My trip to Malaysia was a mix of modern, tribal, beautifully natural, foodgasmic, environmentally depressing and biologically diverse experiences. Most importantly, I had one goal: must see wild orangutans before humans kill all of them. Despite all the other awesome things I did, if I had not seen one of these apes, I would have been really disappointed. Misson accomplished.
Bom joined me again on this trip and we started on Penang Island, which was an important British colonial hub and is currently one of the big commercial cities in SE Asia. The thing that Penang is known for is its diversity of people, and therefore food. It’s also very modern; Bom had never been to a place where the power lines are underground or seen a bus that kneels for handicapped people. Upon arrival in Georgetown, at 10PM, we met a vacationing, all adult Thai family of 7 who had no English skills, no hotel reservation, no map and truly had not thought to plan any of this stuff before arrival. This was not surprising to me at all. We shepherded them to the hotel that we were staying in. Luckily, there were two rooms left, so the 7 of them shared 2 double beds. Sounds relaxing.
I couldn’t wait to gorge myself on all the delicious street foods that I had been hearing about, so even though it was late, we went eating. First stop was some street juice in a bag, followed by meat on a stick, which was something like chicken satay, and finally some kind of noodle dish. Things were starting to close down at around 11, so we walked a few blocks into the Indian section of town and continued eating things that looked good. I ate until I was shallow breathing, walked back to the hotel and took a photo with all my new Thai friends who were sitting in the hallway playing on their phones at midnight. I finally passed out in an intense food coma and drooled on myself. The plan for the next day was more eating, punctuated by visiting local historical sites. For breakfast I got a poppy seed bagel, which doesn’t sound exciting but when you haven’t had a bagel in 18 months, it’s pretty f-ing exciting. And a bowl of Greek yogurt with walnuts and fresh yellow mango. Obviously I took a picture of it, but I am too embarrassed to post it.
Georgetown is the historical city on Penang Island. It’s actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has an interesting blend of colonial era architecture and modern street art. The buildings from the 150 year colonial occupation have been preserved really well. Since it’s so diverse, there are churches, mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples and even a synagogue (although it’s not used for religious reasons anymore) all within a few blocks of each other. There are lots of wrought iron sculptures that explain important or interesting facts about different parts of the city. This one about Love Lane, where all the prostitutes lived, was one of my favorites. There were also huge paintings on the sides of the buildings, like this “little” girl.
We checked out a photography museum, some kind of community art cafe and a few of the street art installations before heading to Fort Cornwallis. This star-shaped fort was built by the British East India company in the 1700’s and hasn’t been used in any battles…yet. There were some pretty cool old canons here. One of them was cast by the Dutch in the 1600’s and given to the Sultan of Johore. Then the Portuguese took it and brought it to Java. Then, pirates or something, then a magical curse, then the Brits took it and brought it to Penang, then the Japanese took it. But it eventually ended up at Fort Cornwallis.
Next stops, a flower market, India town, Chinatown and a food market to eat some kind of noodles that had dried shrimp mixed in so I didn’t eat them. No matter how much time I spend in Asia, I will never develop a taste for these things.
After our self guided walking tour, we took a quick break at the hotel before heading to Penang Hill. We took a local bus for about an hour and got to see the rest of the island. An old lady got on the bus in a wheel chair and Bom was so excited about the fold out ramp that he did all the work for the bus driver. The old lady and, presumably her daughter, appreciated it. When we arrived, I used my Miami Student ID card, with my 18 year old photo, to get a discount and made a scene when they didn’t accept it at first. Works every time. We took a cable car up a mountain side with a bunch of Chinese tourists and saw a great, albeit hazy, view of Penang and peninsular Malyasia. Watching the clouds roll over the mountains during the sunset up here was really nice. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to use my extremely powerful camera and “auto” just didn’t cut it for this photo.
The next morning we had an early flight to Kuching, which is the capital of the Sarawak province of Malaysia. It’s on the island of Borneo. Even though it is still part of Malaysia, you need a special visa to go to Borneo. We stayed at an amazing place called Traveller Homestay that was run by a Chinese/Malaysian brother and sister. There are many ethnically Chinese people whose families have been living on Borneo for generations. We got home cooked breakfast every morning and there was always a bowl full of oranges in the common area which Bom and I took FULL advantage of. Kuching is pretty sleepy. Like really sleepy. But, it’s the perfect gateway to lots of amazing national parks and wilderness.
As I mentioned, my sole mission for this trip was to see orangutans who are not living in a zoo. We took a bus 25K outside of Kuching to a preserve called Semenggoh where there are 20+ semi-wild orangutans being rehabilitated with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. So as far as I am concerned, seeing as National Geographic hasn’t gotten back to me, this is the closest I was gonna get to the real deal. I was totally psyched. Bom, less psyched, but happy to take a nap while I indulged my great ape obsession. I saw a couple females, one with a baby, and some young males. These guys can break a coconut open with their bare hands.
We happened to be there at feeding time which means the rangers put a big pile of fruit on a platform and if the orangutans want to eat it they come, if they don’t, they don’t. The real treat of our trip was that we got to see Richie, the alpha male (the first photo from this post). Apparently the day before, Richie got a little testy and attacked some Chinese tourists. So, they warned us to keep our distance from him. Someone asked the ranger, “What if he starts to come towards us?” and he just answered, “run.” Ok great. Big bad Richie also enjoys drinking milk from a bottle like a baby and could probably crush your skull with one hand. Anyone who would argue that humans and apes don’t have a common ancestor should be put a little too close to him. The last bus back to town was leaving and Bom had to physically drag me away from the orangutans and we ran/walked the 3K through the jungle to get back to the bus stop on time.
The next day was our visit to Bako National Park. I saw more wacky PBS nature show animals here than anywhere else in my life. Bako is really cool because it’s a jungle/rainforest on the South China Sea. So, I saw weird beach creatures and weird jungle creatures including endangered proboscis monkeys, mud skippers, a Borenean bearded pig and my favorite, the dung beetle.
To get to Bako, you have to take a boat which drops you on the shore and you wade through the water across a huge beach. I don’t like this situation because I am always the one that loses balance getting off the boat and falls in the water with all my clothes on. I kept the tradition alive, but luckily it was very shallow so I didn’t totally soak myself. That day, the beach was littered with these giant jellyfish blobs. They were about a food across and presumably dead; I checked by poking them with my bare foot. I’m not sure why there were so many of them.
Our first land wildlife sighting and arguably the coolest, although I have already stated my feelings about the dung beetle, was a big group of proboscis monkeys. They are endemic to Borneo (meaning they only live on this island) and endangered so it was really cool to be able to see so many of them, including a baby. These things are comically hilarious because of their giant noses. They are Seussian, especially the babies which look like Whos from Whoville. They were really active and I was able to get close to them because they aren’t as aggressive as other apes. These guys also honked a lot. I mean with a schnoz like that, what else do you expect.
Next sighting was a snake curled up in a tree. Upon doing further research when I got home on Encyclopedia Internet, I figured out that this snake was a Wagler’s Pit Viper. They’re not commonly seen because they are arboreal and camouflaged well, but this particular one decided to park it in the single tree that overhangs the entrance to the park.
As per usual, I began my anticipated 6+ hour hike into the tropical jungle with one 500 mL bottle of water and a Luna bar that was already melted into a blob. I have literally made this same mistake so many times, you would think I am incapable of learning anything or that I should be dead. There are a couple trail options and we decided to do two of them; a short one to get to a beach and a longer one to go to a nice viewpoint. In total, the hike was about 12k and the weather was 95 degrees and humid. I was well prepared. Not.
To get into the jungle, you have to take a boardwalk through a wasteland of dead mangroves. It’s pretty creepy actually. There were some sea birds and fiddler crabs walking around in the mud, but nothing particularly interesting. The low tide smell reminded me why I can’t eat fish.
Once we got off of the boardwalk, we found a HUGE jungle hermit crab. I should have put my hand next to it so there was some scale to the photo. He had a mossy green shell and was surprisingly fast for his size.
One of the coolest things about this park is the crazy root systems of the trees. We had to climb over these things everywhere. Because it’s so humid, they are also very slippery so I wiped out more than a few times. I’m also very clumsy so it’s not 100% the roots’ fault. Before I ever came to a jungle, this photo is almost exactly how I pictured one. But in my mind, there was a dancing bear and a kid in a loin cloth.
At this point in the hike, we hadn’t yet seen my favorite wildlife (dung beetle!), but the biodiversity of this place was already very apparent. In less than 1k, we had seen endangered monkeys, lots of crabs, ants marching in a row, jellyfish, a pit viper, butterflies and birds and there was still more to come. And the best part, we had only seen like three other people! The cure for every disease in the world must be in these jungles. Good thing we’re cutting them all down to make palm oil, because if we found those cures and humans lived longer, the planet would truly be doomed.
The first hike was short so it only took us about 40 minutes to get to the beach, where the wildlife party continued. This wasn’t the stereotypical “paradise beach” with white sand and blah, blah, blah. But I hate sand and this place had awesome tide pools filled with all sorts of cool stuff so it was my paradise beach. They all had little minnows in them, and there were a lot of hermit crabs and snails. I spent a long time on those rocks working on my sunburn and looking in each pool to find critters. I think at this point, Bom was sitting in the shade being patient while I reverted back to my childhood activity of finding animals in tide pools, putting them in a bucket in the beating sun with the goal of eventual transport to their new home in my yet to be built extravagant sandcastle and then learning about the circle of life. Unfortunately (for me, not the sea life), yellow plastic bucket from Mr. Amazing’s was not on my preparation list; neither was water or adequate sunscreen.
Probably the coolest fauna sighting at this beach were mudskippers. At first I couldn’t figure out what they were because they are really fast and really skittish and also because I did 0 research about what I might see beyond proboscis monkeys. I figured out that I needed to approach them slowly in order to see what the heck they were. I dug back into the random thoughts section of my brain and remembered Muddy the Mudskipper from Ren and Stimpy. Just kidding Mom and Dad, I never watched that show, not even at my friends’ with absent parents houses….
After I was finished indulging myself at the beach, and when I started to feel bad about making Bom sit and wait for me, we headed back into the jungle to continue the hike. We had only gone about 2k, and my water was 3/4 gone. We had another 8k round trip ahead of us in the midday sun.
This part of the hike was particularly exciting for me because this is when I finally saw the beetle. He was just right in the middle of the trail. OMG. I know it sounds nuts and I don’t know why I think they are so interesting but I just do. I should have probably been more excited about seeing whatever animal left the dung than the beetle rolling it into a ball. For anyone who was not subjected to hours of nature shows on PBS as a child and got to watch cartoons instead, a dung beetle is simply a big black beetle that rolls poop into a ball. (see the video) I don’t know, care or remember what happens with the ball. These things are just mesmerizing.
Ok, enough on the dung beetle. The next part of the hike was particularly grueling because we had to hike up, and up and up. We weren’t exactly sure what we’d see at the end of the line, but we knew it better be f-ing worth it. The water was completely gone, and we still had a long way to go. As we got closer to the top, the flora quickly changed from Jungle Book to Lion King. It became dry and scrub brush-y and sandy. And hot as balls. This photo looks like it’s just missing a pair of impossibly attractive, middle-aged white people wearing full linen outfits and leather sandals going for a romantic stroll. It was anything but that. First of all, I was completely red and Bom was black skin (as Thai people say, but actually mean tan). I was wearing the nerdiest shoes known to man, Keens and Bom was rocking a pair of baby blue, knock off Converse. We were hangry and had run out of water hours ago. There were rusty nails jutting out precariously all along the path and broken boards with spiders under them. It was like a death march. The only positive thing was that, by all of our calculations, it was almost over.
We were correct. The trail finally opened up to this breathtaking view of a bay from a cliff. It was totally worth it, even if we might have died up there. We sat and rested up here for a little while and then headed down to the beach to check it out. We saw some French people who had been dropped off there by a boat enjoying a full picnic. At this point, we were so thirsty that we contemplated going and asking for water. Instead, Bom went and asked the boat guy if he had any. Thank God he did or we might not have made it back. He gave us a liter and we drank the whole thing in like 30 seconds.
After chilling on the beach for a little while, in a cave because neither of us could be in the sun anymore, we began the trek back. I ate my Luna bar, which I would NOT recommend doing if you don’t have any water to wash it down. As is evidenced by my complete lack of photos from the return trip, I just wanted to get the F out of that jungle and get some real food and water as soon as possible.
When we got back to the Park HQ a couple hours later, and got food and water, we had another super cool wildlife sighting. The Bornean jungle pig. Apparently these guys hang out around the HQ because of the food and if you rumple a potato chips bag, the go bonkers.
Also, around the HQ are the macaques. These guys are such little shits. They are all over SE Asia and the ones that have gotten used to people try to steal your stuff and scratch you and climb all over you with their weird little monkey hands. Bom had a show down with one who tried to get our peanuts. Man vs. Wild. Man won.
We took the last boat out of the park and went back to our homestay to shower, eat a million free oranges and re-hydrate. We tried to get a pirated copy of Game of Thrones to watch because everyone loves to spoil it on the internet (I’ve read the books, but Bom hasn’t), but after 10+ failed attempts, we gave up and walked to get food on the Kuching river front. I got some seriously awesome jungle curry and lime soda that was so good, I tried to replicate it at home. Fail.
Knowing that Borneo is home to some of the most interesting indigenous tribes in the world, most famously the head hunters, the Anthropologist in me was not about to leave without interacting with some of them. Bom was less than thrilled about this, but I was hell bent on doing a trip into the heart of the rainforest and staying with a tribe for a night.
So we found a guide to take us into the interior. It took a couple hours from Kuching so we stopped along the way at a market and sampled some local fare. It’s a lot of the same stuff that you would see at other SE Asian markets, bananas, papayas, leafy greens, a butcher section etc. This market had a few unique things due to its proximity to what’s left of the rain forest. They had lots of ferns, which I later ate in a stir fry and they were delicious. I also found this guy cooking chickens with a very high powered blow torch. He wanted me to take a photo of him. No problem pal.
When we were at the market, the guide suggested that we buy some food to take to the host families. I was totally down for that and ready to shop for all kinds of produce. I was even ready to buy and haul watermelons into the jungle. Then the guide informed me that they would prefer packaged stuff (i.e. high sugar processed corn/wheat puffs and crackers and cookies in individually wrapped plastic bags). I bought the absolute least amount of crap that he said would be acceptable.
One thing I did read a little bit about before going was the destruction of the primary rainforest for the production of palm oil. Everyone has seen the photos on the “Save the Rainforest” campaigns with the ragged stumps creeping toward the towering trees that remain. This is what it actually looks like and it is depressing. Palm oil is a cash crop that is dominating agriculture in Borneo. Look on any kind of packaged/processed food, or hair/soap product or cosmetics, or detergent and chances are, it contains palm oil, or some derivative of it. You can read about it here (Everyday Things With Palm Oil). The demand has skyrocketed in the food industry because it can be used to fry at very high heat and doesn’t contain trans-fats. You can’t really get an idea of just how bad the environmental impact is until you see it. We would drive for 30 minutes at 60mph and it was just palm oil trees as far as the eye could see. It all used to be rainforest. In the areas that are being logged to be transformed into palm oil plantations, the earth just looks like it’s in pain. I don’t know how else to describe it. The soil is red and the tree trunks are thrashed to shreds. I don’t eat much processed food, but seeing the destruction had such an impact on me that palm oil is the one thing I look for on the ingredients list and if I see it, I absolutely will not buy it. Unless I’m drunk and those Snyder’s cheese pretzel sandwiches are in front of me. I’m only human.
After lunch and 4 hours of driving, we finally stopped at a river bank where a boat was waiting to take us up the river to the tribe. There is no road access to the place we were going and it took about 40 minutes by boat via a shallow river. There was a woman on the front of the boat whose job it was to push us off the sandbars when we got stuck. But we still had to wear crappy old life-jackets… #Asia.
When we finally arrived at the village, we were welcomed by someone with a gong and a old woman wearing only a sarong. Thumbs up for indigenous nudity. I think the gong was more to warn people that the foreigners had arrived than to welcome us. Some brief notes on the group that we stayed with: They were members of the Iban tribe. Traditionally, they practiced headhunting, but in modern times, they’re not our warring and chopping off peoples’ heads. They live in longhouses. Basically it is one long house with a common corridor that connects all of them. Nowadays, they have electricity and running water systems, but it’s still very new. The tribe that we were staying with has hosted foreigners for a number of years so we were definitely not a shock to them.
When we got there, we just hung out for the afternoon. There seemed to be a lot of that going on, just hanging out. They brought us some tea and we wandered around and relaxed. One thing that was surprising was that they smoked like chimneys. Everyone. The guide brought them tons of cigarettes. There were a couple old guys roaming around who had badass tatoos. They each mean something, but I can’t remember exactly what. The neck one is to protect you from poison and the flowers on the shoulders are for coming of age. They obviously can’t speak a word of English so we used a lot of body language to communicate.
After our afternoon hang out, it was time for dinner followed by a show. We sat on a mat and ate with one of the families. It was pretty standard fare. Some stir fried vegetables, eggs, rice, dried fish and fruit. When we finished, we headed back out to the common area where everyone was gathering around the chief’s door. He came out and welcomed us. Then the local women played some instruments while a little girl danced in traditional clothing. After that, two men did a tribal war dance that simulated a fight. Then the party really got started when they gave us shots of moonshine that they distill from rice (?) and gave us straw hats so that we could join in the dance. A giant cockroach fell out of mine into my lap right before I put it on. Good thing we had those shots.
After we danced around in a circle for a little while, it was time to present our gifts. We gave our Costco sized bags of snacks to him and he was very appreciative. He must hoard this stuff for months and we were there on redistribution night. He brought out a ton of snacks and each little bag was separated into a different pile and distributed evenly among all of the families. The men hung around drinking and throwing dice and the women gathered all their snacks and went to bed. We were invited to stay up with the men and get hammered on jungle moonshine, but I feel like that would end in a story line for episode of some show on the Discovery Channel. They gave use a mosquito net and mats and we just slept in the main corridor. I slept like a rock. It was so peaceful that I slept through the roosters in the morning until about 8:00.
After breakfast, we got to shoot stuff with their blow guns. They used to use these to shoot poison arrows. I was terrible, Bom wasn’t bad. I think my weapon of choice is the Thai wooden crossbow. I was lethal with that thing in Chiang Mai.
And that was the end of my brief and touristy anthropological trip. My biggest take away from the experience is that while it may seem that these people have a lot to learn from the “modernized” world, in reality, we have a lot to learn from them. I couldn’t go back to the hotel without one more jungle fern feast though.
Back in Kuching, we wandered around the town for a little bit and I freaked out at a mini-mart when they had Crunch Bar ice-cream. Bom thinks I’m super weird. We ate more jungle curry and called it a night.
Borneo is amazing and even though I only spent a short time there, I am glad that I had the opportunity to go and see what little bio-diversity is left before it’s all totally destroyed. Here are my two pieces of advice about Borneo:
1. Go, soon.
2. Don’t buy things with palm oil in them.
Bom went back to Thailand the next day, but my trip wasn’t quite over. I had a night in Kuala Lumpur before heading down to Indonesia for a few days. I can’t say much about KL because I was literally only there for a few hours but I made sure to go to the Petronas Towers. When I was standing in front of them, I had a major realization….
I travel because when I first see something with my own eyes that I have only ever seen in pictures, it’s like I am alive in my own imagination.