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Just back from Borneo and Japan - - Part 1: Borneo

Just back from Borneo and Japan - - Part 1: Borneo

Jun 14th, 2014, 10:37 AM
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Join Date: Jul 2003
Posts: 1,080
Just back from Borneo and Japan - - Part 1: Borneo

Thank you, Fodorites, for all the pre-trip advice and the wonderful trip reports that you have recently posted. Our wonderful trip to Borneo and Japan was successful in large part to what I learned from you. Because Borneo and Japan are such different destinations, I am going to break the report into two separate posts. I’ll include the general background in this first one on Borneo and make reference to it in the introductory section on Japan.

We have traveled quite a lot in Asia and have learned to slow down in the last few years, as we are now 65 and 70. Three weeks of travel meant we would be able to include some days to relax. Planning began about 10 months ago when I redeemed miles on United for two business class tickets from DC to Singapore for our preferred travel dates in May, 2014, for three weeks altogether. The flights were on ANA from Dulles to Narita, United (first class) Narita to Singapore on the way to Borneo, on the return we were on the ANA Dreamliner from Singapore to Narita. We did a 6 day stopover in Japan, then flew back to Dulles on ANA. I won’t go into the ins and outs of the changes I made on these tickets before I finalized the itinerary. Essentially, I extended the layover in Japan from 2 days to 6 days as I read more about Tokyo from your trip reports and Japan guide. I had initially planned to go to the Cameron Highlands and leave from Kuala Lumpur, so that was the major change. Because we have an AMEX Platinum card, I was able to get credit for the change fees and so there was no “cost” to us.

Originally, I wanted to go to Kuching (Sarawak) first because I thought it would be easier to recover there from jet lag. But it turned out that the Borneo Rainforest Lodge was booked for the days that we would want so I changed the order of travel and we went to Sabah first. We landed in Singapore after midnight and spent the night in the Ambassador transit hotel, flew (Silk Air) to Kota Kinabalu in the morning for 2 nights at Le Meridien, flew to Sandakan on an early morning flight and went to Turtle Island, from there we were driven to Bilit for 2 nights at the Bilit Rainforest Lodge, then driven to the Danum Valley for 3 nights at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, then flew to Kuching (Lahad Datu to Kota Kinabalu, the Kota Kinabalu to Kuching) for 4 nights (all flights on Malaysia Airlines). Jimmy at Tropical Gateway booked everything for us in Sabah - - accommodations and transit between places. I would highly recommend him - - very easy to communicate with and the service was excellent. I booked all the internal flights myself.

My concerns were about what and how much to pack, especially for our 8 nights in Sabah. The Travelex and Under Armour clothes were the right way to go - - even those took a while to dry. We had to change clothes and underwear two or three times a day. Brought a combination of long and short sleeve tops - - washed everything in permetherin before we left. I agonized over footwear and eventually decided to waterproof our running/walking shoes and that worked just fine. We definitely needed the ankle support and I think even light hiking books would have been too heavy. We also brought Ecco sandals and I had a pair of Reefs. One article of clothing I wore quite a lot but haven’t seen anyone write about: a sleeveless cotton knee length T shirt (originally a swimsuit coverup), which I changed into immediately after the boat trips and treks. It was great for when we rested in our rooms in between activities. Here goes:

May 21: At the ANA counter check in, we checked our bag through to Kota Kinabalu. Left Dulles on ANA on time, arrived in SIN a bit late because of delay on the United flight. We brought one small carryon with clothes for Japan, which we knew we would not use in Borneo. We took it to the Left Luggage counter in Chiangi airport, which was near the Ambassador Transit hotel, where we arrived at 1am on May 23. Solid 6 hours sleep, checked out and walked to our gate for the 9am flight to Kota Kinabalu. So we stayed within the security side of the airport the entire time.

May 23 and May 24: Uneventful flight to KK but our bag did not arrive with us. Filled out forms, pretty nervous about it because we only had one day of clothes in a small bag. Fortunately, we got a call that afternoon that our bag had been located in Singapore and would be delivered the next day.

Kota Kinabalu is one of the gateway cities in Borneo and there are a few international flights that arrive in its very modern airport terminal. Like many secondary cities in Southeast Asia, it is a mix of old and new, modern and traditional. Directly on the South China Sea, there are many lovely views from modern hotels and waterfront esplanades. Mount Kinabalu is to the east and many people come here to ascent the mountain. There are many shopping malls and small stores and markets. We stayed at Le Meridien in the city center, a great choice for us. It was directly across the street from the central wet market and vegetable market so we were able to easily wander through the stalls. Our room on the 8th floor had large windows with a great view of the market and sea and nearby islands. Diagonally across the street is one of the main restaurant/bar areas right on the waterfront. We walked over there at around 6pm on Friday and had drinks and watched the sunset, it was really lovely. Later that evening we went back for dinner at an Indian restaurant (Kohinoor) a couple of doors away from the Irish bar where we had our sundowners.

Our stay here was to recuperate from jet lag so we had very little sightseeing planned. The only thing I organized in advance was a trip on the North Borneo Railway for Saturday morning. From a railway that was built more than a century ago, this little steam engine train (about 6 cars) was converted into a tourist train that does a 3 and a half hour round trip into the countryside, and is run by one of the major resort hotels. It has been comfortably outfitted into dining cars all with large windows. We were assigned to our seats when we got the station, served breakfast and a tiffin style lunch and had a great time viewing the landscape. There were two stops where we could get off and walk around although there wasn't much to see other than some local shops. It was especially nice that almost everyone along the route waved as we went bye, big smiles everywhere. Our fellow passengers were mostly Australians but we sat near a young couple from Hong Kong and had a chat with them.

We got back to the hotel after 2 and our bag arrived from the airport. We needed a rest as jet lag was still catching up but an hour later the monsoon arrived! It rained heavily for 3+ hours. We didn’t/couldn't do much except read and finally cocktail time arrived where DH got his first martini in the hotel lobby lounge. We weren’t terribly hungry so we decided to have burgers at the Irish pub on the waterfront and get to bed early because of our very early (7:45am) flight the next morning. BTW, this kind of dining choice is really out of the ordinary for us, we prefer local food whenever possible but we weren’t up to finding the “right” place.

May 25: We had a great view of Mt. Kinabalu from the plane. We were picked up at the airport by John, our guide for the next 3 days. We were driven to the Sandakan jetty for the 45 minute ride to Pulau Selingan, aka, Turtle Island. The boat ride was smooth. There were 5 other tourists and their guides on our boat, with three boats going that day. Here and at the next stop, you get a guide from the tour operator you booked with. Others on these trips had booked with Amazing Borneo, Borneo Eco Tours and other operators and everyone had their own guide. The boat had a canopy so we were protected from the sun. We took only what we needed for the overnight and our driver kept our large suitcase for us. After arriving, we were shown a map of the island, which is quite small and give the key to our cell, I mean our "room". It was probably 8x 8, with 2 single beds and a small table in between, and a very small bathroom with a shower nozzle. Nothing else, not even a peg on the wall to hang your clothes. We rented 2 beach mats, 2 towels and a snorkel set for about $15 and headed out to the beach. The water was quite shallow, only waist high but there was nice coral and colorful fish. There are trees for shade so it was comfortable. From our spot on the beach, we could see one of the islands of the Philippines, only about a mile away. After about an hour we returned for lunch. There was a buffet of fried chicken wings, coleslaw and some vegetables. If you wanted anything to drink there was a store where you could buy soda, water or beer. We returned to the room for a nap, then to the beach at around 3:30. By then it was not possible to go in the water because it was low tide and the water came only up to knee height at most. At around 6, we walked to the beach to watch the gorgeous sunset.

There are three Malaysian islands involved in the turtle conservation program but Selingan is the only one with a tourist program. I imagine it raises a fair amount of money to support the conservation work because it was expensive to do the overnight here (especially considering the accommodations). Evening activities, being all about the turtles, began at 6:30 when we met our guide and talked for about half an hour about the upcoming procedures. At 7 we saw a video about the island and conservation efforts. "Dinner" was at 7:30, with some mystery foods. After dinner, fit was time to wait until the rangers called everyone, which was the point of coming here. The turtles normally come onto the island after dark but the tourists don't get called to watch until one begins to nest. We were very lucky that the call came at about 8:20pm because sometimes it takes until 11pm or later. We were also lucky that there were only about 20+ tourists to watch the egg laying because it gets very crowded with everyone hanging around the turtle. So we followed the ranger to the beach where a 5' green turtle (the other type of turtle that comes to the island is the hawksbill) had nested and was beginning to lay her eggs. When the ranger was sure the turtle was comfortable, we stood in a circle around her and took turns walking around behind her to watch her egg laying and fertilization. The ranger shined a small flashlight at her bottom so we could see the egg laying and take photos (no flash). She laid 31 eggs, each the size of a ping pong ball. The ranger gathered up the eggs and put them in a pail and we walked over to another part of the island where one of the staff buried them in a protected area in a hole and covered them with sand, equivalent to what the mother turtle would have done if the eggs had remained where she laid them. He put a stake in the ground marking the date, the turtle ID, the number of eggs. These eggs would hatch in about 2 months. We then walked back to the beach where a staff member had a basket filled with hatchlings that were about half an hour old. They were released in front of us and we watched them race to the water. We all had to stand quite still because not all the hatchlings made it to the water directly, some were wandering around our circle. The ranger shined his flashlight all around to be sure that all the hatchlings got to the water. When they did, we returned to our rooms.

It was an amazing experience to watch the turtle lay and fertilize her eggs and then see the little hatchlings make their way to the sea. It is estimated that only one out of a hundred (at most) will survive to adulthood and then return to Selingan to lay eggs as an adult. We were told that without the conservation program, it is unlikely that any eggs would survive because of the human and animal predators. These reptiles co existed with dinosaurs and have been on their own path to extinction.

In the morning, we had some (chicken) eggs and toast and took the boat back to Sandakan. On the way, the propeller hit something and the engine stopped. So we were sitting ducks for any Phillipine kidnappers. Fortunately the engine was restarted and we were on our way again.

Monday, May 26. We arrived back at Sandakan before 8am and rode to the SEPILOK Orangutan Rehab Center. We watched a video about the center's work, which really brought tears to my eyes. The film showed an abandoned baby orang and how it was nursed back to health at the center. The film described the process of rehabilitation with the goal of eventually releasing orangs into the wild. Orangutans live only in Borneo and Sumatra and they are nearly extinct. They are the smartest of the great apes and share 96% of genes with humans. They are the largest fully arboreal mammals. After the video we walked to the feeding area for the 9:30 feeding. It was great fun to see the Orangutans and monkeys come around for their bananas. The Orangutans who get fed in this way are being gradually weaned from human care. They are living in the reserve and move about freely and get limited food from the staff. The hope is that they will gradually move deeper into the forest and live fully in the wild. Many do and some have females have returned with their babies.

Next door to the orangutan center is a newly established SUNBEAR sanctuary. We saw about 6 small bears that had been rescued and were in large enclosures. Each Sunbear has a unique marking on its chest, some are spots, some look like necklaces. It is difficult to see them clearly from a distance but I did see one with a necklace type marking.

It was then a 2 hour drive on mostly paved roads to the Kinabatangan River. We stopped at a small river landing in the village of Bilit and took a 5 minute boat ride to the lodge. First things first, we ate lunch from a lovely buffet in the reception/dining hall. We followed the boardwalk to our room, which was like a palace compared to turtle Island. The room was spacious and air conditioned with a good sized bathroom and a front porch for lounging (with hammocks if you so desired). After being reunited with our luggage, we unpacked and took a short nap and it was time for our first river cruise on the mighty Kinabatangan. There were 10 tourists and 3 guides on the boat. Within 10 minutes on the river, we saw an orangutan in the wild!! It was a thrill after being in Sepilok. In the two hour ride we also saw proboscis monkeys and a long tailed macaque. There was a bearded pig which made a quick escape when we got close. It was great fun despite a 20minute downpour towards the end of the trip. The guides handed us ponchos but we were pretty soaked by then anyway.

Back to our room to get into some dry clothes for a sundowner on our deck (we brought a small flask), then a delicious dinner buffet. You can purchase beer and soft drinks (we read that they also had wine but didn’t during our stay). Although we spent most of the day being driven around, it was still tiring because of the heat and humidity so by 9:15 we were fast asleep.

Tuesday, May 27: By 7am we were in the boat for a ride to Ox Bow Lake. The lake got its name from its shape when it was formed by water hyacinths strangling part of the Kinabatangan River. It was quite misty when we left so the scenery on the river was mysteriously beautiful. Unbelievably, we saw another orangutan in the wild. It was a lovely ride that took almost 2 hours to get to the "lake" which was really turned out to seem like just an offshoot of the river. But we saw lots of birds and monkeys along the way and as getting back, we were close to the lodge and saw a big crocodile on the river bank. We were back at the lodge around 9:30am for a second breakfast, then lunch at 12:30, just hanging out in the room and on our deck and napping until the 4pm boat ride. We took the same route as Monday afternoon, no orangs this time but we did see a big family of silver leaf monkeys who were very active. We had a delicious dinner with king river prawns and fried calamari among other dishes. I am most definitely not a lover of fried calamari but I went back for seconds on these.

In the 3 rides on the Kinabatangan River, we saw: Orangutans, silver leaf monkeys, proboscis monkeys, long tailed macaques, bearded pig, crocodile and the following birds: stork billed kingfisher, blue eared kingfisher, rhinoceros hornbill, Asian black hornbill, lesser comical, crested serpent eagle, Brahmins kite, storm stork, black and red broadbill and oriental darter. We really liked the lodge and its friendly staff. My only “complaint” is that there were no activities at all planned between the morning and afternoon boat trips. I can think of some interesting things that they could have organized but we did enjoy relaxing.

Next up: in the morning, a 5 hour drive to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge - the main destination for our trip to Borneo.
FromDC is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 11:13 AM
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May 28: We left Bilit at 6:45am on Wednesday for the 2 hour drive to Lahad Datu to stop at the administrative office of the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. The drive was all highway and it passed quickly. I enjoyed the scenery and looking for vegetation similar to Anguilla, a small island in the Caribbean where we spend much of the winter. There were bougainvillea, allamanda, oleander, hibiscus, ixora, and many other flowering plants that I could not identify. BTW, at Bilit, they were growing desert rose in pots.

Guests do their check-in for the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL) at the office in Lahad Datu. An Australian couple (the guy was wearing a Washington Redskins hat!) and a couple from London were also checking in and we shared the van to the lodge with the Australians after staying in the office for about 45 minutes. Everyone writes about the bumpy 2 and a half hour drive to BRL but it was no worse than the gravel roads we are used to on Anguilla, so I didn't really mind. We arrived at the Lodge just after noon and were welcomed with a bamboo lei and a lemongrass drink. We were shown to our lovely room in a chalet overlooking the Danum River with a huge tub on the private deck. The couple from London was in the other room in the chalet. Roughing it here means no phones or TV in the rooms and no air conditioning. And it is Hot and Humid, after all, we are in the middle of the Rainforest.

BRL has about 20 rooms, all in chalets overlooking the river or the jungle (some very modern accommodations have been open only for a few weeks, they aren’t advertised anywhere but they look like they can accommodate families). There is a large reception lodge that has the restaurant and bar and seating area on the top level, offices and a conference/presentation room on the lower level. On the top level you cannot wear your shoes so there is a small room on the side full of sandals and sneakers.

We bought our leech socks at the little store and then we had a fabulous lunch (all meals are buffet style which is too bad because we eat way too much) and the food is definitely the best we've had on the trip (by far). Jumping ahead, I had the very best pancake of my life for breakfast on Thursday, a local pancake (made at the pancake station) stuffed with a sweetened peanut mixture. We then met our guide, Danny, who we would be spending the next few days with on all of our treks. He has a forest management degree and is full of stories of local folklore. We went for our first trek at 3:30 and within 5 minutes saw a family of red leaf monkeys in the trees near the lodge. We walked to one of the trails and with that began our education about the forest. After about an hour, we were joined by an older English woman. Danny takes just the three of us around. We strongly suspect that she was paired with us because we are the oldest couple at the lodge. She is no slower than we are but does like to stop often to take pictures of insects and is very interested in the flora. We didn't see any more animals on the first walk but on our night walk that evening we saw lots of frogs and a fleeting glance of a sampan deer and a civet. At 6am on Thursday, we did the famous canopy walk , which lasted for 2 hours. There are 5 suspension bridges that are high above the Danum River, they are very narrow and shake when you walk across. The guides always ask the guests if they have problems with being high up because it can be terrifying to anyone afraid of heights. At 9:15am we did a 3 hour trek through the forest to a small rocky beach and back. So within the first 24 hours here, we did 4 walks through the rainforest in very high humidity and temperature. We didn't see many mammals on these walks but wow, did we see a lot of insects, reptiles, fungi, jungle plants, trees, etc. Danny would pick up a specimen and explain its place in the forest to us, he is a great teacher. Most amazing were the sounds in the jungle from birds and insects. There is a bird with a call that sounds just like the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a cicada that sounds so much like a fire alarm that I asked if there was an emergency.

At 3:30 on Thursday we began our next trek, hoping to see some mammals but about halfway through it began to rain pretty hard. Even with umbrellas were pretty soaked and we had to dry our leech socks before the next walk. DH had one tiger leech on his pants and another on his chest after our first daytime walk and I pulled them off him and flicked them over the deck railing.

Our last adventure on Thursday was the most successful in terms of siting animal even though it was the shortest of the excursions. Because of the heavy afternoon rain, animals come out to eat in the evening. At 6:45pm (it gets dark at 6 here) we boarded an open back truck with bench seats along with the Australian couple, our English companion and our guide sat on the top of the cab with a searchlight. We saw flying lemurs, a Malaysian civet, a white tailed civet, a mouse deer, a leopard cat and, at the very end of the drive, a family of samba deer munching on leaves at the edge of the road (where we stopped and watched for about 10 minutes). We also saw a tarantula on a tree, very scary looking.

It was a great end to a day of 4 treks (well, 3 treks and one drive), our first full day at this wonderful and unique enclave. With an extra fan in our room, we slept very well.

We got to sleep in on Friday because our first trek didn't begin until 8am. This was to be the big one that our guide was building up to, the climb to the high point in the area at the coffin trail and view point. It was a bit difficult but we took it slowly. Besides being a very steep climb, we were walking on wet leaves and mud, with tree roots ready to ensnare our ankles at any moment. Thankfully there was a rope to hold onto for most of the climb and our walking sticks were very helpful in stabilizing our footing. We were incredibly lucky to see a red leaf monkey family shortly after we entered the jungle, then three quarters of the way through we saw a couple of gibbons. That was almost as exciting as reaching the summit! Once we got to the top there was a burial area where we saw some ancient skulls and bones (the tribe that lived here were not head hunters). Around the corner was the View Point and it was worth the journey, with absolutely stunning views of the valley below. We stayed on the platform for about 15 minutes and then headed back. A reward awaited us: three quarters of the way down there is a turnoff to an area called the jacuzzi pool. There is a little waterfall that feeds into a cool pool filled with small carp (which nibble on you while you stand on the water). We changed into our bathing suits (which we had been carrying with us the whole time along with just in case umbrellas, binoculars, a towel, camera, two bottles of water and Deet). The dip in that pool is a swim I will remember forever, the cool water after the exhausting climb and the lovely waterfall in the background. We had a little snack, changed back into our sweaty, wet clothes and continued down to the lodge but quite refreshed.

Our legs started to stiffen about 5 minutes before we got back to our room at 1pm. As we peeled off our clothes, I saw a brown leech on my inner thigh, which had not been there during our swim. These are the leeches that are more difficult to remove and do make a bloody mark. We got it off and I put some shilling oil on it. After a quick lunch with badly needed Carlsberg beers (the only other choice in Sabah seems to be Tiger beer), we made it back to our room for a 2 hour nap. After that, we spent a long time in the outdoor tub watching the birds, the flowing river and searching the trees for the elusive Orangutans.

As it turned dark, we went on another night walk. Although we didn’t see anything in the forest, we stopped by the frog pond on the way back to the lodge. DH was in frog heaven, we were very close up to lots of little critters.

On our final morning, we started our walk after 7. This one went across the river through the forest but it was a disappointing walk for us, the highlight was a translucent butterfly. We saw lots of pig trails but we missed them by an hour or so. Although we didn't see anything significant, the leeches saw us. We got back to our room and pulled off about a dozen of them from our bodies and clothes. The puncture on my arms was still slowly oozing blood about 3 hours after the bite.

We had a wonderful time here, the lodge is amazing and walking through the forest has been an incredible experience. We thought we would see more animals here but while we were there we heard that Tabin might be better for that. That was the only very small disappointment to an otherwise outstanding three days. I think it would be way too rushed to do only two nights here. The Australian couple we met told us that they were sorry they didn’t stay the third night. Borneo Rainforest Lodge has been high on my Must Do list for many years and Sabah as a whole has been all I hoped it would be.

Next up: Kuching
FromDC is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 11:40 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 33,028
Oh, loving your report! The BRL is a truly unique setting. It sounds like you had a wonderful time. They have upgraded the facilities since we were there - no outdoor hot tubs back then, but still an amazing place.

Looking forward to more.
Kathie is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 11:47 AM
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May 31: It turned out that the British couple we met during check in for the Borneo Rainforest Lodge were also leaving at the same time and traveling on the same flights to Kuching and staying at the same hotel. The ride back to Lahad Datu was uneventful. At the airport while we waited for our flight, the time passed quickly as we chatted with our new friends. The flight from Lahad Datu to Kota Kinabalu actually left half and hour early because all twelve passengers (for the 60 seat plane) were in the waiting room. We had a brief layover in Kota Kinabalu, with one little snag. We didn't realize that we had to go through immigration when flying from Borneo to a different part of Malaysia. As we tried to board the plane, we were told we needed an immigration stamp. So we had to run to the immigration counter and then run back to the gate. We made it with only a few minutes to spare. We arrived at the Kuching Hilton at around 9:30pm on Saturday night. Kuching is not a late night town but we found a little cafe on the waterfront across from the hotel for a gin and tonic. We had a fabulous suite on the top floor of the hotel with the executive lounge (thanks to our Hilton gold status we got an amazing double upgrade). I could hardly tear myself away from the view in our room.

We didn't realize that we were arriving in Kuching at the beginning of a 4 day holiday weekend, so many shops and museums were closed. It was the beginning of Gawai Dayak, the annual rice harvest festival. The indigenous people, especially Iban and Bidayuh, celebrate with dancing, games and lots of drinking of rice wine. Many people return to be with their families, which explained the full flight to Kuching.

On Sunday morning, the first order of business was to find the nearby laundry. After a week on the water and in the rainforest, we had a suitcase full of very smelly and very dirty clothes. It would take 2 days to get everything cleaned (in part because of the holiday hours)! We also had the hotel clean our shoes, which were really muddy from our last walk at BRL and they came back in great condition. We wandered around the waterfront area and came upon a modern mall with a Starbucks. I bought a 3 pack of Via because I had just run out. I didn’t know until I used it the next day, but there is less microground coffee in a Via pack in Malaysia than in the US (this is true in Japan also). It was fun wandering around the mall and there was a Yo-yo contest that we watched for a while. We had lunch at a terrific food court/hawker center on the top floor and I had my first glass of 3 layer tea, something that you can only find in Kuching. The bottom layer is palm syrup (very sweet), next is condensed milk and then finally the tea is on top. We shared a dish of chicken rice, which we haven't had since our visit to Penang. On the meandering walk back from the hotel we bought some cinnamon sticks from one of the stalls in little India. We walked up the street where there is a spa that I read about, hoping to make an appointment for a late afternoon massage. When we got there, they had time for me right away and for DH a bit later. I started off with a wonderful exfoliating body scrub while DH went back to the hotel to drop off our cameras,etc., and the return to the spa. Of course as soon as he got back to the hotel, an incredibly heavy rain and thunder storm began so he had to take a taxi from the hotel to the spa (2 blocks away). DH joined me in the massage room for his hour long massage (mine was an hour and a half). These were not quite as rigorous as Thai massages but still rougher than we usually experience. Afterwards, though, we felt great and the stiffness we were still feeling on the back of our legs from our climb in the Danum valley were definitely relieved somewhat. By the time we left the spa at 4, the rain had lightened up. We rested at the hotel until cocktail time at the lounge and the headed out to the Top Spot Seafood Center on the top floor of a parking garage just a few blocks from our hotel. This is one of the most famous and highly rated eateries in Kuching. It is a hawker center serving fresh seafood of all kinds. We went to stall 33 and picked out the fresh seafood we wanted and told them what kind of sauces we wanted on each. So we had the following: mud crabs with black pepper sauce, 2 kinds of prawns with chili sauce, 2 kinds of clams with garlic sauce and an order of midin ferns with garlic, a bowl of rice and a large tiger beer. The food was incredible and the bill was 92 ringgits or $31. That's for both of us.

On Monday, we met our Guide and driver, James Chee, in the lobby at 8am. We didn't have specific plans, just to do culturally related activities that were not overly touristy. Well, our goal was certainly met. We first stopped at a local market in Kota Sentosa. I have some great photos, especially of the red pineapple. In Sarawak, the tradition has been for people to live in longhouses in their villages, which James described as horizontal condominiums. These are old wood structures built on stilts. Each family has it's own "room" off the main deck which serves as the center of communal activities. Many tourists to Sarawak will do an overnight at a longhouse but I didn't think we could really handle this. James took us to a village with a longhouse where very few tourists visit. First we walked on a very narrow and not very well constructed bamboo bridge across a stream to see an orchard. Then we walked to the village and because it was a holiday, the woman who normally registers tourists was not working. But because James is her friend, not only were we able to visit the longhouse without paying the usual fee, but she invited us into her home. When we arrived at about 10:30am, she invited us to sit down on her couch and brought out about a dozen different local snacks as well as beer, coke and local "vodka". We sampled several things including dried cuttlefish. Then, much to James' and our surprise, we were asked to sit at the dining room table where she brought out a 5 course lunch, including the famous bamboo chicken. After marinating chicken in different spices, it is stuffed into a hollowed out bamboo shoot (6 inches in diameter and about 2 feet long) and cooked over coals. It was really delicious. And we also had local rice grown by her family and steamed in a local leaf, a pork dish, another chicken dish and mini ribs. The food was wonderful and we were overwhelmed by her hospitality. She spoke a bit of English so we talked about cooking and her family. After lunch, we went to the village center where the headhunter kept their trophies and saw several 100 year old skulls. A tribe would capture and behead an enemy warrior and display the head, believing that the head would protect the people in the village. Needless to say, this tradition is no longer carried out. On the way back, we bought our hostess some biscuits to thank her for inviting us into her home. In return, we received a bottle of locally made rice wine, which is how the everyone celebrates the current holiday by drinking themselves silly. Later in the day, we visited a Chinese temple, then stopped at a local pottery factory and a plant nursery. When we got back to Kuching, James took us to another local food center where we had a wonderful drink of coconut and sugar cane, followed by a delicious noodle dish. James referred to this as Kuching high tea. It was a great day for us, we were off the more typical tourist track with a guide who regaled us with stories about history and politics. After half an hour at the Hilton pool, we had cocktails and snacks at the executive lounge, too exhausted to go out for dinner.

Tuesday June 3 was a day without any set itinerary. I had built this in as a down time day, just in case we needed rest. I had thought about doing a day trip to Bako National Park, but we met a French couple at Top Spot who had been there the day before. They told us that they saw no wildlife at all so I decided we’d just spend the day wandering around Kuching. We started out by taking a boat across the river to the Orchid Park. We had been warned by many people that we should do this early in the morning because of the heat, so we got there before 10am. The garden is between the Astana, or palace where the Sarawak governor lives, and the state government building which looks like a golden cupcake, a bit too frivolous for a municipal building IMHO. The gardens were nice but not quite like the magnificent one we saw in Singapore many years ago. We took the boat back to "our" side of the river and meandered through the streets of Chinatown. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were really hot and tired so,we decided to have a dim sum lunch at the hotel's Chinese restaurant. Good decision. Then I found a great nail salon in the hotel basement and DH got a much needed nap. Before the late afternoon downpour, we did some more wandering in the neighborhood. One of the things that Sarawak is famous for is its pepper (as in peppercorns). I wanted to buy some and found it everywhere already packaged in shrink wrap plastic bags. But I had it in my mind that I wanted to find it at a local market in bulk, have it scooped and weighted and put in a bag, perhaps a kilo of pepper to last my lifetime. However, during this walk back to the hotel, we saw some spice stores in Little India so I figured that I would find bulk peppercorns. What I did find were little kids playing with the spices on display in the store, running their hands through the nuts and condiments. I quickly decided to buy packaged peppercorns!

We met our British friends for dinner as they were getting back to the hotel in the late afternoon after a 2 day side trip to the countryside. We returned to Top Spot and had an even better dinner this time - it included a whole fish and soft shell crabs, sautéed mushrooms as well as many differently sauced and sized prawns. We had a great time comparing travel stories with them.

For our final morning in Kuching, we walked to area with several museums. We enjoyed a brief visit to the natural history museum with dioramas of different animal groups found in Borneo. I felt like I was in elementary school again. We identified some of the (stuffed) birds that we saw in Sabah. The ethnology museum had some very good exhibits of longhouses and demographic information about the different tribes in Sarawak. The other museums did not have any exhibits open to the public but I finally found a T-shirt I liked in one of the museum gift shops. It was a very hot walk back to the hotel but we stopped for a snack at a well known water front cafe named for the first white rajah of Sarawak, James Brooke, a British adventurer who along with his descendants managed to rule Sarawak as his private fiefdom starting in 1841until 1941 when the Japanese took over. We then packed up and took a long, last look at the beautiful views of the meandering Sarawak River before heading out to the airport. We really enjoyed our time in Kuching and we really took it easy here. It is a lovely, relaxed city with friendly people, great food and interesting things to see both in and out of town.

We took a flight from Kuching to Singapore (with a change of planes in K/L) to begin the last part of our trip in Japan. I will begin a new thread soon.

This was our second trip to Malaysia and we enjoyed it at least as much as our first (6 years ago we were in Penang, Lankawi and K/L). There is an incredibly variety of things to do involving nature and culture, fabulous food and wonderful, friendly people. I highly recommend Borneo as a great travel adventure and I’m so glad we didn’t wait any longer to come here.
FromDC is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 02:39 PM
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Yes, Kathie, I'd call it a pretty upscale place, especially given the location. When we arrived, the US Ambassador to Malaysia was there with his entourage. There was extra security - - and we got stopped a few times if we were in the same general area (but we're used to these kinds of things in DC).
FromDC is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 03:15 PM
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I loved our time in Kuching and it sounds like you enjoyed Kuching as well. A local brought her favorite laksa to us our first morning - a real treat! We also had a suite on the top floor of the Hilton. I'm not a great fan of Hilton Hotels, but this open was really lovely. What a great view from our living room!

I bought a kilo of Sarawak peppercorns, the locally cured type. They have a unique flavor that I love... Alas! They didn't even last us a decade. I'd love to buy them again. I always think about returning to Kuching, but we haven't made it back yet.

It's great to re-live some of our time in Borneo - thanks for bringing us along.
Kathie is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 03:25 PM
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Yes, Kathie, we really enjoyed Kuching. We had laksa every morning when we were in the Hilton, very good. But we only saw shrink wrapped peppercorns although we looked for the loose kind everywhere. We bought a bottle of pepper sauce, hope it was worth carrying home.
FromDC is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 04:24 PM
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Loving your report! Borneo is one place I probably will never get to so thanks for the great read.
chris45ny is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 04:36 PM
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Thanks for your excellent report. Borneo is definitely on my list of destinations, and it sounds like you had a great time.
sartoric is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 04:53 PM
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fab report.. now that I have read this I do not need to travel there... well maybe the Hilton and top spot.. you can have the leeches, rain, mud, etc. thanks for doing it..
rhkkmk is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 08:04 PM
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Happy to hear Fodorites enjoying the report. Honestly, the leeches were not really a problem: they didn't hurt and they aren't harmful at all -remember, they are still used for medical purposes. It's just a little creepy pulling them off. Upcoming, you'll see that rain was much more a problem in Tokyo than in Borneo. Bob, I thought Kuching would remind me of Penang but I liked it even more. You would LOVE the stalls at Top Spot.

Malaysia is a great destination: and once you're on the peninsula, it is very easy to get to Borneo. The government's slogan for 2014 is Visit Malaysia. They are improving the infrastructure quite a bit. Every airport had free Wifi, the airports in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu were quite modern, both recently renovated and very comfortable. Easy to get around by taxi, too.
FromDC is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 09:46 PM
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Wow, this is a wonderful report, and very well timed for me! I am in the beginning stages of planning a Borneo trip, with BRL a top priority. It sounds like a very special place. I had been wondering about also going to Tabin too, and sounds like that might be a good idea.. Did you find that BRL was booked 10 months in advance of your desired dates?
numbat83 is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 11:36 PM
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Enjoying your trip report.

Were the French couple carrying white sticks? I suspect they didn't like the look of the macaque monkeys, who take more than a passing interest in what you might be carrying, especially if it's food!

Bako National Park is a great day out from Kuching, especially if you D-i-Y it by public mini-bus and then a 20 minute speedboat ride. If you're lucky you'll spot a crocodile sunbathing on a sand-dune, which is slightly unnerving as the speedboats drops your 50 yards offshore and you have to wade to the beach.

When me and the cook went to Borneo we had a few days in Brunei first, and then continued our journey to Kota Kinabalu by Catamaran via the island of Labuan.

We had a few days in KK, hired a car to visit the Mt Kinabalu area, and the Sandakan Memorial Park.

I'd booked return flights to Kuching and a hotel package to Kuching with Air Asia. I've just looked at my trip notes and for two of us including hotel accommodation for a week I paid the grand total £125 (US$200). Mind you it was the Tune Hotel and not the Hilton (lol)!

Favourite beer in Borneo was TsingTao...

LancasterLad is offline  
Jun 14th, 2014, 11:58 PM
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Better to overnight in Bako to see animals.
Prachuap is offline  
Jun 15th, 2014, 02:05 AM
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numbat83: I got the frequent flyer tickets in July for the mid May dates. I began corresponding with tour operators in November for accommodations. Borneo Rainforest Lodge was the only place that was full (plenty of rooms everywhere else we stayed in Borneo. Even Turtle Island, which I read books up quickly, seemed only half full). On the day we left BRL (which was the day I originally wanted to get there, a big tour group came in. So I think that's the issue - - if there is a group for the days you want, you will have to be flexible. If seeing lots of animals is really important and you have the time, you might want to add Tabin. But I wouldn't take time away from BRL to do it. It was interesting to me that when we were asked to fill out an evaluation at the end of our stay at BRL, the survey had the following (I'm rephrasing): When you go on safari in Africa, you see lots of animals all the time. Were you disappointed that your experience was not like that. - I've never seen an exit survey that tries to compare one place to another. Are you going to Sarawak also?

LL and Prachuap: I had heard wonderful things about Bako from others but we weren't up to an overnight there; LL: And we did have better beer choices in the cities, just not in the lodges where we stayed in Sabah. I actually had draft Guiness twice in Kota Kinabalu. I bet catamaran was a great way to travel. And what a great price for a week in Kuching!
FromDC is offline  
Jun 15th, 2014, 07:46 AM
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numbat, the BRL is often booked very far in advance. It's a unique place with a very limited number of rooms. Well worth planning ahead for.

From DC, there are some interesting connections between Great Britain and Borneo, thus the Guiness on draft in KK. When we were there, we happened to be staying at the BRL at the same time as the naturalist (a Brit married to a local) who helped them decide on siting for the lodge.
Kathie is offline  
Jun 15th, 2014, 08:21 AM
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Thanks Kathie and FromDC!

We are thinking a focused trip divided between Kinabatangan River, BRL, and Tabin in July 2015, depending on frequent flier availability.. probably two weeks, again, depending on tickets. The good thing about using frequent flier miles is that it forces you to plan ahead. As you might guess, we are wildlife focused. We are also quite interested in birds. Your reports have been so helpful in thinking about this trip!
numbat83 is offline  
Jun 15th, 2014, 08:38 AM
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There moight be a few good men of Eire prepared to argue about that (lol)!
LancasterLad is offline  
Jun 16th, 2014, 01:53 AM
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@From DC<<>>

I got it wrong, they're hydrofoils, noisy hydrofoils!

You can't move around in them other than going to the toilet, and they show awful martial art type violent movies during the sailing.

The South China Sea can also turn v.nasty without much notice. So I've had the experience, but shan't be repeating it.

Yep, you can get some really good flight/hotel package with Air Asia on...


I've just booked a return flight/hotel package from Bali to Yogyakarta (Java) in October for 7 nights B&B in a central hotel for 2 of us, at a total of £227 (US$363)! That's not much more than Kathie normally spends on one lunch (wink)!
LancasterLad is offline  
Jun 16th, 2014, 03:18 AM
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Sounds wonderful -- have read half of this so far, and have Borneo on my "someday" list. Looking forward to reading the rest.
progol is offline  

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