Tag Archives: Malaysia

Kinabantangan River: It’s a Jungle Out There

It hurt to stand up.  It hurt to sit down.  It definitely hurt to walk.  And stairs were out of the question, unless absolutely necessary.  Such was the state of my body the day after finishing the Kinabalu climb.  But somehow my dad and I managed to get on a bus (not without some struggles) to ride 4 hours away, to the Kinabantangan River basin in eastern Sabah.  About an hour away from the mountain, a deluge of rain set in, and the bus slowed to a crawl, as the roads quickly turned into streams, and we forged our way through a small flood.

The river at dawn on Christmas Eve.

The travel plans that we had set up in KK relied largely on faith–a bus that would make an unscheduled stop to pick us up in a parking lot and drop us off at an intersection, where a man with a truck would be waiting to take us another hour away to a village bed and breakfast–but surprisingly worked exactly as planned, despite the downpour.

The Kinabantangan River, or sungai, snakes through some 350 miles of Sabah, making it Malaysia’s longest river.  As a floodplain, the area surrounding the river is lush and packed with wildlife–which is the area’s main draw for tourists like us.  Unfortunately, it is also seriously threatened by logging and palm oil plantations.  We passed scores of these on the way to the village, seemingly endless evenly spaced rows of palm trees.

As we arrived at the Bilit Kinabantangan B&B, a deafening cacophony of unseen frogs echoed throughout the swamp of the yard.  After a quick cup of Sabah tea, Aroy, our nature guide for the next few days, was ready to whisk us off on our first wildlife cruise, despite the fact that the rain was still pelting down.  My rain jacket was a joke in the face of the prodigious sheets of water, so I simply embraced the wetness and sat back for the ride.  Our vehicle was a painted longboat, with a small motor attached and some plastic lawn chairs.  Only about 15 saturated minutes after leaving the dock, we cut the engine and floated to the bank of the river where seven pygmy elephants (but what does pygmy really mean, in this case?  they looked pretty big to me…) were minding their own business munching nonchalantly on riverside grass, and glancing at us occasionally.  We stayed a short distance from the shore, as a few days before, a tourist had been killed in the area by a charging pygmy elephant.  The elephants ate, we watched, I cursed the rain for preventing me from bringing my camera.

Luckily, these were far from the last elephants we’d see.  The following day–Christmas Day–we sat for half an hour watching a herd of 25+ elephants of all ages grazing by the river.  They were amazingly insouciant about our presence; some laid down and rolled around to take mudbaths, babies were feeding, and they made gentle noises as they rooted around in the mud for their food.  Over the course of our boat rides–one at dawn, one at dusk, and one in the midafternoon each day–the amount of wildlife we were able to spot (or, more realistically, that Aroy was able to spot and point out to us) was astonishing.  Egrets skimmed over the water, proboscis monkeys jumped from tree to tree with weighty crashes, macaques dotted the treetops (and lurked around behind the B&B in hopes of stealing some scraps).  We saw a green snake, silver langur monkeys, kingfishers, hornbills of many varieties, hawks, herons, and a very distant orangutan.

By night, the symphony of frogs and insects set in, and we ate dinner on the B&B porch, watching “The Voice” with our hosts, and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, while clouds of ravenous mosquitoes devoured me, regardless of what I put on.  The three days spent here, which consisted mostly of eating, sleeping, and sitting in the boat scanning the horizon for creatures, were a good time for healing our aching limbs.  The accessibility of the wildlife was simply astounding.  We weren’t at a zoo, but the animals turned up, without fail, up close and personal and practically inviting us to get closer and take their pictures.  In part, this was thanks to the richness of the floodplain, but in part, sadly, because of their rapidly disappearing habitats.

An alarmed male proboscis monkey.

The only jungle inhabitants we didn’t get up close and personal with truly in the wild were Borneo’s famous orangutans, so on the way out of Kinabantangan, we stopped at the nearby Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre.  Here, orphaned or illegally captured apes and kept and trained to survive again in the wild before being released elsewhere in Borneo.  They have free range through the surrounding forest, so can only be reliably spotted at mealtimes.  We were luckily enough to arrive in time for lunch and catch two mothers with their babies snacking on fruit.  They were amazingly humanlike as they babies squirmed away from their mom’s embraces to comically experiment with clumsily eating all of the tropical fruits.

And so, the river and the mountain conquered, our fatigue beginning to fade, we departed Sabah for Sarawak, the other state of Malaysian Borneo.  The epic sunrise and ginger primates were behind us, and now we were heading underground, to the caves of Gunung Mulu National Park…


Filed under Borneo, Malaysia

Mt. Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia, at 4095m (13,495 feet), and 20th in the world according to topographic prominence.  This was the original reason I wanted to visit Borneo.  From KL, we went to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and largest city in Malaysian Borneo (with a population of about  500,000), which is the closest hub to the mountain.  The city itself is not particularly charming–a mix of uber-modern malls, dingy noodle shops, uninspiring markets, and guesthouses.

After a night in KK, we headed to the mountain, whose peak was already hidden in thick cloud cover by the time we arrive in late morning.  We pick up our guide, Maikin (whose services were mandatory to be allowed into the national park), and two friendly Kiwis, who ended up hiking with us.  And then we’re off–eager, not yet sweaty, and relatively naive about the challenge ahead.

Day 1: 6.0 km to Laban Rata (3272 meter ascent)

After a few brisk meters downhill, the mountain begins its unrelenting rise, which insists that every step we take from here on out will be up.  For the first few kilometers, all of this ascent is in the form of stairs, which sounds like a joke.  “Mountain climbing up steps? Hah.”  NOT a joke.  Instead of the comfortable, 7-inch-or-so, rise on a normal staircase, picture steps 2-feet-tall as far as the eye can see.  One. Foot. In front. Of. The other.  I was unfortunate to get into a minor motorbike accident the day before our departure to Borneo, so small open wounds on my foot and hand are aching–starting the climb I was worried about how my minor injuries would hinder me.  It turns out I should have been more worried about how out of shape I was! (I guess my training regimen–2 days a week at the gym for two weeks–is not a great one.  Who knew!)  I am so distracted by constantly catching my breath that I don’t notice my foot at all.

Each half kilometer is marked, in a demoralizingly slow countdown to the summit.  After we pass the 0.5km mark, Maikin (who has climbed the mountain twice a week for ten years as his job) tells us that some people are so discouraged they turn around at this point.  But the day passes, one step at a time.  Porters, lugging uncomfortable loads of supplies for the resthouse, puff by us, wearing only sandals.  Each time I move out of the way for them to overtake us, I feel both guilty and amazed, given how much I’m struggling with a very light pack.  We stop for lunch and are pestered by curious ground squirrels.  The stairs give way to rocks, which is a bit of a relief at first, until the rain sets in.  Suddenly the rocks are slippery gullies of running water, and I wonder quietly how long it would take people to carry me down in a stretcher if I slip.  We are damp, muggy, chilled.  Finally, about 6 hours since we departed, we arrive at Laban Rata–our accomodation for the night.  Extreme relief is an understatement.  I am overjoyed at the dryness, warmth, dinner buffet, and the most comfortable bunk bed ever (or so it seems at the time).  We turn the lights off to sleep at 7:30pm.

Day 2: 2.5 km to the summit, 6.0km back to the park entrance

The alarm rings–1:30am.   Perhaps on a normal night, I’d be thinking about going to sleep, instead I’m bundling up in as many layers as I can manage, eating what they choose to call “supper” at the buffet, and soon after, switching on my headlamp and stepping out into the abyss to continue the ascent.  The path is just slippery rocks, all we can do is just look down and trudge by the headlamp’s beam.  It’s only after another 0.5km that we finally break above the treeline and really get a look at the sky.  The stars!  One of the first sights that reminds me that the pain is worth it.  The Milky Way is in sight, and there are enough of them to even manage a photograph.

If this many were visible in my camera, you can only imagine what it actually looked like...

We reach the famed rock face rope climb, then an interminable trudge up the looming granite dome.  In the blackness, the path is defined by the sight of other climbers–a silent and mesmerizing procession of weary lights bobbing slowly.  The mountain is traditionally sacred for the locals, and today is still revered by this daily pilgrimage of devotees suffering in the name of the sunrise (or perhaps really just worshipping the possibility of the perfect photo op). “Did I really think this would be fun, or did I just want the pictures?” I ask myself again and again.  The cold and wind increasing, we trudge toward a distant point of light, seeming ever far away like a mirage.  Low’s Peak.

This is what we came for...completely untouched by Photoshop(!)

The approaching sun is glowing red, the moon is dwindling as we attempt to clamber the rest of the way.  Finally!  The brightest, most intense, most colorful sunrise I have ever seen.  No more than a chilled 20 minutes, accompanied by the complete loss of feeling in my fingers and toes, is spent on the top.  The journey down between the peak and breakfast stop at Laban Rata is the best part, once sensation has returned to my extremities.  We are moving slowly, but more briskly than the ascent.  Hikers move each at their own pace, silent and alone, with the warm early morning light parting the blanket of clouds slightly to reveal jungle and lesser mountains below, as well as the terrain of the early morning ascent.  The word “moonscape” is the cliche most often used to describe the top of the mountain and it seems apt in the stillness of the morning, with nothing but rocky turrets and clouds in view.

After a quick breakfast, we begin the descent, taking almost no breaks, for fear that losing the momentum will cause us to give up entirely.  The stairs are equally strenuous on the way down, perhaps even more so than on the way up.  By the end, each step feels to the knees and thighs like a brutal impact.  At last, the mountain has its last laugh, as we practically crawl uphill the last bit (that nice and easy downhill beginning when we started).  As we wipe sweat from our eyes, we pass by the yearly Climbathon record board, now completely in awe of the fact that anyone could manage to make it all the way to the top and back in less than 3 hours, without fatally slipping.

Sure, it isn’t Everest, but climbing Mount Kinabalu was far from a walk in the woods.  Given that it’s such a popular tourist attraction, and doesn’t require any technical skills, I seriously underestimated the physical and mental challenge of the climb.  Even now, with the mountain weeks behind me my memory of the arduousness the two days are seriously diminished.  But the hours and kilometers that went entirely unphotographed on the way to the peak were a battle.  The walk down from the peak, with the silence of 13,000 feet, and the pink sky above the rainforest, reminded me why I’d bothered to take each of those painful steps up.  And the soreness–Oh, were we sore! It was a struggle to move at all for days–reminded me that it was my own body that had managed to take myself to that astounding overlook.

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Filed under Borneo, Malaysia

2012: Back from Borneo

January is halfway over, and I’m long overdue to refresh my blog.  Two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my dad at the Suvarnibhumi airport, and since then, life has been a whirlwind of nametags and icebreaker games.  Has it only been two weeks back at school?  Has it already been two weeks?  Both are surprising.

Though we have four terms per year, and so four “term beginnings” of workshops and new classes, none is quite as busy as the real beginning of the year.  The weather might feel like it’s perpetually June, but there is a distinct sense of new beginning at work that reminds me it’s January.  Almost 100 new daytime scholarship students have come to begin their studies for the year, many of which will end in Australia or New Zealand, and the first weeks of getting to know each other, tone-setting, and orientations are reminiscent  of making group new year’s resolutions.  Many of our overarching messages to the students for the year–about reflection, active learning, goal-setting, and changing–are equally relevant to me in my role as a teacher.

This term I’m teaching two daytime classes, one on a year-long program that prepares Master’s candidates for their postgraduate study in Australia, in which I’m teaching Information Literacy (in other words, research skills), and the second on a six-month program that prepares government officials to better qualify to be accepted to the previous program.  I’m teaching them Learning Strategies (in other words, effective study skills).  In the evening, I’m teaching the second half of the Creative Writing course that I taught last term, and a children’s class (I like being able to have deeper conversations with most of my students…but what would I do with all of my stickers if I didn’t continue to teach some kids?!).

Toward the end of last year, I made the decision to stay on in Vientiane through the end of 2012 (at least), and so the new beginning of the school year has been a good time for me to renew my excitement about the 11 months ahead.  One of my personal resolutions has been to DO something more with all of the photos that have been accumulating by the thousands in my iPhoto for the past 16 months.  En masse, they are overwhelming, more than could be properly examined or posted on Facebook or on a blog.  So instead, each day, for the 350 remaining this year, I’ll be posting a single photograph I’ve taken somewhere in Asia, in no particular order, as a simple visual impression (unaccompanied by my ramblings).  The first 15 photos for the month of January are up, so feel free to peruse my Impressions, ทุกวัน (thuk wan means daily).

But before all of this, I was in the jungle with my dad.  Where were we?

Borneo.  The world’s third largest island, after Greenland and New Guinea (Australia doesn’t count…it’s the world’s smallest continent).  The island is split between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, and we visited just the northern Malaysian parts, which includes the states of Sabah and Sarawak.

In our “fourteen days of Christmas” spent in Malaysia, we saw 14+ wild pygmy elephants, 13 (thousand) feet of mountain, 12 meals of noodles, 11 proboscis monkeys, 10 story malls, 9 early mornings, 8 giant hornbills, 7 different flights, 6 hour bus rides, 5 Mulu caves, 4 orangutans, 3 million bats, 2 Petronas towers, and an epic sunrise over the clouds.  Whew!  Try singing that to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Before flying to Borneo, we spent a day and a half in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, a mall-filled, multicultural, sprawling city, with the former tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas twin towers.  If I thought there would be no signs of Christmas in this majority Muslim capital, one look into the nearest ten-story mall proved me wrong.  But we were all too happy to escape the craziness of KL for a different type of chaos–the noisy, humid, chaos of the jungle, of nights echoing with the sounds of bats and giant frogs.  The first stop: Mt. Kinabalu…


Filed under Borneo, Laos, Malaysia, Vientiane

Holiday Wrap-Up

As is evident from my sparse posts on Australia, as the holidays get closer, life has been getting busier.  Term 4 has come to an end, my dad has been here enjoying the relaxed Vientiane lifestyle for a week already, and tomorrow we are off to Malaysian Borneo for two weeks.  Walking in the woods with my dad was a common pastime of my childhood years, and now we’ll be taking it to the next level with a climb up Mt. Kinabalu and visit to the world’s largest cave chambers.  These woods will be hotter, more exotic, and filled with wildlife much more interesting than the deer of central Virginia.  As our itinerary consists mostly of activities involving nothing but insect repellent and hiking shoes, my connection to the world outside the jungle will be sporadic.

Happy holidays!  Happy new year!

The blog will return in 2012.


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