Malaysia, Singapore & Borneo

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur early in the morning and caught a taxi from the airport to the centre of Kuala Lumpur where we would be staying. Our budget hotel was located in the Indian district of the city, and after a quick freshen up, we went in search of some food (which always seems to dictate our movements!) before heading over to the business district to see the famous Petronas Towers.

The Petronas Towers, also known as the twin towers, are the highest twin buildings in the world and stand out against the Kuala Lumpur’s skyscraper skyline. They were dramatic to look at and we circled the bottom of the towers admiring the site of the towers against the sunny blue sky.

We then dropped into the Cultural Museum in Kuala Lumpur which was exhibiting some aboriginal artefacts and tools.

From Kuala Lumpur we travelled north to a place called Selangor, which is famous for Batu Caves, a collection of iconically holy Hindu temples and Shrines housed in limestone caves, which have been drawing in Hindu pilgrims to the Malaysian site for over 120 years.

As we arrived at the entrance steps, we were greeted by a large gold statue of the the Hindu God, Shiva. Up the steep slope of steps, we could see an impressive view of the city behind us – a stark contrast to the caves ahead. Populated by many monkeys as well as people, the steady stream of people in and out the caves did nothing to detract from the sheer size of the cave. With candles lit, and colour pictures as decoration, we wandered through to visit the shrine and to the see the opening of the cave from above us at the other end.

Exploring the city, it was then our time to see the wilder part of Malaysia. We were picked up by a minibus that left daily on tours to Taman Negara. Two hours into the journey we stopped at a place called Jerantut to have some lunch and a chance to book any excursions, before continuing for another two hours until we reached Kuala Tembeling Jetty. It was then time to board the long boat, the only other way to arrive to Taman Negara apart from by road. Experiencing the three hour journey by boat was definitely the best was to introduce us to the jungle and its surroundings and begin our adventure in the Malaysian jungle, with views of water buffalo and shouting macaques.

We moored the long boat at a floating restaurant where we greeted and given a brief introduction to Taman Negara. Half listening and looking at the information presented, we couldn’t quite believe that we were in Malaysia’s National Park, and the worlds oldest tropical rainforest at over 130 million years old! We ate some food before catching the shuttle bus to our accommodation for two nights: an eco camp which housed people in both tents and camping pods. Exhausted from the long day of travelling, we settled for an early night, but not before walking down to the river to watch the sunset.

The following morning we caught a small two man boat to the other side of the river to the national park, where we registered for our permits before taking ourselves along the “Kanopi Walkway” to explore the rainforest for the first time. Along the boardwalk we saw giant trees, a variety on insects including spiders, butterflies and even stick insects, and many forests squirrels.

Arriving at the canopy walkway, we paid our fee and climbed up. Standing over forty meters above ground over a swaying walkway was slightly nerve wracking to begin with but it was cool to experience the forest from a different height than the boardwalk earlier on.

From the canopy walk, we took a detour along the boardwalk towards the viewing point at Bukit Terisek where we climbed many stairs to reach the top, seeing huge trees and their giant buttress roots along the way. We sat to appreciate the view over the mountains before making our way down the steep slope – this path was not as well trodden as the one we had come up, the well-maintained boardwalk and handrails had stopped replaced with a large stone steps covered in smaller gravel-like pieces which were harder to walk on, with sometimes even a rope to hold onto due to some steps having been broke or barely there on the steep slope down. Meandering through the forest, we found our way back onto the boardwalk and took a leisurely stroll back to the boat to return us to the other side of the river.

The following day we spent some time looking around the village we were in, with the main central road full of tour operators offering various packages for the jungle. After some research and checking different tour options, we signed ourselves up (together wit Greg a French guy who was also staying at Eco Resort) for a jungle trek of two days and one night camping, before continuing to go down to the jetty to book ourselves onto a night jungle walk.

As the dark night drew in, we fed our bellies, and made our way back to the jungle side for our night tour. Covered in mosquito spray we were ready to go! The walk went slowly through the boardwalk that we had previously been to, but with a guide who had a well trained eye and knew the best spots for spotting wildlife, we managed to see huntsman spiders, three different specie of stick insects, a leaf fungus that glowed in the dark, and most exciting of all scorpions which glowed bright in the dark against our guides uv light. It was such an incredible thing to witness!! Getting an early night, we packed a small bag with sleeping and walking stuff for a small trek and went to bed.

We met the rest of our trekking group the following morning at the tour office. Our guide, nicknamed ‘Captain’ by some Japanese tourists on our walk, had laid out sleeping mats, two days worth of food and water, divided between 8 of us. After repacking everything and briefly introducing ourselves to everyone, we set off down to the jetty and to the other side of the river to collect our jungle permits. Shortly after the routine permit and bag checking, we made our way back to our long boat but not before spotting our very first hornbill of the trip. This bird was happily hanging out on the wooden decking, uninterested in us taking close up snaps and with some even taking selfies with the hornbill.


We continued floating in our long boat down the river to our next stop: the canopy walk. Ascending the steep stairs, we went along the canopy walk as a group, and with some more terrified than others we slowly each made it across cheering the others on. We continued for a couple of hours in the boat to our drop off point, seeing a Samba deer, kingfishers, eagles, and macaques monkeys. Arriving at the jungle and where we would begin our six hour hike, we took a few minutes to relax before heading into the jungle with Captain leading the way.

We kept quiet listening out for any wildlife, and as there had been rain the previous day, we all tucked our trousers into our socks to avoid leeches from the forest floor clinging to us and making their way to our skin and through our socks, ( for once I was grateful that I had extra thick socks on despite the heat!) The trail was muddy and boggy in some parts and we had to jump over and cross rivers over single log bridges, some made by us and others already there. Some rivers were impossible to cross without getting our feet wet, whilst others we had to abandon our boots altogether and cross barefoot.

Reaching our place of camp for the night definitely made the hike worthwhile. As a group we were tired but we followed the forest path to a clearing that led to a massive rock cave. Climbing up the rocks to the opening of the Kepayang Besar cave, it struck us immediately how big the cave was. It wasn’t hard to imagine how elephants had once settled here whilst moving around the island. Elephant footprints could still be seen, the domed ceiling was covered in bats, and large toads were hiding in small corners.

Arriving whilst we still had some daylight, we set up camp, washed the dishes in the stream nearby, whilst Captain began to prepare dinner. It was late and dark before we sat down to eat but it felt like a feast was being prepared after such a long days walk. We sat around together and ate in candlelight whilst talking and enjoying the elephant cave atmosphere. Just before bed, we saw a family of porcupines scurrying around the perimeter of the cave, excited by the smells of food. With only 14 people in the cave, it was a lovely atmosphere and didn’t feel overcrowded with tourists like some treks are. It was truly amazing to have spent a night in a cave as massive as this and it is definitely something we will never forget.

The next morning, we ate breakfast and headed out for the next six hours of our walk, back down to the main river. Our first stop had us heading to Gua Kepayang Kecil – afar more compact cave known for its bat population (and only as I found out later that snakes were known to frequent there also!!!). The cave was teeming with bats, and Captain seemed to be on the hunt for something. He seemed disappointed that he could not show us any snakes, but I think most of us in the group sighed with relief!!! (If I had seen a snake I definitely would not be sticking around but running in the other direction!)
Through dense forest interspersed with bamboo, we crossed rivers over single logs, and trudged through the muddy forest path. We even saw elephant footprints along the trail!! Some walked at a fast pace, whilst others ambled on. We continued for most of the day, stopping only for lunch, and to remove the odd leech that had crept in through socks or trousers. With the end in sight, we finished our hike finally at the national parks ranger house taking in the view and celebrating what we had accomplished with a slice of banana cake and a well deserved rest.

Our boat then collected us, and glided through the rapid water fast, splashing most of us and soaking us all from the waist down. The boat was full of water but Captain didn’t seem to mind, and just laughed at us all as were getting soaked. On the way back, we pulled up to an island where there were still some indigenous people living in their small communities. ‘Orangi Asli’ or ‘original people’ as they are known, continue to live in their small tribes with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in Taman Negara and call themselves Batek.

“Orang Asli” simply means “original people” in the Malay language, and refers to the aboriginal tribes who were the first human occupants of the Malay Peninsular. The Orang Asli who continue to live a nomadic, hunting-and-gathering lifestyle in Taman Negara call themselves Batek.

The Batek is a gentle race of people, short in stature, dark-skinned, and with tight curly hair. Their houses are simple, palm-thatched shelters, one for each family group, with several families usually staying together. We were told that along the Tembeling River, less than 500 Batek are encountered. The Batek depend largely on forest produce for their food supply- fruits, yams, and small animal life such as monkeys and squirrels which are hunted with blowpipes. We were fortunate enough to be shown how the blowpipes were made from bamboo and how the needle from bamboo was tipped with poison in order to kill their prey. We each took it in turn to use the blowpipe to hit the target. It was harder than it looked, but half of the group managed to hit the target spot on. We were all rewarded with our own small needles as a souvenir.

The Batek people also showed us how they start fire from scratch using only friction. We were fascinated as they had a fire going in no time at all! Dave was desperate to try so he and Greg did their best cave man impressions but unfortunately couldn’t start the fire. I’m sure after more practice they would have been able to but Captain was certain that we had to move on before it got dark.

We emerged back on the bank of the Tembeling River and all had a coffee together before heading back to the tour office to return the backpacks and other equipment we had borrowed. Hugging each other goodbye, we waved each other off as we all moved in different directions towards our next adventure.

We caught a bus the next morning to Cameron Highlands, 200 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur and the highest region in mainland Malaysia. Popular with tourists, with a cooler temperature than the humid jungle, and lush with green surroundings, Cameron Highlands is the tea capital of the country. Keen to explore, we booked ourselves on a day tour the following day to see the best of Cameron Highlands.

We were collected at eight o’clock the morning of our tour, with three others, two from Spain and one from Germany. A 45 minute drive took us to our first stop, where our driver led us through an hour of trekking in the lowland rainforest, pointing out various medicinal plants and bamboo trees which they forest. We were in search of the famous Rafflesia flower, a parasitic plant with no stem,leaves or roots – the largest in the world; it can grow up to one meter in diameter and weigh up to 10kgs. The eradication of he rainforest (for logging and palm oil plantations) has bought the Rafflesia close to extinction and it is now on the endangered plants list.


We were shown various stages of the Rafflesia in different spots, from the tiny buds, to the ever growing bud, until it flowers, blooms for seven days, before dying. This specie of Rafflesia flower didn’t smell at all which also made them more endangered.

Resting for an hour over a bite to eat, many people were on a half day tour, so it was just us and the Spanish couple who were in the jeep for the rest of the tour. We were on our way to the Sungei Palas, and Boh tea gardens. Sungei Palas is home to BOH’s newly-built Tea Centre which features an exhibition hall, a souvenir and tea shop and the Tea’ria. We were able to look through the Tea Factory’s windows to see the traditional process still being used today. Our driver explained how the tea plantations were farmed and which leaves were used for which teas. We stopped in the BOH tea shop to try the fresh highland tea over the estate views of the lush green tea plantations.


We then drove towards Gunung Brinchang, the second highest mountain in the Cameron Highlands, where there was an observation tower near the top which looked over the rainforest below and surrounding mountains.

After a quick stop here, we went to a place called Mossy Forest. The high forest mountains strip moisture from the clouds, hence referred to as ‘cloud-forests’ or ‘mossy-forests’. Here the general appearance of the forest trees tends to be dwarfed to about 10m tall.There are also large numbers of mosses, liverworts, ferns and fern allies, as well as, pitcher plants, rhododendrons and wild orchids associated with these forests. It was a magical and mystical place, and I almost expected to see little fairies dotted along the mossy ground and trees.

Our driver took us back to the main town as our tour was now over. It was interesting to see everything jammed packed into a days excursion, and on the way down from the hills, we saw many of the hillsides covered in greenhouses and poly tunnels where all different types of fruits, vegetables, and flowers were growing. Famous for its strawberries we had to stop off to treat ourselves to some strawberries and cream to end the day!


We caught the bus from Cameron Highlands back to the capital of Kuala Lumpur, before making our way to a town called Melaka (Malacca) just south of the capital city. Melaka is a unesco world heritage site full of history. One of Southeast Asia’s greatest trading ports back in the 15th century, visitors still pour in today to experience the hustle and bustle of night markets, heritage architecture, and famously glitzy rickshaws. After a walk along the Melaka River in the sunshine to look at the famous Dutch inspired coloured houses and street filled graffiti before walking around the famous Christ Church square, and the ruins of St Paul’s Church, and then the port area.

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That evening we walked around Melaka’s centre and the famous Jonker Walk, a street in historical Chinatown with many antiques, textile and handicraft stores as well as galleries, cafes and restaurants. As daylight disappears, the once bare streets turn into a busy and vibrant night market on the weekends, souvenir and food stalls til your hearts content.

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Leaving Melaka we made our way to Johor Bahru: a town nearing the border of Malaysia and Singapore. With only an evening and the next day in Johor Bahru to see the sights before moving onto Singapore, we spent the rest of our day walking around the city, Chinatown, and Little India. The following day we went to visit the Glass Temple, one of the major Hindu temples in the city covered almost entirely in glass mosaic pieces. Embellished with 300,000 pieces of  red, blue, yellow, green, purple and white glass, including its floors, pillars and walls, there are large crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and their light reflected on the glass surroundings.

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We caught the bus over the causeway and borders into Singapore, and with a couple of metro trains we arrived in central Singapore to our Air BnB where we would we staying for the next few days. Based on the edge of the iconic Orchard Road, this shopping district is a shopaholics heaven with malls full of clothing from catwalk couture to on-trend high street, designer outlets and independent boutiques lining the busy street, where you could literally ‘shop til you drop’.
By day we explored the sights by bus: the famous skyscrapers contrasting with the smoky temples; the gardens of Marina Bay – an eco-friendly attraction that houses many species of flora and fauna as well as being sustainable, together with it being an amazing and beautiful natural space; the world heritage site Botanical Gardens which is a wonderland for all things natural and green from turtles swimming in the lakes to the old jungle rainforest which sits quietly and undisturbed from the rest of the city.

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Since we were in Singapore we decided to visit Universal Studios – a day where we could act like big kids was definitely needed after constantly moving from place to place. It was an amazing day: we had gotten up early and were at the gates way too early but even so, the excitement was there. Talking to the man at the gate, he said that just before the gates were to open, there would be a chance to win fast passes as a prize for those who shouted the loudest. In for a penny in for a pound, we put our embarrassment to the side and whooped and cheered and clapped when the time finally came. Our efforts paid off and we won five fast passes for our day at Universal Studios! With rollercoasters and simulator rides, 3D and 4D ride experiences, the over-stimulation lived up to our expectations and it was well worth getting up for! Such a fun day out as it ended with a meal at Hard Rock Cafe.

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Sadly it was time to leave Singapore and fly into Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian’s northern state of Sabah on the Borneo island. With friendly locals and lush rainforests, we couldn’t wait to explore Borneo! An internal flight took us to Sandakan, where we would visit many wild animals. Our first area to visit was Sepilok, an Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and sanctuary. Located in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, the centre opened in 1964 as the first project to home orphaned orangutans rescued from logging sites, palm oil plantations, poachers, or those who kept them illegally as pets. Trained to survive in the wild and then released into their natural wild habitat, they are allowed to live freely in the reserve away from potential harm.

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We were lucky enough to view the nursery area where the younger orangutans first learn to be outside and play in climbing frames, encouraging them to play and keep off the floor to avoid germs, and swing from rope to feeding platforms. As we walked through the forest we also saw a few high in the tree canopy resting!
The centre attracts tourists and researches alike, giving them the opportunity to watch the orangutangs up close in their natural habitat. A boardwalk which leads to a viewing gallery and feeding platform where the apes are fed milk and bananas twice a day saw large groups of tourists, all silent and in awe at what we were witnessing. The orangutans swung along a network of ropes to the platform, ate what they wanted before disappearing into the forest again. Mothers with their new borns also came to the platform to get the needed food source to help their young grow strong.

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Opposite to the sanctuary was a rehabilitation centre for sun bears, the smallest bears in the world, and an endangered specie due to their rainforest homes being threatened with logging and deforestation for palm oil plantations, and illegal poaching. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) aims rehabilitate these sun bears and to improve animal welfare together with raising awareness for these amazing animals. Observation platform allowed us to see the bears roaming on the forest floor in search of food, as well as climbing the tall tree trunks to nap in the canopy branches.

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On our way out of the centre we were greeted by a mischievous orangutan who like to escape out of the orangutan sanctuary to explore. The juvenile orangutan was happily on the roof watching us pass by, but knew he wasn’t supposed to be their as a staff member encouraged him down with treats. After some objections, he came down with a little bit of a huff and swung his way down the steps toward the other side of the jungle and into orangutan sanctuary.

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The following day we took a taxi to see the famous Proboscis Monkey at Labuk Bay. In the centre of the mangrove forests of Semawang, the privately owned sanctuary located within a palm oil plantation and estate, feeds Borneo’s indigenous proboscis monkeys allowing us to observe them close up. Walking along the entrance boardwalk we heard a commotion and it wasn’t long before we spotted the reason…

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The remarkable males sport big dangling noses, reddish flat-top hairstyles, white tails and markings, and pot bellies. The longer the nose, the more attractive they appear to the females. The females on the other hand, are much smaller and have up-turned noses. As we watched the proboscis monkeys interact, we noticed that alpha male was always surrounded by a hareem of females and was always the first to feast on the platforms during feeding time. The ‘bachelors’ or other male proboscis monkeys who were always vying for female attention stayed a safe distance away from the alpha unless they wanted to challenge him. Some males fed at the platforms while others walked along the railings, often sitting still, and erect, and just looking very placid.

 

These monkeys were incredible and interesting but by no means cute. They were strong and thumped and galloped along the boardwalk floor with force, jumping on the the tin roofs from the trees with a clatter and bang. Although we were startled, our presence barely affected them. Their warning hisses to others showed the possible anger at the threat of harm.

A short distance away and we came to another feeding station and platform in an area with more clearing to view. Here there was proboscis monkeys as well as several silver leaf monkeys known as langurs or latungs. These delicate looking monkeys were being fed and among them were mothers with their reddish-blonde babies.  Watching these monkeys was just as enchanting as the proboscis experience. None of the monkeys seemed to care that they were the objects of great admiration and a lot of photo-taking.


We flew back to Kota Kinabalu where we decided to do our scuba diving three day PADI course for open water diving. After comparing companies and prices, we settled on a company called Sea Tango where we met our instructor Leicester who would show us the ropes. Our first day of the course was a classroom day at their offices where we would learn the basics and practices of scuba diving by watching videos and completing questions about safety procedures, diving, and what to be aware off before taking a final multiple choice exam at the end of the day. After a long day of videos and cramming information about sauna diving into our brains, we completed the test and passed with flying colours. The boring part was over and we could finally put into practice what we had learnt the following two days.

 

The next morning, we met Lester on our Sea Tango boat at Sutera Harbour and headed out to the other side of the sea. Getting our permits for the day, we headed to our first diving spot. With the water a clear blue-green, we suited and booted up in wetsuits, boots, BCD scuba jackets, tanks, snorkels and find. Going over safety checks we went entered the sea one by one, hand signals ready to communicate under water. After getting used to breathing a different way a we settled into learning requirements for our PADI course practicals such as buoyancy control, air checking, changing and borrowing air supply as well as navigating the water.

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Over the two days we completed five open water dives that would give us our first experiences as beginner scuba divers. Leicester was a great instructor and explained it all extremely well to us. He was very knowledgeable about the waters we were diving in and we felt completely safe under his instruction. We saw a puffa fish, shoals of fish, amazing coloured coral gardens and rock formations, plenty of nemo clown fish and anemones and even a turtle which absolutely unbelievable!
After a great time in Bornean Malaysia, it was time to say goodbye and move on to the Philippines where we were meeting friends.

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