Cheng Chin Yuen

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Mabul and Sipadan

Tomorrow we leave Semporna for the island of Mabul, where we will be staying in a long house. We evolve once again into beach bums and will do a fair bit of snorkelling at the world famous dive site - Pulau Sipadan the day after. Sipadan is technically a pinnacle rising 600m from the sea bed. The steep drop at the edge of the island where marine life abound sounds enticing. If we like the snorkelling, we may take up a 3 day diving course. Sounds good eh? Till the next spot of internet connection, see ya!

Sungei Kinabatangan (31 Aug – 2 Sept)

We finally got a homestay of sorts at Kampong Bilit. This tiny cluster of 15 houses (including a small village school which 32 kids attend) lie on the banks of Sungei Kinabatangan, the longest river in Sabah that stretches 560km west from its estuary in the Sulu Sea. This place is supposed to be teeming with birds and wildlife so we parted with a whopping RM$480 just to come here for two days to catch a glimpse of these jungle friends.

‘Why you want to go there? It’s VERY PRIMITIVE…’ discourages Indiana, the Sabah born Filipino at the very out-of-the-way Jungle Sanctuary. ‘You are from Singapore and you want to go to Kinabatangan??’

Blah Blah Blah Blah…trying to explain that our zoo isn’t quite like the wild.

Ok, we will pick you up from your hotel tomorrow. Which hotel?’


‘Oh Mayfair, Ya I know Mayfair…yesterday we fetch 2 tourist from there.’

Well, Indiana’s ‘pick you up’ actually means ‘I come and find you at your hotel and we will walk over to the jetty, with all your barang barang, through the wet (by the daily fishy massacre on the floor) and delightfully scented fish market to get on a little boat which I am not entirely sure when will depart for Kinabatangan’.

Like all adventures, apply a spot of patience, five spots of positivity and remind yourself that you are A BACKPACKER, not some coach-hopping, luggage lugging, guide-dependent tourist with an itinerary that was planned 3 months ago to follow, and you will be appeased. Unexpected things crop up and that’s the fun of it. So as you can see, it will take quite a while before the Kinabatangan bit comes in.

The Boatride

The Captain of the boat was waiting for his seacraft to fill up to maximum capacity and we, as mere passengers, amid the locals, couldn’t do a thing about it. The locals seem to be waiting ever so patiently so who are we to complain? Karen went off to Robert Silverberg (who she claims to be the Father of Science Fiction, Asimov’s the Grandfather) Land while I whipped out my camera and started taking candid shots of the unsuspecting fellow passengers around me as the while boat gently bobbed in the harbour.

There were several young children on the ferry hawking cold canned drinks and small plastic bags of duku langsat, a sweet buah duku-like fruit. They each had a small basin filled with ice to chill the drinks. They approached the older Sandakan Ah-Bengs (who had the most unruly hairstyles and wore predominantly black T-shirts brandishing famous American ‘Death Metal’ Bands like Iron Maiden), with the greatest of ease and after a brief but impressive display of street wisdom and persuasion, quickly relieved them of a few ringgit. Surprisingly, these kids were rather camera-shy and they were working on the 31st August – Malaysia’s National Day which coincided with Hong Kah’s Cross Country (I do miss running and climbing of course!).

There were many other children onboard and most of them were sleeping on a central platform directly above the engine room which makes you wonder how did they manage to sleep. Adults and younger men smoked, drank beers, colas and entertained themselves with small talk. It is quite amazing how everyone seem to be chit-chat amicably. You will never imagine Singaporeans on a bus just turning around to the ruffian behind wearing an Iron Maiden ‘Number of the Beast’ T-shirt and saying, ‘Hello, you want a cigarette?’ A bottle of Guiness was shared among the blokes near the toilet to celebrate the holiday.

It was an uneventful wait till the passenger-count hit around 80 and all the other boats around us had gone and when the Captain completed his mental sums that at RM$4 per person, he would have made enough profit, that the engine sprang to life and the boat reversed out of the harbour. The anchor ropes got entangled with the moor lines and the boat got stuck. For all the dudes that had been waiting for over an hour, this was the dose of excitement they had been waiting for! The Sandkan Teamwork spectacle happened all to quickly, men who didn’t know each other, sprang from nowhere to congregate at the stern to help ‘tarik’ the ropes (overturning 2 cans of drinks in the process), chatting animatedly while one went to inform the Captain who swiftly resolved the problem with a few authoritative yells. Everyone took up seating positions they thought would be most comfortable for the 1 hour journey as the boat chugged out of the harbour.

Oil Palm Plantations

When we reached the pier more than an hour later, we hopped onto a sturdy 4WD pickup and went past sprawling oil palm plantations much larger than those I have seen in Peninsular Malaysia. I saw a plot which was 765 hectares in size! (1 ha = 10000 sq meters). We also rambled past massive processing factories where the palm oil was pressed and cooked. Sadly, there were vast areas of intensive soil erosion where the plantation has been cleared. The scale of the plantation really redefined my concept of ‘extensive’ farming. I knew plantations were big but its different when you hills after hills of oil palm extending to the horizon. The impact on the land is terrible. ‘The whole area used to be forest’, explained A-loi, our guide. ‘Then the logging began and some people made big money. The wood here is good quality, better than Sarawak. When all the trees are gone, they plant oil palm.’ We drove for an hour deep and all we saw were a sea of oil palm trees and saplings. To the untrained eye, it seems that the ‘forest’ is doing well. Once or twice we saw lone trees towering above the plantation. It is hard to imagine that not too long ago, these giants dominated the landscape, now they are rarities. The forest is gone forever. I do remember studying about logging in Sabah when I was doing my O’ level geography in Nan Hua. That case study is no longer valid of course.

Hotel California

By the time we reached Kampong Bilit at 2pm, we were drenched in sweat. We stretched our slightly deformed butts and ‘checked in’ into our kampong house. The stilted wooden house had 4 rooms and a large dining hall with 2 long wooden tables where meals were served. The creaky planks that made up the floor had gaps in them and you could see the chickens below. The dank kitchen, washing area, watertank, toilet and bathroom formed the rear and there is a side porch that overlooked the milo-coloured river. I must say that it was an authentic kampong and we did pay quite a lot for very little.

There was no electricity. A-loi said that there would be supply after 6.30pm but dinner was served under candle-light and kerosene lamps. They had lights and fans installed but Aziz (A-loi’s younger brother) later explained that the generator had malfunctioned. It was sweltering in the day and we had to spend most of the afternoon at the jetty were it was more breezy. The toilet led straight to the river and a waterpump just a little downstream pumped the murky water into huge metal drums for our shower. So we concluded that there may be a bit of our poo and those of others further upstream in our bathing water which had to be traditionally scooped and dumped over our bodies with a small container. The water smelled faintly of mud but was thankfully free of suspicious alien particles. We found this experience really refreshing from all the ‘civilised’ and sanitised loos we have been using. By the time we showered, we were really sticky and any kind of shower was well appreciated. Bathing was done by candle-light (so the colour of the water is not so apparent) in a well designed wooden cubicle with a clothesline, pegs and a nice view of the river. Fortunately the nights were cool and the mozzie net kept those bloodsuckers at bay. We slept extremely well despite the ringing noises of the insects and were only briefly disturbed by the barking of dogs and a couple of cockerels whose badly tuned bio-clock told them that 4am was a good time to wake up the entire village. Meals were a simple affair consisting of rice, a vege and a meat dish. Free flow of tea and instant coffee from very ancient look thermos flasks did keep our caffeine-craving spirits up though.

On the first day, we met two Spaniards staying there and they really couldn’t take the heat. There wasn’t a fridge so cold drinks were not an option! Still, we had a good conversation about the differing governmental systems of our respective countries and our way of life. They seemed really fed up with their government. They also gave us some good tips on where to stay in Mabul and Semporna (which turned out to be very good advice indeed!).

No one in the village except for the house next door seem to have electricity. The folks would turn on their generator in the evening to power their TV for about 2 hours and then turn it off when it was time to sleep. This turned out swell as against the darkness, the star-studded nightsky was dazzling! You could even see ‘clouds’ of stars and there were so many large stars that I am sure would give avid astronomers and stargazers a good go for their money. We did a little night walk around the village in hope of seeing some wildcats but the stars were definitely the highlight for me.

Aziz was our 21 year old guide and boatman and his keen eye for wildlife helped us to spot a croc, 6 Rhinoceros Hornbills, 2 White Bellied Eagles, some Oriental Darters, a Storm Stork, some Kingfishers, Egrets, 13 Proboscis Monkeys and several ‘regular’ monkeys. We had 2 boat rides, one in the evening and one at 6am. I preferred the morning trip as we were boating in thick mist! There was this section were hundreds of swifts were darting around, skimming the surface of the river for fish. I spotted a pole on the banks of the river with a blue plastic bag tied to the top of it.

‘Catch prawns’ said Aziz, ‘Come I show you’

He steered the boat to the side and using the rope from the pole, he pulled up a bamboo prawn trap from the river. We marvelled at the simple yet effective trap. There were a couple of huge prawns in it and immediately I thought of making some additions to the dinner menu.

‘How much?’

‘1 kg, 13 ringgit’

‘Oh…yum…er…can you buy some to cook for dinner? Goreng with sambal very sedap…’

I passed Aziz 13 ringgit and told him to get 1 kg of prawns as a treat for all in the house. That evening, together with long beans and canned curry chicken, we had a generous portion of succulent freshwater prawns which surprisingly did not taste of mud. Karen admitted that it was a gastronomically brilliant idea.

One of the most enjoyable moments was a brief but mozzie-infested trek to an ox-bow lake. An ox-bow lake once used to be a meander (pronounced bend) of the river which was cut off from the main river due to river erosion. River deposition eventually sealed it from the main river forming a ‘C’ shaped lake. I taught the formation of ox-bow lakes several times in school and it was nice to finally be able to see and swim in one. It was a really serene spot, just the 3 of us and a resident White Bellied Eagle which was circling above all the while that we were there! From time to time this magnificent creature would spot a fish, bend its wings and dive quite recklessly down to the lake to just barely break the surface. It was a fine sight indeed! It was totally oblivious to our presence and was more concerned in getting its brunch done. There was also a co-operative Rhinoceros Hornbill who gave us a really regal fly-by. Hornbills will flap their wings for a bit and then glide gracefully for a stretch. So you can imagine how great a sight it was to see this majestic bird traverse the lake. It was another of those chuck-the-camera-and-enjoy-the-moment instances! We also saw 2 Kingfishers in their iridescent electric-blue coat.

Swimming in the ox-bow lake took a bit of getting used to. The milk chocolate water and the very squishy initially iky muddy bottom isn’t quite like the NUS pool. Still Aziz managed to get us down to swim and soon we were quite at home. It was shallow and when you tried to stand, you could soon feel yourself sinking in the warm black mud, releasing little bubbles of carbon dioxide from the decomposition of organic matter that is still ongoing below. It was a timely break from the stifling humidity and irritating mozzies.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing the jetty, religiously doing up our blog entries, playing guitar (my tiny Martin backpacker guitar did cause a mini commotion, the village guitar slingers have never seen such a tiny guitar, one huge Filipino guy played a very nice rendition of ‘anak’ on it), taking naps, eating rambutans and taking photos of the village kids.

Two days in Sungei Kinabatangan evaporated all too quickly but we felt that we would be bored to death if we had to be here any longer (Aziz told us that there was a Singaporean guy who spent 2 months in the village December 2003, I think he might be a teacher). We missed the Sumatran Rhinos, Asian elephants, deers and wildcats but it was a good time warp just to have a taste of what kampong life is like. A big thank you to the family who took us in especially Aziz, A-loi, your cheerful sister and the wonderful machik who did the authentic cooking and the prawns justice. RM$240 per person is a little steep for what you get but then again, its an isolated place and everyone needs to make a living. I find it ironic to be too bothered about paying for nothing. I guess ultimately we paid for the spartan experience.

Stories on the side
Aziz is an incredibly patient guy always making sure we saw our fair share of wildlife and birds before heading back. He had to silence the engine as we approached the birds and then restart it so many times. He was always cheerful and I liked his flexible-no-rush approach. We, typically, could not wake up early enough on the first morning to do the boat trip so Aziz who was very accommodating rescheduled it for the next day. He was already up at 6am ready to go but did not grumble or complain. He showed us interesting stuff like the Tongkol fruit which the monkeys ate and the Rama Rama butterfly. Aziz is doing a course in tour guiding and I am sure he will do well.

I spent one evening in the darkness talking to A-loi about his previous job as a bird’s nest collector. He told me stories about how he and his fellow workers had to climb 230m to the higher reaches of the Gomantong caves to collect the grade ‘A’ bird’s nest. They had to be careful of poisonous snakes which slithered up the rattan poles to feast on the eggs of the swifts and had to work long hours with their headlamp as the only light source. It was a high risk job and injurious falls and shoulder dislocations were not uncommon. 1 kg of bird’s nest can fetch RM$6000. Permits are issued for a limited time and thus the collectors had to work as long and as fast as they could to harvest the bird’s nest. It’s amazing how hard these people work. A-loi now works at a RM$300 per night resort just 10 minutes upriver from his home.

Karen spotted and photographed a large spider in our room with a cockroach in its jaws!

I saw the largest earthworm in my life on the first morning. This kid accidently stepped on it and it divided itself into two. The tail end was thrashing around as the head end inched off to safety.

Look what Karen found in the room. Posted by Picasa

mum n child Posted by Picasa

Cute kid who threw a plastic bag overboard... Posted by Picasa

The Roti Chennai Dynamic Duo! Posted by Picasa

Private eyes in Sandakan? Posted by Picasa

KFC's better... Posted by Picasa

Help me out here! Posted by Picasa

Duku Langsat n rambutan sellers at Lahad Datu. Posted by Picasa

The village Mafia Posted by Picasa

Karen's slippers at the end of the road! Posted by Picasa

The forest emerging in the mist. Posted by Picasa

I can't see my shit clearly. Posted by Picasa

Hotel California Posted by Picasa

'He's name 'A Boy A Boy'' says his sister  Posted by Picasa

Alarm cock! Posted by Picasa

River toilet Posted by Picasa

The longest earthworm at 25cm! Posted by Picasa

Earthworm divided! Posted by Picasa

Kitchen n washing area Posted by Picasa

Nostalgia Posted by Picasa

Cleopatra Posted by Picasa

Am I a cat or tiger? Posted by Picasa

Cat's do what they do... Posted by Picasa

Kampong shower room Posted by Picasa

Sleeping beauty...errr Posted by Picasa