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Here are some bits 'n' pieces from my time so far in Malaysia. Thanks so much for all the emails I have received; I have endeavoured to reply to them but there is only so much time I can spend in internet cafes and this is probably an easier way to let you all know what I've been up to. This is not a proper weblog, more like online postcards, that way I can hopefully avoid the effort and potential self-indulgence. So here is the brief gist of my time in Malaysian Borneo.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and lies just off the coast of peninsular Malaysia. It consists of 4 main areas; Sabah (Malaysia), Sarawak (Malaysia), Kalimantan (Indonesia) and Brunei.

A few days after arriving, riding out jetlag and reaching equilibrium I headed straight for Borneo which is where I decided to spend all my time whilst in Malaysia. After only a day I found myself at a remarkable festival in a small town called Kota Belud. Kota Belud is nestled in the fooothills of Mt Kinabalu in the Sabah region of Borneo. I had initially gone along to witness the largest Sunday food market in the region, however as luck would have it it was also their annual festival.

- Hover the mouse pointer over the images for captions -

Old ladies laughing at the Kota Belud festival Dancers, Kota Belud Horse show, Kota Belud
Horse back tug-of-war, Kota Belud Stall owner, Kota Belud Bull racing with a sack of rice, Kota Belud

There was much merriment; a beauty contest, dancing, singing, horse racing, bull racing, horse and bull relay racing (not much fun for the horses), horse-back musical chairs, horse-back tug-of-war and only half a dozen tourists dotted amidst the babel and buzz to witness the organised chaos.

Sunrise view from the summit of Mt Kinabalu Monsoon clouds approaching Mt Kinabalu Sunrise from Mt Kinabalu

After a couple of days on Manukan island, off the north coast of Borneo, where the highlights were snorkelling and an elecrical storm, I set off to climb Mt Kinabalu; my first noteworthy achievement, other than 4 rounds at the seafood buffet. It's not Himalayan high being only a little over 4000m but it is SE Asia's highest peak (well, it's not really as there are higher peaks in Burma, but the Malaysians will have none of it). It takes a couple of strenuous days to climb and rewards you with fantastic views over North Borneo and out across the South China sea. The journey down is knee-smashingly steep, passing spindly octogenarians carrying up 40kg loads. Upon arriving at the finishing post, not a little satisfied, you are met by a considerable sign proclaiming the fastest time to the summit and back to be a staggering 2hrs 35mins, apparently by a local waiter.

Holding a turtle that hatched that morning One day old hatchlings Green turtle coming up for air off Sipadan island

Next stop was the Turtle Islands National Park, comprising three tiny islands which are the most important breeding grounds in SE Asia. We waited until almost midnight for the David Attenborough moment when a large female green turtle clambered onto the beach and hauled herself up to a suitable spot. One and a half hours of digging an egg chamber later, she began to lay a total of 80 odd eggs. This was all happening in virtual darkness as lights would disturb them. She then began the painstaking process of covering the eggs (which were no longer there as the warden had moved them to the hatchery) before setting off back to the sea. Once in the sea she rejoined her mate who had been doing the crossword in the back of The Turtle Times. Afterwards we released some hatchlings; as I watched the tiny defenceless creatures scamper into the inky black sea I thought of the dangerous journey that lay ahead, only one in a hundred or more will make it (and that's after they've been reared to the hatchling stage, avoiding birds and snakes). As it all happened in darkness I couldn't take any decent pictures so the photos above are actually taken a couple of weeks later on Sipadan island where I met another warden who had some hatchlings. There are turtles everywhere at Sipadan, you can see a dozen or more just by going for a swim.

Stall holders at Sandakan fish market Sandakan harbour Bringing in the catch at sunrise

On to Sandakan, home to a riotous fish market which brings an incredible array of sea creatures to the surface.

The Kinabatangan river Sun setting over the Kinabatangan river swimming in an oxbow lake off the river, where there are no crocs

From Sandakan a two hour journey down the Kinabatangan river led to a wonderfully basic camp (Uncle Tan's) run by 15 or so young local guys under the stewardship of their charismatic captain, Lan. I booked 3 days but ended up staying 10 as I really loved it there. Each day felt very relaxed, in a hippy commune way, but managed to incorporate a morning boat safari, football, jungle trekking, fishing, lunch, volley ball, afternoon boat safari, guitars and singing, night trekking, beers, jungle pool and 3 hearty meals, all for the princely sum of 6 per day (not inc beer).

Giant freshwater prawns from the lake Gafar and Loy bbqing Lan chilling with his guitar

For 3 of the days I went camping in the jungle which was Ray Mears-tastic. Fishing net in one hand, machete in the other; Lord of the Flies meets Gareth from The Office. We built our own camp and caught and picked our own food. We certainly didn't starve; one 2 hour fishing expedition yielded two dozen giant prawns and two large tilapia (a delicious lake fish). However, to get to the lake involved a 1hr walk variously through thigh deep mud, razor sharp rattan and general rainforest floor matter; just to make things interesting we added darkness and took away shoes, though not by design.

Setting up the camp in the jungle Me bbqing the catch A large scorpion

Just a quick list of animals seen in the lower Kinabatangan river region: Orangutans (saw 5 in total, one very close to our camp during the camping trip), Proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, pig-tailed macaques, red leaf monkeys, silver leaf monkeys, common civet cat, palm civet cat, crocodiles (large ones!), bearded pigs, numerous birds, insects, spiders, snakes, frogs, lizards.

The civet cat that visited the camp every night A family of bearded pigs visited the camp every day The smallest frog in Borneo and second smallest in the world

Starting a fire was a painstaking operation as it's monsoon season; most potential kindling could be bent into a figure of eight before it would snap. With the aid of half a dozen lighters, harvested from a handy Bic tree, we did manage. The insects were varied and ubiquitious, each having evolved a uniquely ingenious method for harvesting your blood, ensuring that you felt comfortably positioned somewhere in the middle of the food-chain. Our return to the main camp, where we slept on the floor and had cold-water bucket showers, felt like luxury and I could have held my own with Monthy Python's Four Yorkshiremen.

Cast net fishing in the lake. A simple and effective design with weights around the edge but takes some practise to use Remy, the master firestarter Freshwater prawns cooking with ginger and garlic, yum

There was a bit of a leaving do; rum, beer, karaoke, tables, floor, headache, a familiar and well-trodden path and comforting to know that it's the same the world over.

Posing with a bottle of rum On the tables singing, oh dear Lan looking a little the worse for wear
The requisite album cover poses Mr T Jungle pool, played with counters instead of balls, also the table revolves and don't ask for chalk

Went to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which was a great opportuntity to see lots of orangutans close up, a very interesting place which has been set up to protect the orangutans from extinction by rehabilitating the orphaned and captured. The orangutans live in 43 sq km of primary rainforest, so it's far from a zoo, and will wander off into the neighbouring jungle when they are ready. There are feeding times twice a day and that is when you can see some of them.

Female orangutan Feeding time Female Orangutan

Next stop diving and five days on Mabul island. Mabul island is the nearest inhabited island to Sipadan, one of the world's best dive sites. There are about 1500, mainly Filipino, inhabitants living in stilt houses on this tiny island. Half the population appeared to be under six as children above that age go to school on the mainland and families of 12 or more are the norm. Consequently the island has a fun playful feel and a simple but natural approach to life. The sunrises and sunsets are beautiful and I used to watch them with a young Filipino fisherman called Harpy. I met all 100 of Harpy's family and his 15 year old wife. On my last night I was invited to his friend's house where 20 or so people of all ages huddled around an old TV. The TV was showing a cheesey karaoke video set in 1980s Barcelona. I was handed the microphone, and despite furious protestations, had to proceed with an appaling attempt at Bohemian Rhapsody.

Harpy The Mabul kids Sunset on Mabul

My room, surrounded on three sides by the sea (7 per night full board) The view from my room Fai, our divemaster and trance music lover

The diving around Sipadan is spectacular, like swimming in an enormous tropical fish tank. There are large schools of barracuda and jack fish to marvel at, turtles and sharks (smaller ones) everywhere, frog fish and leaf fish, so called because, yes, they look just like frogs and leaves.

Sipadan island Clear waters off Sipadan Tropical fish tank

Me with turtle and fish Me Me with school of jack fish

Turtle coming up for air Jack fish Lex with Jack fish

Quick checklist of what's bitten me so far: mosquitos, ants (various species inc fire, red and bull), horse flies, sand flies, fish, spider, leeches. Stools: remarkably solid. Turtle heads: only in the photographs. Underwear while in the jungle needed to be handled with tongs and could be quaranteened next time I pass through customs. It's difficult to do any washing as nothing dries there, it's the humidity, honest!

I left Sabah with wonderful memories of the people and places I had encountered. Definitely straight into the hall of fame for best places I've visited. Onto Sarawak, the other Malaysian Borneo state. I only have just over a week in Sarawak before I fly to KL and on to Vietnam.

Exit to Deer cave Langan cave, Mulu National Park Can you guess whose profile this resembles? Early US president? Abraham Lincoln. Yes?

Sarawak, is roughly the size of Britain but with only 2 million people and two thirds of it is still covered in jungle. Only a few decades ago large areas were still undiscovered, however a rapacious logging industry and market economy are now a serious threat. There are over 30 ethnic groups living here in Sarawak and they are fiercely proud of their state; many would like independence from Malaysia and customs make a point of stamping your passport in and out. The wildlife, although even more bountiful, is not as readily accessible as in Sabah, nor the activities as varied but there is an incredible cultural history and vast swathes of ancient primary rainforest to explore. The jewel in the crown is Mount Mulu National Park, 544 sq km of rainforest and Norris Mcwhirter's paradise. It has the largest limestone cave system in the world, the oldest primary rainforest, the oldest human remains found in SE Asia, the largest natural rock chamber in the world etc etc. I signed up for the headhunter trail, a 6 day trek overland and by longboat through forests, caves, and traditional longhouses (where the local tribespeople live). It was just me and my guide, Andrew, for the whole trek which was perfect. The caves were spectacularly huge and we settled down at dusk for another David Attenborough moment, to watch the daily bat exodus. 3 million bats live in Deer cave and each night they leave the cave forming huge swirling spirals silhouetted against the sky as they go in search of food.

Rainforest 'Hey, where's the other 2,999,998 of us?' 'Shhh'. Birdwing butterflies

Bats leaving Deer cave at dusk Mount Mulu National Park Rainforest pool

Lex and Andrew trekking in Mulu NP Green tree lizard Faizalina pitcher plant

The trek to the famous limestone pinnacles on Fire mountain (so called because it spontaneously catches fire) is a 2.5 km scramble vertically up over jagged limestone rocks and twisted wet tree roots. The Sarawak tourist board likes to boast that it's twice as hard as climbing Mt Kinabalu in Sabah and they're not far wrong. Every step requires 100% concentration to avoid what would be a very painful fall. I'm not sure what the collective noun for pinnacles is (it should be 'murder') but the view at the top is incomparable with dozens of razor sharp limestone spears piercing the forest canopy. Apparently the first explorers were cut to shreds; they didn't have the ropes and ladders which made our route up that little bit safer.

Trekking to the pinnacles Some of the steeper sections At the top

Some of the limestone pinnacles The descent Razor sharp pinnacle

Pinnacle Ampularia pitcher plants The path, strewn with tree roots. The jungle floor is a mass of tree roots as the soil is poor in rainforests (surprisingly) as the rain leaches all the nutrients and therefore the most nutrient rich part is the surface.

There are a fantastic variety of pitcher plants in the area. These are carnivorous plants that hold a reservoir of water to trap, dissolve and consume insects. The morning after the pinnacles climb I awoke to find that someone had switched my legs with those of a newly born foal; luckily it was a relatively light trek to the ranger's station and our next stop. We arrived at the ranger's station to find no ranger and no food. 2 hrs with a fishing net yielded nothing more than twigs and we went in search of some jungle fern. All we found were some (barely) edible leaves from a tapioca plant, which we duly boiled and ate; they tasted like boiled leaves. Apparently they're better with chilli, garlic, ginger, soy sauce etc... The next morning we found a lychee tree and sat in it for an hour gorging ourselves. We set off to visit a traditional Tabun longhouse along the Limbang river.

Trekking in boxer shorts, the only item of clothing that was dry Andrew on a rope suspension bridge Lex on a monkey bridge

Forest floor Rainforest Modern Penang longhouse where 28 families live

It's a wonderful idea, living in one place with all your extended family around; brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, cousins. I know in England the very thought of living in such close proximity to ones relatives would send shivers down many people's spines, but here in Borneo, family ties are strong and everyone seems to get along. Children respect their elders, play together all the time and generally appear to be deliriously happy. Young men play a game called takraw involving most parts of the body, a wicker ball and a volleyball court. The old men sit around smoking and talking about the good old days when they were collecting the heads of Japanese soldiers. The women, well they look after the children and do all the work...

Traditional Tabun longhouse in Kuala Medakan near Limbang The chief's living-room

The chief and Andrew. All the medals on the wall belong to the chief's son who recently won silver in the paralympic games. The local church Outside loo. Not really, it was scrap. This place was kept very clean.

That night at the longhouse everyone was getting into the Xmas spirit and all the men, old and young, drank rice wine and arak (a 50% proof liquor made from distilled rice wine). Once again I was pleased to be the only westerner and honorary lightweight; not many tourists visit this longhouse. It was a fun evening with guitars, drinking, singing, drinking, talking (they had an encyclopedic knowledge of premiership football which they receive on the chief's TV), drinking, tattoo comparing, drinking and passing out. I was the first to feel the cold floor against the side of my face, I'm not too good at handling large doses of neat ethanol, still at least I didn't wake up with any unexpected tattoos.

Harry, Lex and arak Andrew, a fine guitar player and singer Getting ready for Xmas

Andrew starting on the rice wine. House rule, if you open a bottle you have to finish it. Harry after a few araks Party in full swing

Sleeping through the party Torrential rain, probably the hardest rain I've ever experienced.

The next day, Christmas eve, was spent outside a cuttlefish shop in Limbang drinking 8% Guinness to cure the hangover. Christmas day was spent with a wonderfully hospitable Malaysian family in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and Santa brought me something I've always wanted, curry for Christmas!

Andrew with a soothing Guinness The cuttlefish shop in Limbang Delicious cuttlefish served with chilli and peanut sauce

And that's all folks. Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year to you all.

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