Sunday, April 15, 2012

Borneo Day One: Kuching to Bako

Bryan and I took a trip to Borneo a while back that I never got a chance to blog about. If you follow the blog closely (Hi Moms!), then you might have realized that we've been to Borneo before. That first trip was to Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah. This time we headed for Kuching, in Sarawak. Both are in the Malaysian part of Borneo (the island is actually split between three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei).

We left Singapore on Thursday afternoon and arrived in Kuching less than 2 hours later (hooray for Air Asia!). We made our way to the Pullman Hotel. On our way, our taxi driver gave us a little crash course in Bahasa (I always forget how to say "vegetarian food, please!").

Our hotel room was really nice, but we were ready for some dinner, so we just dropped our stuff and headed back out. We roamed around for a while, just checking out town and looking for a place to eat. OK...I have a confession to make. I don't really like Malay food. I like most Southeast Asian food - Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc. But Malay food just doesn't do it for me. I know that's kind of sacrilegious to say in Singapore, but I can't help it. I think my unfortunate food experience in KL is partly to blame. Anyway, we ended up eating at a place with a mix of Malay and Western food. It was pretty good. After dinner, we headed back to our room so Bryan could enjoy the luxury of taking a bath!

When we awoke the next morning, we really got a chance to admire the city from our room. It had looked nice the night before, all lit up, but in the daylight we could get our bearings and identify different landmarks.
Wow! A pretty great view from the Pullman Hotel
The striking blue building on the right is the South Kuching City Council Building

The day ahead of us was full of big plans, so we checked out of our room and set off to get some lunch. We went to one of the first places we found, a funky little cafe called Fullhouse. It was a stylish place, with original artwork on the walls, and furniture and clothes for sale in the back. The menu was full of comic book art too, which was pretty fun. The food was less impressive than the atmosphere, but it was fine.
Funky Fullhouse (Here's a more detailed blog post about Fullhouse).

After lunch, we got a taxi to the boat dock, where we planned to get a boat to Bako National Park. We bought tickets for the boat and then went into a waiting area, where a colorful (and possibly mentally disturbed) local woman proceeded to talk incessantly at us, despite the fact that we obviously didn't understand Bahasa. After about a half an hour, we went to ask someone how much longer it would be, and realized that we could have gotten on a boat at any time - we'd been waiting for nothing! Oh well.

We hopped on a little motorboat with a friendly "boatman" named Mohammed, and sped off down the river. It was a perfect day for a boat ride: the sun was shining off the water and there was a cool breeze.
Smile big if you're happy to be out of the city for a few days!

Every once in a while Mohammed slowed down to point out an interesting sight: cool fishing contraptions set up on the river, a group of men fishing for massive jellyfish, fat mudskippers swimming along the shore.
Men were tossing jellyfish off the boat ans into a box on shore. I put a red circle around a jellyfish in mid-air. HUGE!

Mohammed also took us on a brief tour back into a mangrove area, where we saw fat mudskippers flopping around and unfamiliar birds flying overhead.
Puttering around the mangroves

The river eventually widened and joined up with the South China Sea. When we were almost to our destination, we slowed down again so Mohammed could point out some unusual rock formations. The sandstone formations had eroded over time, and the patterns left behind were beautiful.
Sandstone rock patterns remind me of those bottles of colored sand we used to make when we were kids!

Mohammed dropped us off, and we set up a time for him to pick us up in a couple of days. We headed in to the Visitor Center area to check into the room that we'd reserved. Before we came, we'd checked the Bako National Park accommodation on TripAdvisor, and the consensus had been pretty much unanimous: the rooms were rough, old, and all around bad...but it was worth it, because the area around the accommodations is teeming with wildlife, nature, and beautiful views. Unfortunately, we'd also made our reservations late, so we ended up with a room in the hostel instead of one of the nicer bungalows.

The room was about what we expected. It was plain (the only furniture was 4 beds and 2 fans) and mostly clean, but kind of moldy around the edges. There was a shared bathroom/shower that reminded me of something from one of the Saw movies. But the room was in the middle of the forest, and we would soon discover that the claims of abundant wildlife were 100% accurate.
The oh-so-luxurious hostel
Shared hostel bathroom.
Warning: Jigsaw may be lurking behind the door.

Once checked into our meager accommodations, we were eager to explore. We got our hiking gear together and set off on Paku Trail, which had been recommended both by our boatman and by the people at the front desk. To get to the trails, you first walk along a rickety old boardwalk.
This is my "Hooray! I didn't get murdered in the bathroom!" face

The mangroves by the boardwalk had some familiar wildlife, including the mudskippers that we find so lovable.
It's like running into an old friend while on vacation!

Paku Trail was kind of hard work at first, as we were going up a lot, but it leveled off pretty quickly. After only 15 minutes of walking, we heard crashing branches above us. Some squinting into the trees revealed that we'd gotten lucky fast. There were proboscis monkeys all around us!!
The big-bellied male proboscis monkey with a mouthful of yummy leaves, his favorite food!

I'm going to take a minute to give you some fast facts about the proboscis monkey, because they are awesome.

Proboscis Monkey Facts
1) These big-bellied primates live ONLY in Borneo!
2) They are endangered due to habitat loss.
3) They make loud, honking alarm calls (see a video here).
4) The Malay name means "Dutch monkey" because the locals thought the big-bellied, big-nosed monkeys resembled Dutchmen!!
5)  Infants are born with BLACK fur and a BLUE face!

The young males have little noses!

I adore these monkeys. I love that they're so big, yet still manage to move so effortlessly through the trees. I love that they all look like they're pregnant. I love that they're orange. I love that they maintain a healthy wariness toward people. I love that their alarm calls sound like someone blowing their nose. I just think they're super. We hung around and watched them for quite a while before we finally managed to tear ourselves away.

Along the trail, we heard lots of pretty birdsong but didn't manage to spot many of the birds that we heard. We did see this olive-vented bulbul though!
Not the most beautiful bird  in the woods, but the plain ones need love too!

Paku Trail ends on the beach. It was nice to cool down by wading in the water. There were hermit crabs scuttling all over the beach too, which was great. My favorite one had a bright green shell.
This one had the prettiest outfit.

We hung out on the beach for a while before starting the hike back. I hung out on a rock like Ariel from the Little Mermaid.
We got no troubles; Life is the bubbles; Under the sea!

When we left the beach, we heard some commotion in the trees. It was more proboscis monkeys! We couldn't see them as well as we saw the ones before though, so we moved on. The hike back was much quicker than the hike out has been, probably because Bryan and I were getting hungry for dinner!

The last part of the walk to the hostel goes along the boardwalk. When we got there, we saw some long-tailed macaques foraging on the beach. Yay! It's always fun to see macaques in other countries, because they often look a little different from the ones in Singapore, or live in habitats that are a little different from the ones they occupy in Singapore. I don't see macaques on the beach very often, so it was fun to watch them playing in the sand.
Beach Monkey!

There was other wildlife on the beach too - more hermit crabs, birds, and a lizard perched on a tree out in the water. It seemed like a weird place for a lizard!
Skink up a tree
Common sandpiper
Sandpiper bath time!

We were almost to the cafeteria when I heard more rustling in the trees. I watched for a while and then saw...a silvered leaf monkey!!!!!! AND...A BABY!
We were really fortunate to spot an infant!

These monkeys are so pretty - they have this great mohawk, and a such a sweet, innocent face. The adults are a beautiful silvery grey color, but their babies are ORANGE!!! BRIGHT ORANGE!!! It's so awesome! The monkeys usually range in groups, but we just saw these two. They must have wandered off for a while.
The proboscis monkeys are cool, but the leaf monkeys would whomp them in a beauty contest.
BIG jump!

Eventually the leaf monkey and her baby moved away from us, so we walked on. About 10 steps later, we encountered a group of long-tailed macaques. Bako is just Monkey Central!!
Try not to trip over the monkeys. They're everywhere!

We were almost back to our room when we got a big surprise: a bearded pig walked right across our path!!! It acted like we weren't even there! We followed it around the back of a building, and found MORE monkeys back there!! Remember how I said that the TripAdvisor reviews promised that the area was teeming with wildlife? Well, it looks like they were being honest!
Bearded pig, pretending we don't exist.These pigs sometimes follow macaques and eat the fruit that they drop!!

The macaques we saw behind the building had been raiding a trash bin. One got lucky and found some bread. She was running and clutching her bread, trying to get away so she could enjoy her prize in peace.

After watching the monkeys and pig for a bit, we dropped our stuff in our room and walked the short distance to the beach to enjoy a picturesque sunset.
Not a bad way to wrap up an already amazing day

After the sun went down, we went to the cafeteria and got some food. The cafeteria is the only option for food at Bako National Park. It's buffet style, and it's pretty basic, especially in terms of vegetarian options. For dinner, I had rice, french fries, and pineapple slices. Bryan had slightly better luck with some chicken curry.

A lot of the time, when we're on vacation, our day kind of ends when the sun goes down and we've eaten dinner. Bryan and I aren't big "nightlife" people, so we often end up playing games or watching movies in the evening, and looking forward to more outdoor adventures the next day. But we had plans for that night - Bako does guided night hikes for the great value of $3 USD per person. So we grabbed our flashlights and met up with some local guides!

We had just stepped out the back door of the Visitor Center when our guides stopped. They had already spotted a snake! It was a male Wagler's pit viper, just like we've seen in Singapore.
Photography in the dark is kind of tricky!

About 2 minutes later, our guides stopped again. They'd already spotted another pit viper! It was the female Wagler's pit viper, which is substantially larger and more intimidating than the little male! But don't let their looks fool you - the skinny male is venomous just like his beefy female counterpart!
I was in the middle of A Dance with Dragons on this trip, so when I saw this snake, my first thought was "The night is dark and full of terrors."

The night hike wasn't all scary creepy crawlies. We moved on to the Lintang Trail, where most of the hike took place. There we saw this sweet little Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, fast asleep on a branch, with his head all tucked in.
Hope she keeps a safe distance from those scary snakes!

We also saw not one but two little frogs! I don't know how our guides managed to see these things. The first one was so small he could have perched on my pinky finger! I need a frog book, because I can't ID either of these.
I think the scientific name for this one is "Cute Little Kermit"

In addition to superhuman frog-spotting skills, our guides also had an insane ability to pick out superbly camouflaged stick insects.
How did they see this?! I can barely even find it in the photo!
If you look closely, you can see that this one is covered in tiny spikes.

To round out the creepy crawlies category, we also spotted a tarantula in a tree trunk (it hid before Bryan could snap a photo) and this crazy huge spider that was about the size of my entire hand.
One of the last things we saw before bed. Sweet dreams!

After the night hike, we headed back to our room. The proboscis monkeys were sleeping nearby, and from our front porch we could hear them calling. It was pretty exciting to be sleeping in a place so immersed in nature. We read a while, then slept in our strange little hostel room - I admit that I woke up a few times from dreams of snakes and spiders!!


  1. How did you reserve the rooms? There's an elementary website run by the national park, but they completely ignored our request...

    1. Yeah we had trouble with them too. It took them about a week to get back to us the first time. If you don't hear from them within a week, I suggest calling the phone number on the Sarawak Forestry site. It's a general number, not really for room reservations, but they might be able to forward your call to someone who can help.

      Here are the numbers I found: Tel: (+6) 082 610088 and 1 800 88 2526

      They provide this email address: but I emailed it and never got a response.

      Good luck!!

    2. Thanks, your photos really make it seem worthwhile doing an overnight trip

    3. Yeah, totally! And it's so close to Singapore, it would be a shame to miss it.