TravelMemories 3: Malaysian Borneo - National Geographic for real.

I'm afraid. Afraid to forget. In 2014, me and my girlfriend were on a tour around the world for 14 months. While reminisce about these days, I notice that there are things that I have forgotten. I mix up places or cannot remember the voice and faces of some memorable encounters anymore. I guess my memory's not quite what it used to be. This means that I have to write things down. I want to immortalize a piece of this journey. Later, when I tell my children about how beautiful this world is, I want them to know how I felt at that moment, how I reacted in certain situations. Hence this series around TravelMemories. Not really a classic travel story; rather fragmentary. With the use of memories that come flooding back to me, I try to recall the right feeling of that time. Hopefully my mind doesn’t fool me.

The fast-built, modern cities may not be the most attractive, but for the rest Borneo has everything: tropical jungle, beautiful beaches, high mountains, a fantastic ethnic mix, the most special aquatic and terrestrial animals, bizarre plants , ... More than a month we traveled through the two states (Sarawak and Sabah) of the Malaysian part of this island (The other part belongs to Indonesia). We experienced National Geographic in real life!


The capital Kuching - Bako National Park

The name "Kuching" means "cat". Apart from three kitschy statues we did not see many cats, but a lot of Chinese. As they already lived in the capital for generations, this was clearly visible in the locale cuisine and the street. Kuching is also called the Paris of Borneo. The river that crosses the city indeed gave us the feeling that we were walking along the Seine, but we would not call the city a real cultural high-flyer though.

We did visit the funniest museum ever: a bizarre collection of stuffed animals from the 1900s; dinosaur fossils that have not even been excavated in Borneo; a motley collection of stones and a piece of non-flammable carpet (as a kind of informative bonus).

What was certainly worthwhile was the shelter for orangutans. Around 100 of these beautiful great apes live in a large reserve, with great respect to keep their environment as natural as possible. Visitors were always kept as far away from the animals as possible. Another highlight was dining on the top floor of a car parking. Every night the parking lot is full of stalls, were some of the best fish we ever ate was being served. We ate our first crab on the barbecue there! Delicious as it was, we went back four times in a row.

Bako National Park

Kuching was also the base for the Bako National Park. This protected area, 20 km from the city, is only accessible by boat. Because it is right next to the sea, you encounter the most special and diverse species of vegetation and animals. We felt it was time to take our fitness to a higher level and decided to discover the longest routes in the park for two days.

Photo by Joshua Stitt on Unsplash

Already the first day we were lucky, because we saw the rare, endangered proboscis monkeys (you know, those reddish-brown monkeys with a long nose). A wild mommy pig with some piglets and a scorpion were also found to follow our trail.

On the second day we put our tent on one of the deserted beaches. We arrived at sunset- especially I was totally exhausted – and we just had time to make a small campfire. At night we were introduced to a completely different side of the jungle. I have to admit that we were suddenly not so brave when we heard that our cooking pot with a bit of leftovers was being dragged across the ground. Why the hell were we so stupid to left the pot outside. We lay in our tent and neither of us dared to see who the visitor was. Was it a amacaque or a wild pig smelling the saltiness of the broth? You can image we did not sleep well that night. In the morning, however, it turned out that our cooking pot did not move an inch. Probably the many crabs, which we had seen on the beach the night before, had tapped against the pot and the rest of the sounds had been a figment of our imagination!

Our longhouse adventure in Batang Ai

Traveling in Borneo without a tour operator? For many unthinkable, but according to the manager of our hostel in Kuching it is no problem. He gave us some rough guidelines and we started our adventure. Our goal: to find a longhouse where we could stay a few days.

Many of the traditional inhabitants of Borneo live traditionally in buildings known as longhouses.

Common to most of these is that they are built raised off the ground on stilts and are divided into a more or less public area along one side and a row of private living quarters lined along the other side. This seems to have been the way of building best accustomed to life in the jungle (information from Wikipedia).

The quest proved even more difficult than expected. The bus dropped us in a coffee shop along the road towards Batang Ai, a gigantic lake that is bordered on one side by a hydroelectric dam. We found pretty fast a lift for the remaining 30 km, but then we were stuck at the pier. It was too late to take a boat to the longhouses along the water and we ended up with a group of men who had been drinking rice wine for several hours. In the end, there was no other option than to pay the cafe owner. She told us we could sleep in a small room on the second floor of her establishment. When we saw the room, we immediately regretted our earlier commitment. The space was even dirtier than a pigsty. It stank of feces and cat urine. In short, an ideal place to work on our immune system.

Photo source

The next day, after a long wait, we found two people from the Iban tribe who wanted to take us to their longhouse, about 45 minutes away from the river. The immensely long house turned out to be one of the oldest in the region and was completely made of wood. There lived about 36 families. The food? Yummy. The communication? Difficult. Sleeping? Very difficult. After all, we shared the longhouse not only with a family of the tribe, but also with a dozen of filthy dogs and some roosters who found it necessary to turn everything upside down at night.

At first they thought it strange that we did not have a guide and that we wanted to help them in their daily tasks. Later we felt like they were really starting to appreciate our presence. We helped to separate rice grains from chaff and in the evening we were “chatting”. We showed pictures of our family and told them about life in Belgium. Especially the women seemed to be very interested in our stories and when we said that we had no children yet and were not yet married, they found that the most absurd thing in the world.

We, in turn, thought it was a real eye-opener. There are still villages today where the women have to do heavy manual labor every day. They also depended on hunting for survival. The men had to hunt apes in the jungle at night. Of course we were aware that such a life still exists, but it is a different thing to see it first hand. That turned out to be heavier than expected.

The climb to the Pinnacles in Gunung Mulu National Park

The top attraction of Sarawak is the Gunung Mulu National Park, in the interior of the state. You can only reach the park by plane. Actually, you cannot really call it flying, it is more of an exercise for the pilot in ascending and descending. However, in this 20-minute flight you saw the landscape completely change into pure jungle. Our mission: to do the three-day Pinnacles trekking, culminating in a climb to the pointed peaks of Mount Api. As a foretaste we visited some very beautiful, gigantic caves and we waited for the evening exodus of millions of bats leaving their dark home at the same time, looking for food. A true spectacle.

The famous Pinnacles’ at Mulu consist of a series of 45 meter high, razor-sharp limestone spikes that tower above the surrounding vegetation, mid-way up the slopes of Gunung Api (information from the official website of the Gunung Mulu National Park).

Photo source 

There were a lot of tall tales about the climb to the Pinnacles. Big on the outside, but frightened on the inside, we started the climb at 5 o’clock in the morning. The average gradient percentage was 50%, we increased 1.2km over a distance of 2.4km. The last 900m we had to work our way up along ladders and ropes. But it was easier than we thought and the view was breathtaking. No matter how long you are traveling, there is one thing I never get tired of. The power and beauty of nature.

The equally long descent, however, turned out to be a lot more difficult. You do not believe that at that moment, but it’s true. For four hours, your knees, your thigh muscles and other muscles of which you do not know they exist, have to absorb the shocks. Especially for me, it became a painful experience.


Our home base in the state of Sabah was KK, the popular name for Kota Kinabalu. From there we spent a day together at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. We did not climb the mountain because we wanted to boycott the monopoly system of the company that owns all the accommodation on the mountain. 100 EUR per person for a bed in a dormitory, a cold shower and no electricity, it seemed a bit too much, especially since you still have to pay the entrance, the guide, the food, etc.

Homestay near the Kinabatangan river

How fortunate that there are regions on earth where you can discover so many rare species and vegetation on a very small surface. Unfortunately, we noticed that the threat of multinational palm oil companies is increasing by the minute. On one side of the river: a reserve with orangutans, pygmy elephants, hornbills, monitor lizards, gigantic butterflies, turtles and even more innumerable endangered species. On the other hand: miles of palm plantations that have replaced all the original forests for profit… Still, we have a lot of positive memories about our time along the Kinabatangan. We first stayed in a village with a host family with the sweetest and best children ever! They were especially interested in my beard. They found it at first sight very strange, given the lack of facial hair with Asian men. Local young people therefore called me the "hairman".

That's me: "the hairman" (own picture)

Some facts:

  • Typical of the Malaysian kitchen is the food in buffet form. You will always find numerous buffet restaurants that stay open 24/7. The number of people working there usually exceeds the number of tables that the restaurant counts.
  • In the cities there are more shopping complexes, called 'Wisma's', than people. Consequence: some are completely out of date and almost deserted. Yet new ones are opening every month.
  • The proboscis monkeys have their big belly for a reason. Apparently their diet consists of poisonous plants. To break down the poison, they have certain bacteria present in their stomach. Without the activation of those bacteria they would die. Nature has therefore made a deal: the bacteria can only live by the presence of the poison, the monkeys survive by its functioning.
  • Another fact about monkeys, namely the orangutan. They build a new nest every night in the trees, even though it is in the same tree that they sleep. Building that nest is no sinecure, since an orangutan can easily weigh 100 kg.

note: photo above by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

#travel #borneo #asia #nature #animals #photography