Semporna: wonderful encounters, snorkeling and nearing the end of Borneo

Two days of interesting encounters between yesterday and today. I went walking to the Post Office in Sandakan and was the only tourist there. In fact, once I left the area of the waterfront, I didn’t see another tourist. Everywhere, people looked at me shyly but kept looking back like they hadn’t seen a tall tourist before. When I notice, I smile or wave or say hello or all the above. They break out into a huge smile. Even the very stern looking faces of men and women wearing their Muslin garb.

When I pushed open the door of the post office (POS here), it felt like a tremor passed through the lobby as everyone realized a foreigner was in their midst. Slowly, they all turned to look much as the faces of the crowd at Wimbeldon turn in unison to watch the volley cross back over the net. I smiled, found the stamp window and made a minimal spectacle of myself.

On the walk back, a man working construction smiling and excited standing beside a large truck said “Picture! Picture!” I stopped, took a picture and showed it to him. A smile from ear to ear gave me a thumbs up and his buddies started ribbing him.

I got on the bus early rather than stand in the parking lot for the last half hour. An older man drove up as I was getting to the truck, stopped beside the ticket office, got out and purchased tickets. He’s obviously done that before. The car came through the buses and stopped by my bus. A woman got out and three young children. A young girl of maybe 13 was helping with two gorgeous brown eyed, black haired boys about 2.

I took my seat and got out my book. The woman and children were seated across from me. Bags stashed above, the man left and came back with a basket that looked like supplies for the boys, bottles, snacks, etc. They looked like twinc.

Pappa or Grandpa, I couldn’t be certain. But his affection for the family was clear. He gently touched the faces of the woman and girl. Then the young boys, one at a time, took his hand, brought it to their lips and kissed it. Very touching moment.

During the ride, something fell out of the bag in the overhead bin. She attempted to stash it in her pile but I offered to put it back up more securely. The boy sitting on her lap couldn’t take his eyes of me. She was trying to get him to sleep. I looked over and saw one eye closed, the other looking at me.

When he was awake, he was staring at me. I’d wave and he’d nod his head. Finally he fell asleep and all four of them then slept together in their two seats. I woke and saw a sign for Semporna so started putting my things back in the pack. The young boy woke, his mom grabbed his hat and cool sunglasses. He then saw me put something away and excitedly shouted, “Good Bye! Good Bye! Good Bye!”, before rattling of something in Malaysian that had everyone around me laughing.

I got the bags from overhead and said good bye. They left the bus, and I walked into a field of operators wanting to know if I had reservations already and pushing brochures in my face.

After walking away, putting my packs down so I could get them on properly, and then asking a few questions, I asked directions for where town was. I started off and noticed the family standing just a few feet away. The little boy’s face lit up when he saw me. Spontaneously, out of habit, I reached down to shake his hand.

He took my hand, raised it to his lips and kissed the back of my hand. His brother did the same. Feeling very honored, I walked on toward town.

At the fish market, a coupe men asked me to take their picture. At the bus station, an man shouted at me from across the street (the one in the black t-shirt) PICTURE! Boys here make money by hanging around the markets and carrying people’s things in wheel barrows. When not used for hauling, they are convenient for napping. There are a few photo’s of that.

I found lunch at the Dragon Inn. The views were spectacular but the food only average, the price spectacular. After my daily second shower, I wandered down the street and found a restaurant that served roti. The owner was very excited and helpful. OH MY GOD, dipping chicken and vegetable roti in a fresh curry sauce, amazing. And less than a third of my mediocre lunch for everything! He makes his own Masala Tea, let me know he opens at 6:00 am so I can come before going snorkeling. I’ll visit tomorrow.

I’ve only been in Borneo for 11 days and was prepared to spend weeks here. I didn’t find it the kind of place I could spent weeks in! But now I know since I’ve had first hand experience. My friends are staying on Mabul where I’ll be snorkeling tomorrow so I may see them once more.

Then, I’ll head for the border at Tawau and start my journey into Indonesia. From the few things I’ve read, it sounds unmistakeable when you pass into Indonesia. Schedules, road conditions, immigration, travel, etc. are very disorganized compared to things here.

Not knowing just how long it might take me to get around, I’m considering an early morning mini-bus to Tawau at the border and going straight away to customs and the ferry terminal. It looks like it’s possible for me to take one ferry for three hours instead of having to catch two different ferries with scheduled that don’t sync. It looked like I would have to take one to Nunukan, then another on to Tarakan. Now, it looks like there are two a day that go all the way to Tarakan.

Once I start that leg of the journey, it may be a writing blackout for a few days. Stay tuned!

Sandakan: dining and our friend Miu

I’ve stumbled upon great places to stay and eat on my trip that are not listed on the internet or in Lonely Planet. It’s a strong desire of local business’s to be listed in Lonely Planet as it can really increase their business. However, there are thousands of wonderful little places that are never mentioned and every bit as good as those that are. I remember reading a comment somewhere about Lonely Planet visiting a hotel restaurant. The reviewer had a cup of coffee, nothing else and left before writing their review. They were disappointed.

I’ve also learned from those I’ve met who literally live on the road that they expect the information in Lonely Planet to be two years out of date. It takes that long for a book to be published and updated. That explained why I found room rates much higher than the listed price in LP when I visited Southern Thailand.

With that for a background, I will occasionally go look for a LP recommended establishment if it is really good. I found Cafe Libernard that way in Chiang Mai. Pong was a great hostess, roasted her own coffee and did indeed make the best banana pancake in Thailand. I bought some of her coffee to bring home with me.

Here in Sandakan, we stumbled upon a great restaurant on the waterfront. We were walking back from the street with iced drinks we bought and it was hot. Looking for shade, we pulled chairs out at a table and sat. A short time later, a man who had been fishing came with menu’s. “Maybe you’d like to look for dinner later” he said. Very polite, sincere and not the least concerned that we had brought drinks from somewhere else. That wouldn’t happen in the states.

His name is Miu (like the cat) and they are renaming the restaurant. At this moment, he is thinking of Harbour Square take away. Steve, Sam and I did return for dinner. It was very inexpensive and very good. We had the honey chicken with rice. The next night, we returned with Diego and had another great dinner before we all headed separate ways the next day. The chef made something new not on the recipe that had a Thai twist: mango chicken and rice. One taste and it was a hit.

Here are some photo’s of Miu, my friends and the view from the waterfront.

If you are ever in Sandakan, look for the KFC at the waterfront. Two doors to the left as you are facing the waterfront, grab a table and prepare for a treat!

We stayed at Sandakan Backpacker’s and it has been a treat. Safe, a great staff, clean rooms with AC and hot showers. It has a roof top where we have sat relaxing and watching the sunset. I think it might be the only waterfront hostel with a roof top like that.

Sandakan and Labuk Bay Sanctuary: good friends, food and adventure!

A very mysterious thing happened when Steve, Sam and I arrived in Sandakan: the rain stopped. Really, for two whole days, no rain!!! Amazing! Amazing and hot!

Our first day here, we had breakfast at Sandakan Backpacker Hostel and headed of on the Heritage Trail Walking Tour. Equipped with a map from the most friendly and helpful visitor center yet, we headed off to see the sights. The first stop was Hotel Sandakan, not for the tour but because it was right next to the mosque and Sam wanted information on getting to Labuk Bay. I hadn’t heard of Labuk Bay but was quickly energized when I heard more about it.

The first stop, the mosque, was a very short stop. They were attending mid-day prayers so it was packed with people arriving and those already settled for prayers. We didn’t want to intrude so retreated instead. One man with a rather stern look was coming up the steps. He had a “hard” face, thin gray beard clinging to the outline of his chin and wearing the Taqiyah, a hat worn by most Muslim men.

I caught his eye as he glanced my way, smiled and said hello. The hard face crumbled, eyes sparkled, he held his hand up between heart and chin in a manner they do that feels very respectful and then patted me on the shoulder as he continued his way on up. Nice start to the tour.

Here’s a link for you: Sandakan Heritage Trail

Highlights were authentic English Tea house where I had tea and crumpets and the Chinese Temple for the Goddess of Mercy or Kwan Yin. The most interesting man came in and became our tour director. He gave us a lot of information on the temple and the importance it has including showing us a photo of Kwan Yin he said is the real image of her. It appeared to a man in the clouds and he took a picture. Amazing little temple, the oldest in Sandakan.

See more about the English Tea House: English Tea House, Sandakan

We came back, got cold drinks, wandered to the waterfront and selected a table in the shade to sit and drink. The manager of the restaurant politely invited us to look at the menu in case we wanted dinner alter. No pressure and no hassle for bringing drinks from outside. Very nice man and he headed back to his fishing. We decided to come back for dinner.

Great choice as the food was wonderful! His name is Miu (like a cat he said) and he was a real treat. Our food was wonderful so we went back the next night to meet Diego who showed up unexpectedly as we were finishing our dinner. After our delicious “honey chicken with rice”, we decided to meet here the next night before everyone scattered to their next destinations.

The next morning had us up early, finishing out breakfast and searching for “Fat Cat Bakery” on our way to the Hotel Sandakan and our trip to Labuk Bay Sanctuary. There are several Fat Cat Bakeries in our area, actually more than KFC and that is unusual! KFC is extremely popular over here. Fat Cat Bakery has lunch pizza rolls, chicken curry rolls, peanut butter rolls, chocolate rum balls, iced coffee in cans, and tons of other treats. Supplied with travel snacks for about $2 US, we found the shuttle and were taken off for our adventure.

First, I should tell you that Sam is a MAJOR monkey fan. She pulled out two small stuffed monkey traveling companions and put them on her pillow the first night in the hostel. She was thrilled and the excitement was contagious. It only built when we stopped at Sepilok on the way to pick up another passenger, Aarne from Sweden. He went yesterday and his experience was so amazing, he was off to to it again. It sounded like we were in for a great treat!

About 30 minutes later, we pulled up to the ticket office. Van shuttle, entrance fees, and camera fees totaled $100 ringgit for the day, a little over $33 for the day. Normally, that would be about two days of room and board and maybe even travel for me. Small splurge, great adventure!

I hadn’t realized it but this van was ours alone, the four of us. It drove to the first feeding platform, parked and our driver told us where to go and then set off to show us. We walked up the steps and smack into an otter, several Silver Leaf Monkeys and a Hornbill, all before feeding time! Amazing being that close to the wildlife. The Proboscis Monkeys came swinging out of the forest in huge numbers when it was feeding time. Once again, amazing to experience that!

Back on the van, we headed to the resort and restaurant for lunch and a 50 minute video story about the Palm Plantation and the Proboscis Monkey. An extremely comfortable and cushy TV lounge with air conditioning, I think we all nodded of at one time or another and the film was excellent. It’s called “The Biggest Nose In Borneo”.

The Proboscis Monkey has such a large belly because it houses two stomachs. The first stomach removes the poison or toxicity from the mangrove leaves they eat and the second stomach can then digest them and extract the moisture so vital to their survival.

We then left for the second feeding station. A long boardwalk through the Mangrove Swamp full of crab towers and we arrived at a large covered desk with even larger open deck beyond. We started seeing the Proboscis Monkeys, first one slowly moving toward us and then a forest full of swinging and flying monkeys as the food was put out.

I know, I said before that this was amazing but THIS was AMAZING! So many crazy swinging monkeys flying through the trees in a natural environment. One male, the former dominant male, came crashing and pounding onto the deck near us. We thought it might be an aggressive or angry show on his part. He came for food and to pose for pictures. Quite an experience being that close!

Certainly one of the highlights of our trip. We came back and met Diego for dinner. Our dinners came to about $13 ringgit each or roughly $4.00 US, a little more for the beer. Diego was quite surprised that all the food only cost that little.

Sabah, Malaysia (Northern Borneo): exhilarating and sad!

I am out of the jungle. Pretty amazing journey once again! After my last quick entry, the spontaneous and magical moment of getting off the bus at just the right spot, seeing a sign for Uncle Tan’s, meeting Diego, renting a room, finding out I could go on the river trip that afternoon (in 35 minutes), unrenting my room, quickly organizing a river pack and in short order, getting on a bus and heading off for the Kingbatangan River.

For more information on the river: Kinabatangan River

For Uncle Tan information: Uncle Tan

My tour group consisted of Diego and myself. Perfect size. We drove for about one hour by mini-van, stopping along the way for rubber boats for the hiking as it’s high water now. The boat loaded with supplies and we were off. Within a short distance, we spotted a Hornbill, then a Macaque, and a little farther on the Proboscis Monkey. Before we reached camp upriver, we saw two Orangutan, more monkeys of various sorts, many more Hornbill and were both really impressed by the variety we saw on the short ride in!

Camp at Uncle Tan’s was very rustic and perfect. Mattresses on the floor of cabins covered with mosquito netting, a large dining area, a large meeting area, trees and vegetation all around, rising flood waters, amazing forest sounds and a wonderful staff. We were just off the shore of the river.

We met another group of nine coming back from their evening river trip as we headed off to our meeting. Dinner together, I met people from around the world all on some sort of adventure and all thrilled with their experience of the day. Rain cancelled our evening night boat trip so we joined the other group on the night hike jungle safari. Very interesting seeing a lot of insects and roosting birds, a civet cat, frogs, a tarantula, a huge poisonous Centipede and other miscellaneous creatures.

The next day was a mix of rain and sun. The morning river boat trip was nice but damp. Rain at 6:30 am kept most animals in their own hiding spots. Lunch and a 2 hour trek with Diego and our guide Leo up the hill where we learned a lot about the forest, spotted bottle bugs, birds but no mammals.

Our schedule continued: afternoon boat trip (in the drizzle so we saw little other than THOUSANDS of Flying Foxes, a fruit bat with wing spam of a hawk or eagle), night boat trip (lots of roosting birds, a Leopard Cat, dining Flying Fox) and a return to camp for music. The next morning, we had a 6:30 boat trip and saw lots of wildlife including a huge crocodile, the same species they have in Australia!

My first night was interrupted by rats eating through the side of my daypack after my “Fisherman’s Friend” cough drops I forgot were in there.

The second night was influenced by a growing cold. The jungle was hot, cold, dry, damp, windy, wet, cold, etc. My poor little body wasn’t sure how to deal with all of that!

Diego is a biologist now involved in biomedical research. We talked about the amazing amount of wildlife we saw on the river. During our trek with Leo and in conversation with others, we learned why there is so much wildlife here. This is all secondary forest only about 30 years old. It is very minimalistic compared to the original forest I hiked in Sumatra. In addition to that, the palm oil plantations come right down to the edge of the narrow forest strip. The government requires a 40 meter buffer but in places the palm oil comes right to the river’s edge.

Essentially, that means it’s not a forest but a corridor. The birds and mammals only can feed if they travel up and down the corridor parallel to the river.

In lonely planet, they described Borneo as “Mother Nature’s Fantasy”, maybe once but a long way from it now. They make so much money from the palm oil industry, they have destroyed most of the forest and thus the habitat of the Orangutan, Proboscis Monkey’s, and everything else. My friend Janet told me that Borneo convinced her that she never wanted to use anything with palm oil in it again.

In Taman Negara, they told me that an acre of land had 250 different species of trees. That is original forest on the mainland. When the palm oil trees come in, there is one species and nothing can feed on it. Kind of sad. Money drives so many decisions around the world. But often, the consequences are permanent, they estimate Orangutan could be extinct within the next 10 years and I heard yesterday there are only about 1,200 Proboscis Monkeys left in the world and only in Borneo.

I returned with Diego to Uncle Tan’s base camp where the trip started. Diego’s friend Sue was there from Sydney and preparing to head into the river trip. I grabbed my backpack, headed off to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

A taxi beeped but I thought a 20 minute walk would be good. That was before two people told me I was going the wrong way and gave me wrong directions that had me walking nearly 2 kilometers out of my wan in a driving rain. Finally, backpack soaked, body soaked, legs tired, cold weary, I stumbled into Sepilok in time for the 3:00 feeding so I bought a ticket and located a place to store my backpack.

As I was heading into the storage area, Steve and Sam (Samantha) came out. They were part of the group of nine I met who came out the day before I did. Really great people, friends that hook up periodically and travel to exotic locales around the world, I was very happy to see them again. They told me when they left about a Jungle Resort Lodge near that had budget accommodations.

Weary and unclear, I thought about simply staying at Uncle Tan’s but something told me that wasn’t to be so I carried my pack. I walked past two budget places along the way and stopped a van from the Jungle Resort Lodge as I reached Sepilok. Then, Steve and Sam said they were leaving that evening. I was disappointed but thought I’d move ahead on my own.

After the feeding, they said they were going to catch a taxi into Sandakan and a little tingle went off inside. I knew that was where I was to be heading, finally clear. I asked, they said yes, we shared a taxi to town and wound up getting a triple room here together. They left this morning for Kota Kinabalu and a couple days on an island diving and snorkeling before Steve heads back to England and Sam heads off to look for work and an adventure of 9 months or so in Australia.