Melaka & Singapore – 48 hours a piece

Melaka is only 2 hours bus ride from KL airport and a good stopping off point on the way to Singapore- assuming you’re busing over the border. The Malaysian atmosphere was immediately familiar and I liked the city a lot. It’s very compact and has more museums per sq metre than anywhere else I know. Firstly a Portuguese colony, then taken over by the Dutch, followed by the British, then back to the Dutch before finally being given back to Malaysia, Melaka was the major port for Indian, Chinese and Arab traders. Identified by its distinctive red stone buildings, Meleka fell into decline as Singapore and Penang (under British rule) rose in importance and it is only recently that the city has been restored to its former glory and received UNESCO World Heritage status.

I indulged in my favourite pastime of strolling round the city, occasionally ducking into a gallery, museum or temple, meandering along the lovely canal and laughing out loud at the OTT tuk tuks. I also replaced most of my clothes which, after 6 months, I was pretty bored with and also my faithful, if rather whiffy, sandals! I also ruthlessly ditched items which I felt hadn’t earned their keep, reducing down to 14kg.

Bag refreshed and final indulgences in Malaysian street food satisfied (peanut sauce fondue taking fish, meat and veg satay to a whole new level), I headed over the border to Singapore and soon found myself down in the pristine underground – about as far removed from a Hello Kitty tuk tuk as you can get. Luckily I surfaced in Chinatown, where my Airbandb was located, so felt right back at home.

First impression walking round? What a bizarre city. It architecture is like a mini London. There’s a small scale St. Paul’s dome on top of the National Gallery, a clock which strikes like Big Ben, Raffles Hotel (famed for concocting the Singapore Sling) which could be the Dorchester, Shakespeare Theatre, a few pubs and a compacted Square Mile. Because the city is so small the banks loom over the cricket pitch which is adjacent to the Cathedral, which is next to the Arts Complex, which is astride the harbour, which is dominated by the 3 Marina Bay Sands towers. If these are Singapore’s vital organs then the cutesy Quays are its arteries and shopping malls with integrated food courts its veins. After months of night markets and street food it was actually quite nice to enjoy these shiny, squeaky clean places and they weren’t at all expensive.

Highlights of my 48 hours were: strolling through the lush Marina Bay Gardens; enjoying the juxtaposition of old and new architecture; stumbling upon quirky sculptures; an evening concert in the bay featuring a swing band with an academy of swing/jive students dancing to their old-time tunes and, best of all, queuing for over an hour to buy ‘soya chicken, crispy pork and rice’ from Singapore’s first Michelin Star hawker stall, the accolade having been awarded 3 days previously. The cost – just £2.

Before my short trip to Australia gets underway, I’ve made a note of a few things which I HAVEN’T done since I left the UK in January:

Worn makeup
Worn heels
Carried a handbag
Been to the cinema
Played tennis
Had food poisoning or any illness that confined me to bed
Put milk in my tea
Cooked a meal
Drunk champagne or wine
Lost or gained weight
Missed the daily commute

Nett result:- a happy, healthy, about-to-be 59 year old having the time of her life!

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Sumatra – lakes, beaches and a touch of romance.

imageAs you can imagine, by the time I made my way to Sumatra, the last island on my Indonesian odyssey, there was little left to experienced. However, after hours of reading up on places to visit, I managed to find areas slightly off the usual tourist trail. This meant passing on Lake Toba (overly touristic), choosing instead the more laid back, and much prettier Lake Maninjau and passing on Bukit Lawang (famed for its orangutang which I had got up close and personal with in Borneo), choosing instead the most northerly province of Aceh.

My flight from Jakarta took me to the once sleepy fishing village of Padang on the west coast. Like most of the west coast of Sumatra it was badly damaged in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and subsequent 2009 earthquake but it has picked itself up and is now Sumatra’s third largest city. Padang is the home of one of the islands most famous dishes, Rendang – chunks of beef or buffalo slowly simmered in coconut milk until the sauce is reduced to a thick black paste and the meat is dry. Served cold with rice and water spinach it’s delicious.

The town is also the jumping off point for the Mentawai Islands, which according to the surfers I met, has some of the most challenging waves in the world. I’m up for trying most things but draw the line at surfing humungous waves on a fragile piece of fibreglass. I would have liked to meet the Mentawaians (one of Sumatra’s oldest and most authentic indigenous tribes) but being two days before the end of Ramadan, getting to and from the islands was complicated and fiendishly expensive added to which solo female travellers are a rarity.

Instead I got to know the Minangkabau people who live in Padang province. Though the society is Islamic, it’s matrilineal. According to Minangkabau adat (traditional laws and regulations), property and wealth are passed down through the female line, therefore every Minangkabau belongs to his or her mother’s clan, and women rule the roost.

Music, dance and rituals are important to these cultured people whose houses are easily identifiable by their distinctive sweeping roofs with sharp points on top and by their patriotic black, red and yellow flag.

Idul Fitir (the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan) is a very, very big deal in Indonesia, and in Sumatra in particular, it being the most muslim of all the islands. Everyone gets at least 3 days holiday, though most take a full 10 days, and everyone returns to their home village. This means mass exoduses from every major city in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi etc, grid locked roads, inflated air, bus and train fares (if you can book a seat), as everywhere grinds to a halt.

My plan therefore, was to find a quiet spot and lay low for 3-4 days. I chose Danau (lake) Maninjau, a three hour bus ride from Padang, which actually took 5 hours as we acted as a courier service delivering Idul Fitir parcels all along the way!

I’d heard that the villages round the lake celebrated Idul Fitri by constructing and then floating huge rafts of the main Mosque, a Minangkabau house, the clocktower and various other structures, on the lake. They cover the structures in lights, musicians play traditional music and every few minutes they let off deafening ‘bamboo bombs’. This I had to see.

I found a picturesque guesthouse directly overlooking the water, owned and run by a lovely couple called Jake and Fifi (everyone adopts a western name), who made me feel very welcome, as did their cats. I canoed round the stunning lake in a traditional wooden dug out, swam in the cool water with little fish for company, strolled up into the forest where nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and cocoa trees abounded (first time I’ve sliced the bark of a cinnamon tree and rubbed it on my neck to keep mosquitoes at bay) and I ate yummy lake fish. I got on well with my fellow guests, 2 French couples around my age and a rather eccentric older lady, half French half Italian which made evening meals enjoyable. It’s interesting how the French and also the Germans and Dutch travel so extensively but not so the English. Why is that?

 

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The eve of Idul Fitri didn’t disappoint. The celebrations started at 10pm and went on until about 2am. Families lined the streets and the quayside to enjoy the floating barges. I bought sparklers which I shared with amused local lads and there was lots of eating, but of course no drinking and SO MANY BAMBOO BOMBS!

The following day started with 7am prayers in the main Mosque, except not everyone could fit in, so the ring-road round the lake was closed to traffic to accommodate people praying in the street. Everyone was wearing smart new clothes and the children were being made a great fuss of. After prayers everyone went visiting relatives and friends. I strolled round the village and was invited into several homes to drink coffee and eat cake. I was touched at how welcoming everyone was, and how much fun we had trying to communicate. Of course some of the older children now live and work in the big cities so their English is good but their parents speak about as good English as I speak Bahasa Indonesian i.e. we can hold a very basic conversation which typically revolves around our families and my travels, which fascinate them.

The young children wear little bags and if they shake your hand you are allowed to give them money. If they just come up to you and ask for money, as some of the cheeky older boys did, that’s an automatic ‘get lost’!

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Celebrations, including traditional music and dancing continued into the wee small hours again and the following day. Jake took me and one of the French couples on a tour of the area which is very beautiful. We visited the Rumah Gadang Pagaruyung Royal Palace, outside the town of Bukittinggi, which was overrun with locals (hardly a foreign tourist in sight) enjoying a day out. The Palace was struck not once, but twice by lightening and is therefore a reconstruction, but it gives a good idea of how the royals in a matriarchal society lived and I believe, continue to live. The King of the Minangkabau now lives a few km away. We decided to swing by, and whilst we didn’t meet him, we did meet his brother and about 50 of the family celebrating Idul Fitri together.

There is much, much more I could write about Danau Maninjau, its villagers and their way of life and the delightful surrounding areas but I need to move on……. and you need to go there.

Celebrations calming down, it was finally possible to get a flight out of Padang to Bandar Aceh and thence a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh in the Andaman Sea. I was going their principally to dive. I clocked up 5 dives, one of which was into a live volcano with hot bubbles, sulphur deposits and a strong smell of rotten eggs. Big puffer fish (my favourite) were alone in enjoying the strange environment, swimming slowly in and out of the bubble beside me – a surreal, memorable experience.

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My other new underwater experience was vomiting! Rough seas and a strong underwater swirl resulted in me, and the thankfully meagre contents of my stomach, parting company. I managed to stay calm and made a measured ascent, holding my dive master’s hand whilst retching into my regulatir all the way…….

I planned to stay 3 days on Pulau Weh but I loved the island, the people (barring the he fact that 85% of men over 12 years old chain smoke) and the vibe so much that I ended up staying more than a week. It helped that I had a lovely wooden cabin in the trees, with glimpses of the crystal clear waters and monkeys and geckos for company. The cabin was owned by 3 dynamic sisters (Eka, Emile and Sabine) who every night attracted a crowd of music-making and card-playing locals to Olala’s restaurant. They seem to be the Corleone’s of Iboih owning most of the guesthouses and restaurants and the oldest established dive shop.

Zipping around the island on a motor bike I stood on a promontory, my back to a disused Japanese bunker, staring in awe at the confluence of the Andaman Sea and the Straights of Malacca where mammoth tankers inched across the horizon like metal icebergs. I also stood at ‘Kilometre 0’, the most westerly point of the Indonesian Archipelago. One day I’ll make it to Kilometre 5,200 in Papua.

 

Every day I would think about leaving and every day I asked myself why, when there was nowhere else in Sumatra (other than the city of Bandar Aceh) I had a burning desire to get to. Then my French friends from Lake Maninjau turned up so it was nice to hang out with them. I was also aware that after leaving Indonesia I would be hopping from Malaysia to Singapore to Sydney and that battery recharging was probably a good idea.

Eventually I took the ferry back to the mainland where I was met by the three sisters’ (there’s a play in there somewhere) friend Anton, who was to be my charmingly romantic companion for my last few days.

Bandar Aceh in the province of Aceh, is very strict muslim, practises Sharia law and is one of only two dry states in Indonesia, the other being Surabaya in Java. Bandar Aceh was the epicentre of the 2004 earthquake and subsequent three tidal waves which surged with such ferocity that the destruction reached 5km inland sweeping away everything and everyone in its path. The official death toll from the disaster was 140,000 people but locals say it was more like 200,000 – almost 2/3 of the total number if people killed.

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Anton, like everyone else I talked to had lost loved ones. He vividly described the harrowing events that changed his life for ever. First came the tremors from the earthquake deep under the sea, then shortly before 8am the first 18 metre high wave struck. He grabbed his 11 month old baby and, with his wife clinging round his neck, swam for what seemed an eternity. He said he felt guilty that he wasn’t a strong swimmer and many times he went under. His wife couldn’t hold on and she was lost. He made it to dry land still clutching his daughter but away from the maelstrom he realised she was dead. As if this weren’t enough pain to bear, a huge tanker had ridden the top of the wave for 5km and come crashing down on top of his village burying everything and everyone beneath it. He took me to see the tanker and you only have to look at the photo I took to see the pain is still there.

As I said, everyone has a story to tell. It’s impossible to comprehend the horror of that fateful day and the scars it has left. And yet the people of Bandar Aceh have proved remarkably resilient. Sure international aid poured in, rebuilding vital infrastructure and amenities, developing a new city and outlying villages, but once they left, the people needed to find their own way through, and they have. Their strong faith has clearly been the most significant contributor to recovery, and the central mosque, which mysteriously stood firm whilst all around was destroyed, was then, and remains today the focal point for healing. But besides their faith, or maybe because of it, the people appear to be enjoying life again.

The coastal village of Lampuuk, where I rented a beachside cabin (rebuilt with Turkish aid, each new house sporting the Turkish crest above the door) was perfect. The beach was rugged, windswept and deserted – not dissimilar to the Cornish coast, which is probably why I felt at home!

We whiled away the days walking along the beach, fishing (unsuccessfully), biking into the mountains to swim in waterfalls, cooking, playing the guitar and reading. I finished Donna Tratt’s Goldfinch (brilliant for 750 pages then mediocre for the last 200).

My last night in Indonesia I sat on a tree stump on the beach watching the dark rumbling clouds blot out the sun (no picture postcard sunset) while the waves from he Indian Ocean crashed out on the reef and Anton chanted verses from the Koran which he used to do in the mosque as a young boy. Sounds idyllic? It was.

Reflecting back on the last 6 months I was feeling blessed to have had so many incredible experiences. When I embarked on my travels I had no idea how they were going to pan out. I was confident I’d enjoy myself but I never imagined I’d be exposed to as varied, thought-provoking, mind-expanding and joyous events, places and peoples as South East Asia and Indonesia had gifted me.

One piece of advice I will long remember: ‘it’s too hot to stop at traffic lights.’

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So where to next? I need to make one last trip to the Malaysian peninsular to visit the one time influential port of city of Melaka before 48 hours in Singapore and then it’s G’day Australia.

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Java – its temples and volcanoes

Java – its temples and volcanoes

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Java is the political, economic and cultural centre of Indonesia and, despite being only the fifth largest island, over 60% of the population – some 141m+ people live there.

My relationship with Jakarta was confined to transiting from its train station to its airport and with Surabaya from airport to bus terminal. Not so the Sultanate city of Yogyakarta where I spent several happy days exploring the historical quarter which has preserved its royal legacy. My guide Akan is a direct descendant of the 8the Sultan (now on number 10) who had 25 wives and 78 children, of which her mother was one!

Historical stuff ticked off I spent a day in an art studio learning the art of Batik making. It’s complex but straightforward if you follow your teachers instructions and have 7 hours to spare. The satisfying end product being this 50×50 oeuvre which is a gift for my soon-to-be-born grandchild.

Another fun thing to do in Jogja is to be blindfolded spun round and then attempt to walk in a straight line between two big trees. Noone seems to manage it but if you do it means you have a pure heart. The trees as in the main town square which comes alive at night to the sound of music coming from brightly illuminated electric cars being driven round the square by happy families. The nightly tradition grew from a group of students wanting to brighten the lives of children traumatised by the 2006 earthquake which killed 3,500 people.

Java boasts 38 mountains that have at one time or another been active volcanoes. The most active in the whole of Indonesia is Mount Merapi, an hour’s drive from Jogja. It erupts on a regular basis, most recently in 2014.

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Close by Merapi is the 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist Temple, Borobudor. Following a series of volcanic eruptions in the 10th and 11th centuries, Borobudur lay hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth until the early 1800s when it was discovered by staff of British Governor General Sir Stamford Raffles. Careful restoration of the 2,672 intricate relief panels and 504 Buddha statues, resulting in UNESCO World Heritage status, have ensued that Borobudor remains the world’s largest Buddhist temple, as well as one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world.

At the same time that Borobudor was under construction, 10km to its east the Hindu Shiva temple Prambanam was also being built. Like Borobudor, Prambanam fell victim to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and fell into ruin. Unfortunately it has been impossible to reconstruct the 240 temples within the compound. However the three main temples dedicated to Shiva, Visnu, and Brahma and the three temples in front dedicated to the mythical animal of each god; Nandi, Garuda, and Hamsa have been restored along with a handful of other smaller temples. I watched the story of Ramayana unfold against the nighttime backdrop of these temples – it was beautiful.

There is a well-trodden route which travellers follow from Yogjakarta to the volcanoes of Mount Bromo and Mount Ijen and then on the Bali. Most do the long, arduous journey in 2-3 days. Being older and with time on my side, I spent two days at each mountain and then, having ready been to Bali flew completely the other way, to Sumatra!

So, first up Bromo which required a 3:30am wake up for a steep climb in the pitch dark to the vantage point (aptly name King Kong) for sunrise. My track record with sunrises isn’t brilliant, but that was about to change. As dawn broke three mountains were silhouetted against a sky changing from blue to yellow to pink to white with the smoke spewing from Bromo reflecting the changes. As the light increased so it became possible to see the valley below and several distant volcanoes. The whole thing was jaw-droppingly beautiful. And it was about to get better as commandeered a Sumbawa horse to cross a sea of volcanic ash to climb to the rim of the crater. Bromo erupted in December with punters only being allowed to the rim in March.

Standing on the rim (behind a sturdy wall, I hasten to add), I felt overwhelmed by the sheer force and grandeur of nature and for once, was lost for words as I stared into the mouth of the crater, listening to the crackle of the magma and then an eerie ‘boom’ as clouds of smoke sometimes white, sometimes black or brown rose up from the depths of the volcano.

Mount Ijen was a totally different experience. It required an 00:30 wake up in order to climb 3km uphill to the crater rim and then to descend 1km into a sulphurous pit, belching out toxic yellow smoke to witness the ‘blue light’, which is only visible pre-dawn (i.e. 3:30/4am), and is on,y found here and in a crater in Iceland.

As we descend into the mouth of the volcano we passed men digging out hunks of sulphur and then carrying 100kg pallettes up the mountain. It was clearly back-breaking work for which they receive a pitiful £2 a load and they looked prematurely old. Back up the crater and along the rim for sunrise, where normal service of a mediocre event was resumed. Back down the mountain in the rain notching up 12km before 7am. Christ did I need that cup of tea!

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The area I stayed in near Ijen was great. The guesthouse was in the middle of a coffee plantation producing Indonesia’s famous Luwak coffee. Originally made from the pellet droppings of wild civets the coffee now comes from civets force fed in captivity. They seemed quite happy in their cages, and it has to be said the coffee is delicious but is it ethically right???

The village is also famous for its strawberry farms and for its neat houses with immaculate front gardens – all a bit surreal.

Java is the first of the islands I travelled through which is predominantly Muslim. I very much warmed to the people who I found really friendly, interesting and interested. Because it was Ramadan it was difficult for them to be hospitable but having been warned about frayed tempers through lack of food and sleep, I witnessed nothing be good humour (and bad breath!!). Muslim faith is profound and especially during the holy month, requires much praying. This meant that the Imam chanted for long periods both during the day and at night. At first I would always wake up with the 4am call to prayer, but after a couple of weeks it washed over me like being in a trance.

I’ll be sharing more stories about lovely Muslim communities and the Idul Fitri celebrations which follow the end of Ramadan, from my final destination – Sumatra. Meanwhile I said goodbye to Java with the first ever flight I’ve missed due entirely to my own stupidity!!

 

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

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Tana Toraja, Sulawesi.

Tearing myself away from idyllic Flores I decided my next destination would be a specific region of Sulawesi, famous for the extraordinary funerals that take place during or directly after rice harvesting.

With two connecting flights to get me to the capital city of Makassar I was convinced this would be the first time me and my backpack would part company but no, all was well.

Makassar is a sprawling metropolis with heavy traffic and few stand-out sights. As it was boiling hot my best option was to head for a beachside hotel to while away the afternoon before my night bus to Rantepao, the capital of the Tana Toraja region. Sulawesi is notorious for its terrible roads and transport system. I was therefore expecting a horrendous 9 hour journey but it turned out the bus had spacious seats that reclined almost to a flatbed, proper pillows and blankets and best of all no freezing air con or incessant musak.

It was a bumpy ride and it rained heavily but I managed to get enough sleep, arriving in Rantepao at 6am in good spirits. Luckily a fellow traveller had given me details of a reliable guide who was there to pick me up, take me to the homestay he had organised for me and plan my 4-day trip with him.

I say I was lucky because most of the travellers I talked to had found themselves harassed by local guides the minute they stepped off the bus. Being tired and unsure of the lie of the land they had gladly accepted lifts to homestays and then before they knew it had signed up for trips at overly inflated prices. My guide told me this was becoming an increasingly severe problem and urged me to write about it on the go-to source of information which is Trip Advisor, suggesting visitors take their time in finding a guide, talking to their homestay host or hotel etc. Job done.

The Torajans live in the highlands of South West Sulawesi and traditionally practiced animism, worshiping Puang Matua – the god of their tribe. Fast forward to the early 1900s when the Dutch missionaries got their hands on them and tried to convert them to Christianity. They largely achieved their goal, weening them off all their ritual practices barring their extravagant funeral ceremonies, which continue to this day and are a major attraction for nosy people like me.

You really need to experience the funeral first hand to get your head round just how other worldly it is. Picture lush countryside with rice fields and mountains as far as the eye can see, then picture motor bikes groaning under the weight of 4-5 people on them and cattle trucks full of black-clad relatives and friends driving along pot-holed roads in the pouring rain to the village of the deceased. Add a truck from each neighbouring village transporting a pig tied to bamboo poles to be offered for sacrifice and you have a less then typical traffic jam.

Once my guide and I arrived in the village we sought out the village chief so that I could give him my obligatory gift of a carton of cigarettes by way of ‘entrance fee’. The family of the deceased was sitting in a special tent receiving guests. Each time people from a new village arrived they were announced by women pounding rice and men drumming. The villagers then processed to the family’s tent with their offerings, accompanied by 2 old women chanting and 2 old men playing pipes. Pleasantries over, the men then performed a circular dance whilst the women served delicious coffee and Torajan cakes to the assembled crowd which included me and about 20 other tourists. The village pig was then taken off to be slaughtered and chopped up -some of it being barbecued and some being tied in little plastic bags to be distributed to guests to take home and cook.

And so the process was repeated for many villages by which time the smell of char grilled pig was all pervading!

As soon as the sun moved into the descendent the coffin was carried by 8 men from the room it had been laid in and paraded around before being shaken up and down to let the trapped spirit fly away. The coffin was then hoisted up onto a central structure to much laughter and whooping. Once in position it was time for the grand finale.

This bit is dramatic so stop reading now if you’re squeamish about blood or a vegetarian!

One of the buffalos which has been purchased by the deceased’s family for ritual slaughter was picked out. He was tied to a stake and then, as I watch through fingers over my eyes, the executioner slit the beast’s throat with one swift clean cut. Naturally the blood spurted out in a torrent but what I noticed through half closed eyes was that he didn’t have a single drop on his white shirt. The buffalo’s death wasn’t very swift and it shocked me that all the children were oblivious to the animal’s pain and suffering and it jumped around in circles before crashing to the ground. I admit I took a photo – just the one.

Next, with the dead buffalo lying in front of the coffin, the village chief gave his eulogy. He had a voice that rose and fell melodically as he told stories which elicited laughter and tears and he kept waving the deceased straw hat.

Finally there was a buffalo fight but by this stage I was feeling nauseated by the stench of so much killing and the muddy rivers of blood so we left, driving in silence through the beautiful countryside as I reflected on the extraordinary and I must say, shocking ritual I had witnessed.

This was a particularly lavish funeral but over the next few days, as I biked through the countryside passing through traditional villages, I saw more funeral processions (didn’t stay for the ceremonial stuff) which were simpler.

What all Torajan funerals include is the offering of a pig per village and at least two or three buffalo. The number of buffalo depends on how wealthy the family of the deceased is. The maximum number that will be slaughtered is 24, which happens over a 3 day period.

Because funerals are so expensive it can take several years for a family to amass the money. It is expected that every family member, wherever they are in the world will a) contribute and b)attend. During the time it takes to get the money together the body is embalmed but not put in a coffin, and kept in the house. The person is not considered dead, just sick. He/she must therefore be addressed by anyone visiting the house i.e. Hello, Goodbye. Sometimes another family member will die before the first has been buried and so they can share the funeral. I met a tourist who had come from a husband and wife funeral, he having been dead 5 years and she 2 years. Hard to imagine really.

The deceased is finally buried in a grave carved out of the rock face. Before the stonemason beings, a dog is sacrificed firstly to ask permission to dig the grave and secondly to make the stone less hard to chisel. Noblemen are buried up high, the middle class in the centre and the lower class at the bottom. Beside the graves are balconies with life-like effigies of the deceased. If the family of the deceased is a extremely wealthy they may also purchase a stone megalith which will be transported to a memorial site outside the village.

Though no longer a form of burial, there are many hanging graves in Tana Toraja. These are wooden coffins suspended from the rock face, in the same noble, middle, low ranking order. Many still hang precariously but many have crashed to the ground scattering bones everywhere and I reckon many of the bones are not the original ones.

Amongst all this paganism there was a burial ritual, not longer practiced, which I found particularly touching – that of a baby who had died before growing teeth. Considered pure, the baby was taken to a special burial tree in the forest. Here the body was placed upright in the trunk so that as the tree grew the sap would nurture the baby so that he/she would grow with it. The only cruelty was that the mother was never allowed to visit the tree because once the baby had been returned to nature it was deemed to no longer belong to her.

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Having thoroughly immersed myself in the whole Torajan death ritual scene, I needed some light relief which came in the form of walking through beautiful rice fields. Despite the fact that it rained almost non-stop every day (dry season seeming to have succumbed to El Nino) I regret not spending a couple of days doing some proper hiking in the area because the mountains with their sweeping views across the valley were beautiful and my guide was so knowledgeable and nice.

I’d like to say I’ll do it another time but I’m pretty sure I’ll ever pass that way again.

 

 

Bewitching Flores and Komodo National Park

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It was with a heightened sense of anticipation that I made my way to Flores (pronounced Florez), which had come highly recommended by friends in the know about unspoiled islands, world class diving and prehistoric creatures. Just a short flight east from Bali is the buzzing town of Labuan Bajo. The jumping off point for diving in Komodo NP, the main street is wall-to-wall dive shops offering day trips or the more alluring 3-4 day ‘live aboard’ experience. Fortunately, I had a recommendation from my friends at Guy’s Trust to book with Dive Komodo, otherwise I’d probably still be cruising up and down the street deciding which one to pick.

The appeal of the live aboard is that the boat takes you to the more remote dive spots i.e. those that can’t be reached in a day, plus you have the opportunity for early morning and night dives. Throwing my budget to the wind, I booked a 3 day/2 night/9 dive trip.

Somewhat randomly my six fellow divers were Canadian but didn’t know each other. Luckily they were all really nice, and more importantly, experienced divers because Komodo is no picnic. The meeting of warm and cold waters result in, strong currents, rip tides, whirlpools and several danger spots where you can get into deep water (!!) if you don’t pay heed to your instructor. I stuck to mine like glue! The trade off is nutrient rich waters bringing manta rays, sting rays, whales, sharks, dolphins, giant wrasse, cuttlefish, octopus, turtles, millions and millions of brightly coloured fish and nudibranch (both large and small) attracted to the incredible coral, making it one of the top diving spots in the world.

I’ll spare you the details of each of the dives other than to say that hooked onto a rock on the sea bed (to stop the current from pulling you away), ogling at majestic manta rays goes down as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. These enormous pelagic can have a 7m wingspan and with their huge grill-like mouth could be intimidating, yet they are the most harmless, playful of all marine life. Watching a male courting three or four females is like watching a slow-mo ballet as they swoop, glide and dance through the waters. I must have seen at least 30 of these beauties including pregnant ones, babies and the rare Ninja (black) manta.

As well as the sublime diving, it was wonderful being on the boat far up in the quiet north of the national park with its stunning scenery and flaming sunsets. On our last afternoon we stopped by Rinca (Rincha) Island to see the famous Komodo Dragons. Being mid-afternoon they were a bit sleepy but a couple of them obliged by stirring from their slumbers to wander about a bit. They look like a mixture between a dragon and a lizard and think nothing of catching a buffalo for dinner or indeed eating their new born babies. A species not to be messed with!

Back on dry land I lasted a couple of days lounging around in a beautiful villa overlooking the bay before the lure of the waters got to me again and I did another full day’s diving, this time with a friend who lives in Jakarta and had flown down to organise a beach clean up for World Oceans Day. Unfortunately, this diving paradise suffers from a ridiculous amount of trash (thankfully not so much in the remoter spots), which gets washed up on Laban Bajo’s beaches. The authorities and the dive operators try hard to educate the locals – particularly the fishermen, while school children are taught the importance of preserving, not polluting their greatest asset. Apparently it’s getting better but, from the amount of trash we collected on, there is still a long way to go.

After 20 dives in 10 days my body needed a bit of a rest so I hired a local driver for a few days and set off to explore the rest of the island. A few hours in and it became clear why, unlike Bali, there’s no self-drive car rental. The roads are poorly maintained and torturous. However, zigzagging up through misty mountains with views across to the ocean then hurtling back down through coffee, banana, macadamia, vanilla, tamarind and pepper plantations before cruising along roads so close to the sea that the spray splatters the windscreen was fantastic.

My moonshine drinking, chain smoking, guitar playing driver Matteo not only had to concentrate on the wiggly roads but he also had to contend with kids (both 2 and 4 legged species), cows and dogs continuously wandering into or sleeping on the road. Thankfully he was very experienced if a little moody, especially after I politely declined his offer to share my bed during our road trip!

Looking down in spiderweb rice fields (sadly already harvested so brown rather than vibrant green), stopping off at black volcanic beaches to collect sulphur-rich blue stones, body boarding through breakers and lazing on hidden glistening white sand coves with crystal clear waters, I began to fall under the spell of Flores.

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About 85% of the 1.8 million inhabitants of Flores are Catholic though in rural communities this is welded onto ‘adat’ – animist rituals for marriage, birth and death ceremonies. We drove eight hours on rough roads and then I hiked up through dense forest for 2 hours in the pouring rain to reach Wae Rebo, one such village with about 120 people living in 7 extraordinary homes encircling a sacrificial alter. Having made a small (financial) offering to the head of the village and in return received a ritual blessing, I was permitted to stay overnight in the village. Much like a longhouse, families live under one roof, cooking and eating together but have their own sleeping areas behind doors off the communal area. The main difference is that these homes are circular, whereas longhouses are long!

I visited another Bena and Luba; similar villages, accessible by car, where I didn’t overnight but walked around (again, despite it being dry season, in the pouring rain), communicating with the villagers as best I could in bad Bahasa Indonesian, at least showing respect by trying. They spoke equally bad English but we laughed – especially when people kept saying ‘hello mister’, a greeting I have now become used to and find endearing.

A ritual which stuck in my mind for being so graphically told was that practiced on the first new born son of the chief of the village to determine if he will be a good successor. The baby is firstly placed on a high platform in the home. If he doesn’t cry he may not be wise so the next test is to place the raw heart of a chicken on his lips. No reaction is a bad sign, so the final test is to place a mark on his forehead and knock it three times against a banana tree. If the baby still doesn’t cry he is deemed stupid and sent away from the village. The same process is carried out on the next in line until a wise boy is found. The old woman who told me this is the daughter of the current chief who is the second son. Believe what you will!

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Being a small island,the few fellow travellers there are stop off in the same places (not Wae Rebo due to it’s inaccessibility), so our paths often crossed in a guesthouse or up a volcano which was nice. The most popular destination was Kelimutu National Park outside a tiny village called Moni with possibly the worst food but best coffee on Flores. Kelimutu is an inactive volcano with three different coloured lakes, which naturally have to be hiked up to for 05:30 sunrise. Is there ever a spectacular vista which doesn’t require a middle-of-the-night wake up?

Well, Kelimutu disappointed at dawn as thick clouds draped themselves over the lakes. So, back down the mountain for breakfast and somewhat bizarrely an end of year high school church service which I was drawn into by the glorious singing, before going back up, this time with the clouds dutifully lifting to reveal the reddish brown, milky blue and turquoise lakes. It’s believed the souls of the good ancestors are in the turquoise lake, the souls of the bad ancestors in the brown lake and the souls of the sometimes good / sometimes bad (a.k.a young people) in the blue lake. Every year the villagers process to the lakes with ritualistic offerings for the souls of the dead…….incongruous when at the bottom of the mountain they’re singing hymns and taking holy communion!

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One of my favourite memories of Flores was sitting in a hot spring in the middle of a rice field with a family of about 30 people spanning 4 generations, washing themselves and their clothes and generally relaxing and enjoying the steamy mountain water (sadly no phito). A few travellers drifted by but decided against getting in. Not me. Okay, so I didn’t do my washing but I had a good soak and a fun chat with the teenagers. As the sun went down I drove 10 minutes back to my homestay, whereas they were facing a perfectly normal 2 hours walk to their village up the mountain.

Having driven about 500km from west to east, I felt I had had a genuine, non-commercial experience. I was struck by the huge number of children women have, in some villages it seemed every woman had a baby slung across her back. Children seem to be independent from a very young age, which means it’s not unusual to see 4-5 year olds playing in the sea, by the side of the road, on bridges (yikes) and 7-8 years olds in school uniform carrying scythes and machetes to help out in the fields. Children of all ages, including usually recalcitrant teenagers, are really friendly and happy.

Adults too seem to enjoy life and are always welcoming. Walking anywhere takes quite some times because people insist on shaking hands and are keen to know your name, age and nationality – answers I know by heart in Bahasa. They tend to have two names, one Indonesian (every man and woman has the same name depending on if they are the first, second, third etc child), and one western, typically biblical man from the days of Portuguese and then Dutch occupation. The only shame is that almost every male from the age of about 15 seems to smoke – with Marlboro at 75p a packet it’s no surprise, while older women in rural villages chew betel which stains their mouths and what few teeth they have, a dark red.

I cant recommend Flores highly enough. It doesn’t have the sophistication of Bali nor the lovely Hindu temples (though it has disproportionately big churches everywhere), but it has bags of charm and is still a relatively hidden gem.

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Next on my agenda is the province of Tana Toraja in Sulawesi.

Beautiful Bali

My travels have now taken me to sprawling, equator-clinging Indonesia. Stretching from northern Sumatra to eastern Papua, Indonesia boasts 17,000 island of which about 8,000 are populated by a whopping 250m people of every religion, speaking countless local dialects but thankfully also unifying Bahasa.

With a 60 day visa to explore such diverse riches where does one start? I decided to ease myself in gently by making my first stop proven, tried and tested Bali. It is a beautiful island but it is also overrun with tourist touts, party goers and drug pushers which makes finding authentic experiences a challenge. I’m sure many of my globe-trotting friends will have visited Bali so I’ll concentrate on a couple of special experiences and tell the rest of the story through photos.

My favourite beach was the 4km stretch in Sanur with a lovely beachside promenade, brightly coloured grasshopper boats and a huge tide allowing fisherman to wade out at sunset to catch dinner. I ate well, Gado Gado being a favourite (vegetables and prawn crackers smothered in peanut sauce) and slept well once the terrible renditions of Lady in Red and the like packed up. I spent an enjoyable few hours in the well preserved home of French artist Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur and his Balinese wife Ni Polok. Painting in oils, often on grass canvas Le Mayeur concentrated on portraits of Ni and places they visited and then bequeathed the house – a beautiful example of Balinese architecture with heavy carved wood windows and bas relief excerpts from the Ramayana and its contents to Sanur.

Having spent all my time taking public transport I felt like having some freedom so hired a small car for a week to tour the island. The locals drive at about 30km an hour and the roads are well maintained so I reckoned I managed just fine. Apart from being pulled over by the police once and having to pay a fine which came down from £50 to £10 (lunch money), it was a doddle. I enjoyed lakes and mountains, towns and temples, hot springs and dive sites. I climbed a mountain at dawn, ate eggs cooked in its volcanic heat, dived a WWII US wreck, watched traditional Balinese dancing to the accompaniment of mesmeric gamelan music, learned how to prepared stuffed pitcher plant, walked in rice fields and soaked my weary limbs in hot springs.

I stopped at cottage-industry villages with welcoming silversmiths, carpenters and gardeners who took pains to explain their professions locals and I also met inspirational doctor who has managed to build a children’s hospital from the profits of his small volunteer-run restaurant. He passionate about saving the lives of children from what are easily curable deceases if treated in time and wears a T-shirt which reads ‘if you think you’re too small to make a difference try sleeping with a mosquito.’

The cherry on the Bali cake was attending the funeral of the last king of Ubud’s 94 year old sister. It’s difficult to put into words what an exciting experience it was. I was told it was the biggest, most lavish funeral Peliantan had seen for years. Bali is predominantly Hindu so this ceremony followed Hindu traditions. Dignitaries and friends from far and wide gathered at the Royal Palace and I was fortunate to be invited to sit with some of the women to watch the various rituals and to partake of special cakes and coffee. I think perhaps I was invited in because, on the advice of my homestay family, I had bought a traditional sarong and sash for the occasion, which meant I fitted in. I even met the great, great nephew of the King who, thanks to a past girlfriend, spoke impeccable.

Food eaten, gifts offered it was time to take the coffin up a huge staircase to the top of an immense tower. In front of the tower was an enormous Nandi Bull and between the two were musicians banging gongs and drums VERY loudly. Once the coffin was in place and religious blessings bestowed the daughter of the deceased was given a long rope, which was attached to the tower. Flanked by other female members of the family, she had to pull it at a running pace all the way to the temple about 2km away. Of course she wasn’t pulling the tower single handedly! There was an army of local men in traditional funeral dress who heaved up the tower, and the Nandi Bull (both erected on huge bamboo palettes) and ran with them about 100 metres before collapsing in the heat, a new group taking over. It was brilliant to watch them geeing each other up but make no mistake, they were concentrating really hard because one slip and the whole shooting match would have come crashing down. The street was lined with onlookers and at the half way point a fire engine appeared and started spraying everyone. I thought this would make the tower/bull carriers slip but they remained steady until we arrived at the temple.

There was then an incredibly elaborate procedure to manoeuvre the Nandi Bull into position and to cut a big hole in its back. Women circled the bull three times before offering various gifts up to be placed in the cavity (I couldn’t see what). Next the coffin had to be lifted off the tower, down another big staircase and the shroud placed inside the bull. More circling of the bull, more placing of ritual good and cloths and then finally the deafening music stopped and the body was cremated to much chanting and praying.

The ceremony lasted more than four utterly fascinating hours and is indelibly imprinted on my mind.

Most people head to the tiny Gili Islands and thence on to Lombok. I didn’t fancy either, instead taking a short boat ride south to the Balinese island of Lembongan. My destination was World Diving where I had decided to do an Advanced Open Water Dive (AOWD) course, which would give me the requisite skills to dive some of the challenging sites in Komodo National Park where I was headed next. Lembongan is a lovely little island with a laid back vibe, fabulous waves for surfers, long stretches of white sand for swimmers and sunbathers and lots of interesting marine life. The course involved 5 specific dives; orientation (not easy underwater) deep water dive (30m), drift dive i.e. being pulled along by a fast moving current, buoyancy, night dive. Thankfully I passed! The scariest but best dive was the drift because a strong current swept us into a coral conservation area with the brightest most dramatic corals I’ve ever seen.

My last night in Lembongan I went to a beach BBQ with my AOWD instructor. Towards the end of the revelries, two blokes who had just completed their Dive Master course were subjected to an ‘initiation’. Wearing female fancy dress they had to act out things like air sharing and changing tanks in strong current. The initiation culminated in a race to drink a litre of beer poured slowly down a snorkel and then run fully clothed into the sea.

Hilarious entertainment and a fitting end to my happy days in Bali.

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The Kingdon of Brunei

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The tiny Kingdom of Brunei is a bite out if Borneo sandwiched between Sabah to the north, Sawarak to the south and Kalimantan to the east – west is the sea.

The country which has a population if 400,000 is ruled by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien. Imagine sewing his school name tags! More simply referred to as ‘His Majesty’ he’s now ruled for 59 years and with a cool $25billion in the piggy bank everyone’s expecting a huge party for his diamond jubilee. Schooled in Kuala Lumpur, university in Switzerland and then army training at Sandhurst he works hard to ensure his subjects enjoy a good quality of life making him very popular and he is also held in high regard amongst his peers internationally. The Sultan’s consort (3rd wife), when not looking after his 12 children, does lots of charity work and is also well liked.

Brunei is strict Muslim; no drugs (penalty for possession – death), no alcohol and a midnight curfew. Until last year the curfew was 10pm, which made it impossible for the large community of ex pats – mainly teaching in the international schools or working for the big oil and gas companies, to hop over into Borneo to let their hair down. Midnight now makes this possible.

Muslim women marry very young and have loads of children (no prizes for guessing why that is)11,12,13 children is not unusual. Men may take more than one wife, those who chose to do so tend to have two but some have three. The women told me that they have no problem with this arrangement and in fact they like having another woman to share the wifely duties. Some of the younger women are starting to wear western clothes and a few have even dropped the hijab but they are quite some way off being like the football-mad women I met in Malaysia.

My reason for stopping off in this bizarre state was to get a 60 day visa at the Indonesian Embassy. In Kuala Lumpur the embassy wasn’t issuing 60 days, making visitor purchase 30 days and then have to find an immigration office during their travels to apply for an extension. I called the Embassy in Brunei and they told me a 60 day visa was no problem so off I set. The crossing from Sawarak was a doddle and in the blink of an eye I was bombing down pristine motorways with herbaceous borders through the Shell HQ town of Kuala Belait with an hilarious ‘teapot’ roundabout, heading for the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB). After months of traffic chaos it was somewhat surreal.

BSB boasts the worlds largest village built on stilts over the Sungai river where I had been recommended a traditional homestay. Kampung Ayer is in fact 28 continuous villages, each originally represented by a different craft or trade and quite fascinating to explore. The river is buzzing with water taxis darting from one side to the other, the journey to and from my homestay taking just 30 seconds, which wasn’t long enough for the boatmen to break into O sole mio!

My landlady Keminah had used traditional fabrics for the soft furnishings and hung locally made arts and crafts on the walls, making the homestay very comfortable and I had open access to the kitchen to make my own food. There were 3 big french doors opening onto a terrace looking across to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, which I enjoyed looking at as I ate my dinner and lay reading a book on the sofa.

Kem was an interesting character. Related to the Sultan’s family on both her maternal and paternal sides, she is a well known figure in the water village, organising community events, giving guided tours and liaising with the media and film crews that regularly turn up to discover more about the 900 year old former capital. She took me on a fascinating tour, pointing out the different structures – some made of long lasting iron wood, some of crumbling concrete pillars and some of rotting tree trunks patched up a pretty unstable way. All the houses constantly need jacking up but unfortunately some have left it too late and collapsed and some wooden structures have gone up in smoke. Over time village life has naturally changed. Originally there were no boardwalks so everyone’s home was an open thoroughfare. Now with boardwalks people have become more insular and also modern condos are being built to house commuters who enjoy the water village atmosphere but work on the mainland, which alters the feel of the village. At the height of its power there were 280,000 residents now there are only 13,000……and about as many cats! Sadly there are mountains of trash in the inner areas of the village, mainly washed up from the river and as often as it gets cleared away, a few days later a new tidal wave appears.

Everyone jn BSB was super friendly and helpful, offering me lifts to and from the Embassy and invitations to eat with them. The women in particular were interesting to talk to and fascinated / bemused by this old women travelling the world alone.

Apart from my two trips to the Indonesian Embassy I visited the Royal Regalia Museum which houses the eclectic range of gifts given to the Sultan by visiting heads of state, predominantly from Asian and Muslim countries. I was told that Lizzie once gave a massive big beer mug or was it a teacup and saucer. Either way there was nothing from Blighty on display. I also checked out the Brunei History Museum but it had way too much text and not enough pictures so I sped through and headed to the only shopping mall, which was no great shakes either.

The main attractions in BSB are the two mosques. The one opposite my homestay was built by the current Sultan’s father. It’s very simple with a lovely old boat on a reflective lagoon in front of the main steps. The other, on the outskirts of the city was built by the ruling Sultan. It’s incredibly ostentatious (marble from Italy, stained glass from England and gold from I can’t remember where), but nonetheless serene and beautiful during the day and wonderfully bling when illuminated at night.

Istana Nurul Iman (Palace of the Light of the Faith), is the 200,00 sq m residence of the Sultan. With a mere 1790 rooms (255 bathrooms) it’s more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles and three times larger than Buckingham Palace. Well if you’ve got $25b why not???

One afternoon I met up with an Aussie expat who has lived in Brunei for 14 years and who, as well as being known as ‘turtle lady’ because of her passion for collecting exotic species, is a legendary teacher – the only foreigner to receive the prestigious His Majesty’s Teacher of the Year Award. She took me to the 7-star Empire Country Club for afternoon tea which was very decadent and completely out of keeping with the prudent traveller lifestyle I’ve adopted but the rich chocolate cake and Earl Grey tea with a slice of lemon went down a treat.

And that my friends is the sum total of things to do in BSB!

I’m now in Indonesia so next up tales from Bali.

Malaysian Peninsula

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The descent over the South China Sea into Kuala Lumpur airport was breath taking, with the runway dramatically carving through palm olive plantations as far as the eye could see. I didn’t realise then how controversial deforestation in favour of lucrative palm oil production was. I do now.

I was very much looking forward to spending time with some of my son-in-law Simon’s extensive family and visiting the country with them. First up cousin LayHock welcomed me to KL. We spent a couple of days together visiting the sprawling city with the most complicated road system imaginable. Actually, there isn’t a massive amount of cultural stuff to do in KL, which is dominated by one enormous shopping mall after another. However, there is the main mosque and the main Chinese and Indian temples to see and of course the landmark Petronas Towers. The most enjoyable place I visited was the Museum of Islamic Art, which had an incredible collection of Indian, Chinese and Malay manuscripts, jewellery, weaponry, fabrics, pottery and furniture. The building was ultra modern and spacious but strangely, apart from some school children, we were the only people there.

Chinese and Indian street food are a must in KL and I tried everything, including quails eggs in black aspic i.e.horse urine, which is surprisingly tasty! You have no idea what bliss it was to slouch on the sofa watching crap TV (something called ‘Warrior’ being popular), with LayHock’s children and to have a family meal round the kitchen table.

LayHock handed me over to Johnny (one of Simon’s uncles) and his wife Akim in a motorway service station – just like in the movies, and I spent a wonderful four days with then in Ayer Tawar, a town 4 hours north west of KL, the nearest big city being Ipoh. Ayer Tawar has a large Chinese population and a cool Taoist temple called Tua Pek Kong. The Chinese live quite separately from the Muslim Malays; that is each live in their own communities, have their own schools, universities, markets, shops, restaurants, hotels, beaches and so on. It was interesting to learn about the seemingly unsolvable differences between the two cultures, compounded by the fact that the Malays have preferential rights over land and jobs, which naturally aggrieves the Chinese.

After doing a huge amount of sleeping, eating delicious Chinese take away and watching films and football with the family (I was just in the nick of time to get caught up in the frenzy surrounding Leicester City), I felt very much at home.

We tootled around the area and also spent a wonderful day in the Cameron Highlands. I’ve seen tea plantations in India and imagined these wouldn’t be a match for them but they absolutely are. The scenery is beautiful with an abundance of plantations and also masses of fruit & veg being grown under huge tunnels, plus pick-your-own strawberry farms, bee farms, lavender farms and butterfly farms. Driving up and down the mountain we passed through several Orang Asli villages. The Orang Asli are a very poor minority indigenous people living on government subsidies in small communities. They are instantly recognisable by their dark curly hair.

The average traveller won’t have heard of Pulau Pangkor. It’s a tiny island accessed by ferry from Lemut, close to Ayer Tawar. I thought I should give the rellies a break so I took myself there for 48 hours. The island was really quiet and I found a gorgeous spot called Coral Bay with a beach restaurant called Nipah Steamboat Deli where the top notch Chinese owner/chef, cooked up an incredible sunset feast which he invited me to join him and a friend in eating foc! I swam, walked, read, conversed with a very tame hornbill (emblem of the island) and found some lovely batik clothes.

Back on the mainland, we set off for Penang, reached by diving over a 26 kilometre bridge. That’s one long bridge. I wasn’t mad about the island. The Malay occupied south is undergoing massive development, which means roadworks and construction sites. The Chinese north has some nice spots and a beautiful pagoda but nothing outstanding.

What Penang does have, is George Town – named after George III. Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008. The city’s architecture is an eclectic mix of crumbling shophouses, elegant colonial colonial buildings and soaring skyscrapers whilst dotted throughout the city is quirky street art. The hotel I stayed in (best ever duvet and pillows) gave me a map with all the 3D steel cartoons and wall paintings marked out. Over the course of two days I wandered round the town seeking out the artworks, stopping regularly to soak up the cafe culture and browse the speciality shops. Well known for its food, the most unusual concoction I tried was called ABC and consisted of coconut ice cream, sweet corn, blue rice, peanuts and lime jelly. It sounds gross but it goes down a treat on a searingly hot day. I sat eating it in a cafe with a wall painting of the proprietor who came and stood beside. I’ve posted the photo I took of him and also some other street art but there is masses more which I’m sure you can find online.

Like the rest of South East Asia, Malaysia was in the grips of El Nino with temperatures regularly climbing to 38-39 degrees. In George Town the Dragon Boat Race to accompany the dumpling festival (don’t you love the image) was cancelled; a lack of fresh flowers for Mother’s Day was reported countrywide and at the Sungai Golok high security river crossing into Thailand, the river completely dried up enabling people to walk across the border unchecked.

Having said a sad goodbye to my wonderful hosts I took a flight to Kota Bharu on the east coast. I went for my usual wander and stumbled upon a football stadium where a needle match between Kelantan (local state) and Terengganu (neighbouring state) was about to start. A young guy offered me a ticket and with nothing else to do I accepted. I chatted with groups girls screaming at their idols, and young men keen to talk about the English premiere league. Lots of them, like Simon, follow Liverpool. I must ask him why. Both teams had brought drums into the stadium and took it in turns to chant their ritual songs to an increasingly frenzied beat. There was a party atmosphere with food and drink (no alcohol in this predominantly Muslim town) being shared around at half time. Thankfully the home team won 3-1 so we all went home happy.

It’s impromptu experiences like this which make my travels so enjoyable. Carpe Diem.

My one full day in Kota Bharu was pleasantly spent visiting several excellent museums, the palace, an arts and crafts centre and the colourful market. I also finally managed to locate a post office to send a parcel of unwanted stuff back home (much more difficult than you would imagine), git my second haircut, shared shisha with an Egyptian guy and spicy fish soup with a local policeman who wanted to marry me. What more can a girl ask for!

Dawn the next morning I went to the bus station to travel south to Kuala Besut from where the boat leaves for the Perhentian islands. 45mins later I concluded the bus was a ‘no show’ – apparently phantom buses are not unusual here – so shared a taxi with a couple bound for the same destination. Thus began my week volunteering with turtles about which I’ve written a separate blog.

Fast forward to 1 May and I was back on the peninsula boarding a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Being Labour Day the roads were packed so it took 9 interminable hours. KL was in full party mode; fire eaters, jugglers, loud music, dancing etc. Despite the revelry I slept for almost 12 hours! I fell in love with the shiny new shopping mall near my B&B mainly because it had a food court with about 50 different concessions each selling mouth watering food from a different country making it a round the world gastronomic experience under one roof.

Luckily I managed to get my prescription medication in the mall, but for a whopping £80, which blew a pretty big hole in my budget and made me appreciate our wonderful NHS. The other thing I managed to acquire was a new bra. In previous blogs I was moaning about the lack of white cotton knickers which it took me about 3 countries to find. Buying a bra took 5 countries. Thankfully, being a cosmopolitan city KL caters for more well endowed women as well as tiny Asian women!

So with drugs and underwear sorted and loads of terrific experiences in the memory bank I was ready to leave Malaysia. And I left ensuring I allowed plenty of time to hang out in the One World ‘Golden Lounge’. After 4 months travelling round SE Asia (13 flights, countless buses and boats but onky one train), I thought I deserved to exit in style.

Reflecting back, it struct me that the route I took, starting in Myanmar then on to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam finishing up in Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, had quite by chance started with the poorest, least developed country and end with the richest, most developed one, with the countries in-between becoming increasingly developed in the same order in which I visited them.

What also struck me was that the poorer the country the more devout the people were and also the more welcoming. Of course everyone wants to enjoy a better standard of living and a more secure future but I really hope that despite increasing international investment these fascinating countries don’t loose their unique charm.

Before the next leg of my travels takes me to the sprawling islands of Indonesia I’ll be sharing with you my 3-day stop over in the incongruously wealthy Kingdom of Brunei.

Borneo – Part 2 Traditional Longhouse

Kuching means cat.  I started my Borneo travels in this mid-size city with a lovely riverside promenade (are promenades always by water?) and very friendly people. It has several interesting buildings from the 1870s when Charles Brooke was Rajah of Sawarak, including a castle, fort, courthouse, a jail and the Bishop’s house, all in the same black and white style. It also has interesting museums, one in particular tracing the history of the three distinct waves if Chinese immigrants, a growing cafe culture with speciality coffees and Kec Lapis – a delicious multi-layered cake with different fillings and the not-to-be-missed Laksa noodle soup; my lovely Chinese landlady made a superb one. It also has a large orchid garden, which quite by chance I went round with a Spanish horticulturalist who had worked at Kew Gardens and now lives in Australia.

Whilst I was there Sawarak was having its state elections. I have never seen so many posters and flags along every street, highway, shop front etc. It was easy to tell who had exercised their democratic right because their index finger was ink-stained and there were funny articles in the Borneo Post with suggestions as to how to remove the dye which can take up to 3 weeks if left to fade naturally – a look many young women donut much like. The ruling Barisan Nasional party was victorious, and whilst it was openly know that they used heavy stick and carrot tactics to ensure re-election, it was seemingly a popular result because they have promised to work with the parties promoting Sawarak’s independence from the rest of Malaysia.

A little way outside Kuching is Sawarak Cultural Village. Set around a lake are the traditional houses of Sawarak’s indigenous tribes. For example, the Penan who are semi-nomadic and still track animals using blow pipes, the Orang Ulu who receive substantial government grants to maintain their rural life – much to the envy of other tribes, the Pindaya who live in the north and the Iban who make up the largest percentage of indigenous people. Each house is distinctive but the one that I particularly liked was the Iban longhouse. Made entirely of wood, each village has a longhouse in which the whole community lives. This means the structure runs to several hundred metres with an external platform for the laundry, produce drying etc, an internal central corridor for communal living and doors all along the corridor behind which are the private rooms of each family, varying in size depending on the number of children. The size of Longhouse is described by the number of doors e.g. 30 doors, 50 doors.

I decided this was something I had to see and experience for myself but there are very few traditional wooden longhouses left as they are increasingly replaced by brick and concrete structures with proper drainage, electricity and satellite dishes However, I discovered that there was one longhouse accessible by two boat journeys, where the Iban community still lived traditional lifestyle. There was no way of knowing if I could stay because that was up to the village Chief, who I could only ask when I arrived, and that was assuming anyone knew him and could locate him. Lots of ‘ifs’

I know I’m adventurous by nature but I even impressed myself with this one. I took a noisy 5 hour boat ride in lashing rain across the South China Sea to a port called Sibu with no redeeming features. Having been kept awake all night by the nightclub next door I found an early morning boat to take me to my intended destination. Needless to say I was the only foreigner and I felt just a little nervous as our small boat wove its was up the Rejang river, negotiating rapids whilst dodging huge stray logs from upstream logging stations.

Arriving at Kapit jetty, with no clue where I was heading, I decided my best bet was to go into a cafe to ask how I should go about finding my intended longhouse chief. First up a drunkard assured me he could help me. Luckily I was rescued by two guys sitting next to me in the cafe. It turned out one was a village chief himself (in Kapit for the elections), though from a modernised longhouse. He offered to drive me to the village I sought. As it was only 15km away i thought it not too much out of his way, but because the road was tortuously twisty it took an hour. When I thanked him he said it was his duty to look after visitors and make sure they were safe.

We located the Chief on the building site for the new longhouse his community was building. After a conversation which I didn’t understand and a donation was agreed (I understood that bit), I got the thumbs up to stay. I was allocated a family and off I went to meet my hosts – a husband and wife and his elderly mother on a road which quite simply stopped by the longhouse and then there was forest!

Rumah Jandok Longhouse was extraordinary. It had 21 doors (i.e.21 families), so a comparatively small community. There were skulls hanging in the middle of the corridor, leftover from head-hunting days but also, whilst they are non-practising Christians most doors had a cross on them. A strange juxtaposition.

The timbers were rotting and the home I stayed in was extremely basic (outside loo and bucket to wash) but it has had electricity since 2014 and it was such a privilege to be welcomed there. Most of the men were heavily tattooed, the older women were bare breasted and the little ones (of which there were many) were largely naked. My hostess, Sawary was very sweet and we laughed as we communicated by drawing pictures because she could neither read nor write. I watched her mother weaving cloth for sarongs while Sawary and other young women weaved brightly coloured shopping baskets to sell in local markets. In the stifling heat and humidity everyone laughed and chatted as the children ran around – a typical communal scene . Sawary and I picked vegetables, which seem to grow in the wild by the roadside, and then I helped prepare a supper of chicken, whitebait and veggies.

At 5:30 several mums and me walked to the village school about 20 minutes away – I assumed to bring the children home. But no, it was to bring drinks and snacks and a change of clothes and to say goodnight. From 7-11 years old the children stay at school Monday to Friday, sleeping on mattresses in single sex dorms. I was told the girls need no supervision – not so the boys. What a surprise! 12-15 year olds go to school in Kapit. After 16 they go to Kuching or Miri.

I played the usual alphabet and counting games with some of the boys and gave my hist family’s two boys colouring books, crayons and stickers which I’d bought in advance. I had more in my bag which I intended to share out but it was clear Sawary wanted to keep them for her boys. I later discovered that families take it in turn to host visitors and get to keep the donation and any gifts. I guess that makes sense though I did feel what I’d brought was a bit much for one family.

Back at the longhouse we served dinner and were joined by neighbours who brought food to share. A pair of 13 year old twin girls showed me their English homework books. They seemed to be being taught well and enjoyed talking to me. They told me they got up at 5:30 every day to get to school by 7:30 not getting home until 7pm but they didn’t seem to mind. In fact they had it easy because before the road was constructed two years previously transport was by boat which meant a 4:30 start.

After dinner we shared family photos and watched the news then bedded down in a row on the floor under mosquito nets and I had the family cat as bedfellow. Thankfully nobody snored and I actually slept very well.

We were up at 6am for tea and biscuits then once all the men had gone off to work we rolled up the bedding and set off to work at the new longhouse. Most of the families are building their section of the longhouse and it was clear to see who was wealthier than who by the fixtures and fittings. Some had expensive tiled floors, western bathroom fittings and fitted kitchens whilst others had plane floors and modest bathrooms and free-standing kitchens. Bizarrely everyone seemed to love cornicing which they painted bright colours.

What was cool to see was that the women were equally involved, holding ladders, shifting rubble and, having learned some basic skill in Cambodia, I was able to join in cement mixing. Who would have thought!

I was curious as to how the men could afford to build their homes i.e. not be earning a wage. When the chief explained to me that he had negotiated with the local government to donate the concrete, roofing and windows and that there were subsidies/loans for the rest of the building materials repayable once the house was built and normal work resumed. A good way to ensure re-election me thinks.

The new longhouse was due to be finished by 1 June – just three weeks after my visit. The chief was expecting around 800 people to celebrate the opening including children who had moved away, dignitaries etc. I was honoured to be invited to join them but unfortunately makingbthe epic journey 3 weeks later wasn’t an option.

Whilst Sawary was helping her husband with some tricky window installation I popped back to the school, was given a tour by the head teacher and sat in on a class. Some of the children are very slow and find it difficult to learn and, with illiterate parents, they are not encouraged at home thus compounding the problem. That said, some I met were very bright and engaged and sang ‘rain, rain go away, come again another day’, complete with umbrella for me. So sweet.

Sawary and I went back home and joined two other women in one of the women’s large kitchen to prepare lunch. 6 different vegetables including bamboo, aubergine, a sort of wild spinach and dandelion, all of which I learnt how to prepare and cook; a huge hunk of meat which we boiled then roasted on a big open fire, and of course a gigantic pot of rice. Enter 8 bare-chested, sweaty, hungry men who wolfed down the food as we sat to one side watching them. Job done they belched and went off to have a smoke! We were then able to sit at the table and consume what was left before clearing it all up.

The Chief arrived later that afternoon and said that as he was heading into town later, he could give me a lift. I had planned to stay another night but he didn’t know if he would be available the following day and to be honest the basic facilities were challenging, so I took up the offer.

I loved meeting all the villagers and being part of the community, albeit for such a short time and I’m really pleased to have had such an authentic experience. By now the old longhouse will be standing empty. The plan is to smarten it up and re-open as a fee paying ‘attraction’ with a local to show people round. There are a good few modern longhouses offering an overnight but the experience simply isn’t the same.

I do wonder who will be living in these places in 50 years time. The communal way of life is enjoyed by old and young generations but most 18+ year olds move away to live and work in big cities like Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru, with their shopping malls, cinemas, cafes etc and where everyone doesn’t knows everyone else’s business. Parents don’t seem to mind being separated from their children at this relatively young age but if they don’t return to raise their own families how can the longhouse village survive.

imageThe boat back to Sibu was with the current so we raced along, shaving an hour off the hairy journey. I wasn’t relishing another night in Sibu but I enjoyed trying lots of different food in the night market; things like shredded beef inside a mini bun, fried giant banana, pork stuffed pau, peanut stuffed coconut jelly, warm soya milk and local chocolate cake, naughty but nice.

Next morning I took a bus to Miri in the north of Sawarak, an hour from the border with Brunei. I stayed in a nice hostel  and amazingly managed to get a pair of prescription glasses made up in 48 hours.  In the evening I went to the Jazz Festival. I had been invited by the festival director Chu Lin who I’d been e-introduced to by a mutual jazz musician friend she met when studying at the Royal College of Music. She now lives in Borneo with her charming husband and two grown up kids and organises music festivals including the world famous Rainforest Festival held in September.

There were lots of really good bands – from New York, Germany (playing Cuban music which sounds odd but they rocked), Singapore and local. I had a great time drinking, dancing and chatting to people dancing next to me, some of whom were expats working for oil and gas companies like Shell and Total in Brunei. I flopped into bed at 1:30 – the latest I’ve been out since I left home in January.

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So that was it for me in the state of Sawarak. I left the next day with a bit of a sore head and aching legs but no regrets!

Next up I’ll be summarising my brilliant time in peninsular Malaysia.

 

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Borneo -Part 1, Wildlife

 

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I was going to write a single blog about Malaysia where I spent 6 brilliant weeks, but it was getting so long I thought you might switch off half way through, and that wouldn’t do at all! I have therefore divided it into three parts. Part 1 focuses on Borneo’s national parks which are teaming with wildlife. Part 2 details a one-off experience as a guest of an Iban chief and other Borneo experiences and Part 3 is all about the Malaysian Peninsular, minus my week with Ecoteer Turtle Conservation, which I posted a while back.

Borneo was top of my list of must visit places. It conjured up images of secluded beaches, pristine jungle, vast caves, soaring mountains and a network of rivers snaking the length and breath of the country. It is all of this and so much more.

The majority shareholder of the island (over 70% of the landmass and population) is the Indonesian state of Kalimantan but I decided to spend my time in the states of Sawarak and Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, which are separated along the west coast by the bite-size Kingdom of Brunei.

What a fantastic country. Take a look at the photo I took from the plane. Those caramel-coloured rivers define the landscape and are the lifeblood of the country. I became an expert in navigating them as I travelled both up country and deep into the interior.

Most tourists visit Sabah to climb the mighty Mount Kinabalu (no way in this heat), swing by the Orangutang sanctuary in Sepilok (too crowded for me) then head to Semporna for world class diving (foreign office advise not to go ‘cos of pirate kidnappings followed by beheading if the ransom isn’t paid). I therefore chose to start my travels right at the opposite end of the island in Sawarak’s capital city, Kuching – of which more in Part 2.

Malaysia has a mere 27 national parks, 23 of which are in Borneo and several are within easy reach of Kuching making it the perfect home base. Don’t think your average park, think hundreds of hectares of forest, mangroves, mountains, rivers, even beaches with INCREDIBLE wildlife.

The king if the jungle (to quote Baloo) is the Orangutang. Native to Borneo and Sumatra there are depressingly few remaining in either country. I was therefore thrilled to see six of these massive primates in the semi-wild i.e. they roam freely within the confines of Semenggoh Conservation Park. Watching a mother and baby swinging through the trees then descending to the forest floor to be joined by big daddy for a group nit pick was amazing. The park ranger had a magical call which echoed round the forest and brought the biggest Orangutang they have, crashing through the undergrowth to a feeding platform a few metres from us. There are no ropes or netting so we needed to be ready to move quickly should he have decided to take a closer look at us. Thankfully he wasn’t interested!

Bako National Park is reached by small boat and offers numerous hikes. A group of us who met on the early morning bus to the jetty decided to self-guide on a hike through dense jungle on the look out for the bulbous nosed, pot bellied proboscis monkey (check) before descending to the beach for a swim with sea lizards and giant jelly fish (check), with wild pigs strolling about (check), then hiking back a different route looking for insect-eating pitcher plants (check) and green vipers (no show), finally returning to base camp drenched in sweat for a well-earned beer (double, double check). I loved this place.

The last trip out of Kuching took four of us on a sunset boat ride, firstly across open water with the potential of seeing endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, then through mangroves looking for elusive crocodiles and not so elusive long-tailed macaques. We hit the jackpot, seeing at least 10 dolphins diving around us, followed by trees full of macaques and then two crocodiles floating menacingly past us. Once the sun set, our guide used a flashlight to pick out the eyes of a good few more crocs, some yellow, some red and some blue as our boat floated silently under trees aglow with millions of fire flys. Even the guide was impressed with what we saw. He was less impressed when, on heading back to the mooring slightly later than planned, we ran aground and had to wade through knee-high mud in the pitch dark. We thought it part and parcel of a truly memorable evening, and we got a free mud-wrap exfoliation!

As well as abundant wildlife, Sawarak is famed for its caves. Mulu National Park, reachable by a 30 minute flight in a single prop aircraft, which often as not doesn’t take off or land when it’s supposed to because of mist encircling the mountains (my flight out was delayed 5 hours), boasts the longest cave system in the world. Spelunking has never really been my thing but I must say that having a knowledgeable guide explain how they were formed, dissecting the layers of rock, explaining the difference between stalactites and helictites, pointing out the critters living on the cave floor that mainly live off bat guano and the transparent fish in the subterranean rivers, these constantly evolving caves came to life for me. However, Im not quite ready for ‘adventure caving’.

I also experienced my first night walk in Mulu and was treated to all manner of weird and wonderful creatures from centipedes – so big and hairy that they in fact only manage 50 legs, giant stick insects and elongated caterpillars, big toads and tiny frogs, shoestring worms, fire ants, crazy big spiders and a scorpion but again no snakes. It was Friday 13th so perhaps something was in the air because a huge number of these creatures were mating. Two frogs no bigger than my thumb nail were going at it hammer and tongs and making a real racket!

Mulu boasts the longest forest canopy walk in the world, and elevated at 35 meters, perhaps the highest too. Walking with a guide I learnt about the 5 layers of the forest and how they support each other. I also learnt about trees that are hosts to parasites and how they too work in harmony. As we walked high amongst the trees we were treated to beautiful birdsong and black butterflies with fluorescent blue, red or green markings and iridescent dragonflies flying all around us.

Just so you know, Gunung Mulu is the tallest mountain in Sawarak and The Pinnacles its most arduous climb. In 36+ degrees and 90% humidity I resisted the temptation to scale either and judging by the comments from those who did the climb, it was a wise decision.

The highlight of Sabah for me was the three days I spent in a simple homestay on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. My host, Osman was recommended to me by some guys I met in Vietnam. He is a bit of a celebrity because he guided David Attenborough a couple of years ago, featuring in his documentary on Borneo and also Freddie Flintoff, though not simultaneously!

My journey to Osman’s home was an adventure in itself. It required a spectacular bus ride climbing through Kinabalu National Park, with incredible views of the volcano which erupted not so long ago, a huge bit breaking off the top, and winding down into the verdant valleys. After 7 rather nauseous hours I was dropped off at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Miraculously the ‘drop’ worked as a man waved at me and I jumped in his pick-up for a further 45km ride to a mooring where Osman’s wife Yunti was waiting with a small boat to take me to her home.

Also staying was a German couple, he commissioned by Nikon to take photos using its latest supersonic cameras (talk about lense envy) and my Aussie roommate who had a mass of amazing tattoos, various piercings, those big holes people have in their ears, a shaved head and was fervently into protecting our planet. She was terrific.

Osman and his son Tom took us on 3 incredible trips; one at dawn, one at dusk and one full afternoon. All the animals we saw were 100% in the wild which made it unpredictable and that much more thrilling.

Our first dusk trip we were lucky enough to see a huge male orangutang, albeit just the one and quite high up in the trees, but it doesn’t get more wild than that. We also saw lots of proboscis monkeys – without even breaking sweat (!), scores of long tailed macaques; cute pig tailed macaques, which I hadn’t seen before, and several silver leaf monkeys with their distinctive mohicans. Lots of the monkeys had babies, which was encouraging, not to mention really aaaahh, and most of them were within a few feet of our boat. On the branches were lizards and kingfishers whilst down on the ground were mid-size monitor lizards. This was a magical first exposure to an abundance of creatures as we coursed down Kinabatangan’s jungly tributaries.

Our dawn trip was all about birds. The mist was swirling off the river as we drifted along in silence, not another boat in sight. Up above I saw three, or was it four, varieties of hornbill, sitting in pairs in the trees making their distinctive call before flying off (flap, flap, flap, glide, flap, flap, flap, glide), a pair of purple storks, a gigantic storm stork, a sleepy eagle and loads of egrets standing gracefully in the river. It was so peaceful with not much happening when jn a split second a solitary crocodile, which we’d spotted in the undergrowth, like grease lightening leapt into the air, mouth open to catch a bird before splashing into the river right in front of the boat. I tell you, it was a real Attenborough moment but frustratingly without the film crew to capture it for me!

The most amazing experience of all happened on our afternoon trip. Our hope was to find the endangered Pygmy elephant (so called because of its diminutive size), which meant quite a long journey up river. I didn’t mind at all because it was such a beautiful, remote setting but if course I hoped we’d find some elephants. Seems it was our lucky day. Coming round a bend in the river, we saw three or four elephants going about their business and were able to get the boat within 10 feet of them. As we approach they shied away a little but as we sat quietly they grew in confidence and suddenly there was a herd of about 20 of them. At one point some of them got into the water for a swim and passed right by us, others wallowed in the mud or munched on the lush vegetation. In amongst the herd were three babies, one Osman reckoned was about 4 weeks old and suckling. It’s difficult to put into words how special the experience was.

The big downer to all of these experiences is that rampant deforestation, to plant lucrative palm oil, is forcing the wildlife ever closer to the riverbank. Soon they will have no land left to inhabit and, as commerce wins over nature, people like Osman are fearful for their future. This situation isn’t unique to Kinabatangan; great swathes of Malaysia’s forests are being converted into palm oil plantations. And it’s not just big corporations. Anyone with even the smallest amount of land can convert it to palm oil (with an easily accessible bank loan) and make a nice little income.

But I mustn’t end on a negative note. My last morning with Osman and Yunti, I sat in a bench enjoying birds flying across a cloudless azure blue sky as I watched the mesmerising flow of the caramel river. I was joined by one of the sweet children who I taught to play the penny whistle – to much family amusement. I felt sad to be leaving such a remarkable place but I felt truly blessed to have experienced three such magical days……..

……….and I still had 8 hours of stomach churning twisting and turning up and down the mountain to get back to Kota Kinabalu, so my enjoyment of the beauty of Borneo wasn’t quite over.

I didn’t get photos of everything I saw because the experience is better not constantly being viewed from behind a lense, but I hope you enjoy the animals I did manage to capture.

Part 2 is all about my amazing 48 hours as the guest of a Longhouse chief in a remote village in central Sawarak. Another epic journey.