Category Archives: Malaysia

Under a crescent moon

I am in Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates, after an evening flight from Kuala Lumpur.

The Etihad flight was excellent. We crossed India at night, an endless patchwork of lit villages, towns, cities, thousand upon thousand, but the roads between almost invisible and probably not lit. Finally we passed by Goa, and out to sea, with ships twinkling in the dark ocean on their way south to the Malabar coast and places beyond; and west to Arabia, where a bright yellow crescent moon hung low in the night sky.

I could see the Milky Way from my window seat; meteors cascaded off the earth’s atmosphere.

Arriving in the UAE mostly confirms preconceptions: clearly immense wealth, very long roads and many roads apparently going nowhere and all lit by street lamps, as if laid out for housing, which does not actually exist.  It is now 12 midnight but hotter than I expected – and the heat is muggy and clingy, not the dry intensity I anticipated as we disembarked down steps outside onto waiting buses.  By day it reaches the high 40s; now, it is 32C. The airport tarmac is vast – how much of the world we have paved over. And there is the sand – a great deal of sand!

Women are in full black chador with a slit for their eyes – but some not, also. Of course this is the airport, with people from all over the world, and not the UAE themselves. The airport is beautiful, in Islamic design, and here in the waiting lounge for my onward flight, large comfortable seats rest my rather travel-weary bones. Arabic music plays and the shops display gourmet delicacies based on dates and pistachios and nuts.  Bags of dates of varieties with names like Lulu and Fard.  There are workers here from Africa and places in the Indian subcontinent.  I would not like to be one of those who has to work outside by day.

I have travelled to this point via Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, with a day in each city.  Melbourne was spring-like, bright, and relaxed.  I quite enjoyed the Museum of Modern art exhibition at the NGV.  It contains 300 items of modern art on loan from New York to the NGV.


Visitors to the MOMA exhibition at the NGV have added their names and birth dates at the level of their height around the complete circumference of this room. It now numbers over 300,000 names, and mine was added to the black slash round the centre.



I was surprised at the crowds of people in the exhibition.  I also enjoyed the Japonisme exhibition at the NGV; drawing on the museum’s vast collections, it showcased items from various countries that had been inspired by Japanese design and art.


Final coffee and treat from Brunetti’s, in Flinders Lane, Melbourne

The usual Melbourne experiences that can be had in a day, and then on to Melbourne airport for an overnight Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur, which takes about 8 hours.  It is rather gruelling and not that comfortable, but it was one of my better Air Asia flights, and quite fine.  It was exciting to be back in Malaysia again, the first taste of really exotic parts on this trip, with its sights, sounds and smells that are both familiar and exhilirating.  I checked into the hotel airport and had a sleep and shower for a few hours before heading in by bus to Sentral, where I visited the excellent Ilham Gallery, which currently shows an exhibition of works by Lattiff Mohidin, which I was keen to see.

Ilham gallery

Lattiff Mohidin exhibition at the Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur

There are archival items too displayed in vitrines, which I found fascinating.  It is a beautiful gallery with exquisite attention to detail and scholarship.  They hold talks, and workshops and public forums, most of them free to the public.  It provides a very good service for KL.

I walked in comfortable heat to KLCC past a mosque where prayer was in full flight, and past vast acres of new building development.  There seems to be a new tower being built that will soar above the KLCC twin towers.  Lunch was fishball soup at Ipoh Noodles on the 3rd floor – I love what those Chinese ladies turn out.  Then up a floor to Kinokuniya, but found the vast array of books on display just too overwhelming and mind and eyes were swimming with too much sensation.  It really is an extraordinarily good bookshop, and one could go quite mad and fill one’s suitcase to bursting point with delicious tomes.

Time to head back to KLIA2, my hotel for a final shower, to collect my things, to take the express train across to KLIA, and pass, very quickly indeed, through various checkpoints to arrive at gate C12 for the flight to Abu Dhabi.  Too easy – all of that took only about 30 minutes, and the immigration officials looked so bored they were clearly nearly insane, and the security persons looking at scanners equally so, in fact they did not appear to be looking at the screens at all.  There are many small and monumentally boring jobs in Malaysia: guarding things, gallery attendants, security, informasi points – I feel sorry for those doing these jobs, which are not well paid.  While waiting for the express train KLIA2-KLIA, the young porter on the platform starting chatting, and asked me about my trip, where I am from, etc – I felt guilty knowing that he will never be able to join me in such explorations.

One last non-fun fact: I read yesterday that my Air Asia Melbourne-KL flight burns through 55 tonnes of jet fuel – that’s just one flight, on one route, on one day.  We simply cannot go on like this, but so much of the world is built around jet travel.  Where would the UAE, bizarrely stranded in the desert like this, be without huge international connections, and the wealth to soar out of it and be elsewhere, at least for a while?

I do plant lots of trees, and will step it up when I return.

I learnt a new word tonight: chukrun: thank you, in Arabic.

Day and night in Kuala Lumpur

I flew overnight from Sydney into KL on Saturday/Sunday, arriving at a rather indecent 4.30am.  The MAS flight from Sydney was calm and bump-free, amazing considering that we flew over the Java Sea which is always bumpy!  But not that night.  On arrival at KLIA ours was the day’s first flight; I collected my bags and within 20 mins or so of arrival was in the bus area, bought a ticket for Puduraya, and was on a bus with 30 men from the Indian subcontinent, and Hindi music on the radio, most people sleeping and snoring as we sped into central KL.

The faintest stirrings of life in the central city – the bus deposited us just shy of Puduraya – I had slight concerns about the bus station as it can be a rather overwhelming roar of activity – but not this morning.  Wheeled my bags up Jalan Pudu, and into Jln Pudu Lama, a short, windy street taking me past a Hindu temple where early morning worshippers gathered to watch priests carry out their morning rituals, with much water and loud playing of instruments.  Smoke and incense swirling around, more and more people arriving, taking off shoes, watching intently as the priests carried out their rituals.

I carried on up and found the steps up to City Gardens Condo.  I was not sure Kee would be up and about, but fortunately he was – now only 7am on a Sunday – and let me in to my Airbnb accommodation for my stay in KL.  A gorgeous apartment that he and partner Ben share in the centre of KL.  It is open to the elements, which is fine, and must be nice when the afternoon downpour arrives. We chatted and he made me breakfast and showed me my room with its own bathroom – very nice.  He is Malay, from Kelantan, and works as a badge manufacturer.

The airbnb where I stayed in Kuala Lumpur

The airbnb where I stayed in Kuala Lumpur

kl 2

I showered and rested for a couple of hours before heading out to Bukit Bintang, where i wanted to do some shopping for clothes at Parkson.  Not easy to find just what i wanted despite the vast array of styles and sizes, although of course smaller sizes than are found in NZ.

I did eventually settle on some choices, and went from there to Pavilion to look for a fish spa, the one i have previously frequented in the Piccolo hotel in Bintang walk having closed down.  it may be the same one – Kenko – in Pavilion.  That was nice – lots of dead skin for them to eat – and my feet feel great now.  Down to the food court for some lunch: a really very excellent Sarawak laksa, served by Indonesian ladies.  It was the best Sarawak laksa I’ve tasted, even perhaps including those served in  Sarawak, though the curry was probably milder here than found in Kuching.  Hundreds of people in the food court eating, as is the favourite pasttime here in Malaysia of course.

Got a monorail from there to Kg Baru and walked through lovely, peaceful streets in this Malay kampung – just minutes from the gleaming malls and Petronas towers – to the national library.  it was I have to say an exhausting walk, in heat approaching 40C, along a busy road – quite mad.

But it did allow me to explore Kg Baru.  The library is a large edifice of concrete blocks, and not many books, though perhaps there were more not on display.  The collection is more like that of a general reference library for the public – i know there are collections of works about Malaya and the countries now making up Malaysia, and there will be a legal deposit policy, but i could not find that, and seemed to see mostly encyclopedias from the 1970s gathering dust and old collections of serials, bound in large volumes.  Perhaps there is no need to update now that the sum of human knowledge is going digital.

Padded on a few more steps to reach the National Gallery of Visual Arts, an excellent gallery/museum of Malaysian visual art, as the name might suggest.  Again an overly-large building, over many floors, and only a tiny number of visitors with sleepy attendants.  On the ground floor there was a display of recently acquired Malaysian works, which was quite interesting, with some critical political commentary going on.  Across the vast second floor was a retrospective display of the works of Mr Choong Kam Kow, a Malaysian artist now in his late 70s or early 80s who has painted the fast-disappearing scenes of urban and rural life in Malaysia over his lifetime, in watercolours.  They were very good, and very evocative of a way of life that can still be seen here and there, but is all too quickly disappearing.  He also painted in Taiwan, and had a period in New York where he explored abstractism.  Those works were also on display. In the last room was Mr Choong himself, to my surprise, sitting in isolation at his laptop.  So we had a pleasant chat about his life, work, art, life in Malaysia and so on.

Of even greater interest was the third floor which housed a display of the work and archive of the Malay activist Ismail Hashim, a documentator in photography of the details of everyday Malaysian life.  His entire archive after his death in 2013 has gone to the NGVA.  It is a fascinating exhibition. He was one of the founders of Aliran in 1977, and designed the covers, some of which were on display.  His photographs of the disintegrating bicycle seats of the Penang port workers are at once an amusing collection of frayed seats and a political statement about the poverty of those left behind in the rush to develop at all costs.  Many other photographs and letters, papers, boxes of archives, of this incredibly busy, intelligent, sensitive, insightful, aware man.  A tragedy that he was taken in a road accident relatively young.

In the exhibition, a quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “I cannot rest from travel…for always roaming with a hungry heart much have I seen and known: cities of men/And manners climates councils governments…i am a part of all that i have met/yet all experience is an arch where thro/Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades Forever and ever when I move”.

I spent much time in that exhibition and enjoyed it immensely.  His documenting of the destruction of the Malaysian environment is rare to see, and depressing.

By great fortune a bus appeared on the blistering expressway outside and deposited me at KLCC, where refreshment in the form of an excellent expresso coffee at 8oz Coffee on the 3rd floor, kickstarted me for managing the huge crowds at this giant monument to consumerism.  I battled my way through the food courts to Kinokuniya, whose range of books, the depth and breadth of their collections, is truly astounding.  All the books published by gorgeous and fascinating publishers such as Areca Books – it is truly another universe of books and publishing in English and local languages which we never see in the West.

I must get ready for my flight to Japan: just lastly to say that I ate out at Jalan Alor last night – grilled fish and stir fried local vegetables, ketai beans and the like – really delicious, washed down with very cold beer.  Later found Kee and his Italian friend Simone eating at a pizzeria where Simone said the pizza is as good as any in Italy.  We went back to the apartment where I ate divine Malaysian mangoes – i HAD to have one – and Simone told me all about his life in Venice.  Fascinating.  He speaks, besides Italian and English, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Persian. He is about to fly out to Hong Kong to live where his partner has a new job, so Kee is taking over the care of his large fluffy cat.  Simone is very knowledgeable about many things, including Italian archaeological and historical preservation, and spoke with passion and at length about the state of things there, which is not great.  Venice he says will soon disappear below the waves of both the water and tourist variety.  I am glad I have seen it before it goes.

I slept the second my head hit the pillow.

Last days in Kuching and a sad farewell to Malaysia

On Saturday in Kuching we thought about going back to the World Music Festival, but decided not to. It was one of the reasons for coming here, but not the only reason at all.  We’ve both been here before, and love the place.

Consequently we set out to explore a little more and to see some of the museums. We had a late start, eating at a small kopi tiam and I had my hair cut from Mr Lam, a barber working in a tiny hole in the wall a few doors down from our guest house in Upper China Street.

He took about 30 mins to cut my hair, and then gave me a neck massage and some vigorous back slaps – all part of the service in this old fashioned sort of barber shop, Hong Joo tells me.   We looked around the old colonial heart – The Old Courthouse, now a fan-cooled cafe, on the riverfront, is pictured below .

The Old Courthouse, Kuching

The Old Courthouse, Kuching

After lunch we made our way up to the various Museums, notably the Old Wing of the Sarawak Museum, which is full of stuffed birds, objects from the indigenous tribes, and samples of Sarawak geology, and so on.  It is rather an old-fashioned museum, but charming and interesting in its own way.  We entered the new wing, which was being set up for a new exhibition on dinosaurs, but we browsed the shop where it appeared to me that the amazing stock of old books about Sarawak had been moved from the old bookstore that used to be in Carpenter Street.  It was only the next day that I discovered the museum area upstairs which told the human history of Sarawak including fascinating objects from the Rajah Brooke era, and much Chinese ceramic ware which had been used by tribespeople in Borneo for centuries.

We just had time for a quick visit to the Chinese Museum back on the riverfront before it closed at 4pm, which happily coincided with the usual afternoon downpour.

Our plan had been to visit the Saturday afternoon/Sunday morning tamu (market) in Jalan Satok late in the day, and our guest house manager advised us that the market had moved further west along the street.  We set off on our walk, expecting a bit of a hike, but after several kilometres – or so it seemed – no tamu was in sight.  We spoke to a healthy -looking young woman walking at a pace I did not think possible for a human – one foot seemed to take hours to be placed in front of the other – who assured us that she, too, was off to market. In her own good time.

She showed us the way which involved dashing across a six- lane highway, crossing a huge bridge over the Sarawak river, picking our way through roadworks whilst watching out for roaring cars – until finally we found the busy market.  It had held out considerable promise but was a slight disappointment (market-jaded we perhaps are) – many hot food stalls, stalls selling local fruit and vegetables, interesting enough, but inside a few stalls selling cheap clothes and trinkets.  Not enough to satisfy these discerning market afficionadeos.  We negotiated fruitlessly with various taxi drivers, looked for and inquired about a bus, and finally, resignedly, decided to walk back into town (well, it was Hong Joo’s decision; I rationalised it as my need for more exercise after two weeks of fabulous food, and the promise of more Sarawak food at the food court that night).

After 45 minutes of plodding along a vast, noisy boulevard, we found a shorter route back into town and made our up there to Main Bazaar, the road along the Sarawak riverfront lined with colourful shops.  We walked along the river heading to the food court I had in mind, and somehow from my memory of Kuching from my visit in 2008 and a map read under streetlights, we found our way to Jln Padungan.  It was a different food court!  Both this one and the one I remembered are on top of car park buildings.  The one I recalled was in a different location and sells local Sarawak food very cheaply; this one – featured in our Rough Guide – is also atop a carpark but has seafood.  The whole place was absolutely packed at 8pm on this balmy Saturday evening.  Over a hundred tables are surrounded by various places selling seafood, all very clean and bright and hectic, and fun.  Our first mission was to find a table – not easy!  After some unsuccessful negotiations to share tables, I spied a European woman sitting on her own, and asked if she would mind, and she was only too happy.  Her husband was off trying to pay for the meal they had just enjoyed.  They were a middle-aged couple from Adelaide, nice and friendly, and it was a pleasant occasion for me to chat with fellow Antipodeans about travel experiences.  They had been to Vietnam and had just that evening flown in from Kota Kinabalu, which they loved.

Hong Joo set off to try to order some food.  I ordered a large bottle of Tiger beer, which just wet the sides after our marathon trek. I checked and it was 5km from the tamu to the food court!  Only mad dogs and Kiwis – oh and Hong Joo – walk that sort of distance, in cities anyway, and at our fast pace.  No wonder I was a sweat blob.  We had a fantastic meal of barbequed fish and squid and crab.   A fitting finale to our last full day in Borneo.

Legislative Assembly Building, Kuching

Legislative Assembly Building, Kuching

Next morning, we wanted to eat Sarawak laksa for breakfast.  We found a food court that sold laksa, in the forecourt of an old temple, with a few tables scattered about with families enjoying their Sunday morning, Mums and grandmothers chatting, Dad reading the newspapers.  At an adjacent table a Chinese family breakfasted with Malay friends – a man in his 40s with a teenaged son who looked exactly like his father.  It is not in any way remarkable to see Chinese and Malay socialise like this, and it is a very good thing.

After a very long wait our brightly-coloured laksa finally arrived, and was utterly delicious.  From there it was a short walk back to our room, to pick up Hong Joo’s bag, and see him off in a taxi to the airport!  Very sad! He flies to Penang to see his family and will be there for three weeks.

After he went, somewhat deflated as it felt like the fun was over, I walked around some of my favourite streets, had a long coffee that turned into ( a delicious) lunch, and went up to the New Wing of the museum again, where I found the exhibition mentioned previously. I bought two shirts at Parksons and went back to my guesthouse to pick up my bag, and catch a taxi out to the airport for my flight to Kuala Lumpur.  The flight was delayed, but finally we arrived at LCCT almost an hour late, and on the luggage carousel I was reminded of happy times in Kuching by seeing boxes and boxes of kek lapis going round and round.  I had a two hour wait, and time for some dinner, before catching my flight to Sydney at 11.40pm.  

Climbing out of KL, the plane circled around a colossal lightning storm.  I have never seen such a lot of lightning and at that height.  The entire sky was illuminated, and even the Malaysians on board were transfixed with a mixture of fascination and horror.  When one huge bolt crashed near the plane, there was a collective shout from everyone, but the pilot seemed unmoved, and must have planned to fly right around it as we made a huge curve out to the west before heading down the Malay peninsula, and out over the seas and islands of the Indonesian archipelago, before making our way down to Winterlands in the south.  Rarely have I felt so terribly sad to leave a place.  At the airport I walked outside just to breathe in and enjoy that sticky, fragrant warmth for one last time, the activity and bustle, to try to hold on to that for as long as I could.

I just can’t wait to get back again.

Kuching Kaleidoscope

Kuching River

Tembang on the Sarawak River

Hong Joo and I flew from Kota Kinabalu on Thursday and arrived in Kuching late that afternoon, and checked into our backpackers, the Threehouse, in Upper China Street in Chinatown – right in the heart of Chinatown in fact.  The taxi driver was very new and young and had no idea where it was, though we showed him and explained and he looked it up on his GPS device.  We arrived in a blackout; the entire state of Sarawak was without power save for some pockets here and there.  It was already dark as a thunderstorm threatened.  We were shown to our room by candlelight and showered and set out to explore, heading to the waterfront and along to a bar where we had a beer in darkness and sat out most of the heavy downpour. Across the Sarawak river, at Kampong Boyan, the power was still on, oddly, and the enormous and rather ugly Legislative Assembly was, ironically, ablaze with light (ironic because it is widely viewed as an expensive extravagance).

We embarked on an overloaded sampan (here called a tembang) for the other side; most people in Kuching intent on dinner were doing the same.  At that kampong is a restaurant, My Village Baruk, at which I had eaten on my previous visit, and they serve delicious local Malay/indigenous food – chicken steamed in bamboo with ginger and local vegetables.   The restaurant is shaped like a Bidayuh roundhouse and you climb stairs to sit at enormous wobbly tables and try to attract the attention of one of the staff.  The owner of the restaurant worked downstairs out in the open cooking.  Dishes arrived spasmodically; cutlery took some hunting down, children at neighbouring tables screamed and ran over the table tops in their shoes; we were finally served after Hong Joo made inquiries as to the whereabouts of his meal, and the food was delicious and very cheap, though the place was disconcerting in its confusion.  We stepped down from the roundhouse to escape the hullabaloo and walked round the kek lapis stores.  There the locals make brightly-coloured layer cake, cleverly working ever more intricate patterns, such as batik or Iban designs, into tiny layers less than 1cm thick – sometimes several colours in one layer.  We tasted some and some were delicious and others not.  People were buying it quite literally by the box-load; the tembang back across the river was groaning under the weight of boxes and boxes of kek lapis.  I asked people what they were doing with it and they were visitors to Kuching who come mainly to buy the kek and take it back as gifts or for themselves.

We walked about the kampong and the incredibly busy food court there, at 11pm, and caught a tembang back, and wandered the lovely streets of Kuching.  The light was back on in just our street and at our guesthouse, also rather oddly, but luckily, and we were able to have a hot shower.  Kuching is a completely delightful city; the food is incredible, cheap, and delicious; the little streets of Chinatown and Little India fascinating, and the museums very good.

We were there partly for the Rainforest World Music Festival out at the Sarawak Cultural Village, 32km out of Kuching.  Unable to get a bus ticket in the confused and disorganised bus transfer system, we joined with others to share a taxi out there on Friday morning.  The workshops were quite good, but most had too many musicians taking part and there was not enough time with each; they only got to say their name and play or sing for a few minutes.  However the man from South Africa was marvellous; he introduced and played many instruments from sub Saharan Africa and was joined by two beautiful woman vocal accompanists.  They were Xhosa. The drum session in the Dewan Leganda was a big dance session; kaftans and pony tails from the aging hippy set that wafts round the circuit through India, Nepal, now Kuching, mixed with backpackers and self conscious middle aged guys like me as we gryrated in the sweaty heat.  The energy was quite fantastic.

There was a two hour break and time for some food in the food court opposite and, had we known to bring our togs, a swim at the beautiful Damai beach nearby.  The view

Dancing to the beat at World Music Festival

Dancing to the beat at World Music Festival

from there to Mt Santubong was just magnificent, and the sunset really special.  One can stay at that beach and I made a mental note to do so sometime.

The evening’s performances disappointed me.  I was not taken with the music, and the crowd was not at all interested.  It was not a large crowd and most wandered off to other parts of the village, or chatted and completely ignored the music.  It was but a background to their social night out.  But it did not reward close attention, either.  We stayed til 11pm, – it goes til 2am – but very weary and sick of all the smoking – it was horrendous and we could not escape it even in the Iban longhouse – we got on a bus to make the long trek back. We made the decision not to attend any more of the fetival.  I was mildly disappointed; I had after all not known what to expect exactly and perhaps all world music fests are like that and my expectations were too high; but so was the ticket price and the publicity hype.  There are many other things to do in and around Kuching, so all was not lost by any means.

"Songs my mother taught me" a workshop at the Music Festival

“Songs my mother taught me” a workshop at the Music Festival

Roaming around Ranau

i00658Ranau does not boast a great selection of hotels and we chose one, the Sabah Baru, in the drab town centre. It was just passable.
I had to throw an enormous insect the size of a child’s fist that had blundered in the open door and somehow landed upside down, struggling and buzzing with its ugly black legs in the air, out to freedom using my Kota Kinabalu tourist brochure. The curious thing was that the other denizens of the Sabah Baru ignored the bug’s desperate struggles. The modern town of Ranau was built in the 1970s and has a number of blocks down its main street each lettered “A”, to “J”, with startling lack of imagination. They have not been maintained since then and are now crumbling and rotting in that way that concrete does in the tropics, giving everywhere the feeling of not being as clean and pristine as we’d like as Westeners, but of course people do clean their own little patch and somehow life goes on, wherever one is.

We had a fitful night’s sleep and rising early had the local version of wan tan mee soup for breakfast, and strong black coffee, at a kopi tiam downstairs. Jumping back in our little motor we drove back to Kundasang to look over the very moving war memorial there, which was where the 15 survivors of the Death March arrived in 1945, but were all finally executed by the Japanese near that spot. How those guys even survived that long, is astonishing; the human will to survive is very strong.

We were both nearly in tears reading the long list of 2,428 names of the British and Australian men who died at the hands of the Japanese at Sandakan, on the long marches, and at Ranau/Kundasang. There were several instances of two brothers, and one of three brothers, and one father and son. Many of the men were really boys, 20, 21, 23. Every year at that spot is an ANZAC day service. The British, Australian, New Zealand and Malaysian flags all fly there.

I was disturbed at the rowdiness of the Malaysian visitors who appeared not to understand the solemnity of the place and regarded it as another opportunity for photographics at a pretty setting – magnificent it is too with a view to Mt Kinabalu beyond – laughing, fooling around, joshing, in large numbers. Even smoking. I suspect that there is little understanding of the WWII history, despite the annual commemoration, and the fact that many people from Australia and Britain have re-walked the Death March to pay tribute to the dead.

We motored on from there back through Ranau and stopped to look at another site on the Death March route, a plaque commemorating where one of the men was tied to a post, beaten and starved for 11 days before dying. Also at that place is a stone commemorating the spot at which Mat Salleh, the local headman who rebelled against the British presence at Labuan, finally surrendered and sued for peace with the British in 1897.

Stones have a special meaning here – that dates from ancient times, and is still in use to mark a location as “Batu 32” – stone 32 – or Batu 9. Standing stones have been found from the megalithic era. We have spotted a number of stones set in various locations around Sabah which don’t have any explanations attached to them, and perhaps their meaning is becoming lost to history.

On again to the Sabah Tea Gardens (tea growing estate) for late morning tea – a delicious pot of really fresh local tea, and tea pancakes with honey. Really lovely and refreshing. Also at that spot is another waymarker on the Death March route, Qualeys’ Hill, named after Alan Qualiey, a 24 year old Australian trooper who finally gave up in despair on the walk, after vomiting out some food he had traded from locals, and could not be persuaded by his fellows to walk on. The Japanese executed him on the spot and the memorial marks that location. All terribly upsetting and utterly, utterly senseless – why were these decent, young men from outback NSW or VIC being slaughtered in their hundreds in north Sabah? All impossible to understand, really.

Next door to the Tea Garden is a river over which the locals have declared a tagal – similar to a Maori rohe
and the river is teeming with fish. They have developed a taste for human skin and on stepping into the water one is immediately set upon by hungry fish ready to gobble the dead skin off your feet and legs. They were quite large, some as big as carp, and their sharp teeth did hurt, as they scraped, munched and hoovered their way round my yukky heels and toes.
We left after an hour of slight torture feeling as if our feet had been quite revived, and they still feel great!
An odd experience, for which we had to pay the local villagers, but worthwhile.

Being devoured by hungry fish, in the river at Kampung Nalapak

Being devoured by hungry fish, in the river at Kampung Nalapak

ON from there to the Poring Hot Springs, up on the slopes of Mt Kinabalu, where we soaked ourselves in the very fresh hot water that bubbles out of the ground. The Japanese first established the site and now it is a simple place where deep, well-like baths have been built, and one can fill one yourself from a tap, and we soaked and scrubbed ourselves clean of two weeks of grime and sweat. Could have stayed there much longer! Surrounded by jungle, a roaring river, and then rain, it was a quite magical experience.

We left at around 4.30pm and deciding not to pay 20MYR to see a Rafflesia flower near there (probably one moved from elswhere – there are rip-offs), we drove back to Ranau and then down another road towards Tambunan, which was utterly magnificent. The vast mountains and dense jungle are quite incredible. It was getting dark and still raining, and the poor and steep state of the road meant it all took much longer than we had planned. By the time we refuelled in Tambunan and started the final ascent of the Crocker range and then down to Kota Kinabalu it was 6.30pm, and too late to visit the Rafflesia Centre in the Rafflesia National Park, but the road over the range was much better than the first.  Our progress would have been faster were it not for the huge, lumbering lorries with a maximum speed of 20kmh inching along in front of us. Rather like New Zealand roads, where they are windy and there is no opportunity to overtake for many kms, we had no option but to sit behind a huge load of rainforest timber doing 20 kmh for miles and miles. Finally an SUV behind me would overtake and we would nip in behind. It was completely black – the blackest night one can imagine – in the jungle, and raining, and the over-loaded lorries had all manner of blinking lights on them which blinded me as we hurtled past in our little postage stamp.  Not the best of experiences, but actually the road was fine and I was cautious to the point of paranoia about only overtaking when it was completely safe. The little 660c car did fine, and we were back in KK by just after 8pm, and had a great dinner – in an aircon mall this time! – salmon steak with salad for me – then chocolate cake.
Just what we needed:)

This morning we are tending to essentials and I am shortly to have what is reputed to be the best coffee in Borneo, at a local cafe, tho I take such recommendations with a pinch of salt, and then we fly to Kuching in Sarawak, 1000km away! This is the 3rd largest island in the world, five times the size of the British Isles, and perhaps its resources do seem inexhaustible to the locals but of course they are being greatly over-exploited and steadily and surely vast forests are logged and trucked to the mills and replaced by palm or not replaced at all and the next rains bring erosion, flooding, and all manner of problems arising from our mad and desperate desire to plunder and destroy this magnificent planet.

We MUST learn to do with much less, and from all the wastage I see around me, I am sure that it is possible for us to do so, with the political will and perhaps determination from the next generation of young people concerned that they may well not have a future worth inheriting.

Gunung Kinabalu

Hong Joo at the entrance ti Gunung Kinabalu National Park

Hong Joo at the entrance ti Gunung Kinabalu National Park

We had arranged a rental car for 9am this morning, a tiny little 650cc Kancil, just big enough for us and a small Sabah postage stamp in the boot.  The woman delivering it got lost and we had to give her directions to our hotel shouted over a cellphone!  45mins late we set off for Kinabalu National Park.  The mountain is the highest point in south Asia between Everest and the highlands of New  Guinea. It took 2 hours to cover the 100km up to the park entrance, our trusty motor – quite a common sight on Malaysia roads, using about $10 worth of petrol to cover 300kms – climbed into the Crocker range, the traffic thinned out save the ever-present lumbering lorries – and by noon we were at the park entrance. It is magnificent in the park.  We were fortunate in that the place was not at all crowded.  Most people go to climb to the summit at 4400m, a two day trip there and back, but we wanted to experience the lower levels and we spent a delightful two hours trekking some trails after lunch around the base, itself quite high: in fact we were in cloud.  It rained quite a bit but the variety and beauty of the vegetation was stunning.  On our walk we heard many extraordinary cries from exotic birdlife, beautiful rainforest, here very well preserved and clean (it is a UNESCO World Heritage site), and we finished our visit with a look around the Nepenthes Botanical garden.  It is home to hundreds of pitcher plants and orchids and the like, and also a Borneo or tree frog, which exactly resembles a leaf,but  a guide taking some Aussies around saw it and pointed it out, under a pretty orchid.  That was a highlight.

I expressed some disappointment to the park attendant that we could not see more pitchers, including the giant Rajah Nepenthe pitcher, and as the gardens had closed, she very kindly took us around again showing us pitchers, including the Rajah in the nursery, which I got to handle.  Quite rigid it is too.  It was very kind of the sweet lady to do that for us.

We caught a glimpse of the whole mountain from the entrance as we departed, and just had time to take a pic before cloud moved in again.  For those in NZ the comparison is a bit like being at Chateau Tongariro below Mt Ruapehu, with glimpses of the mountain above you in the cloud and lots of lovely walks to do.  They were very beautiful walks which were well signposted too, and at that height, although a little humid,cool enough to make for very comfortable walking.

We drove on to Kundasangan,where the Australian POW Death March ended, from Sandakan, but too late to visit the memorial; we will do that tomorrow morning.  On the way to Ranau where we are now we stopped at a row of stalls selling all manner of fruits -strawberries, boysenberries, papaya, choko, pomelo, tamarillo, dragonfruit….we bought some to eat tonight.

We are staying at the undistinguished town of Ranau, an unlovely place of mouldy tropical buildings and many Moslem eateries, in a just OK hotel, cheap and soulless, but we shall eat well and cheaply before making an early departure tomorrow.  We have hot springs to visit on the mountain slopes and a tea garden and fish spa experience.  The country here is exceptionally beautiful with tea plantations on the slopes and rainforest all around, just one road snaking through it all crammed with lorries, SUVs, local traffic.  It will all go dead by 9pm and start again early in the morning as the markets get going. We’ve just had a downpour of rain which is slowly clearing, large drops forming puddles in the crumbling footpaths, dripping, tropical, humid. I am in love with this island.

Kinabatangan to KK

We thoroughly enjoyed our last evening at the river.  We went out on an afternoon/early evening cruise to catch what we could of the wildlife.  We were not disappointed.  Downriver, word was out that a herd of elephants had been seen.  Villagers gesticulated to us and we raced downriver, to see three beautiful elephants munching on the “elephant grass” at the side of the river!  They were only the start; in fact the herd was over 30-strong, and they were all on the banks, walking along and eating as they went.  It was a fantastic sight.  There was a small baby amongst them, which is incredibly cute of course.

At some point that night they would cross the river, too deep to walk across but they can swim, and the infant is held up by the trunks and tails of the adults.  They really are the King of the jungle – they have no predators so can wander at will.

Also in the gathering dusk were the usual herds of monkeys – proboscis, macques, and silverleaf, and hornbills going about their business.  Proboscis likes to settle in the trees by the river at night to avoid the clouded leopards, but if they fall into the river, a crocodile will make short work of them.

Very satisfied, we returned to the Lodge for a beer and dinner, and then headed out onto the river yet again for a nighttime cruise.  We saw two crocs, and quite a number of birds including swiflets making their nest in a cavity in the rock (the type of nest taken for food), snakes lying about or slithering, and kingfishers, startled into immobility by our torchlight.

Our lovely lodge where we stayed at Kinabatangan River

Our lovely lodge where we stayed at Kinabatangan River

It was an odd sight to be inches from these colourful birds in the pitchblack of night.

As that day was Friday, the mosque in Sukau was very audible, its prayer calls resounding over the waters of the river for some distance.

And so to bed in our chalet, surrounded by the eerie calls and whoops of the jungle, and after breakfast on Saturday we were conveyed to Sandakan airport for our flight to Kota Kinabalu which we reached by 5pm.  It was a shock to discover that this “small town” is now in fact a large and very busy city, several blocks of  congested streets, jammed with SUVs and new pickups inching along in the haze.  It is very smoky here in part due to the lack of rain, and the vast, out of control forest fires in Sumatra, the smoke from which has closed down Singapore and is adversely affecting west Malaysia, and air pollution levels here are at moderate to bad.  In Singapore it is at the top of the scale – extremely dangerous.  The fires have actually burnt down into the peat, so will take some time to go out, though neighbouring countries are assisting Indonesia with fire control.

Yet another sign of the vast and depressing damage we are doing to our world.

We hit the waterfront here in KK which has 1km of food stalls along the waterfront, and vast markets selling all manner of things, including some things which should not be sold, such as sea shells and coral.  We were disappointed with the local satay but enjoyed seafood noodles at another stall.  I was served by a delightful little boy who was obviously relishing his role as assistant to his parents; I watched as the family went about their evening’s business at their stall with humour and gentleness.  It was a lovely scene.  I gave the lad one of my mangoes as a thank you.  The local mangoes are actually Filipino – they are known as “manga manila” – and are very delicious and sweet.  We’ve tried choko, dragonfruit, buah salek and the local bananas.

Our accommodation in KK is ok; it is a room in a backpackers , which is all we could find in the budget range, so popular is KK, and like so many businesses here it is staffed by Filipinos, who are friendly and keep the place very clean and are clearly very bored as they drape and droop listlessly over the furniture.  Our room is no. 77 but there appear to be only 4 or 5 rooms in the whole place, so things are a little odd.  All sorts of people come and go, and in fact the whole of KK is completely booked out.  Everywhere is extremely busy.

On Sunday we spent the whole morning exploring the large market which transforms the street outside our hostel from a traffic-choked street into a bustling corridor of mercantilism; we bought a number of things there including new sandals for us both – mine had collapsed and were held together by safety pins – and a new sunhat for me, to replace the aged and battered one I still cling on to but Hong Joo is happy to see the end of!

Fish, birds, dogs, coffee, tea, delicious homemade kueh (cakes) and sweets, stamps from Sabah, a vast variety of things for sale.  We returned our purchases to the hostel and then made our way down to the Sabah museum, a beautiful building constructed in the style of a Rongus longhouse, with traditional gardens around it.  Excellent displays inside on the increasingly fascinating archaeology of Sabah – we are learning such a lot about early humans in SE Asia now; there is a tribe who closely resemble Africans in Borneo and may have been the result of a “rapid migration” from the dark continent directly to Borneo.  We know that the languages of Madagascar and Malay are related.  I was particularly interested to see a 10th Century (at least) amphora from Europe that had been found in Sabah.  Chinese traders also made jars which they traded with indigenous peoples for local products: the locals gave jars as dowry and used them for burials. The large wooden ornately carved coffins found in the rear of caves in Borneo is also a subject of ongoing research.  Fascinating stuff, and it is by visiting these places that one realises that the world is not as one thought it was at all, and one must re-visit one’s understandings  again.  Which is the wonder of travel.  The bookstore at the museum and those elsewhere is stocked with an enormous range of titles on all aspects of Borneo history, flora and fauna.  It is really impressive what has been written and is available in English.

The museum also tells about the early to modern histories of the area – the very tangled and complicated interactions with Portuguese, Dutch, Spaniards, English, Americans, all making the coastal regions especially rich and diverse and interesting.

We spent an interesting two hours in the cool interior before finding a bus to take us to the KK wetlands, a conservation project which tries to preserve a small piece of mangrove forest wherein live many species of fish and bird.  The wetlands are just full of plastic rubbish. We did not see much of interest, however, despite watching intently for some time, and Hong Joo began to feel ill, so we had to flee to the toilets, just in the nick of time, racing down seemingly endless boardwalks through mangrove and dodging monitor lizards.

A carefully chosen, but quite unmemorable and small meal that night, and today we set off for one of the tropical islands comprisig Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, which lies offshore here, Sapi.  We obtained tickets from our hotel which were cheaper than at the wharf, but one slight complication was that all their boats were full!  I could not believe that hundreds of people were also setting off there on a Monday morning but they were indeed.  KKis a popular destination for mainland Chinese who can fly here direct on Air Asia.  After two hours of fluffing about we were finally ushered to a small speedboat which in 10 minutes delivered us to the jetty at Sapi, whose small beach was completely covered in visitors.  We found a trail up to the top of the hill and followed that, dodging huge monitor lizards and hearing macques monkeys – fortunately they did not see us or we would have had to part with camera,lunch, and bags – everything in fact – we came out to a tiny beach littered with plastic, which we had all to ourselves. We had some lovely swimming in the very warm sea, however, and using the snorkel and mask we had hired, saw many fish.

After a while we walked back to the main beach which had now emptied out and we snorkelled over beautiful coral, and saw unbelievably brightly coloured fish, of many sizes and the most peculiar colours and patterns – my favourite was a large translucent one with many orange dots and a big splash of yellow near its tail.  Fantastic!  Here a little of the coral has survived and that was lovely to see too, and the huge bright purple starfish.

Several large fish were so hungry they attacked me – I have fish tooth marks still on my knee and legs!.  We stayed til the very last minute snorkelling, getting the last boat back, whose motor cut out in the middle of the choppy South China Sea, but fortunately the man did get it started again.  His evident alarm did concern me, though, as I contemplated various rescue scenarios from the craft of differing sizes nearby.

We both enjoyed that day enormously.

It is 7pm so we had better go eat – it took me ages to find this internet cafe, and Hong Joo is waiting for me!  We’ll head to the seafront again for Malay and Filipino delights.