From Kota Kinabalu we flew to Sandakan, where we are now (and are soon to leave). Rachel and her sister Cheryl are Philippine (Filipino – for some reason they drop the Ph for this?) and although they both have the same heritage (half Filipina half Mauritian), Cheryl looks more Filipina and so gets a lot of unsolicited attention from locals. That sometimes works in our favor, if we’re dealing with a Philippine company, but by and large just gets what are probably nasty or insulting comments (that we thankfully and also infuriatingly don’t understand) directed at her.
Week 1: Singapore and Borneo (Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Turtle Island)
This is just before our trip’s half-way point. I’ve been in Southeast Asia about a week with 6 other lovely people: my good friend Lizzie; her best friend Rachel; Alex (Rachel’s Husband); Cheryl (Rachel’s sister); Karla (Cheryl’s close friend); and John (Alex’s close friend). Rachel and Alex have already been travelling for 3 months already (Alex quit his job and Rachel has time before her residency)! We have one more to meet, Hana, in Penang next week. Hana is Malaysian so she just needs to venture a few hours North to find us.
Courtesy of Rachel:
First we flew into Singapore and gave ourselves a few days to acclimate to the time difference. Although I was expecting a boring, trading city, it was more interesting than I thought it would be. We toured a Buddhist temple (the Buddah tooth temple: for real), have a feast fit for HRH in Chinatown, experience our first street food markets, find incredible rice and chicken, to to Little India for curries on banana leaves, and go on a night safari!
Little India and Little Lizzie
Muthu’s Curry! So good.
Lizzie and a sisterhood of mannequins
Buddah’s Tooth Temple
All aboard the night safari!
So far, Borneo has been a world of difference. The state we’re spending our time in, Sabah, is probably the poorest (at least has the worst wealth distribution) but also has all the wildlife (sea turtles, Orangutans, Probiscus monkeys with an… interesting nose, jungle wildlife, you name it). We had a few days in Kota Kinabalu, which wasn’t a nice place on its own but we did take a day trip out to this idyllic beach and get completely blistered. We tried to find an isolated part of this island called ‘Sunset Point’ but it turned out, 40 minutes and a lot of monitor lizard encounters later, to be a sandless, trash-filled rock pile. At this beach Alex laboriously worked away at a coconut and actually got the husk off and nut cracked into, so we had some fresh coconut. Every beach day he goes into Survivor mode and does this. The best thing about Kota Kinabalu was its night market. I won’t make this sound good, but first I’ll be honest: it’s smelly, heaving with produce, scattered with skinny cats but also full of incredible food. And it’s so cheap. Between the two nights we had feasts of grilled fish, chicken fried rice, grilled corn, squid, skewers, greens, etc (they cook it all in front of you). Then came back to play cards, share a bit of rum, and befriend this Iranian dude who we sadly never saw again.
Alex and the coconut
The first day, we grabbed our things and went to the ‘bus station’ to catch a bus to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (for orphan Orangutans that need a few years of rehabilitation before gradually being released into the wild). Unfortunately our bus wasn’t running that day, but because we’ve had people trying to trick and swindle us throughout our trip, our guard was up and we decided not to listen to the man who told us that (thinking he was just persuading us to go with a more expensive option). We stayed at this boiling hot bus stop waiting it out before realizing he had been telling the truth, but in the meantime were surrounded by children (who were absolute, little shits) and creepy men provoking us in Malay and making everyone laugh. It was a bit torturous, but they got bored of us after awhile. Then we took a mini bus to the centre, only to get there before the 3 hour mid-day break. So we had a long lunch (which was terrific – prawn and fish noodle soup with chili, ginger and green onion) and played card games while it rained outside. Afterwards we watched a video about the centre, checked our belongings and went out onto these viewing platforms to see the Orangutans arrive for their feeding time. It was so fun watching them… one has developed a party trick of walking on a tightrope, then others are just trouble-makers or show-offs or just very sweet. They look like little old men, the way they move, only far more nimble and athletic.
After the Orangutans, we had to get back to the bus stop, which was at a junction a 30 minute walk away. On the way, we saw a pack of stray dogs notice us and start trotting towards us from the distance, which all of us freaked out about a little bit (me especially, remember Ireland). We went up to a guard station like WHAT DO WE DOOO and they kind of smirked and threw some pebbles at them and made a “scram” noise. I was jumpy about the dogs coming back, but they never did. It was a group of about 10 of them though, so: frightening. Then went to catch the bus, which was also a bit shambolic. It was fine, but the bus would pull over onto the road shoulder and put the whole bus to an impossible lean, prompting me to ask Lizzie, “I wonder how often these buses just fall over,” and her, “That is something you don’t want to know.” Back at the hostel, we packed our overnight bags for the next night and went out for dinner.
The next morning we were up early to walk to the Turtle Centre, register and catch the tug boat. We went to one of the Turtle Islands overnight with the only company that the Malaysian government has granted a permit to, which means it is really expensive (well, the most expensive thing we’ve done by miles, but I guess still reasonable) and the accommodations really leave something (or a few) to be desired. I wouldn’t care, but the exorbitant price calls attention to it. You have the whole day to wait, so we spent it on the beach, lunching, beach napping, snorkeling, reading, playing cards… I didn’t get in the water this time because I’m blistering from my Kota Kinabalu sunburn and Rachel and Cheryl kept complaining about “stingies” in the water. Tiny invertebres that touch you and give off little shocks. No thank you. Then it was dinner, followed by the Turtle museum, a movie about the turtles, and then the big show! Did you know that turtles are one of the only species to survive whatever it was that killed the dinosaurs? Also, crazy one here for you: the sex of the turtle depends on the temperature of the sand the eggs are incubating in. WHAT. A difference of 4.5 C could mean the whole nest (of a hundred or so eggs) are all male, or all female. Wild. After all the instruction, we played cards and waited for the turtles to come to land.
TURTLES! We ran out across the dark beach (lights scare turtles and they will turn away and go back into the water), therefore tripping in massive turtle-sized holes that they’ve dug out for nesting, and made our way to a mother laying her eggs. When the turtles are laying they are blissed out so don’t really notice you crowding around (plus their brains are the size of a pea… and there are also crystals wedged in their brain to help them with orientation – come again, right?), so we could hover. This mama laid 82 glistening Green Turtle eggs for the hatchery, then paw paw pawed the soft sand with her back flippers to cover – welp – not the eggs because the guy had bucket’d them, but she has a brain the size of a pea. They measure and tag all the turtles and have a whole staff of rangers working on the island so have figures back decades and decades of the size of the turtle population and annual growth. From there, we took the eggs to the hatchery to bury them all together 70 cm in the sand. You bury them, recover them with sand and surround the nest with a tube of plastic mesh to keep predators away (monitor lizards, birds of prey, ants) and wait for them to develop and hatch! Then they brought us to the beach to release all the turtles that had hatched that night – more than 100 little guys. As they hatch throughout the day, the ranger saves them, but then they just release them that night right on the shore and they go straight into the water. Only about 80% survive, which is sad, but they are the cutest little flailing things.
The next morning we got up superearly, had breakfast and came back on the boat. Oh, that was today. Got back to the hostel to check in again and ended up watching the Impossible, which I highly recommend but it is so hard to watch. It’s a true story based on this Spanish family’s experience in the 2004 tsunami with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. It’s so heartwrenching, but excellent.
From there, we went to this POW memorial park about 8 miles outside of Sandakan. I had no idea what I was in store for. The POW camp was in operation from 1942 to 1945 and held about 2,400 Australian, British and Chinese prisoners. They were scared the Allied Forces had discovered the prison, so made the prisoners do several long ‘death marches’, which truly resulted in complete decimation. Of all the prisoners held during these years. Only 6 survived. 6. All of them Australian, and only ones that broke away and bushwhacked the jungle full of snakes, scorpions, Orangutans, crocodiles, and – potentially – enemies. John’s grandfather was a British POW during WWII, but in Java, and he survived… but never really talked about his experience as a prisoner. So for John this was a really personal trip.
Tomorrow we are pretty much flying all day, from 9 – 5. We’ll first fly from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu; then a few hours later, KK to Penang!