I'm not one for schlocky summations or anything of that sort, but I think it is worth saying that this experience was truly incredible. It did all the things that travel is supposed to do (give you human perspective, help you become more outgoing, be fun), but more importantly for me, it really re-established my sense of wonder in the natural world. Between the majestic mantas soaring around me, the curmudgeonly Komodo dragons silently watching me, the WILD oranghutans swinging above me, the explosion of invertebrate diversity that is Lembeh Strait, and the plethora of other critters I encountered, I fell in love with nature all over again. I will never be able to describe the feeling that I had when I first dipped into the waters of Komodo, or when I stood at the edge of my first rainforest, just listening to the birds sing, the insects buzz, and the monkeys scream. So if you have ever had any inclination to leave the country, whether for the animals, the architecture, the history, or the people, I encourage you with all my heart to make it happen at all costs, and see the wild wonderful word.
My first flight was from Manado (northeast Sulawesi) to the capital city of Jakarta. I got in pretty late at night, dragged my photo and scuba gear to my hotel, and quickly passed out for the night.
I woke up at 5 the next morning, and began the longest travel day of my life. I first caught an airport shuttle to my terminal. Then I dragged my bags through security to the ticketing line. They couldn't offer me any assistance, and I needed to pay baggage overweight fees, so I had to drag my stuff around some more. Eventually, I got to my gate, and waited for the flight to Kuala Lumpur.
When I got to KL, I was horrified to see the long immigration line. I didn't have too much energy after the surgery, so I asked one of the security guards for help. She told me to go to the diplomat line, and although the immigration officer there was skeptical of my right to be in that line, he let me through.
I made my way to the ticketing lines again (I had to take a train to get to the right airport), and went through the same stuff (baggage fees and no assistance). Unfortunately, my terminal was the second furthest one in the airport. Since I was afraid of damaging my camera gear, I was carrying all of it in my backpack. Between my time at the Jakarta airport, the train ride with all my stuff, and my long walk in the KL airport, the weight of my bag was really weighing on me. By the time I made it through security (where I found the friendliest, chattiest, "pound it"-iest security guard of my adventure), I was pretty pooped. However, I thought I would be ok, so I had a bite of the greasy Malay stir fry that I would miss so much.
Eventually I boarded the plane, and it was shortly after takeoff that I really regretted eating that plate of kuey teow. My stomache was uncomfortable and bloated before we left, but as soon as we took off, the decreasing pressure made it much worse. I ended up spending most of the 2.5 hour flight in the back of the plane doubled over in pain. At one point I asked for water, but the steward couldn't give me any unless I went and got my wallet... I finally had some relief as we descended into Hong Kong.
Although the descent had helped my pain, I was still in a lot of discomfort. As I slid my backpack on, it only got worse... By the time I had walked a few hundred feet from the plane, I needed to lie down to stop the pain. Since I had to lie down so often to even be able to walk, I missed my baggage on the carousel, and then couldn't find it in the unclaimed baggage area. I asked several people for help, but no one gave me any aid (neither when I asked for it, or when I was lying on the ground groaning). However, I finally had my bags, and I went to get some Hong Kong dollars to pay for a taxi to my hotel. As luck would have it, my debit card was rejected for the first time in my travels... Things were feeling pretty hopeless at this point.
Luckily, I had some USD left over from when I was in Cambodia, and I was able to trade these for Hong Kong dollars. After 3.5 hours in the airport, I finally caught a taxi to my hotel and checked in. When I got there, I realised that it was a cliche "good news/bad news" sort of deal:
The good news was that the room was possibly the nicest one I have ever stayed in with a panoramic window overlooking the ocean.
The bad news was that I had to leave for the airport again in about 4 hours and I was still in a lot of pain.
I let me parents know what the situation was, and tried to decide if I should go to the hospital here. In the mean time, my parents contacted out good family friend Lei, and just let him totally save the day. He told them that he was currently in China, and actually has friends in Beijing (my next connection). He started making calls, and long story short, he got me wheelchair assistance for the rest of the way home. He was even so insistent that at one point, two wheelchairs came to pick me up!
So with help, I went from Hong Kong to Beijing, and Beijing to Boston. Although I had residual pain from the night before, I didn't develop any more pain. This was undoubtedly thanks to the wheelchair assistance taking the weight of my bags off of me. Although it wasn't an altogether pleasant 14 hour flight home, it went a hell of a lot better than I expected.
When I got back, I had to wait through one more customs line, get medical help for a kid who had fallen off a bag cart and cut his head pretty badly, and then I was home!
Since I was on an island, getting to the hospital was a bit of a production, but luckily 'Tian came with me to translate and help. The staff at the dive shop first had to ferry me to the mainland on their boat. Once we got there, we caught two motorcycle taxis (aka random guys on the street with motorcycles) to drive us to the nearest hospital. I was there for a while (along with several people who had fallen off motorbikes), but at some point I was in too much pain to stand and I was puking, so the doctor told me to go to the big city and get to a better hospital. Good thing, because the first hospital was extremely poorly lit and everything in it looked like it was made in the 1950's.
So they wheeled me out to the curb, and threw me in a car to go to Manado, the main city (and interestingly, the place where they discovered the second extant species of coelocanth). I slept through most of the 2 hour drive, and then headed in to the new hospital for the check in process. This place was clearly much more modern, so I handed over all my remaining cash (just enough for my deposit) and was wheeled into a shared room with an Indonesian man.
One of the interesting things about Indonesians is that when one person is in the hospital, the whole family comes and stays with them... 24/7. This man had his young daughter staying with him, and they just had no sense of consideration for neighbors. It came to a head when they were loudly talking on the phone at 3am. I called in the nurses to ask them to stop, but they pretended to be asleep! After this happened a few times, the nurses got annoyed, and thought I was crazy... Even though I had earbuds to listen to music (and drown it out), I didn't want to waste the battery on my phone. I hadn't realized that I would be staying in the hospital, so I didn't bring my phone charger...
The next day, I updated my parents, to tell them that I was in the hospital, didn't know what was wrong, and my phone was dying. So I'm sure they had a fun few days.
Over the next two days, I was visited by a doctor once a day for about 10 minutes. He would listen to my stomach and chest with a stethoscope, then say he didn't know what was wrong (in mediocre English), and then leave. On the third day, he decided that I should have an ultrasound for my abdomen. I was wheeled down, and they performed the proceedure. Once I got home, I found out that this proceedure isn't used for diagnosis on adults in the US since it is very unreliable, but that's not the point. Another hour after the ultrasound, the doctor came back and told me that I might have appendicitis (but they really didn't know), and they wanted to perform emergency exploratory surgery...... After I paid for it. So I pushed the limits on my credit card, and they wheeled me down to the operating room. I let my parents know that I might have appendicitis and that my phone was dead, so if they didn't hear from me for a few days, I still might be alive (but a week without any word would probably be a bad sign).
I was a bit surprised when they wheeled me straight into the operating theater, especially since I was still in my street clothes that I came in with, and I was still in my bed (from my room). However, this didn't seem to bother them, so I just went with it. Once I was in the operating room, some of the nurses were looking at me and laughing, and a few even talked to me. I soon started to feel a bit sleepy, and right before I passed out, I remember them telling me that they might have to shave me a bit...
When I woke up, I was butt naked and still in my bed, lying on a blood soaked pad. Once they noticed that I was awake, they brought me back to my room (without a word on whether the surgery was successful or if I still had an appendix...). It took me a while to have much energy, but when I did, I sat up and removed my blood pad so I could get comfortable.
The day after the surgery, my surgeon stopped by to let me know that I did in fact have appendicitis, and they had successfully removed my appendix (and with a laproscopic procedure, fancy). Unfortunately, it had begun to rupture before they got in there. Luckily, the doctor had his phone out during surgery, and took pictures of the ruptured appendix so I knew he was telling me the truth. He told me that since it had ruptured, I would need to stay longer and take strong antibiotics for a while.
The next few days were full of nausea and vommiting, up to 12 times per day. I was so nauseous that I could hardly stand, and their offerings of white bread and room temperature water were of little interest to me. Eventually someone from the dive shop came by and brought me my phone charger so I could let my parents know I was alive... It turns out they had called the American embassy in Jakarta and my mom was about to buy a flight over here to see if I was alive! The embassy had tried calling the hospital to find out about me, but of course no one would answer the phone.
The doctor continued to stop by once a day to check on me. Despite my growing concerns about the continued debilitating nausea, he assured me that everything was alright. I wasn't convinced, and I kept getting info from Carl (friend and future doctor) suggesting that they weren't giving me the correct treatment. For instance, they were only feeding me white bread, which American doctors don't do because it clogs up the digestive system (which you are already trying to kickstart back into action). I thought that maybe my symptoms were getting lost in translation, and the embassy offered to translate for us. I asked for his cell phone number so they could call, but he gave me a fake number... Carl suggested that I might have an illeus, and I offered this idea to the doctor. He promptly shut down the idea (although when I got home, my doctor said theat my symptoms fit this exactly).
Before I ended up in the hospital, I had bought a plane ticket home (leaving on the evening of the 22nd). After a few days in the hospital, I was really hoping that I would be able to make it... I was slowly starting to feel better, but they were still feeding me through an IV due to my nausea (and just not wanting to eat any more damn plain white bread). There was nothing to do in the hospital besides play on my phone and read. Unfortunately, I only brought one book to Indonesia (The Night Circus), and I finished that in the first day... Luckily, Dody was there to keep me company (one of the employees from the dive shop). He stayed in my room most days to help translate with nurses and to talk to me. I really appreciated having him around, and he was a really nice guy to top it all off.
Seven days after the surgery, I was ready to leave. The shop had packed up all my gear and all my stuff and sent it over to their office in the city. In addition, I was able to catch a ride to the airport with them. Basically, they made my life easy for this part. Before I left though, I had to pay my hospital bill. Unfortunately, I had put the surgery on my credit card, and this charge wouldn't go through since it was maxing out the card (it was expensive, but $7000 for 10 nights in the hospital and an emergency surgery is damn cheap in my books (as an American)). In addition, my phone had broken, and the microphone wouldn't work anymore, so I couldn't call anyone (my bank included). Luckily, my parents were able to help me out through email, and I got out of the hospital.
The first thing that I did after walking out of the hospital was go and buy a cold drink. It was the first time I had anything that wasn't room temperature water in 10 days! It wasn't quite the first bit of sugar that I had though, since one of my roommates in the hospital had some sort of party and gave me a piece of cake. At one point one of the nurses also gave me a Mcdonald's hamburger since she felt bad for me. In any case, it was great to get more outside food. I followed up my cold drink with a big meal at a local restaurant with Dody. This was stupid since my digestive tract still wasn't working, and I ended up literally painfully full and bloated for the rest of the day... But it was worth it for one last Indonesian meal. That evening, Dody accompanied me to the airport, and after giving him my whole-hearted thanks, I was off for home.
My third day in Lembeh was a saturday, which meant that it was my day to go on a mandarin fish dive. Mandarin fish are these absurdly colorful dragonettes (I'll include a picture for reference, but unfortunately, I didn't take this one) that are famous for their crepuscular mating rituals. Most nights, some of them will come out of the reef, and dance together. I have heard that it is beautiful, so I was very much looking forward to it. Unfortunately, things were about to get a bit rougher for me...
We went out for our two morning dives. Again, it was incredible. Luckily we saw some mandarin fish (not dancing), as well as the more rare blue and yellow color morph of the ribbon eel. The highlight was certainly these shrimp that we saw. I'm not exactly sure what they are called, but the british divers liked calling them sexy shrimp (and I can see why, from their coloration and dancing).
Luckily, I was able to get some good pictures. I had noticed near the end of the first day, that despite me charging them, my lights seemed to be getting dimmer on each dive. I realized that my proprietary charger (I only brought one) was broken. I contacted the company, and they were really nice about getting me in contact with their Asia representative, and trying to get me a charger. However, by some stroke of luck, one of the other divers had the same charger! (by the way, this would be my last bit of luck before I came home). I couldn't believe that he had it, since it is a proprietary charger that only works on two models of lights made by a small company in Florida. He really saved my butt.
After we got back from the morning dives, we headed over to the cantina for lunch. That's when it all began...
I started having pain during lunch, to the point where I couldn't sit up straight. It was a bit generalized, but was most localized in my back. I had been pushing my no decompression limits on each dive, 4 dives a day, for the past 2.5 days, so I was a bit worried about being bent. The symptoms really didn't match the bends, but I sat out the afternoon dive, and gave DAN (Divers Alert Network) a call instead.
They basically said that if it was the bends, it was a very strange manifestation. They suggested that I see if the pain persists, and if it does, to go to the hospital. I took a nap to see if that would help, but it really didn't. By the time they were leaving for the mandarinfish dive, I still wasn't in any shape to get in the water, so I sat it out... I skipped dinner, and just tried to get comfortable instead.
The next morning was the same story. Lots of pain, and no appetite. Again, I skipped the dives, and this time asked the guys at the front desk to take me to the hospital. Thus began my epic.
Any doubts I had about Lembeh before are gone. Today was incredible.
Every dive has multiple new species of nudibranchs. In the morning we saw a blue ring octopus. In the afternoon, mandarin fish. At night, I spent 40 minutes on one sea fan taking pictures of the pygmy sea horses, shrimps, crabs, and fish. I also saw a massive school of razorfish, many dancing shrimp on the ground, There was so much that I feel like I can't remember most of it...
Really, it's too hard to describe. The sites are often just sand or mud (although today we went to an incredible wall in nudi falls). There is an amazing amount of life, and I keep hearing that it's relatively bad right now. Lucky for me, I'm easily impressed with marine macro life.
I think I'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking...
After sleeping 4 hours (couldn't get the O-Ring back in my camera housing the night before), I woke up for breakfast at 7. After breakfast, we headed out for our first dive. After the 2-2.5 hour rides in Komodo, I was surprised when we reached the site after only 15 minutes. I was more excited for this dive than I had ever been for any other dive (that I remember)! I've seen pictures from this place for years, and everyone at last nights dinner was so positive (particularly the woman who has been here 20 times). I was a bit surprised earlier by the fact that my dive guide didn't know what site we were going to before we left, or what we could see there once he did know the site. However, I was still very excited! I was further surprised by the fact that there was almost no dive briefing, but again I was just looking forward to getting in the water. We did our backroll entries, descended, and started poking around. I've heard that things are hard to find, so often it is your guide that finds the best stuff. The problem was that every time he found something, he would just tell the closest person (without notifying anyone else that he had found anything) and then keep going. It kind of felt like you either had to wait for him to find stuff, or look on your own, but you couldn't do both. In the end, we really didn't see much on the dive (although there was a cool snake eel, and 2 or 3 interesting nudibranchs), and followed a terrible profile (started shallow, and worked our way to the deepest spot closer to the end). I got out feeling pretty dissapointed. We took a surface interval, and then went down for our second dive. This time I felt less ignored by the guide, and was happier. We still didn't see much, but I understand that this is the nature of wildlife. All in all, I really did feel dissapointed after all the amazing things I've heard about this place. On the way back, several of the guests who have been here many times were talking about how it's not that good this year because there has been a lot of rain this, and as a result, many landslides running into the water and destroying the sites. Great.
At this point, I started to realize that I was acting pretty spoiled, since I still saw things that I've never seen before in my life! And I love nudibranchs, so even one new one should make a dive great. I think I just had unrealistic expectations of the site, and was underwhelmed by the guiding. However, I still had 2 dives left for the day, so I didn't pass judgement quite yet. After lunch, we headed back out for dive #3. Again, the briefing was short, and all they really said was that we can expect current. It turned out that this was a bit of an understatement! We spent almost the whole dive kicking against the current (there is nothing to hide behind) and almost all came up with headaches... BUT, the dive was completely awesome. At one point, one of the women that has been here many times (Fiona) started squealing underwater. She had spotted a pegasys mothfish (see picture) on her penultimate day of diving after specifically saying that she hadn't seen one in years and would like to.
We also observed some neat behavior ( that I didn't get a picture or video of) from a ribbon eel. We were watching it, and it started to reach a good distance out of its burrow... Finally, it snapped its head sideways, grabbed a small colorful fish, and dissappeared back into its burrow! It was incredible to watch.
Hanging out with Lisan and Anna in the jungle was super fun. We had a lot of great conversations, and got along really well. So when the time came to decide where I would go next, I chose to tag along with them to danau Toba (lake Toba, the largest volcanic cauldera lake in the world). Jhony was driving Ophelie and Maria back to Medan, so we decided we would tag along for half the journey, then take busses the rest of the way to Toba.
Although Jhony was an excellent guide in the forest, always finding sure footing, we didn't feel quite as safe with him on the road. In typical Indonesian fashion, he only spent about half the time on the correct side of the road, and spent the other half of the time in the other lane passing mildly slower cars (and barely getting back into the correct lane before a car came along in the other direction). The drive was full of interesting scenery highlighted by an erupting volcano! I saw the ash billowing out of the top and get pretty excited (as did all the other bule (tourists)). Jhony was less impressed because apparently this mountain experiences small scale eruptions almost constantly. I think it is amazing that people live right under a constantly erupting volcano, what a life...
Finally, Jhony dropped us off at a bus station and we said our goodbyes. Then we got on a local mid-sized bus. Although the seats were ok, the chainsmoking driver and his blasting stereo made this journey less than pleasant. After a longer than expected journey, we switched busses. Unfortunately, at this point we knew that we weren't going to make it in time for the last ferry to Samosir island in Toba, where we planned to stay. Luckily, we met a woman on the bus from Samosir who told us that there was another ferry that ran later, and landed only 4km from our destination! So after 13 hours of travel, including a pleasant night ferry ride, we made it to the island, found a hotel, and crashed.
As it turns out, lake Toba is an excellent place to relax. We got this vibe right from the beginning when the owner of the guesthouse lent me money to pay for the motorbike that I had taken to get there (I didn't have small change). One of the employees, Ari, was also incredibly friendly throughout our stay. Everyone made a big point of remembering our names, so they began or ended literally every sentence with our name! In addition, our room was actually a nice cottage that we all shared (and subsequently spent VERY little on housing, under $2.50 per night). When we walked down a short path behind the cottage, we were on the water and could swim any time. The surrounding town was also very nice! There were many great local restaurants that served excellent fresh fish, and a selection of excellent tropical deserts (banana doughtnuts and coconut cookies being the highlights).
Since this town is known as a place to relax, we set out to do just that. Unfortunately, Anna was feeling pretty sick the first day, so her relaxation was more mandatory than anything else. While Anna rested, Lisan and I explored the town and tried a whole variety of foods. One of the best parts of this was learning how friendly the local people are. As we walked down the street, most people would start a conversation with us and were always smiling as we talked. It was very interesting to learn how many locals were dating or married to Europeans (both long distance and local). As a result, many of them spoke a bit of dutch, and got to practice with the girls. In particular, Rosalie, the owner of Rosalie Restaurant, was very friendly and spoke excellent English (and what sounded like excellent dutch to me).
Once Anna was feeling better, we rented a few motorbikes to explore the island. Ari was very nervous handing over the keys to Lisan because she hadn't rode a bike in a year, but it all turned out ok! We headed south, since almost all tourists go north, and we climbed up into the mountains on the island. Out here, we got a really interesting view of the local people's lives. The culture is known as Batak Toba. The people used to be anamistic cannibals, but were converted to Christianity in the early 1800's (which creates a stark religious contrast with the rest of north Sumatra, which is strictly Muslim). Despite their religious conversion, they maintained many aspects of their culture, most notably their art style and architecture. As we rode in the hills, we saw many standard Indonesian houses with traditional Batak huts or graves next to them. We also saw many people in the fields farming, and had to be careful to avoid all the cows in the road. When the clouds parted, we got some excellent views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Anna got to try riding a motorbike for the first time, and picked it up with no problem! Eventually, we turned around and headed back to the hotel. We dropped off Lisan, and then Anna and I explored a bit further North, finding one beautiful example of Batak architecture!
The next day, teh weather was poor, so we took another rest day where I stuffed myself with more food. I also found a shop where the owner was busy carving some traditional Batak sculptures. Although there are many stores where you can buy them, it was really neat to see him actually carving them and shaping their grotesque forms. I ended up chatting with him for a while and buying several statues. That night, we decided to head to a local bar to see how the locals partied. When we got there, we only found the band and a single dutch guy! Everyone ended up being really cool, and so they band kept playing and even let Anna and Lisan sing a few songs!
On my final full day, Lisan had to work on her Masters applications. So Anna and I rented a motorbike and headed north to find the hotsprings we had heard about. We drove halfway around the island, following the coast, before coming to an isthmus connecting the "island" to the mainland. We drove onto the mainland, and quickly found a town that seemed to be called "hotspring." Every single building advertised that they had a hotspring, which meant a tiled pool fed from the hotspring. We wanted to find the natural one, so we rode up the mountain as far as we could. We came across one last older looking restaurant at the end of a very steep road, and went in. After having a drink (the price of admission), we walked behind the restaurant. Like each other place, they had a tiled pool fed from the hotspring. However, behind this you could see all the pipes that funneled the hot water to the town. We hiked up the mountain following these pipes and found the hotspring! In stark contrast to the surrounding land, this area was totally barren, and the rock was all completely white. The only color was in the bright yellow bottom of the stream, caused by sulfur being deposited by the water. The whole environment looked very alien. For the first time, it was actually really hot that day, so we did little more than stick a hand in the hot water. We walked back down and started driving back. We stopped at several "historical sites" such as the massive tomb of an ancient king (the one who converted them to Christianity). Since it was so hot, we also decided to stop at the big local beach. We had a great swim, surrounded by party boats that were basically just floating platforms with speakers. After we got out, we sat on the beach for a while to dry off. Shortly before we were going to leave, a massive group of locals showed up! Since we were the only westerners on the beach, they all descended upon us to take pictures with us! There was practically a line of people waiting for a picture. When we finally broke free, we headed back to the the town to meet up with Lisan and have one last dinner together...
A side note: for the past few years, I've been thinking about trying to move to Europe at some point (for instance, during a post-doc). I mentioned it to Lisan and Anna, and they made a strong case for the Netherlands... Maybe it's time to start learning dutch.
The next morning, I left early to start my 30 hour journey back to Komodo (most of which was spent waiting in airports... long layovers). From there, I'll get my dive gear and head to Sulawesi for a final set of diving and jungle trekking before I go home. I hated to leave Lisan and Anna (and their constant jokes about Trump and America (that I more that happily joined in on)), but I will visit them in Amsterdam soon, so it wasn't a goodbye, just a "sampe jumpe lagi" (see you later).
Driving back to Medan, I saw the bridgestone rubber plantation. The west totally destroys southeast asian countries...
Next stop was north Sumatra. I had a really hard time choosing where in Sumatra to go (since I have very limited time), but settled on flying into Medan then driving to Ketambe to see orangutans. As it turns out, this was probably the best decision I could have made.
When I got to Medan, I had no idea where I was going to stay for the night, or how I would get to Ketambe the next day... Luckily, since I was white, some locals introduced me to another white person at the airport. Her name was Lisan and she was from the Netherlands. We took the same bus into the city, and chatted for a while. When we got there, I said that I had no idea where I was going. Her friend was already waiting in the city, so she knew a hotel. I followed her to the Angel hotel, and got a bed in the dorm. She introduced me to her friend, Anna, and we started talking about our plans for the next few days. I told them about Ketambe and the good chance to see wild orangutans, and they decided to join me! I didn't have much of a plan, but luckily the owner of the guesthouse heard us talking about our plan, and offered a solution. She also had a guesthouse in Ketambe that offered jungle trekking (you need to do it through a guesthouse). I was skeptical at first, but when I looked up the guide, I was fully on board. His name is "Jungle" Jhony, and he is famous for his jungle tours. By all accounts, he is extremely knowledgable and friendly, and is one of the best guides in the area. So we signed up!
The next day was spent almost entirely driving to Ketambe. Although we had a car taking us, we had to go a long way around the national park to get to this town. In addition, many of the roads are very poorly maintained, and require slowly crawling through the potholes and ditches. Finally we got there and met Jungle Jhony. Just like everyone said, he was super friendly, and briefed us on our 3 days and 2 nights in the jungle. He also introduced us to the 2 french girls that would be accompanying us, Maria and Ophelie. The next morning, we suited up (leech socks and all), and headed out into the jungle. After about 15 minutes, all sounds of civilization ceased, and all we could hear was the birds and cicadas of the forest. After another hour, we began to have one of the greatest experiences of our lives! It started when Jhony stopped in his tracks, and looked up. Then he said "orangutan" and pointed up. There was one orangutan up in the trees looking back down at us. It soon started to move, jumping from tree to tree with us slowly following below. Eventually, we let it go away and continued. We came across a massive tree, and there were several more orangutans here. One of them was a huge alpha male, and he was joined by a smaller male and a female. The alpha male actually got pretty close, and at one point stared straight at us, showing off his large forehead crest. After a little while, he decided that he wanted to mate with the female, and started chasing her through the woods. We followed for a while, but he never quite caught her. We kept going, and saw a several more groups! In total, we probably saw around 10 orangutans that morning! Unfortunately, my pictures aren't too great. The sky behind them was very bright, but the animals were under the canopy, so they were in very dark shadows. This made them really hard to capture, and so at many times I just sat back and watched instead of taking pictures.
After this, we made camp next to a river. There was another guide and a porter who arrived to camp before us, so they had already set up camp and started cooking lunch. I felt spoiled to have everything done for me (and missed the feeling of adventure), but it was nice to be able to just relax and swim. After lunch, we went back for another hike, and found more orangutans! It was incredible to watch them swing between trees and to hear the guides mimick their sounds. We also briefly saw a black gibbon, which is apparently very rare (but is Jhony's favorite animal). We also did some fun "jungle" stuff like swinging on vines hanging from the canopy. Around sunset, we returned back to camp, had another swim, and then settled down for a gourmet meal cooked up by Jhony! I was amazed at the quality and the variety of the food that he cooked up with just one pan over a fire. To end the night, we sat around talking, and tried to star-gaze a bit when there was a break in the clouds. Finally, we settled down to sleep in our longhouse made out of sticks and large plastic sheets.
After an incredible breakfast, we packed up camp and set out deeper into the jungle. This time, we were able to find a mother orangutan with her baby! She was clearly very weary of us, but we got some very good views! We also saw a large number of Thomas Leaf Monkeys, and found a tree that was coated in a powder (natural) that we painted eachothers faces with. Very jungle. Eventually we had to cross the river, which we did by balancing across a large log that had fallen from one bank (almost) to the other. Even though the trunk was very wide, I was still a bit nervous carrying all my camera gear over the rushing water. After this. we reached our next campsite, and before we even put our stuff down I almost burned my foot! We were camping right next to a natural hotspring, and I stepped right on the edge of a very hot pool. In addition, the tree right above the campsite was covered in Thomas leaf monkeys. We swam in the river, had lunch, and then set back out for an afternoon hike. This time the trail was very steep, so our progress was a bit slower. After a few slips and trips, we reached the top of the hill and started trekking around. We did some more swinging on vines and climbed up the inside of a tree that was completely hollow (it was actually probably a parasitic vine that grew around the tree, killed the tree, and then was left as a hollow framework of a tree). As it started to get dark, we saw another female orangutan! She swung right across the path over us, and then began building a nest in the tree right above us. Orangutans build a new nest out of sticks and leaves each night, and we got to see it being made! Once it was almost dark and she had finished her nest, we started to head back down the slope. This was tough since it had rained a bit and was slippery, and because it was getting dark. Despite a few muddy butts, everyone made it down ok. Now it was time to realize the benefits of camping next to a hotspring. With sore limbs, we all waded across the rushing river, climbed over some rocks, and slipped into a perfectly warm pool where the hot spring met the river. When dinner was ready, we crossed back through the river, and indulged in another feast. After dinner, it was back to the hotspring, then to bed.
The next morning, we had another decadent breakfast, and then headed back into the jungle. Jhony said that the leeches were sparse in this part of the jungle, so I skipped wearing my leech socks (which were full of holes anyways). We set off back up the hill, but this time we quickly came back down and crossed the river upstream. As we hiked back down the river, we were treated to a stunning set of waterfalls. One of them had a nice deep pool at the bottom, so we were able to swim under the falls. After another river crossing, we foudn ourselves back at the campsite (though on the other side of the river. We took the opportunity to take another dip in the hotsprings, and then crossed back to our campsite. We ate lunch, packed up camp, and then headed back to the town. Along the way we passed all of the sites where we had previously seen orangutans, but couldn't find any. We had just been incredibly lucky on our first day that they were all right there!
Soon we were back within earshot of the road, and could hear the motorbikes rushing by. Unfortunately, we could also hear chainsaws illegally cutting down the forest... Jhony said that he once tried to tell the national park officials about the illegal logging (happening in plain sight). All they did was tell the loggers that Jhony "told on them," and so they came and threatened his life if he snitched again. He also said that he's never actually seen the rangers in the woods. Basically, the rangers are just there to take bribes, but do nothing to protect the park. You could tell that it was painful for Jhony to talk about, and made me realize how bad shape much of the wildlife in the developing world is really in...
Since we were so close to home, I got complacent about my footing and ended up slipping and falling on my back. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I hit my camera on something hard, and cracked the screen on the back... The camera still works, but I can't review the pictures anymore, so it is hard to tell if I need to change the settings or if I'm getting good shots. Luckily, I have it insured, and am approaching the end of my trip. It would have sucked if that happened right when I got here!
Finally, we headed back to the guesthouse to plan where we would all go the next day.
I realize that I need to see UNC before I choose which grad school I want to go to. So I have decided to cancel my work visa early, and head home. I'm not quite ready to go home yet though... So I need to leave the country to renew my Indonesian Visa one last time. I have decided to go to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.
First thing, I have to fly back to KL. Unfortunately, I had tons of delays on the way, so I got there at around 1am, with no hotel booked... After the hour long bus ride from the airport and the 40 minute walk back to Chinatown, it was pretty damn late to find a place. Luckily, since I've been here before, I know where to go!
The next day, I decided to go out and get all the foods I really liked last time I was here. Stupidly, I did this all at once, and got the worst stomache ache! As a result, I ended up spending a lot of time just laying around feeling crappy.
The next day, I had to figure out how to get to the Cameron highlands. First I went to the closest bus station. They told me that I had to go to a different bus station that was, unfortunately, very far away... So after about 4 train connections and 2 hours (and a lot of questions to locals), I made it to the bus station. From here, it was another 4 hour bus ride on a big coach to the Cameron Highlands. Luckily, this was pretty comfortable, so I slept the whole way.
The Cameron Highlands is a region of Peninsular Malaysia that is famous for its tea. The valley is around 1500m high, and supposedly has very good soil for growing Tea. This is why, in the 1920's, a British family bought a large part of the valley and started the Boh tea plantation (still going strong). This area also has the highest driveable peak in Malaysia at 2,222m.
Unfortunately, after my first night there, I started to feel very sick. So I spent my first full day lying in bed with a low fever and no energy... I had initially planned to do my own tour through the valley, but since I was feeling kind of crappy, I decided to join a guided tour the next day. I signed up for the half day Mossy forest tour.
The next day I met up with the group in the morning for the tour. I met a very nice British girl on the tour(Robyn), so I had someone to talk to all day! We began by driving up to a scenic overlook in the tea plantation. Unfortunately, the clouds were already starting to roll in, so we didn't get as spectacular of a view as I had hoped. However, it was still very pretty, and the fog added some mysticism!
After this, we headed up the mountain. From the top, we climbed an observation tower to get one of the highest views in Malaysia! Unfortunately, the fog was so dense at this point that we couldn't even see an outline of a hill or mountain. So we headed back down a bit to the mossy forest. This forest is at a very high altitude and gets lots of rain, so the flora composition is fairly different from the rest of the country. As the name implies, all the trees are draped with Moss. Again, we didn't have much in terms of views, but it was still neat. We also saw some cool pitcher plants here (though just the small ones, none of the massive species).
Finally, we ended our tour at the Boh tea plantation. We got a short tour of the tea processing plant (a very simple process for which they still use the original machines from the 1920's). Then we went to the cafe to get some authentic Boh Tea! Despite all the hype, I'm not sure that I could tell you the difference between this tea and any other black tea... But the cafe had a great view, and at this point the clouds were clearing a bit.
We headed back to town with the tour being over. I was a bit tired, because I was still a bit sick, so I decided to spend the rest of the day hanging out (and eating). I found a place that had very good naan, and the biggest pieces of chicken that I've seen in Asia. Usually, the legs are very scrawny, and barely have any meat on them, but the leg I got here was bigger than the ones in the US! I followed up this meal with a serving of roti canai at another place. This is a homemade thin fried bread served with a variety of curries. Very tasty!
I bought a bus ticket for the next afternoon (because I still wanted to go to Sumatra). I wasn't done here yet though, so on my final morning, I woke up before sunrise and headed out to do a hike. This time, the sky was clear. It was a little tough finding jungle path #10, since it was hidden behind an apartment complex and through a maze-like garden... But I was soon underway. It wasn't too tough of a hike, so after an hour or so I was nearing the top. I looked back again, and the sky was still clear! 15 minutes later, I reached the top and the sky was like pea soup... I could still see a bit, but 5 minutes later I couldn't see anything at all. I guess the lesson is that you have to leave super early in the Cameron highlands if you want a view.
I rished back down, and just caught my bus heading back to KL. From the bus, I went straight to the airport to fly to Sumatra!
First day guiding again. First dive spent 40 minutes with 4 mantas, never even had to move. Also saw octopus and mantis shrimp.
Second dive saw a crazy nudibranch at batu bolong. About 4" long, skinny, purple with wavy electric blue gills all along body. example: https://goo.gl/gXuEkU
Third dive, saw some stuff. AND A HARLEQUIN SHRIMP! Incredibly beautiful, he was sort of dancing with his abdomen, and I got a good long look at him.
The WORST part about guiding is that I can't bring my camera but see so much cool stuff...
Another day, we were on Rinca waiting for the customers to come back to the boat when a monkey tried to steal a whole tray of cookies. One of the boat boys (who is usually quiet and seemingly lethargic) slapped the monkey and it fell into the water (without the cookies). I couldn't believe it! After that he turned totally sadistic, and kept baiting the monkeys with a banana tied to a string, then once they grabbed it, he'd rip it away.
In this month, I met so many great people from all over. John and his neice Immogen from Australia, Ram from India who is working in Singapore, Dani from Germany but who is teaching languages all over asia, and many more people for shorter spells. There were so many incredible meals at the fish market, and we even spent a night at the month long Komodo festival.
As usual, when the full moon came around, the currents got strong and the visibility got bad. Unfortunately, this coincided with when I had to leave for visa reasons... However, my last day of diving was the absolute, quintissential day of Komodo diving. First we went to Batu Bolong, the most beautiful place I've ever been. Although the visibility wasn't great, there were tons of turtles and schools of large fish. Then we went to Mawan (manta point #2). I told my group that I would try really hard to find them mantas, and if we didn't see them in the first place, that I knew a great other place to try. Then I looked down to see if we were in a good place to decend, and realized there were 4 mantas right below us! We decended, and spent a whole 70 minute dive within 50 feet of that location, never losing sight of the mantas. It was freezing, but amazing. Finally, we went to Tengah Kecil, a small island that is beautiful on a good day, and pretty tough on a bad day. I checked the water, and saw that there wasn't much current, so my 4 open water divers, 1 advanced diver, and I decended. After about 15 minutes, we were slammed with a heavy current. It appeared out of nowhere, and threatened to drag us off the rock and out to sea. All I could do was tell everyone to grab onto the rocks and wait it out. A few people couldn't find a place to hold on, so I had to grab their tanks, and drag them forward to find a place! Eventually, the current disappeared, and we started heading back to the center of the rock (where we could do our safety stop). Before we could get there, it happened again! Just life before, I had to grab people and keep them from flying off the rock into the abyss. We finally did out safety stop and surfaced after only 30 minutes. Despite the crazy current, we saw barracuda, lionfish, nudibranchs, and a HUGE bumphead parrotfish, so it was an awesome dive. Between the sites, the mantas, and the currents, I can't think of a better way to step out from Komodo diving. It has been incredible.
Since Komodo is one of the best places in the world for it, Alyssa and I went diving. On the first day, she jumped in on a deep class with Ima so that she could do all the dives that Komodo has to offer.
On the first day, I did a bit of guiding, and dove closer to Alyssa. As a result, I didn't bring my camera. Luckily for Alyssa, she had the perfect introduction to Komodo by seeing some of the most quintissentially Komodo sites: Batu Bolong, manta point, and tatawa besar. It was a great day with tons of mantas, and even a shark eating a fish!
On the second day I brought my camera. I was really happy that I did when an Eagle ray hung out with us for 10 minutes on Crystal rock! This was another great intro to Komodo for Alyssa, because she also got to dive golden passage and siaba besar. We also saw a really cool sea robin and plenty more sharks.
Day 3, I brought my camera. On the first dive I brought my camera, but messed up and didn't attach lens correctly... I couldn't use it! Of course this was the dive where we saw my first and only flamboyant cuttlefish!!! We also saw a lot of other great stuff like the robust ghost pipefish, big pipefish, sea robin, and a jellyfish upside down in the sand. On the second dive we saw mantas and octopus, at the same time! I got pictures of this, but I wish I hit the focus a bit better. Then we went to see dragons. We saw the usual group around the ranger station, but no dragons at the nest. As we stood looking at the nest, the ranger told us the story of the last time a Komodo dragon bit someone. They had been looking at the nest, and not watching out behind them. The dragon snuck up, and took a chunk out of the ranger. We turned around and started walking down the path only to run into our own protective mother dragon staring at us from down the road. She started to walk right at us, but then veered off into the woods.
Day 4 was Alyssa's last day. We hit Crystal rock, the Cauldron, and Sebayur. Many sharks, including a grey reef shark (pretty rare) and a white tip reef shark that got very close. Cauldron had very low current,which almost never happens, allowing us to really explore the reef. I never realized how colorful and beautiful it is! Finally, at Sebayur we saw a goofy little frogfish.
Overall, Alyssa had a really lucky stay here (I think) with many rare species sightings, and many up close experiences with the larger species (eagle ray, manta, sharks). We saw many things together that I had not seen in my 100 previous dives here! She also got the experience the little that the town has to offer, such as the fish market and the good local food options. Most importantly, I'm really glad that she got to meet Marion, so someone else can vouch for me when I say that he is the nicest guy in the world.
After our 3 days in Angkor Wat we were getting dangerously close to Alyssa's return flight. However, before she left, she needed to see Komodo!
Since flights out of Cambodia are expensive, we decided to save some money and have a bit of an adventure in the process. We decided to take a bus to Thailand, and then fly from there. The first stop was getting to Battambang west of Siem Reap. This was just a matter of a simple bus ride. We had one night in Battambang, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. We had heard of a "bat cave" near the city, so we hired a tuk tuk, and went out to see the bats. We found out that there are nearly two million bats living in a cave, and every night they all come out to feed on mosquitos in the area. If you're there at dusk, you can witness this mass exodus of bats. So we pulled up on the road near the cave, grabbed a seat and watched the show. It was amazing to see how cohesively they acted, almost like a school of fish. Fir 15 minutes, they came out in a constantly morphing, but tightly knit stream. It looked like a ribbon blowing in the wind!
On our way back to the city, the driver decided to stop and pick up his dinner from a street vendor. He asked if we were hungry, and basically ended up ordering enough for all of us. It was really cool to know that you are getting the real local food!
The next morning, we got up early and caught the bus to Thailand. This wasn't the most exciting ride, but it did involve an interesting border crossing and getting pulled over in thailand by the military so they could check all our visa statuses. Finally, we made it to Bangkok, had one more nights sleep, and then headed for Komodo!
When we got to Siem Reap, we did the usual search for a hotel and then settled in. Our hotel was able to hook us up with a tuk tuk driver (Sok), and we made plans to meet him as early as possible in the morning to get our passes to the Angkor Wat historical park. We had a quick dinner and went to check out the national museum (so we'd have some idea what we were looking at). Then we hit the hay early in anticipation of a big upcoming day.
We woke up around 4am the next morning, and met Sok in front of the hotel. We got 3 day passes since it made the most sense monetarily (and we wanted at least 2 days there), and headed over to Angkor Wat for sunrise. It's totally cliche to go to Angkor Wat for sunrise and try to get your perfect picture (along with the other thousand tourists), but we couldn't miss it. Although it was pretty crowded, we were able to get a spot along one of the reflecting pools, and witnessed a very nice sunrise over an incredible temple. It was a bit frustrating to have so many other tourists around, but I recognize that I'm part of the problem. It's just amazing to think that if I had come only 10-15 years earlier, it would have been pretty much empty...
However, after the sunrise we did get some empty temple experiences. The Angkor Wat archaeological complex is a large area in which the ancient Cambodians (the Khmer empire) constructed many temples over nearly 1000 years. Many emperors felt the need to display their wealth and devotion to the gods with a grand temple as well as a city surrounding it. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat (which also happens to be the largest religious monument in the world), but there are many other ones all around. I had done some research online, and found out that there is a standard tour route that most people take, and the best thing to do is to avoid this schedule. Basically, everyone wants to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, then they go to the the Bayon (temple of the faces), and finally Ta Prohm (the jungle temple where Tom Raider was filmed). We instead chose to seek out the smaller temples at busy times, and visit the famous temples during lunch or early in the morning on other days. So after Angkor Wat, we went to Preah Khan. Similar to Ta Prohm, this temple has been over-run with jungle growth, and has hardly been restored. Unlike Ta Prohm, this temple is pretty empty. What a great way to start our temple touring with an empty crumbling temple covered in ancient trees and vines! One of the things that really struck Alyssa and I was how free you are to explore the ruins. There is no path that you are forced to take and very few places that are off limits. You really get to explore the area to your hearts content.
In our time there, we saw many temples, ornate gates, and crumbling bridges (with enough structure to hold our little tuk tuk up). Sok was a great guide, telling us which temples were worth visiting, but still off the main tourist track. Sadly, there are more restrictions regarding which temples are open for sunrise and sunset than there used to be, so we couldn't avoid the crowds then, but it was still awesome.
A few highlights:
On our first day, we visited a very small and very empty jungle temple. I think one of the main reasons it was so empty was because it was hidden down a small terrible road, and was therefore a pain to get to. However, when we were there, a familly of gibbons showed up, and were playing in the trees above!
On another day, we decided to take a break from driving everywhere, and visit the city of Angkor Thom. This is a city surrounded by 4 walls, each of which is 2 miles long and 8 meters tall. Outside of this is an artificial moat surrounding the whole thing. At the center of each wall is a gate that is highly decorated with hindu relics and stories. At each corner of the city is a temple. Interestingly, only two of the gates are accesible by road, so we decided to walk around it anyways. We started at the south gate, and walked west. It was cool walking along the top of the wall, which hardly even felt like a wall. Along the way, we saw lots of local kids, but no other tourists. When we got to the south-west corner, we got to enjoy the small temple there all by ourselves. As we were getting ready to leave, we met 2 local people and had a chat with them. The guy told us that he was a teacher in the Angkor Wat complex, because even though we see it as an ancient ruin, people still live in the city areas around the temples. The woman with him was his fiance! They were snacking on pre-blossomed lotus flowers from the moat, and they showed us how to eat them and then shared some with us. They were very nice, and it was really cool to meet them. On the way around the rest of the temple, we ran into a really cool bug hanging from some sort of silk cord, and I got one of my favorite pictures ever.
Since we were touring the temples ourselves, we didn't always really know what we were looking at. However, on the first day we ran into a guy selling some guide books. I had heard of the book, and it looked nice, so we bought it. It was great to have this while we toured each temple so we knew what to look for and what it all represented.
On the last day, we decided to skip the main complex and go to a sort of "satelite campus". Basically, there are some temples that weren't built right next to the others, and so far fewer people visit them. This was awesome, because we had a very dramatic sky, and a huge temple all to ourselves! The only thing that detracted from the experience was the local kid that followed us around constantly asking for money. Of course you feel bad for the kids, but everyone makes a big point of telling you not to give them any money because they are often working for an adult, and because it encourages them not to get a real job. I'm not sure how bad it would actually be, but we swallowed our guilt and told him no...
The Bayon is one of the famous temples, and for good reason. The whole temple is just covered in massive faces, hundreds of them. I'll post some pictures, because I don't think I could even begin to describe it.
We also had several beautiful sunsets on top of various temples. The highlight was on Pre Rup. The actual sunset was a bit mundane due to the clouds, and so most people left. The guards decided that they were going to close down the temple for the night, so they started to kick everyone off. However it was right about then that the whole sky lit up and covered the temple in a purple-red light. The whole world looked so saturated in a way that I've never seen before. It only lasted for about a minute, but it was incredible.
At the end of our 3 days, Sok dropped us off back at our hotel and we said our goodbyes. We asked him for a picture with us, and he happily agreed. I really appreciated his guiding because he was knowledgeable, friendly, and happy to go to whatever we wanted to see (even when the road was terrible). He was a really great guy.
Kampot is a small city on the Praek Tuek Chhu river in southern Cambodia that is famous for the black pepper produced here. However it was the river that drew me. After our incredible experiences on the Kinabatangan river in Malaysia, I was excited to do some more river touring. I found a (German) guy who offers boat tours, and was rumoured to be very knowledgable about the flora and fauna of the region, and scheduled a sunrise boat tour. So at 5:45 am, we left the hotel on another rented motorbike to drive outside the city to meet Bjorn the boatman. As we set off from the pier, the sun was just beginning to rise, and the sky was starting to light up. The water was still really calm, and so we were treated with a beautiful landscape of palm tree silhouettes and a colorful sky, as well as its reflection in the river below. Soon the swifts came out and began drinking water from the lake in a huge cloud around us. Many were getting so close that we could hear the wind running over their wings. Bjorn informed us that the Cambodians have set up several houses near the river in which they plane the sounds of swifts calling with the accompanying echoes that you would get in a cave. This tricks the swifts into thinking these buildings are caves, and the end up nesting inside. After the fledglings hatch and leave, it is easy for the people to collect the birds nests to be used in soup. We continued down the river, learning about all the different palm trees (such as the sugar producing ones and the mangrove like ones whose fronds are used commonly as roffing material here). We also saw several Indian Rollers as well as a number of other birds. Along the way, we also passed many houses where people were beginning their day, as well fisherman who were checking their nets after the night. Unfortunately, we also bore witnedd to some illegal dredging that is poorly prevented despite it being illegal. I'm not sure why they dredge the bottom, but Bjorn said that they take the sand for something. Eventually we reached a beach where we got out and enjoyed some fresh papaya. Bjorn then took us on a tour of the fruit plantation next to the beach where they grow mango, papaya, durian, rambutan, and more. Aftter this, we turned around and started heading back. Along the way, we saw several beautiful kingfishers. At one point, we got very close to a kingfisher who happened to be sitting on a beautiful perch! Unfortunately, the autofocus missed on every shot I took... When we got back to the dock, Bjorn told us about a more rural route back to the city, so we headed out in this direction. The beginning of the route was an decent dirt road that led us to a small ferry. The boatman was an expert at loading the bike onto the ferry (including drifting the bike to turn it around in the small space), and we were soon accross the river. From here, we weren't really sure what to do, and although we tried to ask for help, I'm pretty sure that the people were just agreeing with whatever we said instead of giving us any information. After driving over crapy dirt roads for a while, we ended up back on a more major road, and somehow ended up back in Kampot.
When we had been in Kep, we never had a proper beach day, so we decided to drive back and do just that. Unlike in the city, where intersections are governed by pushiness and bravado instead of traffic lights, country driving is fairly easy. It was only a 30-40 minute drive, mostly on nicely paved roads. When we got there, we found a big private section of beach and got in the water. The water was perfectly warm, and the swimming was nice. After we swam, I bought some food from a street vendor, and I still have no idea what it was called. It was basically a big ball of friend dough with a bunch of vegetables in it, and it was placed in a sweet and sour broth; very good. With my hunger satisfied, we headed back to Kampot. Along the way, we stopped to see an ancient temple in a cave, one that predates the famous Khmer empire that built the temples at Angkor Wat. When we got there, a young kid made us pay for entrance and parking (I knew there was an entrance fee, but I'm not sure that I paid it to the right person...) He also offered us his services as a guide. For $1, why not? His English was relatively good, and he made a pretty cute guide, trying to tell us that different rocks looked like various animals. The temple its self was a bit underwhelming (really just a small brick shrine), but it was really neat given the historical context and the interesting setting. Since we had a guide, we got to take the spelunking route out of the cave. This involved some dark passages and tight squeezes, but was a cool way to see more of the cave. And when we exited, we had a great view of the whole region from atop the hill (right at sunset as well!). We hopped on our bike, and rushes back to Kampot to catch a show that we had heard about earlier that day.
NOTE: I now realize that we were at the totally wrong cave, and I have no idea what we saw... The real temple I was looking for is still small, but a bit more impressive. Disappointing.
The show was a production put on by the Cambodia arts school for disabled and orphaned children. It was a really neat display of traditional Cambodian music, dance, and shadow puppetry by a bunch of kids who have been taught this both to give them better opportunities in life, and to preserve the culture. After this show, there was a screening of a recently released documentary about the pop music scene in Cambodia shortly before the Khmer Rouge took over, and how the genocide affected the cultural development here. Afterwards, there was a Q and A session with the director. We finished the long day by eating dinner under the shadow of the durian statue in town.
The next morning, we caught up on laundry, and checked off the last thing on our to-do list for Kampot. Namely, we ate at the noodle restaurant that served freshly made, hand-pulled noodles and dumplings. After watching the chef make the noodels, we enjoyed a great noodle soup and set of dumplings.
We're running out of time until Alyssa has to go back, so now it's time to go see some major temples! This means hopping back on a bus, and enduring another 5 hours of poorly produced Cambodian music videos (every bus company just plays ridiculously dramatic Cambodian music videos during the whole ride).
At this point, we seem to be flying through each country, trying to see a diversity of cultures and wildlife before Alyssa has to go back. Right now, we find outselves in Cambodia. We flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh (we thought about taking a bus, but to get a thai entry visa, you need to show that you're leaving the country within 30 days. Unfortunately, a bus ticket doesn't count). To be honest, I was a little nervous coming here because I read a number of bad things online about this city. First off, bag-snatching and pickpocketing are both very common. I've also heard that you should only get in a tuk tuk (motorbike taxi like thing) if someone can vouch for the driver, or else you might run into some trouble. So when we got on the public bus from the airport into the city, I was nervously looking around at each person to see if they were scouting me out to rob me... I feel bad about it now, but I didn't know what to expect.
One of the biggest culture shocks that I've had since I came here is using the US dollar in Cambodia. Their currency has so little value that they just use it as change (instead of coins) and use dollars for the rest. Of course, when we got here we wanted to have a good cultural experience. So the first thing we did was get money from an ATM and then look for a place to break the big bill. Since we were at the airport, one of the only options was burger king... So yes, my first experience in cambodia was buying a cheeseburder with a US $100 bill at Burger King.
After catching the bus into town and walking around to find a hotel, we ended up at a really nice hostel. We dropped our stuff and headed into town. Since I was still paranoid about theft, I wore my only piece of clothing with zip up pockets, a heavy fleece. Needless to say, this wasn't particularly comfortable in the 90-something degree weather. The first thing we did was go get a sandwich from a street vendor for about $.62. To this day (about 3 days later) it is still the best thing I've eaten in this country. I don't really know what was in it, but it was great. Next we went to the big central market to check out the counterfeit everything. There is also a great fish, vegetable, and fruit market around the edge of the main building that was great to see. I continued my Asian-born obsession with passionfruit by getting several passionfruit smoothies. When we got back to the hotel, we talked to the guy at reception for a while, both about how he got here (his studies and own adventures) as well as the parts of Cambodia that he loves most.
That night, we wanted to get some good Cambodian food, so we took a tuk tuk to a Cambodian bbq restaurant that was apparently very famous with the locals. When we got there, it was packed (a good sign), and we found out that this was probably because it was the Cambodian Victory day commemorating the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. We had a good meal, and then walked back to the hotel. There was some decorative lighting set up for the occasion, and we walked by several statues as well as the US embassy!
The next morning, we got up early and went to see the Cambodian genocide museum, set in a former high school that was used as a secret prison and torture center. The museum was very graphic, but needed to be in order to be informative. Interestingly, one of 12 survivors of this prison (out of 20,000 inmates) was there on the same day as me. As I quickly learned, the recent history of this country is one of the most tragic and unbelievable stories that I know. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge regime took over. Over the course of the next 4 years, they killed about a quarter of the population, most of them disappearing without a trace. While many died of starvation due to the widespread famine, a very large number were tourtured and murdered. The tragic part is that no Western governments believed the refugees coming out of the country, and refused to take any action against this government. Even after the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, the UN still recognized them as the rightful government of Cambodia until 1990, despite the clear evidence of their genocidal actions. And to top it off, only a few leaders were ever tried for war crimes (in large part due to the fact that Sweden protested these trials), and this was only around 2008, 30 years after the genocide ended. Many Khmer Rouge leaders and soldiers returned to living with everyone else after the regime fell, and some of them are even currently in power. It's just unbelievable that a number of the people around me have suffered through a genocide, with many of them having lost at least one family member. Some of the other people around me carried out this genocide, yet they seem to live together in peace.
After we left the museum, we gathered our things at the hotel and caught a bus to the former French resort town of Kep, on the Southern coast of Cambodia.
Kep is a really interesting place because the equatorial beaches almost overlap with the jungle of the Kep national park. In addition to this, there are a huge number of old and derelict French Villas scattered throughout the town. Most are totally covered in plants as the forest has begun to reclaim them, but others are home to squatters and anyone who needs a roof for a night. We spent our first full dayy here in the national park. The trails here are by far the best marked and preserved trails that I've seen in Asia. Much of this work is done by the owner of a small western cafe in the park called the Lep Zep Cafe. In addition to all the trails and the lookout points overlooking both jungle and ocean, there is also a great butterfly garden and hatchery (metamorphosisery?). We tried to do as much as we could in one day, including some steed trails through the jungle, but I still felt like it wasn't enough! The highlight of the trip was easily when we got to a nice lookout point. The sun was starting to get low, and the sky was becoming more beautiful by the minute. I was trying to spot birds in the jungle around us when I noticed a hairy leg on aa tree in the distance. I focused my telephoto lens on it and discovered a gibbon monkey in the tree. This female Pileated Gibbon was totally different from any of the other monkeys we've seen, and was a pleasant surprise to see. On the way back down the small mountain that we had climbed, we came across a temple building that looked a bit discheveled on the outside, but which held an impeccable shrine on the inside. By the time we made it down, it was totally dark, and the only park ranger (from what I can gather) was waiting by our bike. He wanted to make sure we had paid our entrance fee ($1) and stayed there until we got back, unbeknownst to us. I feel bad that we kept him waiting... After he checked our tickets, we drove out of the park on our rented motorbike along the pitch black, rocky, dusty road.
For dinner, we went to the famous Kep crab market, and got fresh blue crabs stir friend in world famous Kampot black pepper (grown right next door to here). It tasted incredible, and we sucked every last bit of crab meat out of the legs.
The next day we decided to explore, and took a long ride on the motorbike towards the Vietnam border. This was a great way to see rural Cambodia, including the cows, houses on stilts, rice fields, salt fields, and pepper plantations that cover the region. About half an hour out of the city, we saw a sign for a beach and took the road. It was dusty, bumpy, and covered in rocks, but at the end of the road we found a great beach. Some local kids came out to greet us, and all they wanted was high fives (and Alyssa's hair tie). There was a lot of trash scattered between the fishing boats at the close side of the beach, but once we walked down a short ways we found much cleaner beach. Some locals had set up little huts with hammocks on the beach to rent to westerners, so we hammocked on the waterfront for a while. Eventually, we turned around and headed back to Kep, where we had just a bit of time to explore the French villas before catching our bus to our next destination, Kampot.
The next day we decided to explore the island, so we rented a motorbike and drove south. The first thing we did was just pull over on the side of the road and walk through a little bit of forrest until we hit beach. The result was a completely isolated, perfect, soft sand beach. After that we kept going south until we reached a beautiful beach (the furthest south beach on the island). There was a little restaurant up in the hills overlooking the whole bay, giving us a beautiful view while we ate some Thai curry. As it started to get dark, we headed back north. Since the sun was setting we decided to pull over and enjoy it from a beach. We walked out onto the beach just in time for a nice sunset, took some pictures, and I decided to go for a quick swim. Poor choice...
As I was walking back out of the water, I felt something bite me on my heel. It really didn't hurt too much, but it startled me, so I yelled a bit and jumped out of the water. I walked the rest of the way back to shore and the bite was still throbbing a bit. When I got to shore, I told Alyssa that something bit me, but that it wasn't a big deal since it didn't hurt that much. However, I couldn't keep still... After another minute I realized that the pain was getting worse. I still wasn't sure what to do, so I rinsed it off in the ocean. As the pain kept getting worse, I started to get nervous. We decided to ask for help, so we walked to the road and stopped in the closest restaurant. At this point, I was starting to feel light headed and that made me even more worried! They summoned a tuk tuk for us, and we asked the driver to head back towards our hotel. I wish that I could tell you that I went straight to the hospital, but I didn't... I'm not sure what I consider to be an emergency, but apparently this didn't qualify. Instead I took the most painful ride of my life back to our hotel. I was sweating a lot, my foot was throbbing with pain, and for the first time in my life, I was contemplating death. My two sources of comfort were Alyssa and a paper that I had read a few months prior. The paper was about snake envenomation in Asia, and I remembered it saying that if a sea snake bites you, it will often kill you in under 15 minutes. Since I was approaching 25 minutes and was guessing that it was a sea snake bite, I was feeling pretty good about my chances of survival. When we got back to the hotel, I could barely walk. The pain was all up my leg, and my foot was a tiny bit purple. We got the owners and asked for help. They helped clean out the wound and gave me a pair of crutches. I said I'd be alright, so we went back to our room. Unfortunately, the pain was still getting worse... Soon it was bad enough that I couldn't stand it, and we asked the hotel owners where the nearest medical care was. They offered to drive me to their general practitioners office to see if she was there. Unfortunately she wasn't so they took me to a nearby urgent care clinic.
By the time I entered the clinic, the pain was definitely the worst I had ever experienced. The nurse at the front desk began to ask me what was going on, but quickly gave up on talking to me, and got my information from Alyssa instead. Soon enough, a doctor came to see me. I didn't know this until later, but he marked my pain as a 10 on my chart without even asking me. I guess he could tell by the fact that I yelled anytime I moved my leg. He asked what had happened, and said that it was probably a sea snake bite. Unfortunately, since I didn't see the snake, he couldn't give me any antivenin. Instead, all he could do was try to stop the pain, and he sure did that. It only took about 4 syringes of lidocaine (including the small amount that squirted out of the bite holes while he injected it into me) to get me to stop yelling and to finally relax. After this, he thoroughly rinsed the wound and then dressed it. He gave me some pain killers and antibiotics and sent me on my way. Since I had caused us to miss dinner, I insisted that we go eat.
I'm pretty sure that it was a sea snake that bit me, I can't think of any other possiblities. I think I got lucky, and only got a tiny bit of venom. The venom is very expensive to produce, so the snakes tend not to fully envenomate their prey/victims. However, if it had given me a full dose, I might have been dead in 5 minutes... I got to sleep alright, and when I woke up the pain was gone. My foot was still a bit sickly looking, but it felt alright. We stayed local and by the end of that next day, the wound had completely healed. That was lucky for us because we had a day of diving coming up!
So a day and a half out from the bite, we got up early and went diving. This was Alyssa's first dives outside of New England, and she loved all the exotic life and bright colors. It wasn't as exciting for me (after Komodo), but I still enjoyed it. It was also great to use the dive gear that I had carried with me everywhere I went for the past 6 weeks (and that I would carry until I got back to Komodo). When we got back, we were in a new room (since our original reservation hadn't been for this long). The owners were really nice and upgraded us to a luxury room for the same cost as our cheapo bungalow. We were blown away by how nice it was! The AC, the TV, glass windows... What a life!
After the diving, it was about time to move on. We considered touring northern Thailand, but decided that it would be even cooler to go to Cambodia! However, we needed to get to Bangkok in order to fly to Cambodia. So we bought a bus ticket from Krabi to Bangkok (We wanted to take the train, a Thai tradition, but it was sold out). Unpleasantly enough, this was a 12 hour bus ride (not including the ride from Koh Lanta to Krabi or the layover). So we set out at 11am from Koh Lanta, with a scheduled arrival in Bangkok at 5am... The first part of the ride, to Krabi, was fairly uneventful. Once we got there, we got some awesome thai snacks for the long ride, and then boarded the bus. It was super nice, with big reclining seats and personal TVs. Unfortunately, all the entertainment options were in Thai...
Around midnight we got stuck in a huge traffic jam. I had no idea why until we got further up the road and I saw that the whole highway was under a few feet of water... I later found out that starting that night, Krabi had historic rain leading to very high flooding and killing several people...
Early the next morning we pulled into bangkok with all our stuff, totally lost, with nowhere to go. We looked up a hotel online and caught a taxi there. Even though we showed the driver the address in Thai and he said he knew it, we still had to navigate for him with the GPS on my phone. He was a really nice guy, and had served in the Thai military along side the American army. It was interesting to talk to him, albeit briefly. Along the way, we noticed that almost every business (even internationally based ones) had giant signs posted outside expressing their sorrow and sympathy for the death of the king. We eventually reached our hotel, and dropped all our stuff in our room that was a former shipping container. Although we were exhausted from the night on the bus, we didn't want to waste the day. So we tried to catch a bus to the city center. When the bus never came, we walked a long way, and caught a different bus to the capital temple Wat Pho where we saw the largest "reclining Buddha" statue in the world. After this we explored the city a bit and got lost because months after the kings death, many streets around the palace were still closed and full of mourners. We also visited Khao San road, the original backpackers Mecca of SE Asia. Finally, it was time to go back to the hotel. Se we blindly got on a bus and headed North. We were lucky that a guy on the bus spoke english. He helped us buy a ticket and told us where to get off. I have no idea what we would have done otherwise, we were very confused. The next morning, we got up at an ungodly hour and headed to the airport for the next leg in our journey.
When we got to Thailand, we did the first thing that you always do in a new country; withdraw some of their currency. Most ATMs have a limit of ~$200, so I withdrew the maximum amount that I was allowed to. Unfortunately, this ATM had a much higher max... In any case, we had a pile of brand new 1000 Thai Baht notes, and were ready to hit the town. There was just one problem, 1000 Baht is a lot of money, and no one will accept that... The bus company wouldn't accept it, customer service couldn't help us, even the bank refused to give us change. Finally we found a small market that would give us change for a small purchase made with big bucks (even though the girl behind the counter made it clear she didn't really want to). So now we were actually on our way into the town of Krabi. After an uneventful bus ride we pulled into town and found a hotel. We could hear music nearby, so we asked what was going on. The guy at the front desk told us that the new years festival had already started and it was just down the road. So we dropped our stuff and headed over to check it out.
I'm not sure if I said this before, but Alyssa and I were both a bit disappointed with the food in Malaysia (with some exception (kuey teow in Tawau was great)). This festival was a revelation! I don't know what anything that we had is called, but it was incredible. We started with a noodle soup where we got to pick all our ingredients. From there, we got some fruit/ice drinks. We also got some grilled meats, fried insects (I'm just slipping this in where no one will notice), chicken and rice, dessert pancakes, and best of all, a sweet dessert bread with a brown sugar and nut filling. I'm sure there is more that I am forgetting, but it was easily the best food I had eaten in Asia. On top of this there were also some carnival games and stalls selling interesting trinkets. Near the end of the night we noticed that there was a concert going on at one end of the area, so we went to check it out. There was a woman on stage and everyone seemed to be going crazy for her. When she sang, everyone knew the lyrics. The weird thing was that she was absolutely awful... She was a terrible singer and had an awkward stage presence. At one point she brought a local kid onto stage, and he put her dancing to shame! I just couldn't figure out why she was famous...
The next morning, we caught a bus out to Koh Lanta, a Thai island with a reputation for being more family and old people friendly. Perfect for us not-so-wild kids. For once, we pre-booked a room here (since we were staying over New Years). When we got to the room, we were happy to see that it was pretty nice and was basically its own standalone cottage. We went out to get some lunch, and ended up with fancy cocktails on the beack (in a coconut and pinneaple). We were finally having a stereotypical beach holiday! We kept walking along the beach, and then explored our part of town a bit. Everything seemed very nice, and we were ready for New Years (this was December 31st).
Before we went out for the evening, we chatted with the owners a bit. They are british, and the wife is a dive instructor! I asked her about diving, and she helped us sign up for a dive in a few days. They also told us that technically celebrations are banned this year because the king died, so the new years celebrations might be a bit subdued. However, they still expected fireworks and dancing on the beach. So we set out to see where the action was, and get some food. We found a restaurant, and ordered a basil dish. When it came, we happily started eating. Eventually, Alyssa looked a bit closer at the food, and realized that one of the "basil leaves" was actually a caterpillar! She wasn't too happy, but it just meant more food for me.
As promised, there were some fireworks. We spent the night walking up and down the beach, catching the occasional musical performance or fire show. Soon after 2017 struck, we headed back and settled in for the new year.
When we landed, we had no idea what to expect. It had been months since I was in a proper city! We caught the shuttle bus to town, and I passed out on the long ride into the city. Alyssa had a slightly different experience, since she was sitting next to one lady from a big group. She explained to Alyssa that they are part of a quasi-religious movement that emphasizes happiness (I think) and travel. They often travel as big groups, especially the Chinese members since the movement is highly persecuted in China. When we got to the city, we were dropped off at a bus station (I still don't know where it was) and then they left. Many people already had plans or reservations, but we were totally lost... We asked several people where cheap hotels were, and they pointed us in the right direction. Thsi direction happened to be right into the middle of China town, one street over from the famous Petaling Street, a big market. We walked up and down the street looking at all the hotels, and then settled on a reasonably priced, quiet, and cheap one with a very friendly receptionist (Daisy). We explored the area a bit, ate at a restaurant she suggested, and then crashed.
With only a few days until Christmas, we decided to camp out here for the holiday. Over the next few days we explored the major markets in the area, visited the national mosque and national aeronautical museum, visited a deer park and an open air bird park (like a butterfly garden for birds), and tried as much food as possible. Coincidently, when we were at the bird park, we ran into Angus, our trekking buddy from Lahad Datu. He had missed his flight, and went there just to kill an afternoon. In terms of the food, the highlight was a dessert that we got called bambu putuh tradisi. It was a rice cake filled with some sugary paste that was packed into a hollow bamboo shoot, and steamed. We also had fun tracking down a restaurant that we read about online and trying its signature dish, a double cooked egg roti canai. It was amazingly hard to find given itspopularity online. We also tried some of the stalls where you choose whichever skewers you want (they have anything from vegetables to meat to seafood) and they either fry or grill it for you. The quail eggs were amazingly tender!There were tons of other great snacks and food items (coconut icecream served in the coconut should be more common), and we spent way more than we planned just on this! (note, Malaysian hamburgers are strange).
Soon Christmas rolled around, and we celebrated as true travellers, with makeshift stockings made from tall socks bought at the closest convenience store. We also figured that since it's a religious holiday, we should visit a religious monument! So we chose to go to batu caves, the home of one of the tallest Hindu statues in the world. I hope no one was offended when we took pictures in front of the statue with santa hats on... After checking out the statue, we climbed a ton of stair to enter the actual cave. There were several Hindu temples in the cave, and many people were participating in prayer. Those who weren't praying were mostly busy feeding the monkeys (something which terrifies me, because I've heard they can be vicious if they don't get what they want). After that we went into the cave just next-door for something a little more up my alley. This cave goes very deep into the mountains, and supports a diversity of life, including one of the "rarest" spiders in the world, the cave trapdoor spider. Unfortunately, we weren't able to sign up for the long tour on the spot (the tour which takes you to the spiders), but we were able to do the short tour. This was still really cool, and we saw bats, large cave centipedes, tiny blind centipedes (totally adapted to the dark), spiders, and a number of very neat rock formations. At one point, we all turned off our flashlights in order to experience true darkness, a very strange feeling. Finally, we headed back to KL for Christmas dinner.
When we got back, we first headed to Bukit Bintang (star hill), the ritzy tourist district. There were some very nice displays set up here, and we caught a surprise dance show in the main plaza. Finally, we started looking for food. Nothing really felt right, so we ended up at a muslim restaurant for dinner. What a diverse Christmas.
We decided that we were going to spend new years in Thailand, but this left us with a few days to kill. We decided to do one more jungle trek before leaving Malaysia. The closest jungle to KL is in Taman Negara. Confusingly, Taman Negara traslates literally to national park, so although the country has many national parks, this one is simply called "national park." We caught a ven to a town downstream from the park, and then took a boat ride up the river to the park. The boat ride was awesome because we got to see lots of cool birds and some buffalo as well as glimpse the lives of the people who live along the river. Eventually we got to the town at the edge of the park, found a hotel and settled in. The cool thing about this town is that almost all of the restaurants in town are floating on the river. This doesn't do much practically, but it makes for a neat dining experience.
The next day we started our jungle trekking by taking the 30 second ferry ride across the river. One nice thing about this park is that you don't need a guide, just a map. The rangers at the front office told us that most of the trails were closed, and directed us towards the closest set of paths. Disappointingly, these paths were all well maintained walkways, not real jungle trekking. This first led us to a wildlife hide where a bunch of noisy tourists were keeping all the animals away. However, once they left, a deer showed up. After this, the path led to the canopy walkway, the longest one in the world of its kind (like a suspension bridge). When we were walking across this I saw something rustling the top of a palm tree. I waited to see what it was, and then saw a lizard poke it's head out from between two leaves on a frond. I was really excited about the resulting picture!
After coming down from the canopy walkway, we continued walking towards the "closed" paths. This was where it started to get fun because the well maintained path ended and it got more muddy. We ended up at the top of a hill with a nice view, then headed north to try to find another wildlife hide that was listed on the map. When we were getting close (according to the map), the path split into two, neither of which was marked. We picked one and tried it, and never ended up finding the hide... We eventually decided to head back to town to make sure we were home by dark. We considered doing a night walk or drive that evening, but when we asked about it, we were told that they just go through the palm plantation (since the national park is closed at night), and decided to skip it.
The next day, we decided to try trekking on the opposite side of the park. This required one more quick ferry ride, and was fully within the "closed" section of the park. The nice thing about this was that we didn't see anyone else all day, and just got to look for wildlife. We saw some neat birds, got mauled by leeches, and encountered thousands of termites in long lines (a few even bit me). The usual. We also found a small cave (although we almost missed it) that smelled incredibly bad... Bat guano. After a long day of walking, we eventually found the wildlife hide on this side of the park. Unfortunately, it looked like it had been abandoned for a while. There was a gecko carcas being devoured by ants, and the woodwork was falling apart a bit. To top it off, it was getting late, so we didn't have much time to stay and wait for wildlife. We headed back instead, and caught the boat back accross the river. We got dinner, tucked in for the night, and then caught the bus back to KL in the morning. Once we were back in the city, we found our hotel, picked up our stuff, and did a little bit more exploring. We looked up the best foood in the city, and found out about an old teahouse in little India that is known for it's twice boiled egg roti. It took us a long time to find it, but it was really interesting when we did. I've never had an egg that was actually somewhere between being liquid and hard, but this one somehow was...
In the morning, we packed up and caught a train to the airport. We were on our way to Thailand!
When we got to Tawau, we again had no idea where we were staying. As usual, we walked around until we found a nice enough place (guided by the suggestions on wikitravel). Tawau is much more of a city than anywhere else we have stayed so far.
On our first night, we decided to try a nearby restaurant, and it ended up being so good that we hardly ate anywhere else the whole time. We chose it at first because the workers were so friendly when we walked by. We ordered more roti murtabak, and decided to try something new (kuey teow). Both were delicious, and the kuey teow was the best thing I had eaten in Malaysia!
Soon it was time to do the tourist thing again, and we headed down to Tawau Hills Reservation. This is a state park that includes a large swath of rainforest with many interesting sights. Conveniently, it also has cheap accomodation inside the park. We had no idea what it would be like, but we crossed our fingers and brought all our stuff for a night in the park. When we got there, everyone in the park was local except for us (very cool). We dropped our stuff in the modest accomodations, and headed out for a hike to the sulfur springs somewhere in the woods. The beginning of the hike was well maintained, well marked, and a fairly easy walk. However, after the path split off from the paths towards more popular attractions, our trek became a little more adventurous. However, we persisted through the flooded, muddy, leechy path and eventually got to the hotsprings on the edge of a river. They were more like warm springs, but the exceptionally clear water and sulfur deposits on the rocks made it a very pretty sight to see. Unfortunately, my incessant photography meant that it was already getting late, and so we started back. The path was no better on the way back, but at least we knew what we were in for. The end of the walk back was particularly interesting as there was a sort of "dusk choire" of many animals making all sorts of noises. The only one that I could place were the hornbills, however, I'm sure that a variety of birds, insects, and some primates were also audible. After peeling leeches off our legs and ankles, we sat down for dinner and discussed our evening plans. At my insistence, we decided to do a (possibly illicit) night walk. So once it was totally dark, we grabbed our head lamps and headed out. Just outside the completely emtpy lodge that we were staying in, we saw a huge line of ants coming to the lodge and disappearing into the ceiling... We traced the line back several hundred feet where it disappeared into the woods. Luckily we never saw where they were headed! We continued our walk, but didn't get very far into the woods before alyssa heard a loud shuffling in the woods. She turned her light to see what it was, and was greeted with a sighting of a large huntsman spider. She was a good enough sport to wait for me to get uncomfortably close to the spider while I took pictures, but immediately after, we headed back to our room.
Already freaked out by the spider, we were unhappy to hear what sounded like loud bootsteps outside our room. As far as we knew, there was no one else in the park but the rangers, so we had no idea who it could be. We listened for a couple minutes as the bootsteps stopped and started several times. Finally, I decided to look outside to see what was going on, and realized that it was just a giant cicada slamming into the roof repeatedly! We're just huge scaredy-cats...
The next day, we did some more hiking to visit the rainforest canopy walkway. It took a long time to find the walkway because the trails leading to it were mostly unmarked, and were incredibly poorly maintained. Once we got there, we realized that those things were probably intentional, not just oversights. The Tower that marked the beginning of the walkway was covered in spider webs, and appeared to be partially disassembled. Despite Alyssa's protests, I climbed up to check out the walkway. Despite the poor condition of the tower, the walkway appeared to be mostly ok, so we started walking through it. It was really neat to get the alternative view of the rainforest, although wildlife sightings were still sparse. After walking over several rickety sections of the walkway, we arrived at the last section. Unfortunately, this section actually had a missing support cable... Instead of risking it, we decided to turn around and retrace the whole walkway. We had to wait out a brief but intense rainforest rainstorm, and then we headed back towards the entrance to the park. This brought us to our last hike, the short jaunt to see the worlds tallest tropical tree. It was indeed impressively tall at 84 meters, making it 42 times taller than me! The thing that struck me as odd about it was that it was supposedly discovered in the mid 2000's, however this park has existed for many decades. It seems strange to me that no one previously noticed the totally giant tree near the entrance to a large state park...
When we got back to Tawau, we splurged, and spent the few extra dollars on a western style hotel! It's pretty amazing what $10 can get you out here. We decided to explore the city a bit, and got a few treats from a bakery, then ate them while watching the sunset from the ocean-side walking path. Unfortunately, most of the snacks were really bad, with one just being a bun filled with ounces of mayonnaise. After the sun was mostly down, all the city rats came out and started scurrying around the waterfront rocks, so we decided it was time to leave. We headed to a nearby fruit market, and bought a bunch of delicious looking fruit. I couldn't believe I hadn't been taking advantage of this the whole time! Fortunately (actually probably unfortunately), the fruit had very little flavor, so I didn't feel like I had missed out on much.
As we were about to go to sleep, I decided to check our early morning flight reservation one last time only to realize that there had been an issue, and we didn't actually have tickets reserved yet... So I spent all night on the phone with terrible customer service representatives, and in the morning we managed to get on a plane to the capitol of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.
Since we're in Borneo, we wanted to see more rainforest, simple. I had heard that the Danum valley is one of the nicest forests in this part of the world, and is completely pristine. Unfortunately, there is only one hotel inside the park, and it costs over $100 a night... In addition, there is an armed guard at the gate leading into the forest, and you need a permit to go in.
Fortunately, I heard that there is a research field station with dorms and hammocks that you can rent. I also heard that since they aren't a hotel, they prefer not to be contacted about reservations. So, bearing this in mind, we bought a bus ticket to Lahad Datu (the closest town to the forest). We had also heard that the field station will provide you with cooking supplies, so we loaded up on some food and got on our bus. The bus ride was fairly uneventful, and we were soon in Lahad Datu. We headed to the field station office, and after waiting for their lunch break to end, were told that the station was undergoing repairs and was closed. They also directed us to the office of the "real" accomodation (who told us that they were probably lying about the construction). That option was too expensive, so we headed back to the field station office to try to work something out (and to sneak the fact that we are science students into the conversation). They still wouldn't budge, but told us about a new option that just started this year. I kind of felt like it was an intentional bait and switch, but since this appeared to be our only option we signed up. This new package included food, so we headed back to our hotel and tried to eat as much of our own provisions as possible.
That evening, we went to the local market to see the town a bit. This was a strange experience because almost every person in the market was staring at us while we walked, and not in a particularly friendly way... We just ended up going back to our hotel and getting to sleep a bit early.
The next morning, we were picked up and brought to the Danum Valley rainforest. There was one other guy headed to the same spot with us, a bat researcher from the UK named Angus. He told us that the part of the rainforest we were headed to was actually secondary forest (a bit of a bummer). When we arrived, they gave us a special local drink and told us it was called "asam." When I looked it up on a translator, I found out that this just means sour, and it was. While we were drinking, it started raining pretty hard, so we were unable to do our first rainforest walk (there is a risk of trees and branches falling). Instead, we put on our ponchos and walked down to the river and around the property. In several buildings I noticed large holes in the roof, several of which still had large branches sticking through the hole (presumably the cause of the hole). I think I understand why they don't want to go in the woods during a storm... We also took a walk over to the canopy viewing tower (a 20m high platform). Since it was only a couple hundred meters away, I didn't bring my telephoto lens, but ended up regretting it. As we walked to the tower, a beautiful drongo set down on a tree right in front of us! It seemed to be staying put, so I ran back to the room to get the lens, but the bird left right as I came back...
That evening during dinner, a civet showed up behind the kitchen. The guides grabbed us and showed us the small jungle cat which looked much like a large house cat with a long snout. After this we did a night drive. In the past, I only did night walks through the mud, so this was relatively easy. Basically we just drove down an old logging road in the back of a truck while the guides used high intensity spotlights to try to find animals. We saw some sort of rainforest deer, a leopard cat, and most importantly, a slow lloris! Unfortunately, we didn't get a great view of the slow lloris since he was hunting at the top of a tree. It was still very cool to see him however. After returning to the lodge, we spent a while looking into the woods from the walkways and looking at all the life on the walkway its self. We saw another jungle cat (unidentified) as well as a large number of bats that kept flying alarmingly close to us. Since the other guest, Angus, is a bat researcher, he had a neat device that he could attach to his phone in order to record and identify bat calls. We also saw a bird tucked in the rafters just a few feet above us and a number of interesting bugs.
The next morning, we were up early for a sunrise walk along a large well cleared path. There were tons of birds flying around and singing, although we only got to see a few of them very well. There was also a lot of evidence of the recent presence of elephants. Our guide, Min, began to prove his knowledge of the local life by identifying a number of plants and their supposed medicinal applications.
After breakfast, we headed out for our first jungle hike. I carried two cameras and a tripod, my Nikon with the telephoto lens as well as my Olympus (meant for underwater) with a macro lens. This way I was ready for any wildlife sightings. The path was very muddy and slippery in its own right, but with all the gear, it became even more so! I made it almost the whole 3-4 hour walk without falling, but near the end I slipped twice... On the second fall, my Olympus took a full covering of mud. Good thing it is "weatherproof" and can be cleaned with water! The hike was great for the full jungle feel as the guides often had to cut down the vines growing across the path. We also heard some elephant warning calls, which they do if they hear you approaching, so we were careful to stay away. There were also a number of neat insects, which seems to be true everywhere in the jungle. Awesome!
The one big downside of this jungle was that the land leeches were out in droves. In Kinabatangan we were warned about the leeches, but I only saw one the whole time I was there! In the Danum valley, they were everywhere. Every few minutes I would do a leg check and there would be more of them climbing up my legs. Luckily I had prepared for them at Kinabatangan, so I had leach socks and long pants to keep them off me. Although I was a little disturbed by them, it was hard not to be impressed with their efficiency at finding us. As we walked through the jungle, the vibrations alerted them to our presence. They quickly climb up a small plant, and reach out towards anything producing heat. If you get withing a body length of them, they latch on. Alternatively, if you take a break and stay in the same place, they all walk towards you like inchworms, attracted by your body heat. There were two types, the bigger and less painful tiger leech and the small brown leech.
When we got back to our room, we checked to see if any leeches got us. Surprisingly, we each had one bite that neither of us had felt at all! Unfortunately, the leeches need to release an anticoagulant into your blood so they can fill up without it clotting. This means that after they drop off you, you keep bleeding for a long time. The one upside was that both of our leeches had dropped off us before we found the bites, so we didn't have to remove them ourselves (this wouldn't always be true in the future).
After lunch, we said farewell to Angus, and headed out for our second jungle hike. Min wanted us to take an easier route (since I had fallen twice that morning), but we insisted that we take the full on jungle route. Our destination was a waterfall that we could swim in. We set out, and found the path wasn't as bad as he made it seem (part of the reason being that I brought less camera gear). However, after walking for around an hour we found that our path overlapped with the elephants path. The elephants totally destroyed the path as they walked, knocking over trees everywhere! In many places we had to cut a new path around a freshly fallen tree, or step through giant muddy footprints. When we got to the waterfall, the water was flowing at a higher rate than Min had ever seen, so unfortunately it wasn't safe to swim. Instead, we took a break in the protective shelter next to the waterfall. This proved to be a stronghold of leaches, and as we sat we could see many of them inching their way along the concrete floor towards our feet!
That evening we were invited to join the staff for a christmas celebratory barbeque, and had the odd experience of sitting in the jungle, eating Malaysian barbeque, while listening to highly western Christmas music. After returning to our room, we found a large rhinocerous beetle, something that I knew all about when I was a kid, but never actually saw!
The next morning, we woke up around sunrise again, and went to observe the animals from the canopy tower. It was very beautiful to see the mist throughout the forest when we arrived, and to see it clear as the sun rose. After breakfast, we did our last activity in the area, tubing on the Kawag river! This was really neat to see the jungle from the river, and especially good to escape the threat of leeches. All we had to do was sit in our tubes, and flail our arms wildly to steer. We hung out for a bit at a rope swing, and then continued on the river. At several points there were areas with toppled trees and giant fotprints in the mud, undoubtedly where a herd of elephants came for a drink. As we neared the end of our float, we actually started to hear the elephant warning noises. We soon got to a spot where their footprints crossed the river, and realized they must have just crossed recently! We ended our float at a defunct giant wooden brdge that used to be used for logging, but is now completely overgrown. We had so much fun (and enough time left) that we decided to go again! This time it rained near the end (very hard) which was actually a lot of fun!
When we got back to the lodge, we threw our stuff in our bags, and were shuttled back to Lahad Datu. When we got back, we asked about a bus to Tawau, and were pointed in the right direction. Conveniently, we found the bus station quickly and were told that the bus to Tawau was leaving in about 20 minutes! So we bought our tickets, and headed south.
On this trip to Kinabatangan we decided to try a new lodge. The Bilit Nature Lodge was right across the river from the place I stayed the first time, so the river tours were pretty much the same. However, the guides and trekking were totally different.
I was afraid that Alyssa wouldn't get to see the elephants since it had been a while since I had seen them, and they were known to disappear overnight. However, on our first evening there we got to see them! They were further up river than the boats normally go, but another boat told us about them so we sought them out. Just like before, there was a herd of them sitting on the river bank eating all the grass in site (called elephant grass due to their appetite for it). One highlight of this sighting was when we saw one elephant pee. The sheer volume of urine was absolutely astounding, as was the rate at which it flowed (sorry if that's gross). The next day, they were gone.
The trip was very worthwhile for many reasons besides the elephants. On this trip I got a much better view of the proboscis monkeys, saw an adult and baby crocodile, and saw a water monitor lizard. We also did a great river tour where we went in a smaller boat into a side stream. The stream was barely wide enough for the boat, so we just slowly pushed forward with the bow of the boat parting the jungle in front of us. At the other end of this river was a secluded oxbow that had a great deal of asian darters (a bird) as well as some eagles and a set of paths to walk on.
That evening, our guide secretly took us and one other couple to a special spot to see the fireflies. He liked us, so he told us not to tell anyone else (I felt a little bad, but it was nice to have some peace). The fireflies were really interesting because they had a much more complex pattern of illuminating the bioluminesence. It was a much more rapid flashing and was also highly sexually dimorphic. We saw more of these on our two night walks, along with a large diversity of frogs and insects as well as a nocturnal jungle mouse (I was the only one to see it as it ran away very quickly).
One experience stood out on this tour above all the rest, and was a direct fullfilment of one of my biggest wishes from the jungle. On my last boat ride on the Kinabatangan, after approximately 14 hours on the river, our guide spotted a wild orangutan in the upper branches of a tree! It was a lone female simply hanging out. The shadows were much too strong to get a decent picture of her, but I was incredibly happy to just watch her climb around and eat. Although I had seen orangutans at the Sepilok sanctuary, this felt so much more real, and as a result exhillerating. This was a truly wild animal that was there purely on its own accord.
On the way back to Sandakan, we made a stop a the Gomanton Caves. This is a series of enormous caves that are famous for being a major source of swiftlet nests for use in birds nest soup. The caves' fame was exponentially increased after it was included in the original BBC Planet Earth documentary series (possibly the greatest documentary series of all times, at least until the sequel is released this year). Before we even got into the caves, we were treated with a sighting of two semi-wild orangutans at the caves entrance. Apparently many rehabilitated orangutans are released here, and so they tend to stick around in the area. On this particular day, there was a mother and baby orangutan. The baby was old enough that he was away from the mother climbing around on his own. At one point, he was hanging from two vines and one just snapped. He fell about 10 feet and gracefully used his momentum to swing forward on the other vine. Unfortunately, I didn't get any of this on camera because I really didn't expect to need my telephoto lens in a cave!
Soon enough we entered the actual cave. One thing that I was expecting (based on the BBC footage) was for the floor to be completely covered in a layer of cockroaches. Unfortunately, it is not nesting season for the birds, so the cockroach numbers were greatly reduced. However, there were still lots of bats, centipedes, and not an insubstantial number of roaches. In addition, the cave its self was massive and beautiful hosting several places where light came through in discrete streaks.
After returning to Sandakan, we immediately started planning a second trip (for me) to Sepilok. The next morning, we got back on the public bus and headed to the orangutan sanctuary. On the way out there, I am about 95% sure that I saw a Costco (I know I saw a sign for one), and I am massively regretful that I didn't get to visit. At the sanctuary, it was great to see the orangutans up close again, and also great to return to the rainforest discovery center. This visit coincided with an event for school children at the RDC, and afforded us the opportunity to meet one of their teachers. She just graduated from university in England, and came back to Malaysia to teach kids about environmentalism and about their countries natural treasures. She explained to us that many people (herself included) are fairly disinterested in the local flora and fauna since they grow up surrounded by it. However in recent years, there has been a large-scale effort to teach kids to appreciate their natural resources in the hope that they will develop a sense of pride that will spark a protective instinct in the populace.
As I've said before out here... Why don't we do that in the US???
We spent the night out in Sepilok at a hotel near the RDC. This was Alyssa's first night in accomodations that were... less than comfortable. The room stank, and there appeared to large slugs throughout the bathroom. After trying to help her acclimate a bit, I went to sleep (and I think she might have slept a bit too).
The next day we went back to the RDC where we saw a bunch of ants eating a big snail.
Finally, we went to see the sunbears again. My last visit of the sunbears gave me the impression that they are tiny, playful, friendly bears. This trip changed my mind. We saw several of them fighting and chasing eachother up and down trees. They looked and sounded just as intimidating as any other (larger) bear.
Finally, we headed back to Sandakan one last time to start planning the next leg of our trip.
After getting back, I took a day off to relax, edit pictures, and wait for Alyssa. Unfortunately, her mobile carrier doesn't let her text for free overseas, so on her journey she could only communicate with me once she was on Wifi. However, after a few long flights and some long layovers, she arrived at Sandakan airport! I took a taxi and picked her up from the airport. I thought we'd have a great moment where she would appear at the exit and we'd have our big reunion, but it wasn't quite that simple. Sandakan airport is very small, so the waiting room is right next to the baggage claim behind a glass wall. When I first saw her, all I could do was wave while she waited for her bag. Once she got it, I thought I was about to see her! But then a customs officer grabbed her and she had to scan her bag (no one else had to). Finally, she was through, and we were reunited! We took a taxi back to Sandakan, and then she completely passed out in the hotel (I don't blame her after leaving Boston at 1:30 a.m. and flying for 24 hours). I eventually went to sleep as well, ready to show her the city the next day.
Unfortunately, Alyssa had some serious jet lag, so she was up (and consequently, so was I) at 4am! Note to self, buy Alyssa a gameboy...
Once the sun had come up, we went out so I could show her the portion of the city that we were in. We went to the street stalls for lunch and ate in front of the ocean bay. I also made sure to show her where the Mcdonalds and KFC were in case she was missing home. Once we were back at the hotel, we signed up for another trip to Kinabatangan river, however this time we added on a trip to Gomantong caves.
For dinner, I finally felt comfortable ordering one of the items on the menu that I was completely unfamiliar with (because if I hated it, I could steal her food). I decided to try roti murtabak. I know roti means bread, but I have no idea what murtabak is. They made it by putting a thin layer of bread dough on a hot pan, then piling a bunch of topping on it. They cut straight lines radially outwards from the topping, and folded the remaining sections over onto the topping. Then they flipped it and finished frying it. Turns out that it was the best thing I had eated yet in Malaysia! Lesson learned, try more diverse stuff.
A side note: I just remembered something that I thought was interesting in Indonesia. We saw clown fishes on almost every dive, and almost everyone referred to them as "nemos." What was really interesting about that was the universal nature of the trend. People from all over the world called them the same thing, even the poorer Indonesians. While it is possible that they don't know about the movie, and just learned the word from tourists, it is still interesting that the name has permeated the world.
Another note: All the restaurants in Malaysia serve Malaysian food. The ones that are run by Indian immigrants serve Malaysian food with a slight Indian twist, and same with other races. It's the opposite of the US where many immigrants serve their native food with a slight American twist.
Last note: It was curious that in Labuan Bajo, all the stores were the same. There were very few specialty stores, and apart from the big chains, all the stores had pretty much the same things in stock. How do they all stay in business? Do some do better than others?
NOTE: everything on this page is new since the last update.
After hanging out for a day or two to recollect myself, I decided to head to Sepilok. Sepilok is a nearby town (barely big enough to be called a town) that is home to a famous orangutan sanctuary as well as a sun bear conservation center and a place called the rainforest discovery center. I got on the 8am bus, and headed to the town. When I got there, they dropped me off at the orangutan center. I bought a ticket, and went in for the 10am feeding. The idea is that when an orangutan is found in the pet trade or when a baby loses its mother before it learns how to monkey (which takes 7years), then they take it in. They teach it how to monkey, and then release it into the woods around their establishment. If it wants, it can leave and take care of its self. However, if it still needs help getting food, then it can come to the twice daily feedings. When I went to buy my ticket, they had a sign up that said "camera fee- RM10, professional camera (>400mm) RM1000." Apparently if you have a long telephoto lens (like mine) then you have to pay over $200 to bring it in... Luckily, no one seemed to really care about that policy, and I didn't say anything. So I went in with the two british travellers that I met in my hostel, and we all immediately got very annoyed at the Chinese tourists. They just wouldn't shut up... There are signs that say to be silent, and other ones that say you aren't guaranteed to see any orangutans (because they can get scared away) and these idiots are sitting here yelling. They finally quieted down when they were reminded, but then the second one of them made a peep, they would all start yelling again. This continued when we got to the feeding platform, so it was pretty annoying. Nevertheless, when they put the food out, some orangutans came. One of them got scared off by the noise, but the other two came down to feed. It turned out they were both mothers that had young babies clinging to them! One baby was 3 months, and just held onto his mother while she fed. The other baby was 6 months, and he climbed around on his own and grabbed some food. It was difficult to get good pictures because of the lighting and because I was trying to keep the artificial elements of the platform out of my shots. However, I got a few pictures.
Althought the sunbear conservancy center is right next to the orangutan center, I decided to go to the rainforest center first (to avoid the Chinese tourists). So we caught a taxi over there, and started walking around. The rainforest center is basically just a bunch of trails through the rainforest with a canopy walk that gets up to 100 ft. There were still noisy tourists here, so we didn't see a ton of birds... However, I did get a great view of a beautiful black and yellow broadbill bathing in a natural pool of water in a tree.
After that, we went back to the other area and visited the sun bear center. The sun bears are tiny bears (smallest in the world) that mostly eat fruit and honey, so they are basically Poo bear in real life. Unfortunately, while we were trying to see them, a roving band of angry macaques showed up. We weren't allowed to go on certain trails because the macaques might attack us!
To end the day, we went back to the orangutan sanctuary for the afternoon feeding. No orangutans this time, but I did get to see the nursery where they teach them how to monkey. After this, I had to find a hotel. I walked around until I found a cheap one, and then settled in. I had wanted to do a night hike, but no one else signed up, and they wanted at least 4 people. Instead, I just relaxed, and went to bed a little early, thinking that when I woke up, Alyssa would be on her way to Malaysia!
Unfortunately, it wasn't that easy, and there were some flight complications. She is still going to be here soon, but with a short one day delay.
The next day, I was up early from figuring out the flight complications. Since I was already up, I went down for an early breakfast. Surprisingly, there was an orangutan in the restaurant area! The employees had no idea what to do, so it must have been an uncommon occurence. After he cleared out and I ate, I headed back to the Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC) to try to see more. I was walking to the center when a local guy stopped and offered me a ride. I jumped in his truck, and noticed that his business card said he was a birding guide. I told him that I was going to look for birds, and he gave me a suggestion of the best path to take. When I got there, I headed to that path. This time, there was no one here, and it was really great. I found a clearing with a pond, and just sat there for a long time. I saw tons of birds including a kingfisher that caught two fish while I was there, and some drongos. There were also many lizards and dragonflies. It's amazing how much more you see when it's quiet...
After I left the clearing, I saw a sign detailing the habits of the flying lemur, including the fact that they spend the days hanging on the sides of trees. I decided I wanted to see one and kept walking. Only a few minutes later, I saw a bumb on a tree, and what do you know, it was a flying lemur! From the side he was very cute, but when he looked directly at me it was kind of goofy looking. I saw hm climb down the tree, and spent an hour photographing and watching him. When I started packing up to go, I looked away for a few minutes. When I looked back, he was gone. The flying lemurs are really neat, and are the closest living relatives to primates. Unfortunately, I didn't see him in action because they are mostly nocturnal.
I kept walking around the center, and then ended in the discover plant center. They have plants from all over the world, but many of them weren't blooming when I visited. It was still beautiful, and a good way to end there. I caught the last bus back to Sandakan, and checked back into my hotel.
The RDC was incredible. I couldn't believe how well put together it was, and how well maintained. It was both great and sad that it was mostly empty. I was really happy that there weren't too many people to scare away the wildlife, but sad that such a great place is so underutilized.
Once I got back, I took another day off. I worked on the huge backlog of pictures that I've built up and waited for Alyssa to get here. While I was sitting around, I met a local guy (Patrick) from a nearby city. We talked for a while, and eventually I revealed that I was an atheist. The idea of evolution came up, and he actually seemed pretty open minded to hear about it (but was initially skeptical). So thats how I came to teach a local guy about evolution, exobiology (the little that I know), and relativity. I hope it has some lasting effect on him, he seemed very open minded and interested.
In the last post, I mentioned that there could be elephants. What I had read online is that it is possible to see them, but not always easy. Basically they come and go on their own volition, and don't spend much time by this part of the river (since it is the longest river in Malaysia). Some times they will be at the river for one day, and then no one will see them for 7 months. I wanted to see them however, and according to other guests, they were currently in the area. I had been planning on forging my own way, and catching a bus there then figuring out my own arrangements and safaris. However, since the elephants were there then, and no one knows when they'll leave, I didn't want to risk taking an extra day to get there and missing them. So I signed up for a safari.
The next morning, a bus picked me up and we headed down to the Kinabatangan. Since it's the low season, I was the only one on board. The drive was rather depressing, since the road was lined with nothing but palm oil trees. Borneo is home to a great deal of rainforest and jungle, but Malaysia has seen a great deal of this destroyed in the name of palm oil production. This part of Borneo in particular has been devastated by this trend.
After driving for a while (on surprisingly nice roads, totally different from Indonesia), we got to the river. There was a boat waiting to take me accross the river to the lodge. Once I got there, they briefed me, and sent me to my room. Since I'm always trying to be cheap, I had a dorm style room. However, since I was the only one showing up that day, I had my own room! After I dropped my stuff off, it was time to begin my jungle adventure.
The first activity was a jungle cruise. Basically, we all get on a small motorboat, and it cruises down the river while the guide tries to find wildlife. Luckily, it stopped raining right before we set out. I got in the boat with my big lens and my camera, and we headed out. I won't go over the whole trip, but it was awesome and we saw so much life. There were hornbills (multiple species including the rare wrinkled hornbill), long tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, snake eagles, a black and red broadbill, and most importantly, elephants!! As we cruised down the river, we came around a bend, and the elephants were just sitting on the river bank, eating all the grass. Apparently the views weren't as good in the days before, but since they ate all the grass, the views had gotten better. The guide also told us that normally they leave after a day or maybe two. However, this time one of the females was in late stage pregnancy, so she couldn't walk far. As a result, they were staying put for a while.
I can't post all the pictures I took on here, because I suck at formatting the site. However I'll post a few of my favorites on here, and then put a link to the rest. The bottom line is that the river is incredible, and there is awesome life everywhere. If you want to see a little bit of what I saw, go to the link.
After the first cruise, we went back to the lodge and had dinner. Then it was time for a night hike. I was the only one going on this, so once I met my guide, we headed out. Since the trail is covered in deep mud, we started by getting rental rain boots. Unfortunately, in Asia shoes only go up to size 11, so my size 15 feet were pretty squished when I forced them in the boot. After I got the boots on, we headed into the jungle with only our flashlights and my camera. We quickly found a lanternbug, a crazy and very colorful insect. Although we didn't find any mammals (tarsiers, slow llorises, and civets are all possible), we saw a ton of vertebrates and invertebrates alike. There were several colorful tropical birds that were sleeping on low branches, giant moths, bats, a huntsman spider, two stick insects that looked very different, and frogs. Just like the cruise, there was too much to mention or to post pictures of on here, so look at the pictures in the link.
The lanternbug has an extended mouth for digging up other insects.
We saw several kingfishers and Bornean flycatchers sleeping in the woods. I regret taking this picture now because I used flash on the bird at night! It was probably very disorienting and stressful for him.
Whip scorpions look terrifying but are harmless as far as I know.
After we got back from the hike, we went right to bed so we could wake up early the next morning for a sunrise cruise. As promised, at 5:45, they rang the gong which signalled that it was time to meet for the next activity. We all trudged down to the boat, and got on board. Again, we had a great cruise with silver langurs and kingfishers, amongst other things. On our return, we had breakfast, then I did a daytime jungle trek with a guide named John. It was just me again, and John was a really nice young guy who is interested in going back to school to study biology. He is really interested in birds, and knows a ton about the wildlife in the area. It was great to walk through the jungle and chat with him. At several point, the water came up almost to the top of our boots, but my feet stayed dry. We didn't see too many animals, but what we did see was pretty crazy. There were a number of two horn spiders, and I walked face first into several of their webs. There was also a strange slug that was climbing up an invisible thread into the trees above. It was almost dancing in the air and was strangely beautiful. Most importantly, when we were almost back, John spotted a black and crimson pitta. It was really beautiful, and stuck around just long enough for me to get pictures. There were also a number of cool plants like the water vine, which orangutans use to get water so they don't have to go to the river.
An angry proboscis monkey
The black and crimson pitta. Beautiful bird spotted by my awesome guide John.
An adults silverleaf monkey i.e. silver langur. Most of them are indeed silver colored, but a few never develop the silver coloration. Instead, these individuals retain the orange coloration of the young monkeys.
A two horn orb weaver spider. The size of the horns seems to vary a lot, but I'm not sure why. I don't tend to think of spiders as having strong sexual selection, but there are many spiders that have crazy ornamentation, so maybe I am wrong.
Over the course of my time there I did 4 river cruises, 2 night hikes, and 1 day hike. We saw lots of cool animals on the later events like the saltwater crocodile and an owl. However, I've already talked about it enough here, so really, go look at the pictures online.
At the end of all of this, I headed back to Sandakan as my base for the next adventure.