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Beautiful, Brutal, Borneo

My feet on some rocks at Bako National Park
My feet on some rocks at Bako National Park

My journey to Bako started with the exclusive boat company necessary to getting to the national park extorting almost all the cash I had out of me, a trick that perhaps they learned from AirAsia who tried to charge me over $60 to check my bag on the way to Kuching. I arrived in the mid afternoon and spent the rest of the day following Bako's well labeled trails over charming old boardwalks built to handle people who measure their weight in kilograms, not pounds. After a nasty fall down a flight of stairs which seriously bruised my arm and shoulder and broke the skin in several places along my body, I made it to a beautiful cliff overlooking a peaceful beach. That day I saw several wild animals including boars and the hideously ugly proboscis monkey, but unfortunately no otters.

Proboscis monkey sitting in a tree at Bako
Proboscis monkey sitting in a tree

I had heard great things about the night trek in Bako and it was a rare thing I'd never done, but unfortunately they weren't doing it the night I was there due to a ranger meeting and weather and I wouldn't have had the small amount of money to attend it anyway, so I decided to just walk into the jungle myself that night. I was later asked by a friend and doctor from CouchSurfing why I ventured into the jungle alone at night without telling anyone and all I could say was: "Because if I told someone they would have stopped me." And they would have been right in doing so.

Being in the jungle alone at night is a terrifying experience. On my way back to camp it started raining and as soon as it was heavy enough to break the canopy I donned my poncho. No sooner than I'd done so did I hear a buzz and felt a sting. First the arm, then the neck. I flailed wildly, pulled up my hood and started running. I passed a sign that said: "Be ware of bees." Great, thanks, I'll be sure to do that. The rain poncho significantly diffused my headlamp making it very hard to stay on the trail. When I eventually found my way and the buzzing stopped I came upon a very large white porcupine. I froze in my tracks, took off my hood, checked to see if I was going into anaphylactic shock—which I didn't seem to be—and attempted to suck any stingers/venom out of my arm. I made it back to the ranger station and checked with a cook, the only person who was still up, to see if the bees stings were serious. He said they weren't. For the next week the stings burned and itched and I watched as the flesh immediately around them rotted away.

The next day I ignored the rangers recommendations and decided to take the long loop around the park. It was one of the most treacherous treks I've done in my entirely life but provided hours of serene alone time which I well spent processing, thinking and feeling. Kilometers of the trail were over slippery rocks through mountain springs. Nearly the entire path was lined and crossed with large thorned ferns and tiny barbed vines waiting like the invisible tentacles of the unseen jellyfish to send bursts of pain shooting through your limbs. Clearly no one had been on that trail for a while; if it wasn't so well marked I would have turned back many times thinking I'd lost my way. Still I enjoyed it a lot.

The spiked path all over the long loop at Bako
I was constantly ducking under and stepping over these

When it was time to go back to Kuching the evening rains were just beginning and the waves were very high. A lesser man on a larger boat would have been torn apart, but not us, my boat driver was a pro. It made me feel a little better about the exorbitant amount I had paid him.

The next day was perfect. I sold my old netbook getting far more for it than I had expected, shipped some stuff home for a really low price, and met a fantastic girl from Canada who was heading the opposite direction around the world on her slightly shorter trip. But yet I felt down. In fact, the next several days went well and still I felt down. I'm not sure if it was loneliness, the inevitable growing pains of the spurt from adolescence to adulthood or just plain homesickness, but I couldn't shake the feeling. Like Puff's fearless roar I had lost my magic smile.

I was getting antsy to leave Kuching, a city where all the bus stops look like extruded question marks and the all the doors have handles and sings that say "push", but I wasn't particularly excited to go anywhere. I figured once I got moving again things would turn up, and they did. I quickly caught a ride from a guy heading all the way to my final destination and who used to share the same profession as my father but now operates a crane that takes researches from tree to tree at a remote national park near one of my future destinations. He said if I came to his national park I could stay at the ranger station and he would let me go up in the crane which was another activity I've never done and was very excited to do after looking at pictures of the view from the top.

We arrived in Sibu fairly late at night and decided to split a hotel room. We walked around and sat down for some beers outside a Chinese restaurant below our hotel. I had read that Sibu is considered the "wild west of Malaysia" and I could see why—it was both dirty and filthy, with streets lined with prostitutes and bums. That night in the hotel room my friendly driver tried to get too friendly in an unpleasantly similar way to the man in Makassar.

The next day I took a 3 hour boat ride to Kapit. I had low hopes for the destination but had heard good things about the journey. The destination met my expectations and the journey fell far below them. I was promised views of long houses and tropical jungles but what I saw was modern long houses, which look more like low income American housing or cheap motels than traditional domiciles, and shores decimated by logging. The en route entertainment was the movie Avatar, a tragically apropos story about the destruction of natural habitat by corporate greed.

After a cockroach night in the sleepy town of Kapit I saddled up and headed back to Sibu with intentions to leave immediately and head toward Brunei for a hopeful change of pace and spirits. The port in Sibu is also a bus station but only for local buses and no one could tell me which bus went to the "express bus terminal" outside of town. One woman eventually said that if I wait with her for her husband to pick us up that he would drive me to the terminal; so I did. We waited for almost an hour until her husband arrived in a large delivery truck. On the way to the bus terminal her husband asked me what things in Sibu I had seen and I admitted that I hadn't seen anything. He said if I spent the night he would show me around and after thinking about it for a while I decided to stay. First the man drove me around to find a place to stay, which was a little difficult as many of the hotels were already booked for a motorcycle convention. We found a place with rooms that were a little more expensive than I was looking to pay but when I went to check in the man covered the bill(despite my protests)!

That night my new friends took me all over town. We went to a couple night markets where we tried 2-3 foods from 11 stalls in a row. We went to the town square where Christmas trees made from recycled material made by middle school students were on display. The motorcycle convention was across the street so we checked that out as well. The only cool thing there was a guy who had modded his bike to make flames shoot out of the tail pipe and turn blue when he accelerated.

Chickens wrapped in newspaper at the Sibu market
Chickens wrapped in newspaper

We started the next morning with dim sum then went to several more markets and a very nice park which had a boardwalk through monkey filled secondary rain forest. It reminded me a lot of Cherokee Marsh; it even had cool wooden towers to climb. After that we got more food then went to another park which was more reminiscent of Blue Mounds. Finally my new friends dropped me at the bus station and helped me buy a ticket to a place I hadn't planned on going. That couple was so nice! I probably tried as many things in 2 days in Sibu as I did in a week in Penang. The Pasta Barron had been pushed to his limits. I would have left thinking Sibu was a dirty place had they not shown me the shiny other side of the coin.

On my last day in Sibu a smile returned to my face as well as new flesh to my wounds and my spirits started lifting. I'm still not sure what I was so down about but I'm glad to be feeling a bit better. I guess that's just part of a tip like this. You the readers only see a small part of the journey and probably don't hear about as many lows as highs.

Niah Caves
Niah Cave

I spent the next 18hrs riding buses and hitchhiking to Niah National Park which boasts one of the largest caves on earth and the home of the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia. While the cave itself was large and impressive, I enjoyed the rocks and butterflies on the hike to the cave a lot more. In the 1970's Niah caves was harvested for its much prized birds nests and the scaffolding used by the harvesters is still in place. Long poles dangle precarious from the ceiling as a testament to the lengths people will go through to get these nests. The cave is also a prime source of nutrient rich bat guano. You couldn't help but get covered in bird and bat guano as well as green mold but for some reason I enjoyed the experience. Something new I guess.

After Niah it was on the the country of Brunei which is to Borneo as Singapore is to peninsular Malaysia. In fact, Brunei and Singapore have an interesting relationship and their currencies are technically interchangeable. Brunei is a tiny country with not much to see and in one day and one night I probably didn't even see the little it had to offer. I ended up staying in the government run youth hostel which looked more like a military school or Chinese high school. It was a multi-building complex surrounded by a spiked fence and with an old metal playground on the front lawn. The building itself probably could have housed 150 people but that night it only held me and 4 other solo travelers. No one staffed the office and 3 of the other travelers had spent a day and a half getting in. They let me stay in their dorm room for free and we later extended the offer to a newcomer who was having similar trouble getting in.

Field and grand mosque in Brunei
Field and grand mosque in Brunei

There's certain places when traveling that are bound to bring travelers together and that hostel was one of them. It was nice to be in the company of other travelers again if only for a night. I feel like I'm starting to hit my stride and things in the distance are coming into focus. Around new years I plan to meet a good friend in Cambodia and then travel through Myanmar before heading to Bangkok for a frisbee tournament and then Vietnam for the lunar new year. In general Malaysia has been great but I'm excoted to be in the Philippines where I hear the booze is cheap and the cocks fight to the death!

Want more? There are more, larger pictures in the gallery and even more even larger pictures in the dropbox account.

I also just created a special Facebook Page for Danger Travels which you can like to get even more of the action. If you're not already, don't forget to add your email address to the update list using the form in the sidebar.

I want more too! I'd love to make DangerTravels the #1 travel site of 2013 and I need your help. Tell your friends, like my posts, spread the word! Consider it a Hanukkah or early Christmas present.

Soundtrack: N17 (The Saw Doctors)


Susan Haynes
December 14th, 2012 at 9:03 PM

So happy to get the latest instalment! I knew you weren't up to snuff, when you were out of touch for so long. Highs and lows happen, like prickers and bug bites.
I get a big vicarious high reading your installments. Happy trails and Happy Holidays. I am thinking of you all the time.

December 15th, 2012 at 9:37 AM

I'll second Sue's emotion - keep those posts and photos coming. BTW love the soundtrack, too.

If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com