Kuching, Borneo

“Prepare for landing,” the Captain said as we hovered over Kuching. As we began our decent, we started to see fireworks. We continued to look and saw at least a dozen firework shows in the city. Our Malay seatmate told us that Chinese New Year celebrations would continue until midnight. Colors lit up the night sky and it felt a little magical.

Nick and I enjoyed some live local music at the Culture Club, the bar located next to our hostel before bed. We discussed how quickly our trip was happening and promised this trip would not be our last. This day was a great day, I felt so happy. The kind people I met that day, the unexpected views and excitement of new places remind me why I love to travel.

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Village kids outside of Bako
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Village outside of Bako National Park

Bako National Park

Nick and I took an hour long bus ride and choppy ocean boat ride to Bako National Park. Bako was established in 1957, and has 11 sq. miles of protected rainforest. Although arriving in the late afternoon,Nick and I wasted no time and hiked to 3 lookout points. We enjoyed coastal views and spotted a sleeping flying lemur, bearded pig and Proboscis Monkeys.

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Proboscis Money

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Bearded wild pig

Bako felt a little like summer camp. We had a cabin with other camp mates, we ate overpriced mediocre cafeteria food and signed up for the guided night hike. It felt like the rainforest came alive a night. We saw so many unique animals, including: luminescent fungus, luminescent worms, fresh water cat fish, tarantulas, stick bugs, giant ants, green poison frogs, birds, green vipor snakes and an owl. We learned that giant ants can be used as stitches, when they bite a wound you can pinch off its body. We also learned that female stick bugs will eat the male after having sex.

Green Pit Vipor, 50 feet up

The next morning we got an early start and hiked up to a secluded jungle waterfall/ natural pool. The water was dark red in color and the floor of the pool consisted of smooth rock. We were thankful we found this oasis as swimming on the beaches was prohibited due to crocodiles. We learned that a handful of people are killed every year by crocodiles in Sarawak. We hiked to a view point where we met some monkeys and watched the tide come in. The waves crashed against the rocks, the wind blew and the coconut trees swayed.

We returned to Kuching and spent the next day at Semenggoh Nature Reserve. We hiked on a trail to a feeding platform and watched semi-wild orangutans swing from tree to tree over our heads. We watched Edwin, the oldest male who had already begun to develop check pads, another male, mother, and her child enjoy bananas and coconuts. I could have spent hours watching them. Humans closest relative, these endangered orangutans had so much character and personality. In addition to the apes, we had the opportunity to check out 2 crockadiles. One female burried her eggs and an employee told us they would release the babies into the river. We couldn’t imagine stumbling upon one of these 10 foot monsters (can grow up to 25 ft. long). After, Nick and I hiked to a beautiful waterfall in Kubah National Park and enjoyed the old growth rainforest and water all to ourselves.


On our second day in Kuching, we discovered why rainforests are called RAINforests. Kuching gets on average 170 in. of rain a year and after today this didn’t surprise us. We woke up to pouring rain and thunder but decided to rent a motorbike as we were sure it would pass. We checked out Medan Niaga Satok market, where jungle produce was sold. Although the rain was on and off, by noon it was very much on. We jumped back on the motorbike, were frantically searching for gas and were drenched through our rain gear. However, so many locals were more than willing to point us in the right direction (Malaysia has entered the competition for friendliest locals with Myanmar.) Finally, we showed up to the Matang Wildlife Center. Here we walked a loop where we saw endangered animals. The center helps rehabilitate animals and puts hem back into the rainforest. We saw sambar deer, crockadiles, and bear cats (Nick’s favorite). A gibbon throw a handful of poop thrown at us so we continued on to the birds.

Jungle produce



Then we saw him. A male Orangutan close to 300 pounds. The king. He was in a two story cage and his orange curly dreaded hair hung off his body. He was captivating. We moved up high to a location where we were able to watch 3 female apes and another massive orangutan in separate quarters. As it continued to pour one orangutan held a large leaf over it’s head while another held up part of a berlap sack. I was eye level with this female with nothing between us but open space. We stared at each other. She looked unhappy. They all did. She bit her lip then stuck her tounge out at me. So I did it back. Then she did it again and so did I. Then she turned her back to me and sat in the pouring rain.

My attention moved towards the male. His checkpads were massive. He was massive. He played with the water coming out of the drainage. He watched us. Then he made his way to the door and began to pound on it. He wanted attention, he wanted out. He wanted something. He hung his body from the door frame and swung back and forth. He returned to the water then returned to the door, this time with a rock. He smashed the rock against the door, pounding. There was no response. He wore his emotion on his face. I could sympaize. He looked like he was giving up, like he was depressed and helpless. I cried. Not because I am PETA person, this park is doing the best they can to rehabilitate these animals. Sure, it’s a shame that they don’t have more money to give these animals more space, but they have been able to send tons of animals back into the rainforest. However, I felt sad. That we’ve gotten to a place where there is an imbalance in nature. How are these animals endangered? Who could anyone ever kill one of these things? There habitat is changing, trees are being turned into tables. Rainforests are rapidly being removed from this world and there is nothing I can do.

RAINforest

The next day, Nick and I learned from our mistake and paid for a cab to take us to Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse. Nick and I were envisioning a Native longhouse, however this was more of a raised community on bamboo stilts. 1,000 – 2,000 individuals live her, however only about 150 full time. The children lived at a nearby bordering school and some adults were in the city working or in the oil and gas industry. We visited a home that had been preserved and saw a cage of human skulls. 500 years ago, headhunting was an important part of Borneo’s indigenous culture. The majority of the skulls on display are said to be Japanese soldiers as the British used the head hunters aid during WWII.

 

Annah Rais Bidayuh Longhouse
Japanese Soldier Heads, hunted by the head hunters
Headhunter antiques

As we continued to wander the village, we met a man who had a small museum full of ancient relics that were passed down to him. Most impressive was a basket that the leader of the tribe used to carry his enemey’s heads in. Dried Tabasco leaves were placed at the bottom to prevent blood from dripping out and animal skin was used on the cover to prevent the smell of rotten flesh escaping. Tribes boiled a concoction of cobra, scorpion and frog poison then proceeded to soak their darts in the mixture for 2 weeks. The darts were made of palm needles so when the victim pulled out the dart it would break inside of them and within 2 hours they would die. Nick and I practiced our blow dart skills and were fascinated by the history in the village. Many of the traditions and rituals surrounding the practice of head hunting remain a mystery, however hunters of heads believed human skulls brought protection. They thought they could communicate with enemy spirits (after taking their head) asking them to stop attacking their tribe. The individual with the most number of heads outside of his home was often the leader of the tribe. Although rich in culture, I am glad that I live in a society where I don’t have to worry about being hunted for my head.

Banana flower



Favorite Local Eats:

Top Spot – a Chinese seafood hawker court on the 6th floor, try a fish fillet (Nick wasn’t disappointed)

Zhun San Yen Vegetarian – tied for the best vegetarian restaurant on our trip. The owner obviously takes pride in her fresh buffet and delicious homemade soy milk.

Culture Club – fun bar with live local music, check out the band atu ada

Chong Choon Cafe – small breakfast hawker court, the laksa is remarkable!

My Village Barok Lodge/ Riverside Hawker Stalls – enjoy various noodle dishes, milk juice, fried taro, tofu and sweet potato (take a boat for 1 ringet across the river)

Breakfast Laksa – noodles, coconut milk, sour tamarind, lime, shrimp paste, shrimp, chicken and bean sprouts
poor guy!

Kuala Lumpur

After spending 4 days in Kuala Lumpur, I have to say this has become one of my favorite cities. Nick and I arrived to KL by bus and were astonished by the modern bus station, which felt more like an airport. We saw familiar brands like Black Diamond, Garmin and Huka advertised outside of a small shopping plaza and for the first time in Asia saw tolls with “E-ZPass”. After getting off the bus, we took the train to Chinatown, which was where our guesthouse was located. The train ended up being our main mode of transportation as it was inexpensive, easy and reliable. Our guesthouse was decent, however we could have done without the 5 rats that visited us in the evenings.

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Islamic architecture in KL

We spent our first day in KL visiting Batu Caves, which ordinarily are caves with a Hindu temple inside, however on the day that we visited, we joined tens of thousands of Hindu devotees celebrating Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a festival where locals walk 9 miles (shoeless on hot asphalt) from a temple outside of Kuala Lumpur to Batu Caves. This festival involves various forms of sacrifices and burdens including piercing their cheeks with Vel skewers, hanging hooks with offerings (coconuts and limes) from their backs and bellies, and carrying large kavadis. The individuals, often in a trance, offer pots of milk to the war god, Murugan, once inside the cave. As we climbed the steps to the limestone cave, we watched those participating remove hooks and piercings and leave their offerings for Murugan on the ground. In the main temple, hundreds of metal vases holding milk were poured into a communal area. The pungent smell of warm milk filled the cave. After enjoying some fried Indian treats and sweets, we headed to the train station. Hundreds of people pushed and shoved their way to the station. The crowd was so packed, at points I felt it was hard to breath as there was so much pressure against my ribs. A woman and a child fell behind me and couldn’t get up without the help of others around her. For the first time, I understood how one could easily be trampled to death in a crowd. Overall, Nick and I were thrilled to participate in this celebration and it was a day full of chaos, colors, and smells. Hopefully, this helped prepare us for India!

Watch this guy remove his Vel skewer in our Malaysia video (coming soon!)


Milk festival, warm milk for everyone!
Body hooks
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Tens of thousands of Hindu devotees

After the Hindu Festival, we visited Masjid Jamek and Masjid Negara, the National Mosque. We took in the beautiful details and spoke with a gentleman about Islam. He answered all of our questions and made it clear that the commonly negative Western view on Islam was offensive. It is ridiculous that an entire religion is judged by it’s extremists. Imagine if one of the world leaders believed all Christians had polygamous relationships with forced children. In addition, he compared the hijab which many consider oppressive to a nuns attire which we call devoted. 2/3 of the woman I interacted with in KL wore hijabs or chadors and I grew fond of them. They are beautiful. I believe that a society that dresses more modestly could be positive and has made me rethink how I want to portray myself when I return to the states. I believe that there should be a balance between the Burka and nudity. It was hard seeing woman dressed in Niqabs (full cover with only the eyes showing) while their boyfriends wore cowboy hats with bright red Nike sneakers, as I wondered what the female wanted. I had a hard time accepting that woman had to dress modestly for man’s “love for woman, lack of control, thinking with their dicks, etc.” Why is the woman to blame? I was faced with a lot of interesting issues, however thankful our new friend was willing to share his religion with us. He invited Nick and I to watch the afternoon prayer which most foreigners are forbidden from and we got a deeper glimpse into their practice.

Masjid Negara – The National Mosque
Stacia outside of the prayer room

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Masjid Jamek

On our second day, Nick and I visited the Islamic Arts Museum and Merdeka Square. At the museum we saw collections of pottery, jewelry, clothing, and tile work. We saw models of various mosques around the world, many in Uzbekistan and a southern styled mosque in New Mexico, USA. We explored the old KL railway station with Islamic arches and spires. Later, we laid in the grass at Merdeka Square, where Malaysia’s independence was proclaimed in 1957. The final tourist activity on our list was to visit Petronas Towers, which formerly was the worlds tallest skyscrapers, however has since dropped to number 12.

KL’s old railway station
Petronas Towers

On our last day in KL, Nick and I received a text from our Spanish climbing friends that we met in Yosemite and were reunited with in Laos. We found out that our trips would overlap by a few hours and we were beyond elated. After breakfast we took the train to meet them. While walking through the train station I noticed a woman give another woman begging a red Chinese envelope, hong bao. For Chinese New Year my parents would give me hong bao with money inside. I wondered if this was a simple act of kindness or if it had to do with Chinese New Years.

Nonetheless, we met our friends and enjoyed the afternoon together. While at a cafe, we experienced a Chinese Dragon Dance. Two dragons began to dance outside of the cafe and danced to the beat of drums. They entered the restaurant, ate some oranges that were waiting for them at the counter, went into the kitchen, and back outside the main entrance. They ate hanging vegetables over the doorway (which reminded me of hanging mistletoe). We were told that it was the last day of Chinese New Years (15 days total) and that on this day some homes and businesses pay for the dragons to come and dance. The dragon dance brings good luck and prosperity for the new year. Although I could see the children’s faces inside of the dragon costumes, the shop keepers face was joyous. It looked like he (the shop keeper) was seeing santa and he truly believed this would now be a better year. He mentioned that throughout Chinese New Years, people must demonstrate simple acts of kindness, such as charity. This may have explained the woman I saw giving a begging woman hong bao.

Amigos!
Dragon dance on the last day of Chinese New Year

Favorite Local Eats:

Hawker Courts

Tg’s Nasi Kandar – delicious paneer curry and paper roti the size of my arm!

Paper roti from Tg’s Nasi Kandar

Penang

Nick and I left Tonsai and took a boat, tuk tuk, and bus, to the border city, Hat Yai. As the Malaysian border was closed for the evening we decided to spend the night in Hat Yai and explore the local market. The market was extremely hip and not only did we indulge in delicious food, but also watched a middle school dance group perform to Michael Jackson. Some of the food stalls sold: dim sum, Indian curry, mini sushi, mini macaroons, fresh coconut yogurt, durian sticky rice, coconut jelly, grass jelly drink, golden raisins, dried pineapple, sesame cashews and mung bean pastries.

Breakfast dim Sum

The next morning, after delicious dim sum, Nick and I took a bus (as the train was out of service) to the Malaysian border. Every land border is unique, some are easy, hectic, strict, hostile, poor, but this one was just strange. We were stamped out of Thailand and wandered for a mile in no mans land, unsure if we somehow already entered Malaysia. We weaved in and out of idling deisel trucks until we finally found our way and were stamped into the Malaysia.

After some negotiating we jumped into a mini van headed to Penang. Like most mini van drives we’ve experienced in Asia, this was nothing different. We were packed into the van, 2 to a seat, like sardines. The driver sped, was unnecessarily heavy on the breaks, and was pulled over twice by the police (nothing a bribe couldn’t settle). Nick and I came to the conclusion that all mini van drivers in Asia must be a little psychotic.

Did I ever mention, Ada, our mini van driver in Mongolia, who was a champion derby racer? He sped on windy dirt paths and passed so aggressively. An incident with Ada was probably our closest call to ever getting into an actual accident.

As we looked out the windows of the van, we noticed how developed Malaysia was and observed mosques that dotted the landscape. This was the first predominately Muslim country Nick and I have traveled to this year and thoroughly enjoyed the cultural difference. Similar to the Jesus lovers in the states, Allah billboards on the highway expressed their devotion. As we approached Penang, we were welcomed with a beautiful skyline reflected in blue water with a waiting cruise ship.

Penang’s waterfront

Penang, a melting pot of culture, quickly become one of my favorite cities. Red decorated Chinese temples with giant smoking incense sticks and paper lanterns were located directly across from white mosques sending call to the midday prayer. Little India had blasting Bollywood soundtracks, sold samosas and dosais on every street corner, and woman shopped for clothing, bangles and bindis. Just a few minutes away, Chinatown offered herbal medicine tea shops, dim sum and and dragon dances.

Little India
Decorated door in Chinatown

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Nick best described Penang as the New Orleans of Southeast Asia. It’s an old city with European architecture, a mix of cultures, located on the water, with great food and a hip scene. The British Rai-era architecture dominated the buildings and homes that lined the quant city streets of a Georgetown (UNESCO World Heritage Site). They had colorful tiles, stained glass windows, large double doors and wood carved window ceils. The textures of the city were most captivating, exposed brick, chipping paint, and crumbling concrete. Modern street art on these vanishing walls combined the old with the new. Nick and I enjoyed the street art on Armenian Street, smoked hookah and passed hipster coffee shops. We spent time contemplating art at the Batik Painting Museum which was fascinating and thought provoking. After a mature museum we felt the need to digress and luckily found the 3D/truck art museum. We later determined this was primarily for children, like ourselves?

Georgetown



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Batik Painting Museum
3D Museum

Favorite Local Eats:

Tho Yuen Restaurant – dim sum

Don tot – Chinese egg tart

New Woodlands Restaurant – Indian vegetarian, try the dosais

Kheng Pin – try the lorbak (spiced ground pork wrapped and fried in bean curd), fried tofu, fried taro and/ or chicken rice)

Hammediyah – try the murtabak (a crepe filled with ground beef and minced onions)

Hawker Stalls – explore the handful of open air food courts and try local dishes, including: cendol (shaved ice, pea flour worms, beans, brown sugar and coconut milk), char kway teow (rice noodles, egg, shrimp, Chinese sausage and dark soy sauce), laksa asam (fish noodle soup), and an oyster omelet.