from afar on a boat is much easier and more comfortable than trying to walk through it. We felt like Bear Grylls or David Attenborough exploring the leafy undergrowth by foot for the first time not sure where we were stepping or which direction we were headed. There was also a full moon overhead which made the walk ultra-creepy. Our luck appeared to have ran out this night and apart from sighting a sleeping kingfisher, a lizard and some extra large spiders, we didn't find much else. We were hoping for a slow loris or a western tarsier but they were nowhere to be found, except for a few false alarms. 

We returned to the safety of the lodge slightly disappointed but obviously natures unpredictability wasn't working in our favour this evening. What we did find however was a leech on my trousers which was delightful! Thankfully we got it off before it bit though as they take a few moments between latching on to actually dig their fangs in. Feeling disgusting from the humidity within the jungle and now the leech, we both felt we needed ANOTHER shower. We were exhausted by this point and had a super early start the next day for a morning cruise, so we called it a day looking forward to exploring the best of Borneo again having felt that the Kinabatangan had treated us to plenty of wildlife thus far.