Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.
The caves in Mulu National Park are legendary both for their sheer size and because they’re home to an incredible amount of bat shit. During filming of Planet Earth, the film crew had to wade through hundreds of feet of bat doo — and you can watch it here!
I am not sure what kind of muck we climbed through, but I came back from Mulu stinking of dirt, sweat and fear. Fear of snakes, fear of massive pregnant spiders and fear of falling from a rock and being pierced in the heart by a stalagmite.
Poisonous Snake - don't get too close!
Rock climbing is hard even when there is light and clear footholds. But take away the sunlight and throw in some poisonous creatures and that’s when you have a good time!
Just reach over the ledge and brush away those bugs
Our trip to Borneo was meant to be a disaster. Chinese New Year had begun: vacationers were out in full force, flights were double the price and hostels were all booked. The Batang Rejang was dammed and the winter rain had flooded Niah Caves. It was beginning to feel like travel hell.
It felt like a good time to throw in the towel, spend a little dough and do something fantastic. So we jumped on a plane to Gunung Mulu, the ultimate in national parks; home to the world’s largest cave, millions of bats and all manner of crazy-huge bugs.
Landing in Mulu
Our first night in Mulu went something like this: Gorgeous sunset, dusk, insects!
Good night Jungle
The bats keep Mulu fairly mosquito-free, and the bugs that the bat’s don’t eat are nabbed by the geckos. Except, of course, if the bug in question is the size of a bat.
No one believed me when I said that I had found a bug as large, if not even bigger, than the average American bat. “Pics of didn’t happen” was the lame response to my discovery. Well, Roman! Here are your pics!
Unfortunately these pictures were taken after the cicada flew into my shirt and tried to make sweet, sweet love to my back.
I was hiding behind a column waiting for the giant bug to fly out of the room when it happened. I didn’t know what to do but run. The mammoth flying cockroach descended so quickly there was nothing you could do but cover your head and bust a move. For some reason, I was the only intelligent person in the room who thought to do this, everyone else just sat there eating their meal, staring at me.
And I took off, flailing across the dining hall, screaming at the top of my lungs, and the giant cicada landed on my back. I froze. Time stopped.
After several hours of standing there frozen, a child, a mere baby the age of 10, grabbed the monster from my shirt and put it on his face. And laughed at me.
Traveling is a strange thing; you end up in odd, unusual places and wonder how the hell your life led you to this point. In this case we found ourselves drinking Tang with an Iban chief in a 100 year old longhouse.
Tea time wasn’t our main goal in Borneo but as with all good adventures, things only get better as you improvise.
Selamat Datang ke Rh. Bundong
Upon arriving in Kapit we were accosted by a local crazy man who insisted that he was “in the book” and that we would need his help getting around. Why? Because in addition to being terribly polluted with excess logs, the Batang Rejang is also dammed. Change of plans. We couldn’t go any further upriver and weren’t going to make it to the heart of Boreno by boat.
But the local crazyman didn’t know who he was dealing with; we may be white but we’re not stupid and we’ve burned our copy of Lonely Planet.
So instead of taking a longboat upriver, we found ourselves talking with any local that we could flag down. And that’s a surprising number of locals for a small river town, boats arrived all day and the place was packed! We were told to head to the wet market, where we could hail a cab to a local Iban longhouse.
View from the window, Kapit
Many Bornean longhouse communities have opened their doors to tourists (and tourist dollars). Traditionally you must be invited to visit a longhouse, and you should bring gifts and enjoy drinks with the chief. I was pretty sure we were breaking some unknown etiquette by hailing down a taxi and simply showing up. I also figured that since this longhouse community was ‘so close’ to ‘town’ that we were in for the disneyland version of Iban warrior history.
I shouldn’t have worried.
Welcome to Rumah Bundong!
We set off in a 4-wheel drive taxi van, driving over a rough dirt trial filled with rocks and sleeping dogs. It was suddenly clear why people commute via boat – there are almost no roads in inner Borneo. We bounced along for a half a hour before arriving at Rh. Bundong where our cab driver pulled over and took our photo.
And then the longhouse came into view. We stared.
A House on Stilts!
This was the real deal.
The longhouse looked like a huge wooden motel set on narrow stilts and it was huge – home to more than 500 people. I was pretty sure the additional weight of Vinnie, me and the cab driver was going to send this structure to the ground. We walked over the wire extension bridge to reach the main community house and were immediately steered to Chief Bundong’s apartment in the middle of the longhouse.
What are you supposed to do when you enter a Chief’s dwelling? I had no idea. We sat down cross legged in a circle and the chief’s wife poured orange Tang. I discretely looked for shrunken heads. Our cab driver began to chat in a language that we didn’t understand and the whole room was immediately involved in a discussion about the local hospital. We continued to sit there. Some form of Malaysian Idol was blaring from the TV. There were no shrunken heads.
Luckily we brought cake. Upon presenting the cake to the chief’s wife, she immediately cut it and fed it to us. We continued to sit on the floor in a circle with the conversation whirrling around us. We drank more Tang. We ate more cake. A half an hour later chief Bundong walked in, a sinewy man with tattoos, and greets Vinnie by putting his hand to his heart and offering his hand. And we were told to enjoy our time at the longhouse.
Common Area of Longhouse
We wandered through the common room that connected all the apartments on our side of the longhouse. Children peaked through the doors and ran after us to the water, showing off for the visitors. Chickens pecked at the jungle underneath the slatted floorboards and the sleeping dogs didn’t move at all.
Other than the fact that we were at a longhouse in the middle of the Jungle, it felt like a pretty ordinary Sunday.
I used to believe Borneo was one of the world’s most removed locations. A place where tribes of headhunters lived in an impenetrable jungle communities enduring electrolyte-sapping heat and pesky disease carrying insets.
So armed with our malaria meds, a huge bottle of water and some strong sunblock, we set off to discover the mysteries of Boreno.
On a boat up the river
The Betang Rejang heads straight into the heart of Borneo, or at least as far inland as you can get by boat. After Vinnie’s encounter with Borneo’s heartiest bamboo, taking a boat upriver seemed the best way forward. We left the jungle trekking to the real hikers, not urban one’s like us.
For the first leg of the trip we grabbed a huge express boat and managed to hold on through four hours of Gibraltar-quality currents. I was pretty certain that we were headed overboard when the boat took on 3 meter high waves but our fellow passengers seemed unperturbed.
Passengers on our Ferry to Sibu
Fear of death by drowning was quickly replaced by environmental heartbreak.
The reduce, reuse, recycle campaign has clearly not made any inroads in South East Asia. Every man on the boat came carrying a plastic bag with smokes and beer, when they finished their drink they simply chucked it in the water. By the end of the trip, an obscene amount of packaging was bobbing around the ocean, making it’s way to the plastic island in the pacific.
Boat-top ride to Kapit
The 5-0 came after our boat
The next boat on our day-long trip up the Batang Rejang was completely booked, so instead of sitting inside the space-ship-shaped-boat, we rode on top with the luggage and the locals. This may have been of questionable legality because as soon as we set off, the boat was pulled over by the police.
This wasn’t your average speeding ticket either- I’m fairly certain that the police were extorting the boat captain for cash bribes! We sat on the roof, baking in the sun as the police argued with the boat staff, poked our bags and counted the people on top of the boat. Eventually we were pulled from the roof and made to stand inside- with the doors closed- as the captain and the police exchanged bills. So sketch!
After our brief encounter with the river police, our boat quickly motored up river, stopping to drop off passengers at their local longhouses along the way. These communities may not be connected by roads but the river boats make it pretty easy to get where you need to go – and bring back the things you need. It was hysterical to see the dissimilarity in the items that people were bringing back to their houses, from TVs and printers to live chickens.
Longhouse Community, Batang Rejang
Our fellow passengers
Along the way we saw many, many awesome longhouse communities, but there were also many, many logging outposts. The jungle was clearly cut back, cut down and cut into huge lengths of timber.
Individuals are not the only folks throwing their waste into this river; the murky-brown Batang Rejang was full of huge logs and massive tiber-carrying tankers shooting diesel fumes into the air. The logging industry is clearly and unforgivingly raping the jungle of all of it’s wood and palm oil and dumping what they don’t want in the water.
This was the first time that I’ve come face-to-face with large scale, deliberate environmental degradation. Huge swaths of jungle have systematically cut down leaving massive tracks of dirt and little else. No wildlife, no pesky insects and no communities.
So the real mystery I discovered in Borneo is how long can this destruction last and moreover, why don’t people care?
Some people claim that Gonzo is a turkey. They’re wrong. He may have a chicken for a girlfriend, but Gonzo is most certainly a Bornean beast.
It has been revealed that Gonzo is actually the blue bastard son of a Bornean Proboscis Monkey and a South African Vervet Monkey (photographed by our travel friends Zach and Tessa).
"Worst case of blue balls I ever saw" - Zach
Coming over to say hi!
Sadly both monkey groups shunned Gonzo – one for his skin color, the other for his unusually ugly nose. Gonzo, rejected and lonely, set off to make a new life for himself on the mean streets of Sesame. After years of bussing tables and PA’ing for the Montel William’s show, he scored big with Jim Henson’s traveling troupe of misfit Muppets.
Way to go Gonzo, you showed them!
Anyway, here are some pictures of Gonzo’s regular colored cousin who we spotted at Bako National Park. Check out his schnoz.
In one corner, a 6’2″ human, weighing in at 200lbs, with full use of arms, legs and opposable thumbs, Ladies and Gentlemen, our defending heavyweight champion, Mr. Vinnie Lauria!
And in the other, the contender, a well known brawler from the jungle, the 12-foot long Giant Thorny Bamboo.
The meanest plant alive
It was a drawn out battle. Mr. Lauria with full use of his senses was able to deftly bob and weave as the giant bamboo took aim at all measure of sensitive areas. Giant bamboo was thwarted as Mr. Lauria, always on guard, managed to discover it’s position and constantly remained vigilant of Giant Thorny Bamboo’s proximity to the jungle trail.
Giant Thorny Bamboo
The fight continued for hours. Jungle heat, limited water, difficult terrain and impaired visibility began to sap Mr. Lauria’s formidable strength.
And then he did it! Giant Thorny Bamboo threw a haymaker to the face, taking advantage of Mr. Lauria’s extreme height and precarious positioning on the thick tree roots covering the jungle floor.
Mr. Lauria withstood the blow and came out fighting – but his wife did not. She was down for the count after removing the huge thorns from her husband’s eye.
A decided victory for the Giant Thorny Bamboo, taking out not just one opponent but two.
The trip to Bako National Park is almost more fun than the park itself. You must hail down a red bus, hire a longboat driver and manage to avoid the river alligators.
Beware of Alligators!
You certainly don’t want to fall in the water on your trip to Bako National Park – but they don’t make it very easy to stay in the boat. We nearly flew into the murky brown water each time out canoe-comme-motorboat took on 3-meter high ocean swells from the South China Sea.
Where was Crocodile Dundee when I needed him? Instead we had Mohammad the nihilist boatman who cackled with glee each time we hit a monsoon-season wave.
Heading to Bako on the South China Sea
Mohammed our boatman
But crocodiles and capsizing were just the beginning of our Bako park adventure. As soon as we got off the boat we were greeted by more naughty monkeys, bearded pigs, super-sized insects and one very poisonous green viper. At this point I realized that perhaps I’m really not a jungle person after all.
This giant cockroach can FLY
Bako has more than a dozen hikes that take you through several different tropical environments. It’s pretty cool until you have to pee.
I spent a large part of our hike weighing the benefits of relieving my bladder vs. the likelihood that some strange fish would swim upstream and lodge itself in my urethra. But if a parasite didn’t get me, what could I wipe with? I didn’t want a nasty jungle rash on my ass. The drama.
We braved heat, humidity and left-side of the street drivers to check out the Orangutans at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. How could we miss this! Orangutans are only native to TWO islands, Borneo and Sumatra, so we’re basically in their back yard! Or what used to be their backyard…
Rampant logging and clearing of the forest for palm oil have put Orangutans at the top of the “wildlife my kids will only read about” list. Basically this species will cease to exist because people love to eat processed food and drive SUVs. Rah! Go humans!
Enough with the depressing environmental chatter.
It’s fairly unpredictable if the Orangutans will show up at the wildlife centre, but we got lucky and met FIVE orangutans. I managed to restrain my impulse to squeal and attempt to cuddle the itty-bitty baby orangutans – the momma’s didn’t look so friendly. Also, it appears that teenagers of every species are dickheads. The adolescent orangutan wanted to play by throwing dead branches at our heads. We were told to by happy he didn’t throw the bee’s nest.
I'm going for the coconut milk!
Don't steal my fruit you teenage Orangutan!
What mother would chose to name their daughter Saddam?
Interesting name for an Orangutan
In addition to the orangutans, we also met a whole host of other wild beasts. The insects in Borneo are super-sized and more than a little creepy. Once you see a giant flying cockroach, you get pretty paranoid about bugs flying around your head…
One Giant Ant
Attack of the giant flying insects
Here are two orangutan vids. During the second video you get to see a huge momma orangutan swing through the trees to get to the fruit. It may not be National Geographic quality footage, but you get to see how the adults bend the entire tree to catapult themselves to the next branch.
Can we give a collective “Ahhh” for those baby Orangutans?
This is not the kind of wildlife I was expecting to see in Borneo.
Kuching - Cat city
Alas, I am proven wrong again. Borneo is not nearly as removed as I had expected when I booked a flight to the land of head hunters, wild animals and poisonous snakes.
Some cool things about Borneo that I know now, that I didn’t know before:
What Country?! Borneo is the world’s 3rd biggest island and is split between the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Brunei remained an independent country thanks to the discovery of oil. It’s damn small.
White Rajah. Brunei used to control Malaysian Borneo but during a serious bout of piracy and tribal warfare the Sultan hired a Briton, James Brooke, to fight against the tribes. Brookes managed to quell the warfare using ONE boat. He then assumed control over Sarawak and was named the Rajah! You can read more here.
Off with their heads! The Japanese gained control of Malaysian Borneo during WWII and used Bornean oil to power their military. The Australian military sent Tom Harrison to Borneo to gather intelligence about Japanese troop movements. Instead he convinced the Dayaks tribes to fight against Japanese and through their traditional guerrilla techniques successfully defeated the Imperial army. Many of the Japanese soldiers returned sans heads.
I’m not going to say anything else about Kuching, other than if you’re going there, eat at Junk. Also the New York Times had a rather lengthy article on the city. If you want a 1,000 word essay on Kuching, you can read about it there.
This blog documented our year long adventure as backpackers in 2010 & 2011. We are now living in Singapore and we still travel - but now we have a bit more baggage! You can find us at @Krissymo and @vlauria.