Thursday, June 27, 2013

Traveling in Borneo in a nutshell

It seems that, nowadays, there are only two ways backpackers intake information about new destinations: Lonely Planet and word of mouth. While the internet is becoming a huge resource as well, it is so easy to have conversations with travelers about a destination that leads to some form of the statement, “…well Lonely Planet said (insert outdated price, guesthouse name, restaurant, etc.).” For me personally, I’m more of a word of mouth, stumble upon something awesome with dumb luck type person. In the case of traveling in Borneo, Malaysia, this type of travel did me well.

I didn’t do any research before coming to Borneo. I knew one could hike a 4000 km mountain called Kinabalu (but apparently only if you have a spare $1000), and I knew there was massive amounts of deteriorating jungle. This, of course, isn’t much to go off of. While I thought this indecision could come back to haunt me, upon initial introduction to Kota Kinabalu, before even checking into a hostel, I found out there was a Couchsurfing meet up the night I arrive. This lead to new friends, new faces, and a wealth of information. It also defined the rest of my time in Borneo.

After going on a random jungle cruise excursion with a dude I met on a bus (dude gets on bus, says he is going to a river in the jungle. Chris gets off bus, they see elephants!) I found myself in the second largest city in Sabah, called Sandakan. While the harbor area of the city is decently pretty, besides the super fast WIFI at my hostel, Sandakan didn’t have much to offer. This, though, was remedied by two British girls telling me about the town of Sepilok about 30 minutes away. It cost the equivalent of $1 to get there by local bus, and if I wanted to stay the night, there was a hotel called Paganakan Dii that was literally in the jungle. While the hotel was pricey, the traditional long house style structure that offered dorm beds for around $10 with breakfast was a deal in Borneo. Once again, with little foresight, I found myself on the bus to a new destination with no idea what I was getting in to.

Sepilok, for most travelers, is a place visited for a day or 2 at most. The visited part of town is literally based off of 2 tourist destinations and a jungle research center, with no other businesses, structure, or buildings besides a few resorts popping up next Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Excited visitors normally head to the Orangutan center around 10 am to see the morning feeding, then trek over to the RainForest Discovery Center to sweat in the jungle heat, then back to the Orangutans at 3 pm for the afternoon feeding. After this, they drink beer, eat food, and get ready for the next adventure. This, of course, is a mistake.

While on paper a town with 2 attractions doesn't sound that great, the fact is Sepilok is so much more than what is advertised. For those with a keen eye, you will find that the Rain Forest Discovery center has access to nearly 25 kms of hikes in the jungle. 25 km! While the main attractions are the raised canopy walk and a few small stretches of groomed jungle made for tourists, for an extra 5 Ringgit (less than $2) you can hike from the RDC 8 km to a mangrove forest on an inlay from the South China Sea. The research center here is called the Speilok Laut Research Center, and is also host to a camp ground (which I think is free due to no staff being there anymore). On top of that, The Paganakan Dii resort offers an entire complex with short hikes, free paddle and pedal boats, fishing, and thousands of places to sit, listen, and enjoy untouched nature that may or may not make it past our lifetime. Sepilok has more to offer than meets the package traveler’s eye.

Although Borneo has a lot to offer, it seems to be moving farther and farther off of the backpacking radar. Malaysians have no problem charging foreign visitors 50% more than locals. This, as well as the preference for packaged tours instead of the DIY backpacker approach, has made the ability to visit the jungle, scuba dive, raft, hike, or climb become only available for those with deep pockets. Borneo may be trying to head in a different direction, but for the time being, a trip to Sepilok can still offer even the thriftiest of budget travelers an introduction to the jungle, and a gloriously relaxing nature escape.

Photos courtesy of Mulv Jones

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Germans are great at telling jokes (the best joke a German ever told): 18 Random facts learned while traveling in Borneo

1.) Germans are, in fact, not good at telling jokes. This truth is only exasperated when stuck in close, inescapable proximity with one who thinks that they are exempt from the truth.

2.) There are 8 species of Hornbill birds in Borneo, but only one is ubiquitous.

3.) Bald Orangutans look incredibly similar to children…it is eerie how similar to a monkey child they look.

4.) When you get the chance to do a solo hike through 12 miles of virgin rainforest, you do it (even if it costs 2 extra dollars.)

5.) The net fun level of a tourist destination decreases exponentially to the amount of rules, regulations, and infrastructure that is set in place. In the same regards, price increases exponentially with said factors.

6.) You can see nearly half of the world’s tallest tree species in Malaysia on the same 800 m stretch of jungle

7.) According to a river guide on the Kinabatangan River, crocodiles in this part of the world only eat Korean tourists.

8.) It isn’t good to pull leeches off your skin. To effectively get rid of leeches, you need to either burn them off, or pinch the skin around them. If not, you’ll end up with a nasty looking mark that may or may not be infected.

9.) Leeches are bastards.

10.) You can find Horchata in Kota Kinabulu. I can’t remember what real Horchata tastes like, but I think what I ingested is pretty damn close.

11.) It is (relatively) OK to use wifi in a hostel in the jungle if it is available. It is NOT OK to get upset when the offered wifi in the jungle isn’t working. You are in the jungle for god sakes, go look at nature.

12.) Hostels in cities often advertise hot water for showers but don’t actually provide it. Hostels in the jungle don’t tell you they have hot water (and it is stinking hot so you don’t want it) but always seem to provide the goods

13.) There are flying snakes in Borneo. Google it.

14.) If you come to Asia and are scared of lizards, you are missing the point of the food chain. Lizards eat mosquitoes. They eat them. Why would you not want them walking on the walls as guards for your slumber from that wretched bread of bloodsuckers we all hate?

15.) Palm oil is bad! Stop using that shiz.

16.) Malaysians love malls…specifically food courts, I think.

17.) Don’t buy anything in Malaysia unless it is on, or comes with, promotion (Google that shit too!).

18.) Bar soap is incredibly difficult to find, as is dry deodorant, in Malaysia.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Prehistorics, Jeff Goldblum, and some damn good street art

A few nights ago, after arriving in the beautiful town of Kota Kinabulu in Sabah, Malaysia, I decided to see Jurassic Park in 3D. I love Jurassic Park, so watching a sexed out Jeff Goldblum give a useless explanation of Chaos Theory only seemed better when the water droplets ran off Laura Dern’s hand and looked as if they were going to splash me in the face! While that 3D trick actually didn’t happen, Jeff Goldblum’s silly explanations of the unexpected always happening came to mind the next day when I came across this beauty:

While in bad light, from across the street, it doesn’t look like much, what you’re starring at is a glaring piece of Chaos Theory. What looked as if it was doomed to become an empty plot or eyesore to the city has become the home to beautiful pieces of street art comme ça:

While rumor has it that this building burned down a few years back, the remaining pieces of whatever the previous establishment used to be are now covered and recovered in tag by some of the best local and traveling street artists Sabah has ever seen. Each panel has 4 sides of work, and even the remaining walls in the back have been colored in some sort of beautiful art work.

What impressed me most about this amazing canvas is that it could have become rubble. For those who have visited KK, you will know that the plot is right across the street from a huge, state-of-the-art shopping center known as Suriah, and sandwiched in by a popular bank. But, thankfully, the local government actually designated the ruins for art after seeing it transformed by the bold few who painted without permission.

While street art may not be an accepted art form everywhere, the fact is, it’s a great way to turn something old, dilapidated, or ugly into a mecca of creation. If you’re ever in KK, make sure to step out of the air conditioned mall to take a look at the street art off of the main road. And while you’re on the creative kick, support your local street artist, and lobby your local governments to allow street art to transform what has been broken into something beautiful.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

8 Reasons why Indonesia is awesome

Kuta, Lombok
- While Kuta Bali is pretty disgusting, Kuta Lombock is absolute paradise. For around $25-a-day you can eat mouth-watering Indonesia food, surf, and have a place to stay with decently comfortable and clean beds, as well as WIFI. Whichever direction you head from the main town you are surrounded by idyllic beaches only seen in dreams or on post cards. Kuta is literally paradise.

Food - Indonesian food is delicious and diverse. Whether you want seafood, fried rice, noodle soup, or an array of vegetarian dishes, you are golden. Most main dishes cost less than $2. Add in the fact there is an abundance of fresh fruit for juice or desert, and you will realize why Indonesia food is one of the best in Southeast Asia.

Boat travel - If you prefer salt water and fresh air to cramped buses and overnight trains, Indonesia is for you. With the nation being comprised of islands, traveling from one to next is definitely possible by boat. The best of the best? A four day, four night trip from Lombok to Flores that includes a stop in Komodo National Park.

Music - While most touristy bars throughout Southeast Asia offer some live music, Indonesia is a hotbed of talent. With many bands from the island nation having made it to international acclaim, the degree of musicianship needed to play at local bars and clubs is very high. Live music in Indonesia, be it at a western bar or a local concert hall, is real good. If you like music, you will like Indonesia.

Komodo Dragons - Apparently the fabled creature only exists on a few small islands in the eastern part of Indonesia. I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize this before I came, but getting to see them was pretty incredible. While the lazy ones that hangout next to the visitor center on the island of Komodo aren’t that impressive, seeing them in the wild is a treat. The lucky traveler will come on one of the few days in the month where the Komodo actually feed.

Lake Toba and Bukit Lawang
– While not everyone makes it over to Sumatra, the big island known for its strict Islamic law has lot to offer. While the driving from destination to destination is terrifying, getting to visit the volcanic Lake Toba and the river city of Bukit Lawang is something special. One offers a chilled out vibe, great views, and great food, while the other offers tubing, trekking, and orangutans.

Trekking up volcanoes – What else needs to be said? You get to walk up effing volcanoes! Do it!

Snorkeling/diving with Manta Rays – They come so close you can touch them. It is almost scary how interested they are in people, but it is also awesome! Head to Nusa Lembongan to get your underwater fix and also get to learn a thing or two about some of the most groundbreaking research on Mantas in the world.

People - While some of the places in Southeast Asia have been hit so hard by some not-so positive tourism (including Indonesia) leading to a dislike of foreigners, Indonesian has yet to be jaded. In fact, while the Indonesians have good reason to dislike travelers, the truth is, they don’t. Indonesians are incredibly kind, loving, and friendly. They are still interested in tourists, and even if you don’t find yourself buying what vendors are offering, you can normally find a warm conversation. Especially if you venture away from Bali (even though most Balinese are great), the locals are incredible. Learning some Bahasa Indonesia, sharing some Bintangs, and laughing with locals is the best experience you can have while visiting Indo.

Photo courtesy of University of Texas

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How to overanalyze a bike crash

It’s always interesting to be on the receiving end of a, “it happened so fast,” moment. In said moment, it seems like time doesn’t exist. While everything around you moves quickly, and recalling what occurred presents difficulty, thoughts, mental images, and other seemingly time consuming facets of the moment reappear with ease. For my own moment, being run off the road by another scooter driver in Bali, I can’t tell you exactly how I crashed. I can’t tell you how fast I was going (I think around 30), nor if my tire hit the other scooter or the curb. I can tell you, though, that I closed my eyes, I didn’t feel my head or chest hit the ground (they did), and that as I began to tumble off my bike, I thought to myself, “ I knew this was going to happen today.”

From the moment I saw the lady I was trying to pass begin to fade to the opposite lane, to right around the moment she yelled at me then drove off while I lay bleeding on the concrete, is all a blur. I can remember the vivid thought of déjà vu while being angry at myself for driving that day. Beyond that, my mind is blank. How I ended up with a bike facing the wrong direction, two bruised ribs, two missing toe nails, road rash, and a horribly sprained ankle and wrist is beyond my recollection.

What I can tell you about the crash is this; driving on Bali is ridiculous. Worn like a badge of shame, thousands of tourists seem to crash a scooter on Bali. Even with driving (in Asia!) experience, I still fell. On top of that, I can tell you that it must occur regularly because before I could even accept and acknowledge the pain (as the adrenaline wore off and I realized a big chunk of my foot was missing), I was surrounded by locals trying to help. I was lucky to be with total strangers who all did more than dabble in alternative medicine, as well. The two groups of people in unison did more than any person could ask of their loved ones, let alone randos. I was cleaned up, taken care of, and after I could walk, taken to the hospital without a worry (or a Rupiah spent on the ride). Sandals, scooter, bag, and all made it to the clinic while I was cleaned and bandaged.

While an easy take from this experience is to say I was driving too swiftly, too recklessly, and to Balinessly (drive here and you’ll understand), that’s too easy. No, for me the take home message is much more in depth. I had forgotten how to read, or more so listen, to the constant stream of directions given from my life’s internal road map. I knew full well that day there was going to be a crash. From the moment I woke up I had a quiet, obfuscate thought of an accident. Even more minuscule was the idea that the crash was going to be mine. Travel has always been a sabbatical for me in which I reconnect with my center. My crash on the way from Ubud to Changgu was more than just a dumb mistake, it was a heavy reminder. If I can’t trust myself, my intuition, and my heart, what am I doing? If the channel of communication’s signal is so weak I can barely hear it, I think it’s time for me to take a vacation from my vacation and reassess why I’m here.