Patrick once again picked up my slack, and wrote this awesome blog post on Borneo! Check it out:
Alright, be honest – you have no idea where Borneo is, do you? It’s okay, no one seems to know. It’s just the place where Anthony Bourdain goes to eat cockroaches and drink blood. My North Carolina education was a little light on Bornean history, so that’s all I knew about the island when we booked our plane tickets. Oh, that and ORANGUTANS.
We were happy to discover that our first destination in Sabah, Kota Kinabalu (KK for short), is one of the cultural hubs of Malaysian Borneo. We immediately immersed ourselves with the locals visiting a place called a ‘food court’ and trying something called a ‘McFlurry.’ After a night spent sampling the local entertainment, Thor: Ragnarok, we retired to our four-star homestay. Cut us a break, okay? We had just spent three weeks in Nepal.
We had two nights in KK, and apparently the number one thing to do in the city, besides sweat, is to experience the sunset. Despite being skeptical that a place could be famous for sunsets, we stuck around for both of them just in case. Our first sunset looked a lot like rain, but our second one was unbelievable.
One of the things about traveling long term is you don’t have a ton of time to plan things, and as a result of this time crunch you sometimes make mistakes. After leaving KK, we headed to our first mistake. Our original plan was to visit Kinabalu National Park and hike around the most famous mountain in Borneo. We booked a hotel right on the border of the park, and afterwards asked a travel agent to arrange transportation for us. Her response at this request: “Why are you staying there?? That’s nowhere near the park.” Turns out, ‘park entrance’ and ‘park border’ are not the same thing. We booked a hotel an hour away from the actual entrance to the park, at a hot springs (read: shared bathtub) tourist trap with no easy transportation options to and fro. Good thing we saved a few ringgits by going with the non-refundable rate.
Determined to make the best of our situation, we did a few hikes in the surrounding area to see the tallest waterfall in Borneo and the largest flower in the WORLD… except it looks like a mushroom – the flower, not the waterfall. Take a look and you be the judge:
One of the things we knew about Borneo was that it is almost as famous for orangutans as it is for leeches. Determined inch long blood suckers, the leeches of Borneo are able to get through almost anything to find their prize. Long pants, thick socks, and hearty shoes seem to offer as much protection against leeches as fishnet stockings would.
So Sam and I struck a deal – she’d pick off my leeches and I’d pick off hers. It’s what marriage is all about. So far, I’ve been the clear winner of this accord – Sam’s had to scrape six leeches off of me, while having the decency to not get any on herself. The only thing worse than having one of these creepy crawlies attach to you is having to scrape it off with a credit card (Sam recommends the Chase Sapphire Reserve card for optimal scraping).
Besides leeches, Borneo is flush with wildlife and setup to make encounters with its inhabitants easy and eco-friendly. Between river cruises, rehabilitation centers, and canopy walks, you’re almost guaranteed to see something wild. Sepilok and the Kinabalu River are the epicenter of the action, so we headed here for week two of our Borneo adventure.
Every animal encounter in Borneo is a two-sided coin. Go to the Sun Bear Conversation Center and see the sun bears. It’s incredible – to borrow some language from Sam – sun bears are SOOO FREAKIN CUTE YOU JUST WANT TO SQUEEZE THEM. But hold on, why are there bears here? Because they’ve largely been rescued from people who actually TRIED TO SQUEEZE THEM and keep them as pets. Or, worse yet, people who kept them in small cages and hooked them up to IVs to drain their bile, which, as you’ve probably guessed, is valuable in traditional Chinese ‘medicine.’
This is a theme that has come up repeatedly in travel – almost any animal that is awesome also turns out to have some backwards medicinal use in eastern medicine and is subsequently being hunted to extinction. Manta ray gills to boost the immune system, shark fins for sexual potency, elephant tails for luck, rhino horns as an aphrodisiac, etc. And all of it is medical garbage. Anything for a boner, right?
Speaking of boners, the endemic proboscis monkeys of Borneo ALWAYS have them, which may be the only thing more noticeable on a proboscis monkey than its nose. It’s probably the reason all the tourist advertisements show pictures of proboscis monkeys photographed like this:
And not like this:
Hey, it’s nature. No one said this was a PG blog.
But moving on to the star of the show – the ORANGUTAN. We had the opportunity to see these usually boner-less fellas both at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in the semi-wild and in the full-wild on the Kinabalu River. We also saw one at breakfast while sitting at our hotel, but I’m not sure what that counts as. In person, orangutans at the rehabilitation center were slow but powerful, and also seemed to know exactly how to avoid the camera. They also really, really liked bananas.
While the ones on the river were less camera shy, they required a lens that cost more than this trip to photograph properly. But who cares, we found WILD ORANGUTANS ON THE RIVER. Seven of them! Just like The Jungle Book!
But even out on the river, there are two sides to the coin. Yes, you have a good shot of seeing orangutans on the Kinabalu River. But why? Because palm oil farmers have taken up almost all of the land except the narrow strip along the river banks, forcing these animals out into the open. I guess we will at least have some pictures to look at once all the orangutans are gone?
I think Sam has mentioned this before, but I HATE the jungle. After two weeks of leeches, rain, and mud, we needed to get underwater to dry out. So we set off to Mabul Island off the eastern coast of Sabah for some relaxation station (read: diving 4 times a day every day)!
Mabul Island was a paradise for divers who enjoy the smaller things in life, being host to a huge variety of macro critters of every shape and color.
Borneo also played host to some incredible nudibranchs.
It wasn’t all about sea slugs on Mabul – we also got to the dive with the world famous Barracuda Tornados of Sipadan Island.
Exhausted from a full week of diving, we jumped on a plane to head to the Derawan Islands in Indonesian Borneo for another full week of diving!
Derawan Island was host to the quintessential island town: no cars, a single dirt road, and colorful shops peddling actual local goods. The kind of town you imagine used to exist in the Caribbean, before it was paved over to make room for the local Margaritaville.
We spent a ton of time diving in the Derawan Islands, but most memorable was the snorkeling (seriously). During one particular surface interval, Sam and I decided to snorkel back to the dock, just some 200 meters from the boat. The guide said ‘Have fun. Snorkeling is great around here!’ We jumped in and headed out! We made it about five feet before we hit bottom. It was low tide, and here that meant snorkeling in one foot of water. Snorkeling is probably not the right word, as it was more like slowly dragging ourselves across the sea bed similar to how Anakin Skywalker dragged himself out of the lava on Munafastar in Star Wars Episode III. And this sea bed was filled with urchins (which is why we couldn’t just walk it). Fear not though, our wetsuits were safely aboard the boat drying out so we were able to cushion the sea urchin spines using our skin instead.
Finding some deeper water, we also got to snorkel with this guy (or gal):
And these ladies:
While the diving in Borneo proved to be top notch, there was one ubiquitous feature of the reefs that’s worth talking about here: plastic. Plastic bags, bottles, diapers, toys – plastic everything and anything – could be found on the reef: new plastic and really old plastic. The dive shops we used do their best to clean up plastic and limit usage, but they are unfortunately fighting a losing battle. Each tide would bring in a new world of garbage. We’ve tried really hard not to turn this blog into too much of an opinion platform (my rant on eastern traditional medicine aside), but we gotta do it here. Don’t worry, I promise it’ll be quick.
To paraphrase a bunch of studies on plastic pollution, there is an absolute shit-ton of plastic circulating in the ocean. This plastic will take several of our lifetimes to degrade, and oftentimes this decomposition comes at the price of releasing pollutants into the environment. A 2017 study found that 97% of tap water in the US already contains some level of plastic pollutants (think BPA). And we really have no idea what plastic pollutants will do to our bodies or to the environment in the future. We really are running a crazy irreversible experiment on ourselves.
Plastic waste is a really complicated problem with no easy solutions. But as a starting point for Sam and I, we simply started to take note of all of the disposable plastic we use each day. And it’s been an enormous, sickening amount, and it will be here practically forever in some form or another. We are a part of the problem. Are you?
Updated Travel Stats:
Days Abroad: 137
Flights Taken: 24 (includes connections)
Miles Traveled: 26,707
Bags Lost: 1
Flights Delayed: 0
Countries Visited: 7 (minimum stay of 48 hours)
Dives Logged on this Trip: 91 (previously 55!)
Plastic Used: Way too much.
Extending our Honeymoon to Thailand,
Patrick and Samantha
PS – A little preview from Thailand.