The Legendary Sipadan

So there we were…exploring the underwater life at one of the top diving destinations in the world.

When diving in Indonesia, everyone we met said “you’re going to Borneo? You MUST go diving at Sipadan!” We had never heard of this place before, probably since we were a bit new to diving, but after doing some research online, we made a plan to visit the infamous island of Sipadan to see what it was all about. This was, yet again, another thing in Borneo where we had to plan ahead, but this time we did! Only 120 permits are given out for diving at Sipadan each day and they can be sold out months in advance. This being our last stop in Borneo, it was easy to work out some dates and email some diving operators. After several “we are sold out” emails, we came across Billabong Scuba who had two permits for us.

After ending our time at the river, our day of diving at Sipadan was still almost a week away. Once again, we tried to visit another jungle park for animals spotting, but again, since we didn’t plan ahead, the accommodation was full and we were not able to go. So, we decided to head to Semporna (the coastal, gateway town to Sipadan) to see if we could do more fun diving around some of the other surrounding islands. Semporna turned out to be one of the worst towns we have visited and not a place you want to spend more than one night. We quickly tried to find an alternative place to spend a few days and came across Singamata Resort. The entire hotel is built on stilts over the clear blue water so you can leave your room and step right down into the water, it was exactly what we were looking for. Since they also had a dive shop, Becky decided to do her PADI Advanced Diving Course (Jason didn’t want to do his) and Jason spent his days snorkeling and visiting the surrounding islands on some fun dives. It was a great place to relax and dive for several days before it was time for our reservation at Billabong.

Several years ago there used to be accommodation out on the island of Sipadan, but to protect the area and underwater life, they ordered all dive centers to leave. Now, all the dive shops operate out on the island of Mabul, a short boat ride away from dive sites. This is where Billabong’s accommodation was and where we bunkered down for several days. In order to get a Sipadan permit, you first had to dive around Mabul, which turned out to have some great things to see. Doing three dives, we saw a lot of frogfish, many turtles, a large jellyfish, some eels, stingrays and even a spotted eagle ray. We were very happy with our diving around Mabul but were anxious to see what Sipadan was all about.

The next morning, it was finally time to head out to the legendary Sipadan. A beautiful white-sand beach greeted us as the boat pulled in and we hoped off to register. After a quick briefing by our dive master, we jumped in and soon spotted our first of many turtles. The entire island is surrounded by a huge, deep wall and each dive site is similar with beautiful, colorful corals and plenty of big fish. The animal to spot here is the hammerhead shark, but to find them you must be very lucky. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any hammerheads, but on all three dives, the underwater life was overwhelming. We saw too many turtles to count, sometimes three or four all around us swimming, a few sleeping on the coral wall and we even saw some stuck together in a turtle sandwich mating. We spotted about 20 sharks, huge schools of jackfish, barracuda, another eagle ray and many other supersized fish. Everywhere we looked there was something impressive swimming around us. So did it live up to the hype? You bet it did! Now we know why so many people told us to go there, it was the one of the best days of diving we have done of this whole trip.

After visiting Singamata and then diving around Mabul and Sipadan, we both needed a break from the water. We spent our last few days in Borneo just relaxing at Billabong before heading back to Kota Kinabalu where we had to catch a flight. Next stop, The Philippines, where we are looking forward to becoming a beach bum for several weeks!

Highlights

  • Of course, diving at Sipadan, it was an amazing underwater experience
  • The other diving around the islands, we saw a lot of unique things and were able to practice our underwater photography
  • Becky finishing her PADI Advanced Course

Lowlights

  • Having too much time in Malaysian Borneo, we booked plane tickets to far in advance so we were kind of ‘stuck’ there with not enough to do. This led to many boring days.
Enjoying the view over Singamata, the floating resort
Catching the end of a wonderful sunset at Singamata
Sunset over some of the homes in Mabul
Cock fighting on the back streets of Mabul island
Always love seeing turtles
Large crocodilefish
Head of a snake eel - the rest of his body is buried under the sand
Frogfish
Giant jellyfish
Spotted eagle ray
Jason below the tornado of jackfish
Yellowtail barracuda
Grey reef shark
Happy diving at Sipadan
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Cruisin’ the Kinabatangan

So there we were…cruising along the Kinabatangan river, looking for wild orangutans and other unique Borneo animals.

After our hike, we were ready for some fun and R&R. We had heard a lot about the Kinabatangan river and the wildlife spotting you can do there so we called up and booked a package with one of the lodges along the river bank. We got lucky that they had a shuttle passing by our lodge on the way out to the river so they swung in and picked us up along the way.

Arriving at Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, it felt a bit like summer camp for adults. We had scheduled activities throughout the day and pre-set meal times where we all gathered around the restaurant to share stories about what we saw that day. We were staying in the dorm, but were lucky and had the room all to ourselves the whole time we stayed there. The package included four boat rides on the river, one jungle walk and two night walks. As soon as we put our bags down, it was time for our first boat trip. Setting out at dusk, we cruised up and down the muddy brown river for two hours. The following day we were up early for the sunrise cruise, then our jungle walk (which was extremely muddy!!), then again back for the sunset cruise. We did the night walk the first night, but didn’t see anything so we decided not to do our night walk again on the second night.

We were surprised at how much wildlife we saw. We saw an orangutan (this time completely wild!), huge crocodiles, gibbons, long-tailed macaques (which are everywhere in Asia), pig-tail macaques, beautiful hornbills, kingfishers, proboscis monkeys, large monitor lizards, small snakes and some langur monkeys. It was great to see so many things, but a shame why so many animals are crammed into one area. Many of Borneo’s jungles have been cut down to make way for palm oil plantations (which is used in a lot of things that we eat or cook with at home). It is a huge business and while driving across any part of the country, the plantations and palm oil trees are endless. The Kinabatangan river is a small section of jungle that has been preserved for these animals and is turning out to be one of the few places left in Borneo where you can see some of these animals in the wild.

After several days of animal spotting along the river, we were anxious to make our way to our next destination where instead of looking for animals above water, we would be spending most of our time underwater. Stayed tuned for our next blog about diving at one of the top destinations in the world!

Highlights

  • Seeing so many animals along the river, our favorite being the orangutan, the crocodile and the gibbons
  • Having paid for a dorm and having it all to ourselves, we love when that happens
  • Romping through the mud on our jungle walk, we hadn’t had that much fun playing in mud since we were little!

Lowlights

  • More leeches
On one of our many river cruises
The best shot we could get of the wild orangutan
Proboscis monkey jumping through the jungle
Freshwater crocodile
Playful pig-tailed macaques
Kingfisher
Monitor lizard
Rhinoceros hornbill
Getting down and dirty in the mud
Tiger leech
Sunrise over the river

Mount Kinabalu – South East Asia’s Highest Peak

So there we were…climbing up 7,300 feet and then all the way back down again on one of Asia’s largest mountains, Mt. Kinabalu.

Mt. Kinabalu is a popular destination for most people traveling in Borneo. It is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and the Snow Mountains of Papua New Guinea. The peak sits at 4,095 meters (13,500 ft) and the typical trek involves two-day of hiking. The first includes trekking from the park headquarters to Laban Rata Resthouse just below the summit. The second usually involves waking up at 3:00 am to push to the summit for sunrise. The mountain is so popular for climbing though that you must book your trek up to 6 months in advance. Well we all know how good we are at planning ahead! We didn’t have anything booked when we arrived as we thought we could just show up and try to get permission from the park ranger to climb the whole mountain in one day. We knew the hike would be much more difficult in one day, but we were up for the challenge and got dropped off at the headquarters to see what we could figure out.

We had heard that it was tough to try to convince the staff to allow you to do it in one day, but when we arrived, the girl at the counter really didn’t try to discourage us and she set up a meeting with the head park ranger. We were given a quick “interview” by the ranger and told some guidelines; be at the headquarters by 7:00 am (we were not able to start any earlier), be at Laban Rata Resthouse by 11:00 am (which takes most people 4 – 6 hours on their first hiking day), be at the summit by 1 pm (which normally takes people 3 – 4 hours done in the middle of the night) and be all the way back down by 5 pm. No exceptions and no arguing with our guide if we had to turn around close to the top because we didn’t meet our time limits or the weather turned bad. We both told him these rules were acceptable and he shook our hand, wished us luck and sent us on our way.

The one day option was nice because we didn’t need to book in advance and by not staying at the Laban Ratu Guesthouse, we saved about $150 each (yes, it cost that much to sleep in a dorm bed for only a few hours before beginning the hike at 3 am). Heading to a nearby mountain lodge, we went to bed early to make sure we were good and rested for the next morning.

Getting to the park at 6:45 am, we waiting patiently for the office to open. There we paid our fees, met our guide and off we went. We took the shuttle the first 4 km to the main start of the trek and, already keeping an eye on our watch, we didn’t actually hit the trail until 7:30 am. Trying to pace ourselves for the hike to come, we started out on the gradual sets of stairs in the beginning. Soon those stairs multiplied and we realized the trail was unforgiving with no flat surfaces or areas to give your legs a break. Up and up and up we went. Making good time though, we reached Laban Ratu in 3 hours at 10:30 am ahead of schedule. Our guide went to get permission from the ranger to continue our push to the summit while we rested our tired legs and ate some food before continuing on. We came back with the good news that we had hit our time limit and the weather was still clear so it was okay for us to proceed.

Starting out on our push for the summit, we climbed up more stairs and eventually came to some big rocks that we had to scramble using our hands or the rope chain provided for support. As soon as we started our ascent though, Jason began to feel a bit ill and was slowly falling behind. He had to take several breaks and eventually lost his lunch after climbing for about an hour. Confined by our time limit, he urged me to go ahead with the guide and continue to try to reach the summit before 1 pm. Hoping he would start to feel better and be close behind, I headed further up with our guide while he laid down to rest. I continued to glance down hoping to see him coming up behind me, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. With extremely weary legs, the final push to the top was a tough one. Steep sloping granite slabs stretched endlessly in front with no end in sight. Soon though, as I came up over one slope, the guide pointed to the summit and gave me some encouraging words. Reaching the top at 12:59 pm (one minute before our time limit), we waited to see if Jason would climb over the ridge. After only a few minutes, the guide instructed me that we had to go down as we would not make it back down to the bottom by 5 pm if not. It was an extremely satisfying feeling being at the summit, but it was not quite the same without Jason there with me. Hiking is something he loves to do and I know the accomplishment of reaching the top was important to him. Coming down we found him a half mile from the summit and still feeling ill, but with the time limit it was too late. I know that if we had not been on a time constraint, he would have been able to rest longer and then complete the hike, but we were forced to turn around.

What goes up must come down and for us both, the way down was a tiresome journey. So many stairs, it was a killer on your legs and knees. We climbed from 1866 m (6150 ft) to 4095 m (13,513 ft) and back down again all in 9 1/2 hours. We reached the main gate within five minutes of our 5 pm deadline. Already feeling the soreness creeping into our muscles, we were relieved for the hike to be over. Heading back to the mountain lodge where we were staying, we spent the entire next day relaxing in bed where we were able to sleep in and watch some movies. It was a great way to unwind after one of the hardest one-day hikes we have both experienced. Now, time to head back into the jungle for some fun…

Highlights

  • Hiking the mountain in one-day allowed us to start before the crowds and be on the trail by ourselves (except for some people coming down). This also meant we were at the summit alone and we could enjoy the view uninterrupted above the clouds.
  • The accomplishment of climbing such a difficult mountain all in one day, the steepness of the trail made the trek very difficult and exhausting.
  • Staying at Mountain Lodge Kinabalu, we met some wonderful people and it was a very pleasant place to hang out for several days.

Lowlights

  • Not having both of us at the summit to celebrate together, a first for us
  • The many, many, many steps up and down
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
Becky with our guide
Taking a break to enjoy the beautiful surroundings
Heading up and up and up!
View of Laban Rata Resthouse and part of the summit
After leaving the resthouse and making our way up to the summit
Rope line leading you up the slippery granite
Our guide taking in the view above the clouds
So happy to be at the summit!
Heading back down through the huge slabs of granite
Unique pitcher plants found along the trail

Brunei Darussalam – Small Country, Rich Resources

So there we were…staring at billboards all over town with the face of the Sultan of Brunei, one of the world’s richest men.

It felt strange arriving at the airport in Kuching instead of going to the bus station, but in Borneo flights end up costing about the same as bus transport. We took a plane further north to the town of Miri, located just south of the country of Brunei. From Miri, we had hoped to be able to visit Mulu National Park and do some hiking, but due to us not pre-planning the trip, accommodation at the park was full and we were not able to go. Instead we decided to just head further up through Brunei and continue on to the northern section of Borneo.

Brunei is a small country squeezed into the western coast of Borneo. Rich with money from the oil in the country, the Sultan of Brunei was named the richest man in the world in 1997 with a net worth of $38 Billion. It is a very muslim society with a very conservation population. The capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan is the only place we visited and we spent a day walking through its clean, but scorching hot, streets. To get a break from the sun, we visited one of the Sultan’s (air-conditioned) museums where he houses a collection of personal gifts from leaders of other countries from around the world. After that, down on the river front, we hired a boat to take us through some of the floating villages surrounding the city. Expecting Brunei to have a high standard of living for most of its residents, we were surprised to see so many shacks built along the water front on stilts over the water. These families have created their own community with floating schools and even a fire station armed with fire boats instead of trucks. It is easy to notice how even though the country is rich with wealth, that money is not always filtering back down to its people.

With not much else to do in the city, we only spent one day in Brunei and then continued north back into Malaysia. The best way to leave Brunei is by boat to Pulau Labuan. They call Labuan the Vegas of Borneo, armed with casinos and duty free shopping, but we didn’t see any casinos the whole time we were there. We did take advantage of the duty free shopping though. Liquor and beer were extremely cheap on the island so we didn’t mind spending a few days enjoying ourselves with some drinks at night around the food markets. We also both picked up a bottle of liquor, Jack Daniel’s for Jason and Absolute Mango for Becky, both cheaper than we could buy them in the US!

Finally, after several days, we made our way to Kota Kinabalu, Borneo’s “capital” city. Now in the northern, or Sabah, section, we tried to make a plan for the remaining weeks left in the country. First on our agenda was a trip to climb Mt. Kinabalu, Asia’s largest mountain. But before heading to the mountain, we decided to take a day trip to Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP), a small island off the coast of KK to do some more diving. We had been quite spoiled diving in Indonesia where all the sites we visited had beautiful coral and big fish. The diving at TARP was not quite the same with a lot of dead coral and hardly any big fish at all, but the islands above water were picture perfect, which was a wonderful way to spend some time during our breaks between dives. Coming back to KK, we made plans to head to the mountain and took off the following day to see what we could arrange.

Highlights

  • Getting some bottles of liquor duty-free for ridiculously low prices
  • Even though we were only there a day, checking out the small country of Brunei. A gallon of gasoline goes for $0.40 – $0.50 per gallon there!

Lowlights

  • Not being able to go hiking in Mulu National Park since we didn’t plan ahead
  • Having some boring days of travel up to KK with not many things to see along the way
National mosque of Brunei
In front of a floating Shell gas station in Brunei on our water tour - gas there was $0.40 per gallon!
Kota Kinabalu's famous marlin
Fish market in Kota Kinabalu
Beautiful island around Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
Enjoying the views during a dive break
Clown (Nemo) fish
Underwater fun at TARP

Borneo – Land of the Headhunters

So there we were…watching our ginger cousins, orangutans, swing through the jungle trees as they looked down on us with their cute doughy eyes.

After living it up in Singapore, we had to get back to real life and our normal backpacker ways. We took a flight to Kuching in Malaysian Borneo, focusing our first week in the southern state of Sarawak. We had spent some time in Peninsular Malaysia six months ago and the area of Borneo turned out to be quite similar. Kuching was a pleasant city to start our time in Borneo; quiet streets, a nice waterfront to wander and even a cheap movie theater where we could escape the midday heat.

From Kuching there are a lot of different places to visit so we based ourselves there for several days and set out on exploring the region. Our first day we took a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre to view our red-headed relatives, the orangutan. The center takes in orphaned or injured orangutans who can no longer survive on their own. They take the time to rehabilitate and then release them into the jungle around the center. The jungle is quite large and big enough for them to live a semi-wild life, making nests, having babies and finding their own food, but the center puts out fruit twice a day near the headquarters just in case some of the orangutans can’t find a sufficient food supply on their own. We arrived at the center for the morning feeding and weren’t sure we would even see any orangutans as some days none of them come out of the jungle for food (which is a good thing because they are surviving on their own). But, there had been a big rain storm the night before and the employees thought that quite a few might show up. And they were right. Right before the food was put out, the first one swung through the jungle and hung over the nature center. Soon, more and more kept coming until there were probably 20 of them swinging from the trees and munching on fresh fruit. Even though they were not completely wild, seeing them in a natural environment was amazing. They are spectacular animals to watch with many human characteristics and mannerisms.

Soon after arriving in Borneo, we realized that many things need to be arranged in advance here (something we are not used to!). Many of the national parks fill up and accommodation can be hard to find. Bako National Park was on our list as a must see destination in the south and we got lucky getting a one night reservation out at the park. Our reservation wasn’t for a few days though so we ventured to Kubah National Park, another nearby jungle, for a day trip of hiking. We rented a motorbike and made our way out of the city and eventually to the park headquarters. We chose a trail that cut through the park to Matang Wildlife Centre where we could see some more animals that were being rescued and rehabilitated. The walk was nice through some thick jungle, but the humidity was almost unbearable and we left completely wet and sweaty, something we have had to get used to throughout SE Asia.

Finally ready to head out to Bako, we jumped on the public bus to the park office and then onto a park boat to take us around to the entrance. Since the park is only accessable by boat and it has no roads, it felt a world away from the Kuching even though it was only an hour away. The area is filled with walking trails and lots of animals to see so we dropped our bags and ventured out to see what we could spot. We chose a trail taking us to a large white-sand beach where we could swim. The trail was not as jungly as we had hoped and a lot of the time we were exposed to the sun, but this made our dip in the ocean all that more deserving. We didn’t see any wildlife on our walk, but around the beach in front of the rooms and restaurant, there was plenty to see. One of the first animals (and one of our favorites) we spotted at Bako was the proboscis monkey. With their distinctive long nose and pot-belly, they sit high up in the trees munching away on leaves and fruit. We also spotted bearded pigs, lots of frogs and a couple of very poisonous pit vipers.

As always, after a few adventures around Kuching, it was time to move on again. This time though we jumped on a plane instead of a bus, it was the first time we have ever flown within a country after arriving, it was a very welcome change!

Highlights

  • Hanging out with orangutans at the rehabilitation center
  • Spotting proboscis monkeys and pit vipers at Bako National Park

Lowlights

  • Blood sucking leeches in Kubah National Park crawling up our legs
  • Having to battle troops of macaques at Bako so they didn’t steel our food – they were the bravest monkeys we have seen yet
Kuching
Grandma and baby orangutan enjoying the fruit laid out by the center
They are amazing creatures to see in person
Cute and playful baby orangutan
Hiking in Kubah National Park
The beach at Bako
Overlooking the secluded beach we hiked to at Bako
Proboscis monkey hanging out in the mangroves
Don't they look so human with their long nose and fat belly?
Pit Viper

Malaysia – Truly Asia

So there we were…arriving at 2 am in downtown Kuala Lumpur. We expected most of the city to be shut down and sleeping, but to our surprise, it was bustling with locals and tourists alike eating and drinking in the streets with no signs of them going to bed anytime soon. We instantly noticed real Asia had begun and we were happy to be there.
 
 We stayed in the Chinatown section of KL where knock-off markets and food stalls line the streets. After coming from India, where we ate mostly vegetarian dishes, the smell of cooked bacon (or bacon-like products) filled our hungry nostrils each morning. We were excited to get out there and track down some meaty dishes! We took a few days to explore the city on foot, surprised by how many familiar food names there were from home, Burger King, Wendy’s, Outback and as always, McD’s. We visited the Petronas Towers, the big shiny silver twin towers that KL is famous for, and using the efficient metro system, explored the Batu Caves on the edge of the city. The Batu Caves are a big Hindu religious site with a large statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity, that guards the caves entrance. The pouring rain made the trip a bit short but we enjoyed checking out the impressive monument nonetheless.
 
Heading out of KL, we made our way to Pulau Penang, an island known mainly for its Malaysian food and old-town charm. We enjoyed wandering the streets for a few days and trying the local cuisine, but we had itchy feet and were ready for the beach. We migrated a little further north to the tropical island of Pulau Langkawi and quickly sunk into the sand. With Chinese New Year in full swing the weekend we arrived, we had a bit of a problem finding a room that could accommodate us for several nights. Lucky for us, we met a great couple from the UK who were in our same situation and we were able to bunk up together in a small house behind a popular hotel. It was wonderful having our own fridge and living area to hang out in as well as make some great new friends. Rob and Danielle – thanks for some good times together at the beach!
 
Langkawi is a popular destination for Malaysian and foreign guests alike, it has a mellow vibe, white sand beaches and (besides the jellyfish), wonderful clear blue water to swim in. We could have stayed much longer than three days but we knew the beaches of Thailand were calling our name. Jumping on a quick ferry from Langkawi, we were soon in country number 16 and starting our official beach holiday.
 
Highlights
 
 

  • Being able to open our “home” in Langkawi to four girls who couldn’t find a room because the island was so busy. They were going to sleep on the beach but we were able to let them crash on our living room floor, we hope it’s good Karma!
  • All the exciting new asian food Malaysia had to offer
  • Beginning our time in SEA, we are really excited for the next few months
  • Great beach time in Langkawi with wonderful new friends

Lowlights

  • Our visit to Penang – we didn’t find much to do there and it wasn’t all it was hyped up to be

    Petronas Towers downtown KL
Batu Caves
Batu Caves

Checking out the many Chinese temples in Penang

 

Getting some food at the night market in Langkawi
Good times in our new "home"
 
Langkawi Beach