Hello from Chiang Rai, Thailand!
After a little more than a month in Borneo we now find ourselves in Northern Thailand getting ready to head for the border of Laos. But, we've covered a bit of ground since our last update from Kota Kinabalu (KK), Sabah.
Malaysia Airlines, which is subsidized by the government, offers plenty of low priced flights to the small towns of Sarawak and Sabah throughout Malaysian Borneo. All the airports are small and about a $3-5 taxi ride from the center of town so flying around the region was easy and cheap and made everything seem more accessible. From KK we headed to the east coast of Sabah to the town of Sandakan.
Sandakan is a sleepy little seaside town whose main tourist draw is the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Center and the Kinabatang River valley. We actually enjoyed a couple hot, sweaty days exploring the town, enjoying local meals in the market, and trying to capture the vibe of the market on film. The Malay people are so friendly, always ready with an easy, sparkling smile. They got a big kick out of us mazungos (white people) sitting at the comunal tables in the market and pointing to what we'd like to eat for lunch. Lunch for 2 came to about 8RM (= $1.80). When I would ask them permission to take their picture they would often nod and smile shyly or try to pull another friend into the picture with them. If they said no, I lowered the camera, smiled and moved on. The men typically loved having their picture taken. In the fish market they would call out from 3 rows over to have me come over and take their picture posing with dead fish.
Often in muslim cultures I found that eye contact on the street was rare, particularily from women. But that is not the case at all in Borneo. Frequently women on the street would look me right in the eye and flash a beautiful smile and say hello as we passed. In addition to a strong Muslim community, Christanity is very prevalent as well as the traditional tribal religions. Throughout Borneo I was struck by the religious tolerance and openness of the people, as well as the variety of languages and cultures.
We also made a trip out to Sepilok to see the orang-utans, about 30 minutes from Sandakan. The Rehabilitation Center was started in the 60's to rescue orphaned orang-utans (in Malay 'orang' means 'man' and 'utan' means 'jungle'---man of the jungle. And they do seem very human-like, in a different way than the Mountain Gorillas) and orang-utans that had been kept as pets, illegally, with the goal being to teach them how to survive in the wild and eventually release them back in to the wild. They have rehabilitated hundreds of orang-utans in the last 40 years. At the Rehabilitation Center they have set up a feeding platform to supplement their diet with bananas and milk which draws about 8-14 orang-utans to stop by at a given feeding. They have one at 10:30am and one at 3:30pm. The platform is built up in a tree with ropes strung from it to other surrounding trees which provides easy access for the primates. About 20 feet away they also built an observation platform for their more evolved cousins to capture their antics and hilarious interactions with the scavanging macaque monkeys on film. There never seems to be a shortage of spectators with cameras.
There was a very clear hierarchy in the feeding process. The two malay feeders were definitely king. Then came the orang-utans who were the primary recipients of the food offered. The feeder made sure all the orang-utans who showed up got their fill. Then came the macaques, who seemed to know their place in the hierarchy, but that never slowed them down from trying to get food. They would sneak up to the platform from every different direction and try to be stealth about stealing a bunch of bananas all the while keeping a constant eye of the feeders, expecting to be shoo'd away at any moment. A little macaque, upon successfully stealing a bunch of about 6 bananas promptly sat down out of reach of the feeders and proceeded to try to peal and stuff in his mouth all 6 bananas as quickly as possible before he was busted by someone bigger. He looked like a child who had gotten into the cookie jar. The orang-utans are much more relaxed about their eating and often took breaks from dining to hang from the rope or come up with a new yoga pose that inevitablely involved putting their feet over their heads. We were enchanted by the organ-utans and fully entertained by the macaques.
After we spent our 3 days sweating on the Kinabatang River (see Snow's entry for the full story) we decided to head south instead of going back to Sandakan. Our intentions were we try to go to Danum Valley Conservaton Area which is a protected area full of spectacular flora and fuana, including the rare Sumatran rhino, the clouded leopard, and more elephants. However, there are only two places to stay in the Conservation area, one is a research center and didn't allow tourists to stay there and the other is the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, a nice, high-end lodge that was fully booked for the next week. So, we found ourselves in Lahad Datu, an oppressively hot town on the coast, with no real plans. We wearily checked into a hotel, desperate for some relief from the heat and opened our Lonely Planet. In the cool A/C of the Executive Hotel in Lahad Datu we came up with a new plan.
We jumped on a plane back to KK and went straight to the long distance bus station and bought a ticket to go to Mt. Kinabalu, about an hour and a half away. While killing time at the bus station Snow pulled out his guitar to strum a little. In no time he had a small crowd enjoying his music. One of the bus company touts stepped right up and sang along and stole the show with his toothless grin and dark shades. It seems the world over everyone knows Hotel California, La Bamba, and Country Roads. Fortunately, those are three of Snow's best numbers. He had quite a fan-club going by the time we left for Mt. Kinabalu.
Mt. Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in SE Asia rising 13,455ft above the sea. It is the most popular tourist destination in Sabah, with many visitors going for the summit. We had already decided that climbing the mountain was not on our agenda, but we were looking forward to spending a couple lazy days exploring the park. One of the greatest things about Mt. Kinabalu was the drastic change in temperature. After a couple weeks of literally melting in the jungle we fully welcomed the cooler temperatures of the higher altitude. We actually wore pants and sweatshirts there.
After an hour and a half of winding up the twisty roads to the base of the mountain (enough to make even the strongest stomach a little quesy) we were dropped off at Kinabalu Rose Cabins, just outside Mt. Kinabalu Park, where we settled in for 3 nights. First order of business, as usual, was getting the jungle sweat and mud out of our pile of clothes. We spent 3 days relaxing, reading, exploring the trails in the Mt. Kinabalu Park and visiting the Botantical Gardens, enjoying our incredible view of the mountain from the deck off our room, watching the storm clouds blow in, cover the mountain, drop a bucket-load of rain, and blow out, and capturing a few more jumping pictures on the Canon Rebel.
After 3 days we were ready to return to lower altitudes and headed to Gayana Eco-Resort on an island just off of KK. The resort, mostly built over water on stilts, hugs the north side of the island, which is entirely covered with lush jungle. It is a very popular Chinese tourist destination and thus, has the inevitable Karaoke Lounge. Snow brought down the house with a very Rob Thomas-esque "Smooth".
I was recovering from a bad cold and enjoyed a few more days of R&R. Snow did manage to get me out to do a short day hike. Our goal was to get to a beach a little further up the bay from our hotel, then take a boat back to the hotel, but we got on the wrong trail. We ended up in a garbage strewn swamp that led out to one of the several stilt villages built on the other side of the island. It felt a little dodgy, so we turned around and headed back up the super steep hill we had just slid down. It was similar to doing the stairmaster in a steam room--a dip in the ocean upon return was very refreshing.
My 35th birthday was Aug 17. After Gayana we decided to splurge and celebrate in style. We spent a very luxurious night at the Nexus Resort Karambunai 30 minutes north of KK. It was a perfect way to wrap up a wonderful month exploring Malaysian Borneo. We would highly recommend Borneo as a travel destination. There are plenty of options to make it even more adventuresome, or less (ie, less leeches, more beaches) adventuresome and more vacation than our trip. The food is wonderful (though I have to admit, I am a little tired of noodles or rice at every meal), the people as so open, friendly and helpful, the scenery is spectactular, the plentiful fresh fruit is delicious, and you can't beat the price.
Regretably, we did not make it to Pennisular Malaysia on this trip. There was so much to keep us busy in Borneo that we just ran out of time. So, now we are on our way to Laos. We flew from KK to Bangkok, then up to Chiang Rai. Thailand is a bit of milestone for us. It is our 20th country we've visited on this trip. Also, it holds some personal significance for us. About 9 months after Snow and I started dating we took our first international trip together, two weeks in Thailand. That was almost 4 years ago. We both knew, before we left, that the trip would either make or break our relationship. Needless to say, it certainly didn't break our relationship. We have very fond memories of our last trip here and are really enjoying our brief pass-through.
We are now headed to Chiang Khong, Thailand to cross to Huay Xian, Laos.