Friday, 1 October 2010

Kuching & Bako National Park (Malaysia)

After a smooth flight into Kuala Lumpur we had a couple of nights to relax and sort out our bags before our journey to the island of Borneo.
We took a stroll around the Central Market, where we stopped for some lovely (but very spicy) Malay food for lunch and then up through the market on Petaling Street to peruse the cheap, fake designer goods. Kev had a successful shopping trip, picking up some cool sunglasses but which he managed to leave on the bus the following day on the way to the airport.

It's nice to be back in a country where we can at least phonetically read the language (unlike Thailand and Cambodia!) even if we don't know any words yet. Though that said, everyone speaks excellent English here. There are in fact some similarities in the language to English - here are some of my favourites:

Kek - cake
Teksi - taxi
Poskod - postcode
Televisyen - television

Malaysia is our first time in a Muslim country so attitudes towards dress and what is respectible has changed somewhat. Being Western will attract a few stares anyway but unless I want to look like I'm wearing 'the emperor's new clothes' down the street, covering the knees and shoulders is essential. Unfortunately for me the day I arrived in Borneo was 'laundry day' so I had no choice but to wear my short shorts! Still, I survived - and promptly changed into my long trousers as soon as the clean washing arrived back in our room.

Our first experience of Borneo was landing in capital city Kuching, a small riverside town in western Sarawak. Compared to hectic Kuala Lumpur, Kuching is pretty much the opposite, which would make for a halfway point, perhaps, for the wilderness we were to experience in Borneo over the next month.

Kuching is the Malay word for 'cat' and as a result the city is kind of dedicated to them. There are statues of cats, a cat museum, lots of cats on the streets - and funnily enough I didn't see one dog!

A lot of the cats I've seen have lopped tails, which I thought at first was an interesting observation - until visiting a craft shop that sold cat tail keyrings! It's basically a small model of a cat with an entire cat tail attached to a keyring - and they are sold everywhere. Needless to say I won't be bringing any back as souvenirs!

Having taken in the city's main sights we decided to do a trip to the nearby Damai Peninsula, maybe stay a couple of nights, but it turned out to be one of those days where everything went wrong...

The night before departure we discovered bedbugs in our hostel beds during the night, so no sleep for us. Deciding instead on an early start we braved the monsoon rain to catch the bus to Damai. Except the bus was a bit of a scam - simply dropping passengers to an area containing only 5 star resorts with private beaches. Now this may not sound so bad, but as without checking into said 5 star resort were had no access to the beach or restaurants and consequently nothing to do.

Consulting the guide book and giving our doomed trip to Damai one last shot, we saw there was what looked like a nice little guesthouse just a couple of kilometres away with affordable rooms - and one which the shuttle bus was prepared to drop us at. However, on arrival we were met by two young girls who didn't speak a word of English and two small dogs who were intent on eating Kev's rain poncho. When in transpired that the room rates were double what was quoted on the website we decided to make a speedy exit - a strategy shared by the dogs who ran off into the distance the minute we opened the gate, leaving the poor girl to desperately run after them in the pouring rain. We don't know if she ever did catch them!

Cutting our losses we boarded the first bus back to Kuching and decided to put the whole experience behind us.

The following morning we awoke bright and early to glorious sunshine and jumped on the bus that would take us to the boat jetty for Bako National Park, about an hour outside Kuching and our first experience of the Borneo jungle.

Arriving at the park by boat we were met by high cliffs densely covered with foliage, wooden boardwalks marking the trails through the park and screeching cicadas sounding from the trees. Before we even reached the park reception we had walked past a wild boar, snuffling through the undergrowth, and could hear the proboscis monkeys in the canopy overhead, whilst shrieks could be heard from the open air cafeteria as naughty macaques stole food from unsuspecting diners.

We checked into our very basic hostel room (which incidentally smelled like monkeys had been using it as toilet), put up our mosquito nets and headed out for our first jungle trek - a short 800m walk to a nearby beach That said, the 800 metres was mostly steep cliff paths and was quite a scramble, and with the 35 plus degree heat and humidity it took us much longer than expected to reach the beach.

After a spot of lunch we headed out for our second walk of the day to another beach, 2.2 km away, but with slightly easier terrain than in the morning. Arriving at the desserted beach very hot and sweaty it was a welcome relief to swim in the sea before making our way back to base before nightfall.

You can imagine my delight at seeing so many monkeys around the park. The proboscis monkeys were especially fascinating to see up close as they crash around in the tree tops. I only wish I had a better zoom on my camera to capture them!
The macaques however are an absolute menace - at first I just thought them mischievous and cute as they crept up on the cafe tables to swipe food from peoples' plates but then they did it to me, spilling my coffee over me in the process and it certainly was not funny then!

Scarier still, on day two we decided to do another walk down to the first beach for a swim but on the way we encountered a group of four monkeys blocking our way. At first we just though by making a lot of noise, clapping and shouting, the monkeys would step aside and let us pass - but quite the opposite: they hissed and exposed their teeth, and then one charged at me to really see us off! We ran screaming, a good distance back up the path until we were sure we had not been followed.

We would later learn that the best precaution is to carry a stick (or in our case, an umbrella) - it must be what the park guides use as the monkeys do respond to a stick being waved menacingly in their direction. It goes without saying that I'm quite terrified of them now and if I never saw another macaque it would be too soon!

Monkeys aside, we didn't suffer too badly at the hands of the insects, though even with insect repellent, long sleeves and trousers, and mosquito nets it's impossible to avoid getting bitten. Getting into the shower in the morning the mosquitos swarm around. I must have killed about fifteen during my first shower.

The moths haven't been too bad either - no major scares for Kev yet, though it is a relief to have the protection of the mosquito net to sleep under and know that nothing can get in!

Last night we travelled overnight up to Bintulu, the departure point for our next national park: Similajau, which is predominantly beach at 30km long and just 1.5km wide. We'll spend a couple of nights there before moving on to Miri and the famous Mulu National Park in a few days.

I'll blog again soon when we're back in civilisation.

Sarah & Kev xx

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