I leave Nepal with only the vaguest of plans: breeze through Kuala Lumpur as a starter, have my fill of adventure on Malaysian Borneo, followed by a week of relaxation in Malacca for afters… To be garnished with detail when in situ.
‘Anything lined up for Borneo? Heading into the jungle?’ a fellow traveler asks when we lounge at the breakfast table in my Pokhara hostel, weeks earlier. All flights booked before setting off on my three-month journey, accommodation to be arranged last minute as per usual, my mind is foggy about the minutiae. I have yet to conquer Base Camp Everest at that point and somehow my imagination is blocked by that monumental obstacle that seems to be commandeering my every waking breath. In Pokhara, I cannot yet contemplate life post-EBC.
‘Nope,’ I admit. ‘Haven’t made any plans beyond ‘no plans to climb Kota Kinabalu’…’ Uncharacteristically, prudence has ruled my head and I thought it wise not to book another strenuous hike in the immediate aftermath of The Hike. I resolve to go with the flow, see what trips are available at the time and what I can fit into the one week I have allowed for the Borneo adventure.
It proves to be an error!! Borneo may only be an island but it is a massive island which Malaysia shares with Indonesia and ‘The Nation of Brunei, The Abode of Peace’. With dwindling finances and limited space – or more precisely ‘no space’ – left in my passport for collecting stamps, I decide to leave Sarawak for a future trip and focus on Sabah instead. Travel by bus between the two Malaysian states on Borneo is very much possible, but involves multiple encounters with Malaysian and Bruneian border officials and inevitable passport embellishments along the route. Definitely a no-no, my passport screams out!
I have booked a private room through Airbnb, cheap and cheerful, on the outskirts of the city of Kota Kinabalu in a less touristy area but within walking distance of the beach. November is not exactly the high season on Borneo, so I am the only guest.. Not what I was hoping for, but, after making peace with sound explosions at ungodly hours emanating from neighbouring Kota Kinabalu International airport, at least I do not have to share kitchen and bathroom facilities with anyone else. On the downside, no one to exchange travel experiences and tips with, so I resort to reading the brochures in my room, online travel blogs and Tripadvisor reviews when the internet speed allows.
Borneo has so many great trips and exciting activities, I am overwhelmed by choice and lack of time. Do I opt for a day of white-water rafting? Have another go at scuba diving or more sedate snorkeling amongst abundant exotic corals? Visit Snake Island and the mud volcanoes on Pulau Tiga? And what about the tempting river cruise through the jungle? A two or three-day jungle trek in Kota Kinabalu National Park is quickly discounted, I simply have not given myself enough time… Also, many of the trips can only be booked with a minimum of two people, and some involve traveling to different parts of Sabah first.. To make the most of Sabah, I should have stayed at least a month on the island and forged some alliances with other single travelers to be able to take part in the more adventurous trips…
In the end, I opt for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, near Sandakan on the Eastern side of Borneo. Let’s face it, there will be other snorkeling, scuba diving, jungle trekking and river cruising opportunities in different parts of the world, but places for a face-to-face rendezvous with the Jungle VIP in the wild are shrinking as we speak and breathe.. Only, Sandakan is a six-hour bus ride away, or a short 45-minute flight. With time of the essence, the more scenic drive across the country loses out on the more practical air travel. And relying on the wisdom of fellow explorers, I don’t intend to waste money on an organized tour at the other end; taxis are easy to get hold of and if I’m lucky to find some company, I can even save on the fare…
At Sandakan airport I order a Grab – the Uber of the East – straight to the town of Sepilok and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where sightings of the ‘man of the forest’ are orchestrated to the tune of its hungry stomach. The purpose of the centre is to prepare orphaned, injured or rescued orangutans for independent life in the jungle, a process which can take several years whilst trainers teach survival skills such as foraging for food, nest building, grooming, the art of tree swinging and other jungle essentials.
The drive to Sepilok is a 15 km long jaunt through the middle of nowhere, to the middle of nowhere… Trees in abundance line the roads but buildings and other signs of human life are far and few between. I wonder slightly about my return later on in the day, 25 km to Sandakan.. How many Grab drivers will want to pick up a ride that far out of town? The Tripadvisor reviewer had not added any info on that part but, being on the optimistic side, I quickly dismiss my disquiet: something will turn up, it always does. And indeed, at the ticket counter I spot a bus time table and a quick confirmation from the sales girl settles my doubts. I have until four pm when the orange and white mini bus arrives at the car park and ferries visitors all the way back to Sandakan. Who needs taxis when there is a bus service…?
At the rehabilitation centre, an indoor viewing platform looks out at the orangutan playground where twice a day adult, teenage and baby orangutans entertain visitors with acrobatics and antics on their way to the feeding stations. No better place for a bit of fun, socializing and sibling bickering than at a dinner table laden with effort-free grub. A second outdoor platform attracts not just more mature and jungle-primed orangutans, but also long-tailed macaques who are clearly the real Jungle VIPs. What the macaques lack in size is made up by the unveiled aggression of the dominant male monkey. With a few threatening growls and a vicious baring of teeth, it quickly cows the much larger hairy apes into retreat to higher branches, wistfully eyeing the bunches of bananas handed around the greedy macaque troop. Only the last scraps are left for the orangutans.
After an amusing few hours watching orangutans, and sun bears in the conservation centre opposite, I venture to the car park to wait for the bus. Better be on the early side and at the front of the queue; it is Sunday after all and the park is busy. I sit and watch, and wait, and wait a little more… Slowly cars start drifting away, pre-arranged taxis cram in their passengers and disappear, a lone taxi driver tries his luck touting for customers and soon purrs happily into the distance. I wait stoically as four o’clock comes and goes and the car park drains of human presence. A park attendant saunters my way and asks whether I have a taxi arranged. He shakes his head when I explain that I was hoping the bus would make an appearance soon… ‘Ah,’ he sighs, ‘the bus only comes if it still has empty seats.. If it isn’t here yet, it probably won’t come..’ Incredulous, I groan, ‘You’re telling me now…’ It looks like I may be spending the night in the company of the orangutans who get free reign across all parts of the park at night, including the car park…
The attendant walks off studying the few remaining cars. ‘Give me a minute,’ he reassures me, ‘I have found a Grab car. Let me have a word with the driver.’ The news is not promising. The Grab driver is enjoying a day off and is visiting the centre with his own family, a full car load.. Whilst I ponder a plan B, the Grab driver turns up, family in tow: wife, mother and aunt… ‘Let me phone a friend,’ he offers, but even his taxi friends are not up for the trip as there are more lucrative Grab journeys for grabs closer to town. In the end, all other avenues exhausted, his mother and aunt shuffle up and I squeeze into the back seat. As it happens, the Grab driver lives in Sandakan, so he is heading in my direction anyway and does not want to leave me stranded… Plus picking up a tourist gives him the opportunity to practise his self-taught English.
‘Do you have anything planned for tomorrow?’ Grab driver enquires… Labuk Bay, the Proboscis Monkey sanctuary, has crossed my mind. A relaxed half day trip before catching my flight back to Kota Kinabalu. ‘It is a bit further than Sepilok, so make sure you arrange a return taxi this time,’ he recommends, as he passes me his phone number and offers his services. Of course, how can I refuse and not repay his kindness?
The Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary turns out to be an interesting place, a safe haven for another species on the verge of extinction. Privately-owned and located within a palm oil estate, the centre has two feeding platforms from which to observe these rather nosy creatures… The Proboscis Monkeys may well be the main reason for the centre’s existence, but it’s the Silverleaf monkeys that steal the show when I am there. Imagine having the cutest orange baby, the envy of the rest of the troop. Imagine being that cutest orange baby and being passed around the aunties, uncles, grandmas and other nosy creatures to have a good sniff and inspection… Baby boy or baby girl?? It was definitely NOT grooming that was going on… Isn’t that what we, humans, do too??? Only maybe a little less hands on…
In the end, Grab driver did rather well out of his good deed. A generous tip, a free English lesson, a morning’s work… But it’s the hospitality I have come to associate with Malaysia; people are incredibly friendly and unassuming. It’s definitely my favourite place in the Far East so far… but then, so far I’ve only experienced it as a tourist, not yet as a member of the workforce..