East Malaysia is one of those countries that has a lot going for it in just about every single way you can imagine in terms of nature. Be it spotting rare and endangered wildlife, spotting birds, white water rafting or even paragliding off a mountain and hoping not to land in a tree.
Speaking of which, I once watched a documentary about rain forests/jungles and airborne forces. In a particular war (I forget which) the only route of entry was from above, but the issue with parachuting into jungles is that it carries a high degree of danger. The odds were something like 2:1 that you wouldn’t make it, that didn’t mean parachuting into a dense rainforest would instantly kill you, though for some it did. Death would occur slowly and often painfully as soldiers would break limbs once they hit the trees, left to die on the floor beneath them, or by hanging from a branch some 40m high or more. So the commander was talking about man power and that they needed 1000 men on the ground, his solution? Drop 3000 airborne soldiers and so the odds would likely dictate that at least or approximately 1000 soldiers would survive the drop.
Completely irrelevant to this post, but an interesting piece of military history nonetheless.
Wherever you are in Borneo, whether it be in East Malaysia or Indonesia, if you were to get off the bus at a random stop you would find yourself immersed amongst natures finest. And so when I looked at making our way back to Kota Kinabalu I figured we would do just that, due to time constraints we cannot unfortunately be so spontaneous and ad hoc and so I researched a nice little place where we could do something a little different. That nice little place was a small town called Ranau some 110km East of KK and almost half way between KK and Sandakan.
As it goes in Sandakan I was attempted scammed on the bus ticket. The exact same bus company that had brought us suddenly no longer offered child fares, I negotiated hard to get at least some discount. Yet again a reminder of the unscrupulousness of some Borneans. Something which got boring on day one.
The bus driver was the slowest driver on the road and so what should have taken 3 hours took around 5 and as these things go, about ten minutes out of Ranau and the skies opened up sending down torrential downpour, the sort that soaks you to the bone in ten seconds.
Once we got kicked off the bus (thankfully under a shelter) we waterproofed our things, threw on the goretex and boots and set off to find our hotel. I spotted a KFC and so in need of some fried chicken we took shelter and planned the next move. I had absolutely no idea where the hotel was and just assumed we could walk to it. After a bit of asking around it turned out we were supposedly ‘far away’ and that it was in a village that would costs 20MYR to get to (4 quid) Now in Malaysian terms thats quite steep for a taxi, and so I felt we were in for a bumming, and some 2 miles later I realised I had been well and truly had. Still, it was raining and late and so we didn’t care too much.
Our little jungle retreat was a home stay in a village called Kampung Silou and the following morning when the clouds cleared I realised we were right at the foot of the stunning Mt Kinabalu. It towered over the village and pierced the blue sky quite majestically. We all stood frozen in time admiring its beauty over a packet of Oreos and a bottle of mirinda, orange flavour. Retreating back to our home-stay I realised just how beautiful, isolated and tranquil of a place we were. Owned and run by a retired Dr and his wife it was the perfect place, so isolated there were no shops, no buses, nothing. If you wanted food the Dr’s wife would knock up some chicken and vegetables with rice, there were animals floating about, and the chill out area was set above a lush river teeming with aquatic life. At night a bat would fly round dive bombing us at will whilst the kids watched TV and I sank a few beers wondering how life had got so good.
Surprisingly few foreigners make it to Ranau, which I am guessing is due to the fact it is rip off central and perhaps the most unorganised place we have ever been. An example, I needed a bus to a place nearby called Poring (more on which later) and I asked what time the bus came. I was told there is no times for buses, they come completely randomly and are run by villagers. It seems that what happens is that suddenly, somewhere someone who owns a minibus thinks ‘I think ill become a bus driver and drive somewhere’ I kid not, that literally is what happens. If you have a slow day where no one can be arsed driving round you are knackered, and there is no way to know. Its a case of wait and see. This got really tedious really quickly as I got off on a bad foot with the only guy in two who operates and kind of minibus/taxi. A scamster of epic proportions he had dollar signs in his eyes whenever he saw me. He would literally take a one ringgit note off someone then look at me and tell me it was twenty. Complete scumbag, I sat on the steps of the towns central gathering point- May Bank, and wondered what to do next as it seemed our only option was to get readily ripped off. As I am sat chilling, the kids in the shade trying to avoid the harsh sun I wiped sweat from my eyes and in that split second saw a clapped out minibus pull up and break so hardly it skidded slightly, held together by paintwork and hope a guy jumps out. Picture this, he is wearing a purple, silk and loud shirt, he has all these mood rings on his fingers and to top it off is wearing skinny brown pants about 5 sizes too small. His grin takes up most of his face and he pointed to me, put his thumb up and said “ok” as he continued his animated smile. I looked quite obviously confused, wondering who he was or what even he wanted. I stared at him and again the thumb was extended and his smile was even bigger this time as he repeated ‘ok’ I asked him what he was on about and his only response was ‘ok’ Suddenly a skinny fella pops out of nowhere and explains this wannabe-must-have-been-60-pimp was willing to take us to Poring for 35 ringgits, somewhat less than the 60 we had been offered so far. Needless to say I had found a new best mate and we jumped in and set off on the 15km journey through the jungle. After about 5 minutes, with the windows open and driving along at the vehicles maximum limit of about 20mph he breaks into song. Not some mumbling kind of sweetness, but actual song. He was smiling and laughing and so I did the natural thing; I started beat boxing to his singing. He abruptly stopped and looked at me, I tailed off my beat boxing and went silent. He turned his attention to the road and started singing again. I took the hint.
Poring hot springs is a world heritage site and home to the world famous hot springs (I’d never heard of them either) But we weren’t necessarily there for the springs, but for one of the highest canopy walkways in the world, some 41m above the ground, I was to find out it must also be one of the dodgiest walkways in the world. In order to get there you get screwed an environment fee that quite obviously and expectedly is fifteen times higher than the local price 25MYR for adults and 10 MYR for kids (about a fiver and then two quid) but once in, you really are amongst some gorgeous nature. I know I keep going on about it, but you really have to see it to believe and appreciate just how gorgeous a place it is. We walked past the hot springs and then continued deeper into the rain forest, it was a gorgeous day and we had decided that we would do the orchid garden, bat cave, butterfly garden and then the walkway. It didn’t turn out like that and instead we did the walkway, which the kids absolutely loved, and on which no one jumped (it was that suspiciously unsafe) then we descended back toward the springs and spent a few hours swimming and relaxing at the hot springs. Now, I am no hot spring expert and though I do know the geology behind them (it is water heated by the earths core and then sprouted upwards to the earths surface) I kind of expected them to be warm. Instead they were absolute freezing, genuinely, colder than cold water out of the cold water tap. I suspected something dodgy was going on.
After we chilled (literally) at the hot springs we tried to find somewhere to eat. Naturally the only two or three restaurants nearby were all booked up by coach loads of day trippers and so we grabbed something simple and then looked for transport back to Ranau. Of course there was none, no taxis or buses or anything. We had to convince some guy to phone someone in Ranau and come get us, the costs was 45 MYR which wasn’t so bad as I wanted to stop off somewhere very special on the way back.
The Rafflesia is one of rarest flowers in the world, growing in only a few specific places and taking years to finally blossom (which lasts only a few days) it has been alluding botanists for decades. And so, when some farmer discovered one on his land he naturally decided to make it a super temporary attraction and we just had to take an opportunity to see something we likely never would again. Personally I think it was snide and the significance was a lot better than the actual flower. Charlie was convinced it was fake (it wasn’t) and I was pissed off we couldn’t get a pose at the head of the thing. Just a kind of photoshop looking insertion through a makeshift fence.
Back at our little retreat we chilled out and then the following day set off back to Kota Kinabalu. Naturally there are no buses and you literally have to stand on the main road hoping for one to come past and have space. We stopped 5 coaches and none had space. I told the kids we would stop one more and then would have to resort to hitch hiking, thankfully though, whilst the bus had no space, the driver let us sit on the floor for the 3 hours or so journey. But we didn’t mind.
Our final day in Borneo was spent doing nothing, I finally managed to get a coffee and we spent the afternoon watching Pacific Rim at the cinema.
That pretty much wraps up our time in Borneo, it was as amazing as I remembered and we genuinely have had the most special of times. But it is hard to forget and put aside the constant over pricing and scams from people just so blatantly willing to scam. And I know I have touched on this before, but the difference between Borneo and the rest of Asia is that in for example India, the initial price is always high, you haggle and then agree on a much lower and fairer price. But in Borneo they give you a ridiculous fare and then refuse to haggle. They would honestly drive off (or deny you entrance) rather than negotiate on their outrageous price. Its been really tiring and we have found ourselves paying way over the odds for many things, most of it knowingly and in full compliance, and that, for me has left a real blot on the places we have been.
But come to Borneo on a loose budget and you probably wont be bothered too much, it is still cheaper than Europe (except for maybe taxis) and offers so much in terms of natural beauty and adventure.
Without doubt, Borneo is one of the most accessible and amazing encounters with rainforest nature you can get anywhere and we have really had a blast. The kids have loved every day and I think some of the most cherished memories of the entire trip will come from this place – I can already think of a few!
…In fact, I can think of a lot!
Next stop Indonesia.