Malaysia


While Leech Boy and I were on the side of a mountain in the Bario jungle, we promised ourselves that, as soon as we got back to Miri (the transportation hub of the area), we would (1) check into a nice hotel; and (2) seek out a Pizza Hut (which, along with KFC, is strangely ubiquitous in Malaysia). 

Check and check. An hour or two after our arrival in Miri, we had checked into the Marriott and had devoured a large, pepperoni pizza with extra cheese.  We had also recruited a local guide to take us to the nearby Niah caves the next day.  He was a very congenial man named Stephen who, in an incredibly small-world (particularly given that we know almost no one in Borneo) turn of events, happened to be the nephew of Jaman (from Gem’s Lodge in Bario).   

Stephen picked us up in the morning and drove us along the coast of the South China Sea to Niah National Park, where we paused at a small museum to
Pizza Hut in Miri
learn more about the park’s caves and to see a 40,000 year-old (!?!) human skull that had been discovered in one of them.  Then we set off along what was, for the first 45 minutes, a very nice, wooden boardwalk.  1/3 of a mile or so before the first cave, the boardwalk was transformed into a Walk of near death/serious injury.  As Stephen explained to us, the boardwalk was under construction and, beacuse the detour set out by the park was too long and too muddy to warrant serious consideration, we would instead be walking along the 18-inch wide cement framework of the boardwalk-to-be.  Err.  I think it would’ve been less scary if, at times, it didn’t cross over rivers and rise 20 feet above the rocky ground below.  But it did. 

Happily, we arrived
Shanna on hike to Niah
without incident at Trader’s Cave, so named because of the birds’ nest (they’re a Chinese delicacy) and guano (i.e., bat dung – which is used as fertilizer) traders who collect their wares in the other caves and then conduct their business there.  Next came the astounding Great Cave–one of the largest cave openings in the world.  We were overwhelmed by the cave’s vastness and, even more so, by the uninterrupted column of light that streamed down through an opening above us. 

We climbed along immense rocks and then followed a rickety, wooden walkway (complete with cave centipedes and gigantic crickets) into the pitch black of the inside of the cave.  Happy that we had remembered to pack our flashlights, we followed countless flights of stairs to the Painted Cave, where we saw faded drawings and remnants of the “death ships” on which the cave’s ancient dwellers had once set their dead afloat.  
In Great Cave in Niah National Park
Throughout the caves, we came across flimsy-looking, wooden poles that spanned the hundreds of feet from the caves’ floors to their roofs.  Cave CricketBirds’ nest collectors scale these poles, which are no more than 6 inches in diameter, every few months to gather the valuable swallows’ nests above.  A collector who falls from his perch encounters no safety nets or harnesses, just the hard rock below.  As I have so many times on this trip already, I felt an overwhelming appreciation for the plushness of my day job. 

“Borneo” has always evoked vivid images for me – dense jungle, wild animals, loud jungle noises.  I wanted to come here to experience the wild and to search for my inner Indiana Jones.  As you’ll read below, I never found him.

After a recommendation from a fellow traveler and rave reviews in our guide book, we flew to Bario – a remote “town” in the Kelabit Highlands only accessible by plane.  The first Westerner arrived here after World War II by parachuting into the area.  While lots has changed in the past 50 years, the jungle is still alive and well (although threatened by the logging companies that are quickly approaching the area).

Yesterday, we set off on a 8-hour trek through the jungle.  We enlisted the assistance of a local guide named Marshall, who came prepared for the hike with a machete and a 12-gauge shotgun.  Borneo 047-1.JPGMarshall is the kind of man that doesn’t really exist in the West anymore.  A true jungle man that could crush Indiana Jones with 2 fingers.  Marshall grew up playing in the jungle, learning how to survive in the environment.  To this day, much of the food he eats comes from the vegetation and the animals that live there.  Since access to the area is only by plane, there’s no real supermarket in Bario – the jungle is his Kroger.  In fact, we almost shot a wild boar during our hike; unfortunately, the animal moved just out of sight as Marshall aimed his gun.  Borneo 023-1.JPG

We had read about the many leeches that live in the jungle and that like to grab on to you and suck your blood for dinner.  I sort of assumed that this was a rare occurrence and was mainly meant to scare tourists.  To help minimize the attack, Marshall recommended that we take tobacco leaves and rub them on our socks and shoes.  Supposedly, the leeches hate the smell and taste of tobacco.  Lies!!  I think this was a sick way for the locals to exact revenge on the white man who occupied their land for several hundred years.  In reality, tobacco must be like caviar to leeches.

I first noticed a problem about 2 hours into the hike.  There was a quick, painful bite on my leg.  When I looked down, I was horrified to see a leech burrowing into my skin.  I immediately grabbed the little blood-sucker and started pulling.  These are powerful creatures.  The leech had tasted my blood and loved it.  My resolve was strong, though, and I eventually yanked the parasite off of me, threw him onto the jungle floor and crushed him with my shoe.  While it was a gruesome death for the creature, I must admit that I received a lot of pleasure.

After enduring this awful event, Shanna and I became obsessed with leech prevention.  We tucked the legs of our pants deep into our socks and constantly checked for signs of the leech.  This worked for awhile.  After a lunch of rice wrapped in banana leaves (prepared by our lovely lodge owner, Sumi), I got a slight itch on my stomach.  This was the beginning of one of the most traumatic events of my life.  When I raised my shirt and looked down, I almost passed out when I saw a leech buried deep inside my belly button.

Immediately, I remembered a story I once read about a boy who had a worm crawl into his body through his belly button.  The worm then multiplied into thousands of worms that eventually ate away at his body until he died.  I imagined my stomach filled with thousands of leeches; the story would be broadcast on Dateline or 60 Minutes.  I would forever be known as “leech boy”.

After controlling my fear and getting an action plan, I decided ask a grown man – Marshall – to attempt to remove the blood-filled parasite.  It was a humbling experience, but Marshall was able Borneo 039-1.JPGto use a stick coated with salt (leeches hate salt; salt is now my favorite product in the world – I plan on writing the good people at Morton’s salt a letter of appreciation for their fine product) to coax the leech out of my belly button and onto the jungle floor (where Marshall used his machete to cut the little guy in half – I smiled thinking about the pain the leech endured).

For the next several hours, I bled profusely through my belly button. When we returned to our lodge via a boat ride down a jungle river, I did a leech check and found out that about 10 leeches had successfully attached to my body, sucked my blood until they were satisfied and dropped off only after they were completely bloated.

Oh, by the way – the jungle trek was amazing: dense vegetation, crazy river crossings and scary jungle noises.  Of course, I’ll never remember anything about the hike other than those nasty leeches.  Borneo 051-1.JPG

Back in the Perhentian Islands, our new friend, Andy, upon learning that we were heading to Borneo, couldn’t say enough good things about a town called Bario in an area known as the Kelabit Highlands.  He told us about a man named Jaman who purpotedly knew all there was to know about Bario and its residents and who ran a guest house called Gem’s Lodge. 

A quick word about geography.  For those of you without a map in front of you, Borneo is an island located northwest of Australia and southwest of the Phillipines.  It’s divided into three sections: a Malaysian area on top, tiny Brunei in the middle of the Malaysian area and an Indonesian area on the bottom.   Borneo 005.JPGBario, with its 1,000 residents, is in Sarawak, the western state in the Malaysian region.  It’s accessible only by plane, which means that all of the goods not manufactured in Bario have to be flown in.  (So, for instance, because there are no motorcycle dealerships in Bario, anyone who wants one must buy it elsewhere, have it disassembled, packed onto a plane, and then reassembled once it arrives.  This explains a lot about the asbsence of both motorized vehicles and other large machinery in the town.)  But I digress.

After a quick flight on a 14-seater airplane, we arrived in Bario and asked the first person we saw if he knew Jaman.  Of course he did.  He pointed to a lanky guy seated nearby in the airport and within minutes, we were loading our backpacks into the back of his friend’s pickup truck and on our way down the bumpy road to Gem’s Lodge.   

The next three days exceeded anything that we could have imagined as an ideal stay in the highlands.  On our first day at Gem’s, Derek and I wandered past rice paddies Borneo 013.JPGand buffalo pastures to a small shack where local residents were converting water from a salt spring into salt via a method that surely hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.  The next day, Jaman arranged for a guide named Leon to lead us on a 7-hour walking tour of Bario and its surrounding areas.   As we walked down miles of dusty roads, Leon–who, like so many in Malaysia, spoke near-perfect English–taught us about Bario and its people. 

In what was to be one of the highlights in Borneo, he led us to the Bario Asal longhouse.  Longhouses are communal homes that are scattered throughout Borneo.  They serve as homes for many of the island’s indigenous people.   Borneo 097-1.JPGThe Asal longhouse was fairly empty, in part because it was the middle of the day and many of the residents were working in the rice and pineapple fields nearby.  Leon explained that the emptiness was also due to the fact the longhouse population is dwindling as the children who are raised in it grow up, move to the city and grow accustomed to the privacy that comes with living in an individual home.   Even if they do return to Bario, they usually don’t move back into the longhouse. 

Even despite the lack of people, the longhouse was enchanting.  Borneo 084-1.JPGWalking through the front door, we came into a long room used for group assemblies and celebrations.  The walls were adorned with photos of important moments in each family’s history.  We saw everything from pictures of the elders in native dress to graduation mementos from American universities to photos of brides in big, white wedding dresses (a sign that even longhouse residents are victims of westernization).   Borneo 022.JPGAlong one wall were about 20 doors, each of which led into a separate family’s living quarters.   The quarters all featured bedrooms and a bathroom and opened into another communal room with 20 separate fireplaces, dining tables and sinks.   Iron kettles rested on some fireplaces, promising hot tea to those returning from the fields.  Oh, to have been there during mealtime.

Speaking of meals, we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner for three days at the Gem’s Lodge kitchen table.  Sumi, Jaman’s beautiful, serene and seemingly eternally at-work wife, cooked what was by far the best Malaysian food we’ve had to date.  The lack of roads leading into Bario results in a similar lack of grocery stores.  Borneo 001-2.JPGNot a problem for Sumi – the jungle is her supermarket.  Every night, she served us dishes made from the river ferns and wild boar found therein.  Alongside those were pineapple curry and endless plates of rice.  Amazing.

On our last full day in Bario, we trekked through the jungle for 8 hours, but I’ll let Derek–or, as he is now known, Leech Boy–tell you more about that.  A loquacious Australian named Jungle George arrived at the lodge that night and regaled us with tales of his lifetime of travels, sprinkled with occassional Oscar Wilde quotes and restaurant recommendations.    We were sad to leave the next morning, but we’ll never forget our time in Bario.

I think we mentioned before that one of our goals on this trip was to seek out places that time had left relatively unchanged.  Bario is one of those places, but I fear it won’t be that way for long.  Jaman explained that loggers had started decimating the area last year, with plans to continue through 2011.   They’re already started to see resulting changes in the weather and a diminishing wildlife population.  Jaman and other concerned residents are doing everything they can to protect as much of the jungle as possible, but they fight an uphill battle.  Go there now and see this place while it still exists as a little utopia in the middle of Borneo–you’ll be glad you did.

   

Hello from Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.  We’re in a city called Miri right now.  This morning, we were in Kuching.  Yesterday, we were in Kota Bharu.  And, earlier yesterday morning, we were on the Perhentian Island Kecil.  It seems we’ve been on the road pretty much constantly for the last 24 hours.  Our hopscotching from place to place has mostly been caused by the realities of this kind of travel.  Unlike the vacations that most of us take in the US, where plane tickets and hotel reservations are all arranged months in advance (imagine the airfare we’d have to pay if that weren’t the case!), here, most of the arranging happens the same day that we board the plane or check into the room.  We’ve found that this is really the only practical way to make our travel plans.  We booked some of the plane tickets for the first leg of our journey earlier this summer and, when it came time to use them, the flight times had all been changed–sometimes by hours, other times by days. The whole process takes some patience and flexibility, but there’s something very exciting about not knowing for sure one night where we’ll be sleeping the next.

Tomorrow night is one of the those nights.  We leave in the morning for a Borneo town called Bario. It’s the “capital” of an area called the Kelabit Highlands that’s right on the Malaysian/Indonesian border in Borneo.  We’ve heard amazing things about the highlands from our guidebook (which promises “some of the best jungle trekking” in Borneo) and fellow travelers alike, and we can’t wait to get there.  We’re both hoping to have the chance to do a homestay with a local family, so there’s really no telling what our sleeping situation could be like tomorrow.

Tonight, however, we’re in the comfortable Pacific Orient Hotel in Miri. Unlike the Perhentian hotels, this one passes my is-the-shower-a-mere-spigot-on-the-wall test.  It also has hot water, AC and wireless, so, at about $30 a night, we feel like we’ve found a real bargain, Which is good because we splurged tonight on dinner at the Seaworld Seafood Centre.  IMG_0641 003.JPGThe open-air restaurant featured giant tanks of lobsters and various kinds of fish.  Menu selections were made not by reading a written description of our choices, but rather by pointing at an unlucky culprit swimming in a tank and then describing what kind of sauce we wanted him to be served in (definitely not a place IMG_0643 005.JPGfor the vegetarian-leaning among us…).  Our lobster (black pepper sauce) and snapper (sweet chili sauce) were both excellent, although I did feel somewhat guilty during our meal when I looked at their cohorts still swimming nearby.

We arrived in Miri today after leaving Kuching in a hurry because we discovered that, if we didn’t get on a plane this afternoon, we’d miss our only chance to see the Kelabit Highlands.  We were sad to leave Kuching so soon, though.  It’s a bustling city with a cosmopolitan feel and a tropical flavor, and I know we could have had a great time there.  As it was, we had to settle for a good lunch and the opportunity to get our laundry done in a real washing machine, as opposed to our hotel’s sink.  Ah, the little things.  

We arrived in the Perhentian Islands 5 days ago, an arduous journey that involved a taxi to the Penang airport at 4:30 a.m., a flight to a city on the eastern coast of Malaysia (that we had to re-book because our scheduled flight had been cancelled without notice), a 1-hour taxi ride to a small port town and 2 boat trips.  Once we arrived at Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil, we started looking for a place to stay.  This was a bit of a challenge since one was full and a couple of others were on the verge of collapse.  Finally, we found a place (which broke Shanna’s new rule because the shower was…lacking) and unloaded our heavy backpacks.  Perhentian 020.JPGSoon, a nice lizard (who we named Ernie) came to visit us in the bathroom and ended up staying overnight.  It’s days like that one that reminds you that long-term travel isn’t always bliss; in fact, it can be really hard and stressful at times.

I heard about the Perhentian islands back in 1996 when I was traveling through Malaysia.  They were legendary for their beautiful beaches, clear water and excellent diving.  Perhentian 019.JPGWe’ve found this to be true.  The water here is the clearest I’ve ever seen, even clearer than the water in Thailand.  Similar to Thong Na Pan in Thailand, the beach is very mellow with little to do other than sit on the beach, eat and drink at the few beach cafes and scuba dive.  Perhentian 013.JPGIn fact, most everyone here – including us- came to dive. 

Shanna signed up for an intensive 4-day scuba diving course.  I’m happy to report that she passed with flying colors.  The scuba course also allowed us to meet some other travelers (including Paul, Phillip and Andy from England and Paul from Austria).  Perhentian 001.JPGWe really enjoyed getting to know them and celebrating Paul from Austria’s birthday here in the Perhentian islands.

While Shanna took the course, I read, hung out on the beach and went on three dives (I was certified in Thailand 11 years ago). The diving here is exceptional.  During my dives, I saw thousands of fish decorated with bright, vibrant colors – and even a few sharks (luckily, none attacked me).  I’ve been fortunate to have been diving in many places, but the diving here is near the top of my list.  If you’ve never been diving, I highly recommend it.  There’s something so peaceful about it.

Tomorrow, we’re off to explore the jungles of Borneo.

We’ve been in Penang for a little over 24 hours now and, thanks to some good luck on our part, I feel like we’ve already had a great introduction to this Malaysian island.  (Incidentally, as I write this, I can hear a nearby mosque’s call to prayer–a common occurrence, as we’re here five days into the holy month of Ramadan and, although this island (unlike most of Malaysia) doesn’t have a Muslim majority, Muslim people still comprise about 30% of its population.)

We arrived here last night and checked into the Hotel Continental, which–at about $33 (or 108 Malaysian ringgit) a night–is affordable and comfortable and passes my new test for our lodging: its shower is more than simply a spigot on the wall.  (My need for a self-contained shower perhaps means that I’m not a true backpacker but, hey, we all have our limits…)   As luck would have it, the Continental is right next door to the Red Garden, a night market Penang 054.JPGthat offers a mix of locals and tourists all kinds of Malaysian and Chinese food, as well as regular karoake performances.  Having skipped lunch, we were all too happy to partake in the food stalls’ offerings, from dumplings to crabs to prawn noodle soup (the best on Penang island, according to the sign).

After a quick hotel breakfast of noodles, rice and cereal (there’s something here for everyone), we boarded one of the trishaws that move comfortably on the streets here, despite the fairly unregulated flow of trucks, cars and motorcycles. Our driver, Jetty, turned out to be a great tour guide, and he pedaled us from our Georgetowwn neighborhood to Penang’s bustling Chinatown, through Little India and then to the British colonial area. (History lesson – Malaysia is a former British colony that became independent 50 years ago; Penang was a major trading stop between India and China due to its location in the Melaka Straights, explaining the majority population of Chinese and Indians in Penang).

Along the way, we stopped at Khoo Kongsi, an elaborate, colorful Chinese “clan house” that used to serve as a meeting house and Penang 009.JPGtemple for a certain Chinese family or clan, but now is predominately a musuem and tourist attraction. We then wandered through a tiny fishing village doomed to be destroyed in the coming years by the construction of a new highway. Next, we visited the wildly colorful, Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple. Penang 015.JPGFinally, Jetty (who is fluent in 4 languages, English among them) took us to Fort Cornwallis, the site of Penang’s first British port.

Derek and I then meandered back into Little India for a delicious vegetarian lunch at the Madras New Woodlands Restaurant. If you ever find yourself there, I highly recommend the channa batura, which is essentially a larger-than-your-head piece of fried bread accompanied by a spectacular garbanzo bean curry.

We then explored the city on foot (one of our favorite activities), stopping in various Chinese temples and seeing other remarkable sites until we came across a tiny shop in Chinatown, where we had what has to be one of my favorite experiences so far on our trip. Picture us for a second: we’re standing on a little side street in Chinatown. We’re clearly foreign, and we’re overloaded with 2 cameras, a Malaysian guidebook and various bags. I would not want to hang out with us. We’re looking in this little glass case at the front of the shop, trying to determine the contents of some frisbee-sized packages wrapped in paper. The proprietor of the store joins us on the street and explains that they’re packets of Chinese tea.

She then invites us to the back of the store, where we join her, her husband (who, as it turned out, spoke 6 languages) and a local customer on little stools in front of a small table that holds a number of tiny teapots and an electric kettle. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, the proprietor and her husband served us countless Penang 032.JPGcups of Chinese tea (green, black and oolong) in tiny teacups. With occasional translation from the other customer (who was around 19 and will study accounting in Kualu Lampur starting next year), we discuss various aspects of life in Penang and talk a little politics (both Malaysian and American). When, over-caffeinated and full of life, we’re finally ready to leave, they press a big container of freshly sliced watermelon into our hands and refuse to accept any money from us for the watermelon or tea. Incredible.

Indeeed, our time so far in Penang has been much like our experience in the tea shop. Surprising, different and wonderful. Nearly everyone here speaks English (excepting a 20-year, prime minister-caused lapse starting in the 80’s, it’s taught in all of the schools here) and, because it’s the low season, we have many of the more popular tourist attractions nearly to ourselves. Everyone we’ve met here so far has been incredibly kind to us, but not in a way that is overbearing or revealing of any motive other than simple friendliness.

Tonight, we plan on having a drink at the historic Eastern & Oriental Hotel and then, per the recommendations of our teahouse friends, we’ll have dinner at the Golden BBQ Steamboat Restaurant before trying to go to bed early since we have to leave for a flight at 5:15 a.m. Perhaps we should go take naps first.

UPDATE – the Golden BBQ Steamboat Restaurant was a wild experience. It was a style of eating that combines Mongolian Barbecue and Fondue. Penang 017.JPGBasically, you choose what you want to eat from a huge buffet of uncooked meats and vegetables and cook them up on a pot and grill in the middle of your table. It was delicious and overwhelmingly filling.