Monthly Archives: February 2020

In Search of Proboscis Monkeys

Picture of proboscis monkey.

A proboscis monkey stares at us.

Courtney, John, and I decided to hire a boat taxi on our last afternoon in Brunei. Because BSB is built along an estuary, with tens of thousands of residents living on the water, there’s a large network of boat taxis that will take you wherever you want. We walked down to the shore and immediately were able to secure a ride for a couple hours. Our driver was quite knowledgeable of the area, and this ride turned out to be the highlight of our entire time in Brunei.

Our first stop was the Sultan’s palace. It’s the largest residential palace in the world, and it’s just outside the city. It’s surrounded by forest, so we only got fleeting glimpses. For a few days during Eid, the Sultan makes himself and his palace available for the public to come and say hi. If you’re looking for somewhere to crash, I’m sure he’d love to have you as his guest.

After seeing the palace, we headed up the estuary, far outside the city, to an area thick with jungle and free from palm trees. We pulled up to some mangroves and primary forest, and there they were! A troupe of at least a dozen proboscis monkeys was right in front of us, even closer than the monkeys we had seen on the Kinabatangan. These guys weren’t shy, either – they ate and played as if we weren’t even there. Later we headed to a new location and saw a second troupe, along with a couple of monitor lizards. We were enamored and could’ve stayed for hours, but the setting sun left us no choice but to retreat to the quiet capital.

Here are some of my photos from the ride:

Picture of proboscis monkey.

About to jump.

Picture of proboscis monkey. Picture of proboscis monkey family.

The whole family is together.

Picture of proboscis monkeys. Picture of baby proboscis monkey.

Always looking up.

Picture of monitor lizard with moon in background.

This monitor lizard was relaxing on a dead tree as the moon was coming up.

Picture of mother and baby proboscis monkeys.

Mother and baby.

Picture of baby proboscis monkey.

Eerily human-like.

Picture of shouting proboscis monkey.

Hey you!

Picture of proboscis monkey.

Staring into each others’ eyes.

Picture of proboscis monkey. Picture of monitor lizard.

Another monitor lizard joins the party.

Picture of boat ride at sunset.

The ride back to BSB.

Picture of Istana Nurul Iman.

Istana Nurul Iman, the Sultan’s palace, is the largest private home in the world, with over 2 million square feet of floor space. It has 1788 rooms, including 257 bathrooms.

Picture of palace.

Part of the palace.

Picture of birds.

Slightly fewer birds than bathrooms.

Picture of egret.

A single egret.

Picture of Sunset.

More photos from the ride

Brunei Darussalam

Picture of Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

Plane ticket prices are one of those peculiarities that I will never understand. In my case, it cost about half as much to fly from Miri Hong Kong, via Kota Kinabalu, as it would to fly just the leg from Kota Kinabalu to Hong Kong. In other words, I could fly 50% further for half the price. A less odd occurrence was that it was much cheaper to fly back a few days after the end of Chinese New Year, so I went for that itinerary. Katie didn’t have the option to wait, though, so she returned to Hong Kong without me. In yet another odd occurrence, Courtney and John, who live in Beijing, got delayed in their return by the infamous corona virus. That’s all just a long way of saying that Katie went home and Courtney, John, and I traveled to Miri together.

There was just one obstacle blocking our path: the country of Brunei Darussalum. On a map of Borneo (the third biggest island in the world), Brunei looks tiny, but it is bigger than 30 other countries, and it’s about the same size as Delaware. In another geographical oddity, the country is split into two parts, with Malaysia in the middle. It’s possible to travel from Kota Kinabalu to Miri by land, but it’s pricey and because of all of the border crossings, it necessitates 10 (!) passport stamps. Instead, we opted to travel to Brunei by ferry, and to Miri by bus.

We ended up staying for two days in Brunei’s capital of Bandar Seri Bagawan (BSB). That was probably one day too many – there’s no alcohol or night life of any sort, and the streets were eerily quiet, even in the day. The country is quite wealthy, due to its large oil reserves. I was sure I had spotted the Sultan’s palace whenever I saw a mansion with a sprawling green lawn (which was often), until I learned how big the palace actually is (2 million square feet). But this is a strict Muslim country, so it’s about the last place you’d want to go to party.

We did do quite a bit of walking around after it cooled off, late in the afternoon and into the evenings. The highlights were walking through the stilted village of Kampong Ayer, walking around the city’s main mosque, and taking a boat to see the Sultan’s palace and the proboscis monkeys, which I’ll cover in a separate post.

For now, here are some of my pictures from Bandar Seri Bagawan:

Picture of RIPAS Bridge.

On our first afternoon in Brunei we walked to the iconic RIPAS Bridge.

Picture of Kampong Ayer.

The stilted village of Kampong Ayer houses 30,000 people and might be considered the cultural center of Brunei.

Picture of Bandar Seri Bagawan.

Brunei’s capital is Bandar Seri Bagawan (BSB).

Picture of Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque at night.

Picture of Mahkota Jubli Emas Park.

Mahkota Jubli Emas Park is just outside of the mosque, in the heart of BSB. Surprisingly it was almost empty. There were just a few kids playing and people jogging next to the river.

Picture of baobab trees.

The park included these baobab trees, lit by floodlights.

Picture of mosque in BSB.

Unsurprisingly, we saw many, many mosques in this Muslim country.

Picture of river next to BSB.

The jungle was well-preserved, even just outside of the city.

Picture of rubble in Kampong Ayer.

Kampong Ayer was not done up for the tourists. Many of the buildings had fallen apart. Several planks in the sidewalks were either missing or wobbly. Living on top of this brackish water must necessitate constant upkeep to avoid this fate.

Picture of stray cat.

We saw an insane number of stray cats, much to Courtney’s delight.

Picture of bamboo forest.

We found this cool trail through a bamboo forest.

Picture of mother and daughter walking.

Walking home from school.

Picture of Kampong Ayer fire department.

In addition to schools and police departments, Kampong Ayer also has fire departments. Obtaining water to fight fires probably isn’t much of an issue.

Picture of mosque.

Another mosque.

Picture of houses in Kampong Ayer and a mosque.

There may be a lot of money in Brunei, but not everyone’s rich.

Picture of pensive man.

A man takes it all in.

Picture of RIPAS Bridge.

The RIPAS Bridge at a cloudy dusk.

More photos from Bandar Seri Bagawan

On the Foothills of Mount Kinabalu

Picture of Kinabalu.

Mount Kinabalu on a clear morning.

On our last day at the oxbow lake, we did one more boat trip to look at the proboscis monkeys, then we had breakfast and headed out. Our gentle guide Afiq came with us for the first part. We dropped him off at his in-laws’, just a few minutes by road from the Kinabatangan, so he could spend some time with his wife and baby. Then our driver Bop took us to an intersection with the main highway and dropped us off. We thanked him and he took off to pick up the next batch of tourists.

We we going the opposite direction, so we waited for a bus. It was midday and the powerful sun was beating down on us, so we were quite happy when a minibus came with enough empty seats for all four of us. Our driver drove like he was playing a video game, constantly swerving, passing, and jostling for position. But he remained in control the whole time. “I hope you like my driving,” he said as he dropped us off. Yes indeed – we had arrived a full two hours earlier than expected.

We were now in Kundasang, a town at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, 6200 feet above sea level. The air was noticeably cooler, and the town had a laid-back vibe. We spent a couple days there, hiking in the hills, traversing a perilous canopy walkway, and exploring a dairy farm. On our last morning we were treated to a spectacular sunrise, with Kinabalu looming clearly in the distance.

Kundasang was yet another highlight in a trip full of highlights. Here are some of my photos from the region:

Picture of Kundasang at sunset.

A cloudy sunset on our first day in Kundasang. We knew Kinabalu was hiding somewhere, but it was covered in clouds.

Picture of Katie at the canopy walk in Poring.

The next day we went to the Poring nature reserve. It featured this canopy walkway, where we walked across bouncy suspension bridges, up to 100 feet above the forest floor. It was well-designed, but a bit unnerving. I wouldn’t recommend it for those who are afraid of heights.

Picture of the Poring forest.

There were a lot of noisy people on the canopy walkway, so we didn’t spot much wildlife. But the forest was quite beautiful.

Picture of evergreen plant.

Back on the forest floor, we saw some interesting vegetation.

Picture of red plant.

There were some red plants (I’m not sure what this one’s called).

Picture of dragonfly.

And the ubiquitous dragonfly.

Picture of hibiscus flower.

Poring also had plenty of hibiscus, Malaysia’s national flower.

Picture of rafflesia.

But without a doubt, the coolest flower we saw was the rafflesia, AKA the “stinking corpse flower”. It’s the largest flower in the world, and it emits a foul smell to attract insects, which then spread its pollen. They only bloom for a few days, and unfortunately this rafflesia was on its last legs. But it was still amazing to see an example of this exotic flower.

Picture of beetle.

On our final morning in Kundasang, Courtney found this beetle crawling outside our room. Its claws were so sharp, they dug through her shirt and into her skin.

Picture of Kinabalu from Desa Farm.

After basking in the amazing sunrise, we headed up to Desa Farm, at the base of Kinabalu.

Picture of Courtney and John.

Courtney and John take it all in.

Picture of Katie feeding calf.

We got to feed the calves.

Picture of rock climbing warning sign.

WARNING: Climbing on rocks is extremely dangerous. Never attempt.

More Kundasang photos

Kinabatangan River Adventure

Picture of Courtney and John in a boat.

Courtney and John.

After bidding farewell to the orangutans and sun bears, Courtney, John, Katie, and I ventured deeper into the jungle, to the Kinabatangan River. We stayed at the Tanjung Bulat Jungle Camp, located on an oxbow lake. Afiq, the jungle camp’s owner and our local guide, grew up nearby. The main rule for our stay was No Swimming: the crocodiles would love nothing more than a tasty tourist dinner.

We got settled in and spent the next three days exploring the jungle, by foot and boat, on the oxbow lake and the Kinabatangan proper, by day and night. We saw an abundance of wildlife, mostly because the palm oil plantations have taken away so much native habitat. Luckily, it’s illegal to grow palm trees within 500 meters of the river, and the locals usually abide, leaving a kilometer-wide strip of sanctuary.

The jungle camp was my favorite part of Sabah, and I would love to return someday. Here are a few of my photos:

Picture of Afiq and Katie on the Kinabatangan River.

Afiq and Katie, in our first look at the Kinabatangan River.

Picture of Tanjung Jungle Camp.

The Tanjung Jungle Camp, with owner Afiq prepping the boat.

Picture of a flying cattle egret.

Egrets were a very common sight on the river.

Picture of flying brahminy kite.

This brahminy kite circled overhead several times.

Picture of long-tailed macaques.

The shores were absolutely crawling with long-tailed macaques.

Picture of proboscis monkey.

Late in the afternoon we spotted our first proboscis monkey!

Picture of rain forest.

Much of Sabah is now covered in oil palms, but some primary and secondary forest remains near the Kinabatangan.

Picture of red-faced langur.

Our driver had quite a keen eye. He spotted something red in a tree as we zoomed past. When we came in closer, I thought it was an orangutan. That would’ve been a very special sight, but this red-faced langur is probably even rarer than the orangutan. It only stuck around for a few seconds before retreating to the safety of the forest.

Picture of pig-tailed macaque.

A pig-tailed macaque. They’re common in Borneo, but fairly rare on this part of the Kinabatangan.

Picture of blue-throated bee-eater.

A blue-throated bee-eater.

Picture of four black-and-red broadbills.

Our nighttime boat ride was amazing. The birds were either asleep or quite relaxed, so we could view them much more closely than we could during the day. Here we have four black-and-red broadbills.

Picture of blue-eared kingfisher.

A blue-eared kingfisher. I’m not sure how they can have blue ears, but nonetheless, there it was!

Picture of buffy fish owl at night.

A buffy fish owl. This guy was wide awake, yet he didn’t seem to mind us at all.

Picture of civit.

This civit wanders the grounds of the jungle camp every night.

Picture of flying darter.

A darter, so named because it fishes by “darting” into the water.

Picture of monitor lizard.

This monitor lizard crawled right past the jungle camp.

Picture of crocodile swimming across the Kinabatangan oxbow lake.

You have to be careful on the Kinabatangan. It’s infested with crocodiles. A few months ago, a giant saltwater crocodile plucked a local fisherman from his boat. One moment he was there, the next he wasn’t. His friend witnessed the whole thing, close enough to see his own reflection in the croc’s eye.

Picture of crested serpent eagle’s breast.

We were very fortunate to get a glimpse of this beautiful crested serpent eagle.

Picture of fisherman with net.

A local fisherman. Probably not the safest spot to stand, given the previous story. But a man’s gotta eat.

Picture of people walking to the Kinabatangan River.

Heading from the oxbow lake to the Kinabatangan proper.

Picture of oriental pied hornbill.

An oriental pied hornbill shows off its beautiful plumage.

Picture of kite.

Let’s go fly a kite.

Picture of jumping proboscis monkey.

Proboscis monkeys love to jump between the trees.

Picture of tree frog.

During our night walk we spotted this tree frog. I assume it was asleep.

Picture of stork-billed kingfisher.

A stork-billed kingfisher, the biggest kingfisher in Borneo.

Picture of man cutting a tree with a chainsaw from a boat on a river.

We got one more surprise before leaving. A freshly-fallen tree was blocking our exit. Luckily, Monkey was able to free us with his chainsaw.

Picture of boy loading boat with palm oil.

This guy had just loaded up his boat with palm oil. It’s quite a profitable crop and has greatly helped the impoverished local population, but the palm trees have supplanted the rain forest habitat of Borneo’s wildlife. Unfortunately, the Kinabatangan is one of the last refuges with primary and secondary forest, which is why we were able to spot so much wildlife.

More photos from the Tanjung Bulat Jungle Camp

Sepilok's Orangutans and Sun Bears

Picture of Sepilok orangutan.

Orangutan hammock.

The night I returned to Kota Kinabalu, Katie and our friends Courtney and John flew down to start their New Year holiday. The four of us took a bus through Sabah’s interior, at one point climbing several thousand feet and passing in front of Mount Kinabalu, the tallest peak in Borneo. The giant granite mountain left us in awe, but we had already chosen to check it out in more detail on our way back.

We reached the town of Sepilok in the afternoon and stayed at a lodge with a great view over the jungle.

Picture of Courtney, John, Katie.

Having a snack and a drink on our first night in Sepilok.

Picture of jungle from hotel room.

Our room’s entire wall opened to reveal this view of the jungle.

The next day was one of the highlights of our entire trip. We headed to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which was a full- or part-time home to dozens of the orange primates. Before we had even reached the official feeding area, we got our first glimpse at a mother leading her child along the handrail. We share 97 percent of our DNA with orangutans, so it wasn’t surprising that I felt an immediate connection with them. They looked a lot like humans, except their feet acted as a second set of hands, allowing them to swing through the trees with ease.

Picture of mother and baby orangutan.

Before we even got to the observation area, we saw this mother leading her baby along the guardrails. It was a truly amazing sight, right before our eyes.

Once inside the main building, we sat down to watch the babies play. Most of these infants and adolescents don’t have mothers, so the park’s human volunteers teach them the necessary skills to live in the jungle. Eventually, most of them are able to survive on their own.

Picture of orangutan swinging on rope.

This juvenile loved to hang on the rope. Occasionally a volunteer would come by and swing the rope back and forth, much to the little guy’s delight.

Picture of two juvenile orangutans hanging from a rope and playing.

Just playing.

Picture of long-tailed black squirrel.

A long-tailed black squirrel. Its claws can eviscerate bark, or whatever gets in its way.

Then came the feeding time. We headed outside to the platform where the volunteers left a bunch of bananas and walked away. Some of the orangutans and many macaques come to this place every day to eat, but the alpha male is typically able to get plenty of fruit in the forest so he steers clear of humans. But not today. There he was, munching on a sugar cane. He was huge! I could hardly believe how much bigger than the females he was. Once he’d had his fill, he swung on a rope back into the forest.

Picture of alpha male orangutan.

The alpha male enjoys his lunch.

Then we got a rather heavy rain shower. All of the primates did what they could to stay dry.

Picture of orangutan attempting to stay out of the rain.

Orangutans hate rain. Don’t believe me? Watch the video:

Picture of orangutan bearing its teeth.

Smiling isn’t necessarily an indication that it likes what you’re saying.

Picture of orangutan hanging from rope.

The volunteers encourage the orangutans to stay off the ground, where predators lurk.

Afterward, we had our own feeding time, except we had to pay. Then we walked to the Bornean Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre, home to 43 sun bears. These bears are the smallest in the world, growing to only about half the size of an American black bear. We walked along the boardwalks and quickly found four of the bears digging into a tree stump in search of ants.

Picture of licking sun bear.

The orangutans aren’t the only show in town. This sun bear loved to show off his long tongue.

We also found out why they’re called “sun bears”.

Picture of sun bear relaxing on its back.

Ah, that’s the spot!

Picture of tree stump with sun bear on it.

The bears were busy dismantling this tree stump with their claws.

Later in the day we returned to the orangutan sanctuary for another feeding. Once again, the alpha male came down to eat, along with several females.

Picture of mother and baby orangutan.

Back at the orangutan center, this mother and baby come down for a meal.

Then came to the macaques. They’re smaller than orangutans, but they’re quite viscous, with long fangs and an appetite for blood. They did their best to steal the bananas, and the big guy responded with an amazing display of aggression.

The big guy is none too happy with those pesky macaques.

Picture of angry alpha male orangutan.

Back off!

Picture of orangutan and macaques eating.

After the alpha male had eaten his first few bananas, he let the macaques join.

Picture of macaques eating.

Macaque family meal.

Picture of orangutans.

Looking up.

Picture of peeing alpha male orangutan.

After finishing his meal, the alpha male gets some relief.

We ended up watching the orangutans and sun bears for several hours. I could’ve spent many more hours there, the animals were so entertaining. But the parks closed and we had to return to our jungle hideout. And the next day we already had planned to embark on another wildlife expedition.

More photos from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
More photos from the Bornean Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre

Sabah's Great Train Journey

Picture of guy looking out train door near Beaufort, Malaysia.

On a recent trip to Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, I learned of a nineteenth-century train line that’s still in operation. Starting from Kota Kinabalu, the biggest city in Sabah, the train takes you along the coast to the small town of Beaufort. From there, you can take a second train that roughly traces the Sungai Padas River to the coffee-producing town of Tenom. I love traveling on old trains, so this adventure seemed right up my alley. But it was not without its roadblocks (or landslides).

The train from Kota Kinabalu went smoothly. It wasn’t crowded, so I was able to get a window seat without issue. We made several stops along the way, picking people up and dropping others off in the villages on Borneo’s north coast. There was nothing wrong with this journey – it was efficient and the carriage was air-conditioned – but it wasn’t very scenic and it didn’t have that “step back in time” vibe that I was hoping for.

Picture of Kota Kinabalu sunset.

Sunset in Kota Kinabalu.

Picture of Beaufort train.

The train to beaufort.

Picture of Beaufort train engine.

This train was quite modern, with sealed-in carriages and air conditioning.

We arrived in Beaufort at around 10 AM, leaving me three hours before the train to Tenom was scheduled to leave. I meandered every block of the small town, taking in a Chinese New Year celebration at a grade school and eating at one of the Indian “curry houses” next to the open-air market, all while taking in many smiles and hellos from the friendly locals. I even had time to check out a World War II memorial for an important battle that was fought there. By the time I returned to the train station, it was early afternoon and scorching hot.

But the journey wasn’t meant to be. A recent rain storm had caused a landslide midway to Tenom, blocking the tracks. I was disappointed but not ready to give up. It was still possible to go by bus, taking a long detour around the Sungai Padas to the city of Keningau, and then onward to Tenom. Unfortunately, the next bus wouldn’t leave for four more hours, but I still felt it would be worth the wait.

I found a nice park next to a pond and napped; eventually a nearby mosque’s call to prayer woke me. I ate another meal, walked around a bit more, and chatted with a few locals who had no idea that the train line was even blocked. The bus took me into the foothills along Borneo’s main highway and eventually dropped me off in Keningau at 8 PM. It was an industrial city without any tourist attractions, so I got a room and went to bed early, with plans to head to Tenom the next day.

Picture of Fatt Choi in Tenom.

The view from the Fatt Choi Coffee Cabin in Tenom.

Tenom was a beautiful town, located in Sabah’s main coffee-growing region. As an added bonus, its higher elevation meant lower temperatures. I spent the afternoon wandering through the hills and stumbled upon the Fatt Choi Coffee Cabin, where I took in the sunset. While relaxing I met an American man (the first foreigner I had seen in several days) who said that he had just arrived by train! I had assumed that clearing the landslide would take weeks if not months, but apparently the train was already running again. I decided that I would take the train back to Beaufort in the morning.

At night there was a giant New Year’s celebration, complete with lion dances and lots of fireworks, with thousands of people prancing through the streets. But I was mostly excited about my upcoming journey.

Picture of banana plantation near Tenom.

The journey from Tenom to Beaufort begins! We passed a few banana plantations along the shores of the Sungai Padas River.

Picture of wooden house on stilts.

The train would frequently make stops to pick up a single passenger.

The train had an engine and two cars. As soon as an employee opened the entrance gate, the local passengers made a mad dash for the carriage with bench seats, but I sauntered to the open-air boxcar. This train was more my thing! I met a group of young Malaysian teachers who were equally enthralled to be aboard.

We left Tenom at 8:30 and the train slowly traversed the tracks that wound through the river valley. I leaned out the door and took in the green jungle as it flew past. Others sat in the doorway, feet dangling over the tracks. We occasionally approached a small platform next to a few houses, and a single passenger flagged down the train as if it were a bus. There were no roads leading to these houses, so the train was their only mode of transportation. It slowly got more full as we continued.

Halfway into the trip, the train stopped at a rare location with two parallel tracks. The engine disconnected, took the second set of tracks around us, then reconnected behind us. It then pushed us the rest of the way to the landslide area.

Picture of disconnected train engine.

The disconnected engine.

Picture of train boxcar on the way to Beaufort.

A look inside the boxcar we rode in.

Picture of Dan next to train.

I was happy for a break.

When we reached the landslide, we all got out, walked a few hundred meters along the tracks, and waited for another train to approach us from the opposite direction. When it arrived, we swapped places with its passengers and continued on our way.

Picture of boy giving peace sign from inside train.

Leaving our first train behind.

Picture of train next to Sungai Padas River.

Walking to our second train.

Picture of people climbing aboard train.

Boarding our second train. This one was seriously falling apart.

Picture of people looking out of train door in Malaysia.

Enjoying the journey.

The trip was quite scenic, with the brown river flowing, and verdant hills in the background. And this trip truly was like stepping back in time, not only because of the train itself, but also the price: less than $1.

Picture of train to Beaufort.

More passengers arrived as we neared Beaufort.

Picture of man looking out of train door.

One of southeast Asia’s great train journeys.

We arrived in the familiar town of Beaufort at noon. I made my way back to Kota Kinabalu in the afternoon, happy to have completed one of southeast Asia’s great train rides. And there was plenty more adventure still to come.

More photos from Kota Kinabalu
More photos of the journey from Kota Kinabalu to Beaufort
More photos of the journey from Tenom to Beaufort