Sunday, 23 June 2013

LOST: Malaysia Edition

What an amazing way to escape the smog for a few days for less than $250!  There was a time that we thought we may be trapped overnight there.  Not sure we felt comfortable staying on the jungle-y island teeming with wild animals overnight but we commandeered a boat, demanded to be taken back to the main station and fortunately able to return to civilization.  This wasn’t the only scary moment of the long weekend but our 2.5 days in Kuching were action-packed and amazing.  For those who aren’t geographically inclined, Kuching is a city in Sarawak, Malaysia which is part of Borneo, an island shared with Indonesia.  Kuching translates as “cat city” so there’s a ton of weird cat statues, cheesy waving cat souvenirs and wandering stray cats with short pom-pom tails.

Kuching: cat city

We arrived late Friday afternoon with only a vague idea of what we wanted to do, checked in our hostel and wandered down to the waterfront.  In general, the city is pretty quiet- the buses stop working at 5 and most of the shops were closed but we found some action by the river.  We toured a Chinese temple, made some friends dancing to local teenaged street musicians and encountered a group of Malaysian people visiting from China.  They took us to all these stalls where people displaced fresh seafood and veggies, you chose what you wanted and what style you wanted it cooked and they whipped it up for you.  Alissa and Deb tried octopus and famous bamboo clams and we enjoyed dining while being stared down by dead fish heads.  After wandering, we meet up with Dave, another guy from our program which decided to book tickets last minute and just showed up at our hostel.  We compared tales about arriving in Malayasia then went to bed.
Dave, me, Deb and Alissa at Bako
Saturday morning, we woke up early to go to Bako National park.  We took a bus for about an hour which dumped us at a run-down boat station where we met Andrew, our  British boat buddy who ended up spending the day with us.  We took off across crocodile-infested waters, through the foggy mist and plopped us on a beach where the bearded pigs roamed.  We stopped at the visitor center then into the jungle we went!  Our first hike was to Paku beach and on the way, we passed skeletal mangrove trees, navigating massive tree roots and very shaky wooden bridges/ladders than made Debra (our resident civil engineer) very nervous, especially because they were lined with long-tailed macaques.  We got to see some shy proboscis monkeys (they've got big noses and Bako's supposed to be the best place to find them) high in the trees and ended on a beautiful beach with lots of interesting rock formations and a tiki hut with some exotic flowers.  Then we embarked on the Telok Pandan Kecil hike which had some jungle but radically different surroundings- more of a sandy path lined with "carnivorous pitcher plants".  We ended on a cliff with stunning views of the bay then descended to swim in the warm waters below.  Unfortunately, the warm waters mean it's jellyfish season.  Poor Dave got stung but not badly, which we appreciated when we saw two basketball sized jellyfish washed up on shore.  After soaking in sun for awhile, we took a boat back to the main headquarters for close-up views of the famous sea stacks.
Sea stacks, Bako

We fuelled up on some traditional Malaysian food in the mess hall then climbed the Tanjung Sapi trail which was short and steep but supposedly had the best views in the park.  After that, our team diverged- Alissa and the boys elected to stay back at base camp and Debra and I wanted to re-do our first hike so we could take advantage of the better swimming hole.  We had the beach entirely to ourselves but Debra had a hard time relaxing, haunted by the feeling that we were being watched.  I thought she was silly but sure enough, our tranquillity was suddenly interrupted when a monkey tried to steal Debra's camera bag.  Fortunately, the bag was heavy and she was quick so the monkey thief left empty-handed and we didn't have to try to claim "stolen by monkey" for an iPhone that was almost lost.  Who knows what kind of crazy jungle we'd have to trek through if the monkey stole the bag and we were using the "lost iPhone" app to track it.
but this wasn't our last encounter with these mischievous creatures.  Going back, two of these monkeys leaped out of the trees right in front of Debra and started grunting at us.  She screamed, I screamed.  I ran forward and she ran back on the bridge on which we were walking.  The monkeys kept advancing toward Deb, she was freaking out but eventually, she followed my advice and ran for it.  We rushed back to base camp and rewarded ourselves with a cold beer to follow the doctor's orders (when Deb was sick in Austria, the doctor told her she wasn't drinking enough beer- apparently it helps to replenish electrolytes).  While we were having animal issues, Alissa, Dave and Andrew were having problems of their own with wild boars sniffing their bags.  Fortunately, the boars were more interested in chomping on nearby palm oil than digging through the bags so they avoided a "King of the Flies" episode. 
After the adrenaline rush, we were looking forward a relaxing boat and bus ride back to our hostel, expecting our driver to pick us up at 4:00 as scheduled, to make the 4:30 bus and give us some wiggle room in case we had to take the last bus at 5:30.  It ended up being a logistical nightmare because our driver never showed up and there were a bunch of boats there hanging out but they refused to take us because it wasn't our numbered boat.  After waiting about an hour and hearing rumors that the boat in front of us was the last of the day, we decided to jump in and refuse to get out.  It still took twenty minutes of determined persistence and refusing to move to finally convince the guy to take us back to shore.  It was a great day at the Park but especially after those monkey incidents, we're happy we weren't stuck!  
At the boat terminal... we were here forever

Even the bus home didn't drop us where we got picked up but we stopped for a delicious traditional Malaysian dinner at a pretty classy waterfront place.  We felt a little bad since in our sweaty, salty hiking clothes but once we started eating, we were so euphoric that we didn't care.  Deb and Alissa were literally swooning over their Laksa at the Jim Brooke restaurant. 
We were mistakingly told that there was a saturday night market so Druve saved the day by taking us out on the town.  Druve typically works on oil rigs in Dubai but he's been in Kuching for five months helping out at the hostel.  The mission was to find good dessert but along the way, we stopped to try "black water", which looked like black water and had a subtlety sweet syrupy taste (after much deliberation, we decided it tasted like how the tapioca pearls in bubble tea taste).  We also split a bottle of local rice wine served in shot glasses.  We proclaimed a jubilant "woo haw" (Malaysian cheers) and drank it, finding surprisingly sweet and delicious.  We did some more walking around town, fresh fruit juice drinking and Kek Lapis Sarawak (the famous regional colorful layered cake) tasting before we called it a night.

Sunday, we went to the orangutan conservation center bright and early and saw a ton of orangutans since we visited during feeding time (and June's an awesome month to visit because no fruit grows so they all come to feeding)!  The park keepers were nervous when the big male Ritchie arrived because he chased people yesterday.  Their non-chalant advice (almost optimistic, in Dave's words) was "if he approaches, run for your lives".  Ritchie scared all the monkeys away from the first feeding area but many orangutan were feasting at the other one, including two mothers holding babies.  It was a blast to watch them swing from tree to tree, break coconuts and hold bananas in their hands and feet.  
After the orangutans, we went for one last outing on the Waterfront to do some shopping and eat a very tasty lunch at a cafe.  I went back to the hostel with Dave and Alissa and Deb got massages.  Alissa had a tiny lady literally walk all over her and lucky Deb got massaged by a transvestite.  Sounded like an appropriate adventure to end our crazy days for sure!  Here's the link to all my Kuching photos because I couldn't post enough here to capture the experience.
Anyway, I just played poker with the boys and I'm exhausted.  More later!