Sandakan – Borneo – Malaysia

From the Kinabatangan River, a bus takes us to Sandakan. We almost skip this town. Lonely Planet says:

‘Sabah’s second city has long been a major trading port, but these days the grubby city centre feels provincial compared to Kota Kinabalu. The main draw here is not the city itself but the nature sites of nearby Sepilok.’

Glad we didn’t. It’s actually an interesting place. We learn it’s pronounced  ‘San-DA-kan’ and not SAN-da-kan’.

Downtown Sandakan

This was once the main town of Sabah. Before WWII, this part of Borneo was run by the North Borneo Company.

(Even stranger was the governance of the other chunk of Malaysian Borneo, Sarawak, which was run by the ‘white Rajas of Sarawak‘ until 1941, when the Japanese arrived.)

By the end of WWII, Allied shelling destroys the place in an effort to dislodge the occupying Japanese. The administration of Sabah moved to Kota Kinabalu.

While here, the Japanese commit the customary atrocities, including the infamous Sandakan death marches. There is a nearby memorial.

The post-war town is mainly Chinese-run business and Malay restaurants.

Downtown Sandakan, another view

We visit the house of Agnes Keith, an American writer who lived here with her British husband.

Agnes Keith house

It reminds us of some of the other residences of writers we’ve visited, such as Ernest Hemingway’s place near Havana and Halldór Laxness’s house near Reykjavik. Some people lead such fascinating lives.

A Miami Beach-esque section of town

We visit the local museum, where they have a special exhibit about Martin and Osa Johnson. These larger-than-life explorers from the thirties (the nineteen thirties, of course) spent a lot of time in Borneo. Look for their film ‘Borneo’ on YouTube for an interesting take on Borneo of the time. In fact, it describes the Kinabatangan River, where we’ve just come from.

Downtown Sandakan, another view

Like most places on the coast, fishing is a local moneyspinner.

Fishing boats return to port

We enjoy a sundowner at the local Sheraton.

Sundown over the Sulu Sea in Sandakan

Sight or Insight of the Day – Sandakan

Another illustration that everything is connected to everything  else.

A famous symbol in this part of the world is the Rafflesia flower, known for its size and its stink.

A photo of R. keithii, courtesy of Wikipedia

It turns out that the Sabah variety, rafflesesia keithii, is named after Agnes  Keith’s husband, who was Conservator of Forests in North Borneo.

Sepilok and the Kinabatangan River

We awake next morning to a deluge of rain in Sepilok.

Pouring rain

Sepilok is an orangutan rehabilitation centre, where they prepare orphaned or otherwise unready orangutans for release back to the wild.

The orangutans live in the surrounding rainforest. A feeding platform provides visitors with a view, if you’re lucky.

As we stand waiting for the first orang to arrive, we agree ‘If I were an orangutan, I wouldn’t come anywhere near here.’ The hundred or so people on the viewing platform just could. not. stop. talking.

Finally, a lone orangutan appears along one of the ropes leading to the feeding platform from the forest. She promptly climbs down, scoops up a bunch of bananas, and departs to enjoy them in private.

Fabled ape makes an appearance…
Descends to the goods…
‘Come to me, my little yellow pretties…’
Time to blow this popsicle stand

We get a better view from the ‘nursery’, where young orangutans exercise and socialize with others of their kind. (The photos are blurry because they’re taken behind a glass enclosure a dozen meters away.)

♫ You put your right foot in… ♪
♫ You take your right foot out… ♪
♫ You put your right foot in and you shake it all about… ♪
♫ You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around – that’s what it’s all about! ♪

All good things come to an end. Volunteers lead the young ones away.

Bedtime for Bonzo

From Sepilok, a van picks us up and whisks us to the Kinabatangan River. We stay at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan.

Kinabatangan River

We stay two nights here.


Interesting folks on these excursions. We meet several people with fascinating backgrounds and delightful stories to tell.

We have monitor lizards as neighbours again.

A brace of lizards

(The electric fence they’re crawling under is to keep elephants out of the property. We notice electric fences around the palm oil plantations around here and wonder what they’re for. Now we know.)

We take several cruises along the river.

The first morning

On one cruise, we see wild orangutans in two different locations. (Orangutans are solitary – you usually see them alone. Both of these sightings were of an individual moving around their ‘nest’ high in a tree.) No photos because they were quite far away, but to see wild orangutans in their natural habitat – as opposed to in an environment like Sepilok – is a thrill.

Also see proboscis monkeys, endemic to Borneo.

Female big-shnozzed monkey
A congress of proboscis monkeys

Fun fact about proboscis monkeys:

‘The monkey also goes by the Indonesian name monyet belanda (“Dutch monkey”), or even orang belanda (“Dutchman”), as Indonesians remarked that the Dutch colonisers often had similarly large bellies and noses.’

We also see elephants.

Pygmy elephant

Crocodiles. (Sorry, we weren’t going to try to get any closer.)

Full-grown croc

This is a young crocodile. We have a closer photo, but the vegetation  here shows clearly how cute and teeny-tiny he is.

Baby croc

Macaques, too.

‘I scratch, therefore I am.’

This is a fuzzy shot of a stork-billed kingfisher. They’re much more beautiful in real life.

Day 2 is similarly fruitful in sightings.

Morning of the second day.

Also on day 2, we take a walk through the rainforest.

Happy trails, my friend.

Why is everyone wearing trousers and long sleeves, you ask?

Because the forest is full of leeches.

‘I vant to drink your blood.’
Elephant tracks on the trail
Many-legged critter

Sight or Insight of the Day – Sepilok

Borneo is full of wonderful creatures. I hate to say this, but they’re probably doomed. If there’s an orangutan alive outside of a zoo in 50 years, it’ll be a miracle.

Illegal logging and palm oil plantations strip the rainforest that once covered virtually the entire island. This activity will never stop because it benefits powerful people in all the countries involved. Corruption is rampant.

(I chuckle when ethics relativists say ‘We’re just as bad in Canada. Look at the Duffy scandal, for instance.’ The misappropriation of a mere $90,000 – and only Canadian dollars, at that – pales in comparison. The current prime minister of Malaysia is said to have transferred a fortune into his personal bank accounts. To the tune of US$700,000,000. That’s right. Seven. Hundred. Million. Dollars. U.S.! He’s still PM, any local media reporting on it is immediately shut down and the journalists charged with ‘threatening national security’.)

Oil palm plantation encroaching on rain forest (photo from World Land Trust)

After their betters have cleared the way with new roads, simpler folk often move in, a baby on each hip, to slash, burn, and to poach the now-available wildlife.

Borneo reminds us a lot of Madagascar, where exotic nature and wondrous fauna attract well-heeled tourists in the final stages before the island is reduced to barren hills and parlous overpopulated villages.

I was going to mention this a few entries back, in regard to the luxuriousness of private health care, but decided it sounded too misanthropic. But what the heck, I’ll say it anyway. I sometimes have a fantasy in which 75 % of the Earth’s population are taken up in some sort of Rapture scenario. Then those of us left behind could all live like Scandinavians!

Mount Kinabalu to Sepilok – Borneo – Malaysia

We arrange transport from Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu.

(Note: this entry contains no original photos because we accidentally deleted the photos from our camera. We offer grateful attribution to the entire online universe.)

Mount Kinabalu
Kinabalu, at the top

Departing at 6:30 AM from Kota Kinabalu, we get a van ride to the park.

Mount Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu from about 20 KMs away

It’s 4,095 metres high.

Mount Kinabalu
Kinabalu, from the bottom

(In reality, we never see the mountain this free of clouds.)

Unlike other climbing we’ve done, this trail is steep. CRAZY steep. We’re in pretty good health, but I’m soon puffing like a steam engine. We fight for every metre of ascent. The thinning air doesn’t help.

All supplies for the lodge up top is carried up by porter. They pass us as if we’re standing still.

Mount Kinabalu

There was an earthquake on Kinabalu recently – 2015 – that killed 18 people. You still see parts of the mountain face that have collapsed.

We persevere and make it to the Laban Rata lodge for a meal and a sleep.

We meet up again with Nico and Annabelle, a hybrid Italian-German couple who travelled up with us in the van. (Interestingly, they speak fluent English with each other. Not surprising, since Nico attended Cambridge and Annabelle, who works for IKEA, spent 8 months in Australia at one time.)

Mount Kinabalu
Gimme Shelter

We awake at 2:00 AM, have a quick breakfast, and head upwards again in the dark. At a near-vertical incline again.

After an hour, I reach my limit. I can scarcely take twenty steps without stopping for a rest. I look up at the near-vertical headlamps twinkling above us, turn to Maria and say I don’t think I can make it. Thankfully, there’s no argument and we turn back to the lodge. Silver lining: we get to go back to a warm bed for the next few hours.

Everyone says that going down is harder than going up. We disagree. Sure, it’s tough on the knees, but at least there’s no energy-sapping scarcity of oxygen.

Reaching the bottom, we undergo  a minor odyssey trying to get to Sepilok, our next destination. In theory, it’s possible from the outskirts of the park to flag down a bus travelling from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan and ask to be dropped off at the Sepilok junction.

We rendezvous with Nico  and Annabelle again. Together with Blake, a pleasant woman from Oklahoma currently teaching English in China, the following happens:

  • We successfully flag down a Sandakan-bound bus. 😊
  • But it’s full. 
  • They pick us up anyway. 😊
  • We have a four-hour bus ride to look forward to sitting on the stairs. (It’s a multilevel bus.) ☹
  • But as soon as we get on, a torrential downpour begins. At least we’re dry. 😊
  • About 15 minutes later, the bus breaks down. Totally. ☹
  • Nico makes friends with a taxi driver who drives us into Ranau, where he’s sure he can use his contacts to fix us up with a hired van ride on to Sepilok. 😊
  • Despite his attempts, we draw a blank. No drivers available. ☹
  • Our taxi friend finally convinces someone to take us to Sepilok. 😊
  • After we stow our luggage and cram ourselves into the van, he turns the key. Nothing. ☹
  • We can’t even rent a van and drive ourselves. We head out to the main road, to the bus stop. As luck would have it, our original bus comes along and picks us up! 😊
  • At around 10:00 PM, we’re dropped at the Sepilok junction. There is no other transport at this hour. We have a two-and-a-half kilometre walk in the dark to Sepilok, with all of our luggage. ☹
  • This is not a great hardship after the punishment we’ve had on the mountain. Setting off – we all have lights – we soon arrive at Nico and Annabelle’s booked guesthouse.😊
  • We look for our guesthouse, Blake looks for hers. We can’t find them. It’s now nearly 11:00 PM. 
  • We ask a man outside his property about the whereabouts of our lodgings. He drives us in his car to our respective guesthouses and we all arrive at last. 😊

As a coda to this tale, while we drive along a dirt road, we spy a large black snake crossing the road in our headlights. The snake takes its time. I’m about to jump out and shoo it away when it moves on. I ask a guide the next day what it might have been. He thinks it was probably an equitorial spitting cobra, even though it was night (these cobras are diurnal, apparently) .

‘Yesss? Looking for sssomething?’

Here’s a link to an amusing encounter that an expat family has with one of these puppies.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Mount Kinabalu

Time passes. We grow up. We grow old.

I love regaling people with the story of how I trekked up Mount Kenya, the second-highest mountain in Africa, in 1987. Easy as pie. I was more than thirty years younger, of course.

It was hard to throw in the towel on this ascent, but what the hey, this is not an endurance test. As I mention in an earlier post, you gotta know when to fold ’em.

Kota Kinabalu – Borneo – Malaysia

Flew from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah – one part of Malaysian Borneo (the other part is Sarawak).

Kota Kinabalu
More messing about in boats

Kota Kinabalu seems to have two major industries: fishing and shopping. There seem to be more enormous shopping malls than can be justified by the local population. At the market, both are combined – shopping for fish.

Kota Kinabalu
Fish out of water

This ray for sale resembles an F-117 stealth aircraft (see below).

Kota Kinabalu
‘At least I don’t cost US$111.2 million.’
Kota Kinabalu
‘At least I don’t stink and attract flies.’

Because it’s Chinese New Year, every restaurant in town is brimming with families devouring mountains of fish and shellfish. We eat seafood as well while we’re here.

Kota Kinabalu
‘Attsa lotta tuna

Our mission is to arrange travel to Mount Kinabalu and points East.

That done, we walk the waterfront in search of a place to enjoy a cold beer with a sea view.

Kota Kinabalu
The Not-So-Wild Man of Borneo

The town is very modern.

Kota Kinabalu
Apartment blocks in KK

We visit the Sabah Museum on the outskirts, a good introduction to all things Sabah. For example, at the northern tip of Borneo is where Magellan‘s fleet, on their voyage to circumnavigate the globe, was said to have stopped for 42 days to repair their ships.  Huh. Who knew?

(I can’t vouch for the truth of this. The museum also calls Magellan a Spaniard, when he was in fact Portuguese, of course.)

Sight or Insight of the Day – Kota Kinabalu

This is Oreo VII. He lives downstairs from our guesthouse.

Kota Kinabalu
What’s New, Pussycat?

Everywhere we go, we run into black and white cats who are mellow beyond words and love the attention that we lavish on them. We immediately dub them ‘Oreo’. This one is the seventh to wear that moniker.

Kuala Lumpur – world’s 7th-most visited city

…at least according to Wikipedia. From Ipoh, we arrive in Kuala Lumpur by train. (To get in the mood, we re-watch the heist movie ‘Entrapment‘ while in Tanah Rata.)

Kuala Lumpur
Petronas Towers

Still haven’t been to the Petronas Towers – tickets are difficult to get. Maybe when we return here from Borneo in a couple of weeks…

We take a monorail (!) from the station to our guest house. We stay in the Bukit Bintang area, well known for its nightlife and street food.

Kuala Lumpur
Stick it to the man
Kuala Lumpur
Street bustle

KL is different than when I was here thirty years ago.

KL skyline
Kuala Lumpur
Aircraft that is being turned into a restaurant
Kuala Lumpur
The Pavilion mall, interior

Nice collection of stuff at the superb Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia.


We visit the bird park. Rainbow lorikeets amuse us by bustin’ serious moves.

Kuala Lumpur
The Jackie Chan of the bird world

Palm cockatoo, from New Guinea. This one loves his rock. He can even fly around his cage carrying it.

Nothing comes between me and my rock.

Leaving for Kota Kinabalu in Borneo. Check out my new lid: I left my trusty Tilley hat in a KL taxi.

Air Asia is our airline of choice. Mainly because it’s cheap. KL is their home base.

Kuala Lumpur
♫ KL International Airport – where the big jet engines roar… ♪

And we didn’t even see a single kuala!

Sight or Insight of the Day – Kuala Lumpur

We discover medical tourism.

Maria develops pain in her shoulder. We end up going to the Prince Court Medical Center for treatment.

Kuala Lumpur
And I get to keep my X-ray.

Turns out Malaysia is a huge medical tourism destination. Now we know why. Coming from Canada, with its Soviet-style provision of healthcare and its day-long waits in dingy emergency rooms, we’re blown away by the sleek professionalism, welcoming service, and state-of-the-art equipment available here at a reasonable price. (Compared to, say, private care in the United States.)

No need for signs that say ‘Please don’t assault our hospital staff’ either, or clientele that look like they belong in prison.

Ipoh – the town that tin built

When we leave Tanah Rata, we take a morning bus to Ipoh. A very cool small city with a thriving arts scene and burgeoning interest from foreign visitors.

Bridge over the river Kinta

Tin mining was big business here from the 19th century on.

The building on the right, Ho Chin Pet Soo, was a club for Chinese mine owners. Chief amusements: opium, gambling, and hookers. Such are boom towns the world around.

Tea museum on the left, Chinese tin mine owners club on the right

The building on the left was the original home and factory of a local self-made herbal tea magnate.

We stay in the Abby Hotel, in an enormous room that has AC AND a fan, lots of space to spread out, and a great rooftop terrace from which to watch the sun go down.

The river view from our room

The walls throughout are decorated with murals.

Our luggage, against the wall in our room

The Old Town is a warren of narrow alleys and colonial office buildings.

Vines on the wall
Shops in colonial shells
Old town, Ipoh

It’s like a mini-Georgetown.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Ipoh

We discover that trains are great in Malaysia. We decide to travel by rail to Kuala Lumpur.

Ipoh has a wonderfully colonial-looking station.

Little brother to the station in Kuala Lumpur

Buying tickets is a breeze. The train we book happens to be ‘silver’ service, as opposed to ‘gold’ service.

The second-best train to Kuala Lumpur

Tanah Rata – Cameron Highlands Part II

On day three of our stay in Tanah Rata, we tackle trail No. 9. It begins on the outskirts of town.

Tanah Rata
Robinson Falls

At the start, the trail is conveniently paved with bricks.  Eventually these give out and become a muddy track, with frequent downed trees to negotiate around.

We come across interesting botanical specimens.

Tanah Rata
Some kind of yellow orchid

There are no markings on the trail, so when it begins to deteriorate, the going gets rougher.

This plant has striking blue leaves.

Tanah Rata
Got the blues

Something that looks like a coffee bean.

Tanah Rata
I see red

And giant prehistoric-looking ferns. Here’s one in the fiddlehead stage.

Tanah Rara

Eventually, the trail peters out into an up-and-down titanic struggle against steep hillsides and thorny brush. 

Tanah Rata
Nice purple flowers.

We get so lost, we abandon what’s left of the trail and bail out at a vegetable farm.

Tanah Rata
Abandoning the trail

We get lost along the road, too, despite having navigational doodads on the IPhone. Before we have to resort to cannibalism, we flag down a passing taxi (thank you, God!) and ride in luxury. We save a 13-kilometer walk, mostly uphill, back to Tanah Rata. You gotta know when to fold ’em.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Tanah Rata

We spy some pitcher plants.

Tanah Rata
Also known as a monkey cup

These are carnivorous. Besides bugs, they also chow down on any small  vertebrates unfortunate enough to fall in. Why does this make us think of the Little Shop of Horrors?

Tanah Rata – Cameron Highlands – Malaysia

From Georgetown, we take a bus to the Cameron Highlands.

We book a room at Father’s Guest House, a quiet, slightly Alpine-looking place off the main road in Tanah Rata.

Cameron Highlands
Cameron Highlands

It’s, um, high.

Cameron Highlands
‘Tanah Tinggi’ or ‘high lands’

We walk the boardwalk in the Mossy Forest, a cloud forest north of Brinchang.

Cameron Highlands
Maria on the boardwalk

They don’t call it the Mossy Forest for nothing.

Cameron Highlands
Give me your huddled mosses…

There is a lot of tea here. We visit a tea factory and plantation.

Cameron Highlands
‘Tea’ is for ‘Tourist’

Strawberries are grown intensively. Half the area in the valley seems to be covered in plastic-roofed strawberry grow-ops.

Hiking is big, too.

Cameron Highlands
On Trail No. 4
Cameron Highlands
Parit Falls

Atop an observation tower in the Mossy Forest. You can see here my recent buzzcut, courtesy of an overzealous barber in Georgetown. My hair hasn’t been this short in decades.

Cameron Highlands
It’ll grow back, right?

Sight or Insight of the Day – Cameron Highlands

There are lots of Land Rovers in the Cameron Highlands. Hundreds.

Move over, Rover

Many well-aged and full of character.

Cameron Highlands
Don’t lean on the horn.

This puts the germ of an idea into our heads: if we end up in South Africa again, we purchase a Land Rover from some farmer (city dwellers see them as status symbols rather than practical workhorses, so would probably want more $. Sort of like North American urbanites and pickup trucks.) Then we drive it to Kenya. And back.


Cameron Highlands
Nairobi, here we come!

Georgetown Part II

Welcome to Georgetown part II.  When in Rome and all that – because Malaysia is a big producer of batik, we go shopping for some new duds to replace our de rigueur elephant print articles bought elsewhere in Asia.

We also visit a museum of batik painting.

Georgetown Part II
Waxing eloquent

Walking around, we bump into Georgetown’s interesting street art everywhere.

Georgetown Part II
Real bike, fake riders
Cat and rat

Some people burning baseball-bat-sized sticks of incense in a Chinese temple, possibly in preparation for Chinese New Year (February 16th – Year of The Dog, FYI).

‘无风语不起浪’, or ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’

We take another bus ride out to the Penang War Museum. They don’t allow durians on board. They’re banned from our guesthouse as well. Maria is determined to try one. I’ll pass.

Georgetown Part II

The bus ride is an hour and forty minutes through different neighbourhoods. Lots of high-rise apartments, many with more interesting designs than we see at home in our own particleboard palaces.

The Penang War Museum itself is a private museum. The location was a fortified position built by the British before WWII to repel a Japanese attack from the sea. (They attack from the rear instead.) It spends the occupation as a Japanese base – the usual atrocities are committed: torture, beheadings, etc.

After the war, it is abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, until its private owner uncovered the original structures and added some cheesy and fantastical additions.

Georgetown Part II
Original anti-ship cannon emplacement site

The original stuff is pretty cool. Also, we get a great view of the bridge.

View from Batu Maung hill

This isn’t the Penang Bridge we came over on – this is a second bridge, the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge. Why Penang would need a second bridge at such Hellish expense is beyond me. My guess is they were smooth-talked into it by the Chinese to keep Malaysia in hock. Or the Sultan really wanted his name on a bridge.

It’s 24 kilometres long.

A Bridge Too Far

Sight or Insight of the Day – Georgetown Part II

Easy moneymaking idea for some local entrepreneur: import a container or two of Pathein umbrellas from Myanmar to Malaysia.

We bought these in Mandalay a few months ago as parasols and use them daily.

Georgetown Part II
Cover me, I’m goin’ in.

At least a dozen people a day here comment ‘Nice umbrellas!’. Using umbrellas against the sun is popular here as well, but they’re the usual el-cheapo Chinese-made kind.


Georgetown – Penang – Malaysia

After leaving Koh Phayam, we catch a night bus to Hat Yai and a van to Georgetown, on the island of Penang in Malaysia.

From the border, we travel impeccable four-lane highways and cross the 13.5 kilometre Penang Bridge to arrive here. Georgetown is like a combination of Miami Beach and Havana, Cuba.


We love it here. Its eclectic mix of ethnicities combined with lots of nifty colonial architecture is right up our alley. And it’s so clean, which panders to our bizarre Western idiosyncrasy of  preferring order over squalour.

Street scene

As usual, we do a lot of walking.

Colonial architecture

Always something interesting going on.

Dogs enjoying a cool shower
Maria on Chulia Street
Love Lane

We visit the Blue Mansion, former home of Cheong Fatt Tze, an early Penang tycoon.

The Blue Mansion on Leith Street

It’s now a swanky hotel & restaurant.


We get an entertaining and informative guided tour by a voluble and very funny local lady.

Outside are some old rickshaws. These are real rickshaws from the old days, not the prettified modern tourist version. We imagine skinny coolies sweating between the traces while hauling people around town.

In search of the lost museum.

Navigation beneath the bougainvillea

Some young mosque-goers.

It’s not easy being green.

We take a modern city bus to the bottom of Penang Hill and a funicular railway to the top.  We’re rewarded with this great panorama.

Panorama left, facing east
Panorama right, with Penang Bridge

Good food abounds at the hundreds of lively street eateries at night.

à table !

Sight or Insight of the Day – Georgetown

As a mini-excursion, we take the ferry across the busy straits to Butterworth on the mainland and back.

While in Butterworth, we see this Singapore-registered vessel, a small oil tanker.

The good ship Ocean Gull, top left

On the way in, we notice a few crew at work – and a fully-dressed mannequin on the top deck. On the way back, we notice  there are in fact about a dozen of these dispersed around the ship. And rolls of barbed wire.

Real barbed wire, fake sailor

It dawns on us that this is an anti-piracy tactic. The mannequins give the impression there are more crew members, to dissuade pirates. The barbed wire is to repel attacks. Piracy and the threat of violent death on the high seas – Somalia’s gift to the 21st century.