Friday, January 31, 2020

Road Tripping With Zack Part 2

I had a few days of going out and doing my thing around Kuching, I went to the Cat Museum and the Sarawak Cultural Village. One was excellent and one was shit. You figure it out. I spent some time at the Drunk Monkey and kept running into a fellow Canada from Hamilton. Dana and his girlfriend were retired, traveled the world and were excellent company.  I was ready for another road trip so Zack and I loaded up for part two of our "Great Sarawak Road Trip". This time we would be meeting up with his friend Bobby. Sure the more the merrier as it goes. Plus Bobby's family owned a fruit farm and we could have a look around and eat our fill, fresh from the branch. I was told to beware of the dogs. I shrugged it off and it would come back to haunt me a bit.

We drove the hour to Bobby's house and the car was immediately surrounded by 10 barking and not so happy mid-size dogs. They were not terrifying but they did not know me and were not happy about it. Zack got out and it was happy to see you. I was given a broom and told to fend for myself. They would get used to me. After a bit of coffee, Zack and I crossed a small stream to grab some lychees for the road. We were ready to go. Our first stop would be Serikin Bau. A market town on the Indonesian border.

The border is here is basically wide open but monitored. The Indonesians bring their goods and set up an active market along the main street and into a few side streets. There are so many well-crafted goods here and they are very inexpensive. It would be an importer's dream to buy everything from every shop on the street and take it overseas. It was colorful, loud, chaotic and fun. The vendors were barking but not aggressive. There was so much durian that my sense of smell abandoned me.

We checked out some rattan furniture and there was a great hanging chair Zack wanted to buy for his rooftop patio. Once it is finished his rooftop is going to be the "go-to" place for all of his guests. He has three cats, two of which are social. Cats always add to the atmosphere. The market was a nice place to visit. We had some lunch and were on our way. Now they were going to make me sweat.

Bung Jagoi Heritage Trail was a great little hike. Here is a nicely-written article to learn more and it saves me the effort of detail. I was planning on hiking Mt. Kinabalu when I got to Sabah and I figured this would be a good warm-up. That was naive thinking, but you will learn about that later.

The trail was mostly stairs, both natural and man-made. The vegetation was pure Borneo jungle and it was hot. The trip took about an hour and a half and I was soaked. We passed through the remains of an ancient village that still took in guests when planning ahead. Bobby was excited about staying one weekend. Zack would have nothing to do with it. "Too many spirits from the past". 

Aside from ancient history, the Japanese camped on this mountain during their occupation of Borneo. There were some small reminders but knowing they were here added to my imagination of the experience.

Fruit picking on Bobby's Fruit farm was a bit surreal. He was not fussed because it was an everything day thing for him. The property was huge and surrounded by the jungle. There was so much to choose from. You pick it, you eat it. Oranges, limes, jackfruit, breadfruit, durian, pineapples, bananas (not ready) rambutan, mangosteen, mata kucing (Cats Eye). Here is some information on 10 of the most popular in Borneo. I was all over the rambutans because there was so much and the mangosteen because it was new to me, and freakishly delicious. I washed everything down with a few sweet oranges, which they called lemons.

But, Bobby wanted fresh Durian and I was obligated to try it. We went back to the house of bad dogs, who had settled own a little bit. He pulled out the big blade and went to work. I tried it, they laughed and I gulped my tea. I did not have a second piece.


I can not express how lucky I was to have come across Zack. On my last night, he organized a dinner for me with Bobby and one of his long term guests. His treat. Naturally, there was the chicken in bamboo that I had the first night. My trip to Kuching would have been so much less of an experience if I had not met and hung around with Zack.

For those who know me, I am and always have been a solitary person. I don't know why those are the cards I was dealt. Historically I am quick to keep my world closed, again that is just the way it is. Every so often I open up and just "go with it". The results vary but in this case, my experience was exceptional. Thank you Zack, you are going to be successful as both a guesthouse and tour operator.

..and when the painting of the stairs begins, let me know.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Road Tripping With Zack Part 1

My boy Zack. This is a guy who is incredibly excited to show of Sarawak to his guests. He wants to give them experiences that many people will not have and go to places that others will not access readily. He is genuine and kind and I was lucky to have found his homestay. If I did not say it before, I booked in for 4 nights and I ended up staying for 10. Not only did we have a few good road trips but we also ended up just hanging out. We had dinner and breakfast with his friends. We discussed ideas on how to improve his accommodation and went shopping for supplies when the decisions were made. Naturally, I said he needed a map and pins so people can put where they are from. As of now, I am told it is a hit. I also suggested a big comment book, where guests can write down their thoughts when they leave. Online reviews are good but handwritten reviews are more personal and other guests like to read them. He loved it and I get updates constantly about both. His greatest vision is to turn his village into a destination for tourists. It is home to one of the most received restaurants and has quick access to the fort. He has a great vision and I know it will come true. Shit, I might even go back to help paint when the time comes.

Zack had a day tripped planned and I just went along with it. We jumped into his little beast of a car and headed out. We were going to the tip of Sarawak when few people go, and off we went. We drove down well maintain roads and what was becoming the Great Pan Borneo Highway which would one day go from the top of Sarawak, through Brunei and across Sabah. It was a huge effort and once completed would connect the entire country.

We talked quite a bit but I liked listening to Zack talk excitedly about his future ideas for his home-stay and how he will help promote Sarawak. We stopped at random places on the side of the highway to take in the views of the surrounding hills and countryside. After a couple of hours, we came upon the very small fishing village of Sematan. The residue of the Chinese New Year was everywhere. There was a pier that we walked out on, but it was low tide. Smiling locals were hanging out in or doing work on their small fishing vessels that were wedged in the mud of the South China Sea. We had a small lunch and some tea and were off.

I had no idea where we were headed so I just took it all in. Zack was a wealth of positive information with every hill, view, jungle scape and banana field holding something special. The downside of all this driving is I got to see first hand how the jungle was being devastated and being replaced by Palm Oil Plantations. Natural habitats for so many animals, especially Orangutans, are being obliterated all throughout Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo. I could not bring myself to take a picture of what are picture-perfect rows of palm trees that have no business being where they are. If you want Click Here to see what Google can show you.

Telok Melano was a quick turn off the main road. As we pulled into what is an incredibly remote part of Sarawak I was a bit surprised to see an active little community. There were a few really nice beachfront homestays and to nobody's surprise a large contingent of Chinese tourists. There is no easy way to get here so good for them for taking advantage of such a great place. They all seemed happily confused when we pulled up and wandered the beach and rock outcrops with them.

Telok Melano is Mile 0 for the Great Pan Borneo Highway and a great photo op. Zack was on a mission. He was gathering information on each homestay about pricing, contact information, and facilities. He does have a method to his madness. We drank some tea at a shop and he started talking about organizing small groups that he could bring here.  This journey had so much for him. He was gathering information for possible business opportunities as a guide. He wanted to have all this information available to his guests if they wanted to do it alone and he was happily sharing it all with me.

"Oh the places you'll go and the people you'll meet"

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Bako National Park

You can get overwhelmed with the things to experience in Sarawak. The main goal for most people is to see Orangutans. Sadly, this is fruit harvesting season and the old orange boys don't leave the deep jungle for any reason. They have all the food they need safely nearby so they wake up and just reach over for breakfast. They don't need humans to feed them regardless of the sanctuary. By fruit harvesting, I mean that all the fruit ripens at the same time here and it is all within the last month. Funnily enough, the Semenggoh Nature Reserve informs all visitors of the situation. Large signs are explaining the situation and the change of seeing them this time of year is about 1%. They were very nice to also have an honest conversation with me. They said to save my money and come back when it not a fruit season. They did regale tales of tourists that still wanted to pay and go into the park just in case they get lucky. When it does not happen they complain to the agents about the experience. People are funny.

After Orangutans is a visit, Bako National Park. When you do a bit of research you can find lots of day tours that cost about US$125 per person. I thought holy shit, this better be a hell of a park. The review on these tours was tepid at best. When you look at the itinerary, you leave at 8 AM and take a 30-minute bus to the jetty that organizes the boats going to the park. The boat ride is about 20 minutes and when it is all said and done you get to the park about 10 AM. The last boat to leave is 3:00 PM so you have 5 hours to hike a few of the trails. It is incredibly limiting. There is the option to stay overnight which substantially increases the costs. Here are some examples from Viator.  Shit, no Orangutans and this tour appeared like they were trying to promote a first-class tour at first-class pricing. I guess they are hoping for the "We will only be here once" crowd.

When I asked Zack about the park and told him the price of $125 he asked "that is 125 Ringgit right ($US 30)?  When I said no, it was US dollars he just stood perplexed and confused. "Tourists are paying that much"?  We sat over a coffee and he explained how to do the tour on my own, plus stay overnight giving you lots of trekking time. Here is the breakdown for my trip.
5 Ringgit for the local bus to the jetty. 1-hour ride
20 Ringgit for the park entrance fee
40 Ringgitfor the round trip boat
10 Ringgitfor a bed in a 4-bed hostel
10 Ringgitfor a night jungle hike with a guide
40 Ringgitfor Food at the canteen lunch dinner and breakfast plus snacks and 4 litres of bottled water
10 Ringgitfor snacks in the village waiting for the return bus
5 Ringgit for the bus ride home
The Total cost was 140 Ringgit total or $33.75 US. Ringgit

Not only did Zack save me over US$100, but I also had two days to trek plus booked a guided night walk to see all the creepy crawlers that come out after sundown. Zack immediately gained my trust. What a racket they have going on. If you read the feedback on any of the travel sites people are getting wise to it. I will add my experience to pay it forward.

I met a girl on the boat ride over. Kale was from Denmark and we shared travel experiences. Her family was originally from Kurdistan Iraq and she shared a few stories of her family's plight to flee war-torn Iraq in the 90s. (Another find piece of work USA) She was hoping to get a bed for the night as she did not pre-book, so no luck. That gave us about 4 hours to hike before she had to catch the last boat back.

We picked a trail and figured 2 hours in and 2 hours out heading towards a lookout and a waterfall. The trail was oddly difficult. Smooth in areas but mostly covered with expanding tree roots to create very trip-able steps. Old, moss-covered and very sketchy bridges and stairs added a great twist..of the ankle. We met a guide about an hour into our hike and he said if we wanted to see any Proboscis monkeys that we needed to head back down to a lower level. Easy choice. These weird dudes were worth the effort. Again, I can whine about my shitty OPPO phone camera but now I am just determined to bring my Canon DSLR camera with me from now on. I will make it work.

Kale and I had a coffee at the camp, became FB friends and she caught the 3:00 PM boat back. I had 3.5 hours before sunset so I head off to a trail that ran along the beach, about 50 metres up. I was 10 minutes in and I stumbled across the noisiest troupe of monkeys. I am sure they were warning the jungle that the human was approaching. Once I stopped and just stood quietly, the monkeys settled down and went about their business, however, the Alpha never took his eyes off of me. It was a nice moment and I stayed for about 15 minutes. I finished the trek to the lookout and returned, said goodbye to the troupe as I passed and went down to the beach to catch the sunset.

I joined a guided night tour which was pretty impressive. There were 4 guides for about 20 of us. I did not expect to see much but these guides obviously knew what to look for. There were frogs, snakes, scorpions, turtles, walking sticks, spiders, centipedes, and other great little creatures. In small ponds and streams, there were turtles and hidden catfish, ponds frogs and an arrangement of skimming critters. They really made it fun and informative but always kept reminding us to be careful. The snakes were incredibly venomous and deadly, as were the scorpions. Crocodiles could be in any of the waterways which we passed over so no curiously straying from the path was important.

At times we turned out all headlamps and torches and stayed perfectly still and quiet. We just listened to the jungle noises and it was as creepy as you can imagine it would be. Then the teenagers in the group got scared and that was that.

I had a decent night's sleep in my dorm. The three others were young Germans and were pleasant enough. I woke up early, had breakfast and headed out for a morning hike. I went back along the route we took for the night walk and climbed to the lookout. It took about 5 hours round trip. I was done. I had a beer and caught the 2:00 boat back to civilization.

Sitting patiently was the bus back to Kuching. I had time so I grabbed some skewers of various meats from the village shops, wandered for 15 minutes and then headed to the bus. I was first on. I put my headphones on and fell asleep until the last group from the last boat started boarding. We all knew each other faces from being around camp for 2 days. There were pleasant hellos and smiles. I turned up my music and watched the jungle pass by on the way back to Kuching.

As I said from the start of this post, Bako National Park is a great place to visit. If you do go plan for an overnight stay. If you are ambitious, stay for 2 or 3 nights. There are so many great trails that you can enjoy. If you are worried about costs, well again beds are $5 and food/water is very reasonable. You would not think so but you will not spend more than $15 including water, but still bring your snacks and dried fruit.

Final thought. DO NOT TAKE AN ORGANIZED TOUR. Do this on your own. All the resources are available online to do it yourself. Plus the freedom to do as you want makes it all worthwhile. Some places required a guide or tour. This place does not. If you want a guide while you are there, book one for a few hours. They are highly informative and entertaining.