Just a short post this time. After spending two weeks in Jess’ home town of Balikpapan, fixing up her mothers fish pond and looking after her dogs, my Indonesian visa is almost finished. But in a last minute change of plans, I have decided to get a new visa and return to Java for a while and see some of central Java (which I skipped on the way through due to visa limitations). I will probably hang around in Java until I can claim my Tax and Superannuation payments back from the Australian government. In the meantime I will see what I missed in Java the first time.
From Kota Kinabalu we headed back to Balikpapan, where my bicycle was waiting for me, but the cheapest flights go through Kuala Lumpur. As we would be stopping in Kuala Lumpur anyway, I figured it would be better to stay there for a couple of nights so that we can explore the city a little. I will fly back there with my bicycle soon, but Jessica had never been there and I don’t like to stop over in a place for just a few hours, it seems like a waste. So we arranged a Couchsurfing host in Kuala Lumpur and spent a day seeing a few of the tourist destinations, basically Batu Caves, the Petronas towers and a walk in the city. Batu caves are a couple of caves, one of which is home to a Hindu temple, the other is a nature reserve area for the study of bats and cave insects. After a tour of the caves we took the train back into the city and headed to the Petronas towers and asked about the tour to go up to the sky bridge. I was shocked to find that it was more expensive than the ticket to Borobudur temple (80 Ringit), I wasn’t too interested in paying to go, but the decision was made for me as the tickets were all sold out.
We flew from Kuala Lumpur back to Jessica’s home town of Balikpapan and stayed at her parents house for a few days before we flew to Central Borneo to visit her sister. There wasn’t a lot to do in her sisters city, Palangkaraya, we visited a few Dayak holy sites and spent the rest of the time relaxing at the hotel that her sister works in. Lots of time spent swimming, eating buffet breakfasts and using fast Wifi. On our way back to Balikpapan we stayed a night in Banjarmasin, a city 4 hours from Palangkaraya which is where we need to get our plane. This morning we got up at 4am and took a boat out onto the river to see the floating market. We got there before sunrise and had an awesome view of the locals arriving to sell food from their boats, it was worth the early morning and the ride back down the river was really nice too, seeing the locals waking up and washing in the river, starting their daily routine.
This week seems to have lasted at least two weeks, probably because we have squeezed so much into the last seven days. We arrived in Tarakan with our guide from Derawan and visited an area of mangrove that is home to a group of proboscis monkeys. We only stayed in Tarakan for one day and then headed over the border into Malaysia, in another ferry, to a town called Tawau. We couchsurfed with an English expat who runs a language centre in the city, we sat in on a few lessons and talked with his students. The next day we visited a nearby national park with an area of forest and waterfall, then went back to the language centre.
From Tawau we headed north on a 10 hour bus ride to Kota Kinabalu to stay with another couchsurfing host. Kota Kinabalu is a really nice little city, clean and quiet, but not very much to see. The best places to visit are the islands, which are a short boat journey from the city, and the night market where you can get lots of really great food. After a couple of days in KK we took a boat to another island called Labuan, which is a place for people to buy duty-free, then another ferry to Brunei. I had heard about Brunei and it always sounded kind of interesting, but I wouldn’t really recommend it as a main destination for a trip. There are a few nice places to visit but a few days is enough to see everything. We visited the royal regalia museum, which started out fun and a little interesting, but by the time we were maybe half way through the museum I was fed up of it, to the point where I was planning to have a huge rant in this blog post about how we shouldn’t still have monarchy in the modern world. The only reason I am not doing that is because I met a couple of people who live in Brunei and they really like having the sultan ruling their country. He gives them all great benefits and very cheap petrol, I have heard before that the best type of government is to have a benevolent dictator, but the obvious problem with that situation is that dictators aren’t always benevolent. I still believe that monarchy should be abolished but I’m not going to moan about it like I was planning to.
From Brunei we headed back to Kota Kinabalu by boat, stopping off in Labuan again on the way and having more food in the night market before heading back to our hosts place. This whole week stemmed from a spur of the moment decision, originally we were just crossing the border to renew my visa, but I thought it could be a good opportunity to see some of East Malaysia and Brunei. It hasn’t been an amazing week, but it was definitely better than a simple visa run to the border. Plus I guess it would be hard to improve on the week before this, in Derawan.
What a great week! It started out in Balikpapan spending some time in the city, going to the cinema and eating out in the evening with Jessica’s family. Then on Wednesday, while we were out using some free Wifi at the shopping mall, my bicycle arrived from Jakarta two days earlier than I had been promised by DBM Cargo, the bike was securely packaged, nothing damaged or missing and everything just as I left it with them. Perfect timing too, because the very next morning we headed to Derawan, a small island off the east coast of Borneo which is a great destination for snorkelling and diving, and I needed a few things that I had left packed on the bike.
To get to Derawan we took a short flight to Berau, then took a two hour ride in a car to the harbour and another hour or so in a boat out to the island. Derawan itself is a very small island, it takes less than an hour to walk all the way around it, there is the village on one side and the tourist area on the other. The next morning we started our activities by taking a boat out to a neighbouring island called Maratua, a larger island with a much more expensive beach resort. We were taken there to take pictures on the beach, but I couldn’t resist swimming in the crystal clear water around the resort, which is on legs above the sea. From there it was a short boat ride to Kakaban, for some pretty decent shallow snorkelling in the bay, followed by the attraction that makes Kakaban famous. The island has a lake on it which is home to thousands of jellyfish which don’t sting, tourists can swim with them and take pictures and videos. I managed to spot three out of the four species of jellyfish in the lake, the forth is much smaller than the others and is also present in much smaller numbers.
The next stop was by far my favourite activity of the trip, we took the boat to Sangalaki island and snorkelled with Manta Rays. I have seen Mantas while scuba diving in South Africa, but it was only from a distance and only one at a time (two in total), but here in Sangalaki I swam with six or seven mantas. One smaller manta which was only a little under 2 meters in wingspan, one slightly larger and the other four or five were huge, about 4 or 5 meter wingspan. To swim with them was amazing, seeing them ‘fly’ through the water and feeling a little panicked when they would come straight towards me with their huge mouths open. One of the larger mantas had a school of small yellow fish swimming right in front of its open mouth, stealing the plankton from the water just as it was about to be scooped up by the manta. After the mantas we headed onto Sangalaki island itself to see a turtle conservation station which was set up by the Indonesian government. They had about 200 baby green turtles which had hatched the previous day, they collected them up and were preparing to release them that evening, so we had a chance to take pictures and hold the babies.
The next day we stayed closer to Derawan island to do some of the best snorkelling I have experienced. The water was pretty deep, but on the sea floor was a beautiful and diverse coral garden, me and our guide would dive down to the bottom to collect starfish and shells for the group to look at, and also to take pictures and videos. It is a shame that we could only stay for three nights (because of the price, but also because of my looming visa deadline), I really loved the island and could have happily stayed there a couple of weeks or more without getting bored. This morning we headed back to the mainland and headed north to another island called Tarakan, but tomorrow we will take another boat out of Indonesia and into Malaysia. I will compile a video of my Derawan experiences soon and get that uploaded when I have access to a decent internet connection.
This week I dropped off my bicycle as a shipping company office in Jakarta to have it sent to Jessica’s house in Borneo, I was originally going to send it by cargo plane but it was half the price to send it by ship, although the ship could take a while. Hopefully it will arrive here in the next few days, but I plan to head over the border into Malaysia so that I can extend my visa when I come back into the Indonesian part of Borneo. On Monday I got a lift to the airport from my host in Jakarta and flew to Balikpapan in eastern Borneo, where Jess met me at the airport and took me to her parents house. The only problem I have now is that I originally took my bicycle to the cargo office thinking that I would have my bike the next day, so my toiletries and the battery charger for my camera are now stuck with my bicycle and I wont get them for another week or so.
On Tuesday we got straight into my plans for Borneo, we headed out to an Orang-utan sanctuary in the forest north of Balikpapan, where rescued Orang-utans are taken and gradually prepared for release into the wild. One thing I did think was strange was that the sanctuary give the females contraceptive injections so that they apes can have their mating season without producing babies. This is because they feel that an ape born in captivity could have issues going from the restricted area they are born in, to the freedom of Borneo’s forests. Apparently the calculation for the amount of contraceptive drugs to use is tricky, because when I arrived there were babies. The sanctuary is also home to a number of Sun-Bears, the staff said that the conditions they were held in were because of a lack of funding, but I still was a little uncomfortable seeing them in cages. Apparently they have 58 hectares of land ready to home the bears, but the funding has only allowed them to fence off three hectares, so the adult males are being kept separately in cages to stop them fighting each other.
I was hoping I could see some Proboscis monkeys in the same forest as the Orang-utans but the staff told us they don’t live in the area, but if we travelled about an hour to the north, we could arrange for a fishing boat to take us up the river to see them. So we headed off to black river, which isn’t black anymore because of all the mud in the water caused by the illegal coal mines close by. We arrived a little early, the monkeys don’t like the sun, so will only come out around dusk. But we rode up and down the river and eventually spotted a few groups of Proboscis monkeys. I tried for ages to get a good shot of the large males with their huge noses, but they wouldn’t face the camera, just turn their backs on us or stay partially hidden behind branches and leaves, luckily I got some decent video footage.
This weekend we headed off for a couple of trips with Jessica’s family, on Saturday we drove to a canopy walk and on Sunday we went to visit a Bornean tribe. But just as in most of the tribes you can visit in Africa, they aren’t really living like tribes anymore. In Africa the Masai and Himba tribes have villages where they go during the daytime to show tourists how they used to live traditionally. But here in Borneo the tribe just has a large traditional hall where they dress up and dance every Sunday for tourists to come and take pictures. The eldest and youngest members of the tribe are dressed up so that people can pose and take pictures with them at a rate of $2.50 per picture. One particular old guy was sat on the steps of the traditional hall and people sat with him to take pictures, as I watched I couldn’t help but imagine a bitter internal monologue where he reflects that the clothes he wears used to mean something, a mark of respect, but now his family dress him up and sit him there as a tourist attraction every week. I am making this sound like a terrible experience, but it wasn’t at all. It is only like that if, like the only other European tourist I saw there, you expect to be visiting an actual tribe like you have seen on documentaries. Those tribes are out there, but you can’t visit them so easily as the tourist villages. This is because they are protected, the more interaction they have with tourists coming and taking pictures of them, the more they become the same as the tourist villages. The Indonesian tourists who visited the tribe were more than happy to see the dances and see the traditional clothes, the same way we would go to a museum or re-enactment. The village has an interesting culture and history that people are interested in, it gives them a source of income and each week the village hall is full of domestic and international tourists, I really don’t see a problem with it at all.