Sunday, February 23, 2014

Labuan stop

On the way back to Penang from Borneo, we stopped over in Labuan, an island off the coast of Sabah (Borneo). Labuan is currently known for its offshore banking and duty free status, but we soon discovered its historical significance as well:  it is the site of the Japanese surrender of North Borneo to the British in 1945. Labuan was the gateway to Borneo and was strategically very important.

Labuan has an island feel, laid back.  There is not much for the tourist to do. It is quite unlike its much more touristy fellow duty-free island off the west coast of Malaysia--Langkawi, which has numerous resorts and a party vibe. Labuan is much more residential, with a substantial port. Two notable incongruencies are the two building high-rise financial center, and the low-rise slightly seedy bar area, frequented by sailors in port and folks from alcohol-free Brunei who want to let their hair down. Brunei/Borneo is only an hour long ferry ride away.

We took a minibus to the top of the island.  The features listed on the tourist bureau map for the northern half the island are: Surrender Point, Bird Park, and The Chimney. We chose the latter, which is variously claimed to be a remnant of the coal industry that first attracted British involvement in 1847, and simply a landmark for approaching ships. In any case Labuan coal did fuel the Royal Navy for years.

The Chimney
Meanwhile, back in Labuan town,
tastes kingly!

plaque  in a downtown square marks the "possession" of the island by the British in 1840. Another, nearby (sorry no photo) marks the passing of Japanese commanding general Maeda, who died in a 1942 air crash as he was coming to Labuan, and the renaming of the island in his memory.
Later it was un-renamed by the British following the Japanese surrender.

We chose a hotel listed by Lonely Planet as appealing to the low end business traveler. Our comfortable room is had a flat screen TV and minifridge. In the bathroom a modern shower, with a modern, wide shower head but also a large plastic bucket and scoop for those who prefer the more traditional Asian style splash bath.

Borneo adventure

Borneo feels different.  Appealing! Traffic isn't as nutty; fewer motorbikes. Tom calls it a Polynesia feel. Still a strong Chinese influence which lends a certain familiarity and plenty of small shops. Generally things are more laid back, yet well equipped with modern conveniences. 

[not the man we saw!]
Kuching, Sarawak is walkable. And walk we do, stopping along the river bank walkway to listen to a local man probably in his 30s, tattooed, in tribal (scant!) attire, playing the sape, a traditional stringed instrument, with a sign in front of him reading “2 MR [local currency] for photo”.  Some passersby stop and stand next to him for a photo as he plays. Some pay, some don't. We sit and listen awhile, loving the music. Tom takes video and places a 5 in the donation box.  In another time and place I might have kept walking, or disparaged his money-making venture, but here it is so clear that he is preserving a culture otherwise decimated by logging, offshore oil, and, most recently, palm oil plantations. And the music is lovely. Alas, I can't upload Tom's video to this blog but here is a photo (not ours) that shows the instrument and a man in similar attire. Our guy was much cuter and had lots of traditional tattoos.

A few Kuching pix:
Kuching riverfront--promoting the Visit Malaysia campaign

someone you know was there

"Kuching" means "cat" in Malaysian. That calls for plenty of kitschy cat statues in the city.
Tom and friend, who is specially decked out for Chinese new year. Tom looks like
 he is having a lot of fun posing for the photo, doesn't he?

There is a tremendously rich cultural mix in Sarawak and Sabah (the two Malaysian states that comprise roughly 1/3 of the island of Borneo; the rest belonging mostly to Indonesia with a little chunk the Sultanate of Brunei). The biggest group at 30% (thanks Wikipedia!) is Iban (natives, headhunters of yore), followed by Chinese (around 25%), Malay (23%), Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, Melanau (all natives) and a number of other smaller tribal groups.  One night we have dinner in a Kelabit tribe restaurant in downtown Kuching called Tribal Stove.  Great atmosphere and food, dining to recorded sape music. 

We took a city bus out to the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, home to 27 semi-wild orangutans, the next day. Did you know: orang means person and hutan is jungle ? I love that...  Well, I had missed seeing them in the wild when I was in this part of the world 140 years ago (give or take 100), and I wanted now to at least see them in proper trees and more or less in their natural habitat. The Reserve holds twice daily feedings for whichever of the 27 residents care to attend--sometimes none, we were warned--and groups of visitors that range in size from zero to the near-mob of us, close to 100, mixed local and foreigners on this Sunday afternoon. But two did come, after the ranger called into the forest for a few minutes.  Lovely to see them moving through the trees, a young one in cartwheel fashion along ropes that had been hung from branches down to the feeding platform.

The ranger handed out bananas and something else we were not close enough to see, and then a coconut. The younger primate took the coconut up the rope to a nearby tree, and began cracking it against the trunk.  The older one dashed up and snatched it out of his/her hand. Life is so unfair.


We headed north, to Gunung Mulu National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site.  Flying in to Mulu in a comfortable 58-seater prop plane, we noted a dramatically snaking river and lovely thick trees below. 

We stayed three nights, and had booked two hikes, the Garden of Eden Valley/Deer Cave and the Canopy Walk.   Night in the park is amazing--a symphony of creature sounds, at least five different tunes all at once: one- or two-tone cicadas, amphibians in a dog-like bark, birds doing dit dit dit da (maybe A A A A G), geckos chiming in with a creakity creak, all punctuated by some firefly action.  And stars of course. 

Next morning: it was The Deer Cave Adventure for your intrepid travelers. We had no detailed notion of what the trip would involve, but they said we would get "muddy"and that open toed sandals would not do, and so wore our light hiking boots. We didn't fancy getting them wet and I remember hoping that just a toe or heel might be submerged as we walked "down" the river in the valley after going through the cave.

The trip started with a few kilometers along a boardwalk in the park, to the entrance of Deer Cave, which is said to be "the largest cave passage in the world". We are not sure how much of it we saw, but we went far beyond the well-traveled stairways and platforms seen by most visitors to the cave. There followed half an hour or so of clambering over large rocks, which became increasingly wet and slippery, and into an area where they were thickly coated in black bat guano. They did say we would get dirty...  Never thought I would be happy to be in such close contact with guano, but the improved traction it offered was most welcome at that point. Then we came to the river (still inside the cave). At first we were able to step on selected rocks to cross the water, but it soon became clear that walking down the river rather meant walking in  the river. And you thought the other cave rocks were slippery...  Poor T, weighed down by a bulging backpack containing water, lunches, camera and our phones.

Here is the last glimpse of the outside after we entered the cave (note walkway and railings)

 and at then end, the sight of the proverbial light at the far end...

And here is T heading for the cave exit. At least there is a rope on that one.

Outside the cave, we carried on walking through the Garden of Eden Valley, still in the river. After about a kilometer we reached a scenic waterfall, where we ate the boxed fried rice lunch that had been packed for us. T and the others (we were in a group of five) then climbed over some large rocks to reach the pool below the falls and have a swim. I declined, preferring to recline...
T at waterfall

After a rest, we turned back, retracing our steps through the river and then back into the cave, but by a more difficult way.  Tighter, more treacherous. Made me think of the hypothetical and ever-lengthening list of Things That Would Simply Never Do in America.

At right,  our guide, who is in deceptively good shape, at the cave exit/re-entry point

Here is a place where it was raining inside the cave--say wha??
There were a couple of spots where we had to hug a boulder along a narrow ledge, high above the river bed, inside the cave, in wet shoes on slick rocks. Although we did note that we are not as young as we used to be, I am happy to report that we did not damage ourselves in any serious way that day, the only injuries being one doomed big toenail (K) and a forearm full of sticker bush thorns (T). Hey, we didn't fall!  Here is T, on the Other Side--behind him is cliff below which we entered the cave.

Later, we appreciated that the private concern which manages the park had apparently made the choice not to extend the walkway through the cave but instead to retain it as an adventure trek for the lucky few, thus limiting entry to the so-called Garden of Eden Valley.

The valley is beautiful and so are the main areas of the park. There are hundreds of species of palms and of orchids, and many types of vines bedecking the trees.

wild bananas

at the foot of a banyan tree

Don't eat the wildlife

The next day we did the Canopy Walk, 480 meters (1,500 feet) of swinging walkway hung from tree to tree, way up high.  A great way to experience the forest.
Wisely, only two allowed on a section at a time

Later, T, in good-natured discussion with an Aussie traveler and fellow survivor of the Deer Cave Adventure as to which tourists were louder, Americans or Australians, the unanimous conclusion was: neither, it's got to be the opinion later proved at the Mulu airport where we three sat waiting to board outbound flights. There a tour group effusively shared an apparent joke, at length.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Quick trips to Singapore and KL

We had the opportunity, thanks to T's gainful employment, to visit both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in the last month.

A professional development seminar took T to Singapore. K tagged along, anxious to see the place she had visited waaaaaaaaay back when, on her way to (um, and maybe from--can't remember) Indonesia during her first year of Friends World College.

Singapore is attractive and remarkably well organized, with many high rise buildings and also many parks, which sadly we did not have time to visit.  Some of the quaint old buildings have been preserved, and when I say preserved, yes do think of pickles in a jar.
Singapore new and oldish

 Had to go see the old Raffles Hotel, reborn but in style.

And here is a Chinese [lunar] new year display, taken from a taxi

 And a sign showing citizens correct behavior.  No need to say "dispose of your chewing gum thoughtfully" because chewing gum is outlawed in the country.

Soon after, we were off to KL for a three day two night field trip with 23 nine year olds.  It was fun!  We visited places we would not likely have done on our own:  a great kids exploration place called Kidzania, the Islamic Art Museum, and the top of the Petronas Towers.
Bottom of Petronas Towers

Kids on skybridge between the towers