Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Kuala Lumpur

As usual we’re behind on the blogging front so I’ll give a quick update of our time in Kuala Lumpur. We had four days in the Malaysian capital relaxing after our energetic stint in Borneo and hence our main activities were strolling around the city, eating lots of top Asian food and relaxing in the hostel (as well as watching a lot of world cup games!). The Petronas towers are probably the city’s main ‘attraction’ so we headed there one night after an Indian somewhere in the Little India district. The towers are the rather grand headquarters of Malaysia’s national oil company and used to be the tallest skyscrapers in the world until Taipei 101 was built in 2004. They look quite impressive at night (and very high!). We also went to several markets and food courts as well as a gigantic electronics mall and made some essential purchases for our travels (new mini rucksack and external hard drive).

We’re now back in Indonesia again - this time in Sumatra. We’ll probably update the blog with our first post from here in the next day or so!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The heart of Borneo

Ok so following on from the oil-rich land of Brunei we ventured back into the Malaysian part of Borneo, firstly to explore some gigantic caves deep in the jungle a la BBC Planet Earth, then over to the north-east coast to check out a scuba dive spot regularly featured on "World's Best" lists.

What a view!

Gunung Mulu National Park definitely exceeded our expectations. Arriving in Mulu via light aircraft we were able to take in some of the incredible equatorial jungle views from above - we knew things were going to be good. We took a night safari along the park's board walks on the first night, keeping our eyes peeled for huge jungle insects, jungle lizards and jungle fireflies (I came to refer to everything as jungle-related), the sounds from the trees and vegetation were very cool and helped to set the scene for our next few days.

On one morning we travelled along the river to an indigenous long-house village and then continued down stream to the park's main attraction - the limestone caves.

A glimpse of things to come...

The millions upon millions of years old stalactites and stalagmites 

Inside "Lady Cave"
The caves here are arguably some of, if not the, largest in the world and apparently there is one chamber alone that is so big it could accommodate 40 Boeing 747s! They really are breath-taking to stand inside.

At dusk we headed to the entrance of Deer Cave (the locals used to hunt deer as they rested out of the humidity in here) and literally saw millions (approx 3 million!) bats emerge for their evening feeding ritual. Giant swirls of bats right across the sky was one reason the BBC chose to film a Planet Earth programme here (that and the huge mounds of protein-rich bat poo...)

The bats in action

Mulu is also home to the world's longest tree canopy walkway and seeing the jungle from above was pretty cool. Walking timidly along the high creaking floorboards and being told not to hold on to the sides because snakes tend to be curled there isn't for the faint hearted!

Our final highlight of Borneo was heading out to the Semporna archipelago to give the world-class scuba diving a bash. We rather stupidly decided to take an overnight bus from the city of Kota Kinabalu which meant arriving in the rather dodgy and run-down town of Semporna at 3.30am - not one of our finest plans. We hung around the bus station, being hassled by local guys trying to get us to take a taxi, a mean-looking pack of stray dogs and more than a couple of rats(!) until the sun started to rise at about 6am. At this point we gave in to one of the persistent locals and found ourselves in the back of his home-made taxi veering around corners with the car doors flinging open voluntarily!

Thankfully our home for the next week, the island of Mabul, was complete with an incredible underwater world. I completed my scuba diving course whilst Tom took his advanced classes with "Sean" who not only looked and sounded like a giant but happily told us prior to becoming a dive instructor he used to sell all kinds of weapons to governments and rebel groups around the world... he's not someone you'd want to meet in a dark alley.

The local fisher-boys

My first taste of diving was amazing. I would recommend it to anyone as it's so peaceful under the water with hundreds of colourful fish and corals all around, not the mention the friendly turtles. We both had a fantastic time, until I managed to pick up a nasty ear infection (which I'm going to see yet another doctor about tomorrow).

 The sunsets were as good as ever...
... and at times quite surreal
Woo hoo!
We arrived in Kuala Lumpur last night so more blogging and pictures will follow soon...

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Hello Borneo!

An evening view of the waterfront in Kuching

Our trip across the northern part of Borneo started in the city of Kuching in the Malaysian state Sarawak. With images of Borneo in mind we were quite surprised by Kuching as its actually a reasonably buzzing and cosmopolitan place but with the “real” Borneo still close by. We spent just a couple of days in Kuching, scoffing on our very cool hostel’s free all day breakfast (for cost saving measures we often hung around til lunch...) and finally as a result we had a couple of days on the trot sticking to budget (hurrah, its only taken us eight months!!).

First encounters with our flame-haired cousins came when we visited the local Orang-utan rehabilitation centre – it was awesome. The centre is home to less than 30 semi-wild Orang-utans – either because they were previously kept as illegal pets, were orphaned or lost their natural habitats as a result of logging in the Borneo jungle. We arrived in time for the afternoon feed (the area doesn’t provide enough food for the Orang-utans so their diet is supplemented with bananas, watermelons and coconuts). Swinging through the trees came mums with babies, cheeky youngsters coming back for second helpings and Ritchie, the dominant male of the group, who we were warned doesn’t like crying children, being laughed at or umbrellas being pointed at him – typical bloke really...

From Kuching we also spent a day in the Bako National Park which is on the north coast. We mistimed the bus which was followed by a short speedboat trip across the murky, crocodile-infested South China Sea so despite our early start we didn’t actually arrive in the park until midday and it was sweltering! We opted for an easy trail of a whopping... 800m! Rather shameful as another couple we met had ventured 8km around the park, but our mini trek through the jungle to a secluded beach was a nice introduction to Borneo’s scenery.
South China Sea

A wild boar scavenging

Feeling the humidity

On our stroll back to the boat we were lucky enough to see several Proboscis monkeys sat up in the trees. They are quite aptly known by the locals as “Dutch men” - their resemblance is uncanny and they are extremely human-like.

Tom nearly having to dodge a "hot shower"

Back at the hostel I had a glimpse of the future when we met a Dutch girl who looked nothing like the monkeys but spookily like my cousin Lily (now eight) at the age of 25!

From Kuching we caught a rather hair-raising overnight bus to Brunei - the driver was a lunatic and arriving in Brunei we were exhausted as it’s pretty difficult to sleep on a bus that’s hurtling around extremely sharp bends on the wrong side of the road, with oncoming traffic, but its fine we survived! As we walked from the bus stop the setting sun began to cast a surreal orange light over the city which turned into a crazy electrical storm with electric blue bolts of lightning illuminating the sky. We came to realise that this kind of evening sky is a fairly common occurrence in Brunei and so the locals looking in bemusement at Tom snapping away with his camera made sense.
The storm on arrival in Brunei

Brunei is the smallest country by far in SE Asia, strictly Muslim and run by an extremely oil-rich Sultan who seems to take care of the people and the country pretty well (free education, healthcare and loans for cars etc). We spent a few days in the capital Bangar Seri Begawan staying at the recommended Youth Club with strictly mixed dorms (although when we checked in I was ushered into the dorm with Tom, my “husband” – much to the disapproval of the cleaning ladies who saw me emerge every morning off to brush my teeth). I also made use of the pool but my quick relaxing dip turned into more of a life-saving course as I had to swim fully clothed!

A view of the lawn in central BSB - the sultan is on one side saluting the mosque on the other

A view of the historical water-villages where 22,000 locals live

We had a wander around the immaculate Royal Regalia Museum - taking off our shoes on arrival made it feel as though we were walking around someone’s rather OTT house. It’s full of gifts to the Sultan from other countries’ heads of state – the Queen’s vase was a little disappointing but some of the other gifts were incredible (clearly some countries try harder to impress than others). We also caught a bus to Brunei’s largest mosque which was really impressive both inside and out.

From Brunei we backtracked back to Sarawak where we’re now waiting in the airport for our delayed flight (in an aeroplane our size you wouldn’t want to fly in bad weather!) to the Gunung Mulu National Park in the Borneo highlands.