Kinabatangan River

My two-day stay with Orang Sungai (translation: people who live by the river) began at the the Kopel reception centre in Kampo Mengaris village on the banks of the Kinabatangan river.

We ate lunch with the locals, learning a little about their way of life, and how the Miso Walai Homestay programme and their conservation and tourism organistation (MESCOT) had been set up with the help of the WWF in 1997.

Getting onto an open boat, we cruised down the river to see some of the seven types of rainforest, plus many of the birds and monkeys that live along the banks of the longest river in Sabah province. We saw proboscis monkeys, longtail macaques and the silver leaf monkeys (re-named ‘Beckham’ by the locals because of their spiky hair). There were also herons, hornbills and beautiful kingfishers with cobalt blue and vivid yellow colouring.

The first night, we ate and slept at the beautiful Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp in the forest by Tungog oxbow lake

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Halim, our guide, took the group out on foot for a night safari in the forest, to see the flora and fauna up close. I admit I was a little terrified of the prospect of meeting a huge snake in the dark, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

After a cold shower of collected rainwater in a cubicle shared with a bat, several spiders and a couple of small lizards, I headed for bed. Bed was a mattress on the floor of a “camp deck”, a wooden platform raised off the ground away from snakes and other wildlife.

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I fell asleep to the intense wall of jungle sounds and actually found it very relaxing, having one of my best night’s sleep of the trip!

Day two bought another river cruise (different wildlife up and about at 6am) and some conservation work, helping to plant fig trees in the forest alongside the river. The head warden told us that 760,000 hectares have now been reforested, and managed under the jurisdiction of organisations such as MESCOT and the Sabah forest authority.

We then returned to Mengaris village, where I spent the afternoon getting to know my homestay hosts.

In the evening the locals put on a culture show. I had a bit of a dance, but also got myself a temporary job as lead percussionist in the steel drum band (one of the others has photos…I’ll add to this later).

Sandakan and Sepilok

Arriving at Sandakan was the first time I’ve ever been given a (needed) umbrella to walk from plane to terminal. Tony Fernandes and Air Asia may be missing a trick, though. Michael O’Leary and his evil, money-grabbing leprechaun henchmen would charge you 20 Euros for that…

We had roti for breakfast at a roadside restaurant by the statue of a hitch-hiking crocodile, and spent an interesting hour at the memorial on the site of the Sandakan POW camp. But the highlight of the day was undoubtedly the Sepilok orang utang rehabilitation centre.

I would have liked to have got even closer, but the aim of the program is to teach the orangs independence and survival skills, so that wasn’t going to happen. Still, enough of my personal monkey worries. Here’s some orangs being fed:

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These were showing their backs to us for ages and, since they’d put on entertainment for us, I thought I’d give something back (quid pro quo, an’ all that…). So I did little tap dance on the visitor platform. And one of the orangs turned round to watch! Most people, including guides, thought this was funny (and it didn’t disturb the other eating orangs), but I was told off by the German Tourist Fun Police. Gits!

Enough of me being daft, though… this mother and baby had a great sideline in monkey yoga instruction:

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This lady was just hanging out:

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And there were other primates in this part of the forest. Here’s a “macaque-robat” (*groans*)

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The conservation programme video had some unspeakably cute footage, including a dozen baby rescue orangs being wheeled round in a wheelbarrow (I think we have a new collective noun). Great work, needs more support, and I’ll add a link later in case anyone wants to adopt an orang-utang.

I would like to stay longer, but in the morning we’re off to cruise on the Kinabatangan river and stay in the jungle proper. Hopefully more orangs in the wild, also probiscis monkeys…

Christmas day in airports

Last Christmas I gave you my heart…uh, wrong piece of writing…I worked an incredibly heartwarming shift in the Crisis Rough Sleepers Centre in London, followed by a sandwich and Doctor Who in a Premier Inn at Gatwick airport!

This Christmas started off in Singapore, with an inexplicable brass rubbing counter at Changi Terminal 3??!

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After a 1 1/2 hour flight was a 4-hour layover in Kuching (Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo). Which, sadly, is the only dry airport I’ve ever found. Not even a single Christmas drink. In the end, I found some Ferrero Rocher and had a Christmas tea party with Travel Paddington.

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Only one tip for Kuching: clear immigration even if you’re only in transit. Three separate airport staff told me to remain airside. That led to “squeaky bum time” (though not literally…no, ahem, intimate searches for me!), when I finally arrived at Kota Kinabalu. Apparently Malaysian law (at time of writing) is to clear immigration on first touch of soil, even if you don’t leave the airport.

Tropical rainstorms meant it was unsafe to take off, so we sat on the tarmac for nearly an hour before heading to Kota Kinabalu. Through dense clouds on the bumpiest flight I’ve ever had the “privilege” to endure.

Still, travel is made of such fun moments. And a short taxi ride later I was at my hotel.

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I hope you all have a great Christmas X

Sinister Singapore

Day two, and I have rapidly come to the conclusion that this a crazy city full of whack-jobs.

After a visit to a Hindu temple I went for a wander around the business district. Dreadful, dreadful place, reminiscent of Canary Wharf, Dubai & central Chicago. Full of skyscrapers, and essentially a cathedral to obscene people making obscene amounts of money for sport.

A little further north is the Marina, and the relatively new Marina Bay Sands hotel (below), which has an observation deck and swimming pool “perched” across the three towers. As it was howling a gale, and zero visibility due to fog, I decided not to bother going up.

Oh, and guess what? Underneath the hotel is yet another shopping centre and casino. Who’da thunk it?!

I wondered around the Marina, past the Singapore flyer, and basically did the entire F1 circuit on foot (well, I’m sad like that). Here’s the Merlion (or is it meh-lion?!) spouting water over the marina, with the business district behind.

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Next stop was back on the tourist trail, to the Raffles Hotel for a Singapore Sling (when in Rome, an’ all that…)

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Later I passed through the Psychobabble of the world’s largest shopping centre, Vivo City, as you have to pass through it to get the monorail to Sentosa resort world. I’ll have to tell you about that later as I’ve a plane to catch, but suffice to say that from the start it’s sinister.  On the monorail you’re fed propaganda about how this is “the most amazing place you will ever experience”, which led me to wonder what happens if you DON’T have fun there (I’m now having to leave the island in fear of being shot for insurrection).

William Gibson was right: Disneyland with the death penalty. Bring on the airport, and Borneo.

Soggy Singapore

After a slow start, I headed off to the local Hawker Centre to play food lottery. I ended up (having decided against the frog porridge: too Heston Blumenthal!) with some spicy dumplings and noodles, washed down with a cappucino soya milkshake with worms and leeches floating in it (OK they probably weren’t, but I don’t have a clue what they were).

I then had a bimble through some of Chinatown’s shops and alternative remedy supermarkets, quickly realising that half of what I was looking at is illegal back home. If only I knew which half…

Heading for Clarke Quay I ducked into what I thought was a hotel to shelter from a cloudburst, only for it to be a shopping centre. I beat a hasty retreat, out into the heaviest tropical rainstorm I have ever seen in my life. As it showed no signs of stopping, and as I can’t stand shopping centres, I called it as pub o’clock and found a bar on Boat Quay.

Two drinks later the rain was worse, so I jumped on the MRT to see a different bit of town. Sad to say that Orchard Ion has nothing to do with protons, electrons or indeed electrical charges, and is in fact another damn shopping centre. Still, I did continue my amazing streak of being able to find comic book stores in strange cities (I think I can just smell ‘eau de nerd” from a mile off!), and now own a title called “The Zen Of Steve Jobs.” Nice.

Onwards to the north of the island (it’s an easy ride to Ang Mio Ko MRT station, then a 138 bus, should you ever wish to try it for yourself) to the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo. Getting inside and onto the train, the attendant said “make the baby sit inside, it’s safer” to the couple behind me (what was going to happen? Were there baby-gobbling rhinos inside?!), but me having that thought was, sadly, as exciting as the visit got. Extending the public service broadcasting bit… don’t go.

I know it’s a Night Zoo (the title sort of gives a hint) but it was way too dark to see most animals properly (or at all, in some cases) and certainly to take photos of anything at all. The fact that the sum of my “useable” photos extends to a few chronically underexposed shots of a shy leopard, plus a Malaysian porcupine’s arse, probably says it all. Here’s the aforementioned leopard (NB. there may be a slightly better one on my other camera):

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There was also a distinct lack of monkeys: inexcusable for a zoo. The Tarsier (more of a lemur, really) managed to save the night by being unfeasibly cute and the squeaky, hide-and-seeky otters helped too. Kudos also due to the Indian Rhino for having the ability to look like a triceratops if I screwed my eyes up, too. Finally, a mention in dispatches to:

  1. The animals I’ve never seen (or even heard of) before… civet, babirusa, red dhole, gaur, banteng (the latter, I assume, being a distant relative of former Aston Villa and Middlesborough football player George Boateng?)
  2. The Indian kid who, at the Hog Badger enclosure, started bouncing up and down singing “badger, badger, badger, badger, mush-room, mush-room…”. Nice to see Weebl’s Stuff is popular the world over 😉

End of day one, so first impression of Singapore?

  1. Besides the obvious places (Chinatown & Little India spring to mind) it’s a much more westernised place than I imagined.
  2. There are an awful lot of places designed to part you from your money (NB. I do, at this stage, still remember that I live in London, but I try to avoid the shops there).
  3. Singapore island is bigger than I thought it would be (particularly given how quickly the Japanese crossed it in WW2. Sorry!), but I still managed to find a part that reminded me of Scarborough out north towards the Zoo…!
  4. Singaporeans + Escalators = danger. Particularly at busy times. They stop at the end to think about where they’re going next, oblivious of the people jam behind them.

Right, of to bed now, to work on that sinas pain peculiar to sleeping in a room with an aircon unit (ah, the things you forget when you’re not travelling…).

Toilets of the world

Inspired by this week’s #TTOT (that’s Travel Talk On Twitter… I’ll let Melvin explain), I thought I’d blog the answers to questions about travel toilets. And a few more besides (you can scroll down… no gruesome pictures!)

Q1. Coolest/most awesome bathroom you have seen? The cute, hobbit-like eco-friendly compost toilet at my friend’s parents’ summerhouse in the Finnish lakes.

Q2. What is the most disgusting bathroom you’ve encountered abroad? A toilet behind a restaurant in Damxung (aka. the “big plate of chicken place” for those who travelled with me!), Tibet. You could see  (and most certainly smell!) what people had had for dinner 2 days before heaped under the slit in the floor.


Q3. What is the best “Loo View” you have ever had?. The view over the Finnish lake (frozen when I visited one December) from the top photo was stunning. Also: Hongchungping monastery, Mount Emei, China. There was a beautiful view over a misty valley….

The window view…

…but sadly it was still a hideous hole in the floor, which did not encourage me to linger!

 

Q4. What was your most embarrasing travel bathroom experience? (I remembered a better one) It simply involves a train toilet with one of those “automatic locking doors” that doesn’t really seem to lock properly, and opens at the most inopportune moment…!

No-one uses Western toilets in rural China

Another contender for A3. A compost toilet in a shed at the foot of this Icelandic glacier.

And finally, a message from our Chinglish friends!

My Christmas build-up in London

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I’m off traveling over Christmas and New Year, so everything is happening early in my world.

I cooked Christmas dinner for my parents last week (we’ve taken to doing a full un-Christmas celebration early so we can do what we want to without guilt or missing out…they’re in Egypt now).

I’ve been:
– ice-skating at one of the temporary outdoor rinks that pop up in London (Somerset House this year)
– to the German-style Christmas market on the South Bank (all bustle, pickpockets and buskers playing carols at at least double speed – avoid!)
– to see the giant LEGO Christmas tree at St Pancras station (pic)

I’m a little old for visiting Santa.

And…whilst everyone else is having last-minute shopping panic, I can be smug that mine was done weeks ago! (I’m onto the rucksack now).

Mulled wine, mince pies and Christmas carols next weekend…then I’m off to the airport 🙂