Sarawak, Borneo

This is the last entry in our blog series for Borneo. To read our Borneo travel journal from the start, click here

Our first impressions of Kuching, Sarawak’s capital, were extremely positive. A friendly local helped us catch a bus into town, where we were greeted by a group of teens running a charity marathon who all shouted ‘Good morning!’ to us. This hospitality was extended by everyone we met, and we found Kuching (and Sarawak) to be far friendly, and more Malay in vibe, than Sabah. Although our week there wasn’t the most eventful, we had a lot of fun – namely because we were hanging out with our new buddies, Nichola and Jack that we met back in Uncle Tan’s Jungle Lodge.

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Town itself is very cute – all Chinese shophouses, Buddhist temples, old Dutch buildings and a pretty waterfront adorned with a golden assembly building that looks like a spray-painted sister of the Sydney Opera House. After soulless Brunei, it felt like a place rooted in real history and culture, and you could see the melange of immigrant groups that we’d come to love in Malaysia – from ‘Jalan India’ with its tasty restaurants serving hot roti canai, to the hawker centres of Chinatown.


We spent much of our time in town food touring the local markets, trying delicacies like punchy noodle soup Sarawak Laksa, and tasty beef noodles. Everyone we met was so friendly – from restaurateurs that remembered us and gave us discounts for our repeated visits, to shopkeepers who told us about hidden sights, to our hotel staff who plied us with cheap booze (a rarity in Borneo!) and endless hospitality. A much less religious, and more informal culture, we found the locals here to be far more easy going than in neighbouring Sabah, and consequently everything felt far more relaxed.


In our time in town we checked out a few great sights, like the Chinese Museum (small, but modern and well curated), and the ‘hidden mosque’ which sits within a labyrinth of lanes in the centre of town. We also spent a few hours in the fantastic Sarawak Museum – an ethnographic museum documenting Sarawak’s culture, containing such delights as bad taxidermy monkeys, photos of the Queen visiting Kuching, a life-size model of a longhouse, complete with interior, and many displays of tribalwear.


In the evenings, we often hung out with Nicola and Jack at their homely hostel, where we drank a lot of spirits, chatted, laughed, met their mates and hostel buddies, and spent subsequent days idling around town eating lots of curries and noodles. It was pretty dreamy! They even had a TV room and DVD player at their hostel, so we spent a cosy evening watching films together which was super nice, and felt like home! Plus, we watched Django Unchained. What a FILM!


We even took a trip out of town together, to nearby Bako National Park, which was pretty fun as we made a great four, with plenty of lols to fill the days! Sadly though, Bako itself was a bit disappointing, as we failed to see the park’s most famous inhabitant, the penis-nosed probiscus monkey! Unfortunately we were also there in jellyfish season, meaning we couldn’t swim in the sea, but we did get the chance to see some massive jellyfish washed up on the shore which was pretty cool!


Despite this, we spent a fun couple of days there, trekking through challenging jungle and mangrove, boating around the coast to see the famous jutting bits of peninsula (meh), and monkey-spotting near our chalet. The park was also lousy with these huge wild boar things that were pretty fun to watch. They looked like something out of the Lion King!

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The staff at the park were pretty terrible, and not very helpful, (apart from treating Jack when he impaled his foot on a spike.. the medical staff were pretty good!) and the dining room took the piss with the cost of the (terrible) food, so we rebelled by hiding high-value food (like chicken nuggets) under piles of low-value foods (like noodles). A life of serious crime awaits! We also had some spotty weather, with a bit of rain in the afternoon, but we passed the hours exchanging travel tales, eating biscuits and loudly bitching about some of the ‘Spring Break’ tourists also at the Park. After a couple of days we were done with the park, and after a quick look around the ‘museum’ and some honest customer feedback (Nichola wrote that the staff needed to be friendlier… only to be scowled at on our way out! FFS!) we left the park and headed back to Kuching for one last booze-up.

After our buddies had left we had a couple of days to kill before our flight, where I’m sad to say we didn’t do much apart from eating and lazing around, but given we only had 14 days left of our travel, we were lapping up the freedom and just enjoying it!


Then, to our next stop – back to the Malay Peninsula, and after a brief (necessary) stop in KL – onto the Perenthian Islands!


Sabah, Borneo

I’m just gonna come out and say it, Borneo (Malaysian Borneo) was not our favourite. It’s a sentiment reflected by a lot of other travellers we met, and I’d probably say it was even our least favourite place in our trip. Luckily we met some brilliant backpackers in our time there which made the month fun, but a lot of the time we were questioning why we were there and wishing we’d spent longer in Indonesia!

Borneo has a weird vibe, as it’s changed so much over the last few decades, and is now essentially a country existing for palm oil plantations, so you have a weird mix of monied ‘oil cities’, lots of displaced ex-pats, sweet little towns that feel more like ‘real Malaysia’, then just achres of heartbreaking oil plantation. Taking a bus journey will undoubtedly take you through hours of palm oil fields, with ‘Shell’ signs, and row after row of perfect palm trees, cut down in their youth and harvested. As a result, there are some amazing animal sanctuaries there, which are simultaneously great (you get to hang out with orangutangs) but tragic (they only exist because logging has destroyed their natural habitat).


Anyway, to back up to the start. We spent a few nights in Kota Kinabalu – a small town that people use as a base to climb up its namesake, the nearby KK volcano. We were far too lazy by this point to consider another big trek, so we just based ourselves there at the mumsy Lucy’s Homestay to plot out our plan. We considered various things – visiting tribes in the jungle; cruises on the Kinabatangan River – and put in some research only to find that many of these had become over-touristed to the point of no longer being socially responsible, and any authenticity had ceased to be. Slightly deflated, we decided to just take it step by step, and after a couple of nights enjoying the delicious foods and nice local markets in KK, we took a local bus to Sepilok to visit one of Borneo’s big draws, Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.

We stayed at a really great jungle lodge, Uncle Tan’s, where we bagged a private double with all meals included for £8pp/pn! The communal areas of the lodge were really nice, and we made some great friends there. Meals there were also great: buffet style and plentiful, from tasty curries and veggies to huge breakfasts with eggs, fruit and cakes! Uncle Tan’s is also great because he offers a free shuttle bus to and from the sanctuary, so we soon bonded with our fellow lodge mates and had a really fun day exploring the area.


We ended up visiting the Orangutan Sanctuary twice in our full day there, as we were so impressed by our first visit. The visit didn’t begin that well, however, as we all traipsed through the park to watch the morning feeding at one of the platforms. Stuffed full with tourists, the feeding felt a little exploitative, and lacked any real magic, as the sanctuary worker climbed the platform and handed out bananas to a group of the orange fuzzy guys with their backs turned to their captive audience. People were moaning about them not turning around, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for the orangutans, who were just there to get fed and supplement their diets from the jungle.


However, after the circus subsided we took a walk onto the ‘bird trail’, where we were lucky enough to encounter a couple of cheeky young orangutans playfully interacting with some tourists – wearing a big floppy hat, and attempting to use a Go-Pro stick! They were pretty hilarious, trying to grab onto people’s trousers and doing somersaults on the path, wrestling with each other and pulling each others’ fluffy ginger hair! We sheepishly tried to approach them, and they immediately grabbed onto our friend Ilona’s trousers, and then one of them grabbed onto Sam, locking his hands around Sam’s wrists and his feet onto Sam’s legs! It was adorable to watch him grinning away as Sam swung him round and round, partially trying to free himself but also playing with him too!

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Sam eventually freed himself from the little guy’s grasp, and we spent a fun 10 minutes walking through the jungle with the two little guys, occasionally stopping to let them have a little play (which took over the whole jungle path!) but mostly just enjoying the opportunity to watch them playing alongside us. Then our fun ruined when a bunch of idiot tourists caught up with us and started making loud monkey noises at them, which drove them off into the jungle. After some harsh words from us, the idiot tourists quietened down a bit, but it wasn’t the same after that (they were more concerned with selfies than actually enjoying this rare encounter!) so we sloped back to the centre, where we watched a video about the conservation of the sanctuary and chatted to a volunteer about their feeding and behaviour (turns out our two guys were always up to trouble!)


We went back to Uncle Tan’s for lunch then headed back in the afternoon, first stopping off at the Sun Bear Sanctuary, where we got up close and personal with the world’s smallest bear species – SO CUTE!! – and learnt all about their behaviour, fed them with some watermelon, and generally had a great time… until, on leaving, we saw that the sanctuary was financed by a huge oil plantation!! Furious, as we’d been told they couldn’t breed any bears because of ‘lack of funding’, it left a bad taste in our mouths as the whole area’s been so fucked by the oil industry, and this is the equivalent of burning down a whole house then offering up a tent by means of rehabilitation. Uch!

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Finally, we returned to see the Orangutans again – firstly at the afternoon feeding, which as far quieter, then at their nursery where we watched them monkeying around in a hilarious fashion – pulling faces at their trainers, refusing to cooperate with their training activities (like strengthening their muscles so they can use the high wires and tree branches in the sanctuary), and generally larking about. We took a fun walk home, chatting with our new friends Ilona and Emmanuel, a great Dutch/Italian couple, then had a great night bonding with our other fellow lodge buddies Nicola and Jack, an Irish/Polish couple, and we all got on really well, laughing and story-telling, then finishing the night with a heated game of couple’s table tennis!


The following day we’d planned to go the Kinabatangan River for a cruise, but found it to be nigh-on impossible on public transport (without a tour) so we soon gave up, also because there’d been an incident in a nearby town a few weeks prior where a Canadian was beheaded by extremists! The whole Sabah area of Borneo – especially near the islands – is continually plighted by pirates and terrorist activity, and we got a dodgy feel from one of the main towns when trying to travel independently, so we obeyed our gut instincts and headed back to Kota Kinabalu!