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Week 143: East Malaysia and Brunei

Week 143: East Malaysia and Brunei

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.

Proboscis Monkey

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.

Brunei

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.

Week 142: Derawan

Week 142: 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.

Bike packed from shipping

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.

Manta Ray

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.

Baby Turtle

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.

Coral Reef

Week 141: Orang-utans and Proboscis monkeys in Borneo

Week 141: Orang-utans and Proboscis monkeys in Borneo

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.

Orangutans

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.

Proboscis Monkey

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.

Dayak Tribe

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.

Week 140: Jakarta and Changing Plans

Week 140: Jakarta and Changing Plans

I started the week in Yogyakarta saying goodbye to my host Jessica and her family. I only spent a week with them but they were so friendly and welcoming that it was kinda hard to say goodbye. I cycled to the train station behind Jessica’s car and took my bicycle to the cargo company for packing, they had insisted on packaging my bicycle, but when they actually saw it they weren’t so eager. I told them what needed protection and made sure it looked secure enough before I headed to the train station for what I hope is my last train journey for a long time. Travelling with the bicycle gives me the freedom to take train journeys or hitch a lift when I need to, and the fact that I couldn’t get a third month on my Indonesian visa has meant I had to take the train through Java, even though I would have preferred to cycle through slowly and see more of the sights.

Packaged Bicycle

After a nine hour train journey I arrived in Jakarta at around midnight and met my host at the train station. Jakarta is a busy capital city with traffic jams all day, I cycled into the city a few times and didn’t see any traces of the flooding I had seen reported on the news while I was in Yogyakarta. I don’t really enjoy cities and Jakarta doesn’t have a great deal of attractions to distract you from the traffic, there is a national monument in the city centre but the visit isn’t really an activity so much as a photo opportunity. On Friday I stayed with a different Couchsurfing host for the weekend and was talking to their friends about Orang-utans, which are my main objective for the remainder of my time in Indonesia. While we were talking I found out that the only places to see them in Sumatra are in the far north of the island, which would make it difficult to get to and then get to Singapore before the end of my visa.

MONAS

The main place to see Orang-utans in the wild is Borneo, so I started to think about going there instead and then getting to Singapore afterwards. Maybe even travel to the Malaysian part of Borneo and take a boat to West Malaysia, surely there would be a boat going there, but no apparently the flights are so cheap that there is no demand for the boat service. So I am going to fly to Borneo for the last two weeks of my visa and hopefully see Orang-utans and Proboscis (Big-nosed) monkeys before I have to get to mainland Asia and get back on my bicycle for the foreseeable future. Luckily my host from Yogyakarta, Jessica, is originally from Borneo and will go to visit her family at the same time I will be there, so I will stay with her again while I am there.

Week 139: Yogyakarta

Week 139: Yogyakarta

After a 14 hour train journey from Banyuwangi, I arrived in Yogyakarta and managed to talk the cargo guards into letting me unload my bike straight away, instead of waiting 4 hours for them to unload it. I managed to make the train journey productive, at least in part, by making some progress writing my first travel stories book and editing my diving footage from the Gili islands, which I’ll try to upload as soon as I have a decent internet connection. I met my host Jessica at the train station and cycled to her place, following her car through the city. Yogyakarta is a university city with lots of students, which means lots of cheap places to eat. I’ve had some great local food each day I’ve been here, some nicer than others. My first day in Yogyakarta we walked through the city centre, visiting markets and some of the landmarks. While we were in one street market we saw a bowl of fried bats, apparently eating the heart of the bat help with asthma.

Fried Bat

I think I was lucky that Jessica’s mother was staying with her, because she has been cooking me lots of really nice food and trying to fatten me up. Her mother came to stay with her and help her clean her house after the Kalud volcano erupted last month, most of the ash has gone from the city, but in some places you can still find ash at the sides of the roads. One of the main attractions around Yogyakarta is Borobudur temple. A 9th century Buddhist temple which is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, covered with carvings on each level and decorated with hundreds of buddha statues. It took us an hour or so to walk around each level, slowly circling towards the top of the temple. We arrived just before sunset, but had to leave before sunset as there is a special, more expensive, ticket price to see the sunset at the temple. The ticket was already really expensive ($20), but I think it was worth it as I’ll only visit it once, the views out over the forest to the mountains were really awesome.

Borobudur

Each day we have driven into the city to eat some local food, we went back to one particular place a few times to have durian ice cream. It’s kinda expensive, but that is because durian is kinda expensive compared to other fruit. But one large durian ice cream costs about $2. One of the best experiences was tubing in Goa Pindul, an area of river which flows through a cave system, for $10 you can take a three part package deal which includes a tour of a cave, which involves crawling through some tight passages, tubing through a cave to see the rock formations inside, and my favourite part was tubing down a river through some really beautiful scenery and stopping at a waterfall for some swimming and jumping off of rocks into the plunge pool. Another interesting experience was the cabaret show on Friday night, which featured a group of ladyboys lip-syncing to some pop songs and dancing around on stage. I was really surprised to see that in a country which has such a large amount of muslims, especially when you take into account the fact that I saw a large group of muslim women protesting in the city, asking for an end to democracy in Indonesia and calling for the formation of an Islamic republic. I’ve already arranged my train journey to the capital city, Jakarta, I’m not sure how long I’ll stay there as I still need to cycle to Sumatra and make it to Singapore before my visa ends.

Goa Pindul